- Education and Science
Theory of Forms Snapshot
Plato’s Theory of Forms is a theory that for all things that exist in our physical world, there is an ultimate, or perfect, form of it in another dimension that we knew in our previous spirit form. These sources are the ‘birthing centers’ of things.
They are unchanging and timeless. These forms are like blueprints of what is used to ‘create’ reflections of these forms on Earth. The reflections on Earth are not as perfect as their original for the sensible world is not able to attain the original form’s perfection, but we should strive to achieve it.
Theory of Forms
Plato’s Theory of Forms is a theory that for all things that exist in our physical world, there is an ultimate, or perfect, form of it in another dimension that we knew in our previous spirit form. These sources are the ‘birthing centers’ of things. They are unchanging and timeless. These forms are like blueprints of what is used to ‘create’ reflections of these forms on Earth. The reflections on Earth are not as perfect as their original for the sensible world is not able to attain the original form’s perfection, but we should strive to achieve it.
These forms or ideas can be intangible things like justice, love, and beauty, or natural such as fire, water, and air. Another area he posits as having a form is general such as artifacts like beds, or even largeness.
His theory suggests that in order for the forms to come into this realm, they must partner with a receptacle that can hold it. Or demonstrate it. I believe what he means by this is the physical world has a different language of experience, thus in order for us to remember these forms, these forms must speak to us in a way that we can understand through senses like sight, hearing, taste, and touch. In forms that have no physical properties, they are demonstrated in situations like justice in a court room, or love in a relationship. These things are felt and we are guided by them if we can remember them.
In Plato’s theory he warns us that we cannot be deceived by the sensible world, and that these forms in their partnerships are mere mirror shadows of what truly exists in the spiritual world. He warns us not to be prisoners of the sensible world and that awareness of this higher spiritual realm and forms will help us break through the deception and imperfection of the real world. This makes sense to me in one aspect: as I have previously stated, if there is a color that exists in another world, how could we possibly recognize it if we were never exposed to it? In turn, we are prisoners of our physical world if we believe all that we have been exposed to is all that there is. I say that to an extent because I believe the sensible world is the only connection to Plato’s forms once we enter the physical world by taking on a physical body or a receptacle. Senses are the catalyst to recalling or aspiring to bring these forms’ likeness to the physical world. For instance, when someone hits us, we feel anger. That anger was born from a physical act. When we touch a lover’s hand, we feel love, love from physical touch. Our physical bodies are not only the receptacle for our souls, but a bridge to recalling our spiritual world.
My thoughts led me from understanding the basis of his theory to questioning if there is a blueprint for justice then there must have been a need for justice. Thus there must be a blueprint for wrong-doing, evil, anger, and hatred. Other than most things thriving on opposition, even in the realm of atoms, I cannot fathom why perfect spiritual world would have needed a blueprint for these types of emotions that lead to physical harm. Additionally, when thinking that a form exists for a bed, I cannot think of why a bodiless spiritual world, not victims of gravity, would ever find the need for a bed which is a buffer between bodies and gravity for the purpose of sleep. One important piece of his theory that led me to this confusion is that this world existed before we, humans, were created. If no bodies existed, and no effects of gravity could be known, why then did a blueprint exist before a need? I believe in the form of creativity or inspiration, but do not agree that physical object or comparative terms like ‘largeness’ exist in the spiritual world because their purpose is wholly physical.
I believe beds and cars were created out of necessity, but not because the “form of a bed’ existed in this realm, but rather the form of inspiration, or creativity, existed which led to the inventions he referenced. This necessity though, arose from a physical need in the sensible world. So we cannot discount the physical world as a prison, but rather a vehicle to combine two worlds.
Emotions are not easily explained. We cry when we are born, we cry when we are sad, we cry when we are happy, we blush when we are embarrassed, we laugh when we find humor, we love intensely and then hate. We are driven by them. We are affected by them. These intangibles have no physical form. They are the voice of the spirit, and possibly Plato was attempting to articulate that we do these things, because we remember a life guided only by these ‘feelings’ in their original “form’ in the absence of a body to animate them, but we are only reminded of them through our senses first. How I interpret Plato is “don’t stop there”.
