Great Thinkers in 60 Minutes - Volume 1 - Walther Ziegler - ebook

Great Thinkers in 60 Minutes - Volume 1 ebook

Walther Ziegler

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"Great Thinkers in 60 Minutes Volume 1" comprises the five books, already published as separate volumes, "Plato in 60 Minutes", "Rousseau in 60 Minutes", "Smith in 60 Minutes", "Kant in 60 Minutes", and "Hegel in 60 Minutes". Each short study sums up the key idea at the heart of each respective thinker and asks the question: "Of what use is this key idea to us today?" But above all the philosophers get to speak for themselves. Their most important statements are prominently presented, as direct quotations, in speech balloons with appropriate graphics, with exact indication of the source of each quote in the author's works. This light-hearted but nonetheless scholarly precise rendering of the ideas of each thinker makes it easy for the reader to acquaint him- or herself with the great questions of our lives. Because every philosopher who has achieved global fame has posed the "question of meaning": what is it that holds, at the most essential level, the world together? There have emerged here a range of very different answers. In Plato, for example, the "Idea of the Good" is that to which we need to open our souls; in Rousseau, it is rather only in our own original nature that we need to trust; in Adam Smith, it is in self-interest, which spurs on each individual and is finally transformed, by an "invisible hand", into the common good; in Kant it is the application of Reason which frees us and makes us capable of extraordinary moral actions; and in Hegel, finally, everything is held together by the dialectical self-development of the World-Spirit, which drives onward from epoch to epoch through the deeds of individuals and of nations until it has finally reached its great goal. In other words, the meaning of the world and thus of our own lives remains, among philosophers, a topic of great controversy. One thing, though, is sure: each of these five thinkers struck, from his own perspective, one brilliant spark out of that complex crystal that is the truth.

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My thanks go to Rudolf Aichner for his tireless critical editing; Silke Ruthenberg for the fine

graphics; Lydia Pointvogl, Eva Amberger, Christiane Hüttner, and Dr. Martin Engler for their

excellent work as manuscript readers and sub-editors; Prof. Guntram Knapp, who first

inspired me with enthusiasm for philosophy; and Angela Schumitz, who handled in the most

professional manner, as chief editorial reader, the production of both the German and the

English editions of this series of books.

My special thanks go to my translator

Dr Alexander Reynolds.

Himself a philosopher, he not only translated the original German text into English with great

care and precision but also, in passages where this was required in order to ensure clear

understanding, supplemented this text with certain formulations adapted specifically to the

needs of English-language readers.

Great Thinkers

in 60 Minutes

Plato in 60 Minutes

Rousseau in 60 Minutes

Smith in 60 Minutes

Kant in 60 Minutes

Hegel in 60 Minutes

Walther Ziegler

Plato
in 60 Minutes
Translated by Alexander Reynolds

Contents

Plato’s Great Discovery

Plato’s Central Idea

The Path to Happiness in theAnalogy of the Chariot

‘Platonic’ Love

The Doctrine of the Ideas

Learning as Recollection of the Ideas

The Immortality of the Soul

The Analogy of the Sun

The Analogy of the Cave

The Ideal State

Of What Use is Plato’s Discovery for Us Today?

The Ideal State – Vision or Nightmare?

Plato – The Thinker Who Laid theFoundations of the West

We Are All Prisoners – the Ascent to the Good, the True and the Beautiful

Ultimate Knowledge as a Spur and Source of Strength

Bibliographical References

Plato’s Great Discovery

The great discovery made by Plato (428 – 348 B.C.) was as groundbreaking as it was rich in consequences. His theory of the “Ideas” has marked and formed the whole of Western culture. His name is known all over the world. But what Plato discovered was basically something very simple. He was concerned simply to find a reliable standard of truth: a final, definitive point of orientation for our lives. Again and again he posed the question: what is right and what is wrong? How can I distinguish truth from untruth?

Already in Plato’s own era – i.e. some four hundred years before Christ – this was a topic hotly debated by philosophers and citizens in the market squares of Greek cities. Everybody had his own contention and accused those who didn’t share it of naivety. But to the tireless contradictors of these ancient city squares such constant disagreement seemed only natural. For the philosophers who set the tone in this age – the so-called Sophists, whose best-known representative was Protagoras – maintained that “Man is the measure of all things”. Thus, it was natural that five different men should have five different ideas of “truth”, since each individual, having his own standard, necessarily drew his own conclusions. A single truth binding on all, argued the Sophists, was impossible in principle.

