100. Plato’s Form of The Good

Plato’s (427-347 B.C.) Republic is primarily a book, despite its many themes and topics, about justice in the soul and the state. Socrates’ analysis of justice is undertaken to justify the claim that we should all be virtuous even if we had an invisible ring and could act viciously with impunity (see here for more details). We learn that the soul has three functions: appetite, spirit, and reason. Our appetite represents those desires for physical pleasures like food, drink, and sex. Our spirit represents those desires for social well-being like fame, power, and recognition. And reason represents those desires we have for intellectual well-being like knowledge. Now, if the soul’s fundamental orientation is rational then it will have the virtue of reason which is wisdom. And with wise guidance the spirited function, which cooperates with reason, will manifest the virtue of courage. Reason and spirit can then help moderate appetite so it will manifest the virtue of temperance. When reason moderates appetite with the help of spirit then we have the overarching virtue of the whole soul, namely, justice. Like a well-regulated state, each aspect of the soul will know its place and will contribute to the well-being of the whole person. This analysis shows us that it would be wise to live virtuously even when invisible. After all, acting viciously with impunity would only feed and strengthen our appetites making us more and more immoderate, cowardly, and ignorant. Who would want to become an unjust soul enslaved by appetite?

However, later in the dialogue (Book 6) Socrates claims that the ideal philosopher kings of the ideal Republic must come to know the Form of the Good if they are to have the wisdom that allows for both a just soul and state. Indeed, Socrates goes so far as to say that “without having had a vision of this Form [of the Good] no one can act with wisdom, either in their own life or in matters of state” (translated by Francis Cornford; see his book The Republic of Plato, p. 231). So it appears that justice, far from being the most fundamental category of the dialogue, is really dependent on the Good. Goodness grounds the just and thus all the other virtues such as wisdom, courage, and temperance. Moreover, we learn that the Form of the Good also grounds the existence of physical things, as well as the existence of the eternal, immaterial, unchanging, and objective Forms our soul may come to partially know. The Good sustains or “fathers” the Forms in their being or existence and enables them to be known as true by our soul just like the sun’s heat sustains things in their being and, with its illumination, allows them to be seen. Since the Good is that which sustains existence and truth it is beyond both being and truth.

But if the Good is beyond being can we really know or say anything about it? Socrates himself says he is not up to the task of describing the Good itself; all he can offer is an image of it as something akin to the sun. But must we be content with Plato’s interesting yet perplexing images of the Good? Or can we get some further insight into the “father” of these images?

Luckily, Plato gives us some more clues about the nature of the Good in the Republic and his dialogue Philebus. Moreover, we can turn to other figures such Plotinus (204-270), Proclus (412-485), Marsilio Ficino (1433-1439) and some contemporary philosophers for helpful elaboration. The basic vision that has come down to us from these scholars seems to be something like this:

  • The Good is absolute unity, a unity perfect in every way. This unity, however, is not some static or abstract entity; rather, it is a power capable of extending its unification to other things and allowing them to participate in it.

We get some clues that the Good is unity in the Republic if we are sensitive to the many ways the concept of wholeness is integrated into the dialogue. For example, in Book 5 we learn that philosophers, lovers of wisdom, must love “all wisdom”; and this means all truth and an understanding of those eternal Forms that allow us to collect many examples under one concept. We also learn that the philosopher seeks to understand the “whole of that reality”, “the whole truth”, and “the whole of things”. And the many references to the task of becoming a unified soul and state in the Republic strongly suggest that the Good is unity. John Sallis writes: “But what really provides the basis for re-naming [the Good as unity] is the contention developed at length in the earlier Books that the good of the city consists in its being one instead of many and that, correspondingly, the good for the individual man in the city is that he becomes one” (see his book Being and Logos p. 410). The aforementioned ancient scholars agree. For example, Plotinus: “Because what the soul seeks is The One and it would look upon the source of all reality, namely the Good and The One, it must not withdraw from the primal realm and sink down into the lowest realm.” Proclus: “Every good has the power of uniting its participants, and every union is good; and The Good is the same as The One”. And Marsilio Ficino, the great renaissance Platonist and head of the Florentine Academy: “Unity, truth, and goodness are the same thing, and above them there is nothing.

But how can we get a better handle on this elusive unity and our participation in it? Well, Plato’s late dialogue Philebus is an inquiry into the good life as lived by real humans, not ideal philosopher kings. It is a more practical approach to the Good that explores it in the context of what Socrates calls the “mixed life”. This approach to the Good ends up giving us three ways to approach the Good given our Earthly context. Consider this passage:

“Therefore if we are unable to net the good in a single concept, we must use three to catch it, namely, beauty, proportion, and truth. This is our position: supposing these three to be a single unit, we could not go wrong if we held it responsible for the components of the mixture, in the sense that, qua [as] good, it makes the mixture good too” (see 65a; translated by Robin Waterfield).

