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An Analysis of Socrates' View on The Form of the Good

Updated on August 31, 2017
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Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, Social Justice, and Mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

3 Divisions of The Soul

Plato's Republic seeks to attain a greater understanding of society and the human soul. Throughout the text, a Greek philosopher named Socrates engages in several discussions to better understand the world (and the people within the world) around him. Never actually proposing a concrete idea, Socrates gathers information through an ever-deepening series of questions called an elenchus. His method of inquiry is called the Socratic Method. Through this method, he reveals deeper truths about society, desires of the gods, and what he believes to be the foundation and purpose of life.

In Book IV of the Republic, Socrates attempts to clarify an analogy between his perfect society and the human soul. Socrates suggests that justice in the individual soul is directly analogous to justice within the city. He elaborates by suggesting that in a city it would be best if a shoemaker were to make shoes and a carpenter were to practice carpentry rather than the shoemaker practicing carpentry and the carpenter making shoes. As in the city where justice resides in each of the three classes doing its own work, justice in the soul comes about when all three elements of the soul do their jobs: appetite, spirit, and reason.

Following this, in submitting to the higher authority of the soul, appetite would submit to spirit, and spirit would submit to reason. The harmonious discourse of these actions would provide a man, and (per analogy) a city, with justice. A man who has a just soul is one who does “...not allow the elements in him each to do the job of some other, or the three sorts of elements in his soul to meddle with one another” (132, ll. 443d).

This, however, does not establish that we have divisions of the soul. So, Plato goes on to describe the conflicts within each of the elements. He ends with explaining that spirit can be developed in children, while they have not yet developed rationality. This reveals and infers that there is a division of the elements, how they occur, and which element should be ruled by the other. While Socrates’ account of justice in the soul seems adequate in relation to the analogy which was made between it and the city, it is not. When further elaborated upon, the audience finds that in order to attain a conclusive account of what justice is in the individual soul, we must identify with the form of the Good.

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Attaining the Form of the Good

Nearing the end of Book VI, Socrates states that the form of the Good is the most important thing to learn about. It is by their being in relation to it, that justice, temperance, wisdom, and courage hold any usefulness or benefit at all. The Good is “...what gives truth to the things known and the power to know the knower...” (204, ll. 508e).

The Good is the ultimate form of truth; it is that which begets all other forms. In analogy to physical reality, it is the sun and the light which it produces. In the intelligible realm, the sun is the highest form of the sense of sight. For sight, there is that which sees and that which is seen; both are required but distinct from one another. However, without light, the that which sees cannot see, and the that which can be seen cannot be seen. Similarly, the Good is represented in the soul as such: when the soul focuses on the illuminated, it attains truth and understanding, yet when it focuses on obscurity, its beliefs are slowly unraveled and bereft of understanding. The form of the Good is also the highest possible knowledge; it is the cause for our knowledge and intellect.

In Socrates’ analogy of the cave, he describes how attaining the Good is like finally escaping the cave. It is the building of a progressive understanding that concludes with absolute reality and truth. Those who attain this level of understanding are true philosophers or philosopher kings in Plato’s Republic. It is essential that they grasp this understanding and realization of the form of the Good so that they may maneuver the other virtues in an enlightened manner.

Highest Good Analogous to Perfect Justice

The importance of true philosophers grasping the form of the Good should not be underestimated, for without such an understanding, all of their philosophies would give way to irrelevance. As suggested earlier, Socrates’ account of justice remains incomplete if not for the form of the Good. The form of the Good is what justice strives to attain. Justice relies on the Good in order to correctly deliberate matters. In relation to all three elements of the soul striving for harmony in order to make justice, it is a harmony of the four virtues which strive to attain the form of the Good.

In Book IV, when Socrates and Glaucon are preparing to approach a form of justice, Socrates claims “...that no one has an appetite for drink but rather for good drink, nor for food but rather for good food, since everyone’s appetite is for good things” (125, ll. 438). This appetite for not only drink, but good drink, is the perfect correlation between any of the virtues–justice in particular–and the Good. The Good is the Godhead of reality. It is the ultimate existence, and all of reality flows forth from it. There is bad justice, but that is not what is sought after. Bad justice comes about when truth doers turn their heads from the Good. To those who do not seek the Good, requiescat in peace; may you rest easy in your resistance, and may your chains be the physicality you so longed for.

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Socrates' Good is the Highest Form of Reality

In further evaluation of Socrates’ account of the form of the Good, I believe the form to hold true in lieu of a metaphor. For me, the Good is the highest form of reality. It is what all beings either turn to or from. Those who seek the Good end in the realm of metaphysics and forms. Those who deny the Good are very much involved in the physicality of reality.

All is reality; it just plays out on different levels of understanding and intellect. From this conclusion, I claim that it is plausible to think such a thing as the Good or a similar metaphor exists. The Good is something that all can experience, and it is what all hope for–even those who turn their backs to it. The philosophical cost of positing the form of the Good is that there are now elements which reside in a reality other than the physical. The benefit of such a concept is an understanding of what all of existence strives for.

If a true system could truly be created so that all souls are in alignment with the Good, then existence would be elevated to a reality we cannot currently grasp. Since no such system is in place, we exist in a reality with a wide range of differences, solutions, and problems. This is not necessarily a horrible thing, for if you remember, all of reality ultimately resides within the Good; it just may be difficult to see from such far distances. One wonders, then, if there is anything left in alignment with the form of the Good. With no philosopher kings to guide society, who is to say which interpretation of of reality is most correct?

Plato's Forms

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