34. Plato’s Theory of Forms & Objective Morality [QP]

We like to think that there are moral facts. At least, most of us entertain a moral imperative, a “thou shalt”, if you will. The doctrine of relativism – that all knowledge is situation-specific and that it is all ‘in flux’, as Heraclitus claimed – is a necessarily unnerving belief. It seems to suggest that moral knowledge is also quite relative and moral accountability seems to get thrown right out of the window. How do we respond to this? We can flail about in utter confusion or perhaps look to our own human race to create a secular edifice for morality. This did not suffice for Plato. But in order to understand his moral theory, we must first understand what it is that Plato is pointing at in the painting above.

Plato’s crowning achievement (he thought) and also the most contentious theory in philosophy so far, was the Theory of Forms. In the original Greek, and in earlier translations we called them ‘Ideas’, which interestingly derives from the Greek “to see.” However it is not physical sight of which he speaks, but rather a spiritual sight, apprehended by the mind’s eye. Forms, strictly speaking, do not exist, at least not in the world we live in, the one which Plato calls the apparent world. Earlier, we looked at the Allegory of the Cave as an epistemological method, a theory of knowledge, which posited that the world before us is but a pale reflection of the real world, where the Forms reside. In Plato’s Symposium, he presents us with a rough idea of what Forms are:

“It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself.” – Symposium, Plato

The Forms are immutable. Directly outside of time or space (out of logic arguably). The Forms are models for how the world used to be and thus it also explains the ways of men viz. not properly imitating the forms. There exists a Form of the Good. From the name what we derive is that there is an incorruptible and unchanging idea of goodness and all actions performed, being performed or to be performed in the future, will reflect gradations of the Form of the Good, an objective morality.

With metaphysics, a common issue is the Problem of universals,wherein we try to see the relations between particulars, such as various acts of kindness. Universals then link the particulars, the acts of kindness for example, with one Idea/Form, Kindness, which they all adhere to and participate in. The metaphysical refutations we can undertake of such a proposition are best left for another article, but with regards to morality, it suggests that there is something indisputably good. That we inherently know when actions are bad or when actions are good, because of an elusive and immanent Idea/Form.

Time is linear however and as time progresses, we will be pushed further away from the Forms, spatially and temporally. The Theory of Forms is also Plato’s explanation of the origin of the world. We will be pushed further from goodness, justice, temperance and courage (all of which Plato calls virtues, but they could easily have Forms) and this would mean that Plato would want to arrest change and consider rest divine, as Karl Popper noted. It is because of this that A.C. Grayling calls Plato a “Utopian fascist”, derogatory but no less true because of that. The Forms/Ideas are never explicitly defined in Plato’s works, leaving us with an interpretative morass, but one can definitely see a deep-seated concern in Plato for the future of the world. Few are ever in favour of his theory anyway, but it is definitely a valiant attempt at understanding the world epistemologically, morally and metaphysically. Its discussion should not cease.


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