Samuel C. Wheeler III
Philosophy Department, U-54
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT 06269
Plato's Enlightenment: The Good as the Sun
In The Republic, Book VI, the Form of the Good is compared to the sun. The present essay explains and unpacks this crucial simile with unprecedented clarity and detail. The essay shows that, beneath an alien surface, Plato's thought (To simplify the complicated circumlocutions that result from constantly bearing in mind the rhetorical complexity of an author whose works are plays rather than treatises, the essay speaks of "Plato's views," meaning, roughly, the apparent upshot of the arguments the characters, especially Socrates, make. Discovering "the author's point of view" is sometimes no more difficult for Plato than for Upton Sinclair. You know who is right in some passages of the Phaedo just as clearly as you know what Sinclair thinks about the meat industry in The Jungle. On the other hand, Plato is often ironic toward Socrates, since Socrates gives arguments that are later exposed as fallacious, as is the case in the Phaedo. If the dialogues are sometimes supposed to provide subtly fallacious arguments for analysis in the Academy, then little strictly follows about Plato's opinions from a passage in a dialogue, any more than Romeo's words give Shakespeare's theory of love. ¯ is reasonable and even possibly correct. The essay uses two strategies to reduce the text's appearance of strangeness:
First, the essay shows that some of the strange sound of Plato's text comes from residual effects of unsupportable distinctions which early twentieth century analytic philosophy endorsed but which Plato with good reason did not accept. Plato implicitly rejects (Plato "implicitly rejecting" a distinction means that Plato does not make the distinction and that his text is best understood on the assumption that he denies the distinction.) distinctions which became philosophical commonplaces, most importantly the distinctions between fact and value and between the analytic and the synthetic. But while many such commonplaces have been discredited, their observance still strikes us as "normal philosophy." Thus the alien feel of some of Plato's views is a trace left from old habits we no longer should accept.
Second, the essay diminishes the strangeness of some passages by showing connections between parts of Plato's fundamental ideas and things we take to be reasonable, and then showing that the very alien parts of Plato's thought are consequences of features of these basic, not-so-alien conceptions.
The passage in question, in Grube's translation, is the following: (Plato's Republic, translated by G.M.A. Grube,(Indianapolis: Hackett, 1974.)) (508e1-509a5) "Say that what gives truth to the objects of knowledge, and to the knowing mind the power to know, is the Form of Good. As it is the cause of knowledge and truth, think of it also as being the object of knowledge. Both knowledge and truth are beautiful but you will be right to think of the Good as other and more beautiful than they. As in the visible world light and sight are rightly considered sun-like, but it is wrong to think of them as the sun, so here it is right to think of knowledge and truth as Good-like, but wrong to think of either as the Good, for the Good must be honoured even more than they" Continuing (509b2-10): "You will say, I think, that the sun not only gives to the objects of sight the capacity to be seen, but also that it provides for their generation, increase and nurture, though it is not itself the process of generation....And say that as for the objects of knowledge, not only is their being known due to the Good, but also their reality [and] being, though the Good is not being but superior to and beyond being in dignity and power [surpassing being in dignity/age and exceeding power]."
In brief summary, the...