Herma of Plato

...continued from Part 1: Introduction

The orthodox view of Plato's philosophy is that the whole scheme rests on a reasonably clear distinction between two kinds of reality – the intelligible and the sensible. This is an adequate starting point, but it will require important modifications if we are to grasp the full extent of his metaphysics, which is more subtle than such an over-simplification allows: indeed we miss an all-important principle if we do not press further towards its half-hidden unity. But let us start with the twofold reality.

There are many places where Plato explores a two-state universe, and describes the characteristics of each order. In the Timaeus (at 27d) for example, when Timaeus himself introduces his teachings concerning the cosmos, he says "In the first place, therefore, as it appears to me, it is necessary to define what that is which is always real being, but is without generation; and what that is which is generated indeed, or consists in a state of becoming to be, but which never really is. The former of these indeed is apprehended by intelligence in conjunction with reason, since it always subsists according to same. But the latter is perceived by opinion in conjunction with irrational sense; since it subsists in a state of generation and corruption, and never truly is."2

The intelligible, then, is that which is always the same, possesses real being, and is perceived by the mind; while the sensible is in a constant movement towards and away from being but never quite attains the status of real being, and is perceived by the senses (and, of course, the instruments which extend our sense perceptions). From one point of view this distinction is quite easy to understand: on the one hand the abstract idea of the even is always even, the abstract idea of straight is always absolutely straight, and the abstract idea of two is never varied; on the other hand, I can see two apple blossoms which will move through various states, budding and growing towards something which is recognisably two apples: but at no point are the apples perfect, for a microscopic examination of them will undoubtedly reveal flaws of disease or accidental damage. Of course we will call them apples, and communicate with each other using an approximation which allows everyday life to proceed – ignoring the fact that they are more properly speaking "almost apples" rather than true apples.

In the Theaetetus, (at 183a ff), Socrates makes this very point: if knowledge is based on sensible perception then true thought, and consequently language, is subverted. At what point in its movement towards appleness is an apple an apple, and at what point in its decay does it cease to be apple? How many defects are we to allow an apple before we deny the name to it? And why do we call one physical thing an apple when it is observably different from another physical thing which we will also call an apple? At best the application of a common name to a number of physical things is a useful lie, at worst a deception which avoids proper thought.

But our constant use of the intelligible two never wears it out – otherwise in our computing age it would now, surely, be more like 1.9, or perhaps it might have gathered accretions like an old boat, and be closer to 2.1. Mathematics was deemed useful by ancient Platonists as a way of introducing the would-be philosopher to an easily recognisable set of unchanging abstractions, and numbers and mathematical concepts are still the best way of avoiding controversy in the Platonic theory of intelligible (or forms), since twoness can be agreed upon by all. This is not quite the case with other intelligibles which Plato puts forward as further examples – absolute justice, beauty, goodness, and so on. Once Plato suggests that justice is as constant as twoness we must look carefully at what he means by intelligible.

An intelligible is something which has real being. In other words it is, rather than something which is becoming. As a dynamic cause Plato calls this real being a form, or idea. But here we must make a clear distinction between a Platonic idea and a human concept: the former is unchanging and independent of human understanding or even recognition – the latter is a relative thing which is subject to modification. In other words the idea of justice is what it is, but the human concept of justice is a constantly shifting value judgment – a thing which may deem the execution of a person for petty theft to be just in one century, and may then deem all executions to be unjust no matter what the crime in the next. I will return a little later to discuss our own relation to forms or eternal ideas when I cover Platonic psychology.

To understand what Plato means by Idea, we might usefully read Proclus, in his Commentary on the Parmenides (at 731) where he writes, "By no means, therefore, must it be said, that forms which subsist by themselves, which are established on a sacred foundation, and are immaterial and eternal, are the same with material 'forms' of posterior origin, and which are full of variety and habitude. For the former are unmingled, undefiled and simple, and are eternally established in the demiurgus [or Creator] of the universe . . . Nor must we assent to those who consider ideas as the same with those conceptions which we derive from sensible perceptions . . . For the conceptions of these things are entirely secondary to the particulars from which they arise, and are in us, and not in the power that adorned the universe, and in whom we say ideas subsist. Nor yet must we admit the opinion of those who connect ideas with spermatic reasons. For the reasons or productive principles in seeds are imperfect; and those in nature, which generates seeds, are destitute of knowledge. But ideas subsist in energy always the same, and are essentially intellectual." Platonic forms are then, immaterial, unchanging, independent and eternal – they are not the product of the human mind, nor are they the incidental products of complex matter.

