Some Key Republic Passages on the Forms


This essay is a commentary on some passages from the middle chapters of Plato's Republic (Books 5-7).  This commentary illustrates and supports the critical and contextual interpretation of Plato presented in previous essays.  In particular, I want to show that the context in these passages supports the interpretation a previous essays give to Plato's statement that the Forms are "always the same."   Many philosophers today take "always the same" to mean that there is only one valid choice of moral norms for all people everywhere throughout history.  This conflicts with the modern appreciation of cultural diversity and so this version of "timeless-truth Platonism" has become a main target of "postmodern" philosophical criticism.  I want to show that careful attention to the context in this passage does not support this timeless-truth Platonism, but supports as pluralist Platonism compatible with the thesis that there are innumerable possible virtues and so innumerable valid choices among innumerable Platonic Forms. 

  The left hand column is a literal translation of Plato's text.  The right hand column contains my commentary.



First, 507b

.... [I] remind you of things that have been said here before and often on many occasions:




There are any beautiful things and many good things...

We speak also of the Beautiful Itself and the Good Itself

And so,

everything which previously we considered "many,"

We now go back

and consider each to be "one" according to [its] Form.



The former [many] things

we speak about as "seen,"

not "mentally understood" (noesthai)

But Forms we speak of as "understood," not "seen"...


We speak of many beautiful things

and many good things

And Beauty Itself

and Goodness Itself

and so with all the things

which before we considered many

we now consider them again

according to a single Form of each, which is one,

and which we in each case call ‘that which is’ ...


As Julia Annas points out, Plato's Republic does not try to prove to the general public that the Forms exist.  It refers to this theory as something already well-known to an intended audience of Plato's friends already familiar with the basics of this theory, something "said here often before."


Plato's contrast is not a contrast between "one" valid definition of Beauty and "many" invalid definitions.  It is the contrast between a single concept "beauty" on the one hand, and many concrete examples of beautiful things.  This leaves open the possibility that there might be several valid definitions of Beauty, each one of these instantiated in many different beautiful things.


The contrast between one concept and many examples is also associated with the contrast between abstract concepts, seen only by the mind, and concrete examples visible to the senses.





The final phrase here "that which is" (ho esti) introduces Plato's somewhat peculiar use of the Greek verb "to be" (einai), and its derivatives like "is" (esti), "being" (on), etc.  He can scarcely mean that only the Form of Beauty "is" - - that it "exists," in contrast to concrete examples of beauty which "are" not, i.e. do not exist.  As will be made clearer in passages quoted below, it makes more sense to suppose that he is using "is" to mean that only the Form of Beauty "is" fully beautiful, only it represents something only and always purely beautiful. The contrasting case is the case of many beautiful concrete objects, which might be partly beautiful and partly not beautiful, or which might change from being beautiful to being not-beautiful. 

Next 476a-476d.

Sight-lovers [philo-theamones]... and sound-lovers [phil-ekooi] are a strange group to be numbered among wisdom-lovers [philo-sophous].

You could not get them to attend any serious debate... they lend their ears to every chorus and run around to all the Dionysiac festivals, never missing one in all the villages.

Are we to call such men... "wisdom-lovers"? -No.

But they are like wisdom-lovers... [because] true wisdom-lovers are sight-lovers of [the sight of] truth [philo-theamones tes aletheias].

- How do you mean?

- It's difficult, [but let me explain]:

This paragraph introduces the main passage I want to comment on.  It begins with a reference to men who travel around Greece to Dionysiac festivals, which were an occasion for theatrical performances as well as partying (Dionysos was the Greek god of wine, dancing, and revelry).  It plays on the Greek word philo-sophia, literally love (philos) of wisdom (sophia).  Since in Plato's mind true wisdom consists in love of the abstract Forms seen with the mind and not with the senses, philosophers as wisdom-lovers are contrasted with party-goers who love instead only the many beautiful concrete things they see with their eyes and hear with their ears - - hence they are called sight-lovers and sound-lovers in contrast to wisdom-lovers.
Since "the Beautiful" is the opposite of "the Shameful," they are two...

