The Theory of Forms

What the Lover of Wisdom thinks the Good Life Is

The Phaedo portrays the conversation Socrates had in the company of some of his friends on the day of his death. The primary argument in the conversation is that the "lover of wisdom" (φιλόσοφος) should not fear death. His interlocutors, Simmias and Cebes, are Pythagoreans. Simmias and Cebes are students of Philolaus (Phaedo 61d). Philolaus was a Pythagorean from Croton (in what is now the south of Italy) and a contemporary of Socrates. Pythagoras founded his school in Croton in about 530 BCE.

In the Crito, at 45b, Simmias and Cebes are said to have brought money to aid Socrates in escaping from jail.

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787. The Death of Socrates

Plato is seated at the end of the bed. Socrates reaches for the hemlock. His friends are weeping. In the Phaedo, Socrates tells Crito not to forget that "we owe a cock to Asclepius" (in gratitude, it seems, for healing the illness of living in a body). Crito replies that "[i]t shall be done." He asks Socrates whether he has "anything else to say," but Socrates does not reply. He has died, and Phaedo brings his account to a close: "[s]uch was the end of our comrade, a man who, we would say, was of all those we have known, the best, and also the wisest and most upright" (Phaedo 118a).

"I [Phaedo] was not filled with pity as I might naturally be when present at the death of a friend [Socrates]; since he seemed to me to be happy (εὐδαίμων), both in his bearing and his words, he was meeting death so fearlessly and nobly. And so I thought that even in going to the abode of the dead he was not going without the protection of the gods, and that when he arrived there it would be well with him, if it ever was well with anyone" (Phaedo 58e).

  "Then is it not a sufficient indication, when you see a man troubled because he is going to die, that he was not a lover of wisdom (φιλόσοφος) but a lover of the body? And this same man is also a lover of money and of honor, one or both.
  Certainly, Socrates, it is as you say" (Phaedo 68b).

Socrates says that death is the separation of the soul from the body, that the body imprisons the soul and stands in the way of wisdom, but that if in life when it is in the body, the soul practices the love of wisdom properly, then in death, when it exists separately from the body, the soul will have the uninterrupted knowledge of "forms" the lover of knowledge seeks.

The "lover of knowledge" (φιλομαθής) no longer lives as one of the many. He no longer thinks that he should pursue the pleasures and avoid the pains in the way people normally do as they live their lives. He wants knowledge of the forms to be the center of his life, and he thinks that the best way to achieve this end is to become a "lover of wisdom" (φιλόσοφος).

This view of the good life raises lots of questions, not all which have very clear answers.

The Life of Contemplation

In the Phaedo, then, there is some explanation of what the lover of knowledge who has become a lover wisdom takes good life to be. He leaves his old life so that he can center his life around a certain intellectual activity. This activity is "contemplation" (θεωρία). He takes this activity to constitute the good life for a human being, and he takes the life of contemplation to be like the existence the soul enjoys outside the body when it has uninterrupted knowledge of forms.


We can begin to understand what Plato has in mind, and why he thinks of the good life in this initially very puzzling way, if we first consider what the Greek noun θεωρία means.

In its ordinary use, the noun θεωρία means "looking at, viewing, or beholding." It transliterates as theoria and is the root of the English noun theory. The translation of θεωρία as "contemplation" follows the practice of translating θεωρία into Latin as contemplatio.

This practice goes back to Cicero. He tells a story in which Pythagoras explains the meaning of the term φιλόσοφος to ruler of the city of Phlius. In the story, which may well be fictional, Pythagoras tells the ruler that the φιλόσοφος is someone "in whose life the contemplation and grasping of things far surpass all other pursuits" (Tusculan Disputations V.9).

So when someone is engaging in "contemplation," he is engaging in a certain kind of thinking. He is "theorizing." This is the sort of thing Socrates is doing in his conversations about virtue and the good life, and Plato takes him as his model for understanding what the good life is.

Life after Death

Plato ties this conception of the good life as contemplation to a conception of the soul according to which the life of the soul after death need not be grim, as it is in Homer, if the soul cleanses and purifies itself while it is in the body. The evidence is limited, but this seems to be the view in the religious cults associated with Dionysus and Orpheus and also in Pythagoreanism.

