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Philosophy & Faith with Father Francis Selman       

"The dawn of philosophy, as we know it in the West, occurred in ancient Greece around the year 600 BC with Thales, one of the 7 Wise Men of Greece. But only fragments of the earliest philosophers have come down to us in the writings of others. The first philosopher from whom we have complete works is Plato, who lived from 427-347 BC and was a disciple of Socrates. Socrates was condemned to death by the council of Athens in 399 BC on a charge of impiety, for supposedly undermining belief in the mythical gods of ancient Greece. It is difficult to know to what extent the works of Plato, which were all written in the form of dialogues or philosophical discussions, mostly between Socrates and his disciples, represent the thought of his master or of Plato himself. In one of the dialogues, the Theaetetus, we learn what was the starting point of enquiry for Socrates: it was the saying of Heraclitus, who flourished around 500 BC, that all things are in continual motion, literally 'on the run', and therefore always changing. If this were so, Socrates thought, we could never have certain knowledge of anything, because whatever we thought we knew would be changed by the time we came to check it. Socrates, however, was sure that it is possible for us to know things for certain, and so have true knowledge; but as we cannot have it of changing, visible things, he turned to the consideration of abstract things that remain constant, like the virtues, asking What is Justice: What is Courage? and What is Knowledge itself? Thus Socrates thought that we could only have proper knowledge of immaterial and unchanging things, which he called the Ideas or Forms.

These were the real things for Socrates and Plato, because things that do not change only have being: whatever changes has non-being mixed with being, because it ceases to be something that it was and becomes something that it was not, but knowledge can only be of what is, not of what is not. As the visible world is full of changing, material things, Socrates supposed that there was another world, an invisible, immaterial and unchanging one, of the Ideas, which were the real things for him. Things in this world are just copies, shadows or images of the real things for him. Things in this world are just copies, shadows or images of the real things in this other, higher world, not perceived by the senses but known by the mind. For example, we might say that an animal is a horse because it shares in the Horse Form. Or something is beautiful because it shares in Beauty. But nothing is just Beauty: beauty in itself is an idea. We may see in this way what Socrates, and Plato, meant by saying that things in this world are what they are because they share in the Ideas or Forms of them.

We might now ask, How do we come to now the Ideas and Forms when they exist in another, invisible world, because it cannot be by the senses? Socrates' answer was that, in order to judge whether two sticks, to take his example in the Phaedo, are equal or unequal we must already have the idea of equality in our mind. But as things which are in point of fact equal can sometimes look unequal (one has only to think of the two lines equal in length but with arrows at either end of them pointing either inwards or outwards, so that the line with the arrows pointing outwards in opposite directions at its ends looks shorter), we do not get the idea of equality through sense-perception, so Socrates held, but in some other way. Socrates thought that this was because we are born with innate ideas, like equality: we know them because our soul once beheld them on their own before it came into the body, which makes the soul forget what it once knew and obscures its earlier, clear knowledge. Two things follow from this. First, Socrates thought that the soul pre-exists the body and, as it existed on its own before the body, it could also survive the body after death and be immortal. Second, as the soul loses its knowledge oncoming into the body, it is better for the soul to be separated from the body, which only hinders knowledge of the real things, the Ideas. In order, then, to have knowledge of reality, that is, of the Ideas and Forms, Plato thought it important that we take care of our souls, so that they do not become too attached to the body by the pleasures of the senses but remain free, so that we can see reality clearly. We thus see that philosophy was closely connected with the moral life and the pursuit of the virtues for Socrates and Plato, as it was for many of the ancient philosophers.

At this point, I shall not go into the thought of Plato any further but conclude with a few remarks about the good and the less satisfactory aspects of his philosophy. First, Plato helps us to raise our minds above the material world to a higher world, and so to spiritual realities. We can see that his theory of the Ideas or Forms is in part an answer to the question to which the theory of evolution is another answer. Everything has a nature: jade differs in nature from ivory, and a lion from a zebra. We receive our human nature from the human beings who begot us, but if we go all the way back, from where did the first human being or pair of human beings receive their nature? This cannot have been from any material being like themselves or the same question would arise again. Unless we are to suppose many independent immaterial principles of the natures of things in this world, like Plato's Forms or Ideas, this can only be from an immaterial being. St Augustine said that Plato's Ideas would be true if they all existed in the mind of God. God surely had ideas of all the things which he made, as an artist does of the picture he is about to paint. Plato's theory that we do not acquire our ideas from sense perception was sharply opposed later by the British empiricists. Plato's theory of knowledge also goes with his dualism of body and soul that many find unsatisfactory today. It suffices to say that Plato regarded the philosopher as a lover of truth, only he sought knowledge of truth in another world than this one."