Why would I title this piece Plato’s lyrical poetry? Because lyric poetry is an expression of a writer’s feelings and emotions; and Plato’s proposal of a real realm of pure Form/Idea, if I might be so bold to propose, is rather more an emotional putting forward, than fact based. (More on this below.)
Why, you may ask, have I proposed Plato’s Form/Idea is opinion? Because he puts forth a view regarding Form/Idea based not necessarily on empirical knowledge. (More on this below.)
SPOILER ALERT: Did Plato say he and all of us come to know Form/Idea due to our intelligence? Plato believed that the physical world we come to know through our senses is inferior. There is a higher realm that is accessible for us only through using our intellect to go beyond our senses. For Plato, Form/Idea are perfect exemplars, or ideal types, of the properties and kinds that are found in our physical, and also corruptible world. This is the archetypal dichotomy of “sublime spirit” versus “base matter” that has dogged human thinking down through the ages. Philo even held that matter is the basis of evil.
Through developing our intellect, says Plato, we can attempt to gain greater understanding of the really real, true reality, which supersedes our reliance on perceptions of base matter.
Think of a circle. An example is the hula hoop. It is a solid, material circle extended in space. Think of the edge of a dinner plate which is also a circle embedded in the edge of the plate, and rather a little more abstract compared to a hula hoop.
We can go a step further toward abstraction. Think of a number, any number—say 3. Where is it? As an idea, it is in your mind, and it is incorruptible there, until you die. The hoop, the circular plate and the 3 in your mind are all of the material world. But dear Plato said these material things, in fact everything in the whole material cosmos, are copies of ideal Form/Idea of them all out there somewhere (more of this anon).
“In basic terms, Plato’s Theory of Forms asserts that the physical world is not really the ‘real’ world; instead, ultimate reality exists out there somewhere apart from our physical world. The Forms are abstract, perfect, unchanging concepts or ideals that transcend time and space; they exist in the Realm of Forms.” (1)
Form/Idea of “circle” cannot become misshapen like what will happen to a hula hoop forgotten on the playground. It will not disappear as what will happen to the circularity of the dinner plate when it is crashed to the ground at a Greek wedding. Even a flawless computer generated circle on a screen is merely a pale facsimile of the ideal circle.
Plato’s Theory of Forms is really a Hypothesis.
Plato’s proposal is misnamed Theory. Theory arises from scientifically tested and verified empirical data that is widely accepted to be true, though not unimpeachable, as new data may surpass current data.
Plato never dealt with empirical data regarding Form/Idea. Strictly speaking Plato hypothesized or proposed a mental invention, a notion, a magnificent, creative, even a surreal mental notion. It posits that there is a “really real” unchanging realm compared to the realm of our material, corruptible world.
Plato’s hypothesis is like Sigmund Freud’s proposal of id/it, ego, and superego regarding the nature of our human psyche. Freud didn’t experiment with hard, empirical data. He imagined his proposal.
Do you think Jesus might have had Plato in mind in Matthew 6: 19-20? “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. 20: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.”
Paramahansa Yogananda was getting at something similar: “I am the ocean of spirit that has become a human wave.”
How many Form/Idea are there?
There is a Platonic Idea/Form for each and every solid thing and concept in the world. Therefore when it comes to a concept even such as “unicorn,” if I know my dear Plato, he would say that there is a Form/Idea of my concept “unicorn” out there somewhere in the realm of Form/Idea. (2)
Which brings me to ask where is this out there somewhere?
In Theory of Forms / Wikipedia we read “A Form is aspatial (transcendent to space) and atemporal (transcendent to time). The Form as atemporal means that it does not exist within any time period, rather it provides the formal basis for time. It [Form] therefore formally grounds beginning, persisting and ending. It is neither eternal in the sense of existing forever, nor of limited duration. Form/Idea exists transcendent to time altogether. Forms are aspatial in that they have no spatial dimensions, and thus no orientation in space, nor even (like the point) have a location. Form/Idea is non-physical, but they are not in the mind. Forms are extra-mental (i.e. real in the strictest sense of the word)”—[So I guess Plato did not even want to leave the matter at “the perfect circle is in your mind.” No. He had to insist that the perfect Form/Idea of circle is out there in the aspatial, atemporal realm.] . . . . Wikipedia continues: “The Form/Idea are expounded upon in Plato’s dialogues and general speech, in that every object or quality in reality has a Form: dogs, human beings, mountains, colors, courage, love, and goodness. Form answers the question, “What is that?” “What is this?” “What [the hell] is anything?”. . . . “These Forms are the essences of various objects: they are that without which a thing would not be the kind of thing it is.”. . . . A Form is an objective (?) “blueprint” of perfection”—objective from Plato’s point of view.
