Plato: Introduction and Summary

Course: Essentials of Philosophy and Christian Thought

Lecture: Plato: Introduction and Summary


So much for naturalism. This, of course, is a summary. There’s a whole lot that could be said about naturalism and most of that is said in the textbook, Life’s Ultimate Questions, and it’s also said in the longer, taped version of the course. But we’re not quite through with naturalism because, as we enter our way into the worldview of Plato, we discover that Plato was an enemy of the naturalism of his day. In fact, I identify seven major beliefs that Plato opposed, and I will tell you what those seven major beliefs that Plato opposed are, and we’ve got an interesting way to do this. Ok, it’s what is called a mnemonic device to help you remember the names of these seven beliefs. I want you to take my middle name, which happens to be Herman. H-e-r-m-a-n, but now we’re going to play a little game with my middle name. We’re going to misspell it, but we’re going to take the letters of my middle name, and we’re going to write them vertically. H-e-r-m—but here’s where we’re going to add another ‘m,’ alright—H-e-r-m-m-a-n, Hermman. A little aside here—don’t ever name your children Herman. Now, corresponding to each of those letters, and, you might want to reflect on whether or not this is a great cosmic event here, corresponding to these seven letters that make up my misspelled middle name, are seven theories that Plato’s philosophy opposed.

The letter H. Plato was an enemy of hedonism. What was hedonism? This is the belief that pleasure is the highest good. And when you look at the ancient naturalists, people like Democritus, and Epicurus, and Lucretius, they all rejected the existence of objective, transcendent standards of right and wrong, and they all reduced the good life to the pursuit of pleasure. Plato opposed hedonism. Plato believed that hedonism is falsified by the widespread human recognition that some pleasures are evil. And if that is so, if there is even one evil pleasure in the world, it follows that pleasure and the good cannot be identical. And if that is so, then hedonism is false. So Plato was an opponent of hedonism and hedonism was an essential part of at least ancient naturalism.

Alright, the second letter, H-e—empiricism. Empiricism is the belief that all human knowledge has its origin in human sense experience. Plato opposed empiricism throughout his writings, maintaining that it is impossible for the human senses to bring a human being to knowledge. Now, for myself, I think that may be a little bit too extreme, but, nonetheless, Plato was opposed to empiricism.

So we have H—hedonism, e—empiricism, r—relativism. Plato opposed two kinds of relativism. First, he opposed ethical relativism—the belief that the same moral judgments, such as murder is wrong, can be true for some people and false for others. The second kind of relativism that Plato opposed was epistemological relativism. This includes the belief that truth is relative. Both kinds of relativism were propagated in ancient Athens by thinkers known as Sophists. Plato opposed the Sophists and proclaimed the existence of absolute and unchanging standards that preclude moral and epistemological relativism. For Plato, neither truth nor goodness is relative.

The fourth letter, m—materialism. As we saw, most Greek philosophers before Socrates and Plato were materialists, physicalists. The materialist strain of Greek philosophy is seen most clearly in the work of philosophers like Democritus. In opposition to materialism, Plato argued for the existence of an immaterial world, an ideal world, existing independently of the physical world that we inhabit through our bodies. Plato believed the ideal world is the only real world, and the world of bodies, of physical things, is actually inferior to the real world.

Alright. H-e-r-m—now we’ve got another m. We’ve added a second m—mechanism. Mechanism. Ancient naturalism provides an excellent example of mechanism—the belief that everything that happens according to laws and principles that operate mechanically without purpose or design. You see, for the ancient naturalist, there is no mind governing the world, there is no god in control of reality. Everything happens much like an impersonal machine.

H-e-r-m-m-a—atheism. Plato’s view of God is hardly a model of clarity, but nonetheless, Plato did reject atheism. Even though we could wish that Plato’s view of God were more consistent, more coherent, more easy to understand, nonetheless, Plato did believe in the existence of a supreme mind that controlled the universe.

And then, finally, the last letter of my middle name—n—brings us to naturalism. Naturalism is the belief that the natural, material universe is self-sufficient and self-explanatory, a position with which Plato was in total disagreement.

