A reader’s guide to Plato’s Republic, books II-IV: part 2, the education of the guardians

Once we move beyond the dialogue about the two cities in book 2, we immediately find ourselves plunged into a discussion about the education of the guardians.  As was said above, the guardians are a kind of anchoring element in Plato’s construction of his republic, which stands as a mean between the extremes of the the initial city of pigs and the luxurious city.  It will now be seen more clearly how the education of the guardians coincides with this mediation.


Plato’s intention is that the guardians should save the city from excess and defect through their philosophical efforts.  The education Plato designs for the guardians stands as a way for bringing about this particular kind of excellence in the city.  Along with physical training (gymnastike) Plato’s musike is a program for what we might call a liberal arts education keyed to developing a moderate character in the guardians that avoids either extreme simplicity or the tendency to excess.  Plato assumes throughout his discussion that there will be a general sharing of values connected, seemingly, by the stories of gods and heroes that are told to the guardians (1).  (see 377b et seq.)  The role the guardians play seems to be that of maintaining the moderating values that appear in these stories.  They are in this sense, in one of their roles, a kind of priestly class, ensuring the maintenance of certain cultural values, and above all the sorts of values that promote the kind of moderation that Plato’s musike teaches.  In another sense, the guardians are educators, especially in their role as lawgivers.  (see 429b)

But such roles require, ideally, the kind of independent, creative thinking that a liberal arts education (such as Plato’s musike) would promote.  It is clear throughout Plato’s discussion of the education of the guardians that he means them not be be merely slavish imitators of current fashions or of the wisdom of their ancestors, but philosophically minded persons who are motivated to search out the truth of things. (409b)  The foundation of this character trait in the guardians is their search for what is beautiful as part of their devotion to the muses. (403b)  It is sometimes wondered whether the republic Plato imagines is totalitarian in spirit.  A close look at the education the guardians receive would seem to count against such claims.  One might reflect, for example, that there is a vast difference between Plato’s system of education and, say, the old Soviet system; or, again, between one that emphasizes self-expression, creativity, and a passion for beauty (as Plato’s does) and what some have thought will be the result of the progressive move away from the humanities in contemporary university education.

Finally, perhaps the foil to Plato’s educational program would be a more Spartan one: one which, unlike the one Plato’s guardians undergo, overemphasizes the things that tend to harden the spirit, such as an excess of physical training, while it undervalues the softening effects of a purely “musical” education.  Plato’s aim is to find excellence in the mean that manifests itself naturally between the two extremes.  (410c et seq.)  Thus, as was hinted at in prior articles, Plato’s education in moderation may be said to stand as an example of the way in which aiming at a mean is likewise an aiming at excellence; or, in other words, of how devotion to the mean is not intended merely a compromise but as a way of proceeding that surpasses either of two alternatives.


In what follows, I would like to move beyond these stage-setting themes to consider the way in which Plato’s education in moderation or temperance stands as a foundational stage on a ladder of virtues such as courage, wisdom and justice.  Secondarily, I will touch upon links this theme of a ladder of virtues has to a similar ladder of desire in the symposium.  In Plato, one finds not only an education of the mind, but also one of the body, including the senses, and the passions aroused through the senses.  In what follows, the importance of these latter forms of education will be considered as parts of the larger “whole” of the truly philosophical character Plato has in mind, which will in turn point to an initial vision of how the various epistemological and moral themes in the Platonic dialogues fit together.

The upward path of the ladder of virtue might be said to begin with an education of the senses.  As such, it has a standing similar to the epistemological role that perceptibles play on the lower portion of the divided line.  This “education” might be characterized by a kind of  outside-inside movement or influence, whereby the things in the young guardian’s environment affect his soul through the senses.  for example, the young guardians are exposed, initially, to stories of virtue that have been been “purified” of any bad influences.  Socrates and Glaucon expect that such stories will serve as models of virtuous behavior that the guardians will strive to imitate.  Moreover, this modelling of virtue or excellence extends to such influences in the guardians’ environment as weaving, enbroidery, architecture, and “fine speech”.  (401a)  The art behind such crafts is meant to produce in the guardians a sense of harmony, grace, and rhythm.  In a way similar to what Aristotle expresses in the Nicomachean Ethics it is expected that the guardians will at first take on common opinions about what is virtuous unreflectively, but will later, when mature, be in a position to grasp the reason why some things praised while others are blamed.  (401e-402a)  In keeping with the stages of ascent on the divided line, the young guardians might be said to hold conjectures or beliefs or opinions concerning things they are only later able to justify.

Moreover, this path parallels the one taken out of the cave by the prisoners of opinion and conjecture.  It may be seen that such prisoners could be aided greatly by at first having the right opinions about what is virtuous or beautiful.  It seems necessary that persons who have already made an upward ascent and have knowledge of some kind about such things should be the ones to provide the guardians with the correct opinions and beliefs.  It us sometimes thought, owing to Augustine, that in the Platonic tradition all learning must arise “from within”,and that therefore, teaching is something that arises within oneself.  Notwithstanding the merits of such a view, it might stand as a refinement of this position as a genuinely platonic one to say that such inner teaching and discovery is only a final stage that precedes the initial one in which teaching consists in pointing students consistently in the right direction until they can find their way on their own.  (for these points see 410a-b)  From the student’s perspective, this amounts to a healthy respect for one’s predecessors.  Finally, one can perhaps see here a way in which this perspective on teaching anticipates Aristotle’s solution to the problem of the Meno in Ana Post. I.1: although one may not be able to discover virtue if one has absolutely to idea of what one is looking for, one may be able to discover it by taking advantage of the prior knowledge acquired in the explorations of one’s predecessors.  Progress might be hindered and success might truly be a gift of the gods, it would seem, if one does not admit any opinions or beliefs as assumptions about what one is seeking at the outset.


