Last time we noted that three interlocking principles inform ultimate reality for Socrates and Plato – “god,” “soul,” and the Forms. Having explored the first two we come now to the seemingly more obscure theory of the Forms. In this theory, Plato argues that each thing or aspect we experience in and of the world is an inexact and imperfect version of a perfect template outside the material world. The Forms then are ideal prototypes reflected incompletely in real life. The Forms have the characteristics of being: (1) absolutely true, (2) the measure and appraisal of any term (e.g. “straightness”), (3) immutable, (4) timeless, (5) singular, and (6) conceptually certain.2 They are most apparent in the case of mathematics and geometry; thus the equilateral triangle is conceptually indisputable and eternal despite being impossible in the physical world.

Plato proposes that the same kind of ideal Form exists for everything including a leaf or a horse, but more importantly for abstract concepts such as love or justice. The Forms of these latter concepts are revealed through a process of questioning, definition, and contemplation. These are functions of the mind or in Plato’s jargon, the soul. Plato goes further however arguing for an ontological existence of the Forms in a realm separate from physical reality. The reality of the Forms is approached through pure reason whereby the philosopher concludes the absoluteness of true ideas is in turn the logical demonstration of their independent existence as real entities in a kind of ontological argument.

Now the Form of a physical thing such as a horse is identified by the scientist via thorough study and analysis. Likewise the Form of abstract concepts is revealed by the careful dialectic of the philosopher. So for example just as the biologist tells us why a black horse and a white horse are both horses, the philosopher judges how a given act is virtuous or more accurately shares some portion of true virtue. The philosopher does not love knowledge out of a kind of “vulgar curiosity,” but seeks the ‘vision of truth.” He does not love beautiful things themselves – all of which have some features of beauty and some of ugliness – but ‘beauty’ itself. The sudden recognition of a “truth’ comes from apprehending the whole from study of the parts, leading to a clear intellectual vision wherein the soul acts like an ‘eye’ perceiving through reason the real rather than close instances in the world. (Consider your eventual but sudden understanding of a circle as not a shape drawn on paper, but the concept of the figure made by all points equidistant from a single central point.)

(further continued next post)


2Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 6, page 321-322.

3Russell, Bertrand, A History of Western Philosophy. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4165-5477-6, pages 119-131.


“Then he will do this most perfectly who approaches the object with thought alone, without associating any sight with his thought, or dragging any sense perception with his reasoning, but who, using pure thought alone, tries to track down each reality pure and by itself, freeing himself as far as possible from eyes and ears, and in a word, from the whole body, because the body confuses the soul and does not allow it to acquire truth and wisdom whenever it is associated with it. Will not that man reach reality?” – Plato, Phaedo (66a).

Last time we finished our analysis of the pre-Socratic concept of ultimate reality settling on the one existing intelligible world governed by logos and pervaded by energy, thought, and opposites. Today we move forward to classical Greece where we learn of a different sort of ultimate reality developed by Socrates and refined by his pupil, Plato, famously known as the Theory of Forms (or Ideas). Chronologically they are first presented in Symposium, argued in Phaedo, expounded in Republic, and defended in Timaeus and Philebus.1

However, before we get ahead of ourselves, it is worth noting that three interlocking principles inform ultimate reality for Plato: “god,” “soul,” and the Forms. Plato’s deity is ill defined in Timaeus, simply designated as the ‘supremely Good’ responsible for bringing order out of chaos. Meanwhile soul is the incorporeal and immortal intelligence attendant to “god” and, in a lesser iteration, inhabiting the human body. For Socrates and Plato, this intelligence within us (or soul) cognizes directly the Forms which can be brought to consciousness by any of us as a ‘remembering’  through the process of contemplative thought. This human intelligence or soul likewise seeks to access virtue via knowledge or wisdom and, as such, is the locus within man which, Socrates teaches, requires particular care.

(continued next post)


1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 6, page 320.


“Synthesis in general… is the mere result of the power of imagination, a blind but indispensable function of the soul, without which we should have no knowledge whatsoever, but of which we are scarcely ever conscious.” – Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason.

