Theory of Ideas: Plato the Originator of Idealism

Plato is rightfully considered the originator of idealism. Explaining in details about the concept of idealism represents a great difficulty and demands great effort. Idealism can merely be defined as a philosophy which reduces all existence to forms of thought, or in Plato’s case, idea. The word “idea” is originated from the Greek word “eidos” which literally means “appearance, image”. In Plato’s thought, “idea” represents the first principle, cause, form, shape, essence. The very title “Theory of Ideas” points to observation, contemplation of the first causes of all things. The theory of Ideas literally means a deep reflection related with the first cause of things.

According to Plato, Ideas, i.e. generalia, represent the only truth. What is true actually exists. What is true isn’t subject to decay. Generalia actually exist. Generalia are reality, actuality. Reality and actuality doesn’t decay. Reality exists because there are generalia; generalia constitute reality. On the other hand, a question arises: what is that which is true and not subject to decay in the being of a human. It is certainly not the body. It is the soul. The soul, as the thinking part of human’s being. The soul as that is thinking. Hence we arrive to a contradiction: The reality is the only truth. The soul is the only truth.

According to the principle of contradiction, only one of these propositions can be true. Plato’s dialogues claim that generalia which constitute reality, are true, not subject to decay, but on the other hand, the same dialogues claim that the soul is true and not subject to decay. The only way we can avoid the problem of contradiction is to identify the soul and reality.

In Plato’s theory of Ideas, besides the Ideas that are invisible, there is another group of objects that are also invisible. There are a lot of these objects, similar and equal ones, and it is therefore impossible to assign them under the category of “generalia”; since those objects can not be registered by senses, we can not consider them an illusion of the region of visible things. Those objects are mathematical objects, namely, numbers, lines, triangles, they do not exist in nature by themselves, but we can reflect them. In addition to the fact that they represent forms of our thought, they also have their Ideas.

Plato’s theory of ideas states that there is another world, separate from the material world that we live in called the “eternal world of forms”. This world, to Plato, is more real than the one we live in. His theory is shown in his Allegory of the Cave (from The Republic, Book VII), where the prisoners only live in what they think is a real world, but really it is a shadow of reality. According to Plato, to the prisoners in the allegory and to humanity in the material world “truth would be literally nothing but shadows” and he believes us to be as ignorant as the people in the cave. Plato followed the belief that in order for something to be real it has to be permanent, and as everything in the world we live in is constantly changing, he assumed there must be something else. In his eternal world of forms, there is an ideal form of every object there is in this world. Plato answers the question “what is beauty?” by discovering the essence of true beauty. The reason one recognizes something has being beautiful is because we have an innate knowledge of something that is beauty, i.e. we know of the form of true beauty in the eternal world of forms, and everything we see compares to that. Something is only beautiful if it shares characteristics with the form of beauty in the other world. The most important form is the form of the good, portrayed by the sun in the allegory of the cave.

Aristotle was Plato’s main critic and was once a pupil of Plato. Aristotle and many other philosophers who came after Plato criticized Plato’s view that these ideal forms had an independent existence. Many people believe that there must be something to which we compare all objects and something that makes something what it is and not something else. But that doesn’t mean that it exists separate from our bodies. Plato does not prove, or even try and prove that these perfect forms are self-evident. It is Plato’s disability to prove this that causes people to criticize his theory. As Aristotle was one of his pupils, he does not totally reject Plato’s theory but argues that it may not be the only logical reason towards how something is classified.

If both Aristotle and Plato were aiming to reach the highest from of the good then they should both agree on how to reach it. Plato claims that the highest form of the good is like the sun, “seen only with an effort”, and are the one thing that makes other things the way they are as it is “the universal author of all things…and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual”. Goodness is something that cannot be defined, when asked, different people have different ideas about what is good, or right and wrong, whereas if everybody was asked to point to the sun they all would. This disproves his theory as not everybody has a true understanding of the Form of the Good.

Plato fails to set out his theory clearly and allow the reader to realize it is a theory. Nowhere in his dialogues does he state that he is describing a theory of forms, and so people may have misunderstood his writing s and he may not have meant it to be a theory at all. He has elements of his theory in many different dialogues and is inconsistent. In Book I of the Metaphysics Aristotle claims that Plato had a “system” to the effect that “the many sensibles which have the same name exist by participating in the corresponding Forms.” This quote from Aristotle’s work suggests that Plato did have a theory of forms but this is not believed by all people.