Now according to Plato there is a clear relationship of immaterial forms (or intelligibles) to material things (or sensibles) – a relationship of cause to effect. Everything we sense in any way, either directly through our unaided senses, or indirectly through instruments which amplify sense data is, according to Plato, a copy or reflection of one or more ideas – material instances of entirely abstract paradigms. The form is a dynamic causal agent, the particular instance a receptive patient. The form is a universal in the sense that it can, under the right conditions and with the necessary material to hand, act as the model for numberless further copies, each adapted for its particular time, place and condition; it is not, however, a universal in the sense that this term has been used in more recent centuries – a product of a faculty of human mind which more or less arbitrarily groups sets of particulars into perceived genus and species.

The great Platonic description of the creation of the manifested universe in the Timaeus, has the divine intellect, or the Demiurge, creating all things from a pre-existing intelligible pattern, or Animal Itself as Plato calls it. And, indeed, when a human is attempting to be creative, he or she must follow a similar process – that is to say, the human creator must in some way and at some level find within the mind a 'form' which will allow the construction of a society, a symphony, a business or whatever material thing best manifests the immaterial concept. For Plato, it is the participation in an idea which allows a physical object to be what it is – an entirely top down relationship: thus a thing can only be a unity because the idea of unity is participated by it; a thing can only be beautiful because the idea of beauty is participated; it can only live because the idea of life is participated.

We need to be very clear, however, that there is no causal effect from the material back to the immaterial: the form is not affected in any way by its manifestations – two is always two, no matter how many instances of twoness there are in the universe, and no matter what happens to those instances. The idea is also unaffected by its own non-manifestation: that is to say, even if there were no instances of twoness, the idea of two would remain exactly what it is, and if there were no living things in the universe, there would still be the same idea of life, awaiting a suitable time, place and condition to manifest again.

This, then, in brief is an outline of the most obvious twofold division of reality for which Platonism is known, with its associated theory of forms. However, this is, as I have said, too simplified and will lead us to numerous inconsistencies if we consider it to be an outline of Platonic metaphysics in its completeness. There are three significant points we must explore before we can leave this outline to fend for itself:

By far the most important addition to this dyadic plan is most clearly articulated in the sixth book of the Republic (509b-c) where in discussing being and the things that are intelligible because of their possession of being, Socrates points out that there is a overarching principle which gives things their being – this first principle he calls The Good (and elsewhere he calls it The One). His words are, "We may say, therefore, that things which are known have not only this from The Good, that they are known, but likewise that their being and essence are thence derived, whilst The Good itself is not essence, but beyond essence, transcending it both in dignity and in power." This principle which is greater than being is compared to the sun, and in the same way that all visible things on earth are ruled over by the sun, so, he says, this superessential One "reigns over the intelligible genus and place."

The vast implications of this teaching are left largely unwritten by Plato, and it was not until a more pressing time arose when Platonic philosophy was facing a crisis caused by the rise of a form of Christianity which was both anti-philosophical and politically strong that the Platonists of late antiquity began to unfold these implications in their writings. The most complete formulation of Platonic metaphysics based on the truth that unity is greater in dignity and power than being is to be found in the writings of Proclus – but others, such as Syrianus, Damascius, Olympiodorus and Simplicius took this as the basis for fifth and sixth century Platonism. If we take Plato's second epistle as genuine – a matter of controversy amongst modern scholars – we will clearly see that this doctrine was primarily one of those of the oral variety, for he writes (312e): "All things are situated about the king. of all things [TheOne]; and all things subsist for his sake, and he is the cause of all beautiful things. But second things are situated about that which is second; and such as are third in gradation about that which is third."