But it was just this that Plato sought: a universally valid and absolute truth. He argued, against the Sophists, that without such a truth moral decline was inevitable, since everyone would then behave as he thought and as he pleased. Plato, for his part, sought a definitive point against which every theory, thought and action could be measured. He was concerned with just one thing: what is really true, and how can one lead a “true life”?

Therefore he was the first man to pose the core question of philosophy. The word “philosophy” is formed by combining the ancient Greek words philia and sophia and thus means, literally, ‘love of wisdom’ or, if we take wisdom’s object to be truth: ‘love of truth’. Of course, the search for the ultimate truth is a huge challenge. It is no wonder, then, that Plato, in his youth, achieved no final result. But he resolved to continue posing the question until he found an answer to it. To this end, he developed his own method: the disputation, or “dialogue”. Thirty-six of Plato’s forty-one books are composed as such “dialogues” – a question-and-answer form quite new in Plato’s day – showing Plato’s philosophical idol, Socrates, disputing with various people on philosophically relevant themes.

At the start of these dialogues all the participants have different, and even opposite, views. But each interlocutor is obliged to answer the probing questions of the philosopher Socrates until he has either justified his view or recognized it to be wrong. These brilliantly written “disputations” enabled Plato to critique the various contradictory views of his contemporaries without settling, himself, on any idea of final truth. He even honestly admits, in the early dialogues, that he does not yet know just what such a final truth may be.

It is in this spirit that Plato has his main spokesman Socrates pronounce the famous and oft-cited dictum: ‘I know only that I do not know’. This dictum literally runs:

Plato’s early dialogues always have an ‘open ending’. It was enough for him to show that other philosophers, especially the Sophists, fell into self-contradiction. For example, he showed the Sophist teacher of rhetoric Gorgias, in a dialogue named after this latter, claiming that rhetoric is an essentially high and noble art. But Socrates forces him here, with his questions, gradually to concede that rhetoric, being an art of persuasion, can be used as easily in the service of an unjust cause as of a just one. In the end, Gorgias has to admit that rhetoric is less an art than a mere technique – and thus something that can be used for either good or evil.

In the dialogue Laches it is courage that is addressed. Socrates is not satisfied with his interlocutors’ giving, when asked about the essence of courage, mere examples of courageous men and praising their swordsmanship, stamina, fearlessness and boldness. If this were enough, then courage would be many different things, depending upon which courageous man one considered. In the end, all the participants in the dialogue have to concede to Socrates that they have, in fact, no precise standard by which to judge what courage really consists in.

It is toward such a real or essential definition that Plato has, in each of his dialogues, his protagonist Socrates skilfully lead the conversation. Socrates, moreover, is no mere literary figure invented by Plato. He really lived. For a long time he was Plato’s own most important teacher. But since Socrates taught his pupils purely orally and never wrote a book, it was easy for Plato to put into his teacher’s mouth all the doctrines which he himself held to be correct. Scholars today still find it very difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish Socrates’ own original ideas from those of Plato, since almost everything we know about Socrates comes from Plato’s dialogues.

There is no doubt, however, that the figure of Socrates is deliberately used by Plato to get across the central positions of his own philosophy. Plato calls the method practiced by Socrates – that of drawing his interlocutors into self-contradiction until they had to admit that their original idea was false – the “dialectic”, or sometimes the “maieutic” (i.e. the “midwife”) method, since Socrates, with his questions, gently brings truth to birth as a midwife does a baby, insistently repeating these questions until the contradictions in his interlocutors’ views are clarified and resolved and these interlocutors themselves “give birth” to truth.

In his most famous dialogue, The Republic, Plato describes this manner of discussion as a “dialectical procedure of exposure”. He believed the dialectical method alone to be capable of clearing aside all barbarian prejudices and false assumptions, leading men to the real ground and origin of truth, and cleansing the soul of the “barbaric filth” of preconceptions:

Only when the dialectical method has led the soul entirely “up above” can the inner eye perceive the truth. But what is this truth? How can what is true be distinguished from what is false? In his masterpiece, The Republic, and in the two famous dialogues the Phaedo and the Symposium, Plato gives the decisive answer: it is the Idea of the Good. In contrast to the early dialogues, Plato found in these works which he composed as a fifty-year-old philosopher a path to real truth.