To bring these insights back to the education of the senses, the guardians may be pictured as surrounded by stories and artefacts of all kinds about which they are taught to have discriminating opinions and tastes.  If their education is successful, they will praise things said to be praiseworthy and blame those things held to be blameworthy.  Moreover, they will become graceful as rhythm and harmony permeate their souls both through their exposure to harmonious and temperate music and through the kind of rhythm and harmony that is present in well crafted artefacts.  All these factors contribute to developing a temperate nature that shares the virtues both of Socrates’ initial city of pigs, and the refinements and support for philosophically sophisticated thinking that arise in the luxurious city.

It might be noted at this point that Glaucon’s remark that Socrates’ initial city was a city of pigs is a fine example of Socratic irony.  Glaucon labelled the inhabitants of Socrates’ simple city “pigs” because of their diet (which consisted of such things as boiled roots and acorns) and their uncultivated rusticity.  But Glaucon’s luxurious city stands equally as a city of pigs for its voracious appetitiveness and desire for wealth. (373d)  The guardians provide a foundation for meeting both defects by introducing into the culture and character of Plato’s republic a passion for true and simple beauty that begins at the level of the senses and later manifests itself in the flowering of guiding ideas.

Taking these points together with the parallels noted above and with the allegory of the cave and the divided line, it might be said that having achieved such guiding ideas that lead to the realization of harmony and beauty in the republic, the guardians add to their role as harmonizers, tuners, and healers that of teachers.  It is in this role that one might see a foreshadowing in books II-IV of the notion that arises in books VI and VII, that having ascended to knowledge from belief and conjecture, the philosophical ruler is in a position to lead others to a similar vision.


(1) It should be noted that although it is intended for the guardian class, the values conveyed through Plato’s kind of Musike, can, as an ideal at least, may be considered an educational program for the republic as a whole.  It is sometimes overlooked that only the best of the guardians will become rulers, and that therefore the educational program Plato imagines might be said to be intended for the educated classes generally (i.e. the guardian class).  Hence, it would signify what it means to be educated generally and, since it is likewise an education of character, to be noble in spirit.

A Readers guide to Plato’s Republic–Part 1: the city of pigs

Plato’s “city of pigs,” which appears in Republic II (369a et seq.), has a greater importance for the discussion of justice in the Republic than is sometimes recognized.   As was mentioned above, the starting point for the discussion of justice was to be the creation of an ideal Republic in which justice could be seen “writ large”.  The city of pigs involves Socrates’ first attempt to create such a city.  It will be shown that, although it is discarded following Glaucon’s objection, this first attempt at an ideal republic in many ways provides the foundation for the discussion of justice in the remainder of the book.

Socrates’ initial city (the city of pigs)

Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

The most outstanding feature of Socrates’ first city (the city of pigs/the original simple rustic city) is its moderate character. Created by need (Socrates says any gathering of individuals into a society is created out of need), it is a city in which each gets just what he needs, and provides for the whole according to his ability.  To accomplish this, each citizen is to develop a particular skill and to strive toward excellence at that particular craft.  It is a city which accepts that each has his own natural abilities, and that not all its citizens will have equal abilities.  Nevertheless, by ordering society so that each contributes according to his ability, by the combined contribution of all its members, it is able to serve all its members’ moderate needs.

It is a city with two main social classes, consisting, on the one hand, of craftsmen, farmers, builders, sailors, herdsmen, weavers and merchants, and laborers on the other.   Together they produce the “right quality” and “right quantity” (371a) of goods, which coincides with the requirements for the health of the city.  Socrates even pictures the citizens as drinking moderately (372c).  By contrast, Socrates pictures the unhealthy city as one that has grown fat with things Socrates considers immoderate, such as rich sauces, and other “luxuries” that go beyond Socrates’ image of rustic simplicity.

Now, it might be wondered whether a discussion of possible social tensions or of inequality should arise, as, for example, between  merchants and farmers.  Presumably, Socrates feels the questions does not need to be raised since all will be adequately provided for by doing what is best suited to their natural abilities.  Moreover, immoderate excess, which is the starting point for injustice, has not been introduced into this “healthy” (372e) city, and so, in theory at least, no one wants more than they need.  Socrates imagines that all will be well provided for since it is a city organized “according to nature”.  Presumably, its unity will arise from the fact that the needs of all are provided for and from its fidelity to nature.

Most of all, it seems that moderation is ultimately what holds a society together in a harmonious order for Plato.  Since injustice arises precisely where the spirit of moderation is broken and the city becomes “feverish” (373a), it might well be inferred that moderation is linked to justice.  In the present context, it is certainly the determining factor behind  ensuring harmony among the citizens (cf. 371e-372a for the notion that justice is linked to a harmony of the parts of the city with one another and 372e-373 where excess is linked to injustice and war (disharmony)).

The city of pigs passage comes to a close at 372c.  Glaucon objects that such people would “feast without relishes”; that they would, in view of their diet, be like pigs, feasting only on “noble cakes” made of barley and wheat flower.  Socrates in turn, admits into the city, and only when pressed, such things as boiled roots, acorns, and beans.  Where Socrates imagines such conditions as productive of a kind of rustic health and vigor, Glaucon sees a city that lacks the elegance and sophistication one would expect to find in an ideal republic.  Glaucon’s point might, again, be taken to be that even if such a city is moderate, it is in other respects an uncomfortable and deficient in many respects.

But it may be possible to read into the very spiritedness of Glaucon’s rejection another simple point: that human nature is such that it always wishes to go beyond moderation where it can.  Socrates seems to think that the remedy is to keep the citizens ignorant of any immoderate things they lack.  One wonders how long such a city could last.  Certainly, a possible analogy to an Eden-like scenario suggests itself.


