?By studying Plato’s views on the soul, virtues, and forms, one can understand his outlooks on the individual and natural purpose, or telos. Plato had a teleological worldview, so he believed everything in nature had an end, or purpose. In his famous Allegory of the Cave, along with the Sun and Line analogies, Plato outlines the spiritual and intellectual journey of a human from ignorance into goodness and knowledge, which symbolizes a human reaching his or her purpose.
This essay will evaluate Plato’s teleological view regarding humans by analyzing his Allegory of the Cave with relation to his views of the tripartite soul, virtues, and forms; in addition, I will determine if Plato’s views of virtue and happiness are feasible or not. Plato had an interesting view on the soul and its relation to the body. He believed that the soul had three parts: the appetitive, spirited, and rational. In his famous work the Republic, Plato argued that the soul must be tripartite because “the same thing cannot at the same time with the same part of itself act in contrary ways about the same” (Republic, IV, 1).
This argument makes sense, for if the soul was just one part, it would contradict itself when it desires a thing at one time but does not desire it at another time. Plato related the soul to virtue by comparing the tripartite soul to the ideal city-state. He emphasized that, in order for one’s soul to remain good and orderly, its parts must not “interfere with one another [and not] do the work of others” (Republic IV, 5). This is what Plato calls justice, and it relates to an individual in one class not doing the business of another in another class.
Accordingly, wisdom is the virtue of the rational part of the soul, relating to teachers, and courage is the virtue of the spirited part, correlating with soldiers. Finally, moderation occurs when the parts of the soul work together cooperatively, making the soul unified and complete, similar to a unified and flourishing city-state. Plato claimed that the natural purpose of humans is to reason well, and in order to fulfill this, humans must have these virtues of their soul. Plato, like many other ancient philosophers, thought of virtue as excellence.
In the Republic, Plato regarded the virtues of justice, moderation, courage, and wisdom as the most important virtues, which is clear since he included them in his account of the soul. For our souls to reach their purpose, which is ultimately happiness, we must understand and live out these virtues in our lives. For example, according to Plato, one can master the virtue of justice by performing one’s work, or function, well, without interfering with someone else’s business. Also, in book IV of the Republic, Socrates attempts to convince Glaucon and Adeimantus that living the virtuous life is the best, happiest life.
Plato, through Socrates, argued, “virtue is the health and beauty and well-being of the soul” (Republic IV, 6). Therefore, for humans to reach our end and find happiness, we must live a virtuous life. Plato had a very unique view on forms. He believed forms, as metaphysical entities, exist in a separate universe from the material world and that this universe of forms is absolutely perfect. Things in the material world that relate to forms are independent of the forms themselves. For example, a knife is sharp, but Plato believed it was separate from the form of sharpness.
Plato believed virtues were forms, and notably that the “form of the good is the most important thing to learn about” (Republic, VI, 1). Like the virtues, the most important forms include justice, moderation, and courage, but the highest form of all is the form of the good. Plato believed that understanding these forms, especially the form of the good, is crucial to one’s purpose and happiness. Plato said, “Every soul pursues the good and does whatever it does for its sake” (Republic, VI, 2).
Plato’s teleological view is shown here; the soul’s ultimate purpose is to find the good (and happiness), and if it does this, it will understand everything else. This idea is further explained in the Allegory of the Cave, which I will discuss in the next paragraph. The Allegory of the Cave describes a person on an intellectual journey from ignorance to reason. Most humans are like the prisoners in the cave; they are ignorant and fail to learn new things because they are comfortable with what they already know, despite the lack of reason.
Plato said that humans must free themselves from their previous thoughts and see that these thoughts lacked reason, just like the prisoner who saw that the shadows were actually produced from objects and were not “real” themselves. Once outside the cave, humans can learn about virtues and forms, similar to the prisoner who sees natural objects and not human-made copies of them. Ultimately, at the end of their intellectual journey, humans will see that every form is derived from the form of the good, which is denoted by the sun in the story.
Plato’s sun analogy is essentially within the Allegory of the Cave. The sun provides light, allowing us to see things for what they truly are; similarly, the form of the good allows us to understand other forms and therefore gives us knowledge. His line analogy is important in linking the visible and intelligible realms as well as metaphysics and epistemology. The lowest part of the visible realm includes images and pictures and is linked with imagination. The next part includes the material objects themselves and compares to belief.
Entering the intelligible realm, there are numbers and shapes, associated with thought. Finally, the highest area involves forms and is linked, accordingly, with knowledge and understanding. In the throne of the highest area sits the form of the good, which is key to understanding everything else. Plato believed that virtuous people would do virtuous things. Initially, this seems to make perfect sense; a just person will do just things and an unjust person will do unjust things. Plato believed people are motivated by desire when making decisions, whether we choose the morally right or wrong option.
He does not take into account, however, that a virtuous person might have to perform some immoral acts in order to produce a virtuous end. If a good man kills a murderer because he is a murderer, this is clearly an immoral act, but his intention is good and it is virtuous that he saved future victims of the murderer. The action is important in developing virtue as seen by others, but it does not necessarily improve one’s virtue because only the individual knows if he or she is actually being virtuous or not.
Therefore, I believe Plato’s account of virtue is ultimately inadequate. Regarding Plato’s view on forms and the Allegory of the Cave, is it every individual’s purpose to find the good? Certainly everyone would desire to understand the form of the good, but Plato seems to reserve this for philosopher-kings, the wisest people destined to rule over others. This is a major problem in Plato’s philosophy, as he said everyone desires the good, but since only a few seem to have the intellectual capability to reach it, only these few should pursue it in a just city-state.
It is, therefore, the job of these philosopher-kings to teach about the good, but as shown in the Allegory of the Cave, people who are not enlightened have a very difficult time understanding it and may reject it altogether. Since Plato believed that understanding the form of the good leads to happiness, he must have believed that only those with the intellectual capability to understand it are truly able to be happy. I think this is a major hole in Plato’s view of happiness, because people can definitely be happy without this knowledge of the good.
Plato’s philosophy outlines a very ordered society and soul. His strong belief that everything in nature has a purpose appears in all his philosophy. His account of the soul is relatively complex due to his tripartite view, and his view of forms is also complex and unlikely, as Aristotle and other philosophers later rejected it. As shown in the previous paragraphs, his accounts of virtue and happiness are also insufficient. Despite this, Plato was an incredibly influential and important philosopher, and he is still effective in describing the individual and natural purpose through his philosophic beliefs.