Plato’s Theory of Idea or the Form

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Plato’s theory of Idea or the Form constitutes the philosophical foundation of Plato’s political theory. The problems variety and the change have been common questions for ancient Greeks, who were trying to discover the uniting element in the variety, i.e. the one in many; and the permanence in the ever changing world. Pre-Socratic Greek philosophy generally addressed to the observation of life and motion of the natural, particular objects and phenomena and their patterns from which they tried to generalize and derive the universal qualities of particular, particularities.  Socratic search begins with analysis of human psychology. Various philosophers came up with varying answers; Plato conceptualized the world of Ideas, in his answer and propounded the Theory of the Ideaor the Form of Good. In doing so, he dialectically unites the two opposite views of Heraclitus and Parmenides. For the former, the world is in continuous state of change and flux and the only constant is the change itself. According to Parmenides, world is permanent, unchangeable and that the change is an illusion[1]. Plato combines the two and propounds that the visible, phenomenal world, which we empirically observe and sense-perceive is changeable/perishable, but the   world of Ideas or the Forms is permanent. The commentators on the subject use the Form and Idea interchangeably, for the sake of convenience; we shall be using the word Idea only henceforth. Plato makes a distinction between the worlds of objects, the visible world, which can be known by sense-perception; and the invisible world that could be known only by reasoning. The permanent element of the changing object is its Idea that is eternal; infinite; final and independent reality. According to him it is beyond time-space but being the progenitor, is represented through them. Plato’s dialectical description of the world and the dialectical unity of opposites, like Hegel many centuries after him, is in inverted order. The idea cannot be progenitor or creator of the object, but emanates from it. Newton’s law of gravity does not make the apple to fall down vertically, but explains the phenomenon of falling of object from particular height. First let us see, what Plato means by the term?

A pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Thales defined the things with changing appearances assubstance, the existing state of affairs. Plato declares these substances to be of momentary importance, mere shadows of their essence, the Form or Idea. Plato cites the example triangles. Many triangles could be drawn and omitted but the quality due to which all such particular geometric figures are known by this name, the tringularity, which is permanent and universal. Similarly he cites the examples of various particular horses and girls with horsiness orgirliness as their respective permanent, universal Ideas. I share one of my experiences with my daughter when she was very young, to explain the Platonic Idea of the object and their inter-relationship. She demanded to eat a fruit. She was offered the particular fruits. She refused to accept mango, banana etc., particular objects she had already known through her sense perception and would have thought that fruit must be some particular eatable like them. “Not banana; not grapes; not guava, I want to eat fruit”. There happened to be a vendor selling strawberry, which she ate as a fruit. This is to say that the universal Idea of a particular kind of particulars is their universally common quality, through which they are known by that name. Plato demonstrates it cave allegory  or the myth of cave[2]in which few chained prisoners think the shadows as reality and after one of them frees himself and is amazed and amused by the sight of sun-light. Plato portrays the darkness of the cave as ignorance (illusion); the fire at the gate the visible object, and the sunlight as intelligible Idea. But he does not care to explain the fact that how the prisoners did got chained and reached the darkness of the cave? Were they born chained together? They would have been taken into prisoners in war or mob lynching. Logic of Plato’s highly eulogized cave allegory is very illogical, he himself calls a myth

Plato supposed that the reality was essentially or “really” the Idea and that the phenomena were mere shadows, the momentary portrayals of the Idea under different circumstances. The Idea a distinct singular thing causes plural representations of itself in particular objects. For Plato, Ideas, such as beauty, saintliness etc. are more real than any objects that imitate them.

These Ideas are the essences of various objects: they are that without which a thing would not be the kind of thing it is. For example, there are countless tables in the world but the Form of tableness is at the core; it is the essence of all of them.  Plato’s Socrates held that the world of Forms is transcendent to our own world (the world of substances) and also is the essential basis of reality. Super-ordinate to matter, Forms are the most pure of all things. Furthermore, he believed that true knowledge/intelligence is the ability to grasp the world of Forms with one’s mind.  For Plato the Idea is transcendent to space and time. “The Ideas make the things what they are”[3]. The abstract, invisible Idea is the model or perfection and of the visible objects, its appearance, so they resemble not only with it but also among themselves, like the siblings of the same parents. For him not the objects but the Ideas are the subject of episteme, the knowledge. Plato uses a line diagram to prove it.

. To demonstrate the distinction between essence and appearance, Plato uses the line diagram to demonstrate that the essence of the phenomenal world lies not in itself but outside in the world of Ideas.

   Intellibble world         visible world

A ———D———-C———–E————B

(Original diagram is vertical with A as the uppermost point and the B as lowest)

If the universe is represented by the straight line AB and C is its mid-point and AC as the invisible world of Ideas. D and E are points on AC and CB respectively so that AD: DC = CE:EB. AD is the world of Ideas, i.e. the realm of knowledge; DC of understanding like studies in science, mathematics etc.; CE the area of existing world, knowledge about which in Platonic parlance, is no knowledge, only technical knowledge that he calls opinion. Let us leave it here to be elaborately critiqued in discussion on Plato’s theory of knowledge.