In several places in the dialogues, Plato makes Socrates allude to the afterlife and suggest that it is not to be feared by those who have conducted themselves properly in life.

In the Apology, Socrates says he is willing to die many times over if it meant he would meet Orpheus in the afterlife (41a). In the Meno, in connection with the Theory of Recollection, he "Some say [the body (σῶμα)] is the tomb of the soul their notion being that the soul is buried in the present life; and again, because by its means the soul gives any signs which it gives, it is for this reason also properly called (σῆμα) [a word that generally means "sign" and in some contexts means "grave."] But I think it most likely that the Orphic poets gave this name, with the idea that the soul is undergoing punishment for something; they think it has the body as an enclosure to keep it safe, like a prison, and this is, as the name itself denotes, the body for the soul, until the penalty is paid, and not even a letter needs to be changed" (Cratylus 400b).

"They agree in this with practices called Orphic (Ὀρφικοῖσι) and Bacchic (Βακχικοῖσι), but are Egyptian (Αἰγυπτίοισι) and Pythagorean (Πυθαγορείοισι): for it is impious, too, for one partaking of these rites to be buried in woolen wrappings" (Herodotus, Histories II.81).

"In Lydia is the tomb (σῆμα) of Alyattes, the father of Croesus, the base of which is made of great stones and the rest of it of mounded earth" (Herodotus, Histories I.93).

"[M]ake Orpheus your lord and engage in mystic rites of Bacchus (βάκχευε), holding the vaporings of many writings in honor" (Euripides, Hippolytus 953).

"I once heard sages say that we are now dead, and the body is our tomb (σῆμα), and the part of the soul in which out appetites reside is liable to be over-persuaded and to vacillate to and fro, and so some clever man, a teller of stories, a Sicilian, perhaps, or Italian, named this part a jar (πίθον), its being so persuadable (πιθανόν) and suggestible, thus slightly changing the name. And fools he called uninitiated (ἀμυήτους), suggesting [by the similarity of the verb μυέω (from which ἀμυήτους derives) and the verb μύω that means "be shut"] that the part of the soul of fools where their appetites are located is their undisciplined part, not tightly closed, a leaking jar, as it were, it to not to be filled [because it is in the uninitiated]. Now this man, Callicles, contrary to your view [about who is happy (εὐδαίμων)], shows that of those in Hades, ... these, the uninitiated, would be the most miserable" (Gorgias 493a).

says that he has heard from "certain priests and priestesses" that "the soul of man is immortal, and at one time comes to an end, which is called dying, and at another is born again, but never perishes" (81a). In the Gorigas, he says that he has heard that "we are now dead" and that the "body is our tomb" (493a). In the Phaedo, he tries to show Simmias and Cebes that the lover of wisdom should not fear death and that those who pursue the "love of wisdom" (φιλοσοφία) correctly are practicing in life for their existence in death (61c, 63b, 63e).

Living a New Way

So the lover of knowledge no longer lives as one of the many because unlike them, he no longer lives his life thinking that the pleasant is the good. Instead, he has come to think

• contemplation is the dominate activity in the good life
• this life prepares the soul for existence apart from the body

Socrates ties these views together in the Phaedo and gives several arguments in the course of the dialogue in attempt to establish the conclusion that the soul does survive death.

These arguments are not a subject of these lectures. The focus here is on the forms and on how someone could come to believe that the good life consists in thinking about them.

Virtue is a Cleansing

Plato does not think that everyone will immediately agree that contemplation is the dominate activity in the good life. When the soul enters the body, it forgets itself and its good and takes on the concerns of the body. This is why the many live the way they do.

The lover of wisdom recognizes and corrects this mistake. He realizes that the competency involved in living the good life requires the ability to forgo pleasures and stand up to pains in such a way that one lives in accordance with wisdom. He thus lives in terms of the virtues of character and thus arranges things in his life so that he has time to contemplate the forms.

