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Topic #D36

Plato, Republic 509d-534e

30 November 2001
Scribe: Lukasz Felczak


These minutes were spoken on 3 December; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



The lecture began by describing one of many analogies presented by Plato in the Republic, the analogy of the sun. As an incomparable and luminescent physical entity it staggers us into respect. When reflected upon in our reading it becomes Plato’s mysterious idea of the good, a source of the infinite possibility of knowledge, a symbol of the way things truly are, their highest reality.


                  In an attempt to determine why things are the way they are, Plato is drawing us to two specific questions we should consider in our process. Firstly, are things good because we determine some externally consistent quality of their goodness that can be understood by reflecting on their being? And secondly, are things good by virtue of the fact that they are what they are?


                  In the Phaedo, in search for the answer to this question, Socrates is shown to reject natural philosophy. He does not resolve himself to the notion that an object is necessarily beautiful because of a perception of beauty. At the very least, Socrates is shown to be extremely skeptical on this subject in the Phaedo, and only later does he create his own theory in the Republic.


                  Thus, we are introduced to the cosmology of Plato, a complete negation of physics or math in determining the order of the universe. In fact, it is this idea of the highest good that is to be laid down as the foundation of our universe. Following this point a student made a very insightful comment: “These ideas seem to be very similar if not borrowed from Anaxagoras” In reply, Professor Hutchinson explained that scholars find Plato remarkable not for his strict originality, but for the way he expounds on his themes. Being foremost a talented writer and not an exclusively ground breaking philosopher, such as Domicritus, it would not be unreasonable to find overlap between the idea’s of Plato and those of earlier philosophers.


                  As a type of sliding scale of how one comes to know objects, Plato creates the divided line to assist us in conceptualization his ideas. One begins by imagining a line of finite length divided unequally. The first, larger partition represents perceptible knowledge, and the second, smaller partition, is to encompass all intelligible knowledge. The sections are partitioned further into even smaller unequal sections. Perceptible knowledge is the imprint of perceptible characteristics reflected on our mental screen, whereas intelligible knowledge uses reason to look through the reflected image in order to determine the imperceptible characteristics of objects. Plato provides us with an instrument that measures the degree of clarity and certainty of one’s knowledge about objects.


                  But why would Plato apply geometry to expound on one of his themes? Firstly, Plato was thoroughly impressed by the potential of Euclidean Geometry, which at that time was still in its early stage of development. This is analogous to modern thinkers attempting to explain all sorts of philosophical questions using computers. This demonstrates the general trend of philosophy borrowing successful methods from other branches of knowledge.


                  Secondly, the divided line, when followed to its apex, introduces us to the highest and most real type of knowledge one can obtain: knowledge of the good. Thus, Plato uses it as a logical precursor to the highest form of inquiry an individual can participate in, the method of Dialectic.


                  In sections 511a-b, we are introduced to the short-comings of hypothetical inquiry. To reach the highest form of knowledge, the first principle, one initially works with hypotheses based on perception. But these hypotheses turn out also to be mere images of the original objects. Therefore, one will find oneself constructing hypotheses forever without ever reaching an understanding of the first principle. This predicament has been known as the impenetrable thicket of hypothesis. It must be the intelligible reason alone that can grasp the unhypothetical highest principle by the power of dialectic. When the highest principle becomes a form of intelligible knowledge it is able to cascade down through the myriad of all things and illuminate the representative forms for all objects.


                  In section 526d, we learn that the rulers of the ideal state are to be guided through a special curriculum whereby they acquire particular knowledge. They are to learn numeration, calculation, estimation, absolute and relative measurements, in addition to war like discipline and physical training. Plato stresses the importance of unapplied geometry, study of the sky, harmony, and music. At 531d we learn “that all these subjects are merely preludes to the song itself…”, the song of dialectic inquiry.


                  This abstract philosophical inquiry into metaphysics transcends the limits of the perceptible as well as the limits of the intelligible. All the preceding subjects of knowledge are to act as a preparation for the dialectic method. Thus it is the true lover of wisdom that will embrace all branches of knowledge and prepare him to enter the highest realm of inquiry.


                  Two themes of the analogy of the cave were discussed. In the first theme, the lower realm and the higher can be interpreted to symbolize varying grasps of reality. Another theme is encompassed in Plato’s thesis: the philosopher must become a leading member of political authority. The professor described the cave as a movie theater whose audience is fettered in such a position where they are only able to see the screen in front of them.


To better understand the implications of this analogy, the class listened to an excerpt from a student’s position paper. The paper offered the following insight: For those of us whose knowledge is circumscribed by a lower realm of truth, the coming to understand a higher realm can be very unpleasant. Plato suggests that it is for this very reason that we are equipped with coping mechanism, including self-deceit, to counter-balance any detrimental effects of the truer truths.


                  To put a very interesting spin on matters, the professor discussed the ability of the human psyche to selectively maintain memories of good experiences. This idea, coupled with a reading from book II of Cicero’s The Nature of the Gods, provides us with an Aristotelian account of the effects that arise from understanding the highest reality:


Let us imagine a race of men who have always lived beneath the earth in fair and noble dwellings, beautified with paintings and statues and furnished with everything requisite to wealth and the blessings that wealth can bring. Let us imagine that these men have never come up to the surface of the earth but have heard by rumor and hearsay of the existence of the divine kingdom of the gods. Then let us imagine that at some point of time the jaws of the earth were opened and they were able to escape and come forth form those once hidden abodes of theirs into the places where we live. Then all at once they saw the land and sea and sky, beheld the majesty of the clouds and felt the power of the wind, and looked at the sun in its splendor, and came understand its power, how it brought daylight into the world and shed its light across the sky: then, when night cast its shadow over the earth, they saw the whole heaven bright and glorious with stars, the varying brightness of the waxing and the waning moon, the rising and setting of these heavenly bodies, and their sure and changeless course through all eternity. When they saw all these things, would they not be immediately convinced of the existence of the gods and that all these wonders were their handiwork? (Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, fr. Ross, Penguin: 1972)

Aristotle describes the idea in such a way that Plato’s philosopher would experience a divine vision of the objects outside of the cave. Aristotle’s highest reality is an understanding of the gods as the creators of everything that is good.


To conclude the lecture, a third understanding of the highest reality, which is championed by the Epicureans, is described. This group of thinkers understands a person to be a random temporary creature. Their strategy is to focus on an inevitable death in order to fully appreciate the gift of life. Basically, in modern terms, the understanding of their highest reality would have us party hard before the icy hand of death unplugs our turn-tables.