Weeks ago, while attending a science lecture that was probably related to astronomy, the presenter said something about the Platonic Forms that I knew was wrong. I sat on my hands (metaphorically) and stared at Zoom, my mind racing like an unruly animal that refused to come back onto its leash, and shrugged it off after a few moments. More recently, while reading something related to social justice, I saw Platonism blamed for various types of essentialism due to the concept of the Platonic Forms. This is troubling to me because Platonism is a beautiful philosophical system and theological framework that does not conflict with (most) pluralistic thinking. I also feel a large debt to the Platonic commentators because digging into Platonism has been extremely beneficial for my mental health, sense-making, and creative pursuits, and I don’t want others to dismiss it offhand due to what they hear on the Internet because I doubt that my positive experience could be unique. In this post, I am going to attempt to explain the rudiments of Plato’s Forms as handed down in the Platonic school, at least as I understand them.
What is important to offer first is this: When people in educational settings are talking about Plato’s Theory of Forms, they are usually talking about modern scholarship on a reified, “pure” Plato, not Platonism as it was developed over the thousand years following his establishment of the Academy in 387 BCE and that was going strong until Christianity brutally cracked down on pagan intellectuals in the 6th century CE. (Sometimes, terms like Neoplatonism, Late Platonism, Middle Platonism, and the like are used as artificial subdivisions of the thousand-year period. They’re all Platonism. Academia is bizarrely concerned with purity.) Even when controlling for war, natural disaster, and other calamitous events, anti-pagan crackdown and censorship is the reason why many texts were not transmitted to us and why Platonic revivals throughout history have been quickly followed by Church-driven repressions of Platonic teachings, such as in Byzantium and Renaissance Italy.
The people who do discuss that large span of Platonic work are often historians of philosophy or philosophers studying Late Platonism or other philosophers integrating Plato into their philosophical projects. There is a subset of those people who are actually Platonists, and often, the academic work of people who study the pre-crackdown Platonic philosophers is constrained by the norm of “objectivity” in modern academia, where it is seen as problematic in many fields to actually hold the beliefs that one is committed to studying, and if one does hold those beliefs, it is only acceptable to express them in certain approved ways. (I personally do not know how someone reads Plotinus and doesn’t just roll up one’s sleeves and try it because some of the things he writes are obviously instructions. It also absolutely floors me that nobody has collaborated with a neuroscientist to hook people up to a brain scanner while they do Platonic contemplation or theurgic ritual like scientists do with meditation and yoga practitioners.) Furthermore, many mathematicians and theoretical physicists are Platonists, at least in the sense that they believe there are real principles that the physical world follows by necessity, including Nobel laureate Roger Penrose. Their mathematical models, in other words, are human approximations of an underlying, truly real reality that exists independently of us.
Beyond formal academia, there are clusters of people who love Platonic philosophy and who integrate the religious and spiritual elements into their daily lives, and there are a few small organizations that are committed to helping people learn these teachings. The most active ones in the Anglosphere are the Prometheus Trust, which has published several books for people new to Platonism, and the Noetic Society, which runs the Opening Mind Associates storefront that distributes Prometheus Trust books in the United States. There are also many others just doing their own thing independently and in private groups.
A philosophical school in antiquity — be it Stoicism, Platonism, Epicureanism, Peripateticism, or what have you — was a lifestyle, not solely an academic project or a consumerism-driven identity or coping strategy (I see you, Silicon Valley Stoics), and a lifestyle impacts every part of how people organize our lives.
Most good writing about the Theory of Forms as developed by the Platonic school is not available for free online, but hidden in lecture notes, paywalled in articles and reference books, in critical editions and translations of ancient texts, and in print books that may or may not have been made available in an e-format yet. This means that popular misconceptions about it are free to run wild on the Internet and in the memories of people who read the Republic in high school or college. Based on the Google searches I did, the good information online also tends to focus on Plato as a standalone thinker whom a bunch of people reacted to, and the developments in the school afterward are under-discussed.
Now, enormous disclaimer: I am not a philosopher, a historian of philosophy, or any kind of expert. I understand the Doctrine of the Forms in the same way I know that a poem or section of edited prose is good — you have a feeling inside when you know something your brain has been crunching through just works, and it’s satisfying and difficult to explain to others.
