Plato’s Realm of the Intelligible

Plato is probably the greatest foundational figure in the history of Western philosophy. As it happens, some of his work, and the work of some of his followers (including those who lived hundreds of years after him), has been an enduring source of my unconscious meditations while creating artwork.

The work of Plato’s that has been foremost in my (un)consciousness is The Republic (in no small part because it’s the one that I’ve fully read; of others, I’ve only gotten around to bits and pieces, a long time ago). Plato’s Republic is largely concerned with justice, in terms of how one might construct a just society or train just rulers. It is within that context that he writes about “forms” – that is to say, abstract ideas – the highest of which is the Good, which might be better, if more clumsily, rendered as the Good-in-itself.

The heart of Plato’s framework in talking about abstract forms, which you could also say is about the real versus the ideal (or, perhaps more accurately, his construct of reality), is found in Books 6 and 7 of The Republic (507a-521b) through three metaphors: the sun, the divided line, and the cave.

In the analogy of the sun, Plato compares the Good in the intelligible world (the abstract realm of ideas or forms) with the sun in the physical world. According to Plato, as the sun is the source of light and growth, makes objects visible, and gives the power of seeing to the eye, the Good is the source of reality and truth, makes objects of thought (forms) intelligible, and gives the power of knowing to the mind.

In the analogy of the divided line, Plato arranges a hierarchy of reality, of moving toward increasing levels of reality and truth. He writes of taking a line, dividing it into two unequal parts, and then dividing those parts unequally in the same proportions. On the one hand, the bottom two segments correspond to the physical world (shadows and images, then physical objects), and the top two to the intelligible realm (geometry and numbers, then finally pure ideas). On the other hand, the bottom two segments also correspond to opinion (illusion, then belief), and the upper two to knowledge (mathematical reasoning, then real understanding of the intelligible).

The allegory of the cave is the most complicated and describes the process of gaining enlightenment. In this, people start life as if chained into place in a darkened cave, against the wall of which shadows are projected; objects are paraded along the area behind those chained, with a large fire providing the light. Once a person manages to break free, they can see the objects themselves, and can progress out of the cave into sunlight. Once out of the cave, a person would initially be blinded by the bright sunlight, but their eyes would adjust to the light eventually; in much the same way, the seeker of truth and knowledge is unable to initially discern ideas and the Good when they first break free of the thinking only about the material world.

“The realm perceived by sight corresponds to the prison, and the light and the fire in the prison to the power of the sun. And you won’t go wrong if you connect the sight of the objects there with the upward progress of the mind into the intelligible region… [T]he final thing to be perceived in the intelligible region, and perceived only with difficulty, is the form of the good; once seen, it is inferred to be responsible for whatever is right and valuable in anything, producing in the visible region light and the source of light, and being in the intelligible region itself controlling source of truth and intelligence.” (517b-c).

What Plato makes clear through these three metaphors is that what he considered to be real was not the physical world, but the realm of ideas. In his later discussion about astronomy as a subject of study, he has Socrates say, “I can’t believe that the mind is made to look upwards except by studying the real and invisible. If anyone tries to learn anything about the world of sense… I don’t reckon that he really learns – there is no knowledge to be had of such things.” (529b-c; italics are the translator’s). To Plato, anything worth knowing lay not in the physical world, but the intellectual world.

While the idea of a level of reality laying beyond what can be seen may not seem particularly groundbreaking now, this was pretty cutting-edge thought in Plato’s time. Plato writes of this invisible reality as being rational and accessible through reason – a sharp contrast to the religious view at the time of a world shaped by the whims of gods who needed to be placated but whose desires and motives would be opaque to mortals. Religion doesn’t make much of an appearance in The Republic, and the gods themselves not at all. To his fellow Greeks, who prized rationality, Plato’s work was potent stuff, enough so that even while knowledge of Plato disappeared in the West, he was still studied in the Eastern Roman Empire down to the end in 1453, at which time Greek scholars emigrated to Italy and helped fuel the revival of Platonism in the Renaissance.

To Plato, it was also the duty of the seeker of knowledge – that is, the philosopher – to go back into the cave and to help release others and guide them up to the light of knowledge. He also describes the process of descending back into the cave – that is, returning to everyday life from a period of contemplation of the abstract – as initially disorienting, being blind while one’s eyes readjust to the darkness: “But anyone with any sense… will remember that the eyes may be unsighted in both ways, by a transition either to from light to darkness or from darkness to light, and will recognize that the same thing applies to the mind.” (518a).

My ego is by no means so great that I would consider myself a philosopher, but the description of disorientation when shifting from intellectual activity to engaging in everyday life does have a certain ring of truth to it (at least, it does for me).

For the most part, what has been quietly rattling around in the back of my mind has been the idea of Beauty (or Beauty-in-itself, the form or abstract ideal of Beauty) and how as an artist I might try to connect with this. That meditation has included questions about what beauty is, how one might render it in a visual art, and how that rendering might relate back to a striving for an enduring, eternal ideal of beauty.

All this has increasingly affected my processing of photographs, to create something that is not just a unique vision, but one that encompasses a striking and distinct aesthetic.

Plato's Realm of the IntelligibleBill Hornbostel

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