The luxurious/feverish city

Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

Its opposite, what Socrates calls a luxurious city, is an example of excess.  Desire for what is beyond the mean leads to an ever-increasing need for greater and greater acquisition and acquisitiveness until, fueled by a desire that seemingly no longer has any connection with the basic needs of the body, the result is war and injustice.  With a touch of irony, Socrates says, in passing, that the city will require farm pigs for the first time.  Perhaps the pig, with its consumptive nature, may be taken to indicate the sort of inhabitants that the city must have in both a literal and figurative sense.  This desire-pushed-to-excess is described in another way as a “fever” the city has.  It is this metaphor that provides a key to understanding the role of the Guardians within the polis.  The Guardians are, in fact, figures that moderate the feverishness of the luxurious city.  As will be seen, the analogy of feverishness works in tandem with that of the need to order the body of the state.

Toward the mean and political justice


Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

In this connection, Socrates says at 444d of book IV, that disease, the opposite of health, is produced by a disharmony in the body.  It is, more precisely, a re-ordering of the body that is contrary to nature, and  one in which the relationship between elements that normally stand in a relationship of mastery and being mastered has been upset, and a new unnatural norm has been established in its place.  The virtue or excellence of the body is, of course, linked to good order.  This, in turn, connects the entire discussion to the topic of harmony, which, as in the case of a Lyre, involves the proper tuning of strings in relation to one another.  The guardian is thus both a kind of physician and a kind of musician.  The two analogies intersect at the notion of a proper or natural ordering that leads to virtue.  This right ordering, in turn, is also the basis of justice; a connection that was hinted at in Socrates’ initial temperate and healthy city.

Thus, the guardians play a rehabilitating and moderating role within the feverish city.  One might suspect that their function is to undermine the “progress” of the luxurious city, and indeed this must be true to some extent.  However, this deserves more careful examination.  What, it might be asked, is Socrates’ intention in creating the guardian class?  Is it a retrograde one designed to return the city to an earlier state of rustic simplicity?  Or has Socrates simply abandoned such an ideal?  Notice that the very philosophy that Socrates cherishes is never mentioned as having a presence in his city of healthy rustics; there is merely a simple, unquestioning piety and reverence for the gods in place of intellectual pursuits.  Nothing, even in the realm of intellectual questioning and investigation would seem to be lacking to the inhabitants of such a city. And yet, it might be wondered whether such unquestioning simplicity could really stand as an ideal for someone such as Socrates.  Moreover, one might consider in this connection whether such a city could, human nature being what it is, survive uncorrupted for long.  Socrates, might be read as tacitly accepting this fact by never actually rejecting the luxurious city as such and proceeding to modify it by immediately introducing the most essential moderating element for the whole: the guardians.

Indeed, if we take a broader, structural view of books II-IV, the guardians appear to enter the discussion as a mean between the extremes of the rustic and luxurious cities.  But they are more than this: they are adjusters, tuners, and harmonizers of a society that is constantly changing, evolving, and indeed progressing.

A reader’s guide to Plato’s Republic, Books II-IV: Introduction

Plato’s Republic is well known for its presentation of the divided line and the analogy of the cave, which appear in books V-VII.  Less well known or well explored are the books of the Republic (Books II-IV) that lead up to them.  To give a brief overview of the subject matter, the themes in Books II-IV can be set out as follows: 

  • Book I sets the stage for a exploration of Justice by asking whether it can be considered as good for its own sake,which is a position Socrates defends.  
  • Then, in books II-IV, Plato approaches the question, “What is justice” by a somewhat circuitous route, by first creating an ideal Republic.  His reason for the detour (R 368D) is explained by a visual analogy: since justice can be more easily seen and contemplated on the large scale of a city state, he creates this image first before turning to the  smaller version of justice that appears in an individual. 
  • The project of first creating an ideal Republic and then using it to find justice in an individual provides a broad initial scope and methodological framework for the rest of the Republic.  The content of books II-IV, should be understood within that framework.

Plato’s first steps in creating an ideal Republic in books II-IV, may appear somewhat paradoxical at first: he has just said that he wishes to create an image of justice on the large scale of an ideal Republic; but what he proceeds to do is to imagine truly just individuals within that ideal republic first of all, and does this by discussing the education of the rulers of his Republic, called the “guardians”.  This move back to individuals may be seen as Plato’s attempt to construct a Republic by starting with its essential elements.  Most essential of all elements for the creation of an ideal republic would seem to be the  guardians and their character, and so the education of the guardians falls into place as the first order of business in books II-IV, which is an extended treatment of that education.

This theme, the education of the guardians, will be main thematic motif of the following guide to books II-IV.  The guide will present what I believe to be the best way to structure the questions surrounding the discussion of the education of the guardians so as to bring out most clearly their ultimate significance.  Those guiding questions are as follows:

  1. In book II, Socrates creates an ideal city that Glaucon (R 372D) later calls a “city of pigs” because of the simple rusticity of its inhabitants.  Glaucon then proceeds to imagine a more urbane, sophisticated city, that Socrates objects to as a “luxurious city”, and a “feverish city”.  How does the rest of the dialogue in books II-IV respond to this dialectic?
  2. The earliest education the guardians receive involves what Plato refers to as musikeMusike is a very broad term that refers to all the arts (such as poetry, philosophy, and music itself) whose mastery might be said to betoken a cultivation of soul, whether in an individual or in a civilization.  The early stages of training in musike the young guardians undergo involve not only hearing stories of virtuous gods and heroes, but also an education of the senses through (actual) music.  That the young guardians should have their character shaped through listening to stories might have been expected; but Plato’s particular attention to the music the guardians listen to might be somewhat unexpected.  Therefore it seems that something perhaps characteristic of Plato’s overall philosophy might be making an intrusion here.  What, then, one might ask, is the ultimate significance of this education of the senses for the guardians and the republic, and what is its ultimate importance?
  3. The discussion of musike coheres nicely with an image of the guardian as a kind of tuner of his soul and of the city.  As “tuner” the guardian must be able to adjust its strings properly so as to bring about a harmony that corresponds to an ideal of musical sound. (See R 430a et seq.)  What then, does this image suggest about rulership, and how does it relate to the prior two questions?

