Brief Reflections on Plato

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. For Plato, the overall good or Summum Bonum is the Good (Agathon) or ideal order and arrangement. Seeing (with one's mind) how things ought to be put together (their ideal proportion) helps one order and arrange one's own life, as well as the life of the city as a whole.

2. The Greek word kosmos, which means beautiful world-order, derives from a term that means "to weave together," to produce well-woven cloth by putting each thread in its proper place (warp and woof). The universe is a "cosmos" because, by and large, it is well-woven together; each part is where it belongs and functions as it should. The trial and death of Socrates convinced Plato that the city of Athens was not such a "well-woven whole," but a patchwork where many things were out of place.

3. According to Plato, there are absolute and objective and unchanging standards or "forms." Beyond relatively ordered (and disordered) things, including human beings, there are principles of perfect order and proportion (forms). Plato takes his clue from craftsmen, whom he believes to have real (though limited) knowledge. Craftsmen know how things should be put together. What makes a house work as a house and a ship function as a ship is not a matter of "opinion."

4. Form means structure, arrangement, order -- how a thing must be put together in order to function as it should. Just as health is the functional unity or harmonious arrangement of bodily parts, individual justice is the correct arrangement and interaction of the parts of the soul, and social justice is the correct arrangement and interaction of citizens in the city. Justice (on the individual level) means correct arrangement of the parts of a person's soul (harmony, proportion, symmetry), with reason "in charge" and spirit and desires taking orders from reason. For Plato, justice is no more "subjective" and "relative" than health or good craftsmanship. A good ship will sail; a bad ship will not. A good house will stand; a bad house will not. A good city will succeed and support human excellence; a bad city will fail and put good citizens to death. What makes anything good is the way it is put together, its arrangement.

5. These "ideal structures" or proportions can be seen by the mind, but they cannot be seen by the eyes. Most relevant to human affairs is the ideal of justice (perfect proportion within and among human beings and human institutions). The just city is the city in which there is the best arrangement, where each citizen is doing what he is supposed to do, "minding his own business," and not transgressing against his neighbors. The just city is governed by philosopher-kings, citizens who understand what is best for the city as a whole because they have a clear vision of absolute justice.are in charge. Like the craftsman, who works with a plan, the ruler works with his mind's eye fixed on absolute justice and attempts to shape citizens and institutions, the raw material of the city, into an artistic and well-woven whole.

6. The lover of wisdom not only tries to see beyond sensible things to their ideal forms. He also tries to see highest form or ideal, the Idea of the Good itself (to Agathon), which is perfect order and form. Every inquiry into the meaning of form and order sharpens the mind's vision of order itself; thus even studying mathematics or geometry or astronomy can make a person wiser about order in his own life and in the city. The wise person has a sense of proportion and limits. The habit of seeing order and orderly relationships with the mind enables the mind to "order" or arrange and rule both zeal (the will) and desires. According to Plato, one must have his mind's eye fixed on the ideas in order to act rationally in public or private life.

7. The pursuit of knowledge requires restraint upon desires for sensual gratification. The whole soul must be rearranged in order to see more clearly the essence of order and arrangement, which in turn makes possible greater self-ordering and virtue. The intellectual and the ethical are interdependent.

8. That an individual should consciously shape his own life in accordance with an unchanging plan and that a ruler should consciously shape (even force) citizens and laws to fit together in accordance with an absolute "blueprint" is in stark contrast to the naturalistic method of Taoism. To a lesser extent, Plato's ideal conflicts with the ideal of democracy, which holds that individuals may indeed shape themselves, but that they must find their own places and not be shaped or ordered by authoritarian rulers, no matter how enlightened.

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Copyright © 1997 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.