Plato's Theory Of Eternal Forms

Plato's theory of eternal forms makes a distinction between physical objects and the concepts we hold of them in our minds.

In the theory of eternal forms, Plato makes a distinction between objects that are real and concepts that exist in our minds. He explains this in his dialogues in terms of the process of education. In the Republic, he uses three analogies to demonstrate the process of education. These are the Allegory of the Cave, the Divided Line, and the Analogy of the Sun. The Allegory of the Cave puts in simple terms what Plato envisioned education to mean, while the Divided Line is a more complicated explanation. The Analogy of the Sun confirms and clarifies the distinctions Plato makes so that we as students of philosophy can understand him better.

In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato portrays education as the process of leaving the cave into the sunlight. In the back of the cave, facing the back wall, are the masses""the population of the city. They are tied down so that they may not move or look backwards. All they see is the back wall of the cave. Behind them is a fire with figures going back and forth before it, forming shadows on the wall. The result of this is that the entire reality of the people facing the back of the cave consists of these shadows. They know of nothing else and assume that there can never be anything beyond the shadows.

One particularly courageous mind might find a way to break free of those bonds and turn his head around. When he does that, he will see the fire and the figures marching back and forth before it. It is then that he will realize that it is the figures making the shadows, and that everything he had learned about those shadows might not necessarily be true. Afterwards, he would have to persevere a little further and make his way outside of the cave. He'll then see sunlight, and will realize that it is the source of truth, as it is the sun that gives light and allows him to see. Before seeing the fire and sun, he'll have thought that light was the lack of darkness rather than the other way around. Once the philosopher, as that is what he is now, has left the cave completely, he will see real objects in the sunlight; the forms.

No longer stuck in the world of shadows, he will understand things as they really are and will have full understanding of the absolute truth. He will want to stay outside in the sun for the rest of his life, but he understands (as part of the forms) that he is obligated to return to the masses at the back of the cave and help them. He understands the eternal forms as they really are, while they only understand the shadows. However, if he tries to tell them what he has seen outside the cave, they will think he has gone insane and will possibly kill him (as was the case with Socrates). Instead, he must be their ruler and decide for himself what they ought to know.

The Divided Line explains this process in terms of divisions on a single line. Imagine a line cut into 4 sections, with the endpoints being A, B, C, D, and E. The line segment AB is the shortest of them""it represents the masses sitting at the back of the cave, believing that all there is to know in the world lies in those shadows that they see. A person's source of knowledge in the area AB consists of images, reflections, and shadows. All of these are distortions of real objects and cannot tell a person the truth about an object but allows for conjectures and generally inaccurate guesses. BC is the next segment and is a bigger than AB by a certain factor. It represents a person's knowledge as he gazes at the fire and comes to understand that the shadows are formed by figures going back and forth before the fire. Source of knowledge in this area includes real objects, so that while the reflection of a ball represents segment AB, the real ball represents segment BC. CD is the next segment and represents mathematical understanding. It is equivalent to a philosopher crawling out of the cave and perceiving sunlight for the first time. In terms of the ball example, what falls under this area is the concept of a perfect sphere that we hold in our heads when we perceive the ball. Segment DE, which is larger than CD by the same factor as BC is larger than AB, is the final segment and consists of philosophical understanding. It is at this stage that a philosopher gains understanding of concept-forms such as justice, goodness, and truth.

The four sections of the Divided Line are grouped into two sections--one is governed by the sun, and the other is governed by "the good." The first two sections are governed by the sun because they are concerned with physical objects which can only be perceived with the light of the sun. This brings us to the Analogy of the Sun. Plato believed that of the five senses, sight was the most noble. His justification for this is that while in other senses, the process involves only two parts - a sensor and a sensed (for example, an ear and a sound), sight involves three parts; the seer, the seen, and the sun to provide light. For this reason, the sun is the noble entity which brings understanding when it comes to physical objects. In the same way, reason is noble because it requires a person to understand, the understood, and the good to make it possible for this understanding of the eternal forms to take place. That is why the last two segments of the Divided Line are governed by the good. There is a distinction between the first two segments and the last two segments as well, and the portion governed by the good is larger than the portion governed by the sun by the same factor as BC is larger than AB.

From this, we can see that Plato believed there to be a difference between that which we perceive with our senses and that which we understand innately with our minds. Plato believed that those philosophers who understood the eternal forms could be rulers of a city or state because only they would truly understand concepts of justice and righteousness. What we see in the physical world is flawed, while the eternal forms are unchanging, pure, perfect, and absolutely beautiful.

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