On Plato, A Perspective
by Dr. Parviz Dehghani
Who was Plato? Does it really matter? To me it is just a name. Of course, it is not any name. He happened to be one of Socrates’ best students. Plato (427-347 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher. He loved wisdom, like his teacher. But what is “wisdom”? It simply means the knowledge of the real nature of reality. This reality is beyond what we ordinarily experience. It is the reality behind the phenomenon or appearance, which Immanuel Kant, the German thinker of the 18th century, called “noumenon”. Now, what if we challenge the idea that there’s a reality beyond the way the world appears to us. Is it possible? Of course, it is possible. It is also possible that there’s nothing behind what we see and perceive. However, the very definition of “philosophy” leads us to wonder whether there’s a hidden reality of which we have no idea. The word “Sophia” or “wisdom” is what we’re looking for.
What was Plato trying to do? They say, he was to save the phenomena? I guess it means he was making an attempt to explain why we’re here, where came from, and finally where we’re going. Perhaps he was making an effort to understand change and decay or death. Why come, why be, why leave? Perhaps all Religions have come to elucidate the phenomenon of being.
Plato watches the movement of the waves in the sea, the falls, the wind, the moon, the trees, the clouds and many other forms of change. Why am I here to even ask these questions? Do the animals also ask these questions? I didn’t ask to be here. Did I? I’m just here, born and have no idea why. Whose plan was or is it? May be there was no plan to begin with. He, like any of us, must have wondered why our questions were not answered. Why am I put in the middle of the chaos of being in this world without any explanation? He then decided to study with Socrates, who was a unique individual, a man of reason, honesty, and integrity, a great philosopher. Socrates was also wondering about the world around him. He, very much like Plato, asked why Athens had been ruined. Why democracy was not functioning the way it should. He, like Plato, rejected the democracy prevalent in Athens. I personally don’t believe that Socrates and Plato were both against democracy, which had been the hallmark of the Greek culture for many centuries. What they refuted, however, was what democracy had become.
Athena was the Greek goddess of wisdom, skills, and warfare (Webster’s new world dictionary). Athens was the bastion of pure and genuine democracy. However, it had been derailed from its original functionality by the time it was criticized by Socrates and Plato.
We learn from the Greek historical records that religions, gods, goddesses, myth, and mythologies represented the period of faith. Faith in turn gave way to reason, which eventually paved the way for ethics and morality. The fourth period starts with Plato, who introduced what it was known by philosophy then.
Let us not forget that, I believe, there was a time when prophets were philosophers and vice versa. This is the history of the Greek culture in a nut shell up to the coming of Plato. Religion, science, ethics (Socrates), and philosophy (Plato) were four periods we ought to remember. Even though we let Socrates be the symbol of the ethical movement, he was also a thinker par excellence. Nevertheless, Philosophy had to be put on the right tracks. With the help of Socrates and Plato philosophy entered a new chapter after Thales, the first pre-Socratic philosopher.
The agony of uncertainty has always been the subject matter of great thinkers. Why things are so uncertain? Why the world is so imperfect? Where is perfection? Where is real happiness? The world we live in and experience is so short lived. We’re full of joy, only momentarily and sad immediately after. Why do we go through this rollercoaster, which can also go to the reverse? It stops from going forward and suddenly backs up in reverse. What crime have we committed to be in this agitator called our world? The problem is that the world is not even ours. What do we own anyway? We think we own even gods, ourselves, and the whole world. We live in a cubical world we build around ourselves. Even this subjective world doesn’t last.
When I see imperfection, I’m, even logically, bound to think of perfection. I ought or I must control my mind to see the truth. However, I’m made of flesh and blood. It demands satisfaction. We’re like trees; our roots are in the ground and branches in the sky. If we’re not held back, we do anything to get to our goals. In other words, the goal justifies the means, which is rejected by natural law. We have grown up thinking Robin Hood was right in what he did, He rubbed the rich to feed the poor. Did we know he was violating the natural law in the process? We read the story to our children and are happy when they watch the movies are based on it. In one episode in “Three’s company” show, the 13-year-old girl sent a false telegram to them from the land lord’s phone so the two upstairs girls would go away. When she was asked why she did what she did, she answered, I just wanted to be alone with Jack. When Jack asked her to tell the truth to the girls, she denied it and lied. Finally, the land lord came upstairs with her and then, and only then the little girl told them all the truth. “Three’s company” first episode was aired in March 1977. All the actors, except a few, lied in order to get to their goals. This comedy is shown even now, in the 21th century and through the commercials makes money for the network. I don’t believe we have evolved morally since the time of Socrates and Plato. Find me a perfect human being who has never lied in his or her life time and I congratulate you. Janet lies to the landlord so Jack could be their roommate otherwise he would be kicked out. She told him Jack was gay so he could live with two girls. Truth has no respect here. You might argue that this is only a show. Nonetheless, movies and show represent what goes on in our society and influence people as much as what people do affect the shows. There’s a dialectical relation between the two.
