by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. The ideal form or structure of the perfect city is like the ideal form or structure of the good person. We will see later that this corresponds to the form or structure or order of the cosmos.

2. 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," in a sense) and not transgressing against his neighbors. The just city is the city in which the wisest citizen(s) is (are) in charge. The wisest citizens are those who understand justice: how both the city and each citizen ought to be arranged, put together, with reason at the helm and zeal and desires subordinated to and guided by reason. Justice (for the person) means correct arrangement of the parts of a person's soul (harmony, proportion, symmetry). Just as beauty means proportion or symmetry in physical appearance, so justice mean proportion or symmetry in the human soul (beauty of the soul=virtue). In the just soul, as in the just city, everything is where it should be -- including the ruler. The just soul, like the just city, is an organized whole (has integrity) governed by reason. Like notes in a symphony, the parts of a just soul or a just city work together harmoniously.

Question: Did Socrates "mind his own business"? What was his business? Explain.
Question: Would there be conflict in the just city? Is conflict necessary for life?
3. The ruler is one who understands the ideal standard or blueprint of a perfect city or soul (as a shipbuilder has in mind the blueprint of an excellent ship). Like the shipbuilder, the ruler is a craftsman who can apply this standard, use the ideal blueprint as a go-by. He can rearrange the parts of the city -- including making laws and educating citizens. A craftsman, he keeps his eye on the structure of justice, takes the raw material of people and institutions, and arranges them so that they fit together harmoniously.
Question: Is raw material always easy to work with? Does wood sometimes resist the carpenter?

4. Like the physician or coach, who bring about harmony (health) and strength in the body in the light of a "blueprint" of health, the ruler (as legislator, judge, or educator) brings about improved spiritual health in the city.

5. In the best city, the best citizen ought to rule. In the real Athens, the best citizen was put to death. Citizens, who were not ordered in themselves or ordered in relation to one another, put to death one who was internally ordered (just) and who labored to persuade other citizens to reorder their priorities. In the best city, the best citizen would not cross-examine on street-corners (as a social critic); he would teach publicly as the leader. According to Plato, those who pursue political greatness to the exclusion of wisdom or wisdom to the exclusion of political greatness, should stand aside. The true ruler would be both philosopher and king.

6. A would be ruler (one with a philosophical nature) is eager to learn. He is a lover of the vision of truth, a lover of wisdom, as opposed to a lover of opinion (public opinion or what have you). The lover of wisdom seeks the absolute form or structure of things, the unchanging definition or arrangement. He goes beyond beautiful things to a vision of what makes anything beautiful at all (the essence of beauty). What makes something beautiful is its order or structure or symmetry or harmony -- its form. The opposite of the beautiful is the ugly, that which lacks good form, which is formless (to some extent). The fact that something is relatively beautiful (no existing thing is absolutely beautiful) is different from the ordering principle or essence that makes it beautiful. The philosopher studies forms.

Question: Do you agree that what makes a beautiful thing beautiful is order, symmetry, or harmony? Why or why not?

7. The lover of wisdom not only goes beyond particular things to their ideal forms. He also tries to see beyond various forms to have a vision of not this or that blueprint, but 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.

8. We say that a good photograph has "good definition." In a similar way, when the mind sees a form clearly and with "definition" (a play on the word "definition"), whether it is the form of a triangle, the form of a just city, or the form that defines the relative position of the stars, these definitions are relevant to individual and social life. The word "definition" is derived from the Latin word finis which means end, boundary, or limit (as a fence). Every definition locates a form. To see a form clearly is to see not only its own structure, but also its relation to other forms, its place within a system or hierarchy of forms. 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. The English word "ruler" has this double sense of both one who orders and the standard or measure by means of which one is able to put things together properly. The knowledge of measure or proportion and the knowledge of limits enable one to set limits or draw boundaries (define) in his own life and, if he must rule, in the life of the city.

Question: Plato believes that any study that reveals order will help the soul to order itself, in other words that the way to emotional and psychological health is strengthening the mind. Do you agree? Explain. How would such a view affect, for example, the education of emotionally disturbed children?

