Plato’s Forms are an important concept in Western philosophy, and sometimes it is an overused philosophical concept, but I still think that it serves quite a function. Just like I have learned to value libertarian free will, I have also learned to value the Platonic ideal.
Plato’s Forms are a pretty easy concept to understand, hence why it seems to be common knowledge, but I think there are a lot of nuances that haven’t been taken into account. The general idea of Plato’s Forms is that there is a fixed, eternal realm that possesses unchanging truths, such as virtue and other abstract concepts, such as beauty. Often, this is as far as a person will get with Plato’s Forms, because at this point, it doesn’t seem that there is much left to do, but reason in order to apprehend these Forms.
I would like to, however, analyze Plato’s Forms as it is described by Timaeus in that specific dialogue, and by using the knowledge of the Forms as I understand them. There is often an emphasis on the material when a person is thinking about Plato’s Forms, that makes Plato’s Forms exclusively about physical objects. So for instance, a perfect apple would exist in the Platonic heaven, and the apple in the real world would simply be a copy of that perfect form. However, when Plato talks about virtue, for instance, as being an integral part to his system of Forms, one wonders if this extends further than simply objects, and perhaps even extends towards events in the real world.
To illustrate my point: When an event happens in the real world, is this a reflection of the unchanging Forms that Plato talks about? Indeed, this would seem to follow, when considering that concepts such as virtue must be acted out in the forever changing world, but are perhaps fixed in the Platonic realm that is Plato’s Forms. So while the real world might have events that are forever changing and moving, the events themselves are copies, or reflections, of Plato’s Forms.
Now, how can this be a useful concept? Well, it can be a useful concept because it allows us to see certain events in the world as possessing some kind of inherent value or meaning. Immediately we think that when something bad happens, such as a bad event, we think that the event is negatively charged and nothing good could ever come out of it, because the event is inherently bad. But if we think about this concept through the idea of Plato’s Forms, the event is merely a copy of something in the unchanging realm of the Platonic heaven. Of course, this might be taking quite a creative leap with Plato’s idea, but I think that it is useful insofar as it allows us to try to see the inherent value in an event that we would normally describe as bad.
Now of course, there are plenty of examples where this would be a very difficult idea to actually subscribe to. So for instance, how could a car crash, or the violent death or exploitation of a person, or some other random atrocity, ever be a reflection of Plato’s Forms? Of course this is where the concept that I am trying to describe comes into a rather difficult problem, but only if you see it literally. So, I am not saying that the car crash, for instance, is good, and is a representation of the Forms, but I am saying that the car crash represents something important that we can apprehend if we take seriously Plato’s Forms.
But what would that be? Plato himself was aware that seeing reality in this world as simply a reflection, or a copy, of the perfect realm was mistaken, when he pointed out the absurdity of something like dirt having an ideal version in the Platonic realm. But I feel like this is a major misunderstanding of the nuances of Plato’s idea. Of course we don’t actually believe that the dirt, or to continue my line of thought, something negative or destructive, has some kind of important significance, and is a reflection of Plato’s Forms. However, I think it would be difficult to say that what happens that is negative or harmful is completely meaningless, at least if we stick to the idea of what Plato was getting at with his idea of Forms. In other words, we might be able to say that the car crash, for instance, is a warped version of what is happening in the unchanging and perfect realm. The car crash represents something virtuous, or something beautiful, for instance, in the Platonic realm, that takes on a differing form in the real world.
Of course, it is easy to see why this idea is mistaken, and I certainly don’t want to make things out to be good when they are certainly bad, such as a car crash. However, I think if we look at it this way, such events take on some kind of eternal hope that would be otherwise unnoticed or unbelieved. We are able to see something bad and imagine that somewhere, somehow, it is actually a representation of something good, we just aren’t able to understand it, because of what we literally see in the world. That is, however, one of Plato’s most important points: The idea that this world and what happens with this world is simply a secondary reality to the real reality, the implication being, how could we ever understand what the real reality actually is and would be? This, in a really powerful way, doesn’t make light of something negative that is happening in the world that we see, but is actually transcending it to something more, perhaps even something meaningful.
If all of this seems like a stretch, which would be perfectly reasonable to assume, just think about how hope operates. The very concept of hope is looking for something positive where there seems to be no positive thing. So at least in the very basic sense, this idea isn’t that far off the rails.
I would say, though, that what I am really concerned with is not so much the things in the world that seem apparently meaningless or evil, but the things that bring a host of emotions and impressions and ideas that aren’t necessarily bad, but don’t seem to be a perfect and idealized Form. So for instance, something might happen in your life that is very confusing, and brings a lot of uncertainty and anxiety, but it may not be a bad thing. We are often led to think that these things are bad because they don’t fit in a neat box, but what I would like to argue is that this event that possesses these qualities may actually be a reflection of something eternally beautiful in the Platonic realm. I want to argue that if we wrestle with all of the things in our lives that don’t make sense, that are confusing and bring us much anxiety and distress, we can come up with a reason for it, apprehend something much more meaningful, what would perhaps be Plato’s Forms.
The reason why I am thinking about this is because I understand that I have done many things in my life, and many things have happened to me because of others, and in general the world continues to do many things, that are troubling and confusing, but may actually be meaningful in some way that I will never understand, or will understand with much introspection and apprehension. I think that the importance of Plato’s ideas and his Forms is that it automatically discards the dangers of nihilism. By thinking through the seriousness of what Plato offers with his idea of Forms, I am thinking that an event in my life, or an emotion that I am experiencing, is actually a representation of something in the Platonic realm that is meaningful and purposeful. A confused emotion, for instance, is actually a copy of an unchanging truth of the Platonic realm. Now of course this is a very hard idea to swallow, but again as I have said before, it brings hope to an otherwise chaotic and disorderly world, or at least what appears to be a chaotic and disorderly world. I think that at the very least, when we take the idea of the Forms seriously, we are left with wondering if everything that happens in this world could actually have some kind of inherent meaning, or essence that makes it purposeful and useful, and perhaps even perfect. It would make sense why a person would reject all of these claims, and not look for beauty where there is no beauty, but I think that by doing that, we reduce this world to the merely physical and material, and that reduces the mystery that can be found in the most unexpected places. I refuse to believe that it is all bad, and all of the confusing things that I don’t understand are simply and merely meaningless, inherently valueless. At the very least, I think this is a useful philosophy for at least appreciating the things that we don’t understand, and hoping that there really is an unchanging truth out there that we can apprehend and perhaps even see in the world if we look close enough: Which sometimes requires us to look at what is not black and white and easy, to try to find something meaningful.