So, here we have seven beliefs. Plato opposed them—hedonism, empiricism, relativism, materialism, mechanism, atheism, naturalism.

Let me pause now for just a minute. I’m holding in my hands now one of the other textbooks for this course. Whether or not you ever take the course, I think most people listening to me now will greatly appreciate this book. It’s called The Gospel and the Greeks. It’s now published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company in New Jersey. You can get it from Amazon.com, you can get it from the publisher, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company. What I’m turning to in this book is the most marvelous quote about Plato’s significance that I’ve ever read. It’s a quote from, what I think, is perhaps the best book ever written on ancient Greek philosophy. It’s called An Introduction to Greek Philosophy. The author is a Canadian classicist names A. H. Armstrong. This is a marvelous tribute to Plato.

Let me quote: “Everyone who believes in an objective and unchanging standard of morality, governing public as well as private life, everyone who believes in the soul as immaterial and immortal and the most important part of man, everybody who believes in the governments of the world by divine reason, and in the existence of eternal archetypes or patterns of all things that come to be and pass away, with which our behavior and though must conform, everyone who believes all this or an important part of it can claim to be in the tradition which goes back unbroken to Plato and Socrates. Though the later development of the Platonic school, and, much more, the transforming influence of Christianity, have very much altered the content of these beliefs.” Now, let me emphasize that I am not recommending pure Platonism as he taught it; what I am recommending here is the Platonism we get after the major Christian influence upon later Platonists has transformed Plato’s system, alright, and it has altered them. There are plenty of problems in Plato’s philosophy. Plato was not a Christian. I’m almost embarrassed to make a point that obvious. But let me start this last sentence again. “Though the later development of the Platonic school, and, much more, the transforming influence of Christianity, Christian thinking transformed later Platonism, and very much altered the content of these beliefs, yet the tradition of their development has been continuous. However much we may find ourselves in disagreement with Plato on really serious and vitally important subjects”—and this is important, Plato made mistakes here, Plato was wrong, on what subjects—“such as the nature of God, the eternity of the cosmos”—Plato was wrong—“the uncreated-ness of matter”—Plato was wrong—“the value to be attached to the body and to sense experience”—Plato was wrong. “Yet, in other vital matters,” Armstrong says, “we are still of Plato’s school. As against the host of materialists, the host of relativists, pragmatists, positivists, deniers of any eternal universal and object truths or standards who dominate so much of our thinking today, and whose feet were predecessors were dealt by Plato in his time”—and listen, Plato demolished those guys—“we who still hold to the older tradition are on Plato’s side, and he and Socrates are on our side, and we should reverence them as of the greatest among the founders and fathers of our thought.”

Now let me make this clear. I’m not placing Plato or Socrates or Aristotle above the New Testament, above the Scriptures. But, philosophically, there are only so many worldviews that we can work with, and the worldview of Plato is one that, when modified properly, gets us a whole lot closer to things that are of concern to Christians than certainly securely humanism or the ancient or contemporary naturalists were as well, okay.

Now, one helpful way to highlight several central elements of Plato’s system is to think in terms of a fundamental dualism. When you think of Platonism think dualism. Plato’s philosophy is marked by three kinds of dualism—and here come the fancy words again—three kinds of dualism: metaphysical dualism, epistemological dualism, and anthropological dualism.

Now the metaphysical dualism of Plato’s philosophy is seen in his distinction between two worlds, or two levels of reality. One of those two worlds is the physical, material universe that we inhabit through our bodies. It’s the world of your automobile, it’s the world of the room within which you’re sitting now listening to these tapes; it’s the world of books, physical objects, of sense experience. The other world—the higher world—is non-temporal. It is perfect, it is unchanging, it is non-material. It is a world composed of what Plato called “forms”. F-o-r-m-s—or, ideas.