In turn I came to my own conclusion that Plato was pulled into a need for a global theory that applied to all things because during his time, people questioned everything. Maybe they could not surpass their own instilled perception of the world. Although he didn’t provide answers, he should have stuck with his spiritual theory and applied it to emotional and intuitive intangibles like love, anger, justice, and virtue. Otherwise, I feel he was a prisoner of his own thoughts and senses by rejecting them, and conjured that his theory would apply to nearly all things ‘serving a purpose’.
Universal Concept of Fairness? Is it possible considering cultural differences?
Plato spoke using self-predicating descriptions of forms, or rather they referenced themselves in their description, such as “justice is just” (Mason, 2010, p. 47). This can be confusing because if taken literally as spoken, it is like describing yellow as ‘yellow’. However Mason postulates that aside from this being an idiom used during that time, Plato could also have been inferring that it is a standard or fundamental of what we should aspire to be or have, such as in the form of beauty or justice (Mason, 2010, p. 48). These forms cannot have physical properties or qualifiers as Plato has theorized, thus it leaves a description difficult to produce in the absence of a physical example making it real, like a person who is beautiful. In this sense, I believe Plato is urging us to tap into our pre-physical recollection and ‘know’ the blueprint of a form.
I believe the blueprint of justice is a concept of being morally right and ethical, doing to others what you would want done to you, and even obeying laws in a social contract to ensure the rights of others are not infringed upon and life is ‘fair’. I do not think the original form of Justice contains laws, and religion, and social contracts, but it is the epicenter or the catalyst of why we seek to live morally right and ethical lives.
I believe there is a universal concept of justice and fairness not only through the spiritual recollection of the form, but also because it benefits people in a united state such as a city or country. By living justly and fairly and upholding ethical spiritual obligations, we are attempting to secure the reciprocation from others of living the same way to have expectations of civility and fairness. This innate knowledge we have in addition to applying it in the form of a social contract provides a sense of self-satisfaction to know one is living a just life, even if that ethical route is not immediately rewarded or reciprocated by others. I do not think the idea of feeling rewarded from justice that is a result of selfishness, but a reward from recalling what we should be aspiring to be which is the original blueprint of justice.
Perfect Forms for common objects? What does Plato mean?
I agree with Plato that there are not forms for common things like hair or mud. These things are a result of a culmination of chromosomes or elements resulting in that state. Mud is the mixture of dirt and water, and can be useful in our atmosphere. Hair is the result of a combination of chromosomes and an adaptive need for protection of the top of our scalps from elements and weather. In terms of a form, he indeed said forms serve a purpose, and these things serve a purpose but only to the physical world and not the spiritual world. I do not believe anything that serves a purpose solely for the physical world has a form in the sense that Plato describes as perfect and an inspiration of the result in a physical world.
I believe cars were created out of necessity, but not because the “form of a car” existed in this realm, but rather the form of inspiration, or creativity, existed which led to the inventions he referred to as artifacts. The necessity of these physical inventions arose from a physical need in the sensible world. Humans tapped into the blueprint of creativity when desiring things like cars, beds, toothbrushes. They were given the intellect, or a form of it, and from it are able to construct items that can make a more comfortable physical world. Using this inspiration or intellect, they were able to create many versions of useful inventions to suit particular physical preferences like color of a car, speed of a car, softness or hardness of a mattress and so on.
My response to the argument of “there can’t be a perfect form of a toothbrush” is that I agree. The perfection lies in the inspiration. The result is a combination of physical features that either suits a large majority of people, or a specialized group of people with certain needs. For instance, not everyone likes a spinning toothbrush, but for those who do, it may be a perfect form, but not in the sense that Plato describes. It’s a perfect solution to a desire or need. The form Plato references is the creativity or inspiration that resulted in the creation of these things.
Do you believe an "ultimate truth" exists?
Plato's Argument Against the Sophists
Plato’s argument against the Sophists was driven by his own beliefs and disagreement with the Sophist’s theory that human beings are the measure of all things and that no ultimate truth exists; only a stronger argument. The Sophist’s theory is in direct conflict with Plato’s Theory of Forms in which an absolute truth exists and ultimate blueprints of things exist in another realm. With this belief, Plato saw many errors in a Sophist’s theory; particularly contradiction.
