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I.  Plato's Conception of Philosophy: A Summary

For Plato, philosophy is sustained, rational inquiry in quest of cognition of the forms, whose examples surround us.  Because it posits the reality of the forms and the possibility of making progress through inquiry (at least eliminating errors) it transcends the skepticism of those who claim that all ideas of truth, beauty, and goodness are mere opinion, relative to an individual or an individual's culture in such a way as to make progressive, critical inquiry meaningless.  Because it engages in critical reflection, it surpasses the dogmatism of those who assert transcendent standards but who refuse to examine, defend, explore, and strive for the transformation implied by their ideals.

Wisdom, in the Apology, includes (a) the ability to give an account (logos) of our achievements, (b) the ability to do something, (c) lucid recognition of our limits, e.g., the fact that we do not know about the experience of the soul after death, (d) skill in examining concepts, propositions, and arguments, and (e) a life of supreme devotion to truth, beauty, goodness.

The Crito teaches that commitment to the good, the beautiful, and the just has implications--that we will no longer live a life based merely on returning good for good and evil for evil: we will seek to discover and do that which is good, even in return for harm.  In particular, this means living in accord with the laws of one's city (or moving or trying to get the laws changed), since remaining in a city and accepting its benefits, as an adult, implies acceptance of a certain agreement (comparable to the social contract of 17th and 18th century political philosophers).

The Phaedo sets forth the crucial importance of seeking to understand things by grasping the forms (or gaining "eidetic" insight--eidos = form).  Physical explanation cannot account for everything (e.g., for knowledge) and teleological explanation (in terms of the outworking of purposive Mind) is a worthy project which has not yet been carried out (until the Timaeus). 

The Symposium presents, among other things, levels of participation in the beautiful as steps on a ladder leading to a life of continuous communion, the satisfaction of erotic striving.

The Republic, an inquiry into justice, shows not only an idea of a comparatively model city-state but also the progress that a philosopher king or queen must travel, including genetic excellence, well-balanced artistic education (including ennobling stories of gods and heros) and physical training (including military service), scientific education (arithmetic, plane and solid geometry, astronomy, and harmony), civil service, philosophical dialectic, and service in the city-state as a ruler or judge.  The Republic explains how certain ways of perceiving or thinking correlate with certain levels of reality; it explains dialectic, and through vivid images dramatizes the adventure of progressing toward insight into the forms, especially into the form of the good: like the sun, which illumines the eye and the visible, the good illumines the knower and the forms so that truth (aletheia, unhiddenness) is possible.


II.  Plato, Republic V 474c - VII.  The portrait of the philosopher


For the state to flourish in justice, those in power must be philosophers [and queens] (474c).

But who are the philosophers (474b)? 

·       Love the whole of wisdom (474c - 475c)

·       Love all learning (475c)

·       Can distinguish beauty (the beautiful itself) from things that have beauty (partake of beauty, participate in beauty) (475e – 476d)

·       Pursue the knowledge of what truly is, rather than opinion, which is the maximum cognitive achievement regarding that which partly is and partly is not (476d – 480a)

·       Have a pattern in their soul as a basis for legislation regarding the beautiful, just, and good which they draw like an artist imitating a model (484c-d)

·       Strive for truth in everything and remain loyal to truth their whole lives (485b-d)

·       Strive for what is whole and complete, both human and divine (486a)

·       Possess the virtues that flow from regarding bodily pleasures as of little import compared with the higher pleasures of the soul (485d – 487a)

·       Have a good memory (486c)

Those who criticize philosophy for cultivating uselessness (487b-e) are like a mob of sailors, ignorant of navigation, who want to take control of the ship (487e – 489d).

In a city where philosophy is not prized, those with the rare gifts for philosophy will be corrupted by the mass culture (489d – 496a).

There is a slight chance for men and women gifted with philosophic potentials to receive a proper education to develop those potentials and then gaining the power to order and administer the government (496a – 504a).

The most difficult knowledge to gain is knowledge of goodness (the idea of the good, the form of the good, the good itself, the good).  Glaucon and Adamantus are not prepared for this level of education, so Socrates will give some analogies instead (504a – 507a).

1.  The good is like the sun which illumines the eye, enabling it to see what is visible.  (The good illumines the mind, enabling it to grasp the knowledge of true forms.) (507a – 509b)

2.  Our mind has four gears for grasping the four levels of what is more or less real—which may be represented in terms of a divided line: opinion grasps perceivable images and things; knowledge grasps mathematical and other forms.  Mathematical thinking relies on images and makes assumptions about first principles.  Philosophic thinking does not rely on images or examples but only on forms, and it ascends to grasp true beginnings that depend on no assumptions. (509d – 511e)

3.  The process of education is like being dragged painfully out of a cave into the light, where we gradually learn to see what can be seen there, and ultimately to behold the source, the sun.  Philosophic education aims at the conversion of the soul, from being caught up in the things of the senses to being oriented to what is eternal, unchanging, and perfect. (514a – 519d)