Plato was searching for a way out of this dilemma of existence in which we’re driven towards immorality and improprieties. We’re tossed and turned in the centrifuge of being trying to make sense of this predicament. We’re caught among different pleasures of life offered to us. Religions are there to tell us right from wrong. Feeling of guilt is part and parcels of this system or better, institution.
Plato was a rationalist, but not in the modern sense of the word. Ordinary reason was not what he was concerned about. For him the intellect was the source of his rationalism. For the 18th century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant the two, namely, reason and Intellect, seem to have been combined, but not for Plato.
Works of arts, whether the human bodies or otherwise, were to be admired and not used and abused. A florist wrote on a piece of cardboard: “smell the roses”, although we know we have hard time finding roses whose looks are followed by some perfume these days. We can even change the color of flowers through some kind of chemicals. Plato was tired of the fake world he was living in. Those flowers, which are exhibited, are not really roses or at least not the ones we grow up with in other cultures. The real roses have their own special perfumes. It is also possible there’re roses that just don’t smell naturally. However, if we interfere with their nature, we’re representing fakeness. When it comes to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day on March 17, we color carnations green. Of course, we do this with good spirit. These flowers are “whole” not “half” like a living human being before his or her death. Having only the appearance or phenomenon, however, is not sufficient. But even a whole is not what he meant by “ideae” or “Idea”. As much as we’re “whole” before we die, we’re still imperfect like those roses and carnations, because they’re just not authentic. To live authentically, we must not be fake. Ideal man or woman is not of this world. A real rose still is not a perfect one. See how far removed we’re from true reality of what we observe. We fall for the appearance of things, which are nothing but counterfeits and false. We shouldn’t conceal the truth with falsehood. If I’m aware of the fact that my king is wrong, I ought not dress him or her with the dress of falsehood. We’re reminded of the story of the naked emperor. Apparently, no one was able to come up with ideal clothes for him until a couple of tailors promised him to make attire, which was unique, and no king had ever worn such beautiful clothes. The tailors pretended they had created a work of art with a material, which was so fine that it was practically invisible. The king decided to march on the street and show off his new and perfect attire. People standing on both sides were clapping as the king was passing. It took only a kid to shout that mummy, mummy the king is naked. Hell broke loose and by the time the king sent after the two tailors, they had left the country for fear of their life. We cover the king, who had been known for his lies and lack of ability to run his country prosperity.
Socrates criticized Pericles, the military and statesman leader of Athens for doing the opposite. Plato knew about those who were flattering the king and those who tried to warn him of getting into war with Spartans. Perhaps Plato thought it was time for a philosopher king to rule Athens. Expert jewelers know the difference between real diamonds and authentic ones. Honest perfume sellers know the difference between the real and unreal ones. As long as they know, they’re morally responsible not to sell that which is not authentic.
Romans must have learned from both Socrates and Plato that democracy should give way to monarchy. They also knew that there were times when monarchy should lead the way. They also practiced with the combination of the two. When Rome had an emperor, senate was also functioning as a body representing the will of the people. Monarchy stood for “one” and Democracy symbolized “many”. “One” was the emperor and “many” manifested the people. The deal was perhaps when both were at work. The main issue here is which one is stressed more. Socrates and Plato decided for the “one” over the “many”.
We have replaced the Plato’s original term “Ideae” with Form. What is “Form” anyway? It is “the structure, pattern, organization, or essential nature of anything.” (The Random House, College Dictionary). This is different from matter. I still believe the word “Idea”, with capital “I”, is a better choice to explain Plato’s thoughts concerning this matter. Form is wholeness in contrast to part. Idea is not idea, which is in my mind. Idea is “One” and its opposite are “particulars”. It is the question of “One” and “many”. Idea is the reality of what exists in the world. Plato urges us to gain knowledge of the Ideas, namely, remember what we knew before we entered this world. We ought to become the reality of Ideas by knowing and remembering them. May be prophets or saints embodied these Ideas. Perhaps the historical Buddha as well as other Buddha’s had experienced what Plato meant by perfection.
To explain change and becoming, Plato had to believe in a transcendent Reality, which is unchangeable. He knew this was the only language we could understand, which is the reality of relativity. The movement of a train can’t be explained, unless there’s a station. The latter doesn’t travel with the trains. The floor I walk on is not in motion so my movement would make sense, unless there’s an earthquake and floor shakes under my feet. And even if there was, the motion of the earthquake also needs a stationary fact. However, Plato knew that the immutable realities like Forms had to be transcended along with the changing world.
