Plato: A Positive Turn for Philosophy

Plato, observing the deplorable living conditions of his master, Socrates, and his state-sanctioned death opts for another path: teaching paying students in a school called The Academy and writing the Dialogues, which puts controversial philosophical ideas in the mouths of characters rather than himself directly. With money and death threats addressed, he turns his formidable mind to philosophy. He bequeaths to posterity a reasoned method of rational thought. A major benefit of good philosophy, that not only does it encourage man to ask meaningful questions, but to do so in a rightly ordered manner that arrives at the truth more confidently. By analogy one can have the right mathematical answer, but one’s proof can be more or less elegant, and thus be a better answer as a result of the analysis used.

Plato believed there are two realms of reality: the realm of material, sensible, changing particular things in the state ‘of becoming’, and the realm of the immaterial, intelligible of universals or Forms, in the state of ‘are’. Things in the material world are pale imitations of what is in the realm of forms. Beauty would be the Form in which a beautiful flower would subsist. The form Beauty is a universal, with a particular expression found in a rose. Good and the One are also universal Forms, where particulars of good and unity are experienced in the material world. These three forms, Goodness, Beauty, and the One are considered by Plato as the ultimate reality.

Plato’s philosophy contrasts with the Pre-Socratics in the important aspect of the Forms of Beauty and Goodness. Parmenides recognized the One, but did not expound on either of the virtues of goodness and beauty. He also did not develop an idea of how the One imbues the desire for unity, not to mention goodness and beauty, in the material world. There was a strict line of demarcation with the immaterial being preferred absolutely over the material. Plato does at time seem to have a tendency for Gnosticism. Neo-Platonists might want to define Gnosticism much as Parmenides and his followers did.

In The Republic, Plato, speaking through Socrates, states that a city’s proper ruling guardians are philosopher-kings or queens. The philosopher- kings do not seek the power of authority, but rather it is imposed on them as they are the only ones who understand Forms. Socrates considers the ability to understand Forms as the foundation for a good ruler. This philosopher-queen is one who is rationally capable of governing the city with the consideration of all the citizens.

Plato uses an analogy of the human soul and the human city to indicate what each one is capable of and also to define how one is better off acting justly even if the unjust man seems to have short-term gain. This is contra to the Epicureans and their followers who look for maximum pleasure with minimum pain as a guiding philosophy.

The person who thrives has the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Similarly, within a thriving city, these four fundamental civic virtues will be found. Civic wisdom enables the ruling guardians to have good judgment about what is best for the city. Civic courage is expressed in the warrior class’s ability to stand by beliefs inculcated in them by the guardians and to fearlessly carry out the philosopher- king’s orders on behalf of the city. Civic temperance is a harmony among the three city’s groups of craftsmen, warriors, and philosopher-queens. Finally, the three groups exhibit Civic justice when each group performs its own role within the city and does not meddle in the affairs of the other groups.

Plato will connect civic justice to the concept of pleonexia which is a condition of unending desire for always-more-than-what-I–have. Plato will posit this characterizes all human beings and is the root of much of our difficulty. The Church Fathers agree with Plato, some suggesting that envy is the first sin of Adam, and the plague of mankind since the Fall. Pope Francis, speaking in unison in a long line of recent Popes, warns against the dangers of materialism. The striving for more material largesse at the expense of the good and immaterial leads to destruction of the individual and society.

Implicit within this view of the four cardinal virtues is the belief that the human soul in each person is capable of being ruled by our reason, the higher faculty of the human soul. Plato conceives of the soul as tri-partite: reason, will and appetite. Recalling the analogy between the human city and soul, there exists a correspondence between appetites and the craftsman class, and spirit with the warrior class. The appetites provide for bodily needs while the warrior is likened to the will or spirit. However both the body and will need proper governance by reason to perform properly. If either the appetites or the will to power govern the person, the human soul devolves into chaos.

Critical to rational thought is the distinction between knowledge and opinion. In  The Republic Book VI 508d3-8 Knowledge is purely illumined by the Truth and “what is” which produces understanding. When the soul is mixed with obscurity and transitory ideas it becomes bereft of understanding and is left with opinion.

Returning to the concept of Form, Plato believes the most important Form is the Good because it illumines the other virtues, which then makes those virtues useful and beneficial. Plato cannot speak directly of the Good because he thinks he merely possess an opinion which he considers shameful.

Socrates in Plato’s dialogues uses the simile of the Sun to consider the Form of the Good. The role of the Sun links the sense of sight with the power to see. The analogy between sight and knowledge is established with this metaphor. The Sun enables an eye to see, so too the Form of the Good enables the soul to apprehend the One and the Beautiful, as well as the other virtues. The capacity to understand depends on the amount of ‘light’ received by the human soul. In the realm of the visible, the light available changes and thus opinions are more readily formed. Within the realm of the invisible, light does not change, and knowledge is ascertained.

Philosophy is a hard discipline in part because the use of images, analogies, and metaphors are needed to explain intangible ideas. Man starts with the things he understands in the visible changing world to describe and understand the invisible and unchanging world of Forms. Plato was most definitely a positive turn because man is shown to be capable of reasoned thought. This is a noble concept, which is at the root of the dignity of man.

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