Plato's search for truth was not like a modern scientist. He was not so concerned with physical causes and the material composition of this world. Rather, he was concerned with the overall, meta-structure underlying this sensed world, as well as man's purpose. For this reason Plato's theories are often abstract and somewhat religious, in contrast to the concrete and purely physical investigation of later science. Plato was not too concerned with details about particular things, but more concerned with general and universal principles governing the diversity of our changing world. Thus, his meaning of truth is not what we mean by facts immediately found in the world, but is the overall pattern or meta-structure of this world and our existence.
Furthermore, Plato's view suggests that the sciencific approach of building truth from just physical investigation can never possibly reach the overall meta-physical knowledge, the eternal and unchanging truths, because this physical world is full of change and imperfections. Indeed, the physical science of his time had reached a blind alley. Many theories had been proposed and many arguments made, but no final evidence or reasoning could resolve their differences. Plato was thus skeptical about any final accuracy in physics, and he suggested that any physical theory can never be more than "a likely story." He seemed more sure of his metaphysical and moral theories, though not overly dogmatic.
It is as if Plato had an abstract intuition or inner vision of reality, which could not be perfectly formulated into language and allegory. There is absolute and eternal Truth, a Reality of which we are invariably in or part of, but the teaching or expression of this Truth can never be fully accurate or literal. So we can only speak around it and give clues through metaphors, alegories, and semi-fictional stories. In the final analysis, Plato is struggling to find answers to the most profound questions of life, and he realices that the necessary tool for this quest is his mind, his reason, and his inner intuition, rather than the limited senses that can only provide information about the everchanging physical world and people's opinions. Though an educator, Plato would guide his students to their own intuitive abilities, for the final goal of the truth-seeker is to realice the eternal principles structuring this existence, and this is realiced by mental contemplation and reason, as the knowledge of Truth is always forever subsisting in the mind of man.
Important in Plato's view is that the intelligent order and formal beauty found in this world, as exhibited by animal life and by men of wisdom, can only be explained by a transcendental Intelligence organicing much of this world. This world of form, activity and change must be governed by an Intelligence. Our world is ever-changing and unarguably imperfect, but it nevertheless exhibits some order, intelligence and purpose. Disorder and chaos need no explanation, but order, goodness and beauty do require an explanation for their manifestation, and this would have to involve an organicing intelligence. The order and intelligent pattern of our world can only be explained by a greater intelligent cause or formative power. Mind is the vehicle for intelligence and order, so if intelligent order is found in this world it must be the result of a greater mind. Thus, our world is shaped by an intelligence of mind, at least to some degree.
In Plato's view, there is a universal dualism between mind and physical things, just as there is a dualistic distinction between mind and body, the mind being the power of reason and intelligence. A universe without Mind would be a choatic mass of dead matter. A body without mind or intelligence would equally be dead or at least non-functional. So being that bodies here on earth and in the starry skies have some order, it follows that our bodies are animated by an intelligent mind, and so too is the physical universe.
In the Cosmic picture of things, Plato describes a Divine Craftsman or Intelligent God (called the Demiurge) working with an existing material and within an existing space to make order and perfection. The existing material of the universe has no order and no intelligence in itself, so it must be intelligently ordered by a non-material power or mind. Ultimately this is God, the Intelligent Craftsman, who builds order from chaos. The Mind of God is perfect reason and intelligence. In this Mind are the Eternal Forms of perfect order which organice the material at hand. These Forms are similar to ideas, but are also geometric and formative to the manifest world.
So in this cosmic system there is the existing material and recepticle space, the Intelligent Craftsman, and the Ideas or Formative Patterns shaping the order of things. God is similar to the craftsman who shapes matter by the pattern of his ideas or visions. Like a craftsman, God has an ideal vision and purpose for the cosmos and man's existence, but this is worked out over time. The cosmos is not perfectly ordered, and perfection is not simply enforced by the divine power. Yet there are perfect Forms or patterns which are permanent, unchanging and eternal.
So Plato understands God to be not all-powerful in the universe. In fact, God seems to struggle with his artistic medium, trying to bring about a perfect vision of order, but having to accept the limitations and necessities of the material medium. This material is not fully malleable or impressionable, or maybe it just takes more time for somethings to become ordered by the Forms. The material has its own inertia which must be confronted and worked with to gradually evolve an ordered perfection.
Plato suggests a rather unusual theory about the material of the universe, what we call physical matter. The basic matter-stuff of this world, which is either earthy or watery, is not really physically solid though it appears to be. The stuff of our world, and what we sense, is phenomena or appearance, and this is really the surface appearance of geometric forms. But still, the reason that our world is imperfect is because of temporal limitations in the receptive material of the organicing Forms. So it would seem that this receptive material cannot be those very Forms. Thus the theory is a bit confused. It makes more sense that the basic material of phenomena is physical matter, though not necessarily solid but impressionable by the geometric Forms.
The actual organiser or ordering mind of our world is called the World Soul, which is created by the Demiurge and like the creative Demiurge though not responsible for the whole universe. It's a smaller version of the Universal God or Mind. It is the creative artist of the natural world and of ourselves as well. We all emerge from the same World Soul, yet we are different in how well this Intelligence works through us. Although our world reveals the workings of a guiding mental intelligence, there is not complete perfection or harmonious order in this world. This because the World Soul, and ultimately the Universal Mind as well, is not all-powerful or all-dominating, and it must struggle with the inertia and certain "necessities" of physical matter and of physical embodiment. So free will is still at play in the scheme of things, while the Ideal Forms are eternal in Mind and can always be apprehended by the truth-seeker. That is, our higher intellect has access to the Divine Ideas, Ideal Forms or Eternal Truths.
