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Understanding Plato's Forms and The Concept of Philosopher-kings

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According to Plato, true knowledge originates in the realm of the Forms, or universal, eternal, constant, and absolute truths that only the mind can access, such as the Form of the Good or the Form of the Just. Forms are not part of the visible world, they are abstract, non-material ideas that are responsible for rendering things for what they are; justice and all things just are only so because of the Form of the Just. Plato essentially invents the theory of the Forms and introduces it in the Republic to continue his defense of philosophers. In the Republic, in particular, Plato uses the Forms not only to once again attempt to separate Socrates from another group of philosophers, specifically the aesthetic philosophers, but also this time to give more power to the philosopher in the City-State. In the Republic, Plato takes a radical new step and gives political power to philosophers, or philosopher-kings, and claims that political power and philosophy are best to become one (Republic, 473c-d). However, the theory of the Forms is only an invention, a clever excuse that Plato attempts to use to promote the position of philosophers or philosophy itself, which fails to be convincing for two reasons: (1) the Forms may not at all be true knowledge, although that is debatable, and (2) even in case the Forms are true knowledge, there is a lack of explanation of how philosopher-kings are the only ones with access to the Forms.

Plato states that only Forms are the true, universal, and unchanging knowledge in the world. However, it is radical to claim that only these abstract representations of perfection amount to any real knowledge. If one can come to know beauty, and recognize beauty in another, then one must possess some knowledge about what the beautiful is. Although the beauty of an individual is a matter of opinion and standard, the fact that one can know that another is beautiful must mean they know what the beautiful is in the first place. Furthermore, one can as easily know that another is beautiful and at the same time not beautiful, that is, one may know exactly in what way one is beautiful and in what way one is not beautiful. If the Form of the Beautiful exists, and it is the ideal of all that is beautiful in the world, if one comes to recognize this beauty then they must be knowledgeable about what beauty is or is not, or both. However, on the contrary, if true knowledge is indeed universal and stable over time, then simply knowing one is beautiful is not knowledge. Beauty is an object of judgment, one can be beautiful and not beautiful all at the same time, and beauty is dependent on time. The Form of the Beautiful on the other hand is eternal and unchanging, and since knowledge is limited to eternal, unchanging, absolute truths, only the Form of the Beautiful and the Forms altogether are any real knowledge. Whether or not the Forms are, as Plato claims, the only true and complete knowledge is uncertain for sure, but in either case, Plato’s theory lacks an important explanation that justifies the philosopher-kings’ new political power.

Socrates divides claims of knowledge into three distinct categories; “what is completely is completely knowable, what is in no way is completely unknowable” (477a), and “what is completely and in no way completely both knowable and unknowable” (478d). This essentially translates to mean that “what is complete” is true knowledge or the knowledge of the Forms, “what is in no way complete” is ignorance, and “what is complete and in no way” is belief or opinion. Whether or not Forms are true knowledge, Plato claims that only philosophers have access to the Forms, and not all the philosophers. This is where Plato makes the distinction between philosophers of sight and sound, or aesthetic philosophers, and a few real philosophers such as Socrates. The aesthetic philosophers merely know about beautiful things as they sense them in the visible world, they can only express opinions about the beautiful, “what is complete and what is in no way,” because they are only concerned with what they see and hear. The aesthetic philosophers lack any real knowledge into the beautiful or the Form of the Beautiful, and may not even be aware of the existence of the Forms. Philosopher-kings on the other hand actually possess the knowledge of the Form of the Beautiful, they have knowledge of “what is complete,”and that is the fundamental difference between the two groups of philosophers, that is also what distinguishes philosopher-kings to rule.

Plato explains the difference between true knowledge and otherwise what is not knowledge – that “what is complete and in no way,” and that “what is in no way” – but he merely claims or assumes that philosopher-kings have the sole access to this true knowledge. Plato never goes on to explain or account for how the philosopher-kings actually have this access, while nobody else does. Plato’s argument is valid; that “what is complete” is complete knowable, only the Forms are that “what is complete,” and only philosopher-kings have access to the Forms, which means only the philosopher-kings have knowledge; but why it is so is never said. And so, because there is no such an explanation, the theory of the Forms does not actually give any special power or exclusive access to the philosophers, and Plato fails to sufficiently prove that philosophers are best-suited or even suited at all to rule. Plato seems to use the Forms as an excuse to elevate philosophers into a position of the highest wisdom and the highest forms of political power, taking a step further from simply defending philosophy. Otherwise, Plato can simply be incapable of explaining how the philosopher-kings came to this knowledge. Either way, merely claiming that philosopher-kings have access to the Forms is not enough. Even in Book VI, when Plato specifically talks about the Form of the Good, he fails to provide convincing, credible and adequate proof of how the philosopher-kings have the exclusive access to these Forms.

In the Republic, Plato makes a radical claim; only the philosopher-kings have access to true knowledge. Though Plato is hardly convincing in making such a bold statement, it does teach us that the Republic, and Book V especially, is an attempt to demonstrate that philosophy, the true kind of philosophy, can indeed be essential, and not threatening to the city-state. Here, one more question to consider about the theory of Forms and philosopher-kings arises: is true knowledge is enough to qualify men to rule?

Bibliography

Plato. The Republic V. Translated by G.M.A. Grube, revised by C.D.C. Reeve. Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy (3rd Ed.). Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.

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