Study Guide

Plato Buzzwords

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Everyone knows that this word comes from a and poros and literally means "without passage." Wait—what? People don't even know how to read Greek anymore?! (I knew it was a big mistake to close my Academy.)

Well, aporia is usually translated as "perplexity" and refers to the state of mind to which my character Socrates is always trying to bring his interlocutor (dialogue partner) in my dialogues.

No, he's not trying to just confuse the people he talks with—though that's what they always think. Instead, Socrates is attempting to get them to realize that the question at hand is far more complicated than they thought…that they don't know what they think they know. That kind of humility is necessary for the possibility of moral and intellectual development.

In the Meno, for example, Socrates' main interlocutor, Meno, is a young, rich, arrogant jerk who is quite certain that he knows what "virtue" is. He's got some crazy, very self-serving ideas about the nature of virtue, too, and he is very willing to act on them. So I have Socrates question him at some length, using the method of cross-examination called the elenchus. (See? Your Greek vocabulary just doubled; I'll have you speaking Ancient Greek before you know it.)

It takes a long time and a series of refutations of Meno's proposals, but eventually he acknowledges that he is in aporia and that he cannot define the term "virtue" after all. Does this then inspire him to inquire into the nature of virtue and to become a better person? Afraid not; he stays as close-minded as ever and ends up becoming a tyrant. See, there's no guarantee that my philosophical approach will succeed (I told you I was a bit of a skeptic), but it's the only hope we have.


Mo' Greek, less problems.

Doxa means "opinion" or "belief." I usually contrast this term with "knowledge" (episteme or, sometimes, gnosis) or with "wisdom" (sophia or phronesis). Whichever word we use, knowledge/wisdom is far more valuable than opinion and is what philosophy properly seeks.

Now often I use doxa to refer not just to certain claims, but to a whole mindset or level of understanding. The realm of doxa, in this sense, is the world as most people ordinarily understand and experience it. And what is characteristic of most people's understanding is that it is unstable and changeable. The world of doxa that they inhabit is continually shifting and moving around; as I like to say, it both is and is not, which is my poetic way of expressing its contradictory nature.

So are you happy living in this shifty, dream-like existence, where everything is continually up in the air? Don't you want a little stability in your life, some definite knowledge? Well, then, come with me, people. I can show you a better way. (You will have to invest in a number of Platonic dialogues, but I assure it will be well worth the expense.)

The Theory of Forms

Weren't we just saying something about stable knowledge? Well, as it turns out, that's just where my theory of forms come in—the notion for which I am most famous. And in case you were wondering, the relevant word in Greek here is eidos, which is usually translated as either "form" or "idea." Okay, fine, but you're probably saying "It's all Greek to me." What does any of this really mean—in English?

We'll go back to the notion of virtue. Let's consider three different actions:

  • helping an old lady cross the street
  • giving away all your money to charity
  • developing the most accurate and compelling philosophical system known to man.

All of us would agree that these are all acts of virtue (okay, maybe not the third one, but that's just the point—how would we decide one way or the other?). And since we call all of these acts, and many others besides, by the same name—"virtuous"—it seems there must be some quality or feature that they all share.


That common quality or feature I call the form of virtue. I claim that not just virtue, but pretty much everything in the world—justice, beauty, tables, chairs, Justin Bieber's lost appeal—has a defining feature in this sense, an essence that makes it into what it is. So if I am going to know what virtue is—or justice, or Bieber's appeal—I have to be able to define or somehow have insight into the relevant form.

So far so good? Maybe not, but I go further—way further. I claim that the form, as something's essence, must somehow represent an ideal exemplar of the thing in question. The form of justice, for example, has to be perfectly just—eternally and unchangingly just, just in every way and from every perspective—in order to play the role that it does.

And (yes, I go still further with this), I hold that this form cannot be a part of the thing or act in question. After all, have you ever seen an act of perfect justice or a person who is absolutely beautiful, at all times and in all ways? (Okay, maybe you have, but that's just Photoshop. Have you ever seen those "stars without makeup" pictures?)