Our own soul or psyche, distinct from the body and physical matter, is made of three parts. The highest part is reason, or it could be called higher intellect or spiritual intuition. This is the intelligent capacity to know the Eternal Forms and Ideals, and the divine purpose of our existence. These divine Forms or Ideas inherently subsist in our own psyche, but they are most often forgotten and unconscious to mind. So we need to remember or recollect the eternal, permanent and absolute knowledge already within us and known by the World Soul. This is accomplished by inner contemplation in the philosophical quest for eternal and absolute truth.
The other parts of our psyche are the spirit and the appetites. Whereas the reason or intuition part is an awareness of permanent truths and values, the spirit part is the drive toward action and accomplishment, and the appetites are desires for physical needs and pleasures. In essence, our soul is a mixture of reason, drive and desire. And our goal should be to integrate and harmonice these three parts or functions. Only reason can do this integrative work, for our spirited part has no intelligence in itself and our appetite part is simply craving immediate pleasures and bodily necessities.
The spirited part will serve either the reason or the appetites; it is just the active drive to experience life and accomplish things. So we can either experience and accomplish higher-purposeful divine things or lower bodily appetites. There is nothing inherently wrong or evil with physical appetities and pleasures, except when, as is often the case, these physical desires ignore reason and control our spirited nature and actions. In other words, there is often a conflict between the appetite and reason, or between the desires of our body and the divine ideals. Only the higher reason-intuition of mind can know the eternal Ideas or Ideals that are meant to govern our creative actions and political decisions, so our spirited and desire nature should be subordinated to this higher reason.
People desire happiness and pleasure, and these are good goals in life, but people are often deceived by objects that merely appear to produce happiness. This happiness or pleasure will be quite temporary, and we'll be frustrated by its eventual loss. But with the power of reason and direct intuition of the eternal truths and values, we can structure our lives and actions in a higher way that will ultimately produce greater and everlasting happiness. So it is true knowledge which will lead us to a good, virtious and fulfilling life. Knowledge leads to virtue and goodness in life. For a good and virtiuos life can only follow from the direct knowledge of goodness and virtue, the direct knowledge of these eternal Forms or Ideas. That is, true goodness and virtue, as well as true value and beauty, are eternal Ideas, eternal Visions or Ideals.
The higher part of our soul is our capacity for intelligence and knowledge, and also good character. The function of the soul is to know what is truly good and direct a person's conduct in the way of this knowledge. A soul with greater intelligence or knowledge will manifest as a wise and good man, and a foolish or bad person is simply one without an awakened soul. Our human purpose and function is to be rational and intelligent. Thus, rational action is our moral imperative, and virtue follows knowledge.
Man has the potential to be perfect in form and action, or at least become close to perfect. He can know the perfect Form of the good, and perfect knowledge leads to perfect behavior and perfect justice in this world. But his ability to know the good and live by it is held back by forces and deceptions in the manifest world. These forces are the desires of the body and the necessities of physical life. The deceptions are the ever-changing appearances of truth and the relativity of opinion. The formative Ideals of the World Soul, or Divine Intelligence, cannot fully manifest through man because of the forces of his material existence. So just as the Universal God cannot simply enforce perfect order in the universe because of material limitations, the perfection of man cannot be simply actualised by the World Soul because of the inherent forces of his physical existence or because of his desire nature being drawn into immediate physical needs and pleasures.
The soul has both a divine and earthly nature, respectively its rational intellect and its appetitive desires. The spirited part of the soul energices either of these, depending on which one is more dominate in power. The intellect is, of course, meant to be in authority and guide the appetites. This is its true function in relation to man's beavior. Yet the forces and appearances of the material world, the cave of shadows, can hold the soul entranced and forgetful of the true Forms of its deep memory. So the soul has the possibility of going up or down, as it were, between the Intelligible World and the material world. Or it has the possibility of being influenced by either one.
Being dominated or moved by the material forces is known as fate, while being consious of and moved by the Intelligible World of Forms is known as destiny. Yet destiny is not predetermined, insured or forced upon the soul. There is always the possibility of the soul getting trapped in the material cave of illusions. And once there it might remain there. Inside the cave, dominated by the material world and controlled by its appetitive nature, the soul must make its way out - on its own or with help from living teachers. Plato also tells us that the strength of the soul's appetitive nature will be carried into the nect incarnation. In other words, the soul reincarnates in this world, carrying the same proportions of its higher and lower nature.
In order for man to become perfectly wise and good he must ascend from earthly appetities and out of the dark cave of illusory appearances. He must become free of the body and free from the trance of impermamant phenomena. He must find what is permanent and eternal. He must regain knowledge of the eternal and perfect Forms, the knowledge of absolute truth. Then, by this knowledge he will become perfect, beautiful, and wise in behavior. This is the moral imperative, the way to goodness. In one sense, then, the body and physical life is an evil or limitation on divine perfection; but in another sense, our physical existence and expression is the very medium of potential perfection. The soul is not trying to get out of this world, but rather, struggling to manifest in this world. Plato's dualism of soul and body, mind and matter, is certainly not other-worldly, even though this world is often deceptive and the physical desires are often counter-productive to the divine purpose and eternal Forms.
Because the soul has an inherent appetitive part that desires earthly pleasures, it is capable of forgetfulness and can be dragged down by the attraction of earthly things. The descent is partly due to the earthly attraction and partly due to the soul's own lower, imperfect nature. And when the soul has incaranated into the body, the body appetites disturb the clear working of reason, producing a forgetfulness and a kind of sleep. The psyche is then deceived by the multiplicity of changing appearances and the relativity of social opinion. It's a difficult situation to get free of. But an ascent out of the cave of ignorance and into the light of knowledge is possible, due to the help of others and due to the soul's ability to recollect or remember its reason.