While some elements of what I am about to say may be wrong or contestable, my attempt should at least provide inspiration for Platonists to pour libations of intellectual nectar onto the free Internet. (Social media doesn’t count due to its ephemerality. Dispensing information there is like rolling Sisyphus’ rock uphill, and older content falls out of favor with the Google search rank tools rapidly. Do not upload a PDF or Word document onto Academia. Put words on a website that has responsive text reflowing for mobile phone users, which you can easily test by opening your website in your phone’s web browser.) Also, if I stay silent, I will never have the opportunity to experience the purification of correction.
Breezing Through Some Definitions
First off, the Theory of Forms is not an island. It coexists with many other important concepts in Platonism, and explaining what the Forms are in any way that does justice to them requires breezing through a few other things first: The Platonic model of the soul, the Divided Line, and the chain of procession from the One into materiality.
It is also important to note that when I say “commentators” in what follows, I usually mean philosophers in antiquity who were part of a Platonic school in Rome, Apamea, Alexandria, Athens, or another city and who performed exegesis on Plato. Exegesis is when someone goes through a sacred or canonical text or story, often (but not always) line by line to unfold the teachings and hidden truths that underlie the text as a whole. They do this for instruction, documentation, or a mixture of the two.
The embodied soul is most often discussed in terms of a section of the Republic where Socrates posits that the soul has three parts: the rational, the spirited, and the appetitive. It can also be divided in other ways — as a pair often labeled rational/irrational or immortal/mortal — and, over time, the Platonic commentators located another “part” (ascribing partiality to it isn’t really correct) of the soul that is the Flower of the Intellect, and another that is the One of the Soul, which Proclus describes in a fragment of text on his interpretation of the Chaldean Oracles. (Those are a set of revealed religious texts very important to Late Platonists’ exegetical interpretations of Plato. Chaldean is an ethnonym for a group of people that still exists, and the Chaldean Oracles themselves were influenced by earlier phases of Platonic thought. They only exist in fragments now, and I pray to Hermes we eventually find a cache of Platonic texts in a desert location that includes them.)
The spirited and appetitive parts of the soul are the mortal parts and together make up the irrational soul; the rational part of the soul is its immortal part. The One of the soul is the most Godlike “part,” and it is the “part” that must be activated as the embodied soul purifies itself and orders its interior and exterior experiences. The spirited and appetitive parts of the soul are steeped in our neurotransmitters and fluctuating hormones and all of the other messages the body sends us. Some commentators posit that it, or part of it, can survive across multiple lifetimes, or at least a shadow of it can when we ourselves over-identify with it and carry it as baggage through several (or many) incarnating cycles. There is also the image of the pre-fallen soul as a charioteer trying to work with an orderly and unruly horse, and the pre-fallen soul definitely does not have a body, so there are some nuances here in how we describe the soul’s issues.
Most erroneous choices of one’s next incarnation arise from holding onto the experiences we had in our most recent life in an unhealthy way — if we died of starvation, we desire abundance; if we experienced pervasive violence, we want to be a strong person; and we can overlook the negative implications of these life-models. The soul that is really us is immortal and connected to a presiding God, and, at the risk of oversimplifying, we ended up embodied because souls like ours have a tendency to instability. In the Phaedrus, Socrates paints a picture of our souls each following in the train of a specific God, and due to the unruliness of our vehicles, we can barely catch a glimpse of what lies above before our instability sends us crashing down into embodiment. We spend incarnations chasing and chasing at material things and experiences in memory of what lay above, which is the most beautiful and the most precious, but nothing satisfies. Liberation is a rocky path back into wholeness from separation and division. One could also say that many of the teachings developed in the Platonic school are specifically targeted at helping our souls get their s— together, which is often phrased “to become as Godlike as possible.”