Since they are two, each is one.

And in respect to "the Right" and "the not-Right,"

"the Good" and "the Bad,"

and all the Forms...

each is one,

but because of mixing

with bodies and actions and each other,

each appears everywhere under many appearances.

Note Plato's way of picturing things here:

The abstract Form of Beauty exists in many beautiful objects, but it exists there "mixed with" concrete bodies (somata), and sometimes even mixed with the opposite Form, the Form of "the shameful."  The context suggests, for example, a specific scene in a theater-performance presenting the audience with some things inspiringly beautiful and some things Plato regards as shameful.

This is explicitly related to a discussion of Rightness earlier in the Republic, where Socrates uncovers a contradiction in Kephalos' overly-concrete definition of rightness, "return to each what you have received from him." Since this definition can refer both to actions which are right and also to actions which are not right, the definition can be said here to contain in itself a "mixture" of the Form right and the Form not-right.  This shows that Plato conceives of his Form theory as a way of resolving contradictions uncovered in Socratic inquiry.

I make a distinction like this: I set apart... the sight-lovers and lovers of skill and action, and separate them from those whom our talk concerns, who alone are rightly called lovers of wisdom [philo-sophous].

The lovers of sound and sights delight in beautiful tones and colors and shapes, and everything that artful skill creates out of these, but their thought is unable to see and take delight in the nature of the Beautiful Itself. [Those are] few who are able to approach Beauty Itself, and see it by itself....

[So we have one kind of person] who attends to beautiful actions, but does not attend to the Beautiful Itself, nor is able to follow when someone tries to guide him to the knowledge of it...

[And then there is the person who is] the opposite of these: someone who recognizes the Beautiful Itself, and is able to see both it and what participates in it, and does not mistake what participates in it for it itself, nor mistake it itself for what participates in it....




Only the Form of Beauty is only and always purely Beautiful, whereas beautiful sounds and sights are only partly and changeably beautiful.  This explains why it is important to be able to "see and take delight in the nature of the Beautiful Itself," rather than only be able to take delight in beautiful sights and sounds.



Here we have the important Platonic notion of "participation."  Plato does not deny that beautiful sights and sounds are beautiful.  But Platonist spirituality requires that a person not let her love for beauty be focused on concrete beautiful objects which exhibit beauty only in mixed and changeable form.  Her love for beauty should be focused primarily on the Form of Beauty, and she should think of beautiful objects as participating in the pure and unchanging beauty of the Form of Beauty.


[Suppose there is] a person who does not think there is the Beautiful Itself, or any Form of Beauty Itself always remaining the same, but who attends to many beautiful things - - the sight-lover, I mean, who cannot endure to hear anybody say that the Beautiful is one and Rightness is one, and so of other things.








Is there any one of these many beautiful things that will not appear shameful? And of the right things, that will not seem not-right? And of the holy things, that will not seem unholy?


And again, do the many double things appear any the less halves than doubles? And likewise of the long and the short things, the light and the heavy things - - can these things be said of them [any more than] the opposite?...

Here we see the phrase "always remaining the same," which causes many to associate Plato with the thesis that there is only one correct definition of Beauty "always the same" for all people everywhere. 

But note that nowhere in this passage does Plato bring up the problem that different people might be attracted to different abstract definitions of beauty.  He does not speak of one valid abstract definition in contrast to many invalid abstract definitions.  He speaks of an abstract definition of Beauty which is "always the same" in its ability to represent beauty, in contrast to many beautiful things which are changeable in the beautiful, and in which beauty might be mixed with what is not-beautiful.

Again he relates the problem of concrete vs. abstract Beauty to the problem of Kephalos' overly-concrete definition of Rightness in Republic Book I.