Plato tells us that a key to knowing what is a good man is to know what is justice in society. A state should not be concerned with just fulfillng the material and bodily desires of its people. It should have higher goals and ideals. It should have and apply reason in its decisions. It should order things by reason and with a higher purpose, making harmony, beauty and goodness manifest. This requires that the wise should govern the state. Plato believed that people should agree on who is to rule, but he was skeptical about a democracy where the majority rules, because the popular majority would most likely be ignorant to truth and suseptible to their appetitive nature. A majority in rule would mean that the appetitive desire nature is mostly ruling, leading to conguests and wars to gain more and more pleasures of the lower nature. Appetitive natures ruling the state is like irrational passions guiding behavior; it will only lead to eventual disaster. Plato asks if we would want the most popular person to navigate our ship, or the most knowledgible. Yet he seemed to believe that people might be able to decide on who is wise, but they should then let these leaders, or a philosopher-king, navigate the state.
People in the state can be divided into three classes, according to their given nature. There are the craftsmen and laborers, who work to produce more material pleasure. They represent the appetitive nature. Then there are the gaurdians, embodying the spirited nature of the soul, who preserve law and order and repel invaders. Then there are the rulers, representing the rational nature of the soul, who guide the state to harmony and perfect good. No one is forced to be in one class rather than another. We should be of a certain class according to our inherent nature, and there should be the opportunity to change in class. Our class should not be inherited by or decided by our parents. Following this, anyone of any class could enter into Plato's academy. Anyone could embark on the philosopher's quest, and anyone could become a philosopher-king. Though as far as we know, and a sour note it is, Plato did exclude women and African slaves.
In his example of the divided line, Plato makes a distinction between permanent true knowledge and temporal sense knowledge or opinion. Our sense experinece gives us a factual knowledge of particulars, but this can lead to a false, relative knowledge of reality. This relative knowledge is simply a personal or group opinion. But truth is independent of these relative opinions. We must travel from the opinion part of the line, to which the lower part of our psyche is drawn, to the higher knowledge.
The lower part of the divided line, mere opinion, is based on our world of particular appearances. We perceive particular things and actions, then believe we know what is real. But sense experience is only from our own perspective and does not give us universal, true knowledge. The mere appearance of things cannot give us the true meaning and purpose of these things, nor give us the universal laws guiding this world of appearance. Even lower in the divided line are mere images of things, such as mental images of things or artistic representations of the material world. These are even further from true knowldege.
The higher part of the divided line is true knowledge of the Intelligible World. This includes knowledge attained by reason, such as mathematical truths and logical connections between things. Yet the highest level is the knowledge of eternal Forms and, ultimately, knowledge of the Good. The Good is the highest Form of knowledge, and it is the guiding Form of all other eternal Forms. The Good is ultimate Reason, or the reason-purpose behind all other Forms. The Good, or Good Reason, produces the perfect Forms that are the potentials for manifestation. So the manifest world, the world of appearance, has the potential for perfection, and we can find approximations to this potential perfection in some things and in some actions. Our human purpose is to attain true knowledge and become ever close to the perfect Form of Good.
For Plato, goodness is not merely a question answerable by many diverse opinions. There are many forms of good action, or many kinds of good things, but this does not mean that goodness is relative or pluralistic as an idea. There are different examples of what is good, yet the Good in itself is one Idea or one Form. The Good has one essential Form, that is, all of the many exemplary forms of good share the same essential meta-physical structure, principle or logic.
Plato's meaning of the 'Forms' should not be confused with a generalized idea or notion that simply implies a subject matter of discussion, such as what is good. The Sophists of the Greek society thought of goodness as one discussible idea, but they maintained that the idea has multiple and non-related meanings, depending on how the person or society decides it. The Sophists argued that anything could be good, because people just conventionally decide what is good and bad, for some practical or social purpose. So the idea of good is relative and pluralistic. Their argument maintained that what is good for one person or one group may not be good for another. If people hold different values, then who can say that one is right and another wrong?
But Plato argued against this relativism, assuming that some beliefs of what is good are right, while other beliefs are wrong -or less perfect. So, because goodness is absolute, universal and non-relative, Plato maintained that absolute goodness is, or that there is true goodness. If this absoluteness of goodness is true, then it reasonably follows that this absolute goodness is or exists. So even though there are different appearances of the good, different kinds of good and different approximations, there is still one single absolute good - of which things approximate more or less. The absolute good is thus one Universal Idea, admittedly abstract but nonetheless real, and independent of change, diversity, and opinion found in the manifested world. The Idea of the Good is not the only eternal Idea, but it is the greatest - for all other divine Ideas come out of the Good. That is, the universe is essentially good. Its creative, formative Ideas are all good. Its purpose, and our true purpose, is good.
The next question is how the eternal Ideas can be apprehended, or how we can intellectually grasp this absolute true knowledge. Plato suggests three possible ways to understand the Ideas and consiously acquire this true knowledge, and all three ways may be necessary. He probably learned of these ways from Socrates. First, there must be a strong love for the truth. The philosopher is a lover of the truth. This is a refinement of our desire nature and the spirited part of our soul. It is the beginning of a great ascent of the mind into the higher realm of the eternal Ideas or Truths. To get out of the cave of shadows and ignorance, one must regain his soul-instinctual love for the truth, desiring to get out into the light of truth, or at least be willing to let a teacher lead one to true knowledge. Plato suggested that a man, on his own, can possibly find his way out of ignorance to knowledge, but usually one needs the guidance and intellectual push of a teacher who is already free of ignorance and the trance of ever-changing appearances.
