by Sourena Borzoo
Plato: Hi, welcome to The Realm of Form’s Bakery. What can I get you?
Sourena: Hey, could I just grab a box of those horse cookies, please?
Plato: Six dollars.
Sourena: Here you go.
Plato: Have you ever noticed how you’re still able to recognise a horse when it’s in the form of a cookie?
Sourena: Well… It has all the qualities of a horse; it has hoofs, a mane, is quadrupedal, and it doesn’t have a zebra pattern.
Plato: What if you were to see a horse that had an amputated leg. Would you still be able to recognise it as a horse when it doesn’t have the quality of being quadrupedal?
Sourena: Of course.
Plato: Well then, that seems to imply that we have a broader and unchanging idea of a horse, which represents the quintessential horse,[i] wouldn’t you say?
Sourena: Perhaps. Anyways, thanks for the cooki-
Plato: Or a “Form” as I like to call it. Think of it as the cookie-cutter mould I used to make these horse cookies. These Forms reside in an incorporeal World of Forms, and every horse we see in the material world is just a shadow, or a cookie from the mould of a horse, which we can only know through reason.[ii]
Sourena: But is there really a Form of every single thing in the world? If I were to find the amputated leg of the horse from before, I would probably still be able to recognise it as a horse’s leg. And the eyes or heart of a horse have properties that are unique and different from other animals – are there separate Forms for them too? And is there then a Form for every breed or just one Form for all horses in general? Because I can still look at a thoroughbred and recognise how it differs from a shire. Is the quintessential horse colour brown or dappled palomino?
Plato: Ah, I see that you have many questions, but they all fall under the same answer. You see, regardless of the type of leg, a leg is a leg, which has the property of supporting the weight of something, and likewise with different breeds of horse, you still recognise them as a horse in a broader sense. Thus, there exists a single general Form for horses, of which all horses – regardless of their breed – are derived from.[iii]
Aristotle: Forgive me, boss, but if I may, I have some thoughts on the matter.
Sourena: Who are you?
Aristotle: I’m just the apprentice. But I disagree with this notion of a theory of Forms. For one, if the properties of a horse come from the Form of a quintessential horse, then there must be another Form to explain the Form from which the horse comes from and ad infinitum. This would create an infinite regress, rendering the theory of forms logically invalid.[iv] It would make more sense to say we develop our ideas of things as we categorise them based on sensory experience.
Sourena: I would have to agree. It makes more sense to me that we understand what we see around us over time through a synergy of the senses which allow us to identify what we see, and reason to categorise it. It also seems strange that there exists an eternal World of Forms of manmade objects, like a computer. How could there be a Form of something artificial that existed before that object existed in the material world? Also, if it were the case that we could recognise what we see in the material world because our reason links to a World of Forms above, wouldn’t we have an innate understanding of everything we see since birth?
But In reality, we don’t. For instance, I wasn’t able to recognise a horse from a donkey or pony until I learnt the difference, which implies that it comes from experience.
Plato: Whether there does, in fact, exist a literal World of Forms is indeed a matter of some conjecture, but perhaps it would make more sense when explained through an allegory. For example, how do you feel now that you’re finally out of the quarantine experience you had recently?
Sourena: It feels like I just came out of a cave. Like I was socially degenerating in my own home.
Plato: Imagine then if you were born into a quarantine which lasted all your life; you only ever interacted with people by texting and you saw them exclusively through pictures. You would believe that texting and two-dimensional pictures are all there is, no?
Sourena: I guess I would.
Plato: Now, let’s say one day a key is dropped down your chimney and you realise it unlocks the front door. As a philosopher, you would decide to leave your home and what you thought was reality, in pursuit of knowledge. Upon leaving, you’d soon likely find yourself in a crowd of people, and you would then discover that there is actually a voice behind words, like the Form behind an object.
Sourena: I’m not sure how I would be able to recognise the words being spoken if I had only ever read them, but sure, I’ll roll with it.
Plato: As you look at them, would you not then think that the motionless composition of pixels which previously projected their face on your two-dimensional computer screen was but a shadow of the Forms you see before you now?
Sourena: For sure.
Plato: And would you not be incredibly socially awkward?
Sourena: Definitely more than I am now.
Plato: But eventually you’d start to adjust. Maybe even after some time, you would form a friendship. Then, when you look back on the life you had previously, would you not find that the extra dimensions of body language, physical contact, a voice, and a face are far better and truer than just words on a screen?
Plato: Now, the philosopher has a privileged position in relation to the World of Forms. As the philosopher, it would be your duty to leave the land of the enlightened and return to dark confines of your house—which held you captive for so long—to educate the benighted who know solely of texting. For that reason, it is only the philosopher who is worthy of governing society. Not the ignorant, and not even the wise who choose to settle in the idyllic paradise. It is the philosopher who has both knowledge of the outside world and the courage to return to their former prison to dwell with the ignorant for the purpose of education, even with the prospects of ridicule and death.[v] Therefore, the ideal ruler is the philosopher.
Sourena: That sounds a bit elitist.
Aristotle: Again, there would be an infinite regress in this allegory. Regarding the philosopher ruler, it would be impractical and a disadvantage for a ruler to be a philosopher, because it would lead them down a false sense of omniscience and enlightenment. Rather, it would be better for the ruler to heed the advice of scientists and philosophers and focus instead on performing good deeds, rather than on pointless concepts.[vi]
Sourena: That rings unsound to me, especially because you need a background in ethics to be more discerning in performing virtuous deeds. That said, while I agree that it may be a necessary condition for a good ruler to be grounded in philosophy, being a philosopher isn’t sufficient to be a good leader and manage a society. Simply being a philosopher doesn’t mean you have the required leadership and political skills. Furthermore, some may have a fundamentally flawed philosophy – I don’t think Aristotle’s belief that women are “unfinished men”[vii] would bode well for a society where he is ruler…
Aristotle: H-How do you know my name…?
Sourena: I would love to continue this discussion but I’m afraid I’m almost over the word limit.
Plato: Word limit?
Sourena: Yes. Right now, you exist as a mere Form on my computer screen.
Sourena is a first-year student at UQ, undertaking a dual-degree program in Information Technology and Arts, majoring in Philosophy and Writing. As he is fairly new to his degree, he is still figuring out his primary interests within philosophy, but he is focused on looking for ways that philosophy underpins IT and our growing dependence on technology. Albeit, he has been developing a liking for Nietzsche — so much so that he even (regretfully) attempted to grow his iconic moustache during quarantine.
[i] Plato, The Republic (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2007).
[ii] Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2015), 82-84.
[iii] Plato, The Republic, 596a.
[iv] Sreekumar Nellickappilly, “Aspects of Western Philosophy,” IIT Madras, 2015, 2-4.
[v] Plato, The Republic.
[vi] Anton-Hermann Chroust, “Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s ‘Philosopher King’,” Rheinisches Museum Für Philologie 111, no. 1 (1968): 16–22.
[vii] Nicholas D. Smith, “Plato and Aristotle on the Nature of Women,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 21, no. 4 (1983): 467–78.
Chroust, Anton-Hermann. “Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s ‘Philosopher King’.” Rheinisches Museum Für Philologie 111, no. 1 (1968): 16–22.
Gaarder, Jostein. Sophie’s World. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2015.
Nellickappilly, Sreekumar. “Aspects of Western Philosophy.” IIT Madras, 2015. https://www.academia.edu/12185411/Aspects_of_Western_Philosophy.
Plato. The Republic. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2007.
Smith, Nicholas D. “Plato and Aristotle on the Nature of Women.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 21, no. 4 (1983): 467–78. doi:10.1353/hph.1983.0090.