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Plato's form of the Good in the Sun, Line and Cave


To: Egor S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato's form of the Good, in the Sun, Line and Cave

Dear Egor,

Thank you for your email of 25 March, with your one hour timed essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'What is he role of the Form of Good as characterized in the analogies of Sun, Line and Cave?

At a mere 520 words, this essay is again rather short.

The question is really asking you to consider, or raise difficulties with understanding how Plato conceived of the Form of Good. There's quite a lot of mystery regarding this. Where Plato refers to the Form of Good he always resorts to metaphorical or analogical language. It is as if the Form of Good is something the philosopher can ultimately only *see*, once they have engaged in the dialectic. Words always fall short of the reality of what the Form of Good is, as an entity in itself.

Regarding the analogy of the Sun, you state, 'It's indeed the clearest statement of what Plato takes the Form of Good to be that he gives in all of his writings. It can even be argued that he needs it for the whole theory of Forms to hang together.' The statement in question is that knowledge of the objects of philosophical inquiry is revealed by the 'light' of the Form of Good, just as objects of sense perception are revealed by the light of the sun.

However, what an examiner wants to know is how it is that what Plato says about the Form of Good supports the theory of Forms. Here you should at least try to express a view. What's your best take on this? What does the theory of Forms (without the Form of Good) lack which the Form of Good supplies? I'm not asking you to guess, but rather to venture a more or less plausible interpretative hypothesis.

Regarding the analogy of the Line, you suggest that there is a problem in applying the image of the line to the unique case of the Form of Good. 'One solution could be to imagine Good lying at the very end of the line -- to where one ascends after a particular form, such as one of those mentioned' (sc. Justice, Courage, Knowledge).

This doesn't tell us a great deal. One possible thought is that approach to the Form of Good is asymptotic, the closer you get the more intellectual effort you need to make. However, you never actually make it to the end of the line.

Regarding the analogy of the Cave, the most plausible candidate for what you describe as the 'false inauthentic something' taking the role of the fire which casts shadows against the wall, would be the heavenly body we know as 'the Sun'. All the objects we view by means of sense perception are merely 'shadows' compared with the true objects of knowledge illuminated by the Form of Good. In other words, The Form of Good bears the same relation to the actual heavenly body known as the Sun, as the 'Sun' in the Cave analogy bears to the 'fire'.

Adding up the conclusions from the analogies of the Sun, Line and Cave doesn't take us very far. However, I think that it is fully legitimate to interpolate what we know, indirectly, about the Good from what Plato says elsewhere about the Forms.

A typical Socratic dialogue will go as follows. Socrates asks his interlocutor to define some moral virtue, e.g. courage. The interlocutor offers a definition. Socrates then objects that, according to the definition offered, 'courage' isn't always a good thing. For example, consider the definition, 'Courage is advancing in the face of the enemy'. Socrates points out that in certain circumstances this is mere foolhardiness (e.g. when you are heavily outnumbered and have no chance of success) not courage.

In other words, the constant assumption behind the various attempts to define the moral virtues, is that they are something that it is good, without qualification, to have. In defining the moral virtues, we are, indirectly, adding to our grasp of the Form of Good, even though no attempt is ever made to define Good as such. This gives substance to the idea that the Form of Good 'illuminates' the objects of philosophical knowledge.

I cannot stress strongly enough that in an examination, you have to push yourself. If you think that you've said all that you have to say, and what you've said only adds up to 400 or 500 words then you need to push harder. If you are not sure of something, say it anyway, and add that you are not sure. If you can think of objections to what you've said, then give those objections.

A very useful form is, 'One might think that ABC, but the objection to that is XYZ'. In that way, you get the chance to state a view and also take it back, so you're covered both ways. You will either get credit for expressing the view, or credit for expressing the objection, or possibly both.

All the best,