Ancient philosophers often wrote and spoke about their views on the purpose of life, the nature of existence, and other questions and considerations. One of the most well-known philosophers from ancient Greece is Plato, who wrote such works as The Republic and the Apology of Socrates. Although he was not the first philosopher to consider or to write about the concept of “forms,” his views and thoughts on forms are important components of his overall philosophical views. Plato used the concept of forms to describe what constitutes the true essence, the reality of a thing, as opposed to the physical manifestations of that thing. The forms of things are, in Plato’s view, what is real, and the physical objects, animals, or people are merely representations of their forms.
Plato wrote about a number of different philosophical frameworks that are useful in understanding what he meant by forms. An example of such a framework is the figure of the divided line (Soccio, p.141, 2006). The divided line represents the divisions between the shadows and reflections of things and the actual, physical things. The divided line also represents the different ways that humans can perceive and think about the world. At the lowest point on the line are opinions, which also reflect the illusions and shadows of things. At the next point on the line are the beliefs held about things. Following beliefs comes the ability to reason and to think in mathematical terms, and the highest point on the line is reserved for philosophy and the ability to consider or understand the nature of the existence.
Perhaps the best known example of Plato’s works that helps offer understanding of forms is the Allegory of the Cave (Soccio, p.141, 2006). Plato has Socrates describe the Allegory of the Cave in The Republic, framing it in the form of a conversation between Socrates and Glaucon. Socrates describes a group of people who are chained to the wall of a cave, and cannot see anything except the wall in front of them. A fire burns behind them, and things that pass in front of the fire cast shadows on the wall in front of the chained people. They cannot see the actual things, and can only see the shadows –or forms- of those things projected onto the wall.
Because Socrates is written as a character in The Republic, it is uncertain whether the Allegory of the Cave truly represents Socrates’ own ideas or if it is more representative of Plato’s philosophical views (Dancy, p.3, 2004). There is no question, however, that the ideas presented in the Allegory of the Cave are similar to Plato’s writings on forms, and can it even be said that the allegory helps make Plato’s forms more easily understood. According to Socrates (as portrayed in the Republic) the people chained in the cave who can only see shadows are like people who only see the world around them in limited ways (Welton, p.3, 2002). The role of the philosopher is to live as if he was once trapped in the cave and then was set free, and can now understand the reality that exists beyond the shadows and forms in the cave (Spccio, p.141, 2006).
It is interesting to note that Plato often had Socrates speak about some of these significant philosophical concepts, and scholars often disagree about how much of the words of Socrates that appear in Plato’s writing can be considered to represent Socrates acute ideas, and how much is simply Plato using the character of Socrates to express his own ideas and philosophical viewpoints (Welton, p.3, 2002). Whether or not the Allegory of the Cave is truly a Socratic concept or is really more representative of Plato’s ideas makes little difference in terms of what it teaches. The allegory serves as a means of understanding the nature of perception and the philosopher’s pursuit of trying to look beyond the physical world to understand more than the limited information offered by the senses.
Dancy, R M. Plato’s introduction of forms. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.
Soccio, D J. Archetypes of wisdom: An introduction to philosophy. Princeton, N.J: Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, 2006. Print.
Welton, W A. Plato’s forms: Varieties of interpretation. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2002. Print.