"I suspect that this is not the right way to purchase virtue (ἀρετὴν), by exchanging pleasures for pleasures, and pains for pains, and fear for fear, and greater for less, as if they were coins, but the only right coinage, for which all those things must be exchanged and by means of and with which all these things are to be bought and sold, is in fact wisdom; and courage and temperance and justice and, in short, true virtue exist only with wisdom, whether pleasures and fears and other things of that sort are added or taken away. And virtue which consists in the exchange of such things for each other without wisdom, is a kind of illusion, fit for slaves, and has nothing healthy or true in it. The truth is that virtue is a cleansing (κάθαρσίς) from all these things, and that temperance and justice and courage and wisdom itself are a cleansing" (Phaedo 69a).

Wisdom and the virtues of character "cleanse" the soul of its old ways and the life it lived in terms of pleasure and pain before the love of wisdom took possession of it.

It is possible that the historical Socrates himself described his life in the love of wisdom in the langauge of the mystery religions. In the Clouds, Aristophanes lampoons Socrates as the "master" (αὐτός) of a new religious cult that rejects Zeus and the traditional gods in favor of novel deities. Strepsiades must be initiated to participate in the "mysteries" (μυστήρια) of this new religion (140, 143, 219, 254),

Plato, Euthydemus 277d
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers 8.1.46

Maenad with thyrsus Vase 201659, Munich, Antikensammlungen, 2344 Athenian Red-figure Neck Amphora, 525-475 BCE. Maenad (female follower of Dionysus) with thyrsus. Kleophrades Painter.

"the thyrsus-bearers (ναρθηκοφόροι)" carry a νάρθηξ. This is the dried stalk of the giant fennel plant. The worshippers of Dionysus carried it as a wand or "thyrsus" (θύρσος).
"I fancy that those men who established the initiations are no ordinary people, but have long been saying in riddles that whoever arrives in Hades uninitiated and unaccomplished shall lie in the mud, while he who arrives there cleansed and initiated shall dwell with gods. For truly, so say those concerned with the rites, 'the thyrsus-bearers are many, but the devotees are few'; and these are, I believe, those who have loved wisdom correctly. And I in my life have, so far as I could, left nothing undone, and have striven in every way to make myself one of them. But whether I have striven aright and have met with success, I believe I shall know clearly, when I have arrived there, very soon, God willing. There is my defense, then, Simmias and Cebes, to show that it is reasonable for me not to be grieved or troubled at leaving you..." (Phaedo 69c).

Two Kinds of Existences

What does the lover of wisdom think about when he is engaged in contemplation?

He thinks about objects he calls "forms" (είδη).

What are these objects?

They are the "reality" of sensible things and what is invariant in them. So, in the story Cicero attributes to Pythagoras, "a special few who, counting all else as nothing, closely scanned the nature of things; these men gave themselves the name of lovers of wisdom."

   "Let us then, Cebes, turn to what we were discussing before. Is the reality itself (αὐτὴ ἡ οὐσία), whose reality we give an account in our dialectic process of question and answer, always the same or is it liable to change? Does the equal itself, the beautiful itself, what each thing itself is, the reality, ever admit of any change whatsoever? Or does what each of them is, being uniform and existing by itself, remain the same and never in any way admit of any change?
   It must necessarily remain the same, Socrates.
   But how about the many things, for example, men, or horses, or cloaks, or any other such things, which bear the same names as those objects and are called beautiful or equal or the like? Are they always the same? Or are they, in direct opposition to those others, constantly changing in themselves, unlike each other, and, so to speak, never the same?
"In his youth Plato first became acquainted with Cratylus and the Heraclitean doctrines--that the whole sensible world is always in a state of flux (ἀεὶ ῥεόντων), and that there is no knowledge of it--and in after years he still held these opinions. And when Socrates, disregarding the physical universe (τῆς ὅλης φύσεως) and confining his study to ethical questions, sought in this sphere for the universal (καθόλου) and was the first to concentrate upon definition. Plato followed him and assumed that the problem of definition is concerned not with any sensible thing but with entities of another kind; for the reason that there can be no common definition among the sensible things, as they are always changing. These entities he called Ideas (ἰδέας), and held that all sensible things are named after them and in virtue of their relation to them; for the plurality of things which bear the same name as the forms exist by participation in them" (Aristotle, Metaphysics I.6.987a).