In the last 10 posts we have reviewed ultimate reality as conceived by the 10 most prominent thinkers from a key two-century epoch of the ancient Greek world. We are left now with the task to synthesize their varying thoughts into a coherent whole. Given we only have second-hand fragments of the lifetimes of the thinking of these immortals, I ask to be excused if I use a bit of imagination in this endeavor.

Our obvious starting point is their consistent belief that there is, in fact, a fundamental principle or group of principles underpinning reality. Reality, for the ancient Greek philosophers, is not at its foundation chaotic and opaque, but intelligible and scrutable – and specifically intelligible to human beings. This intelligibility emanates from a logos, reason, or thought, perhaps even a “mind.” The logos in turn manifests as universal order.

Reality is also solitary – a unit – instantiated in the real world, which is to say in corollary there are not multiple worlds. The great unifying quality is existence or being which conjoins the material with thought or soul. Ultimately the unit as unit is uncreated and indestructible. Whereas the material is constructed of fundamental elements such as atoms or four basic physical states that amalgamate into the unit, the non-material governs or pervades the unit and to some extent its elements.

Reality also expresses a prismatic force or energy at times manifest as attraction and repulsion, at others as mixing and unmixing, and still others as creation and destruction. Within this stew is a fundamental principle of balanced opposites – the limited and the limitless, Love and Strife, the perceivable and the imperceptible, the pure and the impure, the spatial and the non-spatial.

So in summary, the ancient Greek concept of ultimate reality can be restated thusly: there is one true, existential, intelligible world, governed by logos and consisting of matter and thought or soul, infused with energy, and pervaded by opposites. Nothing in modern science disproves or even challenges this cosmic view in spite of its formulation through reason alone by these science-naïve ancient sages.


“All things were together. Then thought came and arranged them.” – Anaxagoras (quoted by Digenes).1



The last of the pre-Socratic theories of ultimate reality I wish to discuss is that of Anaxagoras (circa 500-428 B.C.E.). While he was born in Clazomenae on the coast of Asia Minor, he spent his productive years in Athens as a friend of Pericles and Euripides, but like Socrates and Aristotle was eventually spurned by the Athenians and exiled to Lampsacus where he died shortly thereafter. Like Parmenides and Empedocles, Anaxagoras denied that things could be newly generated or entirely destroyed. In his view however, motion is possible and change occurs, and our faculties are reliable if properly used. He denies there is a basic element underlying matter. Everything began as an infinite gaseous ball, and the cosmos came about as distinct entities separated out of that undifferentiated mass.

He brought two unique doctrines to the dialogue on ultimate reality. First as things separated none became completely segregated which is to say there is no pure stuff. Thus every bit of matter contains a portion, no matter how small, of every other kind of matter. For example, an ingot of seemingly solid gold is never 100% gold, but contains infinitesimal portions of every other kind of matter. Accordingly there is no ‘smallest’ piece of any element; all can be infinitely divided.

His second, and more salient, doctrine is his belief that the original cosmogenic force was mind or thought (Nous). Thought is alone, singularly pure, limitless (ungraspable?), and self-ruled, and pervades all things. Thought is not only the knowledge of everything, but also the greatest power. Anaxagoras tells us thought arranged the undifferentiated mass into the cosmos, though it is unclear whether by this he means there is an ‘intelligent design.’ Nous or mind caused a rotation of the undifferentiated mixture resulting in the separation of objects “in which now revolve the stars and the sun and the moon and the air and the ether…”2

Anaxagoras then is a dualist – ultimate reality consists in the intelligible and the perceivable.3 Durant explains thought is “akin to the source of life and motion in ourselves.”4 Nous implies a teleology or ordering of things initiated by thought and a cosmic intelligence which also explains our intelligence. The physical description of reality espoused by Anaxagoras aligns with modern field theory whereas other pre-Socratics, especially the Atomists, elicit a form of particle theory.5


1Barnes, Jonathan, Early Greek Philosophy. Penguin Books, London, England, 2001. Page 185.

2Ibid.,page 191,

3Ibid.,page 192.

4Durant, Will, The Life of Greece, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966. ISBN 0-671-41800-9, page 339.

5Honderich, Ted (editor), The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8, page 32-33.