One of the central theories that interweave itself into most of Plato’s metaphysical and epistemological philosophies is the theory of forms. The theory of forms, however, has not remained a constant ideology and in fact has changed over the course of the dialogues written by Plato. This essay will compare and contrast the theory of forms as it exists in Plato’s middle dialogues the Symposium and The Republic against how the theory of form persists in Plato’s later dialogue The Sophist.
In The Republic VI Plato’s presents what has come to be known as a common depiction of the theory of forms. In The Republic, specifically book VI, we see Socrates discussing what the overall form of the good would be and how it relates to a just society with mainly his interlocutors being, Glaucon. To illustrate how Socrates believes our knowledge is divided into four tiers of existence he introduces the analogy of the divided line. Socrates states that we should “take a line which has been cut into two unequal parts, and divide each of them again in the same proportion...”(Republic VI 509d). This line’s main divisions are to represent the visible world (the first section) and the intelligible world (the latter). The visible world is divided into two sections. The first section contains things such as shadows and reflections and the second contains the actual physical things that cast these shadows (Republic VI510a). Socrates. Glaucon agreeing with Socrates, notes that within these two divisions there exist two varying levels of truth. The intelligible world is also divided in two sections. The first section includes knowledge such as mathematical understanding, this is deemed lower by Socrates as its hypothesis relate only to those in the visible realm and do not transcend to a higher first principle (Republic VI 511a). The second section of the intelligible realm is what Socrates deems is the highest form on the hierarchy. This realm contains knowledge “which reason herself attains by the power of dialectic, using the hypotheses not as first principles... [but into a] world which is above hypotheses, in order that she may soar beyond them to the first principle of the whole (Republic VI 511b)”. From these four divisions Socrates then divides the soul into four corresponding sections “ reason [noesis] answering to the highest, understanding [dianoia] to the second, faith (or conviction) [pistis] to the third, and perception of shadows [eikasia; imagination, conjecture; literally, picture-thinking] to the last (Republic VI 511d-e). It is in this upper echelon that we truly attain an understanding of the form of the good through reason. We abandon the use of images, like that in the world below it, and proceed only with images, concepts and ideas and attain the knowledge of the pure forms. Without knowledge of something Socrates questions if we actually have any knowledge at all.
Plato in Book VI also uses the analogy of the sun as a metaphor for the form of the good. According to Plato, through the voice of Socrates, without the sun we only see dark shadows and if we fix our gaze on this world of “becoming and passing away, it opines only and its edge is blunted, and it shifts its opinions hither and thither, and again seems as if it lacked reason.” (Republic VI 508d). The sun acts as a source of illumination in our world and without it we are forced to remain guessing what we are actually seeing and rely on matters of misinformed belief. But with the sun we can focus “on the domain where truth and reality shine resplendent it apprehends and knows them and appears to possess reason (Republic VI 508d). The sun then acts as a metaphor for intellectual enlightenment we receive from the form of the good that happens in only the top tier of Plato’s division of knowledge. This knowledge “gives… truth to the objects of knowledge and the power of knowing to the knower…[they] not only receive from the presence of the good their being...
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