The Ultimate Reality is beyond binary world we live in. It is way beyond dualism. It is absolute Oneness. He must have realized that once we deal with the Ultimate Reality, then change has no meaning. Then what is change? It is an illusion, as the Hindus have believed for thousands of years. Parmenides, the pre-Socratic thinker, also held the same belief.
Plato observes the difficulties of being in this realm of existence. He asks questions and relies heavily on his teacher, Socrates for answers. He gradually pulls away from teachings and began his own inquiry. Why do we have to suffer? Why happiness is followed once pain is no longer in existence? Why do we have to deal with dilemmas in general and moral ones in particular in our life?
We experience unpleasant alternatives in our relationship with the opposite sex. Now we both have to find out why it is easy for some to get along and hard for some to do so? We blame each other for being unable to be happy together. We bring in children, who would eventually run into the same problems as their parents.
Plato saw the ethical and moral problems among his fellowmen and politicians. Lies, deceptions, and insincerity were every day affairs. We’re in this cave or prison and want to get out. We desire to free ourselves from it all. We would like to taste a little happiness, even though temporary. It is painful to see those who are so drawn in ignorance. In the midst of this chaos surrounding us we’re longing for freedom, which can’t be found in suicide, death, and dreams. These are escapes. Reading novels or watching movies based on them make us escape from the reality around us, but can they provide answers to our questions? Minor pleasures are short lived. The emotional rollercoaster we go through affect us psychologically. Our physical health starts showing signs of being unable to cope with all this. We’re in pain and suffering. We want a way out of this predicament. Plato doesn’t recommend mediation as the Hindus and Buddhist do. Then what does he suggest? He seems to be directing us to be discerning between right and wrong first, as Socrates would. He then goes beyond our ethical duties to our philosophical obligations. For him a healthy body requires a healthy moral attitude. Morality has its effect on our health, and vice versa. When I have a headache, I don’t feel happy and I can’t do what I like to do. My mental attitude is different towards myself and others. On the other hand, when I am not honest with myself and other people, I live a false life, which in turn effect my health, even if not right away. You might argue that you have seen many corrupt individuals, who so happen to be very healthy. Plato would say that an apparent good health is not necessarily a sign of good health. Some are psychologically sick, though they may be physically well. Let us not forget that we’re great actors. Professional actors live a double life. On the one hand, they act in their own life. On the other hand, they are movie actors. We can be great pretenders when we’re not truthful. We lie while we’re under oath. We cover the truth as well as falsehood. In other words, we conceal and clothe the truth with falsehood. We also hide our falsehood and the falsehood of others. We disobey the rules and regulations set before us as students in our classrooms, while the teachers are lecturing on ethics and morality.
Plato tells us we’re all confronting imperfections on a daily basis. The question is how are we to deal with them with no conflict? Once we have gained the knowledge of the Forms, which are manifestation of perfection, we have the moral responsibility to correct those who’re still ignorant. We ought to control our anger even though we’re faced with darkness. We are the role models to be emulated.
For Plato we have the alternative or choice between the world of Being and becoming. We ought to move up the Jacob’s ladder in order to reach the realm of the Ultimate Reality or the One. This is where there’s no duality existing in the world of the many.
Biblically, angels were ascending and descending on the ladder in Jacob’s dream. Later on, Christ called himself that very ladder. He said, man doesn’t live by bread alone, which can be interpreted as the world of becoming. We should transcend this realm of change and becoming and reach where there’s no change and movement and then move all the way towards the Ultimate Reality, which is beyond any duality, being and non-being, and rest and motion. This Reality doesn’t exist, because it is beyond existence and non-existence. Being is its first manifestation. We exist, namely, standing out there becoming. We’re being in the world, as Heidegger put it. In fact, that is what the word “existence” means. Given this understanding of Plato’s philosophy, this world of change and becoming is nothing but an illusion, which was Parmenides’ position to begin with. It is also possible that the latter was influenced by the Hindu idea that time and history as well as the whole of the universe is all but illusion. Let us not forget that both Pythagoras and Plato believed in reincarnation. We, in the West, didn’t know about Hinduism till the middle of the 19th century through Schopenhauer, the German Prussian thinker. It is possible; however, that St. Augustine knew something of Buddhism by way of being a Manichaean at an earlier age in his life.
There’re thousands of books written throughout centuries concerning Plato’s character and his philosophy, which we’re to bypass due to the limitation of this humble article.
