Posted on 30 December 2018
Like the major philosophers before him, Plato thought about the substance, or roots, of nature and the Problem of Change.
Both Empedocles and Democritus had drawn attention to the fact that although in the natural world everything ‘flows,’ there must nevertheless be ‘something’ that never changes such as the four elements or atoms.
Theory of Ideas
According to Plato, absolutely everything that belongs to the material world is made of a material that time can erode, but everything is made after a timeless ‘mold’ or ‘form’ that is eternal and immutable. This is known as Plato’s Theory of Ideas.
Why are horses the same? You probably don’t think they are at all. But there is something that all horses have in common, something that enables us to identify them as horses.
A particular horse ‘flows,’ naturally. It might be old and lame, and in time it will die. But the ‘form’ of the horse is eternal and immutable. That which is eternal and immutable, to Plato, is therefore not a physical ‘basic substance,’ as it was for Empedocles and Democritus.
Plato’s conception was of eternal and immutable patterns, spiritual and abstract in their nature, that all things are fashioned after.
The Presocratics had given a reasonably good explanation of natural change without having to pre-suppose that anything actually ‘changed.’ In the midst of nature’s cycle there were some eternal and immutable ‘smallest’ elements that did not dissolve, they thought.
But they had no reasonable explanation for how these smallest elements that were once building blocks in a horse could suddenly whirl together four or five hundred years later and fashion themselves into a completely new horse. Or an elephant or a crocodile, for that matter.
Plato’s point was that Democritus’ atoms never fashioned themselves into an ‘eledile’ or a ‘cro-cophant.’ This was what set his philosophical thinking apart from the Natural Philosophers.
For example, you have a box of Lego and you build a Lego horse. You then take it apart and put the blocks back in the box. You cannot expect to make a new horse just by shaking the box.
How could Lego blocks of their own accord find each other and become a new horse again?
They can’t by themself, you have to rebuild the horse knowing the pattern or ‘form’ of the horse. The Lego horse is made from a model which remains unchanged from horse to horse.
Assume that you have dropped in from outer space and have never seen a gingerbread man before. You go to a bakery and there you catch sight of fifty identical gingerbread men on a shelf.
It might well be that one of them has an arm missing, another has lost a bit of its head, and a third has a funny bump on its stomach.
The gingerbread men might all be different, but after careful thought you would nevertheless conclude that all gingerbread men have something in common. Although none of them is perfect, you would suspect that they had a common origin. You would realize that all the gingerbread men were formed from the same mold.
And what is more you are now seized by the irresistible desire to see this mold. Because clearly, the mold itself must be utter perfection and in a sense, more beautiful in comparison with these crude copies. If you solved this problem all by yourself, you arrived at the philosophical solution in exactly the same way that Plato did.
Like most philosophers, he ‘dropped in from outer space.’ He was astonished at the way all natural phenomena could be so alike, and he concluded that it had to be because there are a limited number of forms ‘behind’ everything we see around us.
World of Ideas
Plato called these forms Ideas. Behind every horse, pig, or human being, there is the ‘idea horse,’ idea pig,’ and ‘idea human being.’
Plato came to the conclusion that there must be a reality behind the material world.’ He called this reality the World of Ideas; it contained the eternal and immutable ‘patterns’ behind the various phenomena we come across in nature.
Image from cityu.edu/