Plato and his "Theory of the Forms"

Updated on June 22, 2018
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree in History at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Plato
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Plato

Introduction

Plato’s ideal “Republic” was a society based around three separate classes that included the craftspeople, auxiliaries, and the guardians. For his ideal society to work, Plato concluded that his “Republic” should be led by one class, the guardians, and needed to be controlled by one supreme leader known as the “philosopher king.” Plato compared his society to the notion of a well-balanced soul that resulted from each class practicing particular forms of arête. Plato believed that craftspeople should practice the virtue of “temperance,” auxiliaries should practice the virtue of “courage,” and guardians should practice the virtue of “wisdom.” Once each of these virtues were incorporated, Plato believed that a “just” society would emerge. In Plato’s “Republic,” however, the pursuit of arête by each class also revolved around his “Theory of the Forms.” Without knowledge of these “forms,” Plato did not believe his ideal “Republic” was capable of surviving.

Theory of the Forms

In his “Theory of the Forms,” Plato asserts that the universe is divided between a “physical” and “spiritual” realm. The physical world, where humans reside, is composed of both objects and shadows/images. The spiritual world, on the other hand, contained “forms” and ideals for anything an individual could do, or make within the physical world as a human being. In many ways, this realm represented the modern version of “heaven” to Plato. The “forms” that existed within the spiritual world, according to Plato, served as “blueprints” and plans for objects upon Earth. He believed that each “form” was perfect, unchanging, and had always existed in the universe. This perfection, however, was strictly limited to the spiritual realm as Plato believed that nothing “perfect” existed within the physical universe. Rather, he believed that objects that existed on Earth were imperfect versions of the “forms” that exist in the spiritual realm. An example of this can be seen with the notion of coffee and pizza. According to Plato’s theory, the spiritual world contains perfect “forms” for both of these objects that cannot be replicated on Earth. As humans, we can make coffee and pizza that both taste great. However, according to this theory, they can never be perfected. They are merely “shadows” of their perfect “forms” in the spiritual world.

Allegory of the cave.
Allegory of the cave. | Source

Allegory of the Cave

Plato uses the “allegory of the cave” as a means of explaining his theory. In his story, Plato describes several individuals that have been imprisoned within a cave “since childhood,” with “their necks and legs fettered” in a manner that prevents them “from turning their heads around” (Steinberger, 262). These “prisoners,” in turn, are forced to gaze upon the wall of the cave which is illuminated by a fire behind them. Plato then states that puppeteers in front of the fire project shadows of various “artifacts” onto the wall in front of the prisoners (Steinberger, 262). In doing so, Plato states that the prisoners come to believe over time “that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts” (Steinberger, 262).

Plato then describes what would happen if one of the prisoners was allowed to leave the cave and venture outside. By leaving, Plato states that the individual learns of a reality that exists beyond the shadows of truth evident within the cave. Once the former prisoner is allowed to view the Sun outside, Plato states that “he would infer and conclude that the Sun provides the seasons and the years, governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way the cause of all things that he used to see” (Steinberger, 263). Here, Plato introduces his readers to what he considers to be the form of “goodness” (represented by the Sun), which he feels is the most important of all the various “forms” since it gives life, and illuminates everything within the physical world.

Plato concludes his story by describing what would happen when the former prisoner returns to the cave. Plato states that, upon his return, his ability to recognize the shadows upon the cave’s wall in an enlightened manner would “invite ridicule” from the prisoners beside him (Steinberger, 263). Because the prisoners that remained inside the cave were not able to venture outside, Plato concludes that they would be incapable of understanding anything the other prisoner attempted to explain to them.

