Plato’s theory of the Forms is one of the most important philosophical concepts. In short, the Forms set a universal standard that particular objects in the physical world are compared to. In order to better understand the Forms and why they exist, however, one must understand more of Plato’s point of view of the world. One must also understand the Form of the Good. The Form of the Good can be relatively hard to grasp but luckily, Plato gives many analogies to help explain the differences between physical objects, the Forms, and the Form of the Good.
Before going further into the Forms, knowing more about Plato’s perspective of the world is imperative. The simplest way to describe this is by saying Plato believes instead of one world, two worlds exist. Plato also believes things that change are imperfect, mortal, and visible while things that stay the same are perfect, immortal, and invisible. The first world is the world perceivable with taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound. This world is constantly changing, thus it is imperfect and not constantly present. Plato also believes this world is not fully real because everything that is perceivable is imitating a form of some kind.
The second world Plato talks about is unchanging, always present, and invisible. This world is made up of the Forms. Since the Forms make up this invisible and perfect world, the Forms are also perfect. The World of the Forms is accessible only by the mind. In Meno, Socrates talks about his theory of transmigration. A quick summary is our souls are immortal and contain all the knowledge it will ever know. Socrates’ theory is backed up by his geometry lesson with the servant boy. Since the souls are a part of this second world, they have knowledge of the forms.
The souls join the human body at birth, forgetting all “a priori” knowledge, and leaves the body at death. In Meno, Socrates establishes that only through being asked the right questions does true learning take place. Some argue the soul goes to this second world upon leaving the physical one. It is through this knowledge of the Forms that we compare the physical world to. As mentioned earlier, a Form is a universal idea that we compare particulars to. For example, think about a perfect right triangle. All right triangles partake in the Form of Right Triangularity.
Some right triangles are better than others. For example, one drawn right triangle may be drawn poorly or with improper angles, while another could be drawn using a straight edge and compass. Since the soul has knowledge of the Form of Right Triangularity, the soul knows what a right triangle should look like. With the soul having knowledge of The Form and having knowledge of how a right triangle should look, the soul can compare the poorly drawn triangle and the exactly drawn triangle. Triangles are subject to change and can be perceived. Since they can change, triangles are part of the physical world.
The perfect triangle cannot exist in the physical world, but it can in the world of the Forms. It is the Form of the perfect triangle that the immortal soul is familiar with. This familiarity with the Form of Right Triangularity allows souls to recognize right triangles as right triangles. This same concept of The Forms is applicable to the rest of the physical world. Since the Forms are not part of the physical world, they exist independently from it. Meaning that if all examples or particulars of the Forms cease to exist, the actual Forms will still exist.
Thinking about the example of right triangles, even if all the right triangles are destroyed in the physical world, the Form of Right Triangularity will still exist. With the knowledge of what a Form is, it will be easier to understand why Plato believes the Forms must exist. Referring back to the example of the drawn right triangles and the Form of Right Triangularity, some right triangles are better than others. In order for someone to compare these two triangles, that person must have an understanding of what the perfect right triangle would look like.
Since a person can compare one right triangle to another, the Forms must exist. Otherwise this person would not be able to compare right triangles very well. The interaction between the Forms and the Physical world can be described as a hierarchy. At the very top is the Form of the Good, which can also be thought of as the Form of Forms. The level below the Form of the Good includes the Forms, like the Form of Right Triangularity mentioned before. Below this level of Forms are the physical things that make up the physical world.
The very bottom level of this hierarchy includes images of physical things. This can is a tricky concept, so think again about right triangles. An image (reflection, photograph) of a right triangle can exist only because right triangles exist in the physical world. In order for the right triangles to exist in this physical world, they must partake in the Form of Right Triangularity. All of the Forms like this are perfect and equal to each other, meaning the Form of Right Triangularity is equal to the Form of Squareness. This is true because all Forms partake in the Form of the Good/Form of Forms.
In summary, without the Form of the Good, the Forms would cease to exist which means physical things would cease to exist, and so would the images of physical things. Thankfully, Plato gives many metaphors for understanding the Forms and the Form of the Good. Some of these metaphors are flawed, however, and they do not make sense. In The Republic: Book VI Plato writes about using a line divided into segments as a metaphor. This is best explained by drawing or using a visual image. Draw a line segment approximately four inches long, naming it AB. Draw point C somewhere on AB that will divide it into two unequal parts.
Now, in between point A and point C, draw point D. Next, draw point E the same distance away from Das C, except place it between B and D. In other words, segment DC should be equal to CE. The end result can look like one of two things depending on where point C is placed. If C is closer to A, then point D or E will be separating A from C. For this example D is in between A and C, while E is in between C and B. Segment AD will be shorter than DC. Segment DC will be equal to CE. Segment EB will be the longest of all the segments. If C is closer to B then the results will be backwards, but the message is the same.
Point C divides the segment into visible and intelligible segments, with the larger portion representing what is visible, and the small what is intelligible. The largest section of the visible portion represents all physical things. The smaller portion of the visible segment represents the images (photographs, reflections) of these physical things. The Form of the Good is represented in the bigger intelligible part, while lesser forms are represented in the smaller portion. This metaphor is flawed and confusing. It does not make sense for the physical world (not fully real) to be the biggest section while the Forms are in the smaller section.
Since the Forms are the most important, the intelligible should be the largest portion, while the visible world should be smaller. The Form of the Good should take be the largest segment, followed by lesser Forms. After the Forms are physical things (the same size as forms) and their images (the smallest segment). Even with this change, the metaphor does not make sense an imperfect representation (physical things) should not be equal to a Form. Another of Plato’s metaphors of the Forms talks about people living in a cave. These people have always lived in this cave and they are restrained from any movement.
Near the entrance of this cave is a fire, however, the people cannot see the fire since they face the opposite way. They only see the shadows created by the fire. People are walking in and out of the cave, but there is a low wall, blocking them from view of the prisoners. Many of these people carry artifacts or statues which are seen above the low wall, casting shadows from the fire. This makes a shadow puppet show. The only thing the prisoners would talk about is the shadows from the wall, and the sounds the people make. They could only talk about the shadows and sounds because they are all the prisoners know.
A quote from the Book VII, 515b 10-C explains this as, “All in all, then, what the prisoners would take for true reality is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts. ” This example is continued by freeing one of the prisoners. As the prisoner turns around and sees light for the first time, the prisoner temporarily blinded and cannot see what appeared to be real. As the prisoner is lead out, the prisoner sees more of the world outside the cave. With this metaphor, the shadows represent the images of physical things. Physical things themselves are represented by the artifacts that people are carrying.
The fire represents the sun. This is because without the fire, the prisoners wouldn’t be able to see anything. The Form of the Good is represented by the sun. The sun is one of the best metaphors for the Form of the Good. Just as the sun illuminates the world, allowing humans to see, the Form of the Good illuminates other Forms. Plato’s Forms allow people to understand and compare the particulars of the physical world. Souls have knowledge of the Forms which exist in the World of the Forms because they used to live in this world.
One example of a Form is the Form of Right Triangularity, which allows people to recognize and compare right triangles. The concept of the Forms can be hard to grasp. Metaphors are given to better understand, but one of these metaphors is flawed and hard to understand. The Form of the Good can be compared to the sun, illuminating other Forms. In conclusion, the theory of the Forms explains knowledge of particular physical things. Even though the theory is impressive, it should be taken with a grain of salt because many of its arguments make little sense and are flawed.