We can recognize the truth, argued Plato, if we succeed in looking beyond mere appearances. Because, beyond the everyday objects and the visible world which surrounds us, there exists a second, invisible reality: a kind of higher level of being which alone reveals to us the true world. This second reality is the realm of the Ideas. Plato draws a clear distinction between the world of the deceptive and fleeting objects which we perceive, day in day out, through our physical senses and the world of the Ideas, which reveals itself only to the inner eye.

If we wish to be rational we need to direct our minds, says Plato, only to this latter world of the Ideas:

For Plato, then, it is the timeless and invisible Ideas, which stand beyond and behind all appearances, that alone are true. We can test and measure our day-today opinions against these Ideas and that alone will stand as true which corresponds to them or at least approximates to them. There is, for example, an Idea of the Beautiful by reference to which we can judge whether any specific thing is beautiful or ugly. And there is an Idea of Justice whereby we distinguish just from unjust and an Idea of Magnitude whereby we distinguish big from small. These Ideas are, indeed, invisible but through our minds and souls, argues Plato, we can “commune” with them.

There is, as we have said, a whole series of such Ideas by reference to which we understand the world. But Plato is concerned above all with the last, greatest and highest of them: the Idea of the Good. It is from this Idea that we must take our bearings. In The Republic Socrates calls the Idea of the Good the “greatest study” which precedes all other Ideas. Referring back to several analogies he explains this to one of his interlocutors as follows:

The Idea of the Good is so important and comprehensive because it is only through this highest Idea that every other Idea, such as that of Justice, acquires its meaning and can be applied. Once we succeed, then, in perceiving the Idea of the Good and in acting in accordance with it, we are standing, as it were, upon the firm ground of truth and are able to lead a just and happy life. Since, Plato argues, happiness and wellbeing depend decisively upon the love of truth and the leading of a virtuous life:

The doctrine of the Ideas forms, without doubt, the core notion of Plato’s philosophy. He was so convinced of the superior power of the Ideas that he held them to be real entities. For Plato, Ideas are not just things in our heads but have a real existence. That is to say, Plato’s Ideas are not just thoughts or concepts which we use to describe or judge something but have a reality of their own which is, indeed, more real than the deceptive reality of everyday things. Or, as Plato also puts it: the invisible realm of the Ideas enjoys a higher degree of being. Whoever directs his mind to the Ideas and attempts to grasp these is

The Ideas, then, are, in comparison to perceptible objects, the deeper and more fundamental reality. Plato scholars have thus rightly pointed out that the doctrine of the Ideas has an ontological, an epistemological and an ethical dimension. In other words, Plato answered with this doctrine three key questions essential for all mankind. Firstly, he claimed regarding ontology (the doctrine of “what is”) that the Idea of the Good represents a real force in its own right which exists, and will always exist, in the universe independently of Man.

It is a kind of eternal source of energy in which we can participate if we open our minds and souls to it. Secondly, regarding epistemology, he taught that it is the Ideas alone which enable us to distinguish truth from mere opinion and error. And thirdly, Plato even answers the ethical question regarding the right way to act by saying that it is only in the Idea of the Good that we find a binding point of orientation for our ethical and moral decisions. Whoever, then, always takes his bearings from the Ideas of the Good, the True and the Beautiful will achieve purity of soul and thereby happiness.

But in what do these strange “Ideas” consist? Where do they come from? What exactly does Plato mean when he speaks of “the Good”? And above all – how can we recognize this “Good” and live our lives in accordance with it?

Plato’s Central Idea

The Path to Happiness in the Analogy of the Chariot

The path to true knowledge and thus to a happy life is, for us human beings, not an easy one. The task must be tackled anew each day. It is important that, as we do this, we keep our mind in equilibrium and continue to develop. Plato explains how we are to achieve this in his famous analogy of the chariot: the mind, in its essence, is like a chariot in which there sits a charioteer attempting to rein in two winged horses at once. These two horses stand one for human will-power and the other for Eros, i.e. the force of love. But these two powerful beasts are extremely wilful and flighty:

There exists a great danger, then, that the horses – i.e. the force of love and the force of will – may tip both themselves and the chariot into the abyss, since both “horses” represent parts of the human personality which, if care is not taken, can have very negative effects. “Eros” here, for example, stands for that whole sensual, desiring part of Man which longs for constant pleasure in the form of food and drink as well as sexual satisfaction.