How are we to achieve the pure knowledge of the perfect Forms? It is possible that Plato was familiar with what the Hindus had been practicing for thousands of years? After all, what is the Intellect but a ray of the Sun within us metaphorically? Naturally the ray is connected to the Sun. If we can reach this ray by meditation or contemplation, the result should be the same, that is, you’re enlightened at the end. So, in reality there’s no bifurcation between what Plato had suggested and what the Hindus has lived by. After all, Greeks and Hindus were human beings and they still are. There may be different path ways to the same destination, which is at the apex and the pick of this mountain. Someone once said, there’re as many paths to the Ultimate Reality as there’re people in the world. (The movie, “Marmulak”)
Plato wanted to elevate us, both intellectually and practically, to the highest point. He was asking us to become as light as a balloon filled with helium of highest values and virtues. Once we’re enlightened, then we can fly. The word “helium” is “Helios” in Greek, which means “sun”.
Physics was not as important as ethics and mathematics for Plato. Although Euclid warned him of fragility of geometry, which was a postulate to him, Plato had high regard for this field of studies as if math was absolute. Euclidian geometry taught us that the shortest distance between two points is straight line. For modern mathematicians, however, there’s nothing straight in the universe, which shows that Euclid was right when he considered the geometrical structures nothing but assumptions.
Plato didn’t think once you studied with him at the academy, you would know how to deal with human everyday problems. Ethics was never an easy subject. Morality was never a subject matter like science. Science was able to defog certain beliefs held by the first period people in Greek culture, that is, faith and Religions. This period belonged to those who had great faith in gods and goddesses. Myth and mythologies developed as individuals faced problems they couldn’t understand. The second period used rationality and science to come up with answers to questions raised concerning the world they lived. However, science is not necessarily capable of solving our human and metaphysical issues. It was unable then and it is incapable even now. Plato knew we needed something more to pull us away from the world of many to the realm of the One and only Reality. He used mathematics with caution. He knew the pre-Socratic philosophers also made use of mathematics in order to advance their scientific goals. We’re so attached to our carnal needs and economic ambitions that we have no desire to get out of the cave of ignorance. We suffer because of this lack of power and courage to detach ourselves from all these entanglements. We ought to free ourselves from this world of relativity and darkness to achieve the light of the immutable realities, which he called the realm of perfection and Forms.
We have already passed the first primary round of election by the democrats and the second one is imminent. None of the candidates ever mentioned that we’re in a spiritual predicament and we ought to do something about it. I have followed the elections for many years and I’m yet to see if we could stop worrying more about our material and economic needs and instead start focusing on Religious and philosophical hunger before we reach a point of no return.
Environmental problems are the direct results of our attitude towards our mother earth. There’s a philosophical message hidden in what we have been confronting for decades. Our world is sinking like Titanic. More than a century ago this ship hit ice and sank. With the advent of global warming perhaps more ships will have to dodge the great icebergs as they begin floating in the ocean. We may be able to avoid Titanic like calamities, but we’re not going to stop the melting of them, which will bring up the water level and eventually swallow our cities around the globe.
Women and mother earth have been suffering together because they have something in common in their femininity. Gaia, this Greek goddess, has begun to punish us.
Plato as well as many great prophets and saints around the world have been warning us that it is important not to destroy our planet. By keeping our eyes on the Forms of perfection, we can save our habitat. We need this mother earth, though one day we must detach ourselves from its soil by pulling our roots off the ground and move up like hot air balloons. As the bags of sands are dropped, the balloons ascend to a higher level. We should also leave these bags of attachments to the world, so we don’t ruin the mother land. This is nature, our mother from which we come and to which we return. It is our moral duty to keep it safe for the next generation just as those before us did for us. Who is a misogynist? It is the one who hates women. Is there a relation between misogyny and those who have no respect for nature and environment? This is something to think about.
We’re all mortal and will die someday. Mozart (1756-91), the Austrian composer, didn’t even live to finish his Requiem K.626. In Latin the word “Requiem” means “rest”. It is a musical setting for a Mass when a person is dead. (Webster’s New World Dictionary) Plato was aware of mortality. After all, he saw how Socrates passed on in front of him. The question still remains, then why destroy our mother earth? Plato wrote the dialogues for the future of his generation so we can read them now. We ought to save our planet for the new generation.
Crimes have been committed against philosophers and prophets throughout the centuries. But the voice of justice and humanity must not be silenced. Socrates was sentenced to death for what he stood for. Great personalities were crucified and bled to death. Our world is a gift to us. We’re attached to it through our umbilical cord. It is our departure place from which we take off towards perfection. Death doesn’t necessarily guarantee we’re going to be enlightened. This world is not perfect. Plato’s Forms are in the realm of perfection. They’re also many. The Form of the Good is the highest of them all. However, the lotus flower moves up till it reaches the sun and we should reach the Ultimate Reality, which is beyond dualism. Binary reality can’t fit into its nature. It is One and only One, which verses the many.
