Form of the Good

Last updated

"Form of the Good", or more literally "the idea of the good" (ἡ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα) is a concept in the philosophy of Plato. It is described in Plato's dialogue the Republic (508e2–3), speaking through the character of Socrates. Plato introduces several forms in his works, but identifies the Form of the Good as the superlative. This form is the one that allows a philosopher-in-training to advance to a philosopher-king. It cannot be clearly seen or explained, but once it is recognized, it is the form that allows one to realize all the other forms.


Uses in The Republic

The first references that are seen in The Republic to the Form of the Good are within the conversation between Glaucon and Socrates (454 c–d). When he is trying to answer such difficult questions pertaining to the definition of justice, Plato identifies that we should not "introduce every form of difference and sameness in nature" instead we must focus on "the one form of sameness and difference that was relevant to the particular ways of life themselves" which is the form of the Good. This form is the basis for understanding all other forms, it is what allows us to understand everything else. Through the conversation between Socrates and Glaucon (508 a–c), Plato analogizes the form of the Good with the sun as it is what allows us to see things. Here, Plato describes how the sun allows for sight. But he makes a very important distinction, "sun is not sight" but it is "the cause of sight itself." As the sun is in the visible realm, the form of Good is in the intelligible realm. It is "what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower". It is not only the "cause of knowledge and truth, it is also an object of knowledge".

Plato identifies how the form of the Good allows for the cognizance to understand such difficult concepts as justice. He identifies knowledge and truth as important, but through Socrates (508d–e) says, "good is yet more prized". He then proceeds to explain "although the good is not being" it is "superior to it in rank and power", it is what "provides for knowledge and truth" (508e). [1]

Scholarly analysis

Plato writes that the Form (or Idea) of the Good is the ultimate object of knowledge, although it is not knowledge itself, and from the Good, things that are just, gain their usefulness and value. Humans are compelled to pursue the good, but no one can hope to do this successfully without philosophical reasoning. According to Plato, true knowledge is conversant, not about those material objects and imperfect intelligences which we meet within our daily interactions with all mankind, but rather it investigates the nature of those purer and more perfect patterns which are the models after which all created beings are formed. Plato supposes these perfect types to exist from all eternity and calls them the Forms or Ideas. [2] As these Forms cannot be perceived by human senses, whatever knowledge we attain of the Forms must be seen through the mind's eye (cf. Parmenides 132a), while ideas derived from the concrete world of flux are ultimately unsatisfactory and uncertain (see the Theaetetus ). He maintains that degree of skepticism which denies all permanent authority to the evidence of sense. In essence, Plato suggests that justice, truth, equality, beauty, and many others ultimately derive from the Form of the Good.

Aristotle's criticism

Aristotle discusses the Forms of Good in critical terms several times in both of his major surviving ethical works, the Eudemian and Nicomachean Ethics . Aristotle argues that Plato's Form of the Good does not apply to the physical world, for Plato does not assign "goodness" to anything in the existing world. Because Plato's Form of the Good does not explain events in the physical world, humans have no reason to believe that the Form of the Good exists and the Form of the Good is thereby irrelevant to human ethics. [3]

Other criticisms

Plato's Form of the Good is often criticized as too general. [4] Plato's Form of the Good does not define things in the physical world that are good, and therefore lacks connectedness to reality. [5] Because Plato's Form of the Good lacks instruction, or ways for the individual to be good, Plato's Form of the Good is not applicable to human ethics since there is no defined method for which goodness can be pursued. Through Socrates in The Republic, Plato acknowledges the Form of the Good as an elusive concept and proposes that the Form of the Good be accepted as a hypothesis, rather than criticized for its weaknesses. According to Socrates in The Republic, the only alternative to accepting a hypothesis is to refute all the objections against it, which is counterproductive in the process of contemplation. [4]