Readers of Plato’s dialogues may already be able to anticipate the ways in which the themes that appear in the questions connect to more familiar themes in the Republic and elsewhere.  For example, Plato’s conception of virtue is very much allied to the traditional conception of the philosopher as someone who seeks knowledge and does not care for worldly possessions or honors.  Hence, the discussion of the education of the guardians may serve as a basis for thinking about Plato’s notion of virtue.  Moreover, the education of the senses, introduced as a theme in the second question, recalls the upward path of the divided line and cave that appear in books VI and VII of the Republic.  In each case, one must begin, with the everyday phenomenal reality of things at hand, with things present to our senses, as a preliminary to working with higher abstractions.  The education of the senses the Guardians undergo would seem to be a piece in the overall puzzle of understanding this sort of progression, and indeed I believe it will assist in bringing different aspects of this “upward path” into a basic unity.  Finally, the image of the fully educated guardian as a tuner of soul and state in turn suggests the notion of someone who has mastered musike more broadly; of someone who has become an artist of such subjects by taking an upward path through various specific kinds of musike in order to arrive at a more comprehensive vision of states and souls.  This type of process, as well as the very metaphor of tuning itself suggests the notion of final causality, which I believe is a guiding theme throughout the dialogues, especially where the notions of mastery, or knowledge, or the divine are invoked.  The arrival at a clearer vision of these connections will be one of the motivating factors in the following guide, so that its place in the overall mosaic of Plato’s texts can be more clearly perceived.

Recommended texts (images are links to Amazon):


From left to right:

(1) The latest edition of the Greek text of the Republic edited by S.R. Slings; (2) A classic commentary on the Greek text by James Adam; (3) The latest translation by C.D.C. Reeve, based upon Sling’s text; (4) Four texts on Socrates: a very literal translation and a good source book for those interested in Socrates; Paul Shorey’s excellent translation and commentary on the Republic (includes Greek text).

An approach to Plato’s “dream theory” in the Theatetus through the Socratic dialogues

Plato’s late dialogue, the Theatetus explores the question, “what does it mean to know something?”.  This concern is not new within the Platonic dialogues.  In particular, the Phaedo, Meno, and Republic stand out as discussions of knowledge that anticipate in many ways the more explicit treatment given in the Theatetus. I believe that, despite what some recent criticism suggests, due consideration of  the matter will show that what is common to all these is not merely the question of knowledge in general, but the problem of separation or “chorismos”: the classic problem of how to arrive at a knowledge of unchanging truth on the basis of ever changing experience.

Despite the widespread recognition of separation as a common thread of the middle dialogues, the third section of the Theatetus, in which Plato gives his fullest account of knowledge, is often presented as a discussion that falls outside this continuity.  This is even more surprising in view of the fact that the theme of the third section, the so called “dream theory”, explores a possible definition of knowledge which is also explored in the last attempt at defining virtue in the Meno: the hypothesis that knowledge is not merely a true opinion but one with a logically consistent account or “logos”.

The reasons why this approach has not been taken are not far to seek.  Theatetus, Socrates’ partner in the dialogue, introduces the dream theory as something he remembers having heard “someone” suggest (T 201C); Socrates, in turn, says he has heard the theory in a “dream” that matches the one Theatetus describes (one involving knowledge as true opinion with a consistent account). (T 201 c-d)  These details about attribution complicate an attempt to find a source for the theory that follows, (to be discussed briefly further on) but some have proposed Antisthenes as the author.  Whatever the origin of the theory, I would like to contend that the discussion that follows is certainly in part Plato’s way of exploring his own problem of separation.  On another front, some have argued that separation cannot be a theme in the Theatetus (see for example Waterfield’s ‘essay’) especially since Plato has abandoned the theory of Forms in the Theatetus.  There is ample evidence to suggest that separation, as well as the theory of Forms do make an appearance in the Theatetus, this time not as doctrines Plato is espousing but as ones he is examining.  I believe that once this move is made and the dream theory is read in continuity with the earlier dialogues, a new pathway to thinking about the problem of separation opens up.  Moreover, I believe the most consistent reading of the dialogue will yield the result that Plato has not solved the problem, but merely opened it up with greater clarity than elsewhere in his corpus as a difficulty to be solved.

This new pathway will be introduced by a brief sketch of the genesis of the separation problem in the Meno and Phaedo, followed by a discussion of the specific way in which I believe the problem of separation arises in the dream theory.  Once the link is drawn between the earlier and later dialogues in this way it will be possible to see just how the discussion of the separation problem in the Theatetus is innovative.


Perhaps the best starting point to catch a glimpse of the problem of separation in its genesis in the early dialogues is Socrates’ discussion of his youthful hopes for philosophical insight.  Socrates, according to his autobiographical account in the Phaedo had, at first, been interested in the exploration of the natural world.  Specifically, at (96A) he lists three questions he sought to answer: why a thing comes to be, why it perishes, and the cause of its being or existence.  The tale Socrates tells can be looked upon as a trans-migration from seeking knowledge in relation to the first two types of question to a concern with discovering in the cause of existence the true basis of explanation of the former two.  This type of cause is, importantly, not to be understood as a cause of a thing’s coming-to-be, but rather as the cause of its Being: something that stands above the sorts of causes that are concerned with the generation and destruction of things.  Socrates calls this cause the “cause of causes” and describes it as that cause without which the causes of generation and destruction would not be causes.  This cause can clearly be identified with Aristotle’s final cause.  In the Phaedo it is related to “mind” and described as that which orders or arranges with a view to some end or good order (harmony may also be read into the context here) which is pre-established as that at which the processes of generation and destruction continually aim.

To understand such an end as a cause is to have that which explains those processes themselves.  Socrates sought the knowledge of such a cause in Anaxagoras’ discussion of “Mind”, but found him making “no use of Mind” but instead gaving materialistic explanations for natural processes, using “air”, “ether” and “water” (basic elements) as his basis for understanding the natural world.  Socrates great insight, according to the story, might be said to be the discovery of the notion of an ultimate explanation that stands above those concerned with the causes of coming-to-be and passing away.

