Plato’s View of Philosophy andHis View on the Role of the Philosopher For Plato, philosophy is a request for truth. For him,philosophy is human endeavor to encounter the non-temporal, non-spatial andnon-physical ideas. It directs us towards which is necessarily beyondparticulars. It seems like his understanding of philosophy is shaped by histheory of knowledge. In a sense, his epistemology has great role on his ethicaland political ideas. We can see that ontological, epistemological, ethical andpolitical issues are so intertwined and blended in his philosophy.
Especially,there is no rigid distinction between the realm of philosophy and politics forhim. It seems like knowledge is sought to as means of ethical action along withits own sake. In this sense, his idea of universal forms implies that there areobjective truths in the realm of ethics and politics too, which can bediscovered by reason. As result, wisdom has determinative role in ethical and politicallife. For this reason; philosopher, as the lover of wisdom, has a central rolein ethical and political life too. In Plato’s early dialogues, we cansee Socrates as the main figure, puzzling his interlocutors with his questions.For example, in the Laches, Socratesis seeking for the essence of courage disembodied from any particular context. Inthe Euthyphyro, he was looking for ageneral standard which makes particular things pious.
And in the Meno, there was the same search for an overarchingdefinition, this time for virtue. What is common to all of these dialogues isthat we can see the tension between universality and particularity in thecontext of definitions and instances, essences and attributes. All of the earlydialogues we read in the beginnings of the semester in a sense give hints aboutPlato’s understanding of philosophy and philosopher. In Plato’s eyes, Socrateswas a philosopher. He was after true nature of things. His aim was discoveringthe fixed concepts not as pure speculation but as a view to lead a good life.
He was trying to reach universal, unchanging definitions of things. In a sense;he was trying to understand things for themselves, what something really is.And certainly, knowledge of something was different from its attributes andinstances. For this reason, Socrates was a philosopher for Plato. He wascritical in his discussions, he was searching for truth by carefulexaminations. This whole process was philosophical for Plato. And, it seemslike philosophical wisdom comes from the idea of universality, that is,desiring and searching for universal truths.
In this sense, we can see thehints of Plato’s understanding of philosophy and philosopher in his earlydialogues. Although his theory of forms is not developed in a systematic mannerin Socrates’ teachings yet, I think that his ideas about philosophy andphilosopher is somehow present in those dialogues. At least, we can see theseeds being sowed in Plato’s mind. Plato develops his philosophy and the roleof philosopher with his theory of forms in a rigorous matter in the Republic later.
In the Republic, I think that Plato gives a kind of defense of philosophy.He shows why philosophy is crucial to the life of a good city. In this sense,as I said before, we can see in the Republicthat there is a one form of human excellence, which is philosophical life. Anda good state, which is ruled by philosopher kings, puts philosophical life inthe center of the city. After Socrates identifies justice in both individualand political levels in the Book IV,he introduces the concept of philosopher-king in the Book V, which dominates the rest of the Republic.
Then, he explains what he means by “philosopher” bymaking distinction between philosophers and lovers of sights and sounds. Forhim, lovers of sights and sounds like beautiful sounds, colors, shapes buttheir thought is unable to embrace the nature of the beautiful itself. Here, wecan see how Plato implies the Form of Beauty. He implies that lovers of sightsand sounds do not deal with forms but they deal with particular things.
Forthis reason, they are the lovers of opinions, not knowledge. In this way, Platoidentifies philosophers as lovers of wisdom. For him, only philosophers canhave knowledge as they love the sight of truth. Philosopher is the one whowould be able to reach the beautiful itself, different from lovers of sightsand sounds.
In this sense, philosopher is the one who have access to the forms,which are complete objects of thoughts. And given that only philosophers canhave knowledge, they are the best to grasp what is good for the city. Like someonewho knows how to navigate should steer ships and be captain, philosophers arethe ones who most fit to rule as they are guided by the truth and always pursueit in every way. In the following lines, Plato explains how philosopher is notmere possessor of knowledge but also the most virtuous man if it happens toreceive appropriate instruction. Then, in the final stage of construction ofthe just city, Plato explains how to produce philosopher-kings among theguardians. And it turns out that the most important thing is the study of theForm of the Good. If someone understands the Form of the Good, then he gainshighest level of knowledge and becomes fit to be a philosopher-king.
Socratesdoes not say what exactly it is but gives analogy of the Sun. He says that theSun belongs to the visible world while the Good belongs to the intelligibleworld. According to this analogy; like the sun is the source of light andtherefore visibility in the visible realm, the Good is the source ofintelligibility.
Also, the sun enables us to see. In other words, sight is theresult of the light. Similarly, like the sun enables eyes to see, the Goodenables mind to know. The Good gives us capacity for knowledge. It gives truthto the things known and power to know to the knower. Moreover, like the sun isthe source of existence in the visible world, the Good is responsible for”coming to be” or the existence of Forms in the intelligible world.
Then, Formof the Good is responsible for all knowledge, truth and for the knowing mind.For this reason, it seems like it is the ultimate aim of knowledge. In thissense, this analogy implies Plato’s understanding of philosophy and shows whyshould we be in a pursuit of knowledge. Plato’s second image, the divided lineanalogy, makes clearer the importance of the Good by showing the order andhierarchy of knowledge. The divided line represents four grades of knowledgeavailable to us. Also, it represents two types of apprehension and objects. Thebottom two segments represent our access to the visible realm while the top tworepresent our access to the intelligible realm.
