Critical Thinking

Plato’s means of ethical action along with its

  
              Plato’s View of Philosophy and
His 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 and
non-physical ideas. It directs us towards which is necessarily beyond
particulars. It seems like his understanding of philosophy is shaped by his
theory of knowledge. In a sense, his epistemology has great role on his ethical
and political ideas. We can see that ontological, epistemological, ethical and
political issues are so intertwined and blended in his philosophy. Especially,
there is no rigid distinction between the realm of philosophy and politics for
him. It seems like knowledge is sought to as means of ethical action along with
its own sake. In this sense, his idea of universal forms implies that there are
objective truths in the realm of ethics and politics too, which can be
discovered by reason. As result, wisdom has determinative role in ethical and political
life. For this reason; philosopher, as the lover of wisdom, has a central role
in ethical and political life too.
  
       In Plato’s early dialogues, we can
see Socrates as the main figure, puzzling his interlocutors with his questions.
For example, in the Laches, Socrates
is seeking for the essence of courage disembodied from any particular context. In
the Euthyphyro, he was looking for a
general standard which makes particular things pious. And in the Meno, there was the same search for an overarching
definition, this time for virtue. What is common to all of these dialogues is
that we can see the tension between universality and particularity in the
context of definitions and instances, essences and attributes. All of the early
dialogues we read in the beginnings of the semester in a sense give hints about
Plato’s understanding of philosophy and philosopher. In Plato’s eyes, Socrates
was a philosopher. He was after true nature of things. His aim was discovering
the 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 and
instances. For this reason, Socrates was a philosopher for Plato. He was
critical in his discussions, he was searching for truth by careful
examinations. This whole process was philosophical for Plato. And, it seems
like philosophical wisdom comes from the idea of universality, that is,
desiring and searching for universal truths. In this sense, we can see the
hints of Plato’s understanding of philosophy and philosopher in his early
dialogues. Although his theory of forms is not developed in a systematic manner
in Socrates’ teachings yet, I think that his ideas about philosophy and
philosopher is somehow present in those dialogues. At least, we can see the
seeds being sowed in Plato’s mind. Plato develops his philosophy and the role
of philosopher with his theory of forms in a rigorous matter in the Republic later.

