The Theory of Ideas from Plato

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If you are reading this, then the chances are high that you have a small idea of who Plato is. You know that he was a great Philosopher – one of the greatest. You might also know that he was Socrates’ student and Aristotle’s teacher.

Apart from these basics, most non-philosophers don’t know about Plato’s philosophies and theories. If you happen to be in this camp, then you are in luck. When you are done with this article, you would have a basic idea of Plato’s philosophies.

Plato and Socrates

You can’t talk about Plato without mentioning Socrates. Socrates was Plato’s teacher and he had a great influence on Plato. Socrates didn’t write down any of his ideas. Most of all we know about Socrates was through the writings of Plato.

classic statues of Plato and Socrates, sky

Plato’s Method

Unlike other philosophers, Plato didn’t write treatises stating his position on particular issues or philosophies. Rather, his writings are in the form of dialogues. In essence, there are discussions between different characters on specific issues.

In a lot of Plato’s works, the Protagonist was Socrates. We can deduce what Plato’s philosophies are directly from what Socrates says in these dialogues (or dialectics). However, it is not in all instances that the Protagonist conveys Plato’s true thoughts.

Plato refrains from directly telling readers what he believes because he doesn’t want to impose his will or ideas on the readers. Rather, through the dialectics, he points out the flaws in ideas and lets the reader choose which is the most logical.

In Plato’s day, a major trend in philosophy was sophism. In essence, sophism was a method in which ideas were conveyed with rhetoric. They are usually like debates where the goal is to win, not to find out the truth. Plato didn’t like this method because it played on emotions, and was certain to lead to demagoguery.

This is why he developed the dialectic method in order to make sure people arrive at the logical truth, not the emotional one.

The Theory of Forms

When we see a beautiful person, we know the person is beautiful. There are no specific metrics we use to judge beauty, we just know it. According to Plato, there is a form for everything in this present world. Forms are the original conception for everything we see in the material world.

There is a form for beauty, a form for tables, chairs, cats, and every other thing we lay our eyes on. This is why we can identify a beautiful person, whether she is white, black, Asian or any other race. That is why we know what a chair is regardless of its color, shape or size.

According to Plato, the original conception is the form. In Plato’s theory of forms, there are no combinations and subdivisions, just one form. There are also two realms, the earthly realm and the heavenly realm of forms and truth.

There are however some issues with Plato’s theory of forms. One of them is that you can’t directly prove the existence of forms. Plato understood this and took the existence of forms on the basis of faith.

Another issue with Plato’s theory is that there can be a combination of forms. If there is a leather brown chair, does it mean that there is a specific form for leather brown chairs? Or there is a combination of the forms for chairs, brown and leather?

Plato recognized these limitations and he tried to address them in his later works. In Sophist, Plato introduces five categories of objects in reality: being, sameness, difference, change, and unchanginess. However, this appears to be a categorization of forms and in essence, it diminishes all the arguments he had built on the theory of forms in his previous dialectics.

The Tripartite Nature of the Soul

Plato also theorized about the tripartite nature of the soul. According to Plato, the soul has three parts: reason, virtue and desire. Plato theorized that the soul was immortal and existed before a human was born. In this period before becoming a human, the soul existed in the realm of forms and had a complete understanding of forms and truth.

However, at birth humans only have a vague recollection of forms. The goal of a person then is to work on his soul in order to get an understanding of forms. Getting to the full understanding of forms was then the true state of enlightenment.

Plato explains this clearly in his lyrical allegory of the chariot. In this allegory, there is a charioteer in control of two winged horses. One horse is mortal and weak, while the other is an immortal and noble horse. The mortal horse pulls the chariot down to the earth while the immortal horse strives to drive the chariot into the heavens.

The goal of the charioteer is to drive the chariot into the heavens – the realm of forms. The charioteer represents the part of the soul concerned with reason, the immortal horse represents virtue while the mortal and weak horse represents base desires.

If the human soul indulges in virtues like justice, honesty, and wisdom, it brings the soul closer to the truth of forms. However, these virtues are at war with base desires, like wealth, earthly possessions, sex and so on. Indulging in these base desires brings the soul back to earth takes it away from the truth of forms.

The goal of the soul is to indulge the desires of virtues to ultimately attain the truth.

Plato’s Idea of the Ideal State

Plato wasn’t a big fan of democracy, especially the one that obtained in Athens. He felt that democracy would ultimately lead to mob rule and demagoguery. What he instead proposed was a hierarchical state. There would be three classes: the Guardians, the Auxiliaries, and the Producers.

The Guardians would rule the city and be trained in philosophy. In essence, they would be philosopher-kings. The auxiliaries would be the protectors and would be the police and the military. The producers would be the blue collar and commercial class.

These hierarchies would not mix. Meaning that guardians would only marry guardians, auxiliaries would marry auxiliaries and producers would marry producers. The Guardians would be trained in philosophy and would be wise philosopher kings. The auxiliary class would be trained in gymnastics in order to strengthen their bodies while the producers would be trained in a trade.

This hierarchy, he believed, would prevent the state from falling into autocracy on one end, and demagoguery on the other end.

In Conclusion

Plato’s philosophies are quite broader than what I have stated above. To get a full idea of what Plato’s philosophies entail, you can read his works. You can start from his most popular – The Republic, and work your way up from there.

Read Also: Impact and analysis of Plato Symposium

Kostas Deroukakis
Love to search, to try, to give, to learn. Knowledge, is the road for this achievement
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