Plato points this out in several of his dialogues. For instance, in Theaetetus Plato’s dialogue has Socrates argue that if a human is a measure of all things, and a human disagrees with that statement or theory, then the theory itself is wrong (Roochnik, 2004, p. 102). In other words, if every man’s opinion is right, then obviously many things are both right and wrong. How is this possible? Furthermore, he argues, if all truth is relative, then a Sophist’s statement that truth is relative, is relative to the speaker and merely an opinion, not a philosophy, and certainly not truth (Roochnik, 2004, p. 102). This argument made in Plato’s dialogue rings true, as we see on social media and blog sites the incessant comments from opposing sides with clearly differing opinions. If a truth is relative, then all comments are true, to that person, and if humans are a measure of all things, then all things are contradictory and opposing. I see
this in Religion a lot too. Two different religions have differing beliefs, and certainly both sides think they are right, but following the Sophist’s theory, the ‘right’ one is not only relative but also the stronger argument. How could either result be obtained through opinion? Whose reality and wisdom are ultimate?
Plato proceeds to dissect the Sophist statement of “there is no form of justice, but rather the advance of the stronger” (Roochnik, 2004, p. 103). Plato points out that in that case, there could be no justice, but rather a ruler or group of rulers in a tyranny or democracy, respectively. That the ultimate goal of procuring justice is undone by defining justice as a ruler or group of rulers making laws in accordance with an agenda or their own beliefs. How is this an example of justice? How is justice achieved through ruling without any regard to fairness?
He continues on the Sophists’ theory that humans are a measure of all things, but it is obvious and necessary to agree that some men are simply wiser. That being said, how can all humans be a measure of something when there is a wiser human among them? (Roochnik, 2004, p. 104).
Finally, one of the strongest arguments Plato made against the Sophist was in Menos when Menos asked Socrates if virtue can be taught. Socrates asks what is virtue? In this question he is requesting that Menos define virtue, and as he attempts to do so, he attempts to give it a singular definition with examples. In a sense, he was trying to describe a form without being aware that he was being led down that path (Roochnik, 2004, p. 109). Plato presents an interesting question. How can you ask if something can be taught without defining it? How can you teach math without knowing what math is? How can you teach art without knowing what art is? Thus in this dialogue he exposes not only the self-contradiction contained in Sophists’ views, but also their inability to argue without recognizing that forms do exist, even if they are unwilling to admit to it.
I think Plato was extremely effective in not only isolating areas of Sophists’ self-contradictory declarations, but also that their need to recognize forms. In a sense, Plato actually used their own technique of rhetoric against them through achieving a stronger argument in highlighting the deficiencies of their theories. Plato did this in the format of dialogues to drive his point, and beliefs, home. In presenting his work through a dialogue, he did not pose an ‘argument’ with persuasion which would fall in line with Sophistry and rhetoric, he used this method as a way to completely denounce a Sophist belief that persuasion replaces an absolute truth. Instead we read these dialogues as if we are eavesdropping on a conversation and are able to make up our own minds without the ‘speaker’ directing his focus and influence on us. Clever.
Sophists’ theories were against all Plato believed in. Most importantly, they did not believe in an absolute truth or the life of a soul. Plato passionately believed in this and correctly pointed out the contradictions of Sophists. The Sophists took things at face value when a stronger argument was presented. Plato believed that approach contrasted Philosophy which is to seek ‘the truth’ (Mason, 2010, p. 98). What truth is being sought when we only believe in a stronger argument?
Plato's Allegory of the Cave
Plato theorized that we are blinded by our own realities. That we cannot possibly know of the higher world because we rely too heavily on our physical perceptions to shape our beliefs. Below you will find a link for a 3 minute review of Plato's Cave.
Plato's Allegory of the Cave: Do we know our reality only by what we see?
Plato's Perfect Government
Plato’s description of the ideal state is much like his division and harmony of the soul. The division of the soul is in three categories: rational, spirited, and appetitive. I can relate that division to his division of people in the ideal state as rulers, guardians, and women and children (Mason, 2010, p. 123).