"The theory of forms (εἰδῶν) occurred to those who enunciated it because they were convinced as by the doctrine of Heraclitus about reality, that all sensible things are always in a state of flux (ἀεὶ ῥεόντων); so that if there is to be any knowledge..., there must be certain other entities, besides sensible ones, which persist. For there can be no knowledge of that which is in flux. Now Socrates devoted his attention to the virtues of character, and was the first to seek a general definition of these. ... and he naturally inquired into the essence of things (τὸ τί ἐστιν); for he was trying to reason logically, and the starting-point of all logical reasoning is the essence. ... But whereas Socrates regarded neither universals nor definitions as existing in separation (χωριστὰ), they gave them a separate existence, and to these universals and definitions of existing things they gave the name of Ideas (ἰδέας)" (Aristotle, Metaphysics XIII.4.1078b).
   The latter, they are never the same.
   And you can see these and touch them and perceive them by the other senses, whereas the things which are always the same can be grasped only by the reasoning of the intellect (τῷ τῆς διανοίας λογισμῷ), and are invisible and not to be seen?
   Certainly that is true.
   Now, shall we assume two kinds of existences, one visible, the other invisible?
   Let us assume them, Socrates" (Phaedo 78c).

We can understand this conversation a little more clearly if we consider an example.

Suppose we know that piety is what is appropriate with respect to the gods. In this case, given that certain actions are pious, they are appropriate with respect to the gods. The have the "form" all and only pious actions share. So although the particular actions appropriate with respect to the gods may be different from one circumstance to the next, the form these actions share does not vary. It is always the same even if the particular actions themselves are not.

This example makes it a little easier to understand why Socrates says that the form is not sensible but is something we only discern in a certain kind of thinking. Being appropriate with respect to the gods is not something we can see with our eyes. We might still wonder, though, what Socrates takes himself to be saying when he says that the form exists.

He thinks that piety is something. This something is what an action is if it is pious. If we ask what this something itself is, the answer (given the reply we have assumed for the "what is piety" question) is that it is the existence of appropriate with respect to the gods. This object is what the theory calls a "form." It is the something that all and only pious actions share.

This explanation is not meant to show that the theory is true.

It might be that there are no "forms." Pious actions are appropriate with respect to the gods. Piety is something. So there is an answer to Socrates "What is piety?" question, but it needs to be shown that it follows that appropriate with respect to the gods is something that exists.

When Socrates first talks about forms in the Phaedo, he asks Simmias whether "we say the just itself is something." Simmias responds that "we certainly do." Plato, then, it seems, takes this to be an argument for the existence of such things as appropriate with respect to the gods.

  "Now call to mind, Euthyphro, that this is not what I asked you, to tell me one or two of the many holy acts, but to tell me the form itself by which all holy acts are holy (αὐτὸ τὸ εἶδος ᾧ πάντα τὰ ὅσια ὅσιά ἐστιν). For you said that all unholy acts were unholy and all holy ones holy by one form. Or don't you remember?
  I remember, Socrates.
  Tell me then what this form is so that I may pay attention to it and employ it as a pattern (παραδείγματι) and, if anything you or anyone else does agrees with it, may say that the act is holy, and if not, that it is unholy" (Euthyphro 6d).
  "Now how about such things as this, Simmias? Do we say justice itself is something, or not (φαμέν τι εἶναι δίκαιον αὐτὸ ἢ οὐδέ)?
  We certainly do.
  And beauty and goodness.
  Of course.
  Well, did you ever see anything of that kind with your eyes?
  Certainly not" (Phaedo 65d).

Socrates, in the Phaedo, does not give much more than this as argument for the existence of forms. He and his interlocutors think that forms exist and that the dominate activity in the good life is thinking about these forms in the kind of thinking they call "contemplation."

Socrates and the Inquiry into Nature

"When I was young, Cebes, I was tremendously eager for the kind of wisdom (σοφίας) they call inquiry about nature (περὶ φύσεως ἱστορίαν)" (Phaedo 96a).

