The Theory of Forms

In the early dialogues, Socrates searches for answers to his questions. In the Euthyphro, for example, after Euthyphro suggests that he is expert in matters having to do with piety, Socrates asks Euthyphro what piety is. Commentators traditionally describe Socrates as asking for a "definition," but he is not interested in the meanings of words. He wants to know what piety is.

This understanding of the search for definitions seems to presuppose that piety is something and thus that it exists. Plato's Theory of Forms is a theory about the existence of piety and the other things Socrates asks about. The Theory of Forms is thus a thesis in ontology:

• the things (piety, justice, and so on) that Socrates asks about exist
• each of the things Socrates asks about is identical to a "form" (εἶδος)
• the form is specified in a "definition" of the things Socrates asks about

It is also part of the Theory of Forms that ordinary F things (ordinary things that are pious, just, beautiful, and so on), are F (just, beautiful, and so on) because they "partake" or "participate" in the form the F itself (piety itself, justice itself, beauty itself, and so on)

F things are F because they participate in the form the F itself

Plato seems to have realized that this "participating" or "partaking" relation is puzzling. In the Parmenides, which is traditionally thought to be a late dialogue, he has the older and wiser Parmenides asks the young Socrates questions. Socrates has trouble defending his answers to these questions. He suggests and retracts various answers, in the manner of his interlocutors in the early dialogues. Finally, he attempts one last answer to defend his belief in forms. He says that "what appears most likely is that the forms are like patterns, or paradigms, set in nature, and other things resemble them and are likenesses; and this partaking of forms is, for the other things, simply being modeled on them" (Parmenides 132c-d).


The Good itself

What Socrates says about "the good itself" (τὸ ἀγαθὸν αὐτό) is extremely difficult to understand in complete detail.

His view seems to be that the good is the first principle and, as such, is responsible for knowledge and existence of the forms but is itself somehow beyond these forms. He uses "knowledge" (ἐπιστήμης) for the cognition that grasps the good. This is one of four kinds of cognition Socrates identifies in the Republic VII.533c-534a. (Earlier in the Republic, at VI.511d-3, in the image of the Divided Line, Socrates uses "intellection" (νόησις) for this kind of cognition.) The other three are "thought" (διάνοια), "confidence" (πίστις), and "image representation" (εἰκασία).

(νοῦς is the "intellect" or "reason." νόησις is a kind of cognition that belongs to νοῦς. διάνοια is another kind of cognition that belongs to νοῦς. διάνοια grasps its object as a "hypothesis" (ὑπόθεσις), not a "first principle" (ἀρχή). "I understand not fully, for it is no slight task that you appear to have in mind, but I do understand that you mean to distinguish the aspect of reality and the intelligible, which is contemplated by the power of dialectic, as something truer and more exact than the object of the so-called arts and sciences whose assumptions are arbitrary starting-points. And though it is true that those who contemplate them are compelled to use their thought and not their perception by the senses, yet because they do not go back to the beginning in the study of them but start from assumptions you do not think they possess true intelligence about them although the things themselves are intelligibles when apprehended in conjunction with a first principle. And I think you call the mental habit of geometers and their like διάνοιαν and not reason because you regard understanding as something intermediate between opinion and reason" (Republic VI.511c-d).)

To grasp the the good is the primary point of education. The process takes fifty years (Republic VII.540a).


What the lover of wisdom grasps

The text does not make the answer very clear, but he somehow realizes that that he is a soul that is temporarily in a body and that he needs to manage his existence in the body so that he spends as much time as possible in "contemplation" (θεωρία). To make this happen, he rules so that the city and its citizens have the appropriate order.

"All this must cause good lovers of wisdom to think and say one to the other something like this: 'There seems to be a way of life that carries us, together with our reason (λόγου), astray in our inquiry. So long as we have the body, and the soul is contaminated by such an evil, we shall never attain completely what we desire, that is, the truth" (Phaedo 66b).