We try all different methods to realize our inner strength. We become naked and run into jungles to battle the difficulties confronting us by nature in reality shows. We participate in, “naked and afraid”, which is he title of this show to prove that we can overcome all problems once we make it there. There’s a difference between being naked within and being naked without. But I wish life was that easy.
Plato, on the other hand, believed we should conquer ourselves in order to be able to ascend the Ultimate Perfection. A true hero is the one who has achieved this goal like Socrates himself.
Looked at symbolically, however, this reality show on T.V. teaches us that not everyone survives and reach the final destination.
According to Plato, we all ought to aim high, nevertheless, there’re only a few who can climb up the Jacob’s ladder. Lotus flower starts with its roots in the mud and then it moves up through the water in order to reach the surface. Once on the surface, it spreads its flat, pancake looking leaves on the pool. Once out of the water, it keeps growing vertically, as it did before, towards the sun. Some stay on the water level and some ascend higher until they’re enlightened by the sun.
This is what we call the allegory of the cave demonstrated by Plato in his dialogue.
Aristotle, who had been Plato’s student for 20 years, for some reason disagreed with his teacher’s notion of “Ideaes” or Forms. This is different from what we name as “ideas”. Mind is the place of ideas. Plato’s “Ideae” was not mind bound. It was independent of mind. It was perfect in contrast to our ideas that are imperfect. Our opinions are not perfect.
Nothing is perfect in this world, not even our theories of government. Persians ran a vast empire with monarchical system. For them, there was one God and one king, who ruled the empire from the top of the pyramid of authority. It had its centuries of success and occasionally failures. Although a powerful enemy of Athens and Greek sovereignty, it was also admired by Socrates, who had pulled away from many gods and believed in one God. Following his great teacher, Plato began mistrusting the democracy practiced in Athens. It is very clear why Socrates and Plato would switch from democracy, which represented “many” to monarchy, which conveyed “one”. Romans seem to have adopted this transition from these two great thinkers. Augustus, 63 B.C.-14 A.D. was the first emperor of Rome, representing the power of monarchy and oneness. When the oneness of governing Rome did not work for the nation, the power of many would enter the arena of the political realm as the rule of democracy. As we can see, the roots of this inter change goes back to the Greek phenomenon of switching from many to one as we saw practiced by Socrates and Plato. We went from many gods of the classical Greek to the one God with Socrates. In Hinduism we also moved from many gods of the ancient India to the one Ultimate Reality called “Brahman” during the Upanishad. In the Semitic world the Hebrews believed in many gods, but they only worshipped one. The many gods finally gave way to monotheism and the one. There’s only one light, the sun that penetrates a piece of crystal or prism, we then see the spectrum of many colors, the color of rainbow on our walls. The many colors gather together and return to the sun. The problem of one and many has been an astonishing philosophical dilemma for thousands of years among many thinkers. We still don’t know how “many” emerges out of “one” and vice versa? None of them make sense without the other.
It is said that the success of the Roman Empire was due to the fact that every time the republic was malfunctioning, an emperor would replace it. In other words, Romans would go from Persian monarchy to Greek democracy and vice versa. When one form of government was not functioning well, the pendulum would move from one side to the other. This is the way grandfather’s clock worked for many centuries.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 B.C. was a Roman statesman. He was also an orator and writer. He lived during the time when Julius Caesar, c 100-44 B.C., the Roman general was assassinated followed by the rivalry between Augustus and Mark Antony, which ended up with the former to become the first emperor of Rome. We all remember the role Cleopatra, 69-30 B.C., the queen of Egypt, played in the life of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. She married the former and had a son from him before her husband was assassinated. The love story between Cleopatra and Mark Antony became the subject of an epic movie years ago. What was missing in the movie, however, was what happened to Cicero, this great Roman philosopher. He supported the republic and democracy as against monarchy, which was represented by an emperor. Cicero was ordered to be killed in a most horrible way by Mark Antony. Cicero’s philosophical orientation was towards Stoicism. He believed we ought to live our lives in accordance to nature.
This event in the life of Cicero reminds me of what happened to Markus Aurelius, A.D., 121-180, the Stoic thinker in the movie, “Gladiator”. Of course, the movie was not 100% based on the historical facts. However, for our purpose here, we can learn a lot from the story put together for the viewers. Markus Aurelius asked Maximus, the greatest general Rome had ever seen, to replace him and be an emperor till Rome becomes a Republic again. His son, Camados was inept and unfit to be the next emperor. This is where Rome needed a qualified individual to accept the oneness of the duty till it becomes the nation of the many or democracy. Democracy, after all, is the rule of the many rather than being ruled by the one like in monarchy. This brings us to the present time when our democracy is being challenged in the United States of America. There seems to be a tendency to move back to centuries ago in England when King James or his predecessors ruled and not just reigned as King George during the time of George Washington, 242 years ago.
