Platonic Forms

 “Can’t you see the game is crooked?
     Yeah, but it’s the only game in town.”
-Canada Bill Jones

There is an odd pattern that seems to emerge in every introduction to the philosophy presented in Plato’s Republic. It goes something like this:

1) A description of how Plato’s perfect society would be overseen by an elite caste of Guardians, who are selected only after being subjected to exhaustive trials of character and judgement.

2) An explanation that, above the Guardians, is the Philosopher King, who endures even more grueling trials, and who rules not by his own whims, but by an intimate knowledge of the Forms, particularly the form of good.

3) An explanation of the Forms, the idea that a perfect version of a given object exists on a removed plane, and of which dense matter can only imitate. Usually, something like an animal is given as an example. Out there, on the plane of the forms, is the perfect and eternal form of the horse, of which Secretariat, Mister Ed, Shadowfax, and the My Little Ponies are only imperfect manifestations. What tends to lag behind is the explanation that the forms also extend to political formations.  

4)  A debate, or analysis, of this system of government, which is always rejected for more democratic ideals. 

Perhaps you have witnessed something similar. Whether this comes about from a genuine misunderstanding of Plato, or born of an anxiety towards this concept of franchised elitism, is left to the consideration of the individual. Certainly, a seemingly endless stream of Young Adult Dystopian Sci-Fi works has done little to advance the cause of understanding how the Guardians and the Philosopher King would rule.

The first sticking point concerns the forms. Not so much what they are, but more so the idea that they are not accessible to everyone. The undemocratic implications are hair raising, but reveal an immediate idiosyncrasy. Let no man ignorant of geometry enter here, said Plato, speaking of his academy. The thought was that prior to entering fields like politics and philosophy, an applicant ought to have a baseline understanding of objective reasoning. Stated in another way, the applicant should understand something of the abstracted forms of geometric figures, and be able to disengage these abstractions from specific examples (this circle, or that triangle), before moving onto the vastly more complicated realm of governance. We reject this out of hand because in practice it resembles something uncomfortably close to the literacy tests and other eligibility requirements historically used to disqualify heterodox voters. And yet, at the same time, we are more than willing to surrender any claim to commonality with a wide berthing of artists, scientists, athletes, and entrepreneurs under the belief that they possess some kind of knowledge that the average person lacks. The discrepancy comes in explaining how there can be a deeper grasp of a field as complex as human health, but not one of politics. But probing this question is rarely about developing a precise answer. Rather, it underlies a fear that the form can never be disengaged from the mind of the person who contemplates it. That, in other words, every form related to governance can be suspected of having ulterior motives. Such is usually the case in YA Sci-Fi where, in the name the greater good, futuristic city-states push their teens (usually played by actors in their mid-twenties) into all sorts of whacky hijinks for some shallow jib about maintaining control by instilling fear in the masses. But the very point of Plato’s recommended training is that the Guardians would be selected only on the condition that they could carry out their duties in whole, unhindered by personal vices like the desire for power. But it seems this point is now moot; such a class cannot even be imagined to exist in fiction.

Much of this stems from a fundamental conflict between the modern mindset and most other outlooks that have existed in history. The modern outlook struggles with understanding concepts as abstracted from their manifestations, believing that thinker creates a thought, as opposed to what may be dubbed the more traditional outlook, in which the thinker serves as something more like a midwife to a thought. This, however, does mean that every attempt to intuit and manifest a higher form will be successful. As stated before, access to the forms is limited. It is not without some sense of irony that many populistic reactionary groups on the internet fall into this ruse; insisting that not only have they grasped the whole of some past system like medievalism or Roman paganism, but have conveniently also discovered themselves to be the true heirs to the ruling castes of these models. The result has been a vast, delusional fantasy that serves as a kind of misanthropic, bitter Harry Potter-style fantasy.


In post-modern thought, the forms return as of zombified, doppelgangers of their former selves. It again becomes possible to speak of phenomenon as the materialization of an abstract concept. However, unlike Plato’s forms which beam in from a transcendental origin, the new forms are considered to be rootless, arbitrarily fastened together to serve the needs of the moment. ‘Social constructs,’ as they are called, tend to imply a lack of depth, and those who subscribe to this view often focus solely on how the abstracted forms serve as an instrument of power.

Whether this is fruitful or not is subject to endless (endless) debate. But what seems odd about it is that carried to its own logical conclusion, post-modernism seems like it ought to culminate in some kind of personal, secular liberation, perhaps similar to the kind of ‘owness’ described by Max Stirner. But post-modern analyses of power produce nothing of the sort. Instead, post-modernism matures as art that relies on shock-value or sensory-overload, coupled with vast and invasive bureaucracies. In other words, an immense amount of energy goes into insisting Plato’s forms do not exist, while do everything possible to prevent the individual from looking for themselves.


The greatest challenge to Plato in modern times may be found in the thinking of Karl Popper, particularly his work, The Open Society. Popper insists that a society can be properly run without any kind of regard to Platonic ideals while at the same time, remaining unconvinced by the everything-is-a-construct mumbo jumbo. Under Popper’s plan, different segments of society would be overseen by specialized experts who focus on precisely defined operations, rather than a know-it-all Guardian Class. Popper’s society may be divided so that one committee is solely responsible for, say, fair auto insurance practices, while another oversees the proper licensing of welders. No two committees would be bound by any ultimate goal, and such a vision of a final telos for the society would be discouraged. Instead, issues would simply be solved as they arose, according to the most practical course. But as NassimTaleb as pointed out, while the proponents of globalization claim this as their own intent, they have in practice all melded together and formed a class quite similar to the Guardians.

Perhaps then the original debate needs to be restructured, not as how we feel about Plato’s forms, but rather, what to make of their seemingly endless recurrence.  


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