"Long and short" here connects this discussion to the discussion in Book 7 of the ring finger that is both-long-and-short (long in relation to the little finger, short in relation to the index finger).  There Plato's picture is even clearer: Abstract Forms are contained in our concrete sensory perceptions, but they occur there sometimes mixed with opposite Forms. This is a problem that can be resolved by mentally separating abstract Forms from concrete perceptions.

So in regard to each of these many things: "Is" it more than it "is-not" whatever one might say it is?




It is like those who pun on double meanings at banquets, or the children's riddle about the eunuch and his hitting the bat - - what they say he hit it with and as it sat on what.

These things too are double-meaninged, and it is impossible to conceive firmly any one of them to "be" or "not-be," or both, or neither.

[There is not] a better place to put them than midway between being [ousia] and not being [me einai]. For we shall surely not discover a darker region than not-being [mē on], that something should "not be" still more, nor a brighter region than being [on], that something should "be" still more.































We would seem to have found, then, that the many conventions of the many people about the beautiful and other things are tumbled about in the mid-region between what "is-not" and what exactly "is."

This passage shows Plato's peculiar use of the terms "to be" (einai), "is" (esti), and "being" (ousia and on).

Regarding Kephalos' definition "return to someone whatever you have received from him," one cannot properly say that it "is" right, any more than one can say that it "is-not" right.   Plato describes this by saying that such a definition lies in a region between "being" and "not-being."  The context suggests: It would be wrong to say that Kephalos' definition does not represent the being of Rightness at all, since most of the time it is right to return belongings to someone.  But it would also be wrong to say that this definition represents the pure being of Rightness, because in the case of the man gone insane, returning the weapons is clearly not right. So we should say that what this definition says lies somewhere "between being and not being" - - between representing pure rightness and not representing rightness at all.

This reading is supported by the reference to the children's riddle concerning the eunuch and the bat, which Paul Shorey gives more fully as follows:

A man not a man

Seeing and not seeing

A bird not a bird

Sitting on a limb not a limb

Hit at it and did not hit it

With a stone not a stone.

The riddle’s answer:

A half-blind eunuch  saw (a man not a man, seeing did not see)

a bat (a bird not a bird)

perching on a reed (a branch not a branch)

threw at it a pumice stone and missed (hit and did not hit it with a stone not a stone).


A eunuch (a castrated male) and a bat are also examples of things that lie "between being and not-being."  Clearly 'being" and "not-being" here do not mean "existing" and "not existing," but "being fully an X" or "not being fully an X.  A bat is not a being lying between existing and not existing, but lying between fully-being-a-bird and not-being-a-bird-at-all.  Just so, the above discussion has argued that concrete examples of beautiful things lie between fully being-beautiful and not being beautiful at all.



Anything of this kind... must be called "what one observes the appearances of" [doxaston] not what is Known [gnoston], the wanderer between being caught by this in-between [mental] capacity [which goes by appearances].

Those who see many beautiful things, but do not see The Beautiful... and see many right things but not The Right, and everything like this - - we should say they "go by the appearances" [doxazein] of everything, but do not Know what they observe the appearances of.

What about those who see each of those things, the things [i.e. the Forms] that always are the same? [We should] say they "Know," not that they "observe the appearances" [doxazein].

[We should] say that those who take delight in and love those things about which there is Knowledge, the others [take delight in and love those things] about which they observe the appearances [doxa]... These love and give their attention to beautiful sounds and colors and similar things, but cannot bear the Beautiful as something that "is". [We should] call them "lovers of appearances" [philo-doxous] rather than "lovers of wisdom" [philo-sophous]...



Those who delight in the "being" of each thing [hekaston to on] should be called "lovers of wisdom" [philo-sophous] not "lovers of appearances" [philo-doxous].

Here we meet another special term in Plato's vocabulary, the noun doxa, its verb form doxazein and the participle doxaston.  The most common translation of doxa is "opinion."  But "opinion" suggests a theoretical discussion, in which some people have only subjective and unreliable "opinions" in contrast to others who have certain and objective "Knowledge." 

