Plato's Forms

      To arise beyond the physical domain, we must learn to leap into the supersensible domain of Forms through gaining proficiency in Dialectic.

      Plato saw reality composed of two distinct "worlds" or dimensions of being. The world of physical objects in space and time is known through sense perception and ordinary thought, resulting in opinion. Above this is the nonphysical, nonspatial, nontemporal, universal, eternal metaphysical world of Forms (ideai, eide) known only through the transcendent science of dialectic. Dialectic involves a mystical encounter with The One, beyond ordinary experience and requiring special capabilities.

     To explain what he meant by Forms, Plato referred to such entities as "table," "triangle," "justice," "beauty," and "the good." "Triangle," for example, is that metaphysical entity which is known by a geometrician when he examines physical triangles drawn in chalk, ink, computer pixels, or referred to in ordinary thought as "a plane figure enclosed by three straight lines."

     Physical triangles are representations on blackboards, pieces of paper, or computer screens that are never perfect planes. Our chalk or ink or digital lines have some breadth, while the Form, "Triangle," is entirely outside the sensible domain. So while a physical triangle is never identical to the Form "Triangle" it does have some resemblance and can help us reflect on, search for, and discover the Form. The Form "Triangle" is universal and metaphysical, not just a physical entity at a particular time and place.

     The Forms are eternal and changeless, but enter into a partnership with changeable matter to produce objects and concepts we perceive in the physical world. Physical objects are instantiations, expressions, or manifestations of the Forms and are always in a state of change: coming into existence and expiring, moving in space, evolving, etc. Since the ever-changing temporal world participates in a succession of Forms, it can only be the source of opinion, not knowledge. Plato likens the opinions derived from our senses to the perception of shadows of real objects cast upon the wall of a cave. True knowledge, however, is the perception of the archetypal Forms themselves, which are real, eternal, and unchanging.

     Plato distinguishes between the two realms in terms of what kind of awareness is possible in each and what procedures are used to gain this awareness. In reference to the higher, metaphysical world, we have a Higher Self or Soul which enables us to gain true understanding and genuine knowledge. The bodily senses and the ordinary intellect which report about the physical world, provide only conjecture and belief.

      Plato provides further explanation of the Form Goodness in the Commonwealth.

"This, then which gives to the objects of knowledge their truth and to him who knows them his power of knowing, is the Form or essential nature of Goodness. It is the cause of knowledge and truth; and so, while you may think of it as an object of knowledge, you will do well to regard it as something beyond truth and knowledge and precious as these both are, of still higher worth.  . . .  So with the objects of knowledge: these derive from the Good not only their power of being known, but their very being and reality; and Goodness is not the same thing as being, but even beyond being, surpassing it in dignity and power."

     While Forms are invisible to the eye, our souls have participated in the eternal world of Forms prior to our incarnation in a physical body and retain a memory of them. Although this memory is not readily accessible to the conscious mind, its presence can be discovered through a special methodology of dialectic and contemplative analysis of experience. Plato maintains that the philosopher can achieve the capability of perceiving the Forms directly, with his "mind's eye," by:
     Thus Dialectical Reason or Higher Thought is able to construct a hierarchy of Forms, to scale to the height of first principle and attain a state of true knowledge.

     Plato viewed the unchanging world of Forms as constituting a system of eternal principles emanating from Absolute Good which the present world merely shadows. Hence, Plato's Commonwealth, his discussion of the Form Justice, delineates the need for a commonwealth to be lead by Philosopher-Kings who through their education are prepared "to know the Good through rational insight and embody its ideals by ruling directly over the social order."

"The true procedure of spiritual advance is to envision beautiful things of this world as steps along which one mounts upwards to that Higher Beauty."

Plato, Symposium

      To ascertain the essence of Forms, you must learn to engage effectively in Platonic Dialectic. This will require that you study carefully these previous essays:

  1. Dialectic As the Mystical Science of Maieutic Psychagogy

  2. Dialectic as Transformative Interchange

  3. Reading As Dialectical Interchange

  4. Inner Dialectic

  5. What and How Plato's Dialogues Teach Us

  6. Dialectical Interpersonal Relationships

  7. Dialectical Communication


      As depicted in the image to the left, we ordinarily locate our being in the terrestrial domain constituted of physical entities. The sensory world is itself a divulgence of the higher world of Forms.

    Effective participation in Dialectic enables us to leap to the Intelligible Realm, directly apprehending the Forms.

"And so with Dialectic; when a person starts on the discovery of the absolute by the light of Higher Reason only, and without any assistance of sense, and perseveres until by Supersensible Intelligence he arrives at the perception of the absolute good, he at last finds himself at the end of the intellectual world, as in the case of sight at the end of the visible."

Plato, The Commonwealth

              We learn to engage in Dialectical Interchange effectively by contemplating nonsensible entities unconnected with physical object, persons, or events. This was brilliantly explicated by Dionysius the Aereopagite in his Mystical Theology:
"As you look for a sight of the mysterious things, leave behind you everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is, and, with your understanding laid aside, to strive upward as much as you can toward union with The One who is beyond all being and knowledge."

    Effective Dialectical Interchange between participants intent on discovery of Forms produces an effulgence which brings illumination.

"The soul then reasons in the most beautiful manner, when it is disturbed by nothing belonging to the body, neither by hearing, nor sight, nor pain, nor any pleasure, but subsists in the most eminent degree, itself by itself, bidding farewell to the body, and, as much as possible neither communi-cating nor being in contact with it, extends itself towards real being."
Plato, Phaedo

"After long continued interchange between the initiator of Dialectic and the participant, in joint pursuit of understanding, suddenly illumination is kindled in the initiator's soul by a flame that leaps to the participant's soul, and thereafter sustains itself."

Plato, Seventh Letter (341c)

      Dialectical Interchange can only be understood through actual participation in the procedure. We can partake of Dialectical Interchange through reading Plato's dialogues, through involvement with programs of study, and through special Perennialist 1 exercises provided in the essays listed above.

"Plato, through his use of the dialogue form, invites the reader to ask questions and to look and listen for answers, invites him to participate in a dialogue in which Plato's own writings play the role Socrates plays within the dramatic world of the dialogues. This invitation is not to be taken lightly; for if accepted it commits the reader to 'much close study . . . and a long companionship'; it is nothing less than an invitation to obtain a philosophical education by participating directly in philosophy."

Herman L. Sinaiko, Love, Knowledge, and Discourse in Plato:
Dialogue and Dialectic in Phaedrus, Republic, Parmenides


1 See the author's book The Perennial Tradition