Plato, at some time in his life, believed that for every collection of objects, every set of objects there is in the physical universe, there is an ideal, an archetype, a perfect pattern of that set of things. Early in his middle years, he talked as though, if there is such a thing as a set of cows, then there must be a perfect cow. If there is a set of horses, then there must be a perfect horse. If there is a collection of class of human beings, then there must be a perfect human being—but, of course, the perfect human being isn’t going to be a personal thing, it’s more of an ideal, alright. But, as I explain in the book and as I explain in the longer version of the course, Plato eventually came to the place where he recognized that the most important kinds of ideas are ideas of such eternal, unchanging concepts as the following: perfect goodness—for every good thing in the lower, physical world of bodies there is an absolute standard of goodness. Truth—for every true proposition in the world in which the world we inhabit with our bodies, there is an absolute and unchanging truth. There is such a things as an absolute and unchanging standard or concept of equality, and so on. So, while Plato, at an early time, did believe that there could be a perfect horse or a perfect cow, he later came to limit these concepts of perfection and immutability and of the like to these basic ideas of the good, the true, the beautiful, equality, and so on.

So, there’s the metaphysical dualism of two worlds for Plato. The second kind of dualism for Plato is the dualism between the two ways in which human beings come to apprehend these two worlds. When we deal with the imperfect world of bodies we apprehend that world of bodies through our physical senses: sight, sound, smell, and so on. But, how do we apprehend the content of this world of ideal things? Plato says only through our minds, only through reason. And he then goes on to develop a number of somewhat complicated ways in which he thinks we might come to know that world of perfect things.

And then, finally, there is Plato’s anthropological dualism. There is the dual metaphysical dualism of the two worlds, the higher world and the lower world. The higher world being the world of these absolute standards, concepts. The lower world being the world of physical things, particular things we encounter with our body. Then there are these two forms of apprehension: reason, which is the only way we can come to know the higher world, and sensation—sense-experience. And then there are two parts to the human being. There is the body, and the body is the way in which we inhabit and apprehend the lower world of physical objects. And then there is the soul, and it is through our soul’s contact with this invisible, immaterial, higher world that we come into touch with higher reality.

Now, in the longer course, I go into great detail as to giving you illustrations as to how you can come to grasp the nature of the higher world. There’s no problem in understanding how we grasp the nature of the lower and physical world. But you’ll have to listen to the longer course for that.

So let me just sort of summarize what Plato means by “forms,” and then we’ll move on to another part of Plato’s thought. For Plato, a form is an eternal, unchangeable, universal essence. The forms are archetypes, or ideal patterns, in the sense that the particular things that exist in the physical world imitate or copy them. Now, to talk about an essence is to refer to the set of essential properties without which a particular thing, like this squirrel or that tree, would not exist as a squirrel or a tree. The forms embody the essence that marks the similarities among members of a class and enables us to group them into a set or class. These forms can never change. Take, for example, the essence of oneness. The concept of oneness cannot change. If it did change, it would no longer be oneness. It would change into two-ness or three-ness or four-ness or something like that. The concepts cannot change. Equality itself, that is, the concept or standard of equality, can never change. If it did, Plato teaches, it would become inequality. The concept of oneness can never become two-ness. So the forms can never change.

The forms are also eternal. They existed before the physical world came into existence. They would continue to exist even if everything in the physical universe, the lower world, ceases to exist. Truth, goodness, and justice are eternal, timeless entities that do not depend for their existence upon the particular things that exist in this world.

Two errors common to beginning students of philosophy must be avoided. The first mistake is to assume that the physical world is more real than is the ideal world of the forms. For Plato, the situation is the reverse. Just as the shadow cast by a tree is less real than the tree, so the physical world, which is only a reflection of the ideal world, must be less real than the world of the forms. The second error is to think that Plato viewed these forms as existing only in people’s minds. The whole point to his theory is that these essences, these forms, have an objective existence. They would exist even if no human being were thinking of them. Truth, beauty, goodness, and the other forms existed before there were any human minds. It does not follow, however, that the forms exist independent of all minds. Many of Plato’s followers have maintained—now listen to this—many of Plato’s followers maintained that the eternal forms exist as thoughts in the eternal mind of God. Now, while Plato never entertained this possibility himself, so far as I can tell, later Platonists like Plotinus and Augustine did.

So, to summarize, Plato believed humans live in two different worlds, the world of many particular things that are constantly changing and are apprehended through our bodily senses, plus a perfect and unchanging, timely world known through our minds.