No, the form has to exist separately from the thing it defines—"itself by itself," as I like to put it—in some ideal, transcendent realm, with all the other forms. And then particulars (i.e., all those objects and actions in the world around us) then either "partake of" or "participate in" or "imitate" the relevant form: this painting becomes beautiful just by somehow relating to the form of beauty, the Beautiful itself.

And—last point about this, for the time being at least—the aim of philosophy, as I understand it, is to somehow have insight into these unchanging, ideal forms and ultimately, into the form of all forms, the form of the Good. Anything short of that cannot count as genuine knowledge.

Look, I know it's all a bit much to swallow when I spell it out just like that. Somehow it seems easier to take when I gradually introduce in the course of one of my dialogues. Either that, or I'm being really ironic and you aren't meant to take any of this at face value.

If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm a man who likes to keep his options open.

Theory of Recollection

Whenever I mention this, people always think I have some Jerry Lucas-type memory system. Even Governor Rick Perry once came to me asking if I could help him out with a little problem he was having. Sorry, folks, I'm not concerned with helping you recall little petty bits of trivia. We're talkin' about gaining knowledge here.

Look, here's the problem, as I laid it out in the Meno. In general, it seems you either know something or you don't. If you know it, then there's no possibility of learning about it, since you know it already. If you don't know it, then you have no idea of what you're looking for, and so again there's no possibility of learning about it. Therefore, there is no such thing as learning, in the sense of discovering entirely new knowledge.

Yeah, that's a problem in general, but especially for philosophy, where at the start no one has any idea of what the answers are. How is philosophical inquiry possible?

My simple answer: there is no genuine learning, silly. What we ordinarily call learning is actually a matter of recalling knowledge that is already inside of us. How did that knowledge get there? Again, simple: the soul is immortal and has been reborn countless times and therefore has learned everything there is to know.

I then claim that we can in fact be stimulated to recall the knowledge that is within us by being questioned in the right way. And this is exactly the method of philosophy, at least philosophy Plato-style.

I even give a simple example of how my theory of recollection works in the case of mathematics. Again in the Meno, I have Socrates demonstrate how an uneducated slave can be brought to recognize a geometrical result—a special case of the Pythagorean Theorem, in fact—just by being questioned in the right way. Of course, I feed him all the answers, sort of undermining the claim that he is only being asked questions. But still it's a nice idea.

Body and Soul

Lots of people liken me to Descartes, claiming that we are the Western tradition's two main mind-body dualists. But though we may both be dualists, actually we're very different. After all, he's only the Father of Modern Philosophy, while I'm the Father of the Whole Enchilada (note to self: explore question of whether enchiladas have parents).

For Little Daddy Descartes, the mind and body are two fundamentally different kinds of substances: whereas the mind is a thinking, unextended thing, the body is a non-thinking, extended thing. His basic problem is to explain how these two substances can possibly relate to and influence each other.

Now I do say that the mind (or "soul"; however it's translated, the word is psyche) and the body are fundamentally different, but I start with the assumption that in the usual case, they are intertwined. Unlike with Descartes, then, the problem for Big Daddy Me is just how the mind and body are to be separated from one another. This turns out to be the fundamental task of philosophy, or so I claim in the Phaedo: philosophy is the attempt to completely separate the mind from the body.

The reason we can understand the mind/body problem so differently from one another, as you'll realize if you dig a little deeper, is that Descartes and I actually understand the concepts themselves very differently. For ol' Rene, "body" means just the physical thing, while for me it is the physical entity plus desires, pains, pleasures, and all that. (Descartes thinks desires, pains, and the rest are mental events—can you believe it?)

And though both of us say that the mind is immaterial, for me, "mind" is restricted to the part of us that understands the highest kinds of truths. Descartes' krazy konception of the mind, by contrast, includes every little thought and experience you've ever had.

It's all so confusing! But it shouldn't be, if you just remember that I'm right and he's wrong. And also, remember that the Platonic mind is fundamentally a knower, an entity that is properly related to the transcendent forms. The Platonic body, by contrast, is that which is oriented toward the material, worldly domain.