The second horse, the human will, is that bold constituent part of human being which aims at success, recognition, fame and self-assertion. The charioteer, finally, stands here for the third part of what makes up a human, namely: Reason, which has the difficult task of mastering these two wilful horses, Eros and the Will, and guiding them to higher things.

Thus Reason, the strict charioteer, must rein in the force of love and guide it away from the erotic charms of the body toward higher aims. This applies especially to philosophers. Therefore Socrates poses, in the Phaedo, the following rhetorical question to one of his students:

As is generally the case with rhetorical questions, the student’s reply merely confirms Socrates’s own thought:

The second horse likewise, the Will, must be guided away from mere self-assertion and ambition toward prudence and respect. This mastering and ennobling of the lower faculties of the soul plays, Plato says, a decisive role not only for life after death but also for a rewarding life on earth:

The decisive thing in this analogy of the chariot is Plato’s demand that the mind, or rather Reason, should always dominate and guide the body. Because both pleasure and the will are shown as guided here by Reason as “charioteer”. It is, then, the task of Reason to guide the mind upward, away from its baser instincts, on the path to virtue and truth.

‘Platonic’ Love

Also in his famous dialogue the Symposium Plato points out that Man must not simply lose himself in sensual pleasures but must rather seek to “ennoble” his baser instincts. He has, indeed, Socrates say in this famous dialogue that the love-instinct is the strongest of Man’s basic needs. For Eros – as the Greeks called this instinct, personifying it as their God of Love – is the most creative and vital energy-source of all. But just for this reason, Socrates continues, its generative power must be “ennobled” and applied to higher ends. Eros, claims Plato, can be guided away from and beyond merely sexual love toward a spiritual love and even an intellectual love of science.

This he depicts in the Symposium very clearly. Here, Socrates resists, in an exemplary manner, sexual desire when the young man Alcibiades tries to seduce him into a homosexual adventure. Although such “pederasty” was an accepted practice in the ancient world, and Alcibiades a strikingly handsome youth, Socrates refuses the offer. Instead, he gives the young man a lecture on the four ascending forms of love.

Only in its first and lowest form, he tells the astonished Alcibiades, does Eros aim at sexual union. Already in rising to its second form it becomes a source of energy also for the love of good and beautiful attitudes to life. For a good lover, Plato argues, is as a rule also interested in doing good for his loved one and automatically does good deeds in order to please her or him. Thus, love guides us toward, and trains us in, selfless, beautiful and just actions much more effectively than our parents or relatives have been able to do:

We feel more shame, therefore, when a beloved learns of us doing something bad or morally reprehensible than when our parents learn of it:

Thus love helps us, in its second form, to perform good deeds. In its third form, Eros can even be guided to become an intellectual love of science. But this is something few succeed in doing. Most pursue the pleasure of generation directly:

But it is not just through children that human beings can achieve a certain immortality but also through their works, i.e. by directing their power of generation toward literature or art. For, says Plato:

Inventions and scientific knowledge too, then, are products of Eros. But in its fourth and highest form love detaches itself completely from all concrete objects, even from science. Eros is now directed rather toward the Good and the Beautiful in themselves:

The ascent envisaged by Plato, then, is that which starts by detaching the erotic instinct from the perception of the beloved’s beautiful body and passes through the performing of beautiful and virtuous actions for this beloved’s sake, then through a recognition of virtue itself as something beautiful, to end up in a lived experience of the Beautiful in itself, that is, of the pure Idea of the Beautiful:

It is just this that is meant by the much-cited phrase “Platonic love”; namely, to recognize and desire that which truly makes our soul happy: the Beautiful in itself. “Platonic love” is often loosely used to refer to a non-sexual, purely mental love between man and woman. But this usage is too narrow and only partly fits what Plato intended. Because Plato was concerned, above and beyond all relationships between individuals, with a spiritual love directed to the Beautiful, the True and the Good in themselves. Few of us, indeed, succeed in rising to this highest form of love. Many, Plato admits, never ascend beyond

the first and lowest stage and neglect to “ennoble” the love-instinct at all. They confuse the Idea of the Good with whatever their individual desire holds to be good. Thus, Socrates explains to one interlocutor:

Elsewhere, in the dialogue Gorgias, Plato has Socrates say, with a tinge of mockery, that the man driven solely by his instincts would vainly spend his whole life trying to fill up a barrel that had a hole in it. When his interlocutor Callicles retorts that this hole is in fact a very positive thing, since it represents the way in which hunger, and thus the pleasure of satisfying hunger, emerge and re-emerge, making all sorts of enjoyment possible, Plato’s Socrates brusquely replies:

Because the plover, too, Plato has Socrates provocatively explain, spends its whole life eating, defecating and waiting to become hungry again. The “man of instinct”, then, wastes his life in short-lived pleasures. But he who directs his desire to the Ideas of the Good, the True and the Beautiful experiences a much more intensive form of love:

The goal of Man, then, should consist in directing his love toward the eternal Ideas of the Beautiful and the Good. But what are these Ideas? How, for example, am I to grasp the pure Idea of the Beautiful, and on what does this Idea consist?

