Another week has gone by, so lets remind ourselves where we left off: Socrates was explaining to Glaucon, in Plato’s Republic, what a Philosopher does. The first characteristic of a philosopher was “he who has a taste for every sort of knowledge and who is curious to learn and is never satisfied”. He further distinguishes Philosophers from other persons who seek knowledge by stating that they, and only they, are “the lovers of the vision of truth”. Before reading my interpretation of Plato, read the extract yourself if you have the chance.
What does Socrates means by “absolute beauty”? How does this affect his distinction between opinion and knowledge?
Socrates begins his explanation by stating that “beauty is the opposition of ugliness, they are two” and each, taken on their own, are one. Socrates refers to these terms as classes and adds “just and unjust, good and evil, and … every other class”. But what does it mean to say beauty is one or justice is one?
We certainly think of beautiful things like sunsets, or instances of justice like murders being brought to justice, but what does it mean to talk about beauty on its own as a single class? Socrates, I think, would only affirm that a sunset is beautiful to some extent and that a murderer going to jail is just to some degree, but these things are not beauty or justice itself:
“taken singly, each of them one; but from the various combinations of them with actions and things and with one another, they are seen in all sorts of lights and appear many“
There are many actions and things that appear to be beautiful, but for Socrates these things and actions are mixtures of the classes. A sunset will always be an unstable mixture of beauty and ugliness, but never completely beautiful.
A philosopher, then, for Socrates is a person who doesn’t merely see beautiful, just, or good things: a philosopher recognises that to see a beautiful thing is different from “seeing or loving absolute beauty”. The Philosopher, then, is capable of distinguishing absolutes from the objects which participate in the absolutes. These absolutes are the mysterious ideas or forms: abstract, immaterial objects which are accessible only to the intellect, not the senses.
With this understanding of reality in place*, Socrates makes his distinction between the opinion and knowledge. Knowledge is of “what is” – or pure being; ignorance is of “what is not” – or non-being or “the absolute negation of being”. To put it another way and in crude language: knowledge lines up with the way things actually are, and ignorance is exactly the opposite. Opinion, on the other hand, can sometimes be right and sometimes wrong. It is of “what is” and also “what is not”. It sometimes lines up with the way things are and sometimes it doesn’t. Opinion, therefore, says Socrates, is somewhere between knowledge and ignorance:
“as knowledge corresponded to being and ignorance of necessity to not-being, for that intermediate between being and not-being there has to be discovered a corresponding intermediate between ignorance and knowledge“
Socrates further separates opinion and knowledge into different faculties or powers. For example, the faculty of sight has the power to see objects in the world: it has a specific end and is directed at a specific subject matter. In the same way, to know is to have a power or faculty aimed discerning pure being – or that which is. Opinion is a faculty aimed at something that both is and is not. It is a power which is aimed at a mixture of the objects of knowledge and ignorance. What is opinion’s subject matter then?
Socrates concludes that opinion’s objects or “subject-matter” are the things and actions that are a mixture of the absolute ideas or forms. The non-philosopher therefore is the person who opines that there are no absolute forms or classes of beauty, good and justice (and many others, but more on that later) which these things participates in. There are only the things themselves. When someone opines that a piece of music is beautiful, Socrates might say that they are wrong (false opinion). Or he might say that they are right(true opinion). But because they fail to understand what causes the music to be beautiful, they can’t have knowledge. Knowledge, for Socrates, requires understanding that absolute ideas cause the things we see to have certain characteristics. These things, as I mentioned above, are thought to participate in these absolute ideas or forms.
So next time you tell someone they are beautiful, ponder to yourself (don’t tell your spouse) Socrates’ distinction between knowledge and opinion. Next time, I will post a summary of what we have learned so far on the Analogy of Religion and explain why I am writing this blog. After that I will introduce our first extract from Plato’s famous pupil and the one of the greatest philosophers that ever lived: Aristotle.
Do you think that opinion related to objects of the senses? Does knowledge require understanding why the objects of our senses have certain characteristics? What do you think about my interpretation of this extract?
*Bloom notes that this framework is not defended in the Republic, only assumed.