But whereas Plato's writings are an extended discussion of things second (intelligibles) and third (sensibles), his epistle continues (314a) "as it appears to me, there are scarcely any particulars which will appear more ridiculous to the multitude than these [teachings about The One]; nor again, any which will appear more wonderful and inspiring to those that are well born. But when often repeated and continually heard, and this for many years, they are scarcely at length, with great labour, purified like gold. . . . Looking therefore to this, be careful lest you repent of what you have now unworthily uttered [concerning this doctrine]. But the greatest means of defence in this case, consists not in writing, but learning: for things which are written cannot be kept from the public view. On this account, I have never at any time written any thing about these particulars. Nor is there any book professedly composed by Plato [about such things], nor will there be."

The profound writings of Plotinus 3 are entirely built upon what is commonly called the "three hypostases" of the One, Intellect and Soul – in which soul is seen as the principle of moving manifestation, intellect as that of stable being, and the One as the principle of principles. It was Plotinus who, in response to the circumstances of his era, began the written exposition of the One and explicitly draws attention to the pure unity that pervades all things, but yet transcends all things.

So that, for example he says (En. III, viii, 10) "Intellect [i.e. form] indeed is beautiful, and the most beautiful of all things, being situated in a pure light and in a pure splendour, and comprehending in itself the nature of beings, of which indeed this our beautiful material world is but the shadow and image; but intellect, that true intelligible world, is situated in universal splendour, living in itself a blessed life, and containing nothing unintelligible, nothing dark, nothing without measure; which divine world whoever perceives, will be immediately astonished, if, as is requisite, he profoundly and intimately merges himself into its inmost recesses, and becomes one, with its all-beauteous nature. And as he who diligently surveys the heavens, and contemplates the splendour of the stars, should immediately think upon and search after their artificer, so it is requisite that he who beholds and admires the intelligible world, should diligently inquire after its author, investigating who he is, where he resides, and how he produced such an offspring as intellect, a son beautiful and pure, and full of his ineffable sire. But his father is neither intellect nor a son, but superior to both."

But to return to Plato and his writings: we can, I think, look at a couple of places where he finds it necessary to touch upon some initial implications of this more comprehensive "oneness-intelligible-sensible" structure, even if his intention is to keep a fuller exposition to an inner oral tradition. In the Philebus, Plato explores how a simple transcendent one can give rise to being. For, he says (at 23c-d), we can see manifested two principles – the bound and the infinite – the latter allows beings to have an indefinite variety of degrees and expressions; the former gives them a stability and a permanent identity. When these two principles are mixed, he says (27c), they produce being.

Thus intelligibles, or eternal forms, or real beings, are a result of combining bound and infinite: remove the infinite, and they would lose their power to manifest in unlimited ways in the world of becoming; remove the bound and they would lose their power to remain eternally what they are despite their infinite manifestations. For Plato, then, we have a mathematical plan of reality: from the One arises the indefinite duad, and when the One 'forces' the duad to co-exist in a mixed state we have one being with an infinite potential from which arises the multiplicity of beings. In other words the One gives rise to being through the principles of the bound and the infinite, and therefore each Platonic Idea is both transcendent (by virtue of the bound) and immanent (by virtue of the infinite).

The second place where Plato guardedly begins outlining the necessary metaphysical consequences of The One being above being is in the Parmenides, where the attributes of being are removed from any accurate description of The One: fundamental ideas such as sameness, difference, motion, rest, essence, similarity and dissimilarity are all denied of The One. Plato poses an silent question in this dialogue – how does being acquire such attributes, if they are absent from The One? But in conformity to his assertion in the second Letter, not only is the question hidden under a game of logic, but the answer, too, is only to be discovered in the silence of the philosopher's deepest meditations.

If we can affirm that the first principle of all is The One (or The Good, or, if you like, God), then the whole of reality must be considered as an overflowing of this primary cause – in other words the universe is a multiplicity arising from a unity. But how does a unity give rise to multiplicity?

When we ponder upon these two dialogues (the Sophist and the Parmenides), we may begin to see how profoundly wedded is the philosophy of the Platonic tradition to ancient theology: throughout the writings of Plato (and those of the other great figures of his school) are references to the gods – and while to modern thinkers this may seem to be a mere cultural hangover from a more superstitious age, it is worth exploring how the late Platonists explain the reality of these gods as an integral part of their metaphysical scheme:

