Platonic Epistemology as Discussed in The Republic

The history of philosophy can be viewed as the result of the work of an obscure Athenian whose voluminous works, penetrating questions, novel ideas, and didactic teachings have shaped the flow of nearly all philosophic thought. It has been said that the influence of the ancient Greek philosopher named Plato has laid the foundation for Western culture. Plato was born to an aristocratic family in Athens in 428/427 B. C. As a young man, Plato studied poetry, but later under the tutelage of the famed Socrates, turned to philosophy, who introduced him to the ethical importance of the pursuit of wisdom.

Plato was also influenced by the writings of pre-Socratic thinkers Pythagoras and Parmenides in the areas of mathematics, metaphysics, and epistemology. Plato was a prolific writer whose works can be divided into three periods: early dialogues (399-387 B. C); middle dialogues (387-361 B. C. ); late dialogues (361-348 B. C. ). It is during the middle period that Plato returned to Athens from traveling in Sicily and Italy and founded the renowned Academy in 387 B. C..

The founding of the Academy is said by some to be one of the most important events in Western European history; it is in the Academy where Plato excelled in his dialectic teaching and taught his notable student Aristotle. This middle period is also thought to mark the time frame during which Plato wrote his most important work, the Republic. The Republic The name Republic originates from the Latin version of Plato’s writing entitled Res publica, but the original title comes from the Greek phrase peri< dikai>ou, which is translated, “On the Just Man. The Republic opens with a discussion between Socrates and his old friend Cephalus concerning the nature of justice. Throughout the work, the issue of justice is analyzed from different perspectives and various characters, each revolving around the central figure Socrates, as it relates to the state and man. As the discussion shifts from the just state to the just man, Plato, through the voice of his teacher, enters into the realm of epistemology and metaphysics.

It is here where Plato discusses his idea of the good as the cause of knowledge. He is the first to form a systematic method of knowledge, and his ideas anticipated the future of epistemological development. Plato introduces his epistemological concepts in Book VI through his example of the sun. It is the purpose of this essay to give an analysis of Plato’s theory of the cause of knowledge in the idea of the good through his illustration of the sun and determine how his theory relates to his question of justice.

The Forms Plato in the Republic assumes the reader has an understanding of his doctrine of the forms, thus an introduction to his doctrine is imperative before a discussion of his illustration of the sun can begin. Plato was an idealist, meaning that ideas comprise what is ultimately real in this world. This is antithetical to his student Aristotle who held that material was ultimately real. The Renaissance painter Raphael illustrates these two contrasting positions in his famous painting The School of Athens.

Raphael depicts Plato with his arm stretched out, pointing to the sky (implying that ideas are real), and Aristotle with his hand spread, pointing down to the earth (implying that material is real). For Plato, ideas, or forms, are intelligible, distinct, eternal patterns of which the objects on earth are mere reflections. Each object on earth has a corresponding form. For example, there is a single form of a chair, and all other chairs (whether three legged or four, metal or wood) are flawed copies of the ultimate, changeless form of the chair. Plato is concerned with the nature of existence.

What is the substance of things? For Plato, the substance of all things is the forms. The forms are absolute and unchanging; the forms are what is truly real. Without the forms, nothing would exist. There would be no chairs, no trees, no birds, and no people. People, places, and things pass away, but the forms are timeless and true; they never pass away. In the Republic, the doctrine of the forms permeates Plato’s discussion of the good. The idea of the good is not a mere notion of a honorable deed (like helping an elderly lady across the street), but it is the essence of goodness.

The idea, or form, of the good is what lies behind the honorable deed. The honorable deed is not the good, though it is good, nor is the good found only in the honorable deed, but the idea of the good is the essence of that particular deed. Plato presupposes his doctrine of the forms in his discussion of knowledge, thus it is important to grasp his theory of the forms before discussing his theory of knowledge. Plato says that the idea of the good is what creates, reveals, and sustains all knowledge. The good is the cause of knowledge.

To explain this, he uses three illustrations: the sun, the divided line, and the cave. In this essay only the example of the sun will be examined. The Offspring of the Good Plato introduces his discussion of the idea of the good by speaking of what he calls “the offspring of the good. ” Socrates is discussing with Glaucon, Plato’s brother, about the distinction of knowledge and opinion. Socrates makes a comparison between the good and the sun, which he calls the “offspring of the good. ” The point is that the good is to the intelligible world what the sun is to the visible world.

Sight and Light Socrates goes on to tell Glaucon that sight is the most superior of all the senses, but of all the senses, only sight requires an intermediate. He argues that the eyes may have the power to see, and the possessor of the eyes may attempt to see, but only when light is present are the eyes truly functional. Simply, sight needs light. There are a total of three necessary components for sight: a person, eyes, and light. The question that must be asked is, from where does light come? Light comes from the sun. The sun gives off light which enables the eye to see.

The sun is not in and of itself what sees, this is the function of the eye, but it is the cause of the power to see. The sun causes light, which enables the eyes to see, and it is by the light the sun produces that objects are revealed for the eye to see. Paralleling the Good The purpose of Plato’s illustration of the sun is to give an analogy of the good. What the sun is to the visible world, the good is to the intelligible world. So, the good begot the sun as its “offspring” for the purpose of being a parallel to itself. Is the illustration of the sun a mere analogy of the good?

