M.A.R. Habib

Introduction: It is widely acknowledged that the Greek philosopher Plato laid the foundations of Western philosophy. The mathematician and philosopher A.N. Whitehead emphasized this point when he stated that Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. While this claim may be exaggerated, it rightly suggests that Plato gave initial formulation to the most basic questions and problems of Western thought: how can we define goodness and virtue? How do we arrive at truth and knowledge? What is the connection between soul and body? What is the ideal political state? Of what use are literature and the arts? Plato’s answers to these questions are still disputed; yet the questions themselves have endured, often in the forms and contexts posed by Plato.

Theory of Forms: The theory of Forms underlies much of Plato’s thinking. It is expounded systematically in the Phaedo and the Republic, can be summarised as follows. The familiar world of objects which surrounds us, and which we apprehend by our senses, is not independent and self-sufficient. Indeed, it is not the real world (even though the objects in it exist) because it is dependent upon another world, the realm of pure Forms or ideas, which can be apprehended only by reason and not by our bodily sense-perceptions. What is the connection between the two realms? Plato says that the qualities of any object in the physical world are derived from the ideal Forms of those qualities. For example, an object in the physical world is beautiful because it partakes of the ideal Form of Beauty which exists in the higher realm. And so with Tallness, Equality, or Goodness, which Plato sees as the highest of the Forms. Plato even characterises entire objects as having their essence in the ideal forms; hence a bed in the physical world is an imperfect copy of the ideal bed in the world of Forms. The connection between the two realms can best be illustrated using examples from geometry: any triangle or square that we construct using physical instruments is bound to be imperfect. At most it can merely approximate the ideal triangle which is perfect and which is perceived not by the senses but by reason: the ideal triangle is not a physical object but a concept, an idea, a Form.

According to Plato, the world of Forms, being changeless and eternal, alone constitutes reality. It is the world of essences, unity and universality, whereas the physical world is characterised by perpetual change and decay, mere existence (as opposed to essence), multiplicity and particularity. These contrasts become clearer if we consider that each Form is effectively a name or category under which many objects in the physical world can be classified. Returning to the example of the bed, we might say that there are numerous objects constructed for the purpose of sleeping on; what they have in common is a given kind of construction which facilitates this function, say, a flat surface with four legs; hence they fall under the general category of “bed.” Similarly, “Goodness” – which Plato regards as the primal Form — can be used to classify a broad range of actions and attitudes, which would otherwise remain mutually disparate and unconnected. We can see, then, that a central function of the theory of Forms is to unify groups of objects or concepts in the world, referring them back to a common essence, and thereby to help make sense of our innumerably diverse experiences. Moreover, the theory attempts to give reality an objective foundation which transcends mere subjective opinion. Plato’s theory may sound strange to modern-day readers brought up on empiricist assumptions: we tend to value what is particular and unique; much of our modern science rests on accurate observation of physical phenomena; and we are trained to view the world immediately before us as real. Such thinking was entirely foreign to Plato, whose insistence that reality lies in the universal rather than the particular profoundly influenced philosophy and theology until at least the eighteenth century, when Enlightenment thinkers began to see knowledge not as innately present in the mind but as deriving from the particulars of sense-experience.

Plato’s Comments in the Republic on Poetic Imitation: In Book X the poet is held up as a Sophist, a “marvelous” handicraftsman who can “make” anything: “all implements,…all plants and animals, including himself, and thereto earth and heaven and the gods and all things in heaven and in Hades…” Indeed, then, the poet “makes all the things that all handicraftsmen severally produce” (X, 596C-D). Hence poetic imitation in its very nature violates the political principle of singularity of function. And what the poet imitates is of course the appearance, not the reality, of things, since he merely imitates what others actually produce (X, 596E, 597E). Plato elaborates his famous triad: we find three beds: one existing in nature, which is made by God, another which is the work of the carpenter, and a third, the work of the painter or poet. Hence, the carpenter imitates the real bed and the painter or poet imitates the physical bed. The poet’s work, then, like that of the rhapsode, is the “imitation of an imitation.” It is worth recalling the precise order of Plato’s argument here: he does not simply argue that poetic imitation is thrice removed from truth; he first states that the imitation in general is “three removes from nature” and then subsumes poetic practice under this limitation (X, 597E). He states later that the imitator (not merely the poet) knows nothing of reality but only appearance (X, B-C). What, then, does the poet “know”? Plato’s answer is that the poet knows only how to imitate (X, 601A). Hence, just as Plato essentialised the pursuit of philosophy, assigning pregiven attributes to it, so he essentialises imitation itself, the mode to which poetry is confined. Moreover, he claims that poetry will deceive only those “who…judge only by forms and colors” (X, 601A), implying that a purely formal or aesthetic evaluation of poetry is necessarily indifferent to truth-value.