This passage can be understood as follows: something is good if it participates in unity; and this participation can be discerned whenever proportion, truth, and beauty are present. A beautiful thing, one might argue, typically has a set of parts that are harmoniously related to a whole; and its parts are typically proportionately unified. So we can see how both beauty and proportion can manifest unity. Truth seems to presuppose unity as well as Sallis points out: “Now we see, further, that the coming-forth of such an image (of the good, of the one) is identical with something showing itself as one, which, in turn, amounts to its standing in the truth, i.e., being knowable, i.e., having being conferred upon it. Thus, the good confers being and truth, i.e., confers a showing in which things can show themselves as one, by fathering images of itself.” (Being and Logos, 411)

Perhaps the more something participates in the Good the more unified it is; and the more unified it is, the more it is limited and stands out as a being that can be identified and perhaps known. A disunified thing, however, begins to disintegrate thereby losing its status as a limited thing that can stand out and be known. Thus we can see why, for Plato, the so-called things in the ever-changing physical world can only be objects of opinion; truth, if it is to be obtained, must be of those immaterial, perfectly unified Forms that have unchanging Being sustained by the more comprehensive unity of the Good.

So perhaps the Good can be indirectly approached through proportion, truth, and beauty. We can get even more insight into how the Good can be brought into our lives if we briefly turn to the great American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910). In his groundbreaking lectures published as Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907), James attempts to show, among many other things, the pragmatic or practical significance of metaphysical thinking about the one and the many. He attempts to do this by showing what pragmatic consequences for action we can expect from certain forms of unity. James claims that unity can come in the following forms, all of which can be given concrete applications: (1) things can be unified under one subject discourse; (2) things can be more or less continuous with one another; (3) things can be influenced by one another; (4) things can be causally connected; (5) things can be grouped according to kinds; (5) things can be united under a unity of purpose; (6) things can be experienced as aesthetically unified; and (7) things can be mystically experienced as a part of one God or some metaphysical power of unity.

This is a nice list that offers us ways to detect potential or actual unity in the world that can be developed. Our ability to develop various forms of unity suggests a criterion for judging acts to be good insofar as they imitate the unifying power of the Good. Proclus explains in his work The Elements of Theology (translation by E. R. Dodds): “Whatever is complete proceeds to generate those things which it is capable of producing, imitating in its turn the one originative principle of the universe. For that principle [The Good] because of its own goodness is by a unitary act constitutive of all that is: for the Good being identical with the One, action which has the form of Goodness is identical with unitary action” (see proposition 25). Conversely, actions that thwart forms of unity can be construed as bad or evil.

So it appears we can unravel the mystery of the Good in ways that take us beyond Socrates’ tentative analysis in the Republic. But we must accept that we never quite get our hands on the Good in all its purity; all we ever get is some image of it. Why must this be the case? Well, images of integration and wholeness, even if illuminating and nourishing, will always less than the absolute whole. After all, to conceive of something is to presuppose an understanding of what that something is not; I can think of redness because it is not black, not green, not yellow, etc. So to think the whole as an individual concept would immediately make the whole into two: the concept of wholeness and the concept of disunity. And to know the Good presupposes two as well: the Good and the knower that knows it. Moreover, Sallis notes that there is a good reason for Socrates to be so reluctant to define the Good since “if the one is both the one and the good, then it is two and, hence, not one” (Being and Logos, 411). So it appears that any encounter with the Good will be mediated through images of unity that fall short of absolute wholeness. Thus the Good, on the one hand, is that which allows for partial insight into unity and, on the other hand, prevents full insight into unity by withdrawing from complete scrutiny (just like the sun withdraws from the full scrutiny of our naked eyes due to its blinding illumination). Seth Benardete puts the mystery nicely when he writes:

“No being, therefore, can come to light before us as something to be known unless it is detachable from the whole to which it belongs. The good, as our interest, makes for this detachability and hence partial knowability. This is obvious enough. Socrates, however, claims that the cause of the detachment of the beings from the whole is the cause of the attachment of the beings as parts to the whole. The good makes possible both the apartness of the beings from and the participation of the beings in the whole” (Seth Benardete, Socrates’ Second Sailing: On Plato’s Republic, p. 156).

The Good’s power both reveals and conceals and, in doing so, is inherently mysterious. But perhaps this yoking together of Goodness and mystery is precisely what inspires wonder and the erotic search for that wisdom, that vision of the whole of truth, which we don’t have; it inspires the love of wisdom or philosophy. And this love helps us become more whole and virtuous by enhancing the rational function of our soul so as to bring about more courage, moderation, and justice.

For my many other posts on Plato, go here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.