Plato thought a philosopher King or advised by a thinker would be a right form of ruling Athens. Rule of a selected few over many was the ideal form of government. The qualified King resides on the top of the pyramid ruling down over the nation.
John Locke was perhaps the one who paved the way for American democracy by refuting the sovereignty of King James. When Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), English philosopher argued that in his social contract theory a sovereign is necessary to look over the nation, John Locke (1632-17o4), another English thinker maintained there was no need for a King and then fled to France. By the time he came back King James had abdicated the throne. Kings ever since remained as part of the British royalty and yet parliament decided the destiny of the citizens. Kings only reigned but didn’t rule.
In America we decided to have a leader with limited power and let the senate and congress be the voice of people. Nevertheless, when the president wants more authority like the authoritarian regimes, then based on our constitution people rise and curb their presidents and elect a new one. In some sense, in our form of government we have both a monarchy and democracy, but very different from the Roman empire form of government.
Here we have both one and many in our governing body, which has survived so far for 242 years and remains to be seen whether it will last as Roman Empire did. As far as our two-party systems, some believe the republicans have always supported their republican presidents and the affluent, while democrats have always been for the people. They occasionally changed positions. However, over all they stay firm in their positions. The former, namely, the republicans, seem to be for monarchy, while the latter, that is, the democrats are for democracy. The former stays with the one, whereas the latter are for the many. I guess we’re still struggling with the one and the many and no ideal form of government is in sight. We still have a long way to find an ideal form of government.
Plato’s republic was a model or paradigm of what an ideal society should look like. He himself tried to see if it worked. To his surprise, it failed. However, let us not forget that the republic was very much in the ideal realm and was not of this world. Plato very clearly divided these two abodes. Nonetheless, he was wondering whether the logos of Heraclitus could become flesh to live among us. Perhaps only prophets were able to accomplish this goal by embodying all of Plato’s Forms of perfection, even the ideal city and government.
Why was remembering and memory so important for Plato? Plato and Pythagoras, c582-c500 B.C., the philosopher and mathematician, both believed in reincarnation. Plato, who was also a mathematician, argued that we must have lived before we entered this world. Was he and Pythagoras influenced by Hinduism? We have no evidence to conform this. Nevertheless, we would like to know why we always look back at the memories of the past with some sort of regret. Past event mattered a lot for Plato as well as Confucius. The latter said, he was the lover of the past. Socrates and Confucius were almost contemporary. The future, as we know, is marked by the word “anxiety”. It is unknown and is yet to materialize. Plato preferred to deal with the forgotten past events, which are worth to remembering. This is more than keeping chronicles and remembering the historical facts. Chinese, unlike Indians, kept chronicles. Hindus believed in the cyclical reality of Samsara, or the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Greeks also believed in the cyclical reality of life. Then why would Plato worry about the past? The past he was concerned with was the life we lived before we came into this world, not necessarily what we experienced in this life, which was what Freud used in his psychoanalysis. We long for the things past and the earlier days of our life. As we grow older, we wish things were the way they had always been. We search for eternity in time. As much as we deny the reality of time, which lacks substantiality, we long for eternity. We wish things were the way they were when we opened our eyes into this world.
Beatles sang a song called “yesterday” and other singers reminded us of “memory”. We can’t deny the fact that history is real and exists. Things are constantly changing and moving before our very eyes. I purposely by pass the reality of time to concentrate on motion as it is in itself. Things have substantiality, not time. The one element that keeps track of things is our memory. This tape recorder captures the reality of the existence of things as they go away. We seem to have created time and calendar to organize our lives accordingly. What was, let us say, the concept of time among the Australian aborigines thousands of years ago and even now? Thanks to Hegel, the German philosopher, time became very important, perhaps because it hosted “Geist” or spirit as it enters the flow of time. 19th century is when we became more concerned about time. Not only is time not absolute, it, in some sense, doesn’t even exist. If it does, it is relative. The people in the southern parts of the United States are less pressured by time than we who are in northeast. When we were kids’ summers felt like eternity and lasted forever, but now summers end before they start.