The preceding paragraphs suggest a very different contrast: Some people focus their attention on visible appearances of beauty -- beauty as it appears in many concrete objects visible to the eyes -- whereas others focus their attention on an abstract Platonic Form of Beauty visible to the mind but not to the eyes.  Those described here as philo-doxous are not lovers of unreliable theoretical opinions, but  are explicitly identified with the party-going sight-lovers (philo-theamones) referred to at the beginning of this discussion.

This is why I think doxa and related words are better translated here as "[visible] appearances," a meaning this word clearly has in some earlier Republic passages as well.


A few more short passages on the Forms as the focal center of Platonist spirituality.



A measure of such things [as justice, sobriety, courage, and wisdom] that falls short in the least degree of being is not a measure at all, because the imperfect is not a measure of anything, although it appears to some that they have already done enough and there is no need to seek further.




This passage again clearly implies that "being" (on) in Plato refers primarily to the perfect Form of a virtue.  Only the Platonic Form of Beauty has the full "being" of beauty, and only it is fit to be used as a measure for self-evaluation.


Does it seem to you that those differ from the blind

who lack knowledge of the being of each being

and who have no vivid paradigm (paradeigma) in the soul

not able to be like painters looking to the most true

and always attending to what is "over there" (ekeise) and contemplating it most exactly

establish also here norms about the beautiful and the just and the good...


This passage again shows what Plato means by "being."  Platonic "being" is something that can serve as a model to be mentally looked at and imitated in the same way that a painter looks at a model and imitates it with his paints. The "beings" in question here refer to the being of "the beautiful and the just and the good," i.e. the Forms of each of these virtues.  The transcendence of these "Beings" is pictorially represented by saying they are "over there, " (ekeise) but able to serve as true models for concrete human existence "here." (enthade).  "Most true" (alethestaton) here clearly does not refer to accurate knowledge of concrete entities, but to knowledge of the ideal perfect paradigms of the virtues.


Those of a philosophical nature

always (aei) love the knowledge

which reveals to them the

being of the always-being (tes ousias tes aei ousēs),

and is not wandering between becoming and decaying.

A Platonic philosopher is one who loves "the being of the always-being."  Taking "being" in the senses described above, "always being" does not mean "always existing."  It refers to the fact that the Form of Beauty, for example, is something always beautiful, in contrast to the beauty of beautiful objects which become beautiful then subsequently become not-beautiful.


[the philosopher is]

a true lover of knowledge, and does not dwell

among the many things

which appear to be (doxazomenoi einai)

but would hold on his way and his love would not fail

before he got in touch with the nature of each thing

using that [part] in the soul

to which it belongs to be in touch with these natures

that [part] which is kin [to the natures of things]

[This part of the soul is]

that by which he draws close

and communes with what really has being

(migeis tō onti ontōs)

generating understanding (noun) and truth

[and so] knows and truly lives and grows.


Here the Forms are called the "natures" (physei) of things.  The abstract Forms of virtues are what "really have being," in contrast to many concrete examples of virtue which only "appear" to have the full being of these virtues.  A true philosopher does not mentally dwell among the many concrete examples of virtue, but mentally communes (literally "mingles') with the Forms.  One part of his soul is "kin" to these Forms - - this part consists partly of the capacity to grasp abstract concepts, and partly of that part which loves pure Goodness.



...the one who truly has his mind on the beings (ta onta)

will not look below to the affairs of men

and striving with them be filled with envy and hate

but looking and contemplating those orderly things

which always remain the same in all respects

not wronging or suffering wrong from each other

but all being harmonious and keeping within reason (kata logon echonta)

he imitates them

and makes himself like them as much as he can.

[It is impossible] not to imitate what one loves.

The philosopher, associating

with the divine and harmonious (theios kai kosmios)

will become harmonious and divine

as far as is possible to a man.