Other than the remark in the Phaedo, there is little evidence to show that Socrates was ever "eager" for the inquiry into nature. Diogenes Laertius says Archelaus (a student of Anaxagoras) brought natural philosophy (φυσικὴν φιλοσοφίαν) to Athens and that Socrates was his student (Lives of the Philosophers II.4), and it is possible that Archelaus is the author of some of the views Aristophanes associates with Socrates in the Clouds. Plato, however, in the Apology, has Socrates suggest that he never pursued the inquiry into nature. "For many accusers have risen up against me before you, who have been speaking for a long time, many years already, and saying nothing true.... [T]hey got hold of most of you in childhood, and accused me without any truth, saying, 'There is a certain Socrates, a wise man, a ponderer over the things in the air and one who has investigated the things beneath the earth and who makes the weaker argument the stronger'" (Apology 18b; cf. 19b, 23c, 26d).

"Generally speaking, he [Socrates] refused to reason about the way in which god contrives (μηχανᾶται) each of the celestial phenomena" (Xenophon, Memorabilia IV.7).
In the course of arguing that the soul survives death, Socrates sets out his intellectual autobiography as a prelude to a general discussion of generation and destruction. He says, in this autobiography, that he was interested in the inquiry into nature when he was young.

This interest in the inquiry into nature is surprising. The early dialogues give no hint Socrates was ever interested in the inquiry into nature. In fact, it is easy to get the impression he thought that such knowledge might be impossible and that even if it were possible, it would not be part of the wisdom he wants. Socrates' interest in the early dialogues is in ethical matters

Why does Plato represent Socrates as having been interested in the the inquiry into nature?

The answer, it seems, is that Plato wants to show that Socrates pointed the way to the existence of forms and to the proper understanding of the good life as the contemplation of forms.

Plato seems to think the inquirers into nature gave answers that betray a mistake of the kind to which Socrates calls attention in the early dialogues. Socrates, in these dialogues, explains that he is looking for what is universal in some ethical matter, not for something that constitutes it in some particular circumstance. He tells Euthyphro, for example, not to reply to the "What is piety?" question by citing "one or two out of all the numerous actions that are pious," but to tell him "about the form itself by which all pious things are pious" (Euthyphro 6d).

As Plato portrays Socrates, when in his youth he was interested in the inquiry into nature, "The physicist and the dialectician will offer different definitions, e.g., in answer to the question what is anger. The latter will call it a craving for retaliation, or something like that; the former will describe it as a surging of the blood and heat round the heart. The one is describing the matter, the other the form and account" (Aristotle, On the soul I.403a).

  "[H]e would say, 'Stranger from Elis, is it not by justice that the just are just?' So answer, Hippias, as though he were asking the question.
  I shall answer that it is by justice.
  'Then this--I mean justice--is something?'
  'Then, too, by wisdom the wise are wise and by the good all things are good, are they not?'
  Of course.
  'And justice, wisdom, and so forth are something; for the just, wise, and so forth would not be such by them, if they were not something.'
  To be sure, they are something.
  'Then are not all beautiful things beautiful by the beautiful?'
  Yes, by the beautiful.
  By the beautiful, which is something?'
  Yes, for what alternative is there?
  'Tell me, then, stranger,' he will say, 'what is this, the beautiful?'" (Hippias Major 287c).

"If anyone says to me [Socrates] that a given thing is beautiful because it has a blooming color, or a shape, or something else like that, I dismiss those other things, for all those things confuse me, and I hold simply and plainly and perhaps foolishly to this, that nothing else makes it beautiful but the presence or communion (call it which you please) of the beautiful itself (αὐτὸ τὸ καλόν), however it may have been gained; about the way in which it happens, I make no positive statement as yet, but I do insist that beautiful things are made beautiful by the beautiful" (Phaedo 100c).

  "I want him to tell me this—the excellent fellow who believes that there is no beautiful itself, no form of beauty itself that remains always the same in all respects, but who does believe that there are many beautiful things—I mean, that lover of seeing who cannot bear to hear anyone say that the beautiful is one thing, or the just, or any of the rest—I want him to answer this question: 'My very good fellow,' we will say, 'of all the many beautiful things, is there one that won’t also seem ugly? Or any just one that won’t seem unjust? Or any pious one that won’t seem impious?'
  There is not, Socrates" (Republic V.479a).
he says he went back and forth with the following kinds of questions and answers. "Do heat and cold, by a sort of fermentation, bring about the organization of animals, as some people say? Is the blood, or air, or fire by which we think? Or is it none of these, and does the brain furnish the sensations of hearing and sight and smell, and do memory and opinion arise from these, and does knowledge come from memory and opinion in a state of rest" (Phaedo 96b).

It is not very clear exactly what the problem with these answers is supposed to be, but one possibility is that they explain what something is in terms of its material. Empedocles, for example, says that "the blood around the heart is for humans their thought" (DK 31 B 105 = D240; cf. Homer, Iliad 23.103-104). So, about thinking, the question and answer is

Q: What is thinking in a human being?
A: "[T]he blood... is [that by] which we think."

This answer makes a kind of mistake Socrates' interlocutors make in connection with the search for definitions. Thinking may involve "the blood" in some instances of thinking, but the presence of "the blood" around the heart is not what thinking in a human being is.

So by portraying Socrates as having once been interested in the inquiry into nature, and by having him abandon this inquiry because it makes the kind of mistake his interlocutors make in the early dialogues, Plato's intention, it seems, is to show that Socrates took a step toward the conclusion that the understanding of reality in the inquiry into nature is incomplete. What makes it true that something is thinking (or that some action is pious or courageous) is the presence of something that does not exist among the "heat," "cold," "blood," "air," and other sensible objects that the inquirers into nature consider in their inquiries.

More Explanation is Necessary

How Plato thinks the lover of wisdom understands the good life is now a little clearer. It is a life in which the true virtues of character provide time for thinking about forms. This, it seems, is what he thinks the historical Socrates was doing but did not himself clearly understand.

Plato, however, has not made Socrates show very clearly that

• the objects he calls "forms" (είδη) exist

Further, even if the forms do exist, he has given no argument to show that

• thinking about these objects is the good life

Without this argument, it is not easy to understand how someone convinces himself to become a lover of knowledge and thus comes to believe that thinking about forms is the dominate activity in the good life, the life most beneficial for a human being to live.

Perseus Digital Library:

Plato, Phaedo, Parmenides
Aristotle, Metaphysics

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
εἶδος, eidos, noun, "that which is seen, form, shape"
εἶδος is from εἴδω, subjunctive of the perfect οἶδα, oida, verb, "have seen, found out, know," (Smyth, 1946)
θεωρία, theōria, noun, "viewing, beholding"
ἰδέα, idea, noun, "look of something, form"
ἰδέα is from ἰδεῖν, aorist infinitive of ὁράω , horaō, verb, "see, look, look at, behold, perceive"
μουσική, mousikē, noun, "art over which the Muses presided"
μυστήριον, mystērion, noun, "mystery"
μύστης, mystēs, noun, "one initiated"
μύσται, plural of μύστης, "initiates"
ουσία, ousia, noun, "stable being, immutable reality"
παράδειγμα, paradeigma, noun, "pattern, model"
ῥέω, rheō, verb, "to flow, run, stream, gush"

τέλειος, teleios, (from the noun τέλος), adjective, "concerning the end or goal, having reached its end, finished, complete"
τελειόω, teleioō, verb, "to make perfect, complete"
τελετή, teletē, noun, "rite, especially initiation into the mysteries"
"[W]e do this to everyone when they are initiated (τελουμένους)" (Aristophanes, Clouds 254). τελέω, teleō, verb, "to complete, fulfil, accomplish"
τέλλω, tellō, verb, "to make to arise, accomplish"
τέλος, telos, noun, "the fulfilment or completion"

Arizona State University Library. Loeb Classical Library:
Early Greek Philosophy, Volume IV: Western Greek Thinkers, Part 1,
Early Greek Philosophy, Volume IV: Western Greek Thinkers, Part 2

"There is very little, if anything we know about the real Socrates. But if we know anything about him, it seems that he disapproved of natural philosophy, had no interest in metaphysics, was an extreme intellectualist..." (Michael Frede, "Plato’s Arguments and the Dialogue Form," 204-205. The Methods of Interpreting Plato and his Dialogues, 201-219. Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 1992. Supplementary Volume).

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