"The soul is conceived of as preexisting and as just temporarily joined to the body. It thus has two lives and two sets of concerns. Its own concern is to live a life of contemplation of truth. But, joined to the body, it also has to concern itself with the needs of the body. In doing this it easily forgets itself and its own needs, it easily gets confused so as to make the needs of the body its own. To know how to live well is to know how to live in such a way that the soul is free again to clearly see and mind its own business, namely to contemplate the truth. Thus we have an extremely complex inversion of the relative weight of one's theoretical understanding of reality and one's practical knowledge of how to live. It is one's understanding of reality, and the position of the soul in it, that saves the soul by restoring it to the extent that this is possible in this life to its natural state, in which it contemplates the truth. Hence a good life will crucially involve, as part of the way one lives, contemplation of the truth. Practicing the right way to live will also be a means to enable the soul to free itself from the body, to see the truth, and to engage in the contemplation of truth" (Michael Frede, "The Philosopher," 9).



Some Passages from the Republic

"In the course of the work they would glance frequently in either direction, at justice, beauty, temperance and the like as they are in the nature of things (πρός τε τὸ φύσει δίκαιον καὶ καλὸν καὶ σῶφρον καὶ πάντα τὰ τοιαῦτα), and alternately at that which they were trying to reproduce in mankind, mingling and blending from various pursuits that hue of the flesh, so to speak, deriving their judgement from that likeness of humanity which Homer too called when it appeared in men the image and likeness of God. And they would erase one touch or stroke and paint in another until in the measure of the possible they had made the characters (ἤθη) of men pleasing and dear to God as may be" (Republic VI.501b-501c).

"The objects of knowledge not only receive from the presence of the good their being known, but their very existence and being (τὸ εἶναί τε καὶ τὴν οὐσίαν) is derived to them from it, though the good itself is not being but still transcends being in dignity and surpassing power" (Republic VI.508e-509c).

"[There are] four affections (παθήματα) occurring in the soul: intellection (νόησιν) for the highest, thought (διάνοιαν) for the second; assign confidence (πίστιν) to the third, and to the last image-representation (εἰκασίαν)..." (Republic VI.511d-e).

"Then, if this is true, our view of these matters must be this, that education is not in reality what some people proclaim it to be in their professions. What they aver is that they can put knowledge into a soul that does not possess it, as if they were inserting vision into blind eyes. But our present argument indicates that the true analogy for this indwelling power in the soul and the instrument whereby each of us apprehends is that of an eye that could not be converted to the light from the darkness except by turning the whole body. The whole soul must be turned around from the world of becoming until it is able to endure the contemplation (θεωμένη) of being and the brightest region of being. And this, we say, is the good" (Republic VII.518b-d).

"Whenever one tries though dialectic (διαλέγεσθαι), without the senses but by reason (λόγου) alone, to find each true reality and does not give up before apprehending the good itself (ἀγαθὸν αὐτῇ), one reaches the final goal of the intelligible" (Republic VII.532a).

"Then is not dialectics (διαλεκτικὴ) the only process of inquiry that advances in this manner, doing away with hypotheses, up to the first principle itself in order to find confirmation there? And it is literally true that when the eye of the soul is sunk in the barbaric slough of the Orphic myth, dialectic gently draws it forth and leads it up, employing as helpers and co-operators in this conversion the arts (τέχναις) which we enumerated, which we called kinds of knowledge (ἐπιστήμας) often from habit, though they really need some other designation, connoting more clearness than opinion (δόξης) and more obscurity than knowledge. We called them thought (διάνοιαν) before [at VI.511d-e], but it seems to me that people who have as many things to investigate as we have do not dispute about a name. It will be enough therefore to call he first division knowledge (ἐπιστήμην), the second thought (διάνοιαν), the third confidence (πίστιν), and the fourth image-representation (εἰκασίαν)..." (Republic VII.533c-534a).