Here one can see the formulation of a distinction that would reach a level of thematic importance for Plato in the Republic: one between things characterized as involving a process of becoming (the natural world which is continually in flux) and other objects of understanding that are characterized, by contrast, as simply “Being”.  In the Phaedo, Socrates marks the distinction as one between the visible and the invisible or purely intelligible. (see P 79D)  These latter may be discovered, according to Socrates’ autobiographical sketch, by turning away from sights and sounds and turning toward an engagement with words and/or discussion (logoi) instead.  Once this step is taken, true knowledge is conceived as involving a consistent account (logos) of what one is trying to explain.  Moreover, this type of knowledge will correspond to a realizable end that stands to the flux of particulars as an ordered and ordering principle of arrangement and harmony that, in turn, explains the observable processes of change.

These points may be taken as a sketch of a theory that can be called Socrates’ ideal, if not precisely his dream, of complete knowledge that was later championed by Plato especially in the Middle dialogues: the Meno, Phaedo, and the Republic.  It will be a kind of knowledge that relates ideal models of reality to the fluctuating reality of the everyday world and can promise true insight into that world as if one understood the divine “Mind” ordering nature itself.  It involves the ideal of a “stairway” that one can climb to reach a more “divine” perspective beginning from the more (inevitably) quotidian one that Socrates and Plato took to be the concern of non-philosophical thought.


As was hinted at, a basic element of this ideal theory is a “separation” between visibles and intelligibles.  In order to contemplate the sort of cause that is the ordering cause of things, one must seek a unified idea that stands above and apart from the particulars it is meant to explain.  Now, it would seem that one could always gather a unified idea from particulars by abstracting some feature from them, such as when one might abstract the notion of three-sidedness from many instances of triangle.  In this instance we would have a purely synthetic approach to ideas; one that relies upon epagoge or induction.  Yet, as is familiar from Euclidean geometry, the notion of one material triangle that would correspond to every particular is impossible: in order to truly abstract from particulars, one must arrive at an idea.

The primary reason Plato gives for a type of ontological separation corresponding to that found in euclidean geometry arises in the Phaedo, and involves thinking about the nature of opposites: firstly, in the context of the natural world, and next, in a logical context as dialectical opposites.  According to Socrates’ reasoning, in the natural world, a thing always comes to be from its opposite.  For example, heat comes into being out of what was formerly cold.  However, logical opposition never has this feature.  Logical opposites always simply are what they are.  They are, as Plato sometimes says, ‘pure’, in the sense that they are free from that which they are not.  It is very tempting to think of dialectical opposition in concrete terms for the purpose of illustration: ‘pure’ white, ideal white, because it is precisely what is not not-white, can have no intermixture within itself of what is not what it is.  One may think of these “realities” as if they were on a spectrum of being: on one end one can imagine pure white or the Form of white, while on the other end would be placed the not-white (its opposite).  In between, would be an area of intermediacy (a point that will be of central importance in what follows).  Two problems might be seen to arise in the natural world in connection with any attempt to identify a particular instance of white with its Form: in the first instance, there is the problem of identifying “white itself” with something known to the senses: what appears purely white at one time may appear different at different times to different people.  This is a problem of separation between appearances and reality.  Secondly, there is the matter of flux: according to the criterion enforced by dialectical scrutiny, what is purely white or white itself must be eternally so: its basic idea must not be mutable or subject to change, and as a consequence, it can never become its opposite. (Phaedo 103b).  One encounters these two bases of separation in the dialogues again and again.

What remains to be seen next in this connection is the way in which these elements of separation line up with what appears in the dream theory of the Theateus.  As was already mentioned in the introduction, my intention is to show that there is a continuity between the early and middle dialogues and the dream theory that appears in the Theatetus.  So let us now turn to the Theatetus itself.


What has given interpreters the greatest trouble in approaching the Theatetus is how to understand the elements Plato speaks of at 201e-202c.  As was said in the introduction, one basic problem has been the question of the attribution of the dream.  However interesting points of similarity may be drawn between the elements of the dream theory and Plato’s own understanding of the relationship between forms and particulars.  If we look to the text itself, the problem the interpreter faces may be one of underdetermination.  For example, even if Socrates did hear the theory somewhere else, does that necessarily exclude the possibility that Plato could have incorporated it into his own?  It seems that if some insight can be taken from such an approach it is worth exploring.

If we look to the description Socrates gives of the elements, they do not appear to be precisely the same as anything in Plato’s cosmos.  However, they do appear to fit very well with the understanding of particulars he develops in the Republic, and with the theme of separation mentioned earlier.  The way in which Being is, for Plato something simple and abstract was discussed above.  It will now be seen that there are parallels between Plato’s middle dialogue Forms and the elements dicussed here; but what is of ultimate importance are the differences.  There is a sense in which the elements of the Theatetus and Forms mirror one another; but there are important ways in which the elements fall short of the Forms.  

The elements appear to have a very minimal sort of being.  Indeed, from Plato’s description of them, it is difficult to see what being or non-being they have at all.  The important features mentioned are:

  1. Nothing can be attributed to them, including absolute being or non-being, or even phrases such as ‘itself’, ‘that’, ‘each’, ‘independent’, ‘this’, or anything else.
  2. They are attributes that ‘run around’ and get applied to everything, while they are different from what they are applied to.
  3. Since they only have names, it is impossible to give a rational account (logos) of them.
  4. They are that of which everything is made.
  5. Their names can be woven together to produce accounts that are intelligible even if the names by themselves are not (since an account is a weaving together of names).
  6. The physical elements can be woven together in the same way as their names.

The differences between the elements here and the Forms of the middle dialogues can now be drawn.  While each has a kind of simplicity, the description of elements goes further: nothing whatsoever can be attributed to them, whereas the Forms are usually described using terms such as “itself”, and “pure”.   Moreover, while the Forms explicitly have an absolute being, the elements here cannot be said either to be or not to be.  For all these reasons they are unknowable, whereas the Forms are described as the “intelligibles”.