The language of Plato would seem to lend an interpretation that the sun is more than just a metaphor or analogy. Since the sun is the “offspring” of the good, the sun can not be only a metaphor. The sun is the product of the good. Ultimately, to be consistent, it must be said that the good is the cause of the sun and the cause of light. The sun is the direct parallel on earth of the good. To understand the good, the notion that the sun illuminates the eyes to see must be understood. The Soul What the sun is to the eyes is the same as what the good is to the soul.

When the light of the sun is not shining brilliantly on something, but only the obscure light of the night, the eye can only see in part. Its vision is shrouded from taking hold the breadth of what is to be truly seen. The soul is the same. When the soul’s attention is on those things that the good has revealed, the soul functions with deep understanding and reason and can properly attain knowledge. Without the good, the soul becomes dull, reason is tarnished, and only opinions can be formed, thus the distinction between opinion and knowledge is made. Knowledge is gained only when the soul draws upon the light of the good.

Those who speak opinions, speak without reason and a lack of an understanding and appreciation of the good. Those who speak opinion are blind and are wondering in the dark, but those standing in the light speak truth and gain knowledge. Knowledge is spoken by those who stand under the light of revelation. The eye needs the sun to see, so the soul needs the good to understand. The soul is completely dependent upon the good for knowledge. Being and Beyond Being Continuing with the parallel, as sight is not the sun, but it is “sunlike,” so knowledge is not the good, but it is “goodlike. Knowledge is a product caused by the good, but it in and of itself is not the good. The sun gives off light which enables something to be seen. The sun also enables something the ability to grow, but the sun in itself is not growth. For example, the light the sun produces stimulates growth in a plant, but the sun is not the growth of the plant. The same can be said of the good. The good effectuates what can be known, but it also makes things what they are and what they will become. The good is the cause of existence and change, of being and becoming, but the good is not in itself being, for it is beyond being.

The good is higher than that which is being. Socrates tells Glaucon that “things are known only because the good is present; both what they are and that they are come from the good. But the good is not being, but is far higher in honor and power. ” The good is the substance of that which is. It transcends the essence of all things. That which is gains existence from the good. For something that is to gain existence from the good, the good must be of greater dignity and power than the thing that is. Not only does the good cause the existence of something, but is also generates growth.

As the sunlight generates growth in plants, the good generates growth. The good is not change, but is stimulates change. The good is not being or becoming, because for Plato, the good is higher than being. The Sun and The Good The total parallel of the sun and the good is fourfold. First, as the sun is visible, the good is intelligible. Second, as the eye needs the sun to see, the soul needs the good to understand. Third, as the sun also generates growth and allows things to exist, so the good provides and sustains being for things on earth.

Fourth, as the product of the sun is not the sun but sunlike, so the product of the good is not the good but goodlike. The sun is the reference point for an individual’s understanding of the good. Without the good, there is no knowledge and no existence, as without the sun, there is no light. Back to Justice As mentioned earlier, the question of justice is analyzed and discussed throughout the Republic. How does the idea of the good as the cause of knowledge relate to Plato’s discussion of what is just? For Plato, knowing the good is the only means by which someone can know and do what is just.

Without the good there would be no justice. Socrates states to Adeimantus that “the greatest thing to learn is the idea of the good, through which, only, just things and all the rest become useful and good. ” For Plato if one knows the good, one will do justice. The just person is the one who has a knowledge of the good. Ethics is based on epistemology. Knowledge of the good must be obtained before one can act justly. Socrates later states to Adeimantus that “the beautiful and the just will not have much of a guard in a man without that knowledge (of the good). No one will see what they are if he doesn’t know what the good is. The good is the cause of knowledge, and knowledge is what allows an individual to do what is just. Questions Several difficulties arise with Plato’s illustration. One, as mentioned early, is whether Plato meant for his illustration of the sun to be taken as a metaphor only. Second, how does Plato account for evil? If the good is the essence and substance of being, how is the existence of evil explained? It seems unavoidable to explain evil has that which is non-existing. Evil becomes the absence of the good. Opinion becomes a product of evil, for as opinion is a lack of the good, evil is a lack of the good.

Opinion is the lack of the epistemological good, and evil is a lack of the ethical good, but both are a lack of the good. Third, how does a person access the good? Plato extensively explains his point that knowledge can only be had when the good is apprehended, but how is the good apprehended? If the good is beyond being, and what is on earth is being, how can something that is being obtain something that is beyond being? It seems that Plato is silent about the process by which the good is gained. Fourth, by what criteria does one determine that the good is actually good?

Fifth, is there only one good, or is there a corresponding good for everything that exists? Plato clearly explains that the good is the cause of knowledge, but on how knowledge is obtained, his illustration is unclear. Conclusion For Plato, what is just is doing the good. A person can only do the good if that person knows the good. No one will see or do what is just unless he or she sees and knows what the good is. Epistemology and ethics are not separated, but the good is the cause of both. Knowing is doing, and doing is knowing. The good is the cause of knowledge, and knowledge is the means by which justice is obtained.


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