The Theory Of Forms In Plato’s Republic

Plato’s Republic lays out the perfect model society by developing a concept he calls the theory of forms. He holds that concepts like justice, goodness, and happiness — which are the tenets of the ideal city-state — can only be understood through a deeper understanding of knowledge as a whole. The only true way to achieve his concept of knowledge, Plato claims, is by a thorough appreciation of this theory. Becauses the general populace is too ignorant to grasp the theory, Plato would hold that his ideal city-state is not pragmatically implementable.

Before diving into the concepts discussed in Republic, it is crucial to note that many of the ideas stated are done so through the dialogue of Plato’s characterization of Socrates. For the sake of brevity, many of these ideas will simply be written as Plato’s; i.e., “Plato’s theory states,” “Plato claims,” “Plato holds,” and so on.

Plato’s theory of forms distinguishes our perception from true reality. By constructing the concept of forms—unchanging, flawless abstracts which transcend our reality — Plato develops the notion that anything we see is simply an imperfect copy of an unobservable “single form.” Though these copies we see vary greatly in their qualities, they all share immutable characteristics that reflect the true form of the object.

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, he fabricates the idea of prisoners chained to a wall in a dark cave, with fetters on their necks to prevent them from seeing all but straight in front of them. Behind them, similar to a puppet show, people hold up statues in the light of a fire to cast shadows of miscellaneous materials — resembling humans and animals — onto the wall in front of the captives. The prisoners see only the shadows, and perceive these shadows to be the true forms of what we know to be statues. In this analogy, the shadows represent the forms which we as humans are able to perceive; we see the “shadow” of an object that exists in a world we can not see. We use, Plato holds, our physical bodies and their senses to determine the existence of this intangible world through reason — an ability of the physical aspect of our being, as opposed to the soul, which contains the innate knowledge of these forms to be unlocked through the rationalization of the body.

This idea can be elaborated through the concept of a right triangle. We can prove, using math and reason (specifically logic), that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equivalent to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Though we can use reason to determine this, there is no such thing as a perfect triangle in the real world — only imperfect copies, as is the case with any other shape, and, as Plato believes, anything else; trees, beds, and so on. In Plato’s eyes, comprehending this theory is the only path to true knowledge, because understanding this theory will give you knowledge about the world of perfect forms, whereas everyone who lacks the understanding is simply operating within the confines of their perception—which is to say, all of their knowledge pertains only to the imperfect copies of the true, single form.

Though the concepts in the theory seem difficult to grasp and to properly implement, Plato informs us of the one individual who is best equipped to facilitate a society that upholds the desired principles: the philosopher. A philosopher is a lover of wisdom and truth. In his eyes, the theory that has been so intimately fleshed out is one that can only be fully realized, and “born to the fullest extent possible”, when a philosopher rules — in any other case, the ideas he’s developed would fail even to see the light of day. Philosophers are ideal in the sense that they are the only ones who have true knowledge, because they are the only ones who understand the theory of forms — according to Plato. Because of their understanding, they can delve into ideas that are much more intricate than the superficial observations of the imperfect forms we see; questions can be answered more perspicuously, introspection can be engaged in more rigorously, and the world around us is more clear than ever before. In addition to these benefits, the philosopher is so fixated on his pursuit of wisdom and truth that he won’t have time for other things, like the pleasures of the body, or monehis makes him incorruptible by two vicious beasts to which so many other leaders fall prey. Though the philosopher is so clearly the best fit for the position of ruler, there are a myriad of unforeseen complications with this seemingly perfect solution for carrying out Plato’s ideas.