Taking these points together, one kind of being found in Plato’s ontological schema applies especially well to the elements as presented: the intermediate being discussed above.  Intermediate being has to be understood within a framework of logical opposition if it is to be understood at all.  In fact, the whole set of attributes is hardly intelligible at all unless it is understood within this framework.  Ryle, for example, sought to understand the elements as logical simples; but this explanation seems to ignore the heavy ontological as well as logical slant of Socrates’ characterization.  It is clear from the points above that more than logical atoms are in view: there is indeed an attempt to describe a certain kind of being, and the way in which it may or may not be understood.  Moreover, these beings do not appear to fit entirely well with the characterization of them as material simples.  They certainly may be since they are “that of which everything is made”.  Yet the text is underdetermined as to the sense in which they make things up.  They are described as “attributes”: this opens the possibility that they are such things as would correspond to “red”, “green”, “5 feet tall”, etc. that make up all things, rather than the materialists’ atoms.  I believe that these considerations point to the sense of intermediate being discussed above as a possible way to understand all the points discussed above without making any definite commitments to the nature of the elements beyond the description given.

Now, here are some parallels that may be drawn between the characterisitics of the elements above and the “intermediates” in view:

  • From the perspective of dialectical opposition the intermediates are between being and non-being.  Hence they neither are nor are not.  If they lack these basic attributes, then it cannot be said that they possess any other characteristics (again, from the perspective of dialectical opposition, according to which a thing is either P or ~P, and P is defined as what is ~~P). (See Phaedo 103b)
  • The elements, like the intermediates, are things that fall short of a definite account, since they fall short of the kind of being the Forms themselves have. (Phaedo 72b-77a: note the way in which the discussion proceeds from Anaxagoras’ mixed cosmos of of things coming to be to the discussion of the Equal itself, and how this parallels Socrates’ discussion of Anaxagoras and his hopes for knowledge in the autobiographical section 96a and following).
  • The intermediates possess being (again from a dialectical perspective) only to the extent that they participate in the “reality” of the Forms themselves.  For example, snow is cold by participating in “cold”; but snow may become hot, in which case it loses its being as snow.  The name “cold” does not always apply to it, but is in a sense a borrowed name from that which is always “cold”.  Hence, just as above, an intermediate which is cold can be said to have its being by participation, and moreover its name by participation.  It has just this name to give it its reality, and does not even possess this reality absolutely, but only by participation. (see especially Phaedo 103e)
  • The intermediates have the character of attributes such as “hot” and “cold” that go into and out of bodies.  Hence, they could quite easily be said to be that of which everything is made in a sense that is both ontic (a thing really is hot or cold) and logical (a thing is referred as hot or cold when it has the proper characteristics).  (Phaedo 103c-d)
  • The same result follows with respect to the weaving together of names to form logoi (accounts, explanations, arguments, definitions).  In order to have a true account of something, it must be created from names that point to the reality of the thing in question. Indeed, it seems necessary that this should be the case if definitions can be drawn from division (such as those in the Sophist), and if it is to be possible to rise to the intelligible from the visible at all.  (see Phaedo 76d-e, where Socrates explicitly makes the latter point)

It remains now to show that not only something corresponding to the intermediates, but also something corresponding to the Forms is present in Plato’s discussion.  It is important to explore this aspect of separation since the presence of anything corresponding to the Forms in the Theatetus has been contested. (See Waterfield’s “Essay” pp. 239-246)  What I want to argue here is not that Plato is maintaining a theory of Forms corresponding to the middle dialogues, but, rather, that he is using the framework in the dream theory in order to evaluate the point of view of the middle dialogues.

The similarities to a separation framework are, in fact, ubiquitous.  At 187a, for example, Socrates mentions a function of the mind involved solely with things themselves.  Here there is not only a continuation of the theme of the separation of the visible and intelligible in terms of being, but also in terms of psychological faculties.  At 190b, he uses the framework of dialectical opposition invoked above where he speaks of the impossibility of imagining that what is beautiful is ugly, or that what is immoral is moral, or again that what is odd is even.  Here is the basis for separation precisely on the lines on the absolute Being of the Forms: a kind of being not subject to change into its opposite.  Furthermore, where Socrates proposes an intepretation of a syllable in the dream theory as a single identity without parts (Phaedo 204a (to be explained more fully further on)) this description corresponds best to the simplicity of the Forms.  When the characteristics of the ‘elements’  (as above) are compared these self-identical syllables, the result again invokes the classic separation framework of the middle dialogues.  Lastly, at Theatetus 205d, Socrates describes the same syllables as ‘single in form’.  It does not seem that either separation or the presence of Forms in the Theatetus can be dismissed out of hand.

Separation has been explored and developed as a theme that links the early and middle dialogues to the Theatetus.  The precise link that has been proposed is that between intermediate being and the elements on the one hand and an interpretation of the syllables (to be discussed further in what follows) as Forms on the other.  It remains to gather in fruits of this labor over the comparison, and to show just what new insight can be gleaned from this reading.  It will be shown that what the Theatetus advances over the earlier dialogues is further discussion of separation as a problem, rather than merely a feature of a complete middle-platonic theory of knowledge.  This occurs in the Theatetus as a problem for knowledge itself; one that is again familiar from the earlier dialogues, but explored in the later dialogues in greater depth.  The theory of knowledge presented in the middle dialogues is presented there as a viable epistemological schema.  However, just as the ideal emerged so did the questions that troubled it.  It will be the concern of the next section to explore these.


Much of what Plato writes concerning knowledge in the early and middle dialogues is concerned with developing criteria for knowledge.  For example, Socrates will often ask whether in the process of defining something, his interlocutor is giving an instance or example of what is to be defined or a definition that covers the whole of the cases concerned.  It is clear throughout these dialogues that there is a difference between the kinds of things that count as instances and those that count as unified ideas or accounts of instances.  These differences are specified and clarified in order to give us an idea of what we are seeking when we seek knowledge; when we are attempting, in other words, to grasp the ultimate Forms of things.  Such clarifications yield an understanding of separation as a matter of difference between visibles and intelligibles.