"We shall require them to turn upwards the vision of their souls (ψυχῆς) and fix their gaze on that which sheds light on all, and when they have thus beheld the good itself (τὸ ἀγαθὸν αὐτό) they shall use it as a pattern (παραδείγματι) for the right ordering of the state and the citizens and themselves throughout the remainder of their lives, each in his turn, devoting the greater part of their time to the study of philosophy (φιλοσοφίᾳ), but when the turn comes for each, toiling in the service of the state and holding office for the city's sake, regarding the task not as a beautiful thing (καλόν) but a necessity; and so, when each generation has educated others like themselves to take their place as guardians of the state, they shall depart to the Islands of the Blest and there dwell. And the state shall establish public memorials and sacrifices for them as to divinities if the Pythian oracle [Apollo's priestess at Delphi] approves or, if not, as divine and godlike men" (Republic VII.540a-c).


The Just Life is Better

If the soul is just, its parts are organized so that action is in accordance with the knowledge of the good. This knowledge belongs to reason. In this part of the soul, there is the knowledge that existence in the body is temporary, that the body and its needs are distractions, and that the good most of all resides in a certain exercise of reason involving knowledge of the forms.

"[P]hilosophy sees that the most dreadful thing about the imprisonment in the body is the fact that it is caused by the lusts (ἐπιθυμίας) of the flesh, so that the prisoner is the chief assistant in his own imprisonment. ... The soul of the true philosopher (ἀληθῶς φιλοσόφου ψυχὴ) ... stands aloof from pleasures and lusts and griefs and fears (ἡδονῶν τε καὶ ἐπιθυμιῶν καὶ λυπῶν καὶ φόβων), so far as it can, considering that when anyone has violent pleasures or fears or griefs or lusts he suffers from them not merely what one might think--for example, illness or loss of money spent or his lusts--but he suffers the greatest and most extreme evil and does not take it into account. ... The evil is that the soul of every man, when it is greatly pleased or pained by anything, is compelled to believe that the object which caused the emotion is very distinct and very true; but it is not. ... Each pleasure or pain bonds the soul as with a nail to the body and rivets it on and makes it corporeal, so that it fancies the things are true which the body says are true. For because it has the same beliefs and pleasures as the body it is compelled to adopt also the same habits and mode of life (ἐκ γὰρ τοῦ ὁμοδοξεῖν τῷ σώματι καὶ τοῖς αὐτοῖς χαίρειν ἀναγκάζεται οἶμαι ὁμότροπός τε καὶ ὁμότροφος γίγνεσθαι), and can never depart in purity to the other world, but must always go away contaminated with the body; and so it sinks quickly into another body again and grows into it, like seed that is sown. Therefore it has no part in the communion with the divine and pure and absolute. ... This, Cebes, is the reason why the true lovers of knowledge (φιλομαθεῖς) are temperate (κόσμιοί) and brave (ἀνδρεῖοι); not for what the many say. ... For the soul of the philosopher would not reason (λογίσαιτ᾽) as others do, and would not think it right that philosophy should set it free, and that then when set free it should give itself again into bondage to pleasure and pain and engage in futile toil.... No, his soul believes that it must gain peace from these emotions, must follow reason (λογισμῷ) and abide always in it, beholding that which is true and divine and not a matter of opinion (τὸ ἀληθὲς καὶ τὸ θεῖον καὶ τὸ ἀδόξαστον), and making that its only food; and in this way it believes it must live, while life endures, and then at death pass on to that which is akin to itself and of like nature, and be free from human ills" (Phaedo 82e-84b).


Two Questions

1. Is it possible for some unjust life to be better than some just life?

Glaucon sets a very high bar. He asks Socrates to show that a just human being who suffers what are popularly understood as great misfortunes is still better off, even if the comparison is to an unjust human being who suffers none of these so-called misfortunes but instead is showered in what are popularly understood as the good things in life.