The Divided Line passage in the Republic goes through types of knowledge in increasing levels of contact with truth. The lowest category is imagination. The next step up is opinion, followed by discursive reasoning, followed by intuition. There is a break between opinion and discursive reasoning. Imagination is closest to materiality, and it is a place of fanciful shadows. Opinion is what happens when we use sensory data to construct an image of the world. Discursive stuff is mathematical and logical thinking, where we first make contact with things that are truly real. Intuitive knowing is even above that, where we have made contact with the Ideas/Forms and the structure of reality and can harvest from that beautiful garden to nourish our thoughts and our actions. People today often use imaginative and creative as synonyms, which can lead to errors in understanding this. By ranking imagination lowest, Plato is not demeaning creativity, as all of the levels are creative.
The chain of procession becomes important here. First, you have the One, which neither is nor is One; it is the empty jar that is constantly overflowing. It can also be called the Good, and some have labeled it God, but it’s difficult to use the word “God” for it without bringing to mind the idea of it having attributes, which is impossible to properly discuss because even saying it doesn’t have attributes is an attribute. You’re better off just calling it the One or the Good. Christian Platonism is a misreading of the One, as they reify a specific deity to the status of the One when that deity would by necessity be at the level below.
“Below” the One (note: there is no spatiality here) are the Henads, or Gods; and below that comes the unfolding of reality like a flower with the sweetest nectar: Being, Life, Intellect, Soul, Nature, Matter. The Gods flow forth with Goodness, and this overflowing fountain from each of them interweaves like rushing floodwaters through these levels of reality until it pools into Matter, which is a passive receptacle that desires to be en-Formed and ordered by the upper levels of reality. The production of the world around us is their collaboration. On the one hand, we could view this chain as a process of each Henad; on the other, we could look to specific narratives like Proclus does in the Platonic Theology (and like I tried to do in Prayer to All of the Gods III) to contextualize that procession into a web of symbols and sympathies, each God taking a role particular to ler identity relative to the chain of succession (for example, in Orphic, Hesiodic, and Homeric myths). Evil is nowhere in the system; evil is a side effect of the material world having spatiality and temporality and of partial souls like ours not having a handle on our instabilities (which, paradoxically, is a “feature” of partial souls, not a bug).
Myths about the Gods are, incidentally, not the Gods themselves, but ways in which human beings, embedded as we are in bodies with desires and aversions and having minds filled with opinions shaped by our cultures, have described the Gods to one another. In other words, myths always have a kernel of divinity in them, but we often obscure that beauty in such ghastly mud. This may be easier to grasp by discussing fandom. Fandom is rooted in the love of a story produced by imagination and fantasy, and it roots downward into materiality. Myths are rooted in trying to explain things about reality and Gods that are frustrating and impossible to put clearly, and they root upward in the intuitive realm. This is why many were given to us by poet-mystics and oracular practices.
On the Forms
But if we want to define their special nature in terms more easily understood, let us take from the “reason-principles” in nature the character that their very existence makes them creative of what they produce, and from the “reason-principles” in the arts the character of knowing what they produce, even though their mere existence does not lead to production, and putting these two traits together let us say that Ideas are at once the demiurgic and the intelligent causes of all things that naturally come into existence — being established as unchangeable and prior to the changing, simple and prior to compounds, separable and prior to the things that are inseparable from Matter. This is why Parmenides continues to discourse about them, until at the end of his arguments (134ce), he calls them gods, thereby indicating all that we have just said. And here Socrates, with his “itself” and “by itself,” has presented succinctly their common character; and the various ways in which I have expounded these two terms are only the numerous ways in which he presents this common character. So much, then, let us say about Ideas in general apropos the question that Socrates raises. But let us add this: the word “deem” (nomizeis) is properly chosen with reference to the Ideas; for it is appropriate that pronouncements about Ideas and doctrines regarding the immovables be something like laws (nomoi), not opinions or empty notions. Such realities are not matters of opinion, but have their foundation in a higher form of knowledge. It is by intellection that we apprehend intelligible objects, but opinable things by opinion.Proclus’ Parmenides commentary, trans. Morrow & Dillon, 731f, Book II.