In Plato’s story, the prisoner that ventures outside of the cave represents the philosopher king and the guardians of his ideal “Republic.” The individuals that remain inside of the cave are representative of humanity (craftspeople and auxiliaries). By going outside of the cave, the philosopher king gains valuable insight into the true “forms” of objects, and what constitutes “goodness.” According to Plato, however, those who remain within the cave are incapable of understanding the concept of a reality outside of the physical world. Thus, they are incapable of understanding the forms. Instead, Plato believed that regular individuals, such as the craftspeople, were merely “sightseers” of the truth. According to him, these individuals were incapable of seeing the “forms” and, instead, only saw reflections of truth within the physical world. Like the individuals within the cave, the craftspeople and auxiliaries of Plato’s society accepted the “shadows” as reality.

Source

Plato's "Republic"

Knowledge of these various forms, according to Plato, was a critical component to his ideal “Republic.” Understanding the “forms” represented true wisdom in life, since they personified perfection. Plato believed that humans were born into the world with a subconscious memory of the “forms.” Remembering them, however, took considerable effort and required an individual to employ certain elements of the Socratic Method (Questioning everything), and through the use of “dialectic” which encouraged individuals to have a “discussion” within themselves in order to recall the “forms” through their subconscious memory. Because “forms” existed outside of the physical world, remembering them demonstrated wisdom since it required an individual to think critically, and “outside the box.” Plato believed that knowledge of the forms, in turn, allowed an individual to rise above others since they possessed greater wisdom than most. This is precisely why Plato believed that the guardians should rule over his ideal society. Craftspeople and auxiliaries, according to Plato, were incapable of remembering the “forms.” Guardians and the “philosopher king,” however, understood “forms” far better than ordinary people and could use this knowledge for the benefit of society.

Plato believed that “forms” for negative or evil things did not exist within the spiritual world. Therefore, if guardians and the “philosopher king” understood and remembered the “forms,” they were incapable of ruling in a negative manner. When guardians and the philosopher king possessed wisdom of the “forms,” Plato believed that they understood what was in the best interest of society even better than the citizens knew themselves. Plato states: “the majority believe that pleasure is the good, while the more sophisticated believe that it is knowledge” (Steinberger, 258). When the man in the “allegory of the cave” (philosopher king) returns to the people within the cave after his journey outside, Plato is demonstrating here that the philosopher kings care for humanity more than they care for themselves. By returning, this symbolizes that the philosopher king intends to use his newfound knowledge and wisdom of the “forms” in a manner that aids those around him, and to create a happy and “just” society that follows the form of the “good.” Therefore, Plato concluded that without philosopher kings, true happiness within society was impossible to achieve.

Ignorance of the “forms,” according to Plato, is what resulted in evil and wrong-doing in the world, and could lead to the downfall of his ideal “Republic” if not properly understood by the guardians and “philosopher king.” Individuals who were unfamiliar with the “forms,” or who refused to imitate them can be seen with bank robbers, murderers, and those who commit crimes in general. Moreover, these types of individuals can also be seen in modern dictators such as Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. According to Plato, none of these individuals were evil on purpose. Rather, it was a result of their unawareness to the forms.

Religious and Metaphysical Components of Plato's Theory

Plato’s theory also contained both religious and metaphysical components that served to explain humanity’s existence, and offer hope for a life after death. Plato explains his vision of the afterlife in great detail through the “myth of Er.” According to Plato, Er was a Greek soldier that died while on the battlefield. Following his death, Er’s soul was allowed to visit the spiritual realm. Upon viewing the various aspects of the afterlife, however, Er’s soul was allowed to return to his body within the physical world so that he could give an account of what he had seen. Plato states: “When Er himself came forward, they [judges in the spiritual realm] told him that he was to be a messenger to human beings about the things that were there, and that he was to listen to and look at everything in the place” (Steinberger, 314). In a sense, this notion seems largely similar to the Christian example of the Apostle Paul, in the New Testament, who had a vision of heaven and was allowed by God to give an account of what he had seen.