In coming to have knowledge of the forms, then, we are separating the mind from the body, which, in turn, means freeing ourselves from all material attachment. That's why philosophy is, for me, a kind of liberating activity, a way of returning the immortal soul to its proper home. It may take many lifetimes to get there—I do insist on the reality of reincarnation—but you will be successful ultimately. Unless, of course, you spend your time reading Descartes, in which case you'll be trapped in this earthly realm for a long time.


This notion plays an important role in my writing, so we should be clear on what it means. Eros is sometimes translated as "love," but let's be honest: if you say that a movie was "erotic" are you saying it made you feel very loving? No, eros means "desire," and sexual desire in particular.

Maybe it surprises you to hear that a great mind like mine would lower itself to talk about such base impulses. On the other hand, maybe you're expecting it because you have heard about certain, uh, proclivities of the ancient Greeks. But hey, I'm not ashamed. The fact is that it was common practice for upper class Athenian men to take teenage boys as sexual partners. And I have the characters in my dialogues talk about that issue—a fair amount. What's the problem?

Of course, I'm Plato, so naturally my attitude toward all of that is ambiguous—generally favorable, but in a few instances quite critical, as in the Laws (though it should be kept in mind that I was about 80 years old when I wrote that dialogue, and by then, I was kind of anti-sex across the board). But the larger point is that I'm not like some celebrity on television whose concern is to make little pronouncements on various sexual practices ("So there you have it, folks—Plato gives the thumbs up to gay sex. Back to you, Bob!"). I'm a philosopher, remember; my aim is to get at something more fundamental.

So I know very well that sex feels good and also that it can cause a lot of trouble. What I then try to describe is a relationship to sex that will not only allow us to avoid all that trouble, but that will also enable us to go beyond merely feeling good. That's right: rather than just being a means to pleasure, sex can be a pathway to the highest sort of knowledge. Sounds pretty interesting, huh?

Sorry, though, if you follow my approach you don't get to actually have sex—not in the normal sense (I can feel your disappointment all the way from over here). But you don't have to become a eunuch either. Instead, you can harness that sexual impulse, redirecting it from a desire to engage in animalistic behavior to a divine yearning for the forms.

In fact, "harness" is an appropriate word with respect to the account that I give in the Phaedrus. In that dialogue, I have Socrates present my famous chariot allegory, where the soul is likened to a chariot pulled by two winged horses, one of which is noble and white, the other ignoble and black. The white horse represents the spirited, honor-seeking part of the soul; the black horse represents the appetitive, lusty part; and the charioteer, reason, the guiding force. The aim is for the charioteer to steer the chariot back up to a heavenly realm, the soul's home, before falling to earth, from which vantage point he can gaze at reality (a representation, needless to say, of the forms).

Love, or rather sexual attraction, is the catalyst for that journey home. When someone spots an attractive person—and yes, it's a boy in my allegory—he is reminded of the true beauty he had seen in heaven. The soul is madly drawn to his beloved and the bad horse wants to have sex.

But if the charioteer is a philosopher, he will resist the urgings of the black horse and teach him restraint. ("Come on guys, just this once—it will be fun." "Shut up! Look at that Beauty!" "All right, but let's just get a little closer so we can see better—ow! Hey, you're hurting me with those reins!"...and so on.) Eventually the poor horse dies, and the white horse alone draws the chariot onwards and upwards.

You get the idea. The moral is: reason, properly developed, should resist acting on bad, sensual desires, and instead use all that energy as fuel for engaging in higher pursuits.

And also: you should never take advice from a lusty talking horse.

The Cave

The one about the cave is the most famous and influential passage in all my writing—perhaps in the whole of Western philosophy. Why, even Mumford and Sons wrote a song about it…or at least I think that's what that song's about.

The Cave (or the "Allegory of the Cave") occurs in the middle of the Republic and involves a metaphorical attempt to describe the educational process. I have Socrates say that human beings are like prisoners who have been trapped since childhood in a long, dark cave lit only by dim firelight. With shackles around their necks and legs, they are forced to stare at shadows moving back and forth on the cave wall. The shadows are thrown by statues of plants, animals, and people that are moved back and forth behind them.