Second is the way of dialectic conversation and thinking. Socrates is attributed with inventing the dialectic method which is a way to correct inaccurate and incomplete beliefs. It is a progressive process involving question and answer, which brings to light the extent of a person's belief about an idea or subject-matter, so that it can be examined with reason and logic. Socrates, or the dialectic teacher-counselor, would act as a kind of midwife to the person's awakening to truth or to their emergence out of the cave of illusory thought. The teacher leads the student to critically examine the incompleteness or contradictions of their beliefs, by intellectually forcing the person to state the extent of their so-called knowledge. For the most part, the dialectic method is a kind of intellectual purification or dispelling of false beliefs, as purification of false thinking must preceed the attainment of true knowledge. The teacher continues his questioning until the student admits their ignorance or, better yet, suddenly awakens to a clarity of truth. The socratic teacher does not impose any dogmatic ideas, nor his own insights, upon the listener. Rather, he leads the student to the intellectual capacity of his own psyche and to the student's own insightful awakening.
This awakening to truth is a recollection, the third way to truth. The way of love for truth and the way of the dialectic are both meant to lead us to our own recollection of eternal truths. So the three ways are necessarily related, as the first two finally lead to the third. Our soul already has the capacity to apprehend absolute truths, or it could be said that the soul already has the truth within. Or it might be said that the higher part of the soul, reason, is already in the Intellectual realm of the eternal Ideas; our higher reason is already part of the eternal Mind of Perfect Ideas. This understanding originates the later philosophy of rationalism, which maintains that absolute knowledge or truth can be aquired by reason alone, underived from actual sense experience or particular facts found in the world.
Yet there is often a confusion between reason and reasoning. In Plato's meaning, reason is a higher faculty of the psyche and equal to the higher intellect. This reason faculty of the psyche is the instrument for knowledge, as in "reason knows." A man of good reason is a man of good intellect, that is, a mind functioning at its highest capacity. This is what is meant by a good mind or soul. A mind with reason functioning well, and intelligence at its optimum, naturally leads to a morally good character and behavior. This is because reason alone knows the Good itself and can correctly evaluate what are good things and actions. Thus, good reason equals good character, and true knowledge attained by reason insures good judgement and good action.
But reason is not the same as a reasoning process. It is neither a deductive logic nor an inductive logic, as later explained by Aristotle. Plato's reason does not have to think, "X is a Y, and Y is a C, so X must be a C." Plato cannot deductively derive the Good or any of the eternal Forms from a priori premises or axioms, because the Forms are axioms or original, first-order truths. And Plato does not believe that an absolute knowledge of Good could be derived from a wide study of particular facts, like a scientific generalisation. Would we necessarily find the principle of Good by making an accumulative study of people's behavior? This would imply either that people are already good or that people ultimately invent what is good.
It seems that Socrates viewed critical reasoning as a method to truth, while, at the same time, showed that truth could not be arrived at by reasoning alone. This critical reasoning clarifies the extent of our beliefs or opinions, and it finds logical relations between our held ideas. It also purges the mind of false, muddled beliefs. But final, true knowledge is more of a sudden intuition or awakening or recollection of what is already inherent in our psyche, or what is apprehendible by our faculty of reason.
The way of recollection is absolutely necessary for the aquisition of true knowledge. It is a kind of direct knowledge. One can lead another towards the light of truth by explanations and reasonable arguments, and by the dialectic method of cutting through contradictions and confusions in one's beliefs, but ultimately one needs to have a sudden awakening to the truth, a kind of mental conversion or mental leap into the light of realication.
A student of Plato cannot be satisfied with mere belief or being told what is true. One has to have a personal experience of the truth, a personal awakening, a real transformation of mind or soul. At this point the soul evolves to a higher level, as it breaks free of the illusions, false beliefs, and imprisonment by the irrational non-intellect part of the soul. The soul is then more lofty, more refined, and closer to the absolute Good - which is equal to absolute Reason. For the Creator-God is the Mind of Good Reason, or is absolute Good and absolute Reason itself, which has a formative power in this manifest world. Our souls thus come closer to the ultimate God. One also comes to a clearer knowledge of the reason for things being as they are, which is the science of metaphysical Forms, and one has a clearer knowledge of man's true purpose or ideal good - to which we are meant to fulfill in our lives, which is the philosophy of ethical Forms.
The soul's ability to recollect the Forms, by the power its higher intellect, must be a direct intuition of truth. By Plato's account, we can directly know the essential meaning and power of goodness, beauty, and other values. This isn't just knowing what is good or beautiful; it's a direct knowing of the Idea itself, that which is shared by all good or beautiful things. It is knowledge of what "good" means, by itself, without any needed reference to particular examples. And this knowledge is eternally permanent and absolute, not variable as are the things and actions of the manifest world. So the Idea or Form of good is fixed, unchanging, and knowable by the intellect.
Yet this intellectual knowing is, finally, an intuition rather than a process of reasoning. We use the power of higher reason to gain the knowledge, but Plato does not mean that we finally derive this knowledge by a reasoning process. The final knowing is direct. When we recollect or remember something, this is sudden and immediate, rather than a reasoning process. A labor of reasoning can be helpful, though, and this is part of the dialectic process towards the attainment of true knowledge. But finally, after a labor of intellectual reasoning and careful thought, the Forms are revealed by a recollection, which is really a sudden intuition, a direct perception of the true Form or Idea.
