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Role of Plato's Form of the Good


To: Harri K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Role of Plato's Form of the Good
Date: 4th February 2010 12:43

Dear Harri,

Thank you for your email of 24 January, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics BA module, in response to the question, 'What is the role of the Form of Good as characterized in the analogies of Sun, Line, and Cave?'

This is a really great essay, which had me searching in Google for a quote from the Ridley Scott's film 'Gladiator' (2000) starring Russell Crowe. The scene is where Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) tells his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) that he is not naming him as his successor as Emperor of Rome:
Marcus Aurelius: Are you ready to do your duty for Rome?

Commodus: Yes, father.

Marcus Aurelius: You will not be emperor.

Commodus: Which wiser, older man is to take my place?

Marcus Aurelius: My powers will pass to Maximus, to hold in trust until the Senate is ready to rule once more. Rome is to be a republic again.

Commodus: Maximus?

Marcus Aurelius: Yes. My decision disappoints you?

Commodus: You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues: Wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. As I read the list, I knew I had none of them. But I have other virtues, father. Ambition. That can be a virtue when it drives us to excel. Resourcefulness, courage, perhaps not on the battlefield, but... there are many forms of courage. Devotion, to my family and to you. But none of my virtues were on your list. Even then it was as if you didn't want me for your son.

Marcus Aurelius: Oh, Commodus. You go too far.

Commodus: I search the faces of the gods... for ways to please you, to make you proud. One kind word, one full hug... where you pressed me to your chest and held me tight. Would have been like the sun on my heart for a thousand years. What is it in me that you hate so much?
Socrates taught the 'unity of the virtues'. The Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius is derived from Socrates. Possession of the virtues is what makes you a good person. But what is 'good'? What are the virtues good for?

What Plato saw is that in pursuit of the question what makes a man good, or what is the good life, it isn't enough merely to list the desirable character traits. Ambition is a desirable character trait, but it is not good in itself. An evil man can have ambition no less than a good man. Ambition is 'good for' something else, namely the achievement of something you have set your heart on. Socrates would say that ambition is not a virtue, because it doesn't form a unity with justice, temperance etc. But this explanation threatens circularity. Perhaps there are alternative unities, and Commodus, ambitious schemer, is an example.

You are absolutely right that Plato gives us no positive information about the Good. Indeed, it seems that he is asking us to have faith or belief -- which is strange given the role he assigns to mere belief in the analogy of the line.

What information can we gather from what Plato says about the Good in the analogies of the Sun, Line and Cave? As you remark, for Plato reality has a teleological structure. Everything has its purpose in the order of things, and this is reflected in the structure of the Forms themselves. This is a positive claim in itself, and Plato could perhaps argue that he doesn't need to say anything more about the Good: by claiming that there is a hierarchy with Good at the pinnacle he has defined the Good. The Good is the purpose that the universe serves. We serve the good when we align our actions to that purpose.

The idea that the cosmos has a teleological structure was not Plato's invention or discovery: it is implicit in the philosophies of the Presocratics right back to Thales. (The only notable exception to this is the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus.) There is a universal 'mind' or 'nous'. The very distinction between 'cosmos' and 'chaos' depends on this. This leads to a view about ethics: Heraclitus talks about the difference between the 'dry' soul and the 'wet' soul, the good soul which makes itself as much like the Logos as possible, and the evil soul which allows its fire to be extinguished.

There are three things one can say about the Form of the Good, or the idea of a unique teleological structure to reality, in relation to Plato's dialectic and his conception of the Forms, although it might be stretching things a bit to claim that this can be found in the analogies of Sun, Line and Cave:

1. The Socratic method, as illustrated in the Socratic dialogues, never seems to lead to any positive result. We learn that we don't know as much about 'virtue' or 'courage' or 'temperance' as we thought, but be never get to the point of achieving a 'Socratic definition'. But did Plato really think that these forms can be explicitly defined? Or did he think, on the contrary, that practicing the dialectic, engaging in dialogue brings the philosopher eventually to a vision of virtue, courage etc. which cannot be fully articulated. It is knowledge by acquaintance (indeed, 'recollected' knowledge).

2. In the practice of philosophical analysis, it is important to realize that we are not just looking to define a concept in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. Another way of approaching the question, 'What is knowledge?' or 'What is free will?' is to ask *why we have* that concept in our language, what purpose it serves. In other words, there are implicit teleological assumptions built in to the very practice of philosophical analysis or Socratic 'dialectic'. A table isn't just a slab of wood with four pieces of wood attached at the corners; it is a flat surface raised above the surface of the ground at the right height to enable etc. etc.

3. The soul is itself designed or set up to perceive things, both in the world of phenomena and the intelligible realm. Just as Plato describes an analogy between the soul and the ideal state, so reality itself, the cosmos, possesses a structure which is mirrored in the structure of the soul. That's the 'cash value' of the myth of recollection. Just as our eyes are designed to see the things that we need to see in order to navigate successfully around the world, so our minds, when properly employed -- i.e. when engaged in dialectic -- must inevitably lead to the ultimate source and explanation of all that exists, the ultimate purpose which we pursue when we act virtuously.

Admittedly, some of this is conjectural, and it is not clear to me how much the examiner wants, or what exactly they are looking for. On the face of it, the question simply asks for exposition, which you have supplied (and more besides). Problem is, it doesn't tell us what we want to know. This leads to a wider examination of Plato's philosophy.

All the best,