Plato’s Metaphysical System (The Quest for the Idea of the Good)

Philosophy is wisdom. The Platonic philosophy will add further that knowledge is wisdom, and virtue is knowledge. How does one distinguish knowledge from opinion? The grandeur of Plato’s philosophy and its corresponding metaphysical system is based on a complete worldview that is consistently explained within his assumptions. His predecessors may have started the discipline of philosophy but he was the philosopher who had put philosophy in its respective pedestal as a discipline. According to Alfred North Whitehead, a philosopher and logician, “The safest characterization of western philosophy is that of a series of footnotes to Plato.” His philosophical views lead towards the establishment of the first ever institution for higher education called the Academy. Let us start the discussion of Plato’s philosophy with his metaphysics.

Plato's Metaphysical System Diagram

Plato believed that this world is not the basis for the attainment of true and real knowledge. He assumed the existence of another world in another dimension. He claimed that the objects of real knowledge must be ageless and eternal. Unfortunately, everything in this world is considered as appearances. The things that we perceive through our senses are always changing. How can we have true knowledge if, as it were, these objects that we see in this world — our perceptions of the physical world where we see tables and chairs and other objects — are always changing. For Plato, if something is to be accepted as knowledge, there must be an ultimate basis for it that is absolute and unchanging. Thus, this world could not be the source of real and ultimate knowledge. Because for something to be accepted as knowledge, that object of knowledge must be ageless and eternal. Therefore, he assumed the existence of another world where the real objects of knowledge could be found. He called this the world of Forms and Ideas. The world that we are familiar with is the changing world, where everything is changing. In this case, the objects that we see in this world could not serve as the ultimate basis of knowledge.

For instance, how does one recognize that something is a chair when there are different kinds of chairs in this world? Somehow, Plato believed that our mind has this idea of the chair that enables us to recognize that something is a chair when we see one. This idea of the chairness of the chair, presumably, is based on our knowledge of this form and idea of the chair found in the other dimension, the world of Forms and Ideas. Thus, everything that we see in this world is merely a secondary copy of the idea that exists in the other world, which is the ultimate basis for knowledge.

Moreover, Plato assumed that before we were born, our souls was once part of the World Soul. The World Soul has immediate and direct contact with the world of Forms and Ideas. Consequently, it is the World Soul which has a perfect and direct knowledge of the forms and ideas because it is the only entity that has full contact with the world of Forms and Ideas. Moreover, in the world of Forms and Ideas, there is a hierarchical structure.

Thus, in the hierarchy, the easiest ideas to be recognized by the soul would be ideas about material objects, followed by mathematical ideas and then abstract ideas. The highest and most difficult idea to be recognized is the idea of the Good. The idea of the Good is the goal of Plato’s philosophy, the attainment of the good life. He further states, in his Allegory of the Cave’ that, “The soul of every man possesses the power of learning the truth and the organ to see it with and just as one would have turn the whole body around in order that the eye should see light instead of darkness, so the entire soul must be turned away from changing world until its eye can bear to contemplate reality and that supreme splendor called the GOOD.” Here, he assumes that we have the innate ability to recognize and remember the perfect knowledge that we had before our soul joined the body, when it was still part of the World Soul. Plato believed that before we were born we had perfect knowledge as part of the World Soul. But the moment that we were born and when our soul joins the body, the body has the effect of corrupting the soul. Thus, it makes the soul forget the knowledge that it had before joining the body. For this reason, Plato claims that “Knowledge is remem-brance.” It was a matter of remembering the knowledge that you had before in order to be able to pursue goodness and the Good life. Here, Plato forwarded the idea of the dualism between mind and body. Later, other philosophers like St. Augustine and scholastic philosophy would incorporate this into the Christian doctrine, where the body is evil and the spirit is good.

For Plato, the pursuit of knowledge is connected with wisdom. The constant attempt of man to remember the good and, thus, regain knowledge is tantamount to having wisdom because to know the good is immediately to pursue it. No one does wrong knowingly. For those who fail to do what is good, perhaps their souls have failed to remember the knowledge that they knew before. Thus, according to Plato, “Virtue is knowledge” and “Knowledge is wisdom.”

In Plato’s metaphysics, the concept of knowledge in ordinary usage has taken on a new perspective. Under Platonic philosophy, knowledge is equivalent to virtue and wisdom. Thus, Plato’s ethics and morality are embedded in his metaphysical system as the quest for the Good life. Knowledge is a matter of knowing and remembering goodness, and once somebody knew, he would automatically become virtuous because he would immediately do what is good. This constitutes the attainment of wisdom. 

The Allegory of the Cave

In Plato’s allegory, he described prisoners inside a cave, where they are chained facing a wall. Behind and above the prisoners are people carrying objects along a road and beyond this road is a burning fire. The burning fire would cast the shadows of the people with their objects to the wall in front of the prisoners. Consequently, the prisoners could see only the images or shadows cast by these objects. Once the prisoner is set free, and would be forced to turn around, he will realize that the cause of the shadows were the people on the road with the objects they carry and the fire. But if he is further forced and dragged out from the cave, he will realize that the sun is the source of whatever is true and good for all things, thus, his soul will be enlightened towards the intelligible world, or the world of true reality. Once the vision of the good is attained from the sunlight, he will be unwilling and reluctant to descend and go back to the cave or the world of darkness again. This process of the enlightenment of the soul or the mind’s eye represents its ascent from the world of opinion inside the cave with its beliefs and illusions, to the world of real knowledge where the real object of knowledge could be found, the forms and ideas – this is Plato’s divided line.