Aristotle along with other scholars sees the Form of the Good as synonymous with the idea of One. [6] Plato claims that Good is the highest Form, and that all objects aspire to be good. [7] Since Plato does not define good things, interpreting Plato's Form of the Good through the idea of One allows scholars to explain how Plato's Form of the Good relates to the physical world. According to this philosophy, in order for an object to belong to the Form of the Good, it must be One and have the proper harmony, uniformity, and order to be in its proper form. [6]

Philosopher Rafael Ferber dismissed Aristotle's view that the 'Good' is 'One' and wrote that the Form of the Good is self-contradictory. Ferber claimed that Plato's Form of the Good could be simultaneously defined and unknown, and be in a state of both "being" and "not being". [6]

Plato's Forms are also critiqued for being treated as the reason for all things, as opposed to being an essence in itself. Some scholars also believe that Plato intended the Form to be the essence of which things come into existence. These different interpretations of Plato's intention for the Form may be attributed to the idea that Plato did not have a systematic definition of the Form itself. [3]


Plato's writings on the meaning of virtue and justice permeate through the Western philosophical tradition. [8] Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, had principles that were heavily influenced by the Good. His concept of 'the One' is equivalent to 'the Good' because it describes an ultimate ontological truth. 'The One' is both 'self-caused' and the cause of being for everything else in the universe. Plotinus compared his principle of 'the One' to an illuminating light, as Plato did with the Form of the Good. As a result of Plotinus' school of Neoplatonism, the bulk of understanding of Platonic philosophy until the 19th Century came through Plotinus' interpretation of it. The early theologies of Judaism, Christianity and Islam looked to the ideas of Platonism through the lens of Plotinus. [9]

Amphis, a comic playwright of Athens, has one of his characters say: "And as for the good that you are likely to get on her account, I know no more about it, master, than I do of the good of Plato." [10] There is an ancient anecdotal tradition that Plato gave a public lecture entitled "On the Good" which so confused the audience that most walked out. At the end of the lecture Plato said to those hearers who remained: 'The Good is the One". [11]

See also

Related Research Articles

In logic, the law of non-contradiction (LNC) states that contradictory propositions cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time, e. g. the two propositions "A is B" and "A is not B" are mutually exclusive. Formally this is expressed as the tautology ¬(p ∧ ¬p).

Plato Classical Greek Athenian philosopher

Plato was an Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, founder of the Platonist school of thought, and the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world.

The analogy of the divided line is presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in the Republic (509d–511e). It is written as a dialogue between Glaucon and Socrates, in which the latter further elaborates upon the immediately preceding Analogy of the Sun at the former's request. Socrates asks Glaucon to not only envision this unequally bisected line but to imagine further bisecting each of the two segments. Socrates explains that the four resulting segments represent four separate 'affections' (παθήματα) of the psyche. The lower two sections are said to represent the visible while the higher two are said to represent the intelligible. These affections are described in succession as corresponding to increasing levels of reality and truth from conjecture (εἰκασία) to belief (πίστις) to thought (διάνοια) and finally to understanding (νόησις). Furthermore, this analogy not only elaborates a theory of the psyche but also presents metaphysical and epistemological views.

The analogy of the sun is found in the sixth book of The Republic (507b–509c), written by the Greek philosopher Plato as a dialogue between Glaucon and Socrates. Upon being urged by Glaucon to define goodness, a cautious Socrates professes himself incapable of doing so. Instead he draws an analogy and offers to talk about "the child of goodness". Socrates reveals this "child of goodness" to be the sun, proposing that just as the sun illuminates, bestowing the ability to see and be seen by the eye, with its light so the idea of goodness illumines the intelligible with truth. While the analogy sets forth both epistemological and ontological theories, it is debated whether these are most authentic to the teaching of Socrates or its later interpretations by Plato. The sun is a metaphor for the nature of reality and knowledge concerning it.

