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Plato’s World of Forms

Regardless of the lens from which one examines a society’s past, the conflict between masses and sovereignty always appears to be of paramount relevance. From the Ancient Athens and Roman Empire to contemporaneity, the fight for supremacy has in principle remained unchanged, although taking rather diverse forms throughout the ages.

Socrates, widely recognized as the founding father of Western Philosophy, did not embrace the Athenian democracy of his time. He believed it to be foolish and flawed, portraying the abrupt shift from an ideal society based on spiritual principles towards one where materialism reigns.

In Plato’s Republic, one of Socrates’ views on democracy is emphasized through his dialogue with Edimentus, where he attempts to get the latter to grasp the pitfalls of democracy by comparing a society to a ship. In short, who would one find fit to be in charge of a ship gone out in a journey by sea: just about any individual old enough to have a say, or perhaps a particular group of people educated and knowledgeable in the area of sea travel? If the latter is chosen, why then do we tend to believe that anyone over a certain age is competent enough to decide the future of a state?

Socrates did not leave any written records after his death, for his main method of investigation, namely Socratic questioning, placed the importance on asking questions rather than providing answers. Being a master of scepticism and critical thinking, he used to wander around the streets of Athens and to engage in dialogue with willing citizens. As such, he sought answers to many important questions, such as “What is justice?”, “What is love” or “What is democracy?”. Not surprisingly, at the age of 70 he was put on trial for “corrupting the youth of Athens” and was subsequently found guilty and sentenced to death by, ironically, a jury composed of 500 Athenians. Although Athenian democracy was in many ways different from modern democracies, the message Socrates’ execution sends is still relevant today: democracy persecutes those who question its legitimacy.

The clear-cut reason for Socrates’ sentence and execution is as of yet still unclear. Having left no writings, his defence is wholly comprised of written accounts of two of his apprentices: Plato and Xenophon. Accordingly, they could have portrayed their teacher in a light more favourable than might have been the case.

It was thus no surprise that Plato despised democracy, given that his mentor, Socrates, was killed by its ruthless blade. The former considered this regime as rather far from the ideal state of things, representing the heart of the decadent trend from aristocracy to tyranny itself.

Plato identifies aristocracy as the ideal regime, ruled by a philosopher king or a king philosopher, the gold soul, who is forbidden from owning any kind of property, for it would interfere with public policy and with his main goal of cultivating wisdom and culture. Under the king there are the silver souls, the soldiers, meant to exert onto the majorities the desires of the philosopher king. The latter category, the bronze and iron souled masses, is allowed to own property and is expected to act such that they are able to sustain the activity of their rulers. However, the question lingers, how does one become king in such a regime?

Plato vehemently opposed the theory of divine right, which asserts that rulers are appointed to the throne by no authority other than God himself. Consequently, all of their actions are but a manifestation of God’s desires rather than the outcomes of their own beliefs. Although kings appointed in such a way may not be educated enough to rule, masses more often than not chose to obey them, for they thought obedience was better than the eternal torment and punishment that would otherwise follow them in the afterlife.

In contrast to the aforementioned theory, Plato believed that challengers to the throne should undertake a thorough education before being able to become philosopher kings. They should be especially taught and initiated in the field of forms, such that they are able to understand and recognize the essences of honesty, goodness, justice and loyalty, among others. Plato’s theory of forms captures the unobservable essence of the observable world and places it in a rather extensive framework.

Many Greek philosophers opposed the view according to which the world is an unchanging and stable place. Plato was no exception, as he carried on Socrates’ and many others’ legacies regarding scepticism and the nature of reality. He believed the existence we experience is but a faint shadow of a higher dimension of life, one we cannot grasp or comprehend, the world of forms. In the Republic, Plato beautifully illustrates his point through an allegory, the allegory of the cave.

This allegory describes a group of individuals who have lived all their lives chained in a cave, facing a blank wall. Their only contact with the real world is through a fire that projects the shadows of bodies or objects passing in front of it onto the wall they are facing. Knowing no better, the cave men become accustomed to the reality they are faced with. Consequently, they start naming the shadows instead of the objects creating them and the reality as perceived by them becomes the reality.

One day, a particular prisoner manages to free himself from the chains and lurks his way towards the surface where he experiences the untainted, raw reality. He then goes back into the cave to reveal the nature of the real world to the chained men, only to find them mocking him, unable to overcome their prosaic condition. Further attempting to make his peers realise the illusion they have been living in, he gets himself killed. This is the fate of the philosopher; he breaks free of the cave and is able to perceive the true form of reality, but is ultimately ignored in his noble endeavor of inspiring others.

Eventually, the other prisoners escape from the cave and experience a reality they cannot comprehend, for their senses limit them. Similarly, were we to escape our bonds, the outsides of the cave would blind us because our senses could not fathom the higher dimensions of life. Face an ancient man with the modern world and he would be frightened and unable to understand it. Arthur Clarke emphasized this idea in his book, Childhood’s End, when the desire of the human race to travel to another planet and meet advanced civilizations finally materializes. However, when faced with the Overlord civilization, humans acknowledged their limiting intellectual boundaries and desired to return to Earth.

The world of forms, according to Plato, captures the essence of all that is defined or exists. As long as it can be thought of, it has a corresponding essence, a form. Take a geometric shape. One can think of a perfect square, circle or triangle, but the actual representation of one’s thoughts of the perfect geometric shape can never resemble its form. The more initiated in the study of forms the drawer is, the higher the probability that his drawing will resemble the corresponding form. Therefore, how much the outcome resembles the perfect geometric shape depends on one’s ability to grasp that particular form. But since nobody has ever seen the figure’s ideal representation, the drawing will always fall short of its essence. Plato asserts that this does not matter whatsoever. The mere existence of the form counts, not one’s ability to reproduce it. Furthermore, one of Plato’s points is that language does not signify the observable, physical objects that exist and surround us, but rather their ideal forms that only exist within our minds.

That is why in Plato’s view, rulers should be philosophers or philosophers should be rulers, thus the concept of philosopher king or king philosopher. Such individuals shall, above all else, grasp in its possible entirety the world of forms. They should be the ones to show their people the way out of the cave and present them with the higher form of reality that was previously unknown to them. Thus, Plato believes philosophising to be of prime importance, outranking other qualities of leaders that might prevail in modern societies.

As every concept has a corresponding form, so does democracy. We can all imagine the ideal democratic regime, although there are no examples of it. Nevertheless, how do democracies and, for that matter, governments originate? Is it the people that primarily require a higher form of organization? If so, who should ultimately be blamed for democracy’s drawbacks: the masses themselves or the rulers?


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