These poor slobs don't know any different, so they think that these shadows are reality—that the shadow of a figurine of a fox is a real fox…and so on. Dummies, huh? Well, I hope you realize I'm saying that this is the situation that all of us are in (well, you guys, anyway). The shadows represent human opinion (remember doxa?), which I'm suggesting is no more than an imitation of an imitation of actual reality—but still, you take it to be real. And I have to tell you, it was before Xerox machines when I wrote this, so the quality of an imitation was seriously degraded.

There is hope, though. One of the prisoners is released from his chains and dragged out of the cave. Yes, dragged. The whole way out, this dingbat resists being freed; people are attached to their ignorance, you know, and have to be forced to see the truth. But finally, he's brought into the outside world and (after his eyes have adjusted to the bright light) he says something like, "Wow! It's so beautiful here! And, what do you know, an actual fox is 3-dimensional—and in color, too!"

Well the escaped prisoner stays out there for a while and even takes a look at the sun (which is actually a representation of the form of the Good, though you should keep that information between us). But out of the goodness of his heart, he eventually decides to go back down into the dark, dreary cave and help other people escape.

Bad move.

At first, he's a little disoriented from coming back into the darkness; that already gets the other cave dwellers shaking their heads. But then they get really worked up when they hear the stories he has to tell. "You're crazy, mister. There's no such things as a 3-dimensional, in-color fox, no way! What are ye, crazy? Come on everyone, let's kill him!"

Those cave dwellers can be so unreasonable at times—must be the lack of sun. But you get the larger point, right? The people are conspiring to kill the man who comes to tell them the truth.

Hmmm, I wonder who I have in mind?

So, yes, it's not just any old educational process that is being described here, but rather the process of philosophy—its aim, its method, and the fundamental difficulties it presents. You could spend a long time unpacking every little detail of my allegory, and many people have. Or you could just remember the most important point, with all due apologies to David Bowie: run from the shadows!

Philosopher King

This is another famous idea of mine from the Republic. Having a philosopher as a ruler—you probably think it's a joke, right? It's okay; most people do (other than philosophy professors, who find it a profound and very plausible suggestion). But the funny thing is I myself am very aware that this is a ludicrous proposal, and I have Socrates admit this explicitly in the dialogue.

So what's the point?

First, I'll give you just a little background. The whole Republic is an exploration of the nature of justice, and in particular an attempt to show that this virtue is something inherently good, regardless of its consequences. Although originally the question concerns justice as an individual virtue, Socrates suggests that it's easier to understand this notion when it's expressed on the political level. Toward that end, he decides to create a "city in speech"—i.e., to imagine a perfectly just state (also known as kallipolis—the "beautiful city").

So after describing at length his ideal state (which admittedly might sound quite unideal to a lot of people), the question arises as to what would have to happen for it to become a reality. Socrates says that three increasingly unlikely conditions have to be satisfied.

(1) Women should be given the same education as men (a pretty forward-thinking suggestion, especially given that Athenian women in those days had zero freedom, not even the freedom to walk outside on their own).

(2) The family should be abolished and everyone should live together in a great commune, with every action strictly regulated by the State.

(3) Drumroll please…philosophers should be kings!

Socrates' interlocutors almost fall off their chairs guffawing at that one. These days, philosophers are usually seen as staid academics; the main threat they pose is possibly cornering you at a party and boring you to death. But in my day, philosophers were viewed more like counter-cultural hippies. Socrates is basically proposing that the beach bum with the blonde dreadlocks and tattoos all over his body should be given absolute power.

And come on, not only are these guys not respectable—they don't even want to rule. But that is part of my point: their lack of interest in political power means they will rule fairly. Plus, if they're philosophers, they have wisdom. Obviously they're going to make the best kings.

But then you wonder whether philosophical insight, especially of the esoteric variety, is at all suited to political rule. Is this a serious proposal on my part or some strange ironic joke? That's one of the great questions of the Republic, a question that I (of course) never clearly answer. Instead it's going to be another case where—say it with me, Shmoopers—you have to be the judge.

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