Though true knowledge is finally attained by direct intuition or 'recollection', we still need to explicate the intuited truth in a formal definition, in order to converse about it with others. This explication of truth is an important function of our rational intellect, and it is necessary for intellectual argument and debate. In other words, it is not enough that one has an intuition of the truth, for we also need to explain and argue our knowledge in the forum of social debate. In social or political debate we have to make clear arguments and give convincing reasons for our position on truth and right conduct. Socrates believed that the rational man must give reason for his supposed right actions. He also believed that a truth can be justified (or defended) by adequate reasons, assuming the listeners have the capacity to set aside their own personal desires and prejudices, in order to make an impartial judgement about the reasoned truth.
Crucial to adequate reasoning is the abstraction and clear definition of ideas. Soctrates seems almost preoccupied with definition, always trying to get to the core definition of an idea. This core definition will be fixed and invariable. Though things and actions of this world are diverse and ever-changing, the apparent diversity of many things is unified by essential, unchagning ideas - the ideas common to many things. The fixed and permament ideas are the key to an essential unity between many different things or actions. In other words, what makes a group of things or actions related is their common idea. Aristotle later works this principle out in a different way than Plato. The permanent and common ideas are, at least in one sense, forms of definition. This seems evident by the conversations of Socrates. Yet one debatable question is if the universal ideas - common to things - are reducible to definitions, or if the ideas are real beyond definition - though still definable or intellibibly expressed as definitions.
The idea or concept shared by many things must be fixed and permanent; otherwise knowledge will be continually changing -which is absurd to Socrates and Plato. Permanent ideas make general knowledge and general truth statements logically possible. They also make it possible that particular things can be uniquely different from all other things, while still sharing something in common with other things. Two flowers may be quite different in their appearance but, nonetheless, share beauty in common. That is, they are both examples of beauty, or they both have beauty, even though they are apparently different. Both participate in the Idea of beauty. Both flowers are beautiful, and have or share beauty, but neither nor both are beauty itself. And in Socrates' view, it seems that even if all beautiful things somehow disappear the permanent idea of beauty still remains. So a permanent, true idea is logically independent from particular examples or expressions of it.
Socrates was especially insistent on the distinction between particular examples of an idea and the idea itself which is shared by the examples. True knowledge is more than a collection of particular facts. On the one hand, true knowledge is the finding of essential relations between particular facts and, on the other hand, it is rightly interpreting what is most significant in an inspection of facts. Our higher knowledge is not about the multiplicity of particulars, but about what is shared or common to many particulars. For Plato, it's not any physical substance or any exact shape that is common to a group of particulars, but rather a permanent Idea - which itself has real metaphysical status or existence. If nothing can be known that is common to different particulars, then there is no knowledge besides the immediate information about particular things. Even worse, there would be nothing true to say about what is good, just, and of value in this world. The very ideas of virtue and justice fall completely apart, unless we can say that some actions have virtue or justice in common, while other actions do not.
But then, what is being recollected or apprehended? One might say that a permanent Idea is what a group of particular things share in common, but then what is this shared Idea? This is what Plato set out to answer. According to Aristotle, Plato began developing a theory of Forms, while Socrates was simply concerned with universal definitions, realisable by an intuitive induction after a process of critical, dialectic reasoning.
At times Plato seems to suggest that the Forms are like general definitions or instructions, though still holding a formative power in relation to the manifest world. The higher, more abstract Ideas would more likely be 'forms of instruction', or definitions known by reason, rather than formal shapes or exact visions of the ideal. We might be able to envision the perfect horse or chair, but it almost seems impossible, or ridiculously rigid, to envision just one form of perfect good behavior or just one form of perfect beauty. Goodness and beauty apply to many kinds of things and actions, so how could there be just one perfect vision of goodness or beauty? How could there be just one paradigm, prototype, or ideal-form of the good?
So at the higher levels of the eternal Idea hierarchy, there must not be uniformity but plurality. For if the higher Ideas are more abstract and inclusive of many lower Ideas, then they must not strictly be uni-form Ideas, except possibly as a general definition. Unless Plato can argue that the Idea of Good or Beauty can be apprehended as an exact form or shape, he seems left with the alternative that these Ideas can be apprehended as either definitions or definite principles. So can goodness, virtue, justice, and beauty be known at least intellectually by an exact, uniform definition or principle? It would seem that a theory of absolute, non-relative truth would have to affirm this as so. It follows, then, that true goodness and beauty can be distinguished from false or illusory goodness and beauty, which defeats the relativist's attack on absolute truth, while it still possible for different kinds of manifest appearances and actions to be good or beautiful if they remain within the general definition.
Socrates was noted for his insistent examination of definitions in relation to general ideas. For Socrates, an idea seems to be like a definition. In trying to get at and clarify an idea, he is trying to get at the essential definition. But it would be incorrect to think that Soctrates would be finally content with knowing how a group or society defines goodness, justice and beauty. So although he is searching for the idea definition, a man-invented definition would certainly be inadequate to his quest. The definition must be true, not just clear and concise, and not just practical to a society.
Thus, the definition cannot be the same as the truth or true idea, because a definition can be true or false only if it is weighed against a truth outside of the definition. In other words, in order to arrive at a true definition [of a term], or in order to know that a definition is true, one would need a substantiation external to the proposed definition. There would have to be a way to know the true-correct definition for an idea, or at least a way to recognise the true definition from the false. Socrates can point out contradictions and incompleteness of proposed definitions, but if he is to finally arive at a truth, rather than just being critically negative regarding proposed definitions, he has to have a way to know the truth, not just a way to know the false. And this way to truth could only be intuition or direct insight, because he denies that real knowledge, or truth, can be apprehended from particular examples or from mere phenomenon.