9. Recall the theme of waking and sleeping. According to Socrates, the wide-awake soul sees not only particular things, but general forms or structures. The "dreamer" (sleepwalker) sees only particular things). The purpose of cross-examination is to awaken the souls of citizens to the reality of general forms or structures (universals). In a sense, to examine the unexamined life is to rouse the soul from thoughtless immediacy to the contemplation of the forms (especially justice) that will stir the soul to reorder itself in the light of a vision of order and seek to bring about social reform in the light of an ideal community.

10. According to Plato, different "powers" of the mind correspond to different grades of being. Knowledge (brightly lit) grasps unchanging being (forms or structures that do not change). Opinion (dimly lit) grasps changing beings -- existing things that come to be and pass away. Ignorance, which is no knowledge at all, corresponds to non-being, which is no being at all. No one is absolutely ignorant, just as every existing thing has some (more or less) form or order or structure in it. The absolutely formless (chaos) is nothing existing. Thus we have three degrees of "being": form (intelligible structure), the relatively formed (existing things), and chaos (formlessness). The model, as we shall see, is the cosmos itself, which exhibits in its laws and harmonious movements nearly perfect order and form. In fact kosmos means beautiful world order. From this view of knowledge and being, we see that we as human beings begin in twilight, with the relatively confused opinions about relatively ordered realities. The purpose of philosophy is to free us from the twilight of confused thinking to arrive at knowledge (by means of dialectic).

Question: All beings possess some order, or they would not exist. Does this imply that no human being is completely bad or unjust? Does this imply that even things like mud have some beauty? Explain.

11. In the Republic, the character Socrates uses two "images" to describe the ascent from chaotic opinion to orderly knowledge: the image of the divided line and the image of the Cave. In approaching these images, as in trying to understand Plato's "theory of forms," we must keep in mind that it was Plato's intention not to contemplate forms in a detached manner, but to understand order and form so as to order and form his own life and to reorder and reform the city he lived in. Plato's purpose remained ethical and political to the end of his life. He sought to make the city a place where people could strive for excellence, could inquire freely, could cooperate together to create an atmosphere that would encourage, not discourage, a love of wisdom.

12. Plato believes in the existence of absolute truth, goodness, and beauty. Beyond our fuzzy and confused view of things is the reality of eternal standards and structures. There are many (more or less) good things; there is one absolute good. There are many (more or less) beautiful things; there is one absolute beauty. There are many (more or less) just persons; there is one absolute justice (idea or ideal of justice). The attainment of absolute truth, goodness, and beauty is impossible for humans, but the belief that they exist and a glimpse of them from time to time in a rare moment of insight is what motivates us to think, inquire, deliberate, and strive. The absolute is a "flying perfect" (as Emerson calls it in "Circles"). It prompts us to move, yet it stays ahead of us; it eludes us. The little that we can see and remember is the "fixed star" by which we can tell where we are and where we are going. This is the ethical meaning of Plato's "theory of forms." It is also the essence of every moral idealism. Whatever motives may be attributed to Plato, there is one thing Plato himself would insist on: Plato did not invent the forms; he saw them. In this sense, Plato's dialogues, including the Republic, are not meant to draw attention to themselves, but, like signs, are meant to point beyond themselves and to point the reader beyond himself to see the invisible structures governing all things.

Question: Explain the difference between believing in the existence of absolutes and believing that one possesses them. Explain the difference between a dialectical and a dogmatic approach to absolutes.

13. The highest idea or form -- the form of all forms -- is the idea of the Good itself. According to Plato, this idea is not an inert structure, but has power. Plato compares the power of the Good to the power of the sun. The sun illuminates things and makes them visible to the eye. The absolute good illuminates the things of the mind (forms) and makes them intelligible. The good sheds light on ideas. What exactly is the idea of the good? Plato is reluctant to say. The vision of the idea of the Good is, according to Plato, too much for human minds. It is possible that the idea of the Good is the idea of absolute order. Order is what makes beautiful things beautiful, just persons or cities just, true speeches true (truth is the order or correct arrangement of words, putting words together that belong together; dialectic is the back and forth attempt to arrive at such correct arrangements of words).