Allegory of the cave Allegory by Plato

The allegory of the cave, or Plato's Cave, was presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work Republic (514a–520a) to compare "the effect of education (παιδεία) and the lack of it on our nature". It is written as a dialogue between Plato's brother Glaucon and his mentor Socrates, narrated by the latter. The allegory is presented after the analogy of the sun (508b–509c) and the analogy of the divided line (509d–511e). All three are characterized in relation to dialectic at the end of Books VII and VIII (531d–534e).

Ancient Greek philosophy Philosophical origins and foundation of western civilization

Ancient Greek philosophy arose in the 6th century BC and continued throughout the Hellenistic period and the period in which Greece and most Greek-inhabited lands were part of the Roman Empire. Philosophy was used to make sense out of the world in a non-religious way. It dealt with a wide variety of subjects, including astronomy, mathematics, political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, ontology, logic, biology, rhetoric and aesthetics.

Eudaimonia, sometimes anglicized as eudaemonia or eudemonia, is a Greek word commonly translated as happiness or welfare; however, "human flourishing or prosperity" and "blessedness" have been proposed as more accurate translations.

Platonic epistemology

In philosophy, Plato's epistemology is a theory of knowledge developed by the Greek philosopher Plato and his followers.

In most contexts, the concept of good denotes the conduct that should be preferred when posed with a choice between possible actions. Good is generally considered to be the opposite of evil, and is of interest in the study of morality, ethics, religion and philosophy. The specific meaning and etymology of the term and its associated translations among ancient and contemporary languages show substantial variation in its inflection and meaning depending on circumstances of place, history, religious, or philosophical context.

Phronesis is an ancient Greek word for a type of wisdom or intelligence. It is more specifically a type of wisdom relevant to practical action, implying both good judgement and excellence of character and habits, sometimes referred to as "practical virtue". Phronesis was a common topic of discussion in ancient Greek philosophy.

Summum bonum is a Latin expression meaning "the highest good", which was introduced by the Roman philosopher Cicero, to correspond to the Idea of the Good in ancient Greek philosophy. The summum bonum is generally thought of as being an end in itself, and at the same time containing all other goods.

<i>Republic</i> (Plato) philosophical work written by Plato

The Republic is a Socratic dialogue, written by Plato around 375 BC, concerning justice (δικαιοσύνη), the order and character of the just city-state, and the just man. It is Plato's best-known work, and has proven to be one of the world's most influential works of philosophy and political theory, both intellectually and historically.

Platonism philosophical theory that includes affirming the existence of abstract objects

Platonism is the philosophy of Plato and philosophical systems closely derived from it, though contemporary platonists do not necessarily accept all of the doctrines of Plato. Platonism had a profound effect on Western thought. Platonism at least affirms the existence of abstract objects, which are asserted to exist in a third realm distinct from both the sensible external world and from the internal world of consciousness, and is the opposite of nominalism. This can apply to properties, types, propositions, meanings, numbers, sets, truth values, and so on. Philosophers who affirm the existence of abstract objects are sometimes called platonists; those who deny their existence are sometimes called nominalists. The terms "platonism" and "nominalism" also have established senses in the history of philosophy, where they denote positions that have little to do with the modern notion of an abstract object.

Appearing in Greek thought at least as early as the Delphic Maxim nothing to excess and emphasized in later Aristotelian philosophy, the goldenmean or golden middle way is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency.

<i>Nous</i> the faculty of the human mind necessary for understanding what is true or real

Nous, sometimes equated to intellect or intelligence, is a term from classical philosophy for the faculty of the human mind necessary for understanding what is true or real. English words such as "understanding" are sometimes used, but three commonly used philosophical terms come directly from classical languages: νοῦς or νόος, intellēctus and intellegentia. To describe the activity of this faculty, the word "intellection" is sometimes used in philosophical contexts, as well as the Greek words noēsis and noeîn. This activity is understood in a similar way to the modern concept of intuition.

The term Stoic categories refers to Stoic ideas regarding categories of being: the most fundamental classes of being for all things. The Stoics believed there were four categories which were the ultimate divisions. Since we do not now possess even a single complete work by Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes or Chrysippus what we do know must be pieced together from a number of sources: doxographies and the works of other philosophers who discuss the Stoics for their own purposes.