The Doctrine of the Ideas

First of all, one must bear in mind that the word ‘idea’ in ancient Greece had a somewhat different meaning from today. ‘Idea’ did not, at that time, bear that sense of a stroke of personal ingenuity which it bears today in such common phrases as “having a bright idea”. The ancient Greek word eidos signified rather “form” or “archetype”. Plato uses the term only in this sense. In fact, there has been, for centuries, an ongoing discussion about whether we should speak, in English, of “Plato’s doctrine of Ideas” or rather of “Plato’s doctrine of Forms”. In any case, Plato’s notion definitely was that, behind all the constantly changing things that make up everyday experience, there exist certain primal forms to which these things can be traced back as if to archetypes on which these everyday things have been modelled.

For Plato, then, the Ideas are primordial archetypes which every human being has in his head already at birth and with which he organizes and comprehends the world. Without these Ideas, argues Plato, we would simply not be able to grasp the many changes constantly going on around us and would be drowned in a chaos of random sense-impressions.

We might, therefore, provisionally take “idea” in Plato’s sense to mean anything which gathers a series of individual things under a common name. Thus, we have the “idea” of a tree, which draws together all the concretely visible trees in the world under a single abstract “primordial image”, namely, the concept “tree”. Birch trees, fir trees, palm trees, oak trees, spruce trees and weeping willows all, indeed, differ as regards their leaves, barks and branches. But they all conform, nonetheless, to a single invisible principle of development: that archetype or recognizable “form” designated by the Greek term eidos. We might call it “tree-ness” or, to speak with Plato, “the Idea of the Tree”. It is only thanks to this common principle or Idea that I am able to recognize the many and various growing things I encounter – be they large or small, green or withered, thick or thin – as, all of them, kinds of tree, and to immediately distinguish this kind of entity from other kinds of growing things, such as flowers or bushes.

As soon as I leave my house, then, I immediately begin to recognize, behind all the many and various sensations, smells and sounds, the original archetypes or Ideas and thus to bring order into the chaos.

There thus stand behind all those phenomena which we perceive through our senses, and the whole rich diversity of Nature, eternal Ideas of which concrete things are mere “copies”. Plato emphasizes that the Idea must be there first in order for the concrete things which “commune with”this Idea to come into existence at all. The Ideas are thus the first, and the genuine, reality. This notion is very hard for us modern people to understand because we are used to starting out always from concrete things and forming only gradually, on the basis of these concrete things, certain collective concepts and abstract, overarching unities. Our modern instincts tell us that it must surely be the concrete thing that is the “original” and that the overarching concept is just a thought which we summon up later in order to conveniently classify the many concrete things. But for Plato this is not so. He insists that it is the Idea which is the more original and the more important – and he argues for this as well.

If, for example, a carpenter sets out to make a table, long before he takes up his saw and his plane he already has a precise idea of the table in his head. In order for the concrete table to come into being, the idea “table” must already exist. All the various square or round tables which such a carpenter may build throughout his long career as a craftsman merely, one might say, “commune with”this already-existent Ideal Table.

But Plato is able to demonstrate the primacy of the Idea over the concrete object even more forcefully by the example of a geometric figure like a circle. A circle in its pure form exists nowhere in the concrete world of actually experienced Nature. It consists, by definition, of a plurality of points set all of them at precisely equal distance from a centre and not even the most carefully manufactured ceramic bowl, discus or silver coin could ever possibly satisfy this definition of points at precisely equal distance. All such concrete circular objects can be, at best, only more or less adequate “copies” of the thus-defined archetypical circle. Mathematicians and geometers, then, concern themselves never with really visible circular objects or with tracing out the shadows of these latter; their concern is rather always with the invisible Idea of “the circle per se”, something that can only be grasped through the intellect:

An equilateral triangle is another such Idea or archetype which is actually nowhere to be found in the concrete world of everyday objects. No matter how painstakingly a carpenter builds a triangular table out of three equal pieces of wood, or how carefully a geometer draws, in illustration of a theorem, such a triangular figure in the sand, what they achieve will always only be an imperfect copy of the precisely-proportioned archetype that they have in their minds. Moreover, such copies are fragile, passing things. The triangle drawn in the sand can be effaced in a moment by a gust of wind or fall of rain and even the triangle of wood will eventually rot away. But the Idea of a triangle endures forever because Ideas, being invisible, are also timeless.