14. The sun is the cause of generation, nourishment, and growth, as well as of visibility. (Reflect: would there be life on this planet, would life have evolved from the oceans, if there were no sun. Moreover, the sun is necessary for maintaining life; thoughts about nuclear winter have made this clear.) The Good (is it God?) is the cause of essences, structures, and forms, as well as of knowledge. The Good as absolute order makes all intermediate forms or structures possible. The Good is the principle of order. It is found wherever there is order and symmetry or organization both in nature and in human affairs.

15. In the Republic, the divided line shows the relation between opinion and knowledge and the types of objects corresponding to each:

Faculty (within the soul) Object (out there)
KNOWLEDGE Reason (Dialectic) Higher Forms (Beauty, Justice, Truth, etc. Intelligible World
Lit by the Form of the Good
Understanding (based on assumptions) Forms of Math and Science
OPINION Perception, Belief Particular Things - Living and Artificial Visible or Sensible World
Lit by the Sun
Conjecture, Imagining Shadows, Images, Reflections, Copies

16. On the first level of mere conjecture or imagining, one thinks in terms of vague impressions. One uncritically accepts everything that enters one's mind, whatever the source: gossip, hearsay, rhetoric, free-floating opinions, "media." One is unable, at this level, to distinguish the real from the apparent, the genuine from the pseudo, the legitimate from the phony. This is the unexamined life at its worst -- an uncritical jumble of cliché and illusion. On the second level of belief or conviction (concrete perception), one perceives concrete facts; one relies on his senses. At this level, one can tell the difference between facts and fantasy (images and reflections), just as one who had met Socrates in person could tell him from Aristophanes' Socrates on stage (image of Socrates). On this level, one's opinions or judgments relate solely to particular things. One uses words that imply a general meaning (presupposed uncritically), but one does not bother to inquire into these general meanings. One does not try to "define." One simply takes some meaning for granted and simply goes on talking about concrete things as if nothing else existed. This could be identified with the aesthetic (immediate perception) attitude, although Plato would consider poets to be on the image-receiving and image-making level.

Question: Explain the attitude of the "couch potato" in the light of mere conjecture.
Question: Why is it impossible to talk about facts without using words that presuppose some general meaning? Give an example.

17. If one looks beyond particular existing things and asks about general structures, general meanings, or definitions, then one has turned his gaze upward toward the sphere of knowledge. Euthyphro might say with empty self-confidence that it is pious for him to indict his own father for murder (he takes it for granted that he knows what piety is as politicians think they know what justice is). But the philosopher Socrates asks questions like: What is piety? What is justice? He is like the mathematician who is not content to draw or look at triangles, but wants to know their essence, their definition, their intelligible form. The level of understanding (third level of awareness) is the level of mathematics and science. According to Plato, the best introduction to philosophical reasoning is mathematics, which trains the mind to consider abstract structures that cannot be duplicated in the concrete world of particular changing things. Above Plato's Academy was written: "Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here." Geometry trains the mind to think without images and to understand exact proportions and relations; e.g., the idea of equality has no parallel in concrete reality. Mathematics marks a transition from mere picture-thinking to knowledge of forms (conceptual thinking). The shipbuilder who knows mathematics sees the ship (and judges it) differently from the laymen who sees only colors and shapes (and not mathematical proportions). When the mind finally ascends beyond the forms of mathematics and science, it turns its attention toward the forms of justice, courage, beauty, etc. (the fourth level on the divided line). These are the higher forms (accessible though dialectic). Plato contends that the higher forms are the basis or foundation of all the other forms. The knowledge of the higher forms sheds light on all the other forms as well as on concrete things. Definitions clarify opinions about concrete things. If Euthyphro had paid more attention to finding out what piety really meant, his very use of the word "pious" would have called to mind a richer conception of the place of human beings before God (the right proportion between human beings and god). He might have then acted differently. The knowledge of forms changes the way we talk, think, and perceive. Awareness of intelligible structure gives meaning. One who knows still sees concrete objects, but he sees them with insight (knowledge of how they stand in relation to their ideal proportion or form). One who knows still talks, but he knows better what he is talking about (definition) and knows how to put words together that belong together (right proportion in words). One who knows still plays with images (as Plato did), but manipulates images in order to reveal deeper truths. The educator uses images to point beyond images to the forms. According to Plato, knowledge of forms or ideal structures is the basis of intelligent perception, judgment, practice, and making.