Neoplatonism Strand of Platonic philosophy that emerged in the 3rd century AD

Neoplatonism is a strand of Platonic philosophy that emerged in the third century AD against the background of Hellenistic philosophy and religion. The term does not encapsulate a set of ideas as much as it encapsulates a chain of thinkers which began with Ammonius Saccas and his student Plotinus and which stretches to the sixth century AD. Even though neoplatonism primarily circumscribes the thinkers who are now labeled Neoplatonists and not their ideas, there are some ideas that are common to neoplatonic systems, for example, the monistic idea that all of reality can be derived from a single principle, "the One".

Plato's theory of soul, drawing on the words of his teacher Socrates, considered the psyche (ψυχή) to be the essence of a person, being that which decides how people behave. He considered this essence to be an incorporeal, eternal occupant of our being. Plato said that even after death, the soul exists and is able to think. He believed that as bodies die, the soul is continually reborn (metempsychosis) in subsequent bodies. The Platonic soul consists of three parts:

  1. the logos (λογιστικόν), or logistikon
  2. the thymos (θυμοειδές), or thumetikon
  3. the eros (ἐπιθυμητικόν), or epithumetikon

The theory of Forms or theory of Ideas is a philosophical theory, concept, or world-view, attributed to Plato, that the physical world is not as real or true as timeless, absolute, unchangeable ideas. According to this theory, ideas in this sense, often capitalized and translated as "Ideas" or "Forms", are the non-physical essences of all things, of which objects and matter in the physical world are merely imitations. Plato speaks of these entities only through the characters of his dialogues who sometimes suggest that these Forms are the only objects of study that can provide knowledge. The theory itself is contested from within Plato's dialogues, and it is a general point of controversy in philosophy. Whether the theory represents Plato's own views is held in doubt by modern scholarship. However, the theory is considered a classical solution to the problem of universals.

Ethics is the branch of philosophy that examines right and wrong moral behavior, moral concepts and moral language. Various ethical theories pose various answers to the question "What is the greatest good?" and elaborate a complete set of proper behaviors for individuals and groups. Ethical theories are closely related to forms of life in various social orders.


  1. Reeve, Plato ; revised by C.D.C. (1992). Republic ([2nd ed.]. ed.). Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publ. Co. ISBN   978-0-87220-136-1.
  2. "Idea" from the Greek ἰδέα, often transliterated in the past but now typically translated as "character". The archaic sense must be distinguished from the modern sense meaning "thought". Cf. Russell: "It must not be supposed that 'ideas', in his sense, exist in minds, though they may be apprehended by minds.... The word 'idea' has acquired, in the course of time, many associations which are quite misleading when applied to Plato's 'ideas'. (The Problems of Philosophy, chapter 9).
  3. 1 2 Fine, Gail (2003). Plato on Knowledge and Forms. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 350. ISBN   0-19-924559-2.
  4. 1 2 Reeve, C.D.C. (2013). Blindness and reorientation : problems in Plato's Republic (1. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 165, 166. ISBN   978-0-19-993443-0.
  5. Herman, Arthur (2013). The cave and the light : Plato versus Aristotle, and the struggle for the soul of Western civilization (First ed.). New York: Bantam Books. p. 46. ISBN   978-0-553-80730-1.
  6. 1 2 3 Jordan, R.W. (1986). "Platos Idee des Guten by Rafael Ferber Review". The Classical Review. 36: 65–67. doi:10.1017/s0009840x00105001. JSTOR   3064234.
  7. Banach, David. "Plato's Theory of Forms". Archived from the original on 3 August 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
  8. Frede, Dorothy. "Plato's Ethics: An Overview" . Retrieved 28 April 2014.
  9. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Plotinus.
  10. Diogenes Laërtius 3.27
  11. Aristoxenus, Harmonics 30–31; see A. S. Riginos, Platonica (1976), pp. 124 ff., for further testimony.