If, they say, the beginning of all things is The One, this One in itself must be absolutely transcendent and beyond all qualities (including, as we have seen in the Republic, being and intelligibility). We can affirm, then, that this is the principle and cause of all, but we cannot truly say much more of it: but primary causes first produce that which is most like themselves, and then co-operate with secondary and tertiary causes to produce things less like themselves, until finally they are the distant cause of things least like themselves.4 All manifestation is extended from The One through similarity; what, then, can we call the first things produced by The One? They must be a step out, so to speak, from absolute unity and its transcendent state of 'no quality': the next most simple state is unity with a single quality accompanying it. And this is how the Platonic tradition saw each of the gods – unities from Unity, each god delivering to the universe of being some essential quality which allows multiplicity to arise in an ordered way from unity. These gods (or to use a Greek term, 'henads') are, like their immediate principle, The One, above being are still largely unknowable, but they can be known by their qualities, which are to be found in their clearest form in real being or pure ideas, and in a more complex way in material manifestation.

This is Thomas Taylor in his introduction to Proclus' Theology of Plato outlining this conception of the Gods:

It is therefore necessary from these premises, since there is one unity the principle of the universe, that this unity should produce from itself, prior to every thing else, a multitude of natures characterised by unity, and a number the most of all things allied to its cause; and these natures are no other than the Gods.

According to this theology therefore, from the immense principle of principles, in which all things causally subsist, absorbed in super-essential light, and involved in unfathomable depths, a beauteous progeny of principles proceed, all largely partaking of the ineffable, all stamped with the occult characters of deity, all possessing an overflowing fullness of good. From these dazzling summits, these ineffable blossoms, these divine propagations, being, life, intellect, soul, nature and body unfold; monads suspended from unities, deified natures proceeding from deities. Each of these monads too, is the leader of a series which extends from itself to the last of things, and which while it proceeds from, at the same time abides in, and returns to its leader. And all these principles and all their progeny are finally centred and rooted by their summits in the first great all-comprehending one. Thus all beings proceed from, and are comprehended in the first being; all intellects emanate from one first intellect; all souls from one first soul; all natures blossom from one first nature; and all bodies proceed from the vital and luminous body of the world. And lastly, all these great monads are comprehended in the first one, from which both they and all their depending series are unfolded into light. Hence this first one is truly the unity of unities, the monad of monads, the principle of principles, the God of Gods, one and all things, and yet one prior to all.

We do not have the space here to go into further explorations of this most magnificent vision of the orderly unfolding of The One into the all, but it is perhaps necessary to point out that the gods, as so conceived, stand between the intelligibility of being and the unfathomable nature of the First Principle: it is upon this that the comprehensive nature of Platonic philosophy rests. Finally, on this subject, we should not confuse the gods here described with their myths: myth allows us to see in a beautiful and vivid way the qualities that particular gods give to the world, but if we are to avoid misunderstandings about the gods, we must learn the language of symbol as part of our philosophic education.5

Two further factors must be seen in Plato's metaphysical scheme: almost as difficult to fathom as the nature of the pre-ontological One, is the truth concerning matter. And just as every formal attribute must be taken away from The One, so every characteristic must be removed from matter – for all we ever perceive is matter informed by ideas, never the pure passivity of matter without form. The only thing we can say about this proto-matter is that it is infinitely receptive – Plato calls it the "nurse of all" in the Timaeus (at 52b): referring back to the passage we have already quoted in which he makes a division of all things into two types, Timaeus says, "But it is necessary that the beginning of our present disputation should receive a more ample division than the former one. For then we made a distribution into two species: but now a third sort must be added. In the former disputation two species were sufficient; one of which was established as the form of an exemplar, intelligible and always subsisting according to same; but the other was nothing more than the imitation of the paradigm, generated and visible. But we did not then distribute a third, because we considered these two as sufficient. However, now reason seems to urge as a thing necessary, that we should endeavour to render apparent by our discourse the species which subsists as difficult and obscure. What apprehension then can we form of its power and nature? Shall we say that it is in an eminent degree the receptacle, and as it were nurse, of all generation?" And later he expands on this by saying, "For it never departs from its own proper power, but perpetually receives all things; and never contracts any form in any respect similar to any one of the forms which come into it. For it is laid down by nature as a molding-stuff for everything, being moved and marked by the entering forms, and because of them it appears different at different times.. . . . and it is necessary, that the receptacle which is destined to receive all possible forms should itself be destitute of every form . . . we should call it a certain invisible species, and a formless universal recipient, which in the most dubious and scarcely explicable manner participates of an intelligible nature. Of itself, indeed, we cannot speak without deception. . ."