18. Allegory of the Cave: One should not forget that poetic images are at the bottom of the divided line. Plato's allegory is a mere copy of the reality of the divided line. One reads later in the Republic that Plato is hostile to image-making arts (the make-believe world of poetry and drama). But he is not opposed to all poetry. Imagery is suspect when it is not enlightened and "informed" and based on knowledge of the forms. Poetry based on knowledge of the soul, the city, and the cosmos, is acceptable poetry. Good poetry (such as Plato's dialogues) could be the basis of education of young people (as opposed to their corruption). Images can lead (educate) as well as mislead (corrupt). Aristophanes' play was misleading (to those who did not know Socrates). Plato's "plays" are intended to "lead." Imitation of reality is not bad; what is bad is imitation without understanding and reason. An analogy compares two well known objects in such a way as to make clearer the relation between two lesser known objects. As A is to B, so B is to C. As underground existence in the dark is to existence above ground in the visible world, so existence in the visible world is to existence in the intelligible world of pure forms or ideas.

Question: In a sense, Platonic dialogues are "works of art." In what sense is Plato vulnerable to his own critique of poets? In what sense might he escape such criticism?

19. Compare the cave or prison to the confusion of public opinion in Athens, in particular to the law courts. One might even compare the puppeteers to the image marketers (politicians and orators and poets). Think of Socrates' trial and imprisonment over against the imprisonment of his jurors in the chains of unexamined presuppositions.

20. According to Plato, one must have his mind's eye fixed on the idea of the good in order to act rationally in public or private life. Furthermore, education is not a process of putting sight into blind eyes, but of turning the soul (which has the power to see the forms already) toward the intelligible light. This means that learning or coming to see the forms and their true relations with one another is not simply an act of the mind, but requires the transformation of one's whole character. That is, love of the good (ethical and moral striving) directs the soul toward knowledge of the highest things. Reason can not see through the haze of desires and fears in the unjust soul. Philosophy, for Plato, is an ethical and intellectual (simultaneously) movement towards the good. Otherwise, one's intelligence does not concentrate on justice and other structures, but deteriorates to mere cleverness and cunning in getting what one wants. Only the unselfish person, whose soul is fixed on a vision (however fuzzy) of the good, can make genuine progress in understanding and reason.

Question: According to Plato, insofar as it grasps order, the soul is able to order itself; and the soul orders itself to the extent that it grasps order. Do you agree? Why or why not?
21. The ascent from opinion to knowledge and the descent from knowledge to opinion are both painful. The mind, like the eyes, needs time to adjust to light and darkness. One should not confuse the apparent blindness (of confusion and wise ignorance) with the real blindness of being unable to see the ideal forms. The prisoners (jurors) see how young men become temporarily "blinded" by Socrates, and they wish to put him to death, for they have never set eyes on absolute justice etc. and they think their opinions are absolute. Socrates is put on trial and given the hemlock for leading citizens out of the cave (education).
Question: Explain, in this light, how Socratic education was thought by the jurors to be corruption.
22. 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. Keep in mind that the truth for Plato and Socrates is, in the highest sense, truth of how to live one's life and to bring order to the city.
Question: Do you agree that the study of any subject is hampered by moral disorder? Explain.
23. The ethical requires a twofold movement: movement away from immersion in concrete affairs to thinking and vision of unchanging order and structures (such as justice) and then movement back from dialectic to participation and re-attachment in worldly affairs. It is a temptation to become an abstract scholar. But the vision of the good is the vision of what is good for oneself and the city, the common good. If one does not return to help his fellow human beings, he becomes selfish and in time will be less able to see what is good, what is best. An unselfish devotion to the good requires an unselfish devotion to the realization of this good in human affairs. Just as the purpose of understanding order and limits in one's own life is to bring about order and restraint in one's own character and desires, the understanding of justice requires application in the public sphere (through education). A man who forgets the polis is like a man who forgets he has a body. Plato advocates educating the body and the city (for one needs both), not turning one's back on them.
Question: Look again at the philosopher-king quotation in these notes. What does Plato say about "philosophers" who neglect political affairs? How do you think Plato would view abstract scholars in present day academic circles?