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     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 Republic
that there is a one form of human excellence, which is philosophical life. And
a good state, which is ruled by philosopher kings, puts philosophical life in
the center of the city. After Socrates identifies justice in both individual
and 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” by
making distinction between philosophers and lovers of sights and sounds. For
him, lovers of sights and sounds like beautiful sounds, colors, shapes but
their thought is unable to embrace the nature of the beautiful itself. Here, we
can see how Plato implies the Form of Beauty. He implies that lovers of sights
and sounds do not deal with forms but they deal with particular things. For
this reason, they are the lovers of opinions, not knowledge. In this way, Plato
identifies philosophers as lovers of wisdom. For him, only philosophers can
have knowledge as they love the sight of truth. Philosopher is the one who
would be able to reach the beautiful itself, different from lovers of sights
and 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 can
have knowledge, they are the best to grasp what is good for the city. Like someone
who knows how to navigate should steer ships and be captain, philosophers are
the ones who most fit to rule as they are guided by the truth and always pursue
it in every way. In the following lines, Plato explains how philosopher is not
mere possessor of knowledge but also the most virtuous man if it happens to
receive appropriate instruction. Then, in the final stage of construction of
the just city, Plato explains how to produce philosopher-kings among the
guardians. And it turns out that the most important thing is the study of the
Form of the Good. If someone understands the Form of the Good, then he gains
highest level of knowledge and becomes fit to be a philosopher-king. Socrates
does not say what exactly it is but gives analogy of the Sun. He says that the
Sun belongs to the visible world while the Good belongs to the intelligible
world. According to this analogy; like the sun is the source of light and
therefore visibility in the visible realm, the Good is the source of
intelligibility. Also, the sun enables us to see. In other words, sight is the
result of the light. Similarly, like the sun enables eyes to see, the Good
enables mind to know. The Good gives us capacity for knowledge. It gives truth
to the things known and power to know to the knower. Moreover, like the sun is
the 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, Form
of 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 this
sense, this analogy implies Plato’s understanding of philosophy and shows why
should we be in a pursuit of knowledge. Plato’s second image, the divided line
analogy, makes clearer the importance of the Good by showing the order and
hierarchy of knowledge. The divided line represents four grades of knowledge
available to us. Also, it represents two types of apprehension and objects. The
bottom two segments represent our access to the visible realm while the top two
represent our access to the intelligible realm. For Plato, the lowest type of
thinking is imagination. A person in state of imagination considers images,
shadows and reflections as the most real things in the world. The next stage in
the line is belief. A person in the stage of belief thinks that sensible
particulars such as natural objects and artifacts are the most real things in
the world. These two types of thinking give only opinions. Further up the line,
there are two grades of knowledge: thought and understanding. Although thought
deals with forms; it benefits from sensible particulars like images to help in
its reasoning, like how geometers use a picture of a triangle to help them
reason about triangularity. So, the object of thought is mathematical objects.
Finally, the last segment of the line represents philosophical understanding
and the objects of it are only ideas or forms, which are all given existence
and truth by the Good itself. Once you have reached Form of the Good with a
philosophical 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 we
could 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 why
philosophy is a request for truth for him. With this analogy, we can see that
philosophy is a process of proceeding in the line of order of things, heading
towards the truth and building a philosophical life along with the knowledge of
things. Finally, in the beginning of Book
VII, Plato presents his most famous metaphor: the allegory of the cave. I
think that this metaphor is the best in illustrating philosophy’s and
philosopher’s roles. In this image, Socrates describes a group of people living in a cave since birth, never seeing the
light of the day. They are bounded, so they cannot look either side or behind
them, but only straight ahead. There is a fire behind them and behind the fire
there is a wall. There are statues on the top of the wall and the people watch
shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind
them, and give names to these shadows. The prisoners watch the stories that
these 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 prisoners
represent lowest stage on the line- imagination. A prisoner is somehow freed
from his bonds, and look at the fire and the statues themselves. Then, he
realizes that what he sees now are more real than shadows and accepts the
statues and fire as the most real things in the world. This stage in the cave
represents belief. He has made contact with real things, the statues, but he is
not aware that there is a greater reality, which is outside the cave. Next, the
prisoner goes out of the cave and finally sees the real objects. He sees that
these objects are even more real than the statues and those were only the
copies of them. Now, he has reached the stage of thought. When his eyes are
fully adjusted to the brightness of the outside world, he lifts his sight and
look at the sun. He understands that the sun is the cause of everything he sees
around him. The sun represents the Form of the Good and the prisoner has
reached the highest state of knowledge. Socrates explains how the philosopher
is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave. He seeks knowledge outside the
cave and outside of the senses. His
intellectual journey represents the philosopher’s journey as a way of reaching
the truth and wisdom. Socrates says that the free prisoner would think that the
world outside the cave was superior to the world he experienced in the cave; he
would bless himself for the change, and pity the other prisoners and would want
to 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 he
re-enters the cave, just as he was when he was first exposed to the sun. The
prisoners, according to Plato, would infer from the returning man’s blindness that
the journey out of the cave had harmed him and that they should not have a
similar journey. Socrates concludes that the prisoners, if they were able,
would therefore reach out and kill anyone who attempted to drag them out of the
cave. I think that this part shows that the prisoners are happy in their
ignorance and they are not even aware of their ignorance. And they have
prejudices, which they don’t know to be prejudices. And the return of the
illuminated prisoner represents philosopher’s role in Plato’s philosophy. He
returns even though he knows that they will hate him and even kill him, as the
Athenian Court killed Socrates. He goes back because some of the prisoners may
listen, look and may be enabled to rise that happier and sunlit life outside
the cave. If we identify the illuminated prisoner with Socrates, we can say
that 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 ignorant
like the prisoners in the cave, he has true knowledge and direct access to the
reality, even though the ordinary people don’t understand him. Plato thinks
that they don’t understand and in order to understand, we must all proceed
through the lower stages in order to higher stages. We each begin our lives
within the cave, with our heads and legs bound. Education is a struggle to move
as 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 some
philosopher-kings. And, philosophers are not only the rulers but also they are
the best teachers, who should go to the dark and ignorant world to enlighten the
ignorant people.

      To conclude, philosophy is
literally love of wisdom for Plato. It is a matter of seeking universal,
non-changing, objective truths. Also, philosopher is the one who has the
knowledge of the forms for Plato. In the three images in the Republic: the Sun, the divided line and the
allegory of the cave, he explains the role of philosophy and the philosopher
while working out his epistemology and metaphysics. Moreover, philosophy is a
means 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 direct
aid of philosophy. Since philosopher is the one who loves truth more than
anything and who dwells on the realm of intelligible objects, Plato puts him in
the center of the city as a philosopher king. In this sense, we can see that philosophy
is crucial to make the just city possible for Plato. From this point of view,
we can say that the Republic is a
defense of philosophy not in terms of the epistemological, political or
metaphysical realms but it is a defense of philosophy as a way of life.  

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