There is no problem with his assumption of dialectical composition of the world but his priority and portrayal of relationship between the worlds of ideas and the phenomenal world can and must be questioned and contested, as objects have existed without ideas and the ideas have historically emanated from the object. Plato projects a derivative half- truth as truth. The total truth is dialectical unity of object and idea with priority to the object. The word fruit as universal identification of particular objects would not have existed if there were no particular, perishable objects like mango; banana; grape That is to say that the idea of particular, its universal form emanates from it and hence cannot be prior to it or its progenitor. It is the sense perceived reality that stimulates the faculty of reason to discover, the laws governing its motion. For example, had there not been the sense perceived reality of vertical fall of objects from the height stimulated the mind of Newton to discover its idea – the gravitational theory. Sense perceived reality is not the totality of the truth, but partial. It answers the question, what? But it does not answer the questions why and how? Newton’s laws gravity do, but had not there been the sense-perceived answer to what? The questions, why and how would not have arisen and the infinite, eternal idea could not be born contrary to Plato’s claim that they exist by themselves. Therefore the idea cannot be the only are entirely the “real” reality. The totality of reality or truth is the balanced combination of the two – the sense perceived reality and it’s contemplated or the philosophically abstracted idea. Any way mind too is one of the human senses and thinking is a practical act. As Marx and Engels have theorized, the truth is constituted by the dialectical unity of the object and the idea; the material conditions and corresponding for and level of social consciousness.

 Theory of the Idea of Good

The Idea of Good is the Idea of the Ideas. The Idea of Good enjoys the same status in the world of Ideas, as the Idea among its particular objects.  As, by now, we know that Plato locates the essence of particular, sense perceivable, changeable and perishable objects not into objects themselves but outside into their permanent, eternal, unchangeable universal Ideas or Forms with capital I and F respectively. We also know that Plato accords priority to the Idea over object, as it is the progenitor, the model, the ultimate reality of the object and is beyond the time and space. The objects resemble with not only their Ideas but among themselves, as the children of the same father not only resemble the father but among themselves also. The visible world, as it is changeable and perishable, cannot be really real but not unreal either. It lies in the middle of the real, its Idea and unreal, its shadow. It is semi real. This philosophic assumption would be reproduced in an improvised and more sophisticated for by Hegel many centuries later and contested and reversed by Karl Marx.

After theorizing the Idea of the objects, Plato moves to his main point, the basis of the Ideal state ruled by philosopher king, the Idea of Ideas, the superlative or the supreme Idea, the Idea of Good. Comprehension of the Idea of Good is the ultimate knowledge and the knowledge is the virtue and the ideal state must be ruled by the virtuous and hence deduction of the need of philosopher king automatically follows. The Idea of Good is the final and independent reality, “existing itself by itself”. The way he traces the source of existence of particular objects into their Ideas, the same way he locates the source of existence of the Ideas into the Idea of Good. Plato argues it to be the ultimate basis of knowledge.

Plato generally emphasizes on definition but leaves the final reality, the Idea of Good undefined that would be subsequently replaced in the medieval period by another ultimate, undefined reality, like the God in theology. Plato confesses that the meaning of the Good cannot be clearly defined but only known through reason. The knowledge, the wealth or the happiness are not Good themselves but just the conditions of Good. The Good is the final end of anything. It is the basis of knowledge and ethics and the source of all the virtues, like truth, beauty and the justice. The final objective of human life is attainment of the Idea of Good. Where Plato cannot define illustrates with similes; analogies and prevalent or constructed myths. To illustrate the Idea of Good Plato uses the slimily of the Sun. The Idea of Good in the intelligible world is similar to the Sun in the visible world. According to him the Ideas live not in the visible but intelligible world and hence form the subject of contemplation and the objects of the phenomenal world reside in the visible world and are the subjects of sense perception and not contemplation. In the visible world eyes sight things only when they are exposed to the light and the source of the light is the sun. Plato argues that the sun is neither light nor the objects of sight but their source and cause. Sun, as said above, occupies the same position in the visible world, in his scheme as the Idea of Good in the intelligible world. This slimily could be better explained by following diagram:

Visible World               Intelligible world

Sun ————————  Idea of the Good

Light —————————- Truth

Objects of Sight (Things)——————— Objects of Knowledge                                                                     (The Ideas)

Sight ——————————  Knowledge.

To sum up Plato’s Theory of undefined Idea of Good, we can say that it is related to the world of Ideas in the same way as the world of objects in terms of being progenitor; finality; absoluteness and supremacy. Plato does not answer the question, what is the Idea of Good? It cannot be described but can only realized through dialectics or contemplated through the application of reason. Can everyone comprehend the Idea of Good? Plato’s answer is a clear no. Only those, who have ability and training in dialectics imparted in the highest stage of educational scheme can. Who have this ability and how is that determined? Those people whose innate domain of excellence is Reason, described in his theory of trilogy of the soul.  How is that determined? Through elimination tests conducted at various stages of education. Thus Plato not only gives the idea of state regulated education but also is the first political philosopher to conceptualize the meritocracy. As has been mentioned before, in medieval times, also known as dark ages, the Good was replaced by God and only the true devotees can know Him.

Ish Mishra, Associate Professor, Dept. of Political Science, Hindu College, University of Delhi


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