Separation does not arise in these dialogues as a structural problem to be overcome except in the case where the problem of the Meno is introduced.  Here it is asked, in effect, how one can know that one has arrived at one’s destination in seeking knowledge without prior knowledge of what one is seeking.  It seems that it cannot, and that one can only know that one has arrived at knowledge to the extent that one had prior knowledge of what one was seeking.  This necessary fore-knowledge could be present as the framework of a question that allows it to be answered effectively; or, it could be information contained in the premisses of an argument that allows one to proceed to a conclusion; but for the Socrates of the middle dialogues, who has the problem of arriving at a knowledge of the Forms in view, what is fore-known is something innate that needs to be accessed by a process of inquiry.  According to the theory, this knowledge was had by the soul before it entered the body.

Recollection theory functions as a way to unite the visibles and intelligibles of Plato’s epistemology.  If the Forms are so abstract as to be only identical to themselves (auto kath’ hauto), the question must arise as to how we get to know them if at all.  It would seem an unfortunate thing to develop a theory of knowledge only to find that knowledge within the theory was something unattainable.  This may explain the extravagance of the recollection theory of the Phaedo, with its questionable reliance upon the immortality of the soul to make it possible.  Recollection-knowledge arises as a matter of a sudden realization of a similarity, not among things in the visible world, but between things in the visible world and those in the intelligible world.  Such recollection requires innate knowledge.  This is a picture of radical separation, one that invokes the classical two-worlds view of the Phaedo.  What the Theatetus does most of all is challenge the basis for this type of separation.

The challenge is issued precisely through considering the terms of the proposed definition of knowledge.  Where Theatetus proposes that knowledge be definable not only as a true belief, but also as one with an explanation or logically consistent account, the terms of knowledge found in the “road to Larissa” analogy of the Meno are implicitly invoked.  The “road to Larissa” analogy is similar to the “problem of the Meno” (i.e. the problem of prior knowledge) discussed above, and differs only in that it supposes that if one is to be an ideal guide to a destination (as in the Meno problem) one must not arrive by accident, but with something that allows for repeated success: an account or explanation of how to get there (a logos).  Such an explanation is something an ideal guide should possess beforehand.  Thus, the framework for discussing prior knowledge is invoked along with the third definition of knowledge under discussion in the Theatetus.

The basic premisses of the dream theory are (a) that the criterion for knowledge will be a rational account (logos); hence, where no rational account can be given no knowledge is possible; and (b) that the individual primary elements (discussed above) of which everything is made cannot be explained, while the complexes that are composed out of them can.  This sets the stage for the test Socrates gives for the theory, where he takes letters to stand in the place of elements and syllables to stand as their complexes.  The grounds for separation are already present here, but the example does not yet include an analogue to the Forms.  This enters where two possibilities for understanding the syllables are invoked.  Understood (i) as a composite, the syllable SO (the first syllable of Socrates’ name) is a kind of set comprising the individual letters as parts; understood (ii) as a single unified idea, the Syllable has to thought of purely in terms of its idea, as something that comes into being only when the parts are brought together in the right way, and even then, as something greater than the sum of those parts, since it has attributes that the parts themselves to not possess individually.  It is in the latter case that an analogue to the Forms is put forward and the theory of Forms as presented in the middle dialogues is put to the test.

The first understanding of a syllable is perhaps the one more congenial to common sense.  Surely, it might be thought, a syllable can be understood as a composite of its letters.  But what motivates Socrates to (ii) is the realization that if knowledge is to be founded along the lines of (i), the elements themselves must be knowable; but according to the criterion proposed for knowledge in the dream theory section this will be impossible since they are (as above) simple entities without composition, whether in a logical or in an ontic sense.  The second possibility invoked in (ii) provides a different sort of foundation for knowledge: one found in a “unified idea” that has no foundation in the elements other than the possibility of its arising, and no actuality apart from its own being.  The difficulty with such a theory is that is supposes that such a unified idea cannot have parts.  Socrates might be seen to be driven to propose this view as an alternative by the terms of bivalence: if (i) takes a syllable to have parts and draws its major consequences from this, then (ii) must be opposed to (i) if it is to be a distinct alternative and not collapse back into (i).  Moreover, it should now be noticed the problem of separation is finally put forward as a problem for a theory of knowledge.  In the middle dialogues it was solved by the theory of recollection.  Finally, the text suggests that the two approaches are incompatible on the level of analysis and synthesis.  The model (ii) of a ‘one’ and ‘unified’ idea cannot be analyzed into any elements if it is truly sui-generis, self-identical, and without parts; on the other hand, if, as in the earlier dialogues synthesis (as in case i) is to be a part of the way in which we arrive at knowledge, some leap beyond the parts themselves must be required in order to arrive at knowledge: one must, the model suggests be able to catch a glimpse of something not present in the parts themselves; yet this is indeed a problem if, according to the definition proposed, we cannot know anything of the parts themselves.

Socrates’ claim in the Theatetus is that (ii) with its notion of a “whole” with a unified idea cannot but collapse back into (i) with its leading notion of a totality of parts.  This does pose a problem for separation as an initial outcome of the dialogue up to T-205, but rather may be seen to bring to light the way in which the whole dilemma collapses.  The dialogue suggests that wholes and totalities, must, at the end of the day, be inter-definable in some sense.  One cannot claim to have parts of anything if one maintains the notion of a whole in sense (ii) as a criterion for knowledge.  Undeniably, there are such things as wholes, such as notes that make up music scores and numbers that make up larger numbers.  It seems unreasonable to think that these do not contribute to an understanding of what they compose, whether that composite is understood as a totality after (i) or a whole according to (ii).

