Plato‘s early philosophy was more about ethics and the debates on ethical and moral properties that the gadfly, Socrates, would kindle in the market place of Athens with rich, poor, young, old, wise and sophistical men of the city. He soon developed an elaborated and one-of-a-kind metaphysical theory to support his ethics. His metaphysics, in turn, supported his epistemology. One can simply say that Platonic epistemology, ethics and metaphysics are intermingled.
In this short essay I will briefly summarize and bring together Platonic metaphysics from different books. I will begin with a discussion of what influenced Plato’s metaphysics. Then I will put forward his Theory of Forms and argue that the ideal realm of forms is the basis or foundation of his metaphysics. I will explain his Theory of Forms through the Allegory of the Cave that Plato puts forward in his book, The Republic Book VII. Next, I will discuss his dualism and state his arguments for the immortality of the soul.
I. Influences on Plato
The problem that Platonic metaphysics takes into account is the problem of one and many. Plato dealt with the same problems that Heraclitus and Parmernides were discussing amongst their contemporaries. While Heraclitus pointed out the change in the physical world Parmenides pointed out the oneness in the system. Everything was in the state of flux for Heraclitus because he was observing the physical world; Plato was of the view that there is more than just what our senses perceive. Parmenides looked beyond the physical word and ignored the senses. He found oneness and unity in the universe and while Plato was similar to Parmenides in many ways, he did not believe in his concept of unity as such. Notice that Parmenides and Plato were both rationalists.
The Pythagorean were another influence on Platonic metaphysics and it is believed that they were the first to put ‘dualism’ down in words. They believed that the soul and the body together make up a human and the function of the soul was to keep the body together. Platonic dualism is an important aspect of Platonic metaphysics and will be dealt with, in detail, later.
II. Theory of Forms
Plato believed there were two distinct worlds: the physical word of man and the word of Forms and Ideals that was high above. In the painting, The School of Athens by Raphael, Plato is pointing towards that Realm of Forms that he held very important. The ethical properties and virtues like justice and piety were discussed by Plato and he used Socrates as his mouthpiece in his early dialogues. Those ethical properties were never defined, they were said to be from the Realm of Forms.
The need for a Realm of Forms would arise because Plato was struggling with the concepts and ideas of things. The different chairs that we see in the world have a certain unity in them which causes us to relate them all, as chairs. That chairness of all physical chairs had to be a property of all the chairs that allowed men to perceive them all in the same manner. That chairness was the form that was in the Realm of Forms and reflected in our minds.
He elaborated his theory with the distinction of the two worlds. Where he found the material world to be visible, degrading, mortal and imperfect, he found the World of Ideas perfect, invisible and eternal. He seconded his theory of the World of Ideas by an allegory stated in the Book 7 of The Republic. According to that analogy, a group of men bind with chains from their neck and heads are made to stare at a screen where puppeteers are portraying random images/shadows. Those shadows are considered as truth by the men that are chained. One man from the prisoners frees himself from the chains and journeys upward towards the light. He finds a fire behind the prisoners and a passage out of the cave. He follows the passage and steps out of the cave, he is temporarily blinded by the rays of the sun because he is not used to the light. The light of the sun shines on all the objects around him and for once, he is able to see the reality as it is. This allegory is showing a philosophers epistemic journey towards the World of Forms; the reality and the truth that constitutes knowledge.
Plato believes that man is made of a soul and a body. The body, according to Plato, perishes because it belongs to the physical world whereas the soul is immortal and goes on living ever after death. The immortality of the soul was a new and complicated idea at that time and so Plato, using Socrates as his mouthpiece, gives rational arguments in favor of the immortality of the soul in his book Phaedo.
From the arguments for the immortality of the soul, the first in discussion here will be the Argument from Recollection. Oddly, his epistemological Theory of Recollection is what Plato uses to prove the immortality of the soul here, whereas, in Meno, he uses the immortality of the soul to put forward his Theory of Recollection. This argument claims that we can recall knowledge of the Forms in this life when we have never even perceived them, this could only be possible if a part of us has perceived them and this part of us can only be the immortal soul. The problem with the argument is apparent; the soul was alive before birth can be deduced if the premise is correct but we cannot say that the soul will survive the body through this premise. Another problem with the argument is the validity of the first premise that includes the phrase ‘World of Forms.’ There is no evidence of such a world and there can probably never be any evidence of that sort. The argument does not hold, therefore.
Another argument similar to this one states that the Forms are non-physical and can only be grasped by the soul which is also non-physical. The Argument from the Nature of Forms is established on the presupposition that only likes can know likes. This may be a false assumption.
The next argument, we will discuss, is called the Argument from Opposites. It claims that what was large was once small and therefore all that dies comes back to life. So, when man dies he will come back to life because of the immortality of the soul. Now the problem is that the soul may come to life in another body, like the Buddhists think it works, will that be considered immortality of the soul too and in what sense? Also, didn’t we just establish that the soul never dies; only the body does? The premise seems flawed.
The Argument from Affinity is a weak, inductive argument in which Socrates, again, shows the likeness amongst the Forms and the soul. He says that it is more likely that the soul belongs to the realm of Forms than the physical world because they share all other attributes. Hence, the argument concludes, that the soul shares the attribute of immortality too, with the Forms. This argument again is based on the assumption that the World of Forms really exists. And it could exist but the fact is that we have not really established that. The Argument from Simplicity is a simple one that begs that invisible things cannot be destroyed. According to me, it is the strongest of all the arguments. The reason is that it is not based on assumptions and it could really be min-puzzling to figure out a way to kill something that cannot be seen.
This is probably the shortest account/summary of Plato’s metaphysics. To sum up, Platonic Metaphysics has its roots in the Pre-Socratic metaphysics of Heraclitus, Parmenides and the Pythagoreans. The problem of the one and the many had troubled philosophers before him and he had reached a middle point between Parmenides and Heraclitus. Platonic Metaphysics, is scattered in his dialogues, but once put together it can give a fair and comprehensive answer to the problem of one and many. However, this does not mean that Plato’s metaphysics was completely flawless, rather his student Aristotle had found a flaw in his Theory of Forms and suggested an amendment in the theory.