The Divided Line — Knowledge and Opinion

Plato made a distinction between the sensible world or the world of experience, and the intelligible world or the world of true knowledge. This is popularly known as Plato’s divided line. The sensible world is known through the use of our senses paving the basis for opinion; while the intelligible world is known through the use of the intellect paving the basis for knowledge. Opinion, which could only produce appearance or reality as it appears to us, is further divided into belief and illusion. Between the two types of opinion, eikasia or illusion, or imagination is considered as the lower type in Plato’s allegory. This is represented by the shadows seen by the prisoners. This would also include second-hand information that we accept without further investigation or search for any evidence. Therefore, included among the objects in this illusory realm would be poetry and works of art like paintings.

Plato believed that poets and artists should be banished from the Republic because they are creating a tertiary copy of reality. Since the objects found in the world of the senses is constructed by Plato as merely secondary copies of the Forms and Ideas existing in the true reality. Moreover, the realm of the shadows and reflections are always changing, thus they cannot be the objects of real knowledge. In the first place, Plato believed that for something to be accepted as objects of knowledge, they must be clear and unchanging. 

Belief or conviction, or pistis, on the other hand, our commonsensical view about the world. This includes one’s commonsensical notion of morality, which should not be the basis for real knowledge. This is what many of us would be familiar with, practical knowledge. Compared with illusion, belief is a bit clearer and is based on a more grounded basis of looking at the physical world. But still, commonsensical knowledge is not real knowledge, according to Plato. For example, from common sense knowledge, one may agree with Protagoras, one of the sophists or wise men in Athens, whose views Socrates and Plato were always debunking, that man is the measure of all things. If knowledge will be based only on belief and common sense, many might accept this proposition. But Plato believed that any sensible discussion of morality must be based on some objective standard. If this will not happen, then, we are always in a changing world where beliefs about morality and our standards for it would keep on changing, according to every person’s perception. Again, this is not knowledge but only opinion because these are considered as belonging to the world of appearances, or reality as it appears to us.

For Plato, the real objective is the search for knowledge. Knowledge has two levels, reason or noesis using the intellect, and dianoia or understanding using scientific, mathematical or abstract hypothesis. Noesis is claimed by Plato to be higher than dianoia because it deals with grasping of complete or perfect knowledge of the forms and ideas, especially the idea of the Good in the world of Forms and Ideas. This is the direct apprehension of the transcendent objects of knowledge in the other world or dimension, not in this physical world. Moreover, Plato emphasized that this knowledge is not dependent on the physical world or the world of the senses. This is the knowledge that is achieved through competition.

According to Socrates, The unexamined life is not worth living.” This passage is meant to emphasize the importance of the contemplation or the philosophical life in order to remember the perfect knowledge that the soul knew before it joined the body. This is done without having to rely on the senses, which could clutter our understanding with appearances or opinion, but solely through the use of our intellect. Thus, this is direct knowledge of the forms and ideas through the forms and ideas themselves, without having to rely on the senses, in order to reach, attain and remember knowledge of the highest idea of them all: the idea of goodness which is the key towards the attainment of wisdom. 

Before achieving full or complete knowledge, the person has to go through the process of recognizing his own ignorance or aporid. This recognition and realization of one’s limitations and ignorance will help the soul gain noetic insight and enlightenment. This is the only time that one could be prepared for true knowledge using the `eye of the mind,’ which is the soul or intellect. The mind’s eye could be honed through dialectics and constant questioning and by recognizing one’s ignorance in order to equidistant — at equal grasp the universal form of Goodness, thus, reaching the highest form of knowledge. distance The attainment of this knowledge means that one would simultaneously proceed to apply this knowledge to the particular instances in his life, thus becoming virtuous and attaining wisdom.

Dianoia, on the other hand, has to do with a lower type of knowledge, which is associated with mathematical, abstract or scientific understanding. Dianoia still relies on some assumptions, hypothesis and imagery from physical or sensible world. For example, calculations in geometry and mathematics would often require pictorial representations of the abstract ideas that they are trying to explain and manipulate for proper understanding. Hence, they would have to draw geometric figures like circles or triangles in order to represent their ideas. But regardless of the perfect circle that they have drawn to represent the abstract and mathematical ideas they were trying to convey, for example, their process of reasoning still belong to the abstract and mathematical realm and no amount of physical representation of an actual figure of a circle that they have drawn would suffice to represent the idea of a circle as ‘an infinite number of points equidistant to a center.’ Thus, to a certain extent, dianoia is still dependent on the sensible world for an explanation and representation of its assumptions and images. But, the process of understanding itself, or dianoia, is operating not at the level of the sensible or physical world, but in the abstract and mathematical level.