Thus, a path to knowledge is finally put forward at T 206ff.  Interestingly, it is a path to knowledge that was first mentioned in the Phaedo. (see P 96b)  His proposal is that we should turn our attention back to the order in which we do in fact learn things.  In the order of learning letters or musical notes, one had first to recognize and distinguish each letter and note before one could put them together into words or compositions.  Moreover, there is an new insistence, in keeping with the doctrine of the Phaedo, that, based upon these examples, one can indeed know the elements or our experience and that one can reliably draw inferences from them. (see T 206b) 

A question that arises is whether this new path is meant in earnest as a solution to the dilemma discussed above, or whether it is merely meant as a counter-example.  The latter seems to be more the case, due especially to the fact that Socrates’ next move is to discuss possible senses of logos as a way of maintaining the definition of knowledge as true belief with an account.  In other words, the upshot of the whole discussion seems to be that the counterexample is meant to defeat the whole premiss of the dilemma: in actual practice, we do in fact proceed from elements we in some sense know, to something we learn as a result.  This defeats the main assumption of the dilemma, that while we may know the composite, we cannot know the elements themselves.   


We must finally turn to the question of what may be drawn from this discussion of knowledge.  Plato does not himself draw any conclusions, and there is a temptation to think that the whole dialogue has a merely heuristic function; that is, that it is meant to help the reader draw conclusions more than to present them.  That conclusion would certainly not be foreign to the Platonic-Socratic sprit.  However, it has been proposed that there is both a continuity and a shift between Plato’s ideal of knowledge and the scrutiny it receives in the Theatetus.  It will now be brought out more explicitly what Plato seems to have learned, or perhaps, at least what he reveals about his own thought in this self-critical dialogue.  What seems needed to discover this shift in self reflection is the adoption of a broad perspective.  I believe that the difficulty Plato reveals in the Theatetus for his earlier theory is a problem of two methods that each seem to work independently but not in conjunction: the methods of analysis and synthesis on the one hand, and the method of dialectical opposition on the other. 

I would prefer to think of the problem that arises for Plato in terms of a visual metaphor involving horizontal planes and vertical lines.  I believe an ideal image for the perspective I have in mind would be a Mondrian painting. 

The horizontal lines would represent Plato’s dialetical researches into logical opposition (the opposition between P and ~P discussed above), while the vertical ones would relate to the method of synthesis or the relating together of the aspects of one’s experience, or epagoge (roughly, induction by abstraction in Plato’s case).   The places where the lines intersect would correspond to points of understanding in the process of developing a complete body of knowledge; points where experience (synthesis) meets logic (dialectical opposition).  Analysis or division would enter as a method whereby one could draw out the consequences of knowledge one already possesses, perhaps in the way one does when working out a crossword puzzle.   

The methods are meant to work in harmony in the early and middle dialogues to create a perfect science; one in which “things themselves” such as the ideas of the “equal itself”, or of “triangle itself” would, while abstract and separate, be places where one can “stand” as a knower in the stream of fluctuating appearances.  It was perhaps Plato’s assumption that, given the doctrine of recollection, one could be assured in taking such stands.  The goal of the entire ideal seems to be nothing less than the discovery not merely of a kind of knowledge that explains one’s experience, but one which, if it passes the test of dialectical opposition, stands to explain any experience.  

The difficulty Plato seems to have noticed is that even if, supposing one has been given an insight that appears to be a matter of recollection, the two methods do not quite work in harmony.  (ii) above illustrates this well.  Suppose that one has a unified idea of a syllable, one that is self-identical so that it has no parts and has nothing in common with anything else: how, then, does one know through analysis that it bears a necessary relationship to experience.  In the matter of letters and syllables, this point might seem overly contentious at first or perhaps like nothing more than a philosopher’s debate.  But if we take the analogy seriously, there is something to be gained from it.  One must perhaps remember that the analogy is meant to have a broader application, but consider what the analogy suggests: is there any ultimate reason why the syllable should sound a certain way based upon the way the letters sound?  One may press the point further: given that the Greeks understood many letters to be ‘soundless’ (e.g. mutes, sibilants, nasals, and continuants) one could argue that from the Greek perspective, this type of argument has even greater relevance.  To state the same point in a different way, can anything necessarily be deduced from the sound of the syllable to that of the letters?  Knowing the sound of the letters, like that of the syllables seems to be something one must at some point just know; one must be taught the sounds one identifies with the letters and syllables. 

This point brings us back, of course, to the theory of recollection.  The theory of recollection solves the above problem by positing a pre-existing knowledge that lies within us.  But as the analogy suggests, no experience can lead us infallibly to such knowledge and such knowledge has, as the analogy again suggests, an air of irresolution about it.  Thus, what the Theatetus reveals are the interstices, the gaps in the horizontal and vertical crossings that ultimately prevent the structure from being ultimately strong or sound.  But, moreover, the lines and planes analogy may be carried into the world of engineering to yield the perspective that while a microstructure may not be free of interstitial defects, it may yet be a strong and useful one for most purposes.  Moreover, if this was Plato’s conclusion regarding his earlier theory of knowledge, he can be taken to have anticipated to some extent later epistemological insights that had to await the passing of the middle ages and the waning of the hope of subsequent centuries for truly objective knowledge.  Finally, this perspective reveals just where that hope might be kept alive: in the sort of synthetic exploration and discovery found in Plato’s counterexample to his own theory.  Whether this method can yield ulitmately definitive oppositions, is, of course, an open question.    


Plato’s Theatetus translated with an essay by Robin Waterfield (Penguin: 1988).

Corford, F.M., Plato’s Theory of Knowledge, the Theatetus and the Sophist (Dover 2003).  Originally published in 1957 by the Liberal Arts Press.

Plato Five Dialogues, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Hackett: 1981).

Plato’s Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Hackett: 1974).

The Theaetetus of Plato with a revised text and English notes, trans. Lewis Campbell (Arno press: 1973).  Contains Greek text and valuable notes.