24. Every ascent to a higher step brings about a greater illumination and understanding of the lower steps. One who perceives real objects is able to put images into perspective and to judge which are true and which are false. One who has ascended to understanding of math and science is able to understand the unchanging structures of concrete objects he perceives; he perceives differently. One who has made it to reason or dialectic of the most ideal (abstract) forms is able to understand the basis of math and science better and is able to put into perspective concrete things and images. Thus, the dialectical seer of pure forms (definitions and relations) is able, in the end, to write poetry that he understands. If he speaks an inspiring truth, it will not be accidental, but intentionally based on knowledge of what is true (and good). He will write poetry that truly educates, as opposed to the poetry of Homer and the others that has mixed value -- that sometimes educates and sometimes corrupts.

25. The one who really understands what justice is all about will have to be dragged into public service; for it is painful for one who really sees what is best for people to be wrestling with popular prejudices, opinions, images, and shadows. The ethical requires that one roll up his sleeves and, with an idea of a better world in mind, come face to face with the nonsense and selfishness of men. True riches are spiritual. Those who would rule must see that their leadership brings about spiritual benefits of self-improvement and improvement of social order. They must not be the types who seek so-called private advantage rather than the common good.

Question: Discuss the modern day "political process" in the light of this view.
26. Imitative poetry and Homer: "A man is not to be reverenced more than the truth." Homer speaks of many things of which he has no knowledge, just as the painter who paints a picture of a bed does not necessarily know how to make a bed. The point is, in order to copy or imitate correctly, one must have knowledge of the original. But Plato is referring not only to making beds, but to making cities. Here we can follow the divided line when it comes to artistic or political craftsmanship. If one makes an image without experience of perceiving or making concrete things, he works blindly, in the dark; his images are faulty. If one perceives or makes concrete things without understanding their scientific essence or structure, he can make mistakes (e.g., the engineer, who does not construct haphazardly, but knows the laws of physics -- stress, etc.). Even the carpenter or shipbuilder needs mathematical knowledge to make things well. Finally, one's knowledge and therefore application of math is faulty unless the hypotheses of math are founded on a sure basis of the higher more abstract forms. In particular, one cannot make, do, or poetize effectively unless he bases all of his activity on a clear-headed vision and love of absolute good or order. Every higher step in the divided line liberates and perfects activity on a lower step. The absolute blueprints guiding the movement of the cosmos and regulating the affairs of men are the work of God. The best humans can do is to improve their mental perception of these blueprints so that they can more effectively live and work together in the city. When one comes to see the absolute blueprint of justice (right arrangement), one is able to follow this blueprint in order to make a life or a city. As God is the craftsman (demiurge) of the universe, so human beings are the craftsmen of not only artificial products such as beds and poems about beds, but also of their own lives and the lives of others. All knowledge is ethical because all knowledge, perceiving and loving form, is directed to bringing form out of the formless (recall Michelangelo's sculpture) and order out of chaos. The same structure pervades nature, doing, and making.
Question: Plato maintains that the same order pervades all things, that knowledge of astronomy is somehow applicable to politics, etc. Do you agree? Why or why not?

More Questions for Discussion:

1. Explain the four levels of ascent in the allegory of the cave. What does the sun represent? Explain.

2. Contrast opinion, knowledge, and ignorance. Indicate what types of "objects" each is concerned with.

3. Why and how are the poets (such as Homer) criticized in the Republic? Is there such a thing as acceptable poetry? Explain.

4. Explain why a person who has ascended from the cave must once again descend into the cave. Why is it impossible for a lover of wisdom to be self-centered?

5. Name the three parts of the soul and how they are arranged in the just (healthy) soul. Then describe one possible unjust (unhealthy) arrangement. Do these same structures apply on a larger scale to the city as a whole? Explain. Compare and contrast the "psychological" views of Plato with those of some contemporary psychologist (Freud, Skinner, etc.).

6. According to Plato, is it possible for a person to really improve himself without improving others? Is it possible for a person to help others become better without becoming better himself? Explain your answers.

7. Explain how, in Plato's view, intellectual and moral growth are inseparable.

8. Discuss the importance of order for Plato.

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Copyright © 1996 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.