So we see that the whole of Platonic metaphysics is strung, so to speak, between two natures neither of which we can properly describe, nor even think about, except in the most approximate manner. Above all, things arise from The One, ineffable, and superior to every characteristic of being; below, all things are settled upon pure matter, unthinkable, and inferior to every characteristic of being. It is the perfect receptivity of this last layer of reality which allows a reflection of the goodness of the One to be created and, in some mysterious manner, to complete the movement of the universe in a convertive re-ascent. As Proclus says in his 35th proposition in his Elements of Theology, "Every thing caused, abides in, proceeds from, and returns, or is converted to, its cause."

One final major component of this scheme remains to be put in place: soul. In the simple division between the eternal intelligibles and the temporal sensibles where does Plato place the soul – which is, after all, his point of focus? The answer is in neither set. In the Phaedo (79a ff) Socrates once again draws a distinction between intelligibles ("the invisible") and sensibles ("the visible") and then suggests that the soul is "most similar" to intelligibles – you will notice he does not call it the same as intelligibles, merely most similar.

This is in conformity with the Timaeus, which speaks of the soul as being part of a temporal creation, but being woven from the "mortal and immortal" (41c). The soul, upon its creation, is shown the laws of fate and the nature of the universe (41e) – a vision that is only available to a creature which in some sense has the capacity to embrace the all of time. We may say, therefore, that for Plato there exists between the eternal and the temporal states an intermediate state – the perpetual. The soul, being perpetual, has the everlastingness of the eternal, but not its immutability. The beauty of the Platonic tradition's world view is that everything proceeds from the transcendentally simple One to the inexhaustible multiplicity of the whole of manifestation through a series of perfect steps characterised by ratio – and it is the function of soul in the system of Plato to provide a middle term between the two ontological realms.

The whole system is succinctly summarised by the story of the cave, 6 in which the mutable human self starts as a prisoner held by a illusion that the shadows projected before him on the cave wall are the only reality – but shadows have little substance, and the wall will take whatever shape is projected by the furniture and statues passing between it and the light from the fire. Once the prisoner is freed from his bench he can move outside the cave of shadows and see, eventually, not only the real things which exist outside the cave but also the ruling sun, which, he realizes, "governs all things." Within the cave there are only shadows and copies of things (which stand for the world which is made of those things which are continually becoming but never are), above the cave real things (symbolising that which truly is) and their illuminating source. The prisoner is the intermediary which like the soul woven from the mortal and the immortal can perceive both sensible things and, when liberated from the false belief in the lower realm, intelligible beings.

To summarize, the dualistic theory attributed to Platonic metaphysics fails to take account of a number of unitive affirmations found within Plato's writings –

Firstly, that there is an overarching One which is no more confined to the world of ideas, or real beings, than it is to the world of generated material things.

Secondly, the qualities that underline both the eternal and the temporal realms are bestowed upon the universe by gods or henads who are themselves both above any such division and at the same time within all things.

Thirdly, even in the twofold scheme, materiality is a reflection of the immaterial, and therefore there is a real relation connecting the two.

Fourthly, the lowest unfoldment of the One – pure passive uninformed matter – carries with it some profound likeness to the first principle, in that it cannot be described in terms of possessed qualities.

Fifthly, that there is a constant movement in the Platonic universe so that apart from an abiding stability in causes, there is also a procession outwards through similarity, and a return of all effects back to the original cause, also through similarity.

And sixthly, there is a intermediate actor which embraces both intellect and material, stability and movement – soul, which has true ratios as its very substance, whose function is to provide a living link between the worlds of eternity and time.

Continue to Part 3: Psychology...


Endnotes are found in Part 5: Summary.

Tim Addey

Author: Tim Addey

Tim Addey is a published author and chairman of the Prometheus Trust, a charity that has published many of the key texts in Platonic philosophy. Please visit the website of the Prometheus Trust for further details at : www.prometheustrust.co.uk. His books include The Seven Myths of the Soul and The Unfolding Wings: The Way of Perfection in the Platonic Tradition, and co-author of Beyond the Shadows: The Metaphysics of the Platonic Tradition.