Plato sometimes refers to the Forms simply as "the beings."

The Platonist philosopher does not see himself in the context of social life in this world, competing with others in a world full of competitive wrangling.  He makes the "divine" Form the main objects of love in his life.  He fashions his identity in relation to them, trying to become like them, and so himself becoming "divine" so far as is possible to man.










Summarizing my interpretation of these passages:

The central problem is formulating ideal virtue-concepts that will invariably make a person a more and more admirable person as she comes closer to realizing these ideals.

Problems arise because of the common tendency to conceptualize virtue in terms of concrete, easy-to-understand visualizable images. Using such concrete images as a guide will sometimes lead to genuinely admirable actions, and sometimes lead to actions that are clearly not admirable. This is in contrast to the Forms which are unchanging in their ability to represent something good and admirable.

"Concrete image" is my way of describing something Plato refers to in various other ways:

- These are images of conduct that can be perceived by the physical senses (aisthesis), primarily the sense of sight. These are images of conduct that can be visualized. The Forms, by contrast, cannot be visualized, and so grasping them requires developing a mental capacity (noesis) able to think in concepts separated from anything concretely visualizable.

- These concrete images are the external appearances, the "seeming" (doxa) of true virtue. It is incorrect to say that they represent nothing of the being of true virtue, but they do not represent the full being of virtue either. For the person able to grasp the Form containing the full being of a particular virtue (what it is that makes this virtue admirable), these external appearances will appear to lie between not-being-admirable-virtue and fully-being-admirable-virtue. Grasping the full being of a virtue again requires kind of knowing opposite knowing-appearances (doxazein), which Plato calls in this context episteme, or gnosis (the equivalent of noesis).

- No single concrete image will represent every instance of a particular virtue (e.g. there are many other "right actions" besides the action of giving back a person what belongs to him). So the person who thinks only in terms of concrete images will tend to conceive each virtue under multiple forms, and so will lack the unified and concentrated focus for moral commitment which Forms provide for the ideal Platonist. This is the main point of Plato’s contrast between "the one and the many" in this passage (e.g. "many right actions" and "one Form" of Rightness.)


Appendix (Optional):

Comments on Some Key Greek Terms

The above interpretation depends on a particular understanding of several key Greek terms used by Plato.  The following gives a fuller discussion of the issues involved.  The two main issues are:

(1) How to understand the Greek verb einai "to be" and its derivatives, on "being," ousia "essence," etc.

(2) How to understand the contrast Plato describes as the contrast between doxa and episteme, commonly translated, (mistranslated I think), as "opinion" and "knowledge").


About einai

The Greek verb einai can be used to assert that something exists. This is the "existential" meaning of enai. But it can also be used to predicate of something that it is a being of a specific kind, as in "This bird is beautiful." Interpreters call this the "predicative" meaning of einai (because it predicates "beauty" of the "bird").  English has a separate word "exist" which we can use to make it clear when the "existential" meaning of "being" is intended. Unlike English, classical Greek has no separate word for "exist," so einai has to do double duty for both "X exists" and "X is beautiful."

A "metaphysical" understanding of Plato’s Form theory that is common today typically takes einai in its "existential" meaning. So when Plato speaks of the Form of Beauty as "always being," this is taken as an assertion that this Form "always exists" - - i.e. it exists in a realm beyond all variability in concepts of beauty due to historical change and cultural diversity.

 The interpretation above argues for a "predicative" rather than "existential" meaning of einai. So when Plato speaks of the Form of Beauty, for example, as "always being" what he means is that the Form of Beauty always is beautiful. He is not contrasting one "eternally existing" general concept of beauty with other variable and changing general concepts of beauty. He is rather referring to a Form that always and only represents admirable beauty, in contrast to concrete representations of beauty (beautiful bodies, beautiful stage-productions, etc.) which contain some mixture of being-beautiful and being not-beautiful, and which might change from being beautiful to being not-beautiful. Only of the pure Form of Beauty is it correct to say that it fully and without reservation "is beautiful." Beauty can only be fully predicated of the Form of Beauty. As Plato says in one place, concrete examples of beauty "roll around between being and not being" i.e. they do not completely lack the being of Beauty, nor do they completely have this being either.

