Throughout the history of philosophy, there have been two questions examined by almost anyphilosopher. No doubt about the fact that these questions are what is philosophy and what is therole of the philosopher. In Greek, philo means love or devotion and sophia means wisdom. So,the philosopher is lover of wisdom. Evidently, the word philosophy itself holds the answerlinguistically. Think about the famous Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself”, the phrase mostlyassociated with Socrates and philosophy since Socrates himself used it many times. There havebeen various interpretations regarding this phrase.
Closer to our time, the interpretation willperhaps revolve around the conception that we need to know ourselves well, that we must knowour intellectual and rational soul to guide our life. But it can also be interpreted in the sense thatphilosophy must know itself. Knowledge or wisdom will question itself. And philosophers willbe the ones who would walk through the road of dialectic. Such understanding would possiblyguide the way when one is trying to formulate an answer to question of what philosophy is andwhat philosophers do. Regarding such interpretation, it is possible to say that the traces of philosophy examining orknowing philosophy have been firstly and perhaps mostly seen in the works of Plato throughoutthe history of philosophy.
When we undertake a thoughtful study of Plato, and go beyond readingjust one of his works, we are inevitably confronted with his attempt to delineate philosophy fromwhat philosophy is not and show who are philosophers. Sometimes what philosophy is notexplicated as sophistry sometimes as poetry or inspiration in his works. Usually, Socratesdemands interlocutors to keep thinking through on the topics they discuss and try to come upwith answers by themselves rather than take the shortcut of having a provided answer by asophist or the majority. Especially, the theme of sophistry in his dialogues has been continuallydiscussed. Plato represents these people to teach or educate people in return on money. Hence, 2they are not lovers of truth.
What they do is to help people improve themselves in the art ofpersuasion and rhetoric. He contrasts the genuine philosopher with the sophists, whom he depictspredominantly as just argumentative trickster. In the Cratylus, he has a sarcastic attitude towardthe teaching practice of the sophists by saying that he has attended Prodicus’ lecture on names,but was unfortunately unable to afford the full course, for which the fee was more expensive thanthe money he had (384b). One of the most famous sophists Protagoras claimed that “Man is themeasure of all things”. But then, who will know what make us human beings? Plato will considerthis person to be the philosopher as we would see in the examples of Plato’s work. He believedthat if there is any knowledge to be attained, if philosophy could actually know itself, this couldonly happen through the dialectical process his characters are engaged in many of his dialogues.By admitting their false presumptions of knowledge regarding majority opinions or anysubjective knowledge that comes from sophistry, the philosopher should walk through the path ofdialectics. The path in which dialectical movement takes place will enable philosopher to makemistakes.
However, even if he realizes there has been a mistake, he rethinks the topics so that hisinvestigation would be free from error. In other words, he should continue to search for what heis looking for; at that point philosophy will lead him. Then the questions that need to be clarified are “What is that a philosopher looking for andwhat is philosophy about?” It is fair to say that at the times in which his early dialogues werewritten, the delineation of philosophy was not as clear. In these dialogues, Socrates represents thephilosopher. He asks his interlocutors questions of the form: “What is something?” For instance,in the Euthyphro he asks what is piety, in Laches what is courage, and in Meno what is virtue. Inthe context where Euthyphro takes place, Socrates was accused of corrupting the souls of youngpeople (2b). So, the answer to the question of what piety is could actually help him to defeat the 3accusations.
But, when people are asked what something is, they usually approach the matter byproviding an instance and this is what happened also in Euthyphro. The first definition that wasprovided by Euthyphro was “Piety is what God loves” (7a). However, this was mere an instance.Since this could be applicable only to one situation, obviously Socrates would not be able todefend himself at the court with this definition.
Socrates was searching for a universal model thatcan be applicable to all cases. In another attempt to define what piety is Euthyphro claimed thatwhat is loved by all gods is piety (9e). By suggesting this different model, he is not repeating thesame mistake of providing a model that is not applicable in all cases. It is possible that what allthe gods love is pious and what all the gods hate is impious. But the philosophical problem hereis that here Euthyphro is confusing the essential nature of piety with one of its attributes that isbeing loved by the Gods.
Statement of definitions should be about essential natures of things nottheir attributes or instances. Moreover, at the end of the Laches, none of the characters was ableto provide a definition to courage. But, Socrates is still unanimously appointed as the one whoshould guide the inquiry concerning the education of the young (200d). The reason is becausealthough Socrates does not know what bravery is but at least he has a method for searching. Hehas a model whereby he can leave with further inquiry not into true of false opinions but into auniversal model.