A true-definition, or permanent idea, cannot be derived from particular facts and kinds of examples. For one, those facts and examples are not permanent. And two, there has to some way, to suppose a logical connection between a particular and a general idea, that is external to the facts or examples. It is absurdly circular, in Socrates' view, to offer an example of virtue to the question of "what is virtue?" How did the answering person know that this kind of action is an example of virtue, without already having in mind an idea or definition of virtue? If he knows an example of virtue, then he must already know how to tell the difference between an example of virtue and an example of non-virtue. But how is this difference known? By what reason does he offer this as an example of virtue? Or how does he know this as virtue?
So in offering an example of virtue, the questioned person is not only begging the question of 'what is true idea of virtue', but his offered example actually presupposes a rule, a definition, or at least a way to know what is virtuous. Socrates will want the person to examine and bring to awareness their hidden presupposition, or why they believe this is an example of true virtue. This answer would be a significant step in untangling the reason and revealing the truth. Can the person answer why? In most cases not.
Anyway, if a fixed definition, such as 'virtue is.. X in relation to Y', is the final justification or reason for one kind of action being truly approriate to a certain idea as a proper example, then we can still ask how this definition was derived. As already pointed out, it cannot be derived from the very particulars of which it is intended to justify as being appropriate. It could be derived from social convention, or from how a society decides to make the definition. But this would make it possible for idea definitions to change according to the will of people or politics, so it would mean that universal ideas are not necessarily permanent and probably relative to different groups. This is the very position that Socrates had set out to dispute.
It would also seem quite odd if the idea-definition of goodnesss, justice or beauty were unstable and invented by man. Can we really invent the definition of goodness? Would not the true definition be given by our Creator, or would not the true definition of goodness be part of our given purpose in life? It must have been part of Socrates' fundamental intuition that true and universal goodness, as a definition or knowledge, must be a priori to man's understanding. That is, the idea of goodness, or the basis of a true definition of goodness, must already be fixed and eternal, prior to man questioning and searching for 'what it is'. If there is a real good for man to be, or become, then this truth must be prior to man himself and to any attained knowledge of the good. In this sense, then, the good as an Idea must exist prior and independent of man's questioning what it is, as well as being independent of his knowledge [of it]. So if his knowledge comes to a definition, this definition must be derived from the Idea, rather than be the Idea itself.
Plato might defend his theory of Forms by pointing out how we necessarily must use general ideas in our social discussions. To know specific facts about particular things, like John's horse, is of practical importance, but most of our significant knowledge about people and things is of a general nature. And once we have general ideas, we need not keep in mind any of the specific facts learned from sense experience. So a higher kind of knowledge involves relating Ideas with other Ideas, abstract Forms with other abstract Forms. Ideas are often related with each other by a higher, more general Idea. For example, horses and dogs are quite different, but they share the Idea or Form of an animal. The more general and encompassing the Form, the more abstract it is, or the broader is its definition.
But these Ideas are not mere conveniences for the purpose of social discussion and knowledge. There is a hierarchy of divine Ideas, forming the very structure of reality, of which the visible world is a reflection more or less. These Ideas are metaphysical realities with supervening power over physical matter and personal behavior. Knowledge of these Ideas is knowledge of reality, while knowledge of the sensed world has less significance since the manifested world can only approximate the perfect Ideas. By realicing the archytypal Ideas, we acquire true knowledge of what shapes and orders our physical world, as well as the knowledge of who we really are and what ideal purposes we are here to accomplish. This is the knowledge of meta-physical causes and eternal divine values.
Here is where Plato divides the eternal Ideas or Forms from the impermanent, diverse examples or representations of the Ideas. There are impermanent things and actions, known as the phenomena of the world, and there are also the Formative Ideas of which such phenomena is more or less representitive. These Ideas exist independently from the world of things and actions. They exist prior to the manifested world. They are not derived from this sensed world, and they are apprehended by the mind and not the senses.
The sensed world of things and actions owes its existence to the eternal Ideas, to the invisible dimension of Intelligent Mind. So there is a relation between the eternal Ideas and manifested things, even though the unmanifested Ideas are independent from these things. This relation, though, is somewhat loose, in that the things and activities of our manifesting world are not fully dominated by and copied from the archetypal Ideas. The relation between the Formative Idea and creation is usually imperfect, that is, it is more or less perfect in its correspondence. Perfection is relative in our world. The manifesting potency of the Formative Ideas varies, and this is why some things and actions are better or worse than others.
There is variation in the goodness and beauty of our world. This is because of varying causal relations between the Forms and the manifestations. The causal power of a divine Idea is strong in relation to some things but weak in relation to other things. Another way to say this is that some things participate more in a Form than other things. Or it could be said that some things have more of the divine Idea in them than other things. It could also be said that a thing or action, more or less, approximates its purposeful and archetypal Idea or Ideal Form.
However said, though, the relation between the divine Ideas and the physical world varies. Everything ordered, or having form, will have or participate in a corresponding archytypal Idea or Form. The only apparent exception would be simple, unformed matter, such as dirt, mud and sand. Since dirt appears to have no form, nor even underlying form, it was evident to Plato that no Form of dirt existed. Though it is odd to say that dirt and mud are not part of a greater Idea; for, would not dirt and mud be an Idea of the World Soul, as well as other things found in this world?
Is there just one perfect
ideal form for any kind of thing or action?
A theory of absolute good would have to affirm this as so. It might be voiced as, "in the realm of possibility there is always a best object or best way." The most perfect ideal or best form will probably not be found in our world. But the absolutist still has an intuition that there is a possible perfection, even if never actually perceived. So this may be an intuition of a general metaphysical law, rather than a specific form of perfection. The intuition is that perfect form or perfect good must be, must exist, in the realm of logical possibility - which is the super-mental realm of the eternal Forms.