This status of the Ideas as eternal, as compared to the fragile, fleeting quality of the things perceived by the senses, is, for Plato, a decisive indication that Ideas enjoy greater importance than mere phenomena and possess a higher kind of reality than these latter. All the external appearances which we grasp through our physical senses are in constant transformation and are, for just this reason, to be grasped only as fleeting “shadows”. If we did not possess some prior idea of what really constitutes a human being it would be impossible to grasp at all that such apparently utterly diverse beings as a babe-in-arms, an adolescent boy, a full-grown man or woman, and a very old man really do have in common the fact of being human beings.

Let us take as a final example of the superior importance and higher reality of the invisible Ideas the specific case of the Idea of Beauty. A beautiful human being can grow old, suffer an accident, or become scarred. A beautiful vase can lose its glaze or be disfigured by a crack. But the Idea of Beauty itself, says Plato, remains unaltered by these facts. Human beings, animals, plants and other objects merely partake of, or participate in, Beauty for a short time. Then they decline and fade. The Beautiful per se, however, remains untouched by such decline, since it is incorporeal and eternal. Thus, Plato distinguishes mere beautiful things from the Idea of the Beautiful and states that:

Beauty, Plato explains to us here, can never be explained by any concrete shape, form or colour. Whether we find, for example, the colour red or the form of a circle beautiful or ugly will depend on the context in which this colour or this form occurs. Thus, whereas a setting sun sinking into the sea may arouse delight in us, a blood-smeared rifle-bullet may provoke rather disgust – even though the one and the other are both red and round. The beauty of a thing, then, depends neither upon a round form nor upon a red colour, nor indeed upon any other defined shape or hue, but rather solely upon whether the redness and the roundness of the thing are such as “commune with” the Idea of Beauty or not. Plato declares himself, consequently, to be bored by long, detailed explanations of why a thing is beautiful. For him the question is simple: whatever is beautiful is so insofar, and only insofar, as it participates in the Idea of Beauty:

Our sense of beauty arises, then, not from any concrete colour or shape but rather from the “communion” of certain objects with an invisible Idea.

Learning as Recollection of the Ideas

Even a child can distinguish beautiful from ugly, big from small, although it has as yet experienced little of the world. This fact that we can make such distinctions already at the very start of life is, for Plato, an indication that we must have somehow become acquainted with the Ideas of Beauty, Magnitude, and Equality, along with all the other Ideas, already before our birth. Thus, he poses the rhetorical questions:

This is an important milestone in Plato’s philosophy. The Ideas – such as those of Equality, Magnitude, Beauty, or Justice – do not, it appears, need to be taught to children. They are clearly already somehow present in their minds. Even a slave who has never had any contact with geometry nor even attended a school can, Plato argues, solve a whole series of geometrical problems simply by working with these fundamental Ideas which he somehow already bears within himself. In the dialogue called Meno Plato has Socrates demonstrate this with a young boy, who proves indeed able to answer questions regarding an equilateral rectangle without prior instruction and drawing simply on his ideas of squareness and equality. He appears to be able to work with these ideas even though no one has ever explained them to him. From this Socrates draws the following conclusion:

But when was this? Plato’s answer is astonishing. It must have been before his birth. In Plato’s view, not only the Ideas but also our souls existed long before we were born, so it is natural that the latter should “commune with” the former. Plato envisages human souls as actually bound together, in a kind of underworld where they sojourn before their birth, with the eternal Ideas. When a soul is then reborn into a human body, it forgets at first much of what it knew in its state of close co-existence with the Ideas. But a soul can also gradually recollect all that it saw before its rebirth, including the simple Ideas but also the Idea of Virtue:

For Plato, then, all our learning is, in reality, simply our soul’s recollection of its earlier state, in which it was united with the invisible Ideas. Because the soul existed long before our birth and does not really die with our death but only leaves the body. When freed by death from the body, says Plato, the soul goes back into the realm of the Ideas.