He is better off than other interlocutors, considering that he is also unable tocome up with a definition of courage, because he has the right method to attain knowledge evenif he does not know anything at that moment. The reason why Plato is looking after the essentialnature of things and the definitions of them is closely related with his theory of forms which isnot explicitly apparent in his early dialogues. These two portrayals of Socrates say surely quite alot about what philosophy is after and the role of philosopher.
But when it comes to interrogatinghow philosophy is examining or knowing philosophy itself and the character of philosopher, what 4we need focus mostly on, not exclusively for sure, the three forms of imagery that we encounterin middle books of the Republic and these are the Sun, the divided line, and the cave. At the end of the fifth book of the Republic, he introduces the concept of the philosopher-kingclaiming that ideal just city that they have so far created would only be possible if the rulers arephilosophers (473d). To support his claim, Socrates must explain what he means by the termphilosopher. He tries to do that by first distinguishing true philosophers from lovers of sights andsounds (476b). In the distinction of the philosopher from the lover of sights and sounds thetheory of Forms enters the Republic.
In this dialogue, we can say that Plato does not explainthrough Socrates what the forms are. But even in his early dialogues traces of the idea of formscan be found. Forms are unchanging, universal ideas such as the good, the beautiful, and thecourage and the virtue etc.
Anything we see around us (particulars) regarding the attributes andinstances, they are as such because they participate in the forms. For instance, we can callsomeone courageous because he participates in the form of courage (Copleston, 92). In theRepublic, what makes philosophers different from lovers of sights and sounds is that theyapprehend these forms. Because these people deal only with sensible particulars that we sensearound us, they can have opinions but never knowledge. Only philosophers can have knowledgeand have access to the forms (480e). They are the ones who ask the question of the form.
Giventhis fact, philosophers can know what is good for the city, and how to run and govern it. Hecontinues his defense of the philosopher in the next book by saying he is also the most virtuous ofmen (484d). Philosopher’s relation with the forms determines his virtue. Philosopher arranges hissoul after the form of the good. It is in understanding the form of the good that someone couldhave the highest-level knowledge and so becomes suitable to be a philosopher king. But as wesee Socrates cannot really say directly what the form of good is. In order to do that, Plato is 5developing three metaphors: the sun, the line, and the cave and explains who the philosopher is,while working out his metaphysics and epistemology. Through their development, each of thesemetaphors brings something new into the picture.
It can be viewed as a process of expansion inwhich the connection of ideas provides a greater understanding and gives a more profound anddetailed explanation. Plato makes an analogy between what sun means to the visible realm and what the form ofgood means to the intelligible realm of forms (508a). First, just as the light of the sun makes thevisible realm apparent to the eye, so it is by the light of form of good that the nature of reality ismade apprehensible to the soul. Second, thanks to the sun the eye can see. Similarly, the form ofgood gives us the ability to have knowledge. Lastly, the sun causes things to exist or happen to bein the visible realm. For example, it regulates seasons.
It is the cause of nourishment andgeneration. In the same way, the form of good is responsible for the existence of all other forms.Thus, Socrates says that “the form of good is beyond being; it is cause of all existence” (507b).However, until the very next metaphor, he does not explicitly show how important this form ofthe good is to knowledge. This character of the divided line is something by which we candistinguish it from the previous imagery of sun.
The analogy of the line is intended to illustratethe degrees of accessing the world, the levels of knowledge and opinion available to us(509d – 511b). Socrates provides us a line that is broken into four segments. A line is cut into twounequal parts, and each of them is divided again in the same proportion. The two main divisionsrepresent the intelligible world and the visible world. The segment at the bottom includesimagination as the lowest grade of cognitive activity, plus a higher stage on this segment that isbelief. In the imagination section we have shadows or reflections of sensible objects. Belief oropinion is also the realm of the visible, but it contacts perceptible objects.
In the belief, we have 6humans, animals, plants, artifacts. A human being in this segment of belief thinks that sensibleparticulars are the most real things in the world. Further up the line, top two segments(intelligible division) consist of thought and understanding. Although thought deals with forms, itneeds sensible particulars and hypotheses, like when in geometry we use a picture of a triangle toreason triangularity, or make appeal to axioms or hypothesis to prove theorems. The other, highersection in the intelligible division also the highest and largest segment in the line also consists offorms but is accessed by understanding. But understanding does not require axioms or hypothesisin reasoning. This is why thought is inferior to understanding. The reasoning in understandingdeals exclusively with forms, working with the unhypothetical first principle of everything whichis the form of the good.