In Plato’s Ship of State analogy, he incites the reader to visualize a ship with the following dilemma:

The ship’s owner is a burly man, stronger than the sailors aboard the ship, who can not be bullied or executed. However, he is incapable of performing the duties of a proper captain, as his seeing, hearing, and sailing abilities are each deficient. Because of this, he is forced to outsource the position of captain to one of the sailors aboard the ship. Each sailor adamantly believes that he should be the one entitled to command the ship’s helm, and the group argues incessantly on this topic — despite the fact that none of the men are properly educated in the ways of the true navigator. The men cajole their way into one of them getting the position by way of stupefying the shipowner with drugs and alcohol, but then they kill any man who should receive the promotion. Moreover, they dangerously call this man “one who knows about ships,” and dismiss anyone else as useless — despite the fact that he is truly skilled at nothing but the art of rhetoric (at the very least, sufficiently so.) What the sailors fail to grasp is that the “true captain” is one who knows all that pertains to his position — including vast knowledge of the seas, the skies, the stars, and the winds. Though he is truly versed in his craft, the true captain is written off as a “babbler,” who is “good-for-nothing.” 

Just as in the analogy, so too is the case and dynamic between philosophers (the true captain), the people (the shipowner), and the politicians (the sailors.) The philosopher in this situation is almost more of an abstract here, as is the true captain, being that long ago it is presumed that the politicians and the sailors have done away with anyone who possesses any morsel of true knowledge of the position at hand — properly running a city-state and properly navigating a ship, respectively.

Plato would see the political climate today and observe similar trends as those he lays out in his analogy of sailors. Demagogues are fear-mongering, sufficiently rhetorically gifted individuals without true substance who scowl at the philosopher, with his true knowledge of the world of forms and hence, of reality (contrary to imperfect forms and perceived reality.) They see the philosopher as a great many things other than a truly, knowledgeable leader — instead, they envision a useless member of society who spends his time with his head in the clouds (when he is actually fleshing out elevated ideas) just as the true captain is considered a “real stargazer” when he truly is the only one who knows where to properly focus his gaze. If these behaviors found in the analogy are consistent with what we see in the world today, this would insinuate a potential improbability of our ever achieving Plato’s ideal society and government.

The Ship of State analogy paints vivid imagery of how people can often be intransigent, and refuse to accept truths that don’t align with the reality that they have come to understand and grow comfortable in. Another exemplary portrayal of this concept is in Plato’s aforementioned Allegory of the Cave. After a lifetime of shadows, misperceptions, and captivity, what if the individuals are finally freed? Plato illustrates this concept in the Allegory. Though the cave-dwellers would finally be set free of their abysmal prison, they would also be reasonably distraught at the new reality they are presented. “When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before. What do you think he’d say, if we told him that what he’d seen before was inconsequential, but that now…he is a bit closer to the things that are[?]”. Just as the prisoners in the allegory are physically fettered to rocks, Plato argues, all those without the true knowledge of forms are shackled and confined to their own perception. The only way to free oneself from this prison is to study philosophy and, ultimately, seek a higher truth for the sake of wisdom and understanding.

One of the most appreciable facets of Plato’s Republic is its timeless nature. Exactly as is the case with The Cave and the Ship of State, today, the majority of individuals in a given society would be reluctant — at best — to accept the notion that their perception of reality is fundamentally skewed, let alone that the foundation of their entire philosophy in life is horribly flawed. Though it would be most ideal for the population of a given society to embody the superior virtues listed by Plato, the reality is that without a proper understanding of the forms, one can never truly define what it means to be just, good, or happy. For this reason, Plato would consider it unlikely, if not impossible, to implement his ideal city-state. The full potential of the perfect society would surely be realized if not for the ignorant disregard by the masses for philosophers and their wisdom; “…the best among the philosophers are useless to the majority… blame [not] those decent people for this, but the ones who don’t make use of him.” 

Plato would likely look at the world today and decide that his ideas simply could not be carried out in any society. Though it is possible for his constitution to be executed, it would require an immense amount of effort from each member in a society, and humility on levels formerly undreamt of. Until the people are ready to submit themselves to the rule of minds more equipped to facilitate the forms of virtue Plato holds most highly — again, justice, goodness, and happiness — no society will ever rise above the greed and arrogance that plagues it. “Until philosophers rule as kings in cities…cities will have no rest from evils,…nor, I think, will the human race.” 

16 August 2021
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