Plato is hoping we are able to remember the past that is way before our birth. Is it possible to achieve such a goal at all? Well, a great person like Buddha was able to remember his past lives after he was enlightened. It is said that he remembered about 500 lives he had lived. According to Plato there must be a reason why we’re so nostalgic and desire to return to the past. We’re curious as to what went on before and what had happened prior to our birth. A little kid drops him or her on the floor or ground to get the parents’ attention knowing that the age of innocence is gone with the wind. Mother is either pregnant with one or has a new born baby. Innocence attracts while an intended act reminds us of grownups. This child knows, however, that he or she has to work hard to earn attention. Perhaps he is looking for a lost love, a love replaced by another, which is not the same. Past is our history and what we went through in our life. Past reminds us of death of the events that were once alive. I can never bring back the moment I spent with my brother while traveling together. He was tired of driving, so he pulled over in a rest area in the countryside and took a nap while I was sitting next to him. In another incident we stopped at a school to spend the night. It was summer time and there were no students there. The room I was given to rest somehow reminded me of a room in my late uncle’s house. My father’s brothers were all very dear to me as I was growing up. The next day my brother asked me why I was so sad? Did the room remind you of our uncle’s, he asked? I had never thought he was that perceptive. How did he notice what I had experienced? This moment, namely, my past nostalgia, which is now a past within a past, will never come back. The moment I had been in my uncle’s room and the room, which reminded me of that room will never come back. This to me is the death of the events of the past. We’re constantly going through life and death experience in our life. Being and non-being move together in a chain of events and this becoming. The unknown becomes present and dies to eventually become the history of my past life. Why are we going through this rollercoaster of life and death? We wish we could freeze these moments and turn them into eternity. These fleeting moments, however, cannot become eternal. This is the world of becoming, changing, moving, unfolding, and finally with our death they stop, or will they? Perhaps some practice suicide hoping for such an event. But suicide, at least in our culture, is not an answer. I guess we wish to bring this train to a halt. Nevertheless, we know very well that for some unknown reason we can’t stop this, unless we do what Buddha did.
We try to return to places we have memories from to find out that it is not the same. The house is there to remind us of the time we spent there, however, that very event of the past doesn’t repeat itself. We always have tendencies to attach ourselves to the fleeting moments, but we end up with regret.
Knowing these difficulties of life, Plato taught that in spite of the change and becoming, there is a realm in which things are eternally in existence. This is the abode of pure actuality, to use Aristotelian teachings. An acorn doesn’t have to become an oak. It is already an oak tree. Who knows, maybe this is the tree of life we have in the Genesis. The tree of becoming is the one the fruits of which were forbidden for Adam and Eve to touch.
Our souls seem to have been traveling with us from many lives we lived before. The souls of other people are also with us. Transmigration of our souls seems to be a factor in Plato’s philosophy. My soul is not really mine. Nothing is mine to begin with. It is in fact nobody’s. I say, for instance, my body or my soul as if they’re distinguished from one another. When I say at death my body is life less, but my soul survives, it seems as if the latter never belonged to me. It has gone and been on a journey through many living beings. In both Hinduism and Platonism there’s a distinction between the soul and the body, unlike the ancient Hebrew tradition. This soul of mine has been around and has gone through number of living beings from which I have inherited my characteristics. Let us for a moment think not in terms of what Buddha experienced as far as his past life. What if I told you we’re the end results of many souls who lived before us in this world and who had the experience of enlightenment? In other words, we can access good and bad, right and wrong experiences by our ancestors. It is not my particular sole purpose who has gone through many life experiences. It is rather the souls of our ancestors who’re within us. It is not my DNA, using genetic code, which has gone through many lives as popular Buddhism teaches us. It is rather the D. Ns of millions of individuals who lived before us and are exiting within our souls. We’re not just individual in this world. We carry our ancestors within us. Buddha remembered his past life experiences. We’re by products of men and women who made love and had babies. They eventually died and passed on. But somehow, they lived in their children. Do we know them? Of course not! However, they’re in us. There were many prophets, saints, and Buddha’s who are in us. They had embodied Plato’s Forms. When we remember them, we can also have access to their knowledge. Buddha, at one occasion, picked up a few leaves and addressed his followers: I have taught you this much, but I know as many as all the leaves in the forest. People receive according to their qualifications.
The choice is ours as to which direction we ought to turn. We can either decide to join the party of darkness or lightness. The ancient Religions of Persia, that is, “Zoroastrianism” and “Manichaeism” teach about two forces of good and evil existing within us and the cosmos. We can either side with the former or the latter. The truth lies somewhere around these claims. Finally, experience is the final word here not intellectual exercise. We need to smell the perfume a flower rather than reading about it.