It is possible to interpret the reasoning in understanding in terms ofdialectic. Through dialectic, philosopher would question assumptions and arrives ultimately to anunhypothetical first principle of everything that is the form of the good. As we see, the dividedline operates with images that were absent in sun allegory.
When we proceed more to the allegory of the cave (514a -517b), we have something that doesnot appear in the other two images and this can be taken as a kind of a motion. There is someonewho is coming out of the cave and then comes back in. This upward motion represents education,it is what moves the philosopher through the stages on the divided line, and ultimately brings himto the form of the good.
The allegory of cave is intended to illustrate how this process supposedto occur and the effects of education and the lack of it on the human soul. The allegory beginswith Socrates describing a group of humans held in a dark cave. They have lived there since birthand they are chained so they cannot move, look either side of them. All they can see is the cavewall in front of them. Above and behind them there is a fire, and between them and the fire thereis another wall.
On top of this wall, there are various statues lying out of sight behind the people.7The fire throws the shadows of these statues onto the wall that imprisoned human beings stare at.So, all they can ever see are nothing but shadows of the statutes. They believe that the shadowsare the objects themselves and take them as the most real things in the world. When they talkabout things other than themselves, they refer to these shadows.
These prisoners are at the loweststage on the divided line. It is possible to say that Plato uses the word shadow was on purpose tolink the two imageries of cave and the line. If a prisoner is unchained and turned towards the fireand he begins to see the statues and moves from the segment of imagination to that of belief.
After a period of suffering the light of fire, he realizes that what he sees now is more real than theshadows he has always believed to be the reality. The shadows were mere copies of these objects.But at this point he is still not aware of the fact that there are thing of a greater reality, there is aworld beyond this cave. When the prisoner comes out of the cave, at first he is blinded by thebright light up there. It is so bright that he can only realize the things gradually. At first, he canonly look at the shadows, and then at the reflections, and then finally at the objects themselves:not statues this time, but real objects. He sees that these are even more real than the statues andthe light, and that those were only copies. This moment that unchained person experiences can beregarded as the stage of thought.
In time, prisoner’s eyes get adjusted to the light and he looks upat the sun. He realizes that sun is what makes everything possible that he sees around him. Thesun here represents the form of good (as in the sun metaphor), and the former prisoner hasreached the level of understanding. It seems fair to say that the stages in the cave actuallyrepresent the kind of experiences we go through our lives. Education is the struggle to move asfar out of the cave as much as possible. We each begin our lives within the cave when we have noeducation and awareness of reality itself. And not everyone can make it all the way out.
That iswhy some people become producers some soldiers and some philosophers.8Once prisoner gets out of the cave, the he might be reluctant to go back in and get involved withthe prisoners who will have far less knowledge then himself. This place will be ultimately full ofproblems for him, or it might even be dangerous if he gets misunderstood by the other prisoners.His vision would no longer be at the same level with those in the cave and he might appear asridiculous. Given all these, he still needs to go back in to help others because in the ideal city ofPlato, happiness of all its citizens is the main goal not the happiness of a single person or singleclass. Given that only philosophers can have knowledge and have access to the forms and thisstate must be governed by people who have the knowledge of the form of good; philosophers willbe the rulers. It might seem unfair that they are then forced to come back. Philosophers would notlike to rule, they will be forced to rule.
Because if they do not, they would be ruled by the worstpeople or perhaps people who are not educated to be a ruler. At that point we should remind usthat goal is not to make any one group happy, but rather to make the city as a whole as happy aspossible. These people were molded to be philosopher-kings so that they could return to the caveand rule (514a–521d). Finally, we know clearly what distinguishes the philosopher from everyone else: he knows theform of the good, so he has an understanding of everything. The form of good has the knowledgeof itself and illumines everything else in the reality. Plato’s view of philosophy and his view onthe role of the philosopher are directly connected with this notion. This how philosophy isactually able to know itself.
Philosophy is the effort to reach that the highest and unconditionalform that is the form of the good and the philosopher is who has the method to search for it, infact the only person that could ever attain this knowledge if it is ever possible.