“Ideas are the source of all things”
“If you would understand anything,
observe its beginning and its development”
The 20th Century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead has described all of Western philosophy as a footnote to Plato. By this he implies that all of philosophy has either been an extension of, or a refutation of what Plato originally thought.
Plato was the intellectual giant who placed the philosophical position known as idealism at the very center of Western thought. Idealism is the belief that reality is ultimately contained in the realm of mind and ideas and what we actually experience here on earth is merely an imperfect reflection of its perfect ideal form.
The Greeks were fascinated with geometry and we can get a sense of idealism by starting there. In terms of mathematics we can imagine a perfect square whose sides are all exactly equal in length. In the material world we never find a perfect square. The four sides of any real square are never exactly and perfectly equal in length. There is always some difference between them.
If we think about the idea of justice we see the same thing. We can image perfect justice, but there are never real lived situations that can be resolved with perfect justice. Some amount of compromise will always be made; and some doubt as to the ultimate fairness will always exist.
This is the essence of how Plato saw reality. The mind transcended the limits of the physical world and in that ideal realm everything existed in its perfect form. (In the Middle Ages this became incorporated into the Christian ideal of heaven, but that is for our next lesson.)
Plato loved the perfection of mind and thought. He was a dreamer who held a certain amount of disdain for the everyday world of our senses. What he truly loved was to allow his awareness to drift off into the unconstrained realm of ideas.
Plato had been the student of the great Socrates and in turn Plato’s greatest student was Aristotle. Aristotle and Plato held many things in common, but one difference between them was that Aristotle did not have the same disregard for the physical world. Aristotle was intrigued by the physical world. He believed that by closely observing the world we could learn how nature works, and understanding how nature works would help us understand everything.
As we said earlier, Plato was the great proponent of the philosophical position known as Idealism. His more earthbound student Aristotle favors the methodology known as Empiricism. Plato, the dreamer, believed in the power of unconstrained thought to uncover truths that could never be found in an imperfect world. Aristotle, the scientist, believed that careful observation of the world, imperfect though it may be, allows us to see the mysteries of creation at work.
Throughout the development of Western thought each of these two positions has attracted proponents and opponents. There have been times and circumstances when one appeared to be superior to the other, and other times in which the former seemed to reign supreme.
Our first lesson introduced a dichotomy that is central to the development of the Western mind. It shows up again and again throughout the history of Western thought as the split between mind and matter, body and soul, Heaven and Earth etc.
As we continue our journey you will see that this division is part of your experience of reality and central to your thinking. The split between mind and matter seems so obvious to us that it is hard to imagine that it might not be real, but in fact it might not be. It might feel like a real division only because it has played a starring role in the development of our philosophical tradition.
Our next lesson is called Greeks and Christians: Two Conceptions of Truth and in it you will see how the split between the ideal and the real has lead to two completely different conceptions of truth that we all navigate between.