Plato’s Theory of Government is compartmentalized with specific functions as a means to a state of peace and virtue. However; the way he arrives at this state is not so virtuous.
Plato’s first part of his theory is that each person should serve a function in which they are qualified and it should be based on merit. Rulers should be philosophical and educated, ignoring the wealth of the family, but rather recognizing the education and expertise they have to qualify them (Mason, 2010, p. 122). There should be a few of them and they should not be bound by the rules or laws of others because they are rational, and philosophical, much like the rational part of the soul.
Guardians would serve as an army of the state, living without property of their own, in a camp-like environment, supported by the population in turn for their courage (Mason, 2010, p. 122). I find this comparable to Plato’s spirited portion of the soul as a group of individuals courageous and able to defend. This class did not exclude women, although some would not qualify, Plato was insistent on merit based functional placement.
Last, the community of women and children would stay in their own area, have no permanent marriages, be part of arranged pairings, and children would be brought up in state nurseries (Mason, 2010, pp. 123-124).
In addition to the three choices of life styles, extreme wealth and poverty would need to be avoided, and the community could not get too large in order to avoid a separation by a group (Mason, 2010, p. 124).
In these comparisons I see Plato creating an ideal society reflective of his theory of the divided soul in harmony. Rational Rulers aim for good, while controlling appetitive portions or women and children. I compare women and children to the appetitive section of Plato’s soul because I’m certain women were looked down upon in that time frame as being sexual objects of desire and children were looked at as indulgent and lacking self-control. Finally the Guardians provide the courage and peace of mind in protecting this way of life, much like the spirited part of the soul providing emotions.
To arrive at this state, Plato also permits lies in order to gain the acceptance of the community. He allows for the noble lie which falsely claims the people of this ideal state rose from the earth, are all family, and the rulers have gold in their body, the warriors have silver in their body and the craftsman and farmers have bronze and iron (Mason, 2010, p. 123). He also allows for rulers to not be bound by laws, guardians readings to be censored and even suggests I order to achieve this state, everyone over the age of ten would need to be sent away and ‘educated’ (Mason, 2010, p. 130), or in my opinion, brainwashed. Plato, a man seeking the ultimate form of good, the cardinal virtues, and putting ethics on center stage, attempts to justify the brainwashing and lying as the necessity to reach an ideal state of peace and virtue. How ironic, contradictory, and cult-like. It is the same as throwing the majority of the people in this ideal state, in the ‘cave’ he referenced. Altering their perception of reality for peace and virtue obtained in an immoral way.
This socialistic approach to an ideal state would fail in America. America craves identity, uniqueness, and has a sense of entitlement, pride in individual freedom and the ability to ‘have the dream’. Although the majority of the country is not wealthy, the potential that they could be, is not something they’d give up. Furthermore, putting them in pre-designed classes and telling them that they were born with a certain precious metal in their bones would not suffice in an explanation for their status; we would not be so credulous. Plato was correct in stating in order to achieve the belief in the state, all people at 10 and over would need to be sent away and educated (Mason, 2010, p. 130) . Otherwise, it would be met here in the US with laughter.
Another area that negatively impacts me aside from rulers having carte blanche, lying to the community, and taking away individual choices and marriage, is taking children and women and having them live in a separate community is also not something the empowered women and mothers of this country would accept. It is offensive. Not only are we strongly unique, we are primal with our young. One cannot attempt to correct a parenting style of another woman, let alone put her and her children in a community and remove the precious bond we have with them by making ‘relationship’ moot. We are not things to corral into a community to await ‘pairing’ and ‘breeding’. It violates our rights as humans.
In this theory there is no identity, there is no personal choice available to the community. It is strictly a worker bee nation with clouded perception. It is no better than staring at the inside of a cave without knowing what the sun looks like. How can a soul possibly be in harmony when his rational, appetitive, or spirited portions are controlled by someone else?
Mason, A. (2010). Plato. Outside North America: Acumen Publishing.
Roochnik, D. (2004). Retrieving the Ancients. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.