Plato’s Theory of Forms

It is in human nature to question everything unknown and if the answer is not evident, it simply inspires burning interest in the soul of a human being. Ancient Greece was the land that gave birth to insuperable minds that tried to get at the secrets of existence and lived their entire lives trying to answer the most philosophical questions. Such outstanding personalities whose genius has been living for centuries and is still the basis of philosophy are Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. The main merit of Plato’s philosophical works is the depth and eternal topicality of his ideas and the wide range of the themes he analyses. His works are so impressive that they have attracted numerous followers of Plato’s philosophy in different historical epochs, in different countries. To get at the philosopher’s concept, it is necessary to analyze his works in the complex since the study of an isolated philosophical work is usually unable to provide the full picture of philosophy. Plato’s theory of Forms or Ideas is the core of his philosophy and it may be traced in different dialogues that are the main literary form that was used by the philosopher. However, due to the space limits, the present study will consider three prominent philosophic works of Plato in their relation to the Theory of Forms: “The Sophist”, “The Republic”, and “Phaedo”.

Every theory is created to explain the nature of some event or to solve some problem and answer certain questions, and Plato’s theory of Forms is not an exception to the rule. To show the evolution of the author’s ideas, it is necessary to define the problems the philosopher is trying to solve with the help of his philosophy. Thus, Plato is trying to find the answer to the question about the secret of human life in a constantly altering world. Besides, the philosopher is trying to analyze the nature of the world and to answer the question, if this world a man lives in is altering or stable, unmoving as it may be perceived in both ways. To solve the riddle of existence, Plato divides existence into two spheres: the material world and the world of Forms that may be accessed by people with the help of their minds.

In the first place, let us analyze the theory of Forms as presented by Plato in “Phaedo” since chronologically it is the first dialogue among those analyzed in the present work. Thus, Phaedo is the first work by Plato that presents a formulated and fully developed theory of Forms. The first time the theory of Forms is mentioned in the dialogue is worth mentioning due to its importance and it is being a starting point of the theory. It is where Socrates, the main character of many dialogues by Plato, asks Simmias if he believes that there is something “just, or nothing” if “the philosopher utterly disdains the body and flees from it” and the affirmative answer he gets from the interlocutor is the first mentioning of Forms that are “beautiful, and good” (Plato and Gallop 10). This is just mentioning, it cannot be considered a statement of the notion of Form as its existence is not described yet. Here, Plato stresses the impossibility of apprehension of the Form with the help of the body; it is possible to do only with the help of a human soul.

More information about the nature of Forms can be found in the argument that covers the abstract of 78c-79e and is called the Affinity Argument (Plato and Gallop 26-28). Here we get to know the reason why Forms are unchangeable and eternal, this is because of their being “incomposite” as stated in 78d5 (Plato and Gallop 27). This is why Forms exist separately and independently from the things that can be perceived. However, the Affinity Argument does not explain the reason why Forms are incomposite.

One more picturesque example of the Form in “Phaedo” is the example with sticks (Plato and Gallop 95). Here we can observe the notion of Form as the unity of quality and “itself”. Plato says that if two sticks are equal according to their length, the Form that is responsible for their equality is “equal itself” (Plato and Gallop 22). Other examples of Forms mentioned by the philosopher in the work are “the beautiful itself”, “the good itself”, “the good itself” (Plato and Gallop 23).

Besides, the dialogue also gives information about the relationship between material things and Forms. The example of the equal sticks may be used again to explain that the equal itself differs from the equal sticks as it is the form that makes them equal, hence, the superiority of the Form over the thing (Plato and Gallop 22). Thus, “Phaedo” introduces the Forms, reveals such qualities that are typical of them and untypical of material things as their divine nature (Plato and Gallop 29), stability, immortality (Plato and Gallop 28), invisibility, and indivisibility (Plato and Gallop 27).

Finally, a memorable episode that is related to the theory of Forms is the myth that tells us about the afterlife as it may be regarded as the summary of the theory of Forms. The true surface of the earth as described by the philosopher is the world of Forms which can become accessible when a person gets rid of his mortal form. He says that those people who become pure due to philosophy will be able to live without the body; it means that they will become close to the Form or even coincide with it.