The Immortality of the Soul

Human beings’ souls are immortal. And yet, says Plato, they do not all suffer, after death, the same fate. How a person has lived is of great importance. If, already during his lifetime, he has turned his mind toward the ideas and been open, above all, to the Idea of the Good, then it is an easy matter for his soul to free itself from the body:

Plato’s answer here is consistent. A soul which has remained, all its life, mired in bodily needs and material stimulations will not be able, in the moment of death, to free itself completely from this body. It will wander therefore, unsaved, within the shadow realm.

Plato taught, as did Christianity some centuries later, that access to the realm of the Ideas was refused to souls who had sinned. But, whereas Christianity provided for a Purgatory in which such souls could undergo, in the afterlife, a process of purification, in Plato’s philosophy there remained for those souls not yet ripe to reunite with the divine Ideas no path but that leading back into the body: i.e. reincarnation.

In the dialogue Phaedo, Socrates describes in great detail to his interlocutor Cebes how there are many bad souls condemned to creep, for a time, helplessly, as dark apparitions from the shadow-world, around graves and memorials, until at some point they become once again tied to a body:

Plato’s notion of reincarnation here displays a close affinity with Hindu ideas. Some scholars have suggested that he may, on his travels, have come into contact with the Hindu doctrine of the cycle of death and rebirth. For Plato, like the Hindus, makes a person’s conduct in past lives the decisive factor for the life he is reborn into. A man who has lived a low life of vice and sin is reborn as an animal of correspondingly low status:

Souls less laden with vice are reborn as bees, ants, or human beings. But how did Plato arrive at this conviction that the soul is immortal? In the famous Phaedo dialogue – perhaps the greatest of all Greek works of prose – Plato describes the final hours of Socrates’s life and develops an impressive argument for his notion of the migration of souls. Condemned to death, Socrates comforts his sad and anxious friends, assuring them that he has no fear of dying. He is sure, he tells them, that there is “something after death”:

Since the souls of the dead live on, detaching themselves from their bodies in the moment of death, a death sentence is no punishment for a true philosopher. On the contrary, the philosopher is preparing, essentially, his whole life long for such a moment. As Plato has Socrates say in these hours just before his own death, philosophizing is really nothing else than learning how to die:

Socrates is able to take death so lightly because he is convinced that death is a liberation for the soul. Because, in life, the soul really finds itself in a pitiful state:

In another passage Plato even calls the body “the tomb of the soul”33. But the soul’s immortality is, for Plato, not just a supposition. He believes it can be proven. He has Socrates propose, besides the phenomenon of the “recollection” of the Ideas, also three more proofs. For a start he points out that there are essentially just two types of things in the world: visible things and invisible ones. The visible things include, for example, chairs, tables, houses, stones, plants and animals; invisible things, on the other hand, would include such Ideas as that of the Just, the Good, and the Beautiful. All visible things pass away: the chair can rot, the stone crumble and the house fall down. Invisible things, however, are eternal: the Idea of Justice has existed for many centuries and will continue to exist in future. Since the soul surely belongs to the class of invisible things, it follows that it must be as immortal as all the other members of this class.

Plato holds changeability to be a second proof. The body of a plant, an animal or a human being is constantly changing. First it is young and blossoms but, with time, it becomes old, fragile and susceptible to illness. But invisible Ideas such as Justice or Beauty are not subject to change. And since the soul, unlike the body, seems not to be exposed to this process of constant growth and decline, it belongs to the class of unchangeable things, which once again places it in the class of what is immortal.

Thirdly, all forms of being can be distinguished in terms of whether they move themselves or need to be moved by some other force. A stone must be rolled or thrown in order to move; it can never move by its own impulsion. It is, like everything else that requires an external source of motion, a thing that is limited and that passes away. But the case of the soul is different:

We have hereby arrived at the central notion of Plato’s philosophy. In every human life, the immortal soul has the chance to liberate itself from the body by developing itself to higher levels. But since, in daily life, we far too frequently allow ourselves to be distracted by petty concerns and sensations, we often forget to pay attention to what is essential. Plato’s entire philosophy turns, in the end, around the question of how we can come to know the eternal Ideas of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Plato’s best-known answers to this question are to be found in two famous analogies: the “analogy of the sun” and the even more renowned “analogy of the cave”.