Through the “myth of Er,” Plato describes the afterlife in a fashion that greatly resembles the modern Buddhist and Hindu models of reincarnation. Before an individual’s soul was reborn into a new body, the soul is given an opportunity to view the various “forms” present within the spiritual realm. Then, the individual is given a choice in choosing their next life. Once chosen, the soul travels to what Plato describes as the “plane of forgetfulness,” where these various individuals drink from a river that wipes their minds clean of any memory of the “forms.” Plato states: “All of them had to drink a certain measure of this water, but those who weren’t saved by reason drank more than that, and as each of them drank, he forgot everything and went to sleep” (Steinberger, 317). Afterwards, the soul is placed into their new body, and then returns to the physical world. Plato believed, however, that an individual’s memory of the “forms” still existed within their subconscious even after their mind had been erased. Through the dialectic, individuals such as the guardians and philosopher king could recall the various “forms” of the spiritual world that they had viewed prior to their present life.

Do you believe that Plato's theory was logical for its time?

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Concluding Thoughts

In my opinion, Plato’s “Theory of the Forms” seems highly logical for the time period in which he lived. During this time, gods and goddesses of Greek mythology were proving to be an inadequate means of explaining humanity’s existence upon Earth, and its origins. In addition, Greek mythology did not adequately address the notion of an afterlife that was satisfying enough for humans. Plato’s theory, in turn, accounted for multiple aspects of humanity, and introduced a concept of the afterlife that rewarded those who were good, and punished individuals that were guilty of wrong-doings. In a sense, Plato’s theory offered people a feeling that they had control over their destiny. As Plato proclaims in the “Republic:” “There is a satisfying life rather than a bad one available…provided that he chooses it rationally and lives it seriously” (Steinberger, 316).

More importantly, however, Plato’s theory seems logical for this particular time period since it addressed the growing debate between “relativity” and “absolutes.” Sophists believed that concepts such as beauty, truth, and justice were relative to various individuals and societies. Philosophers such as Socrates and Plato, however, believed that each of these concepts were absolute, and were not relative to particular individuals/societies. Rather, Plato believed that only one form of beauty, truth, and justice existed within the universe. By applying his theory of the “forms,” therefore, it appears as though Plato was seeking a means of explaining his stance towards “absolutes” in a more detailed manner than before.

In conclusion, Plato’s theory was far from perfect and contained numerous concepts that were unclear and questionable. Even Aristotle, Plato’s greatest student, objected many of the elements within Plato’s theory. Nevertheless, Plato’s theory of the “forms” was a revolutionary concept for its time period. In turn, the introduction of Plato’s theory played a tremendous role in inspiring future thinkers and religious individuals/groups in the years that followed.

Works Cited:

History.com Staff. "Plato." History.com. 2009. Accessed June 22, 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/plato.

Meinwald, Constance C. "Plato." Encyclopædia Britannica. May 11, 2018. Accessed June 22, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Plato.

"Plato's Allegory of the Cave: The Eye-Opening Ancient Version of the 'Matrix'." Learning Mind. April 26, 2018. Accessed June 22, 2018. https://www.learning-mind.com/plato-allegory-of-the-cave/.

Steinberger, Peter. Readings in Classical Political Thought. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000. Print.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Larry Slawson

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      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        4 months ago from North Carolina

        @Threekeys I'm glad you enjoyed. Plato offered some unique perspectives on the afterlife; that's for sure.

        @Eric I shall try haha. And I agree. I'm not expecting too many views on this hub. Its some heavy reading for sure. I agree though. "The Republic" is definitely an interesting and insightful read.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        4 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Larry please keep sharing your "inquiries". They are a delight although I think the audience is low. I had to look up Code of Hammurabi just to see I spelled it right. 30+ years ago but worthy of another read.

        If we made children have a semester of "The Republic" society would fare better.

      • profile image

        threekeys 

        4 months ago

        I have wanted to explore the ideas or reasonings contained within ancient cultures but just haven't managed to get there, yet. I enjoyed the preliminary view Larry. Look foward to more of these articles. Especially, to see where else and what else comes up around the area of the afterlife.

      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        4 months ago from North Carolina

        Thanks Eric! I'm glad you enjoyed :) I have taken a strong interest in ancient philosophy lately. Really fascinating stuff.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        4 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Well done

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