Defining the Good according to Plato is not an easy undertaking. The best approach to understanding the Good is to first understand it as a Form, and then define Plato’s theory of Forms. From there is possible to gain insight of the Good as a Form and its theoretical implications, especially concerning ethics. According to Plato, everything in the visible world is that of a Form. Forms can be described as “the single unitary entity, the reality, of which its many instances would be the appearances” (Cross, 1964; Woozley, 1964). For example, Plato believed in the Form of Beauty.
Many things the human eye sees are beautiful, but these are not the reality. They are only mere appearances. The true beautiful thing exists as a Form, unable to be seen in the human realm. True philosophers can understand the distinction between appearance and reality, because they can understand everything is a Form. Only the man who refuses to accept appearances as truth is a philosopher as “he alone, has knowledge, since he knows the reality (the Forms) of which the many particulars are appearances” (Cross, 1964; Woozley, 1964).
The true philosopher has knowledge, which is definite and resolved, where as everyone else only has beliefs. The philosopher is the lover of reason and knowledge, and the non-philosopher is ignorant of reason loving only the appearances of sights and sounds. For Plato, the body is a “hindrance, in the pursuit of wisdom” (William, 1990), and wisdom is essential to understanding Forms since “we do not get access to Forms through the senses” (William, 1990). We do not get access to Forms through the senses, because Forms do not exists as physical entities in the human world.
They are perfect and unchanging ideals of which everything on earth is a lesser imitation. We can partially understand Forms due to Plato’s theory of recollection and properties of the soul, namely that “our souls also existed apart from the body before they took on human form, and they had intelligence” (Plato, 2002). He argues our souls are immortal and existed before our bodies. Therefore they were in contact with Forms before entering our body. From this basis it is possible to access Forms according to Plato’s reasoning.
Understanding Forms is the basis to understanding what Plato meant by the Good, because the Good is the supreme Form. Plato gives no exact definition of the Good, but in alignment with his belief that no man intentionally commits a wrong, he claims, “Every soul… pursues it [the Good], and all her actions are for the sake of it” (Joseph, 1948). Plato conveys that people should live their life according to the Good, as it is the ultimate form of knowledge. Take for example Plato’s analogy of the Sun.
The sun allows for light, which allows eyes to see objects and for objects to be seen. Plato equates the Form of the Good to the sun, truth to the light the sun allows for, the Forms to the objects sight allows the eyes to see, and knowledge to the process of sight. Therefore, the “Form of the Good is the cause of truth, which enables the Forms to be known, and of knowledge, which enables the mind to know, though it itself is neither truth nor knowledge” (Cross, 1964; Woozley, 1964).
From this, it is concluded that the Form of the Good is the basis for every other Form, which holds significance because, Forms are “an attempt to account for absolute moral standards” (Cross, 1964; Woozley, 1964). The problem with this analogy in understanding the Good is that it depends upon the condition of belief, we previously discussed, as being attributable to the non-philosopher. When Plato speaks of the Sun, he speaks of the visible world, and when he speaks of the Forms, the intelligible world. The difficulty arises in that he gives no proof of this intelligible world.
There is only belief in the intelligible world, due to our sight only allows for the visible world. How then can a philosopher be a true philosopher if to understand the theory of Forms and the Good, they rely on the belief of the intelligible world? He is illustrating “features in the intelligible by means of the visible” (Cross, 1964; Woozley, 1964) which presents as issue. The intelligible world depends on the visible world, but Plato argues nothing in the visible world is truth or real, but appearances also linking to his theory of Forms.
Another issue of Plato’s description of the Good stems from its practicality. Since man cannot actually acquire the Good, it is puzzling how understanding the Good holds any significance in creating and fulfilling a good life. Aristotle argued that gaining knowledge of the Good had reasonable merit in that we could use it to “gain a better knowledge of the things that are good for us, and so knowing, obtain them” (Thomson, 1953). However, when examining practical sciences, such as medicine, the knowledge of the Good serves no function in whether or not the medical practice creates good for the people.
Aristotle questions the Good asking, “how will one who has had a vision of the Idea itself become thereby a better doctor or general” (Thomson, 1953)? Doctors are surely concerned with the patient. They are concerned with the attainable good in front of them, not the abstract knowledge of the Good. Knowing of the Good will not make their treatment more effective. Curing illness and performing medical surgery are types of good acts measurable and attainable in human form.
Why should there be such a high value placed upon something people in their human form could never fully grasp? Clearly people, such as doctors, are not hindered from achieving actual and recognizable good like the treatment of illness, simply because they have not mastered Plato’s ultimate achievement of a true philosopher. On a similar note, Plato describes his ideal state as being run by what he calls philosopher kings. These philosopher kings took fifty years to mature into true philosophers with the culmination of their training resting in their knowledge of the Good.
As with doctors not being better doctors through understanding the Good, why then are leaders of the state only able to lead when they understand the Good? Does their theoretical knowledge make them more in tune with the practical needs of the state and people? As author Hans –Georg Gadamer notes, “those who have been freed form the cave of murky sense experience and practical routine, those who have been set free for theoria, it could be objected, cannot possibly feel any impetus to return to the cave of politics, in which all knowledge is inexact and where things always go wrong” (1986).
The philosopher kings lived in a world of theory in which everything was mere appearance. They were not ignorant that their world was a reflection of the perfect forms, but still understood everything around them to be appearance. A remedy to this conflict of theory and political actuality seems irresolvable. In addition, it seems a flawed way to rule a state, democratically speaking. It is arguable that Plato’s ideal state based on the power of the knowledge of the Good has ethical implications similar to that of a dictatorship, benevolent as it may be.
Plato believed an ideal state was one in which some would never have the potential to reach the status of a philosopher king. Justice in the state was achieved when there was individual harmony, in which everyone accepted his or her role in the society. While his intentions were to create a state “so arranged that the exercise of the power of government will be carried out as public office and not exploited as a chance to advance one’s own interests” (Gadamer, 1986), Plato fails to realize his ideal of complete honesty within the public office is naive.
As with his work, in theory his thoughts are ethically in line and valid, but in reality they would never accurately mirror his intentions. It is not to say that Plato’s idea of the Forms and the Good hold no validity or significance, but like most theorist, his ideas have modern implications and gaps in arguments. Unlike Aristotle, primary concerned with practical philosophy, Plato was a theorist. The best approach to finding Plato’s theory on the Good and Forms useful in a modern setting, is to understand that he himself may have not found the state he outlined in the Republic to be actually fully achievable.
In addition to criticizing the arguments and practical implications of Plato’s words, it should be noted too that achieving the ultimate knowledge of the Good is an ideal. The perfect state run by philosopher kings may never truly be achievable, but Plato makes the argument that a society always working towards the Good, and being run accordingly will be the best society possible. In this sense, Plato provides a valuable, ethical model for an ideal state.