"We must take away his reputation, for a reputation for justice would bring him honor and rewards, so that it wouldn't be clear whether he is just for sake of justice itself or for the sake of those honors and rewards. We must strip him of everything except justice and make his situation the opposite of the unjust person's. Though he does no injustice, he must have the greatest reputation for it, so that his justice may be tested. ... [T]hose who praise injustice at the expense of justice will say that a just person in such circumstances is worse because he will be whipped, stretched on a rack, chained, blinded with fire, and, at the end, when he has suffered every kind of ill, he'll be impaled..." (Republic II.361b-362a).

It is not at all clear that Socrates actually meets this challenge. The reason is that he does not explain in any detail what happiness is. The love of wisdom makes a substantial contribution. This much seems clear, but Socrates does not explain how this contribution is weighed in comparison with other things traditionally thought to contribute to or detract from happiness.

Socrates says that there are three kinds of pleasure, one for each part of the soul (Republic IX.580d). The person in whose soul a given part is dominant praises the pleasure of that part the most, but Socrates says that the person with the most experience of these pleasures is the best judge of which of these pleasures is the best (Republic IX.582e).

"Of the three kinds of pleasure (ἡδονῶν) the pleasure of that part of the soul by means of which we learn is the sweetest, and so is the life of the man in whom this part rules" (Republic IX.583a).

In addition, Socrates argues that a part of the soul will get the truest pleasure when it gets what is proper to it. When the appetitive or spirited parts of the soul dominate, the knowledge in the part with reason does not direct action. In this case, the appetitive or spirited parts of the soul direct action to objects that do not provide the truest pleasures.

"Let us confidently assert that those desires of even the profit-loving and honor-loving parts of the soul, which follow knowledge and reason (ἐπιστήμῃ καὶ λόγῳ) and pursue with their help those pleasures which intelligence (φρόνιμον) prescribes, will attain the truest pleasures possible for them, since they are following the truth. These pleasures are their own, if that which is best for each thing may be said to be fully its own (οἰκειότατον). So if the whole soul (ψυχῆς) follows the wisdom-loving part (φιλοσόφῳ) and there is no internal dissension, then each part will be able to fulfill its own task and be just in other respects, and also each will reap its own pleasures, the best and the truest as far as possible" (Republic IX.586d-587a).


2. Why shouldn't the rulers shirk their duty to spend more time in the love of wisdom?

The answer to this question is not completely clear, but it may be that it is rational for the rulers to think that taking their turns in ruling over the city will maximize the time they spend in the love of wisdom and hence maximize the satisfaction they take in life on earth in the body. In this case, it is not rational for them to shirk their duty to rule. If they did not take their turns in ruling the city, they would increase the probability of spending less time in the love of wisdom and hence increase the probability of being less happy.

"And so the man proposes the penalty of death. Well, then, what shall I propose as an alternative? Clearly that which I deserve, shall I not? And what do I deserve to suffer or to pay, because in my life I did not keep quiet, but neglecting what most men care for—money-making and property, and military offices, and public speaking, and the various offices and plots and parties that come up in the state—and thinking that I was really too honorable to engage in those activities and live, refrained from those things by which I should have been of no use to you or to myself, and devoted myself to conferring upon each citizen individually what I regard as the greatest benefit? For I tried to persuade each of you to care for himself and his own perfection in goodness and wisdom rather than for any of his belongings, and for the state itself rather than for its interests, and o follow the same method in his care for other things. What, then, does such a man as I deserve? Some good thing, men of Athens, if I must propose something truly in accordance with my deserts; and the good thing should be such as is fitting for me. Now what is fitting for a poor man who is your benefactor, and who needs leisure to exhort you? There is nothing, men of Athens, so fitting as that such a man be given his meals in the prytaneum. That is much more appropriate for me than for any of you who has won a race at the Olympic games with a pair of horses or a four-in-hand. For he makes you seem to be happy, whereas I make you happy in reality; and he is not at all in need of sustenance, but I am needy. So if I must propose a penalty in accordance with my deserts, I propose maintenance in the prytaneum" (Apology 36b-37a).



Perseus Digital Library: Plato, Republic
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon: διάνοια, θεωρία, νόησις, νοητός, νοῦς, οἰκεῖος