For Plato, the lowest type ofthinking is imagination. A person in state of imagination considers images,shadows and reflections as the most real things in the world. The next stage inthe line is belief. A person in the stage of belief thinks that sensibleparticulars such as natural objects and artifacts are the most real things inthe world. These two types of thinking give only opinions. Further up the line,there are two grades of knowledge: thought and understanding.
Although thoughtdeals with forms; it benefits from sensible particulars like images to help inits reasoning, like how geometers use a picture of a triangle to help themreason about triangularity. So, the object of thought is mathematical objects.Finally, the last segment of the line represents philosophical understandingand the objects of it are only ideas or forms, which are all given existenceand truth by the Good itself. Once you have reached Form of the Good with aphilosophical dialectic, it means that you have reached the highest stage of knowledge.The nearer we are to the base, the more conditioned our knowledge is. If wecould know it, it would illumine all the rest of our knowledge.
For Plato,traversing in this long path is the philosophical activity itself. That’s whyphilosophy is a request for truth for him. With this analogy, we can see thatphilosophy is a process of proceeding in the line of order of things, headingtowards the truth and building a philosophical life along with the knowledge ofthings.
Finally, in the beginning of BookVII, Plato presents his most famous metaphor: the allegory of the cave. Ithink that this metaphor is the best in illustrating philosophy’s andphilosopher’s roles. In this image, Socrates describes a group of people living in a cave since birth, never seeing thelight of the day. They are bounded, so they cannot look either side or behindthem, but only straight ahead. There is a fire behind them and behind the firethere is a wall. There are statues on the top of the wall and the people watchshadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behindthem, and give names to these shadows. The prisoners watch the stories thatthese shadows play out, and because these shadows are all they ever get to see,they believe them to be the most real things in the world. So, these prisonersrepresent lowest stage on the line- imagination.
A prisoner is somehow freedfrom his bonds, and look at the fire and the statues themselves. Then, herealizes that what he sees now are more real than shadows and accepts thestatues and fire as the most real things in the world. This stage in the caverepresents belief. He has made contact with real things, the statues, but he isnot aware that there is a greater reality, which is outside the cave. Next, theprisoner goes out of the cave and finally sees the real objects. He sees thatthese objects are even more real than the statues and those were only thecopies of them. Now, he has reached the stage of thought.
When his eyes arefully adjusted to the brightness of the outside world, he lifts his sight andlook at the sun. He understands that the sun is the cause of everything he seesaround him. The sun represents the Form of the Good and the prisoner hasreached the highest state of knowledge. Socrates explains how the philosopheris like a prisoner who is freed from the cave. He seeks knowledge outside thecave and outside of the senses. Hisintellectual journey represents the philosopher’s journey as a way of reachingthe truth and wisdom.
Socrates says that the free prisoner would think that theworld outside the cave was superior to the world he experienced in the cave; hewould bless himself for the change, and pity the other prisoners and would wantto bring others out of the cave and into the sunlight. The returning prisoner,whose eyes have become accustomed to the sunlight, would be blind when here-enters the cave, just as he was when he was first exposed to the sun. Theprisoners, according to Plato, would infer from the returning man’s blindness thatthe journey out of the cave had harmed him and that they should not have asimilar journey.
Socrates concludes that the prisoners, if they were able,would therefore reach out and kill anyone who attempted to drag them out of thecave. I think that this part shows that the prisoners are happy in theirignorance and they are not even aware of their ignorance. And they haveprejudices, which they don’t know to be prejudices. And the return of theilluminated prisoner represents philosopher’s role in Plato’s philosophy. Hereturns even though he knows that they will hate him and even kill him, as theAthenian Court killed Socrates. He goes back because some of the prisoners maylisten, look and may be enabled to rise that happier and sunlit life outsidethe cave.
If we identify the illuminated prisoner with Socrates, we can saythat maybe there can be some Plato(s) thanks to his return to the cave. So,philosophers owe this form of gratitude and service to the community. Also,this metaphor shows why philosopher should be the ruler.
He is not ignorantlike the prisoners in the cave, he has true knowledge and direct access to thereality, even though the ordinary people don’t understand him. Plato thinksthat they don’t understand and in order to understand, we must all proceedthrough the lower stages in order to higher stages. We each begin our liveswithin the cave, with our heads and legs bound. Education is a struggle to moveas far out of the cave as possible.
Not everyone can make it all the way out,which is why some people are producers, some warriors and somephilosopher-kings. And, philosophers are not only the rulers but also they arethe best teachers, who should go to the dark and ignorant world to enlighten theignorant people. To conclude, philosophy isliterally love of wisdom for Plato.
It is a matter of seeking universal,non-changing, objective truths. Also, philosopher is the one who has theknowledge of the forms for Plato. In the three images in the Republic: the Sun, the divided line and theallegory of the cave, he explains the role of philosophy and the philosopherwhile working out his epistemology and metaphysics. Moreover, philosophy is ameans for a good life for Plato. It is the basis for a good state, therefore,good citizens. In this sense, good life can only be achieved with the directaid of philosophy. Since philosopher is the one who loves truth more thananything and who dwells on the realm of intelligible objects, Plato puts him inthe center of the city as a philosopher king. In this sense, we can see that philosophyis crucial to make the just city possible for Plato.
From this point of view,we can say that the Republic is adefense of philosophy not in terms of the epistemological, political ormetaphysical realms but it is a defense of philosophy as a way of life.