If this interpretion is correct, then the man of knowledge would not necessarily have an apprehension of a specific perfect form of good and beauty, nor the perfect form of a chair or a horse. Rather, he might simply be intuiting from his higher reason the logical law that perfect Forms exist or at least are possible. Once this truth is accepted, by a kind of rational intuition, the man of wisdom can set about to realice specific Forms or perfections. He might also discover, and then define, the perfect moral and political principles.
Plato at times suggests that particular things are imperfect copies of the Ideas, which leads us to suppose that the Ideas have a definite form, structure, or shape. For if not an archytypal form, then how can it be copied? This implies a perfect, ideal form of chair, horse, and even man. Yet is there only one perfect form to these kinds, meaning that all other forms are imperfect? For some people, this seems too rigid a view of goodness and beauty. Furthermore, if there were just one exact and definite perfect form of these, then it would seem that the manifestation of a perfect copy is quite plausible. That is, we should be able to find some perfect copies in this varied world, and we should easily be able to craft the perfect chair, bed, etc. - which would stand out as obviously perfect in comparison to other shapes.
It seems, then, that a simple-form or image explanation of the Ideas is incorrect or overly simple as a metaphor. It makes sense that the Ideas are not like things in the manifest world and not perceived like things in our sensible world. They are not just super-perfect forms, of which our world is an imperfect copy. They are not like objects in our world, except perfect. This view is much too simple.
The eternal Ideas can also be called Forms because of their formative power in relation to the manifest world. As formative Ideas they are like archytypal patterns. They shape or pattern objects and behaviors. In this sense, the term Form seems appropriate. For Plato understood the eternal Ideas as geometric shapes or patterns which have the power to bring about a more perfect object or behavior in this temporal world. Learning from Pythagoras, he understood that mathematical ratios and shapes can influence matter through the power of resonance, like sound vibration or music.
The eternal Ideas-Forms are more like perfect proportions, or geometric axioms, in the invisible noemic world of pure mathematics. This noemic world is the true realm of the Forms, a realm profoundly different from our world of sensory experience, a dimension of pure Intelligence without sensible or perceptual shapes, which can be apprehended only by the pure intellect, reason or intuition. It is not merely a dimension of sensible entities or an ideal counterpart to our own sensible world. It's not like some heaven, or city of Olympus, where perfectly good objects and actions exist. So the eternal Ideas are not mere ideal images to copied, but are ideal geometric proportions and fundamental-universal axioms that can only be abstractly apprehended by a higher intellect, yet, nonetheless, have a formative power to shape the world of manifestation.
Yet the Idea has to be 'something'. What is it? What is in the Mind of the Craftsman? What is the World Soul using to organice the world, and morally influence man as well? And what is the soul immediately realicing when it knows the Ideal Forms or the Truth? It is realicing a geometric rule of perfect proportion, which may then be translated by the intellect into a definition.
The meaning of these Ideas is not merely holding an image of something, nor is it merely a definition or criteria for classification. The Ideas exist in an extra-mental realm, or in a spiritual dimension, independent of human minds, sensory experience, and philosophical classification. Yet if the Ideas can be known or recollected in one's mind by a higher reason or intuition, then what is the mind aware of or apprehending? This is the most difficult question for the platonist.
There must be an intelligible relation between the Forms and our sensed experience, otherwise knowledge of the Forms would make no difference to how we judge things and actions. Plato understood a division between the eternal Forms and the everchanging manifestation, and he held a higher regard for the Forms, but he certainly was not apathetic to the everyday world. His very battle with the Sophists was about truths, values and choices regarding this manifest and social world. Plato's system of knowledge would have little significance to the values and choices of ordinary life, if it had no bearing on our judgements of truth, goodness and beauty, here in this life.
We need to know what things and actions are good, or at least what is better than another. These are very practical questions. The Sophists taught that goodness and beauty are relative, depending on practical purposes and social conditions, and that ultimate truths can never be absolutely determined. Plato fought against this, arguing that truths and values are eternally absolute and also independent of personal and social opinions. The absolute truth and good stands above and free of our differing opinions. We must discover the true and good; not create it by fancy rhetoric. Yet this knowledge cannot just be a matter of contemplating the eternal Forms in a kind of mystical vision. For to know what things in this life are good over other things, we will need to apprehend the good, or the degree of good, in these things. We will need to properly evaluate what things and actions are good and what are not so good. This is practical application of true wisdom.
So we have to apprehend the good in this manifest world. In other words, we must intuitively recognise the Form of good or beauty in everyday things and actions. This does not mean that we must apply a reasoning process to every evaluation; rather, the judgement ultimately depends on an immediate intuition of the good, made by a man of special character, a man who has direct knowledge of the Good Form, a man who's higher soul is functioning strong. For only the higher part of man's soul can recognise the absolute good. And this recognition can take place here in the manifest world, because manifest things and actions partake of the Forms, to some degree.
The higher intellect of man has the special capacity to recognise the absolute good, not just in the invisible Intelligible World, but in the material world as well, and thus he can correctly evaluate what things are good or better than others. Looking at some things, or some actions, the higher man just recogises the extent of good and beauty. He just knows, because he has the capacity for knowledge.
The ideal Form could be a law of perfect proportion, rather than a single form or shape. This would allow for a multiplicity of perfectly good forms of things and behavior, just as one general rule of proportion allows for a plurality of different geometric shapes, each exhibiting the very same rule. So there need not be just one exact form of ideal good, or beauty, if the governing Form is a general proportion, geometric rule, or general instruction.