The Forms, also called Ideas, are crucial, real things in this unfolding of reality. The above quotation comes from just after Proclus has addressed the misconception that Forms are aggregated out of matter; in fact, the opposite is true, as Matter receives the mixture of the Forms in delight. The term “demiurgic” is used above because anything demiurgic is actively productive; for example, it is the activity of the Demiurgic Gods that unceasingly creates the physical cosmos. This section of the commentary is looking at a place where Socrates referred to “x itself” (example: Beauty Itself); this is a common reflexive pronoun construction for Platonists to distinguish commonplace instances from the Form. Proclus also comments on a specific word chosen to refer to the Forms in the passage he is referring to, and from his comments, we can refer back to types of knowledge mentioned in the preliminaries. Also, while Parmenides calls the Forms Gods, later in the Parmenides commentary, Proclus will address the misconception that the Gods and Forms are identical to one another. This is not a generalization one can make. Apollon isn’t a Form, and neither is Hera or Athene or Artemis or whomever.
Many Forms come in pairs of opposites, and others do not. When we get to the level of the material world, the existence of spatiality and temporality mean that they create what can be described metaphorically as an interference pattern.
In sum, the contraries in Matter flee one another: those in the heavens coexist, but by accident of the fact that their common subject is receptive of both; the contraries in souls exist with one another as such, for their essences are in contact; and those in Intellect even participate in one another. That is, the procession of the contraries begins with participation, moves through contact and coexistence in the same subject, and ends in mutual avoidance.740, same translation as above
It is this interference that is a cause of many evils, and that pattern of interference is not extant at the higher levels, where coexistence does occur. Just as committees come together with the best of intentions to tackle their committee charges and hit barriers in the actual execution of said charges, the end result includes a lot of compromises that do not spark joy for everyone. In Platonism, certain pairs of Forms are also critical to specific stages in the unfolding of reality. There are also mixtures produced from two Forms coming together. Form pairs include Limit/Unlimited, Sameness/Difference, Likeness/Unlikeness, Empowered/Beholden (this specific pair usually referred to using outdated language), and so on. Some of the unpaired Forms are the Beautiful Itself, Justice Itself, and Virtue Itself. We also have Animal Itself. As hinted above, there is no Evil Itself.
We can never actually realize actual Justice Itself in the world around us, nor the Beautiful, nor Truth, nor Virtue. Every instance of them we create, and co-create, in the world will be an impression or instantiation. There will always be something unaccounted for in our implementation of Justice; there is no embodied utopia. Our understanding of what is beautiful will always be limited by culture and instinct. However, when we are in contact with true knowledge and intuition of the Forms themselves, we stand the best chance of instantiating something with true, lasting goodness — for a time. One of the biggest challenges for us is knowing that we are in contact with true higher realities instead of using convoluted rationalizations to justify our appetites, desires, and coping strategies. As Proclus writes on evils in an essay on the Republic and a treatise on evils, people with most of their s— together can have a more disastrous impact than people with almost none of their s— together simply because the higher level of competence can mean they’re more effective at doing harm.
It is not important for the intended purpose of this blog post to describe how these Forms interweave at different stages of that sequence of procession that I mentioned in the definitions section — Proclus already does that in the Parmenides commentary, and if you need that level of detail, it is time to roll up your sleeves and study.
In the weeds, there are active discussions leading up to the present day about what has a Form and what doesn’t have a Form, like hair, mud, fingernails, the sound of a heater kicking in, a cup, and so on. It is generally agreed that there are no Forms of individuals. The commentators were writing before we figured out the electromagnetic spectrum and thermodynamics, so they tend to ascribe Forms to colors and hot/cold, and they were also writing before we knew a lot about evolution and natural history, so they ascribe Forms to specific species. (IMO, Hot/Cold is an instantiation of Motion/Rest and their mixture because that is literally what is going on with heat energy.) As Plato’s Timaeus says, many of our narratives about the world around us are likely stories; looking at the material world is always limiting because generation constantly changes, and our knowledge of it is never complete. This is why knowing about the Divided Line and the types of knowledge is crucial to a healthy understanding of the Forms — so much of what we think we know is based on opinion, and it is only by rigorous questioning that we come to know what is and what is not and can even hope to make contact with what is truly real.