I argue that this predicative meaning of einai also applies to the several derivative grammatical forms of einai:

- esti "[it] is,"

- the participle on, "being" (plural onta, "beings")

- the noun form ousia "being" or "essence"

- the adverbial form ontÇs "real-ly"

The following passage (Republic 504c) seems a particularly clear example of the "predicative" sense of the participle on, "being".

A measure of such things [as justice, sobriety, courage, and wisdom] that falls short in the least degree of being [hotioun tou ontos] is not a measure at all because the imperfect [ateles] is not a measure [metron] of anything, although it appears to some that they have already done enough and there is no need to seek further.

There is a clear implication in this passage that the phrase "what falls short of being" has the same meaning as "imperfect." That is, "being" refers to the Forms that have the full being of virtues, not because they have a higher degree of "existence," but because they represent admirable virtues in their most perfect, i.e. their most admirable, form.

Note here also the clear indication of the function that the Forms need to fulfill, being a "measure" of moral perfection. One can only be assured that attempts to "measure up" to some particular ideal will make one a more admirable person, if this measure itself represents goodness in its most perfect form.

Finally, note here also that Plato criticizes "some people" who settle for ordinary imperfect notions of goodness feeling no need to seek further than ordinary and easily accessible notions, implying that it might be quite difficult to formulate and grasp ideas of perfect goodness.

The interpretation proposed above depends on understanding einai and its derivatives in this predicative sense, not the existential sense, wherever they are used in relation to the Forms. Essentially, the Form of Beauty can be called the "being" of beauty because it alone is fully, unqualifiedly, unchangingly, and perfectly admirably-beautiful. The ideal Platonic philosopher is said to always have his eyes on ta onta "the beings," because he keeps his attention focused on this kind of pure and perfect "being" of each of the virtues. This gives him knowledge of the ousia, "being," or "essence" of each virtue.


About doxa

Doxa is the noun form of the Greek verb dokein, an ordinary word meaning "to seem." (Socrates often asks his conversation partners dokei soi...., "does it seem to you that....")

The usual translation of doxa in Republic 507b and following, is "opinion."  I argue above for a different translation, in which doxa means something like "appearances," or "seeming," and the verb doxazein does not mean "to opine," or "to have opinions," but means rather "to go by appearances."

This is a meaning doxa clearly has in an earlier discussion in the Republic Book II (360e to 367e).  In this passage, Socrates’ goal is to make a very clear and complete distinction between the most just man (dikaiotaton), and the most unjust man (adikÇtaton 360e). The height of injustice, he says, is to "seem just (dokei dikaion einai) [while] not being [mē einai] [just]. The most unjust man will then be the one who commits the greatest injustices while procuring for himself "the greatest seeming [doxa] of justice" [tēn megistēn doxan... eis dikaiosunen]. Doxa here clearly does not refer to theoretical opinions about how to define "justice." It refers to the external appearances, external "seemings" of justice, in contrast to actually being (einai) just. (Shorey translates doxa here as "reputation.")

Proceeding further, Socrates says that a really just man must be one who "does not wish to seem [dokein] just, but to be [einai] just." If we want to picture such a man, we must "deprive him of the seeming [to dokein]. Because if he seems [doxei] just, honors and gifts will come to him on account of this seeming [dokounti toiouto]. Then it will not be clear whether he is this way for the sake of justice or because of honors and gifts. He must be stripped bare of everything except justice... Doing no injustices, he must have the seeming [doxan echeto] of the greatest injustice." (361c-d) (Shorey again translates doxa here as "reputation.")

These are just a few examples of the way that terms dokein and doxa are used throughout this discussion extending from 360e to 367e.