It is perfect proportion, a geometric rule. The higher intellect of the soul has knowledge of right proportion, which is beauty or good. In other words, the Forms are geometric rules, not particular shapes but general rules of proportion. The higher intellect knows, when seeing a body or action, how well this approximates the ideal proportion or Form. It might be said that the wise man has a refined intuitive-sense of what has good proportion, of what best approximates perfect Form. In the deep memory of his soul is the knowledge of perfect Form, or perfect Good, so he immediately knows what approximates this perfection. It might be that some things, more than others, remind him of the ideal proportion, and thus his love and approval is stronger for these things. In terms of evaluation, that which better approximates the deep memory of perfect proportion, or that in which a more perfect proportion is revealed, must have greater value.
From an overview of Plato's writings, it can interpreted that what the Form of Good is, and what all Forms are essentially, is a perfect proportion. In other words, there is an ideal proportion for all kinds of things and all kinds of actions, which is actualised in the manifect world more or less. There is an ideal proportion for beauty, for justice, for courage, for piety, for virtue, and all Forms of the Good. That is, there are ideal proportions for the various elements that make up these various Qualities of the Good. In a more general principle, all good things and good qualities have good proportion, and good proportion is perfect proportion. Likewise, perfect proportion is good proportion.
So the first principle of the Good, which is what the Good Form is, is perfect proportion. And if something is to approximate the Ideal Form of Good, it must approximate perfect proportion. The principle or Form of the Good, being the highest and thus the most inclusive of all Forms, would not have an exactly definable perfect proportion. Its rule of proportion is more general and inclusive. The Rule-Form of the Good simply demands perfect proportion, not one perfect rule of proportion, but simply that there is a perfect proportion by which the design or behavior is governed. Something is good if it has a perfect proportion, but there may be many perfect rules of proportion depending on the quality of Idea of good being achieved.
The eternal Ideas or Form would be general rules, or ideals, but unspecific about ideal forms of things and action in our manifest world. A rule of proportion, like a general definition, is general and extensive. While one [uniform] shape of the good, or beauty or justice, or just one specific design for a Form, would be far too limited and absurdly rigid. A principle of perfect proportion can govern our judgement of good form, but does not need to be specific about what are good forms, and there need not be just one good shape or form of good. But good and not-good could still be deductively determined by the general axiom, and we can distinguish true from false judgements of what is good, if we know what rule of proportion is perfect.
This specific knowledge is, of course, undefined by Plato, but he still intimates that there are perfect proportions or perfect rules for things and behavior, just as there are rules of proportion for architectual design. In fact, ruled proportion in design is probably the major paradigm in Plato's theory of Forms. Yet what exactly is the perfect rule of proportion, in any given Form, seems to be apprehendible only by an intuition of the higher intellect. Though Plato probably believed that the study of mathemetics would eventually reveal the secret proportional rules of perfection -in relation to both formal design and moral behavior.
Plato doesn't fully know what the perfect proportions are, or what the exact principles of the Forms are. But he is convinced that there are perfect Forms and absolute truth. And he also believes that the Forms are intellible. So the project of the philosopher is to discover the fundamental Forms of absolute truth.
But it could be possible that we only know the Forms in an abstract and indefinite way. That is, our intuition of absolute Good, Beauty and Justice, might not be a clear image or concise definition. Maybe absolute clarity of the Forms is not necessary for wise evaluation of what is good, beautiful or just. It could be that we simply recognise if something is good or beautiful at the moment of its perception, assuming of course that we have immediate access to the abstract Idea of the Good or Beauty. By this account, one would just know with certainty how well something approximates a deep memory of the Ideal.
It's not like a person sees a perfect and clear image of the Good, in comparison to a manifest object or act. The Forms are not images or forms like those we sense. Yet they are intellibible. But if there is no clear ideal image or standard of absolute good, how is it possible to evaluate the good of things without a clear ideal for comparison?
As a possible speculation, knowledge of the Good may be rooted in a deep memory of our psyche. By analogy, let's say that you were separated from your mother at a very early age. Being much older now, you have no picture or clear memory of your mother, but rooted in your memory is an image of your mother. And now, it so happens that some women remind you of your mother, more or less, because of an approximation to your deep memory, even though you have no clear access to this memory. In other words, you are reminded of your mother by some women more than others, even though you have no clear image of your mother. If this is plausible, then it is also plausible that good form, or the Good in a manifest form, can be immediately recognised even though no clear image of ideal Good is present in mind as a standard for evaluations. One would simply recognise good things when they are present. Or one would be reminded of the perfect Good, though without any clear image of this perfection.
To know what is good, beautiful, and just, one must know what is goodness, beauty and justice. One must know the essence or truth of the idea itself, in order to know what examples are are appropriate to the idea. One has to know what the idea really means, in order to know what truly partakes of the idea. So without knowledge of the idea itself, we cannot possibly know its examples. A person says to Socrates that he knows of an act of impiety or sacrilege. But Socrates then asks if this person knows the very meaning of piety, for he must know the meaning of the idea since he supposedly knows an example of its negative.
Without knowing the meaning of the idea of which we give an example, the very proposition is absurd. If we think a thing or action is an example of a certain idea or moral rule, then we should be able to state what this idea or rule is. If we make accusations or state propositions of truth, then we should have ready reasons why this is true, and these reasons must logically connect to the very meaning of the proposed truth. That is, if I say that an action is just, then I should provide reasons that this action is just, and these reasons should connect to the idea of justice. And if I don't clearly know the idea or definition of justice, then I cannot really know what are supporting reasons for my proposition and I cannot know what is a just action.