None of these criticisms totally disallow Plato’s theory but argue against it and suggest other possibilities. Although there are many critics of Plato there are also many people who follow him, and even in this day and age Plato’s ideas are understood and followed and he has ended up being one of the most influential philosophers although his Theory of Forms is slightly over the top and hard to understand. To a certain extent these criticisms are valid, but in other ways they are not. In my opinion they are valid as far as criticisms are concerned but are not valid if they are meant to oppose Plato’s theory.

In my view they are invalid to go up against Plato’s theory of forms because they do not supply us with any other options but simply point out the flaws of his arguments. For example, Aristotle’s criticism that these ideal forms do not have to exist independently from this material world is valid. But he does not give us a reason why it is impossible for them to be self-evident or explain to us how they could exist in this world. This causes the criticisms to be less valid in my view as there is no significant reason for Plato’s theory to be untrue.

When Plato talks about something ideal, he does not mean it is ideal in the context we want it and need it, but just that it is the form to which we will compare things and it is the perfect form of a bad thing. Although people criticize Plato’s because it is hard to believe that there is an ideal form of some things that aren’t mathematical concepts, it doesn’t mean they are not true just because we don’t understand it. Plato may not have thought it necessary to make this clear to us as he may have thought it obvious. This, however, is really giving Plato the benefit of the doubt, and so this is a valid criticism.

Contemplative Life Is the Best Life for a Man

In studies of religion, humans are more than often portrayed as an image of God. From this belief Aristotle goes on to assume that since Gods portray the life of contemplation, humans should and probably will mirror that image of living a contemplative life. “The activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness” (Aristotle, pp. 48). Aristotle is explaining to his readers that God is higher then all humans, and he reasons with human activities. Therefore showing that God as an ideal is contemplative, and makes this virtuous way of life result in happiness. Moreover, God and all his greatness influences those who believe in him/her being superior and if he/she is to be happiest when he/she is contemplative then a life of contemplation is the best one.

The life of contemplation can be better described as a life of reasoning. With that correspondence it is noted that one who lives the life of contemplation is able to reason their way of life; with the things they have body and soul, with little to no external goods. “External goods are things like wealth, property and family that are in an obvious sense external to oneself” (Jackman 2006 (1)). To live a happy contemplated life, one does not need the external goods of wealth, property or family. A life with little to no external goods is still a good life; it does not matter if one does not have equipment to better their life because it is not essential. This is because those who live a contemplative life can reason without it, unlike the life of pleasure and politics. When external goods are compared with its role in the life of pleasure and politics it outweighs the role it plays in the life of contemplation. “It is… not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment…” (Aristotle, pp. 39). For some it might be a pleasure to do noble acts and in order to carry out the act, they have to provide themselves with proper equipment. In the political life there is also an issue of proper equipment when conducting noble acts, which is essential in their life. One who lives the political life has to acquire a certain amount of honor and respect, and in order to do so they need to take part in noble acts. For those living a virtuous life of contemplation it is obvious to see that they do not require the equipment of external goods.

Happiness is the main idea when we look at the meaning of life. Aristotle believes that humans should live their life contemplating with everything that they come across, but his thinking happened in steps. The first step for him is being able to figure out the function of man. To be able to determine happiness of man one has to first find out what the function of man really is. “Life seems to be common even to plants perception seems to be common… to… every animal. There remains, then, an active life of the element that has a rational principle” (Aristotle, pp. 38). Life according to Aristotle deals with anything that has life, thus proving they have ‘something’ in common. That ‘something’ is a living life whether you are human, plant or even an animal. From those experiences of living then makes an active life, and when one is pursuing a virtuous life it becomes their function.

However it is only the virtuous life of contemplation that then allows the function of man to become a rational principle. “We state the function of man to be… an activity… of the soul implying a rational principle… if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue” (Aristotle, pp. 38-39). Aristotle further explains his notion of the function of man and their role in the virtuous life of contemplation, by making the function of man an activity. This activity is the soul of humans implying rational principles of the virtuous life of contemplation.

Works Cited

Cahn, S. (Ed.). (1977). Classics of Western Philosophy: Indianapolis, IN.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics in Jackman (Ed), Phil 1100: The meaning of Life, Course Kit, York University 2006, pp. 36-50.

Jackman, H. 2006. (1)”Aristotle (Part 2)”, Lecture Notes, York University.

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