In which I offer some critiques
For example, I have some reservations about Forms of Horse, Dog, and so on because species are not static — they are constantly changing in such a way that, multiplied across every habitable planet in the universe for the entire time extent of these planets’ habitability, seems about as workable as positing that souls have a sex. (They don’t. The irrational soul, however, can have an experience of one because the irrational soul is the rational soul’s interface with the particular embodied context, and the appetitive and spirited parts of our embodied souls are the source of illusions of difference when our rational soul looks to materiality and the body. It is the irrational soul that is impacted by genes and environment, which are at the root of our lived experiences, and it is the rational soul’s task to be the leader and custodian of the irrational soul and the body without mistaking itself for the irrational soul or the body during our lived allotment.)
One could argue, though, that this is exactly what the relationship between one Form and many instantiations is, but one of the challenges in the material world — especially with living bodies — is that the way phylogenetic trees work makes these constant metamorphoses move into the realm of implausibility for me. I currently think more in terms of Forms of life-niches, where these niches are clustered according to their power and activity and limited by necessity, which in this case means the specific conditions of a planet; species can instantiate one or more niches. This has the advantage of responding to critiques of the Forms from evolutionary biologists, but it also makes thinking about animals similar to thinking about instantiations of Beauty and Justice in the world instead of as a rigid, nested taxonomy. Then again, I’m not a philosopher, but a poet who loves astronomy, and that influences how I see the world.
One could also think of life-bearing planets like Earth as being dipped in Animal Itself like an apple covered in an oozy, gooey caramel coating, where Animal instantiates into everything it can and eventually drips onto other nearby planets (e.g., Mars).
Just hold that mental image for a moment because I could not find a gif of Earth being dipped into caramel.
In that model, communities of animals would definitely participate in other Forms, and there could still be friction between animals in our drives to consume and reproduce given how materiality introduces conditions allowing strife and evil to exist like parasites. Some animals are obligate carnivores or omnivores due to species and/or genetic variation, and the soil growing the plants that herbivores eat is made fertile by death. Within the human species, we have so many types of competition based on perceiving or experiencing resource scarcity, and additionally, our social instincts make us prone to us vs. them mentalities, especially when we feel insecure about our social position and want belonging/security.
Another place where I broaden away from the commentators is that I use the term “person” and “people” broadly, as identifying personhood with a specific species (humans) doesn’t seem logical given all of the questions I have inflicted upon myself while I do dishes or write poems or read Proclus.
This brief post about the Forms has hopefully made the concept seem more approachable, and I also hope that it has done at least a bit of justice to what Forms are while making it clear just how hard it is to describe something extremely difficult in language that doesn’t assume that people have read specific texts. I imagine that it will get some comments from people who know way more than me, especially in the part where I veered away from reporting out to doing some analysis or in some of the things I said about the appetitive and spirited soul because I know I ignored a lot of nuance and emphasized the body too much. Again, I’m just a poet who likes theology and who reads a lot. While writing this over the past few days, it occurred to me at several moments that this entire post arose because I have been dragged around by strong emotions of anger and frustration, my mind intermittently calm but always returning to excitation until this ballooned into 4300 words, as if it is my spirited soul and not my intellect that is actually in control. It’s simultaneously amusing and sad, but one can’t grow and change without self-knowledge, and everything ultimately serves the Good.
Also, to acknowledge my intellectual debts and compensate for the lack of citations above, I disgorged this post without actively consulting Platonic writings, and then I went back to texts to ensure that what I had brought forth was not just misremembrance. For that, I checked Proclus’ Parmenides commentary, Chlup’s Proclus: An Introduction, and did a Google Image search to make sure I’d applied the correct words to the Divided Line stuff because my brain stores things in concepts, not words. What I originally took into my mind include many dialogues of Plato, the commentaries and essays of Proclus, some of Plotinus’ Enneads, the commentaries of Olympiodorus, Damascius, and Hermias, Tim Addey’s Unfolding Wings, Radek Chlup’s Proclus: An Introduction, the Chaldean Oracle fragments, writings from the Prometheus Trust, and various things by Edward Butler, Gregory Shaw, Danielle Layne, and other scholars. There have also been conversations with friends and acquaintances and in reading groups and educational events that are doubtless floating around in the back of my mind. Proclus’ essays on Providence and Evil have been closest to the surface, as I just finished reading through them.