The Analogy of the Sun

In his analogy of the sun Plato describes the soul’s path to knowledge in terms inspired by the process of sight. Just as our eyes need light in order to perceive objects clearly and distinctly, so too does the soul need the Idea of the Good if it is really to behold truth.

Plato begins this analogy of the sun by describing the normal act of everyday vision. Were it not for the rays of the sun, he says, objects would not be illuminated and the eye would not be able to distinguish light or dark or colour of any sort. In other words, light is the decisive factor in our perceiving anything at all through our eyes. We know the world more or less clearly depending on how adequately it is illuminated:

Plato then goes on to speak of reason and the soul in terms analogous to the optical process of vision:

The essential thing, then, is to open the soul to light, i.e. to the Idea of the Good. Because it is to the existence of the Good alone that we owe all true knowledge. The light is responsible not only for our being able to see and know things but also for these things’ very existence. Because it is the light of the sun alone, argues Plato, that awakens the visible world to life. Plato has Socrates assume this to be the view of one of his interlocutors in the dialogue containing the analogy of the sun:

The apparently small qualification which Plato introduces with the last words of this passage – “without being the generation itself” – is in fact a distinction of great consequence. It has been taken up by the whole of Western philosophy and theology as the “ontological difference”. The phrase sounds weighty and obscure but what is meant by it is really very simple. The “sun” – i.e. the Idea of the Good – generates, indeed, the light which makes possible the generative development – the existence, growth and becoming – of all beings. But “it itself isn’t generation”. That is to say, the Good is not itself subject to change and becoming and is thus not a being among beings. The “sun” – i.e. the Good – is something higher, something divine, a kind of “Unmoved Mover”, a metaphysical origin of all physically existent things, be they plants, animals or human beings.

Because the sun, as Plato repeatedly stresses in his analogy, gives life. It causes flowers, meadows and fields to develop, grow and flourish, yet is itself subject to no change or alteration. That is to say, the sun is the sole thing not subjected to the law of coming to be and passing away. It is, indeed, the cause of these latter processes; but, as to itself, it has always been what it is and always will be. All this also applies, Plato argues, to the Idea of the Good. This Idea enables human beings to know the truth but is not itself identical with the truth; rather, it is truth’s cause:

Knowledge and truth, then, are themselves good and “commune with” the Idea of the Good. But they are not identical with the Good itself.

This construction of Plato’s – whereby knowledge of beings which come to be and pass away refers us to something “higher” which does not itself belong to the order of beings – was the beginning of Western metaphysics, which taught that all that is physically existent can only be understood by reference to something “metaphysical” (i.e. something that lies beyond the physical realm). For Plato, the soul or mind can, indeed, “commune with” the Idea of the Good but this Idea has its origin in a source outside the soul or mind. It was just this difference – the difference between, on the one hand, the being of merely existent physical entities and, on the other, our capacity to know these entities only with the aid of something which pointed out beyond their sphere of mere being – that philosophers later came to call the “ontological difference”.

We are now in the very heart of Plato’s philosophy. Since our soul can “commune with” the eternal Ideas, a path to truth and to light opens up for us. Because every human being is endowed with the capacity to open his soul to the Idea of the Good and to recognize truth. But in everyday life we often let ourselves

be distracted from this ideal and get lured away by projections and illusions. Plato’s most famous description of this is his analogy of the cave (sometimes called “the allegory of the cave”).

The Analogy of the Cave

In order to know the Good, Man must leave the world of everyday opinions and prejudices behind him and ascend, step by step, to the truth and to the light. Plato describes this freeing of the soul from the everyday world of illusions through the analogy of an arduous climb out of a dark subterranean cave. In The Republic, Plato’s Socrates exhorts his interlocutors to imagine the bleak situation of men who spend their whole lives in such a cave:

A group of men, then, are sitting with their backs to the cave entrance. Since their bonds prevent them from turning around, they stare, all their lives, at the cave wall facing them. Behind their backs runs a kind of road along which men carry various objects. This road is illuminated by a burning fire, so that the vague shadows of the objects and the men carrying them are thrown by the blazing flames onto the cave wall. Since the men facing the wall have been shackled in this position all their lives and have never seen anything else, they take these projected shadows of men and objects not for shadows but for real things. They even give these shadow figures names and talk about them as if they really existed. How, since they can never turn around toward the light, could they ever realize that these things are actually mere optical illusions?

But now it becomes really interesting. Plato next has Socrates propose the following scenario: