The history of thought may, in a sense, be regarded as an account of the cyclical movement of the modes of knowledge: sensation, perception, reason, intuition and still higher modes of cognition. At different periods one or another of these predominates and asserts its own truth and standards of truth. Thus we have the age of intuition such as that of the Veda and the Upanishad, the age of mixed intuition and reason such as that of the Darshanas in the East and that of Socrates and Plato in the West, the age of Pure Reason as that of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz and Kant, and the age of the senses as that of Locke and Hume and Logical Positivism.
In this cyclical movement, the age to which Plato belongs was the period when intuitive knowledge was receding into the background and making way for the free play of reason and its allied instruments. The early age of Greece was
the age of the Mysteries where there was the supreme reign of occult and intuitive knowledge. When we come to Pythagoras, this supremacy is lost, but still intuition predominates. In Socrates we find a child of the Mystics capable of intuitive knowledge and contacting and following an inner voice, the ‘Daemon’; but his methods of inquiry have already become rational and dialectical and in effect he initiates the rational movement in Western philosophy. Yet in his most important doctrines such as that of ‘Virtue is Knowledge’ he identifies knowledge with the knowledge belonging to spiritual consciousness. And in his life we find him being moved and motivated by the high ethical and spiritual sense. But when we come to Plato, we find that the mystic tendency is on the wane, although the setting sun of mysticism casts its gold on the horizon and we find in Plato a most captivating combination of mysticism and reason.
Plato inherits the mysticism of the past but moulds it in his rational receptacle. He himself was deeply influenced by Socrates and in his highest heights he understands, touches, nay,
communicates with the supreme and most mysterious spiritual reality. But it is through mind that he reaches the summit to capture that reality. Indeed, Plato is essentially the Mind or Thought reflecting and drawing upon the treasures of Intuition. In consequence, he stands out as a thinker presiding over the new dawn of Reason but having at his back the splendour and glory of the waning age of Intuition.
Although he is a disciple of mystics, his life is not moved by any religious motive or fervour. But the lack of this motivation is amply compensated by his large and wide and rich mind, high artistic genius commanding creative expression, and an intense dynamic nature expressing itself in concentrated efforts at the realization of a sublime and ideal order of existence on the earth. In his early youth we find him planning for a political career. It was only because he found that the then political conditions would not permit him to be useful to the state that he changed his mind. The death of Socrates put a seal on this change and made him decide finally for the life of a professional philosopher. But even then he did not remain
merely an armchair philosopher. He established in Athens an Academy for training and imparting to students a comprehensive education; and in due course this Academy became a great center of learning where students came from many parts of the civilized world. It supplied to the Greek states many scholars, statesmen and individuals of high culture. He laid the foundations of this Academy so deep that it lived for hundreds of years until Justinian disestablished it.
He was so deeply concerned with the future of humanity that he speculated on the problem of an ideal order of existence and came to the conclusion which he set forth in his Republic:
“Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from these evils ─ no, nor the human race, as I believe ─ and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.”
This conviction was not merely intellectual: he made a few attempts to realize the ideal of his vision. He undertook two journeys to Sicily and employed himself in the task of training Dionysius II. In the first journey he had to undergo such humiliation ─ he was sold in the market as a slave and escaped death by being ransomed by someone ─ that if he had not at his heart the great consideration for the future of human progress, he would have declined the second invitation of Dionysius. Of course, he failed in his attempts but his vision of the ideal state remained up to this day an inspiration to many thinkers, visionaries, statesmen and servants of mankind.
However, Plato is preeminently a philosopher. He was a mathematician and gave a high place to mathematics in his system of education; he was an educationist, a great literary artist, a social and political thinker, a law giver, a utopian and in a sense, even a theologian; but all these were his subordinate and supporting aspects, none supreme or equal to his philosophical personality. Philosophy is the very soul and breath of Plato. His mind is constantly fixed on
the supreme Idea of the Good, he is constantly engaged in reconciling and harmonizing the universal Ideas, his constant task is to reflect and meditate upon the Real and differentiate it from the phenomenon and the appearance.
The concept of the Good is the culmination of Plato’s philosophy. There is, according to Plato, a distinction between reality and appearance. The former is the universal and the permanent, the latter particular and transient; the former is the object of true knowledge, the latter the object of either imagination or opinion. The world as we perceive, according to Plato, is relative and therefore incapable of being known absolutely and therefore truly. Particulars, according to him, possess contradictory qualities; a thing which we might call beautiful has some elements of ugliness too; it is not pure and ideal and unmixed Beauty; what is smaller as compared to one thing is bigger as compared to another, it is therefore at once smaller and bigger, it is relative. Finally, particulars are constantly in the flux and therefore constantly change their nature; they are therefore being-non-being.
Particulars are, according to Plato, the objects of perceptions, and perception, he contends, is not knowledge. In his dialogue Thaetetus, he points out that comparison, knowledge of existence and understanding of number are essential to knowledge but they cannot be perceived by senses. We speak, for instance, of two things being unequal but this presupposes an ideal of equality which is not derived from perception, since there are no two things exactly equal to each other. We know, for instance, that color is different from sound, but there is no sense-organ which can perceive both. There must therefore be a faculty higher then sense-organs which is capable both of perceiving things directly without any aid or sense-organs as well as of making use of sense-organs. Moreover, an essential object of knowledge is existence, and this we do not perceive by sense-organs; it is the mind which directly reaches existence. Plato concludes that perception is not knowledge, because “it has not part in apprehending truth since it has none in apprehending existence.”
That which the higher faculty perceives directly is, according to Plato, the essential and universal
element in the particular. This element he calls the Idea or the Form. Pertaining to each characteristic of a particular thing there is universal Idea by participating in which the particular thing is what it is. Indeed, each particular thing has many characteristics, and therefore each particular should be regarded as participating in many universal Ideas. A cat, for instance, partakes of the universal cattiness, but also of Beauty, Blackness and so on. A particular cat may die but the universal Ideas of which it partakes are permanent; they are eternal.
These Ideas are, according to Plato, typal or ideal; things of the world are copies of these Ideas; they reflect or imitate them and become what they are. But the original stuff of the particulars, the substance which imitates and reflects the Ideas, is Matter which is indefinable since it is something of the nature of non-being. It is a non-entity which, however, is and partakes of the universal Ideas. Particulars are not the manifestation of the universals, nor are universals made of the particulars; Ideas are self-existent and uncreated; the original stuff of the particulars too is self-existent and uncreated, but
this self-existent is non-existent and attains to being only by partaking of the universal Ideas.
Obviously, one feels here the limitations of Plato’s theory. A self-existent which is non-existent is self-contradiction; it is inconceivable and therefore something that cannot be. If it is really non-existent what is it that partakes of the Ideas? And can the non-existent ever attain to being? Plato would say that perhaps it cannot and it does not and therefore it is neither being nor non-being; object not of knowledge but only of opinions. It is a mere appearance. But still, if it is an appearance, it must in some sense be. And if it is, it must be related to the Ideas and by that relation would form a unity of a total existence of Reality.
There are several other difficulties too with respect to this theory. In fact, Plato himself is aware of them. Indeed, we find that he puts in his Parmenides certain objections to his own theory of Ideas. The first argument relates to this question whether the particular partakes of the whole Idea or only of a part. It is argued that if it is the former, one thing is at many places at once;
if the latter, the Idea is divisible, and a thing which is a part of smallness will be smaller than the absolute smallness, which is absurd. The second argument is the same as Aristotle's argument of “the third man”. It states that since there is similarity between the thing and the Idea of which it partakes, there must still be another Idea to explain this similarity; and if there is such another Idea, there will be similarity between these two, to explain this similarity between the two, to explain these two, to explain which there will be the need to posit a still further Idea and ad infinitum. There is still a third argument which points out that since everything in the world has a corresponding Idea, there must be Ideas corresponding to hair, mud and dirt as well, an argument which is rejected not on any rational ground but only with indignation. According to a further argument, if Ideas are thoughts, thoughts must be of something and therefore they cannot be ultimate. There are still some more arguments which, however, are not so important.
All these arguments point to the difficulty of reconciling the universal and the particular.
And in Parmenides itself, Plato seems to be struggling to arrive at some solution. For although the dialogue is inconclusive, he at least shows the impossibility of assuming the One only or the Many only as the ultimate reality; for he argues that if the One is, many cannot be and if the Many are, the One cannot be. In the Sophist, he attempts to show how the Being and the Non-Being can co-exist and on this basis he even goes to show how even the Ideas themselves could be synthesized and harmonized into a unity. And in Plato’s concept of the Good, we find a principle of the supreme harmonization of all the Ideas. A philosopher, according to Plato, is one who is engaged in the task of synthesizing the Ideas and in perceiving them as the manifestation of the three highest Ideas of Truth, Beauty and Goodness which in turn are united in the supreme Idea of the Good. The Good, according to Plato, is not essence, “but far exceeds essence in dignity and power”. At places we get the impression that the Good, according to Plato, is the Supreme Reality which is the source of all, including even particulars. And indeed, if the Universal Ideas are so many forms
of the Good, there is no logical impossibility in affirming that particulars are the still further forms of the Universal Ideas. We would then get a hierarchy of the totality of existence as tabulated below:
Truth Beauty Goodness
The World of Ideas
The World of Things
But we find in Plato the strain of a double-thought. There are places such as in the allegory of the den, where he compares the Good with the Sun and gives an impression that it is the source of all things; but there are other places such as in the Timaeus where he seems to think that the Good is the source only of Ideas and not of things. It is this double-thought which makes it difficult for us to be precise about Plato’s position with regard to the Good.
The problem of reconciling the universals and particulars has bewildered philosophers up to the present day. They have arrived either at an ultimate dualism or at a monism in which particulars are pronounced to be ultimately illusory. Plato who seems to be aware of the difficulties of either position does not commit himself clearly to any position but leaves certain loose ends which can be developed further in the future.
If we consider the problem of the universals and the particulars, it seems that it arises because we attempt to measure the infinite and the universal in terms of the finite and the particular. The particulars are one thing and none other at once “here” and “now” and in a certain definite sense; but even they, when analysed fully, turn out to have an infinite complexity impossible to measure in terms of finitude, in each particular there are many aspects co-existing and at the vanishing-point of each finite we find the whole infinite containing in it all contradictions and oppositions. If, on the other hand, we begin with the infinite and affirm its existence, we cannot label it with any limitation; we cannot then say it
must be one thing and one thing alone and incapable of being anything else. For the infinite is the ultimate meaning of all things and therefore the substance of all. In logical terms, it is the affirmation of all propositions. There is no proposition which cannot be made of the infinite; therefore of it, it can be true to say that it is at once universal and particular. In this view, therefore, there is no necessity to posit an entity opposed to the universal and the infinite in order to account for the origin of particulars. The particular is the eternal form of the infinite and the universal; for the infinite, we can say with Plato, “is not essence, but far exceeds essence in dignity and power.”
If the infinite is not only an essence but a power of self-formation in infinite number of forms, each particular is essentially the infinite but unique and particular in form and name; the process of self-formation does not proceed by the division of the infinite and therefore the infinite remains undivided even in its self-formations; but each self-formation is a form and power of the infinite manifesting in Time
and Space; each particular therefore occupies a definite and limited position in Space-Time. On this view, we have the reply to the first argument leveled in the Parmenides against the Theory of ideas.
The argument of the “third man” too could be met by pointing out that similarity between the two is not the cause of an Idea but the effect of it; therefore when we explain the similarity between two things by positing a universal Idea, not only is the similarity between two things but also their similarity with the Universal Idea is explained.
As to the question whether there is any typal mud or dirt, Plato could not adduce any rational ground for the rejection of the suggestion because he was not able to reconcile the world of Ideas with the imperfections of the world. It is indeed impossible to reconcile the two in the framework of Plato’s theory; it has to be greatly enlarged and we have to introduce many concepts such as of Evolution and others and thus modify the original Platonic theory, a task which falls outside the scope of this essay.
But in spite of these defects, Plato’s idea that particulars have in them the Universal Ideas which are supra-sensible and that these Ideas form a unity of the Supreme Good can still be accepted as valid, unless we refuse to go beyond the evidence of the senses; but in the face of the growing evidence of the supraphysical phenomena, the refusal of the senses is becoming less and less formidable and the mind is being prepared to arrive at a loftier and more idealistic view of the world. In this process, Plato’s concept of the Good is bound to find its proper revaluation and acceptance as a great truth of the ultimate reality.