Moving further to “The Republic”, it is necessary to state that the prominent work of Plato is famous for the presentation of the philosopher’s political views and his concept of the state but the presentation of the theory of ideas may also be traced in the work. Book III of “The Republic” presents the pursuit of the Forms employing education. Since a person can become closer to the world of Forms not with the help of his senses but with the help of his mind only, education is the means that enable us to make a huge leap to the world of Forms. Thus, “The Republic” continues and develops the ideas introduced in “Phaedo”.

Book V of “the Republic” suggests similar ideas as presented in the final part of “Phaedo”, where the author speaks about the philosophers that will be able to live without a body on the true surface of the earth. Here Plato gives the explanation of the different nature of “the lovers of sounds and sights” (Plato 175) and “the true philosophers” who can grasp the sense of absolute beauty, that is the Form of Beauty or the Beauty itself as it was mentioned in “Phaedo”. Notably, the author does not define the notion of the Forms in this treatise; probably, it is because of his implication that the present work continues the ideas of the previous one analyzed. Consequently, the connection between the two sources is evident. Returning to the difference between the lovers of sights and sounds, Plato states the difference between lovers of sights and philosophers is in the following: “the one [philosopher] loves and embraces the subjects of knowledge, the other [lover of sights] those of opinion” (Plato 181). Consequently, only philosophers possess the true knowledge that is different from opinion and this knowledge gives them access to the Forms, making them the only people who can apprehend them.

Analyzing the theory of forms in “The Republic”, it is necessary to tackle the episode from Book VII that presents the well-known “allegory of the cave” that will enable us to understand the theory of the Forms better. The allegory of the cave presents the people who can see only the shadows of the statues on the wall and they believe these shadows are real since they have never seen anything else (Plato 218). Then they get the opportunity to see the statues and the fire and think they are real. Finally, they leave the cave and see the real world, finally, a man is “able to see the sun, and not mere reflection of him in the water, but he will see him in his proper place” (Plato 224). The cave represents ignorance and the final scene is the vision of the realm of the Forms, with the sun as the embodiment of the Form of Good, the core of “The Republic”. Thus, it may be concluded, this work presents the development of the theory of Forms in their relation to politics and the ideal state.

While the theory of Forms is homogenous in the two previous works, there are evident differences in the presentation of Forms in “The Sophist”. These differences may be explained by the gap of time between the creation of the two previous works and this one as “The Sophist” is the late work that appears after “Parmenides”, in which the theory is already criticized by the author. Thus, “The Sophist” presents a more concrete or, better to say, mundane theory of Forms. There are two abstracts in the book that deal with the theory of Forms directly: the first describes the true essence of the Form, while the second dwells on the problem of the Form and being. In this work, Plato mentions for the first time that Forms can participate in other Forms, he calls them “the communion of Forms” (Plato 240). Besides, he introduces “the friends of the Forms” that are, evidently, the innovation in the theory (Plato 239). This innovation suggests the idea that it is possible for the Forms to change and maybe the process of change and motion may be considered real. The passage about the “greatest Kinds”, among which are Being, Rest, and Motion (Plato 273) suggest the idea of their divine nature, this is why they may be considered the Forms that can be found in the previous dialogues.

Concluding, it is necessary to state that the analysis of the three prominent dialogues by one of the most outstanding philosophers has enabled us to draw a picture of the theory of Form, his central set of philosophic ideas. However, the consideration of the dialogue “Parmenides” could have cleared up the situation more as it contained the self-criticism of the theory of Ideas. Since we analyzed the theory based on three philosophic works, it became clear that “The Republic” and “Phaedo” contained the same ideas of the Forms; they offered information of the essence of Forms and their properties, their functioning, and the role of philosophy concerning the Forms. They also gave information about the interrelation of the Forms and the state. In contrast, the last work offered direct opposition of views, such as the possibility of the Forms to change. The change of Plato’s philosophy is evident in “The Sophist”, but the Forms he described in the work still corresponded to the Forms from the previous works.

Works Cited

Plato, and David Gallop. Phaedo. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Plato. Plato: The Republic. NuVision Publications, 2006.

Plato. Plato’s Theory of Knowledge: The Theatatus and the Sophist of Plato. Trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1957.

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