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Plato’s theory of forms – modern, dynamic and important

Posted by majutsu on February 15, 2009

Empathy with Plato’s Theory

Plato was one of the great philosopher’s of all time. His theory of forms held tremendous sway over people’s thinking for quite some time. Traces of Platonic idealism can be found in Christianity, Islam, Hegel’s dialectic, Marxism as well therefore, Kant’s moral imperative, and modern scientific pantheism. Regardless of our taste for the fruit of the branches of Plato, it’s impact on our culture and history, and therefore its influence on our daily lives, cannot be denied. It therefore would at least be prudent to have some understanding of this philosophy. I will be rephrasing Plato’s philosophy in new and sympathetic language. This is in preparation for an in depth study of Plato’s dialogs and the Republic which I am just about to begin. Therefore, this is not an academic study with a great deal of rigor, for that will come later, but instead it is an attempt to paint the most sympathetic portrait of Plato’s reach into the modern mind.

I find the most fruitful place to begin a discussion of the modern relevance of Plato is with the concept of Platonic love. Contrary to popular belief, Platonic love would not necessarily be love without sex, as it can, in fact, be quite passionate and sensual. Rather, let us imagine a little fairy tale . . . A long time ago, in the a misty kingdom of medieval France, there was a young prince deeply in love with a young maid of the stables. They met for passionate stolen embraces in the moonlight by the stables and promised eternal love, till death do them part. Of course, the prince’s father, the king, had no desire for his son’s future to be squandered on a lowly maid, and had slated his son to marry the daughter of a powerful ally. The king had the maid arrested and sent to jail in Spain. He told his son that she had been arrested after stealing money from the church and running away with a male thief who was, no doubt, her lover as well as her accomplice. He did this so that his son would feel that she no longer loved him, and furthermore, that she never did. The maid was told that the prince was the one who had her falsely arrested, so that she could never blackmail him. So she believed then that the prince did not love her, and he never did really. Let us say that on the way to Spain, pirates hijack the maid’s caravan. Upon joining with the pirates she has many high adventures. In both lover’s minds, the love burns strong despite a lack of faith, despite fluctuating circumstances and severe trials. Nonetheless, the maid-now-pirate one day takes a ship with the prince aboard. Somehow or another everything is reconciled, love is apparent again, and the maid becomes queen and they live happily ever after. This sort of love, that persists despite fluctuating circumstance, the appearance of destruction, and false opinion that it is no more or never was, is Platonic love. As you can imagine, the united lovers can have quite passionate sex, and yet the love is still Platonic. The love is seen as eternally true.

Parmenides was a Greek philosopher who believed everything was eternal and change was an illusion. He believed this primarily with the motivation that in order for there to be truth, change and error had to be deceptive. Heraclitus was another Greek who believed that everything was in a constant state of flux, and that there was no truth. Plato very much wanted to believe Parmenides, but he feared Heraclitus was right. His compromise was to believe in truth and eternity outside of the moment of now, ever in flux. This is why Platonic love is true love outside of the influence of the storms of the temporary in our fairy tale above.

Plato often uses science and math to explain his theories. Let us look at natural law. Scientists write equations of motion, or quantum mechanics, or gravity or particle physics. Just looking at Newton’s equations, we can say that the motion of billiard balls on a pool table follows Newton’s laws. And it does to a very close degree. But because of friction from the cloth, and air resistance, and the balls not being completely elastic on collision, the real behavior of the balls will not follow Newton’s laws in the real world. For example, the cue ball when struck will not roll on forever with inertia, but will stop. Nonetheless, we say that Newton’s laws are the true reality, the abstraction that is the pure and true reality. This is the case with every natural law. As Plato pointed out, every mathematical object, whether a circle of geometry or a law of motion, is a bit of an abstraction, an idealized form. In the real world, no circle or wheel is ideally round. Nonetheless, when scientists speak of the formation of our universe, the big bang, they will pull out various equations of physics to explain how something came to be out of nothing. Even if the universe expands and contracts in cycles, natural law is used to explain how something comes to be out of the nothings that are pauses between the in-breaths and the out-breaths. Natural law, the totality of ideal forms, is conceived as preceding being or as constituting a ground or basis of being. When Plato says an apple or a horse is a sort of reflection of the ideal forms, he means that the object before us, the horse say, is a reflection of the constituent ideal forms, the relevant laws of chemistry, physics, and biology, that organize and determine matter. Furthermore, we can determine these ideal forms, natural law, by investigating the world with our intellect and our reason.

Plato would say that the ultimate ideal behind the ideal forms, this magical process of a mind, embedded and arising from matter by a determination of the forms (the guiders of the universe), that can itself perceive a world of kaleidoscopic shadows of being, themselves reflections of the same ideal forms, is the mystery of mystery, the ideal of ideals, or simply, God. God is therefore to be understood by using reason and observing the natural world to ferret out an understanding of the laws that bind up our reality into a cohesive whole. It is the philosopher’s religious practice to use reason and nature to understand the nature of the eternally true, God. Plato would say the part of us, conscious but apart from momentary sense or fluctuating circumstance, the part that can glimpse the eternally true in nature by reason, is, in fact, immortal. This magic of seeing the universal is as immortal as the universal and eternal that it sees in the mind.

Regarding politics, Plato often wondered how to understand the eternally true characteristics of a state. Any state, while it persists, in other words, what is eternally true about a persisting state, is that it is defended well, and not degraded. Furthermore, Plato thought some knowledge of the true and the path of knowledge would have to be known to those who led a state through dark hours. If not, the state would not persist through adversity. He also realized that all states would therefore have some way for the guardians, those who safeguard truth through the straits of momentary confusion of values and mob madness, to control the mass, the forces of erratic decision making, irrational populist wish fulfillment, etc. Even here in America, the compliance with the view of the state against momentary lapses in obedience is enforced with media propaganda, legislation, and physical force. Plato identified the naked factors inherent in any state in the Republic.

I think the above helps give some credence to the need to take Plato’s thought seriously, if nothing else as a departure point. Furthermore, I think it makes clear how modern concepts of truth and scientific inquiry owe their allegiance to Plato and his Pythagorean roots. Also, I think it shows how many movements in modern politics from Marxism to Republican Democracy have their origin in Plato’s thoughts about the state. Lastly, the Muslim and Christian longing for heaven, paradise and God are Platonic ideals in mythological garb.


2 Responses to “Plato’s theory of forms – modern, dynamic and important”

  1. majutsu said

    This post has many points. First of all, this site has been devoted to the toxic effects of religion. The implication is that humanity will progress with the peaceful eradication of religion. Plato is the philosophical legs upon which religion stands. As the proverb goes “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” If Plato is kept close, the religion can be laid down with respect and ease and its throat cut.

    Second, pure physical materialism with a utilitarian morality a la Ayn Rand led to some negative karmic consequences in the recent past, both within my own view and the world at large with the crash of laissez-faire markets in corruption and lassitude. So I am aware that a rational mysticism in a modern form may be needed in human thought at this time for human survival. Connecting to the tradition of making rational myths, the poets of world view, is like immersing oneself in poets for poetry, a necessary labor of developing craft.

    Third, conflicts about aspects of Plato’s theory of universals essentially composes the wars we currently fight around the globe. I believe understanding the roots of the conflict so as to eliminate them is important for human survival in the near future. The ideological threat to world peace is another theme of this blog, so I thought it would fit in that way too.

  2. honestpoet said

    Our discussions of this at home have been really useful for me, too. Reading Nussbaum’s work (not to mention his beef with poets) will put one off Plato, so it’s been good to understand his theory of ideal forms with more subtlety than what has been presented to me in the past.

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