Plato is considered the father of systematic philosophy. His dialogues contain the essence of his philosophical outlook and have been much discussed. But there are many common misreading’s and misconceptions about Plato that need to be sorted out before reading Plato and misunderstanding the profundity of his works. As a published scholar on Plato, there is nothing more infuriating that the demeaning of Plato that he denied the importance or reality of the world. Before we can move on to any substantive readings and explanations of Plato, we must first have a basic grounding in the basics of Plato.
Perhaps the most common misreading of Plato is that this world isn’t real, and the real world is the world of forms. This world is very real for Plato. In fact, it is precisely because this world is real that Plato considers the world of forms to supplement life in this world.
The birth of Socratic philosophy coincides with the “discovery of nature.” Prior Plato philosophy broke down into two schools: Metaphysical philosophy amongst the Ionian metaphysicians and the sophist philosophers (ancient skeptics) who asserted nothing could be known as the main task of philosophy was to advance power interests. Platonic philosophy is a confrontation of sophist philosophy and attempt to ethicize metaphysics—that is, make metaphysics relevant to our embodied lives in the world. Moreover, there was an association of the metaphysical with the teleological, as evidenced in Timaeus.
Plato is most concerned with how to live the good life and a fulfilled life in the here and now. Not how to live a good life and fulfilled life in the world of forms. The world of forms is attached to this world through the rational soul (logistikon) which seeks after truth. It is the rational soul, which is part of the mind (nous) which seeks to move beyond mere appearance to get at the heart of the matter, or the foundational nature of what exists. Thus, we begin to ask questions like what is justice? What is knowledge? What is the good life? These are all the byproducts of the rational soul awoken from its slumber.
According to Plato, the telos of man—what his existence aims for—is the fulfilled life (some form of eudemonia, or happiness) which is tied to wisdom. As such, man could only live a fulfilled life if he knew and embodied the truth. To know and embody the truth entails that there is Truth which man could known and imitate. This runs counter to the claims of the sophists who asserted, like Gorgias: Truth does not exist; if there is Truth, we cannot know it; if we could know truth, we could not communicate it; or Protagoras who said “man is the measure of all things.” The sophists were radical empiricists who, nevertheless—like Hume in modern times—said the senses could not grasp fundamental reality.
Plato’s confrontation with the sophists, as they were proto-empiricists, gives birth to idealism and rationalism in philosophy. There is a world beyond the senses. This is the world of the forms. And reason can come to know this world which exists beyond mere sensation or mere matter. Hence, for fundamental nature to exist there must be a world of forms: eternal concepts which is what man’s thinking concerns itself with.
If there was no truth there would be no imperative for a morally upstanding life. In this respect Plato is a moralist and the enduring moralist of the Western intellectual tradition. He believed that if there was no truth, no nature to dwell in or imitate, there couldn’t be a good society and good life to live. Life would be reduced to a game of self-interest power competition (reflected by Thrasymachus and the other sophists in his many dialogues) or hedonistic nihilism (akin to what Epicurus advocated). The irony—and irony is a major Platonic device which we’ll explore in a later introductory post—is that those who claimed that this world exists as our senses seem to confirm, nevertheless lead us down the path to a meaningless life.
This was the failure of the Ionian metaphysicians to know the truth which eventually spawned the sophists who denied the possibility of knowing and reduced life to the game of self-interest power playing or a life of bodily pleasure and stimulation. Neither road is a worthwhile life, however.
Since Plato is concerned with the good life, and seeing his place in the movement of philosophy, he knew that nature, Truth, had to be real and accessible. To do this he concluded there had to be a realm of metaphysical necessity—the Forms—which humans could have access to. To highlight a simple example: What is arithmetic or numbers? Are numbers a concept or are numbers materially existing things that we can perceive with our senses? Plato asserted that numbers are concepts that exist in the world of forms as a necessity for the practical usage of arithmetic in our lives. Put in another way, does 2 + 2 = 4? If so why? Materialists cannot answer this question apart from taking the relativistic pragmatic view of arithmetic. Arithmetic is simply our practical construction of things and if 2 + 2 = 4 and we make effective usage of this arithmetic, it is worthwhile. If other peoples derived that 2 + 2 = 5 and made effective usage of this arithmetic, it is worthwhile for them. However, if numbers have forms that means 2 + 2 = 4 no matter what. Arithmetic is the earthly application of the concept of math and numbers. The same goes for beauty. There is a concept of beauty which we can know and embody: such as proportionality and harmony. Or take music as another example. We know, when we hear, a musician playing the wrong note that something has gone wrong. But in the world of strict empiricism only, there is no way of knowing that a misplayed note is wrong; for music is just a bunch of sounds that our sense of hearing encounters. That is because music has a form, a concept, an integrated reality linking the phenomenal with the transcendental.
It is the task, then, of the thinking soul to seek encounter with this world of truth to make a better, more meaningful, and live a fulfilled life, in this world. Far from denying the reality of this world, Plato’s world of forms gives greater meaning to this world. By coming to know the forms one can embody the forms in this life which results in a more meaningful life in the here and now. Those who deny nature, and truth, are the ones who make life in this world miserable and unlivable. On the contrary, Plato’s philosophical project doesn’t demean the reality of this world but gives it greater meaning and purpose.