Plato seems to have tried to convey this message that our souls have experienced the knowledge of “Ideaes” or now Forms. We have experienced excellence or virtue in our past lives. I already know what the Form of courage is. I’m aware of it and know it. It is not the geometric middle between rashness and cowardice. It is neither the former, nor the latter. It is not both either. It is about neither/nor logic. It is about the balance between the two. It is like the old fashion scale of the doctors. But if I have already had an experience of it in my past life, then I will not have problem reaching it. That is how great figures in history are nothing but embodiments of Plato’s Forms, like courage, generosity, humanity, beauty, kindness, and goodness. Are those personalities perfect? I’m afraid the answer is no. Perfection only belongs to the transcendent realities and can never become compromised. The world reflects those Forms and yet doesn’t become perfect. May be Job, the biblical man, had thought that by being morally good he would achieve the knowledge of God. However, the story proves otherwise. Virtues can act like building blocks, namely, the bricks of our characters. Nonetheless, they can also create a Berlin wall, which separated East Germany from West Germany. They can stand between us and perfection.
Plato was very much aware of this problem. He knew we were locked up in the cave of ignorance. Ethics is very important as a prelude to the knowledge of the Truth. However, morality can’t get us out of the cave of ignorance, so that we can see the light of the sun. It can be abused and manipulated or misunderstood. We could take the bonfire light for the light of the sun, which stands for the Truth. The bonfire stands for our ethical achievement. We’re no longer in bondage and now we can see things we couldn’t see before. Our living now has reached certain structure, which is to prepare us for the higher knowledge.
Ben Howe, the author of the book, “The immoral majority” asked the question, “why some evangelists, preferred political power over Christian values in recent years, although they call themselves “moral majority”? We’re here reminded of Fried Nietzsche’s two kinds of moralities: Master and slave. Slave morality stands for Christian values and master morality symbolizes power.
For Plato, our focus should always be on seeing the light of the sun and not be contend with the light of the bonfire. The bonfire is a temporary phenomenon and will eventually come to an end. The light of the sun, symbolically, is the burning bush, which is forever. Once we’re touched by the eternal and infinite light, then we’re enlightened like Buddha.
According to Plato, this world is the realm of individuation, namely, individuality becomes a reality from generality. Plato argued for the realm of the Universals, Essences, Archetypes, Ideals, Paradigms, and Forms. This world is nothing but a reflection of those perfect Forms. We all participate in those essences. If I’m good and so are you, then both of us take part in the Form of the Good. No one is perfect in this world of relativity, particularity, impermanence, imperfection, plurality, and many. We roam in our artificial world we have built around ourselves. There’s no heaven in this world. We’re in chain and in the prison of life longing to be freed someday. Some prisoners prefer suicide as a way out of their prison cells. However, suicide is not an answer. Majority of us have committed improprieties and hope to be out of the prison of life. We try to take the short cut without realizing that by taking our lives we’re not going to reach the mother land of salvation. The same is true when drugs are used in order to find a way out of this misery of being. Little do they know that this is another short cut for which they pay a very painful price? Plato is helping us to free ourselves from this predicament and find the right way to ascend towards the Forms. Plato’s role model was Socrates, who spent a life time on living a moral way of living in this world. It was very important for Socrates to live honestly.
I believe there’s a significant connection among Ethics, psychology, and physical health. When we do something wrong, we’re bound to see its effect on our psychological state. Once we’re psychologically deranged, we feel it’s effect on our physical health. You might argue that there’re some who are very moral, but they end up with cancer. There’re also those who’re totally immoral and they’re very healthy. That may be true, and our answer is that nothing is 100% accurate. Nonetheless, there’re also some who, having been under tremendous amount of stress they end up with stomach ulcer. There’s a fascinating relation between mind and body. However, for our subject matter we prefer to stick to the working of morality and soul. Let us not forget that in Greek, the word “psyche” is defined as “soul”.
To be virtuous we ought to follow a virtuous individual. Socrates was that person whom Plato followed all his life. We’re also looking and searching for those who at least resemble Socrates. Diogenes (412? -323 B.C.), the Greek cynic thinker was also reaching for such a model of virtue. He believed virtue was the only good to follow. The essence of virtue was self-control. Giving in to external influences in life is the degradation of human dignity. (The Random House), College Dictionary) who was this wondering recluse? He is said to have carried a lantern during the daylight and when was asked why? He would gently respond by saying that, he was in search of a true human being. He once asked Alexander the great not to cover the opening of the huge wine barrel in which he lived. Alexander, the famous student of Aristotle, had simply asked him what his one request was so that he would fulfill. This great sage thanked him first and then said, please move over so I can’t be deprived from the sun light. Alexander realized then that he was blocking the sun and was amazed at this great mind and his sense of contentment.
This is perhaps Plato’s philosophy in a nutshell. We’re all in this swamp of imperfect world struggling for meaning, though it may seem absurd. We’re longing for a permanent abode in which there’s nothing but beauty and perfection. Plato was also looking for one and he thought he had found it in the realm of the Forms. At least before he left this world, he made us think of such a reality so that we can live our life accordingly.