It is dog-ness that makes my dog. It is mountain-ness, chair-ness that makes these things. It is courage-ness that manifests in the soldier who gets the medal of honor. Each of The Ten Thousand Things of Taoism and Buddhism has its own essence, its own Form/Idea.
Regarding all of us? Is there only one singular Form/Idea human being? Read the following.
“Every person you see and spend time with will someday die, but the concept or idea of ‘person’ is unchanging or (relatively) eternal. Thus the physical, living people we see in the natural world are transitory but the concept—the idea of—‘people’ is eternal.
“There is no single person who encapsulates the entire concept or idea of person or ‘human being’–yet the idea ‘human being’ describes all human beings: so the idea is more complete and thus ‘truer’ and everlasting, compared to the people who live and die in the natural world.” (3)
Plato and his cave of shadows.
Plato composed the Allegory of the Cave in order to try to explain. And it goes like this. All of us are sitting facing the back wall of a cave and chained to our seats. Behind us, various blokes are walking about with cutout models of all the bloody things of the world—trees, horses, houses, etc. etc. etc. What you and I see are the shadows of cutouts on the back wall. (Think of watching TV in your living room this evening.)
Now I ask you, can those shadows of cutouts in the cave be the real world, reality? No, says Plato.
So what happens? Plato says one of the captives breaks her chains and heads out of the cave into the bright sunshine of the “really real” world bathed in sunlight, and she sees “really real” trees, houses, bicycles, elephants, and all. Plato says that as sensuous beings we are stuck in the world of shadows. But he does propose that as thinking beings, we are capable by our reasoning mind of grasping the realm of Form/Idea. Think about it. You’ll get the point of the allegory—I trust.
Plato had it out for art, poetry, theatre.
So what about Plato having a negative thing for art? Well, think about it. Put a ripe apple on a table. Paint a picture of it. You’ve gone ahead and made a shadow image of what is a shadow apple. But, so what.
Is Plato saying it is better to sit and philosophize and contemplate the Form/Idea —apple-ness? This may be just right for thinking types, but not for artists.
Regarding poets and theatre, M.F. Burnyeat in Art and Mimesis in Plato’s Republic, in The London Review of Books says ”Plato is famous for having banished
poetry and poets from the ideal city of the Republic. But not so.” Plato ejected those who promoted tragedy. He wanted productions that displayed his ideals, such as dialectical discussion involving profound insights into the nature of reality. He wanted optimism, belief in the capacity of the human mind to attain beauty and truth and to use this truth for the rational and virtuous ordering of human affairs. If a playwright can’t dramatize these ideals, then she gets kicked out of the polis. Plato was no democrat.
Yes, this is Plato telling us we’re deluded. We all live in “a yellow submarine.” His solution? Read this from Wikipedia, Plato’s theory of soul. “Our true essence is rationality, psyche, soul, [and our highest mission is to cultivate truth, beauty, and justice]. Plato followed the words of his teacher Socrates, and considered the psyche (ψυχή) to be the essence of a person. He believed that as bodies die, the soul is continually reborn (metempsychosis) in subsequent bodies.”
Many centuries later, one particularly eloquent, inventive, transgressive, and defiant thinker would go at Plato and “philosophize with a hammer.”
That one is Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. In his preface of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche states: “Plato’s invention of the pure spirit [Geist] and the good as such [is] the worst, most [unfortunately] durable, and most dangerous of all errors . . . It was ‘a dogmatist’s error.’” (4)
Nietzsche joked that Christianity is Platonism for the masses.
Nietzsche inclined toward materialism— that all objects, whether living or inanimate are subject to continuous change, that all facts (including facts about the human mind and will and the course of human history) are causally dependent upon physical processes, or even reducible to them. He washed his hands of anything to do with idealism, that reality is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial. Nietzsche detested any one or any system that denigrated matter.
Robert Solomon in What Nietzsche Really Said reports that he reserved his sharpest arrows for Plato. ————— FINIS
- (1) The Theory of Forms by Plato: Definition & Examples – Video …
- (2) Theory of Forms, Wikipedia
- (3) https:/ www.webpages.uidaho.edu/engl257/classical/platonic%20idealism.htm
- (4) https://krieger.jhu.edu/philosophy/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2013/02/Nietzsche-and-Plato.pdf