The Eternal Knowledge of Plato: A Historical and Contemporary Analysis of Metaphysical Dualism, Trichotomic Anthropology, and Idealistic Justice

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Humanity, in the simplest of terms, is the state or condition of being human. This basic definition, as convenient as it may be, lacks a depth that begs further investigation. Humankind, as far as it is known, is capable of introspection beyond that of any other species on the planet, due to the enormous disparity of the development of the human mind relative to our more primitive counterparts. Increased awareness has brought forth a new level of consciousness that allows us to not only think deeper about the meaning of our very existence, but also to study the phenomena that construct our interpretation of reality, and to record these results for future generations to analyze. Along with Socrates and Aristotle, No philosopher has been more influential than Plato, whose writings and works from ancient Greece are still used as a primary basis for modern philosophic thought. Plato spent the majority of his life contemplating the human condition and studying the very reality in which we live. As a result, Plato’s works have had a lasting impact, namely on the subject of Philosophy, and by extension, as a groundwork for the construction of modern Western society. For the purposes of this critique, Plato’s thoughts on truth, humanity, and the essence and capacity of human nature will be analyzed, as extrapolated through various writings. These conclusions will then be analyzed through historical and contemporary perspectives, concluding in a thorough comparison and contrast to my own personal views on the same subjects.

Historically speaking, Plato was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, who studied under the tutelage of mentor and fellow philosopher, Socrates. Plato was a champion of academia, and is credited as the founder of the Academy of Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western World, and was an integral part of shaping modern Western Philosophy and Science (Meinwald ). Plato wrote a number of dialogues and letters discussing his theories of the concepts of human nature, and reality itself, many of which are still globally recognized and studied to this day as foundational philosophical learning.

Plato discussed a great deal about the nature of reality and humanity. The most notable and transcendent of these are Plato’s theories of Metaphysical Dualism as the basis of reality, Trichotomic Anthropology as the basis of Human Nature, and Idealistic Justice as the basis of what is immutably “good”.

Plato’s idea of reality was innovative, to put it mildly. Plato rested many of his philosophical theories on the sole basis of Metaphysical Dualism as the true state of reality. Metaphysical Dualism rests on the premise that reality is composed of two interacting states: The physical realm and the metaphysical realm, the metaphysical existing as the primary driver of the physical realm. The Metaphysical realm, also referred to as the intelligible realm, is the state of reality that is constant; in that it is grounded in absolute truth and reality. Examples of this realm are thought-images such as certain concepts of mathematics. It was Plato’s belief that an awareness of this realm is where true knowledge derived, as it is the only one of the two realms that are constant and impervious to wavering perceptions. The second realm is the more recognized realm of reality that Plato refers to as the physical realm. This realm is composed of what we perceive with the senses: The physical objects that we encounter every day that make up the aptly named “physical” world in which we interact. This realm is subject to perception, and as a result, is subject to relative change based on perception. It is for this reason that Plato believed that knowledge cannot be attained through the physical realm, because it is subject to change, and therefore has no consistent basis on which to build. Plato further described the physical realm as a mere shadow of the metaphysical realm, concluding that the objects and perceptions we are subjected to in the physical realm are often very different than the existing metaphysical reality.

The Allegory of the cave is an allegorical illustration of Metaphysical Dualism, which Plato constructed as a means of understanding his theory of metaphysical reality. The Allegory describes a scenario in which prisoners are imprisoned in a cave, facing only a blank wall of the cave. There is a lit fire behind the prisoners, and the prisoners can only see the shadows that are cast by the “forms” behind the fire. The prisoners begin to attribute names to these shadow images. As a result, the prisoners only have an understanding of reality based on their perception of these shadows. The allegory explains that the philosopher is akin to a freed prisoner who has escaped the cave and seen the light of day, as well as the forms behind the creation of the shadows. When the freed slave returns to explain the concepts of the sunlight as well as the forms behind the shadows, the prisoners become angered, having believed that the freed prisoner has lost touch with reality, when in actuality he is the only one of the prisoners who is actually enlightened with a truer sense of reality (Plato, and Cohen).

Through this allegory, Plato explains the concept of metaphysical reality to the “slaves” of current reality. The allegory also illustrates that our perception of reality is often not as it seems, and is subject to interpretation. This allegory is also an explanation of the Theory of Forms, an extension of metaphysical dualism which states that true knowledge can only be gained through the witnessing and experiencing of the forms. In order to gain any “true” knowledge, one must have an awareness of the subjectivity of our physical reality, as well as the awareness of the immutable, metaphysical reality that essentially shapes our physical realm of existence. This belief was widely criticized at the time, as predicted by Plato’s allegory, due to the public’s inability to believe in something that could not be physically perceived. Plato goes further in his explanation of Metaphysical Dualism, in explaining that virtues of Justice, and by extension true “goodness”, can only be attained upon the witnessing of the forms behind the metaphysical reality.

While Metaphysical Dualism explores external reality, Plato also delves into the depths of human nature in order to explore the internal reality of humankind. Plato concluded that the human spirit exists in three parts: appetite, reason, and emotion. The appetitive part is the part of the human spirit that seeks gratification, devoid of conscience or reason in the pursuit of this gratification. The rational part of the spirit is responsible for judgment, and decision making, and serves as a balancer of the appetite portion of the spirit. The third of these divisions is the emotional division and includes the attributes of willpower and courage. Plato believed that this portion of the human spirit would join with either the rational part, or the appetitive part, depending on the circumstances of the individual’s early life. In ideal circumstances, the emotional would join with the rational in order to pursue justice and goodness. In the converse scenario, the emotional would pursue appetitive desires, leading to the pursuit of immoral gratification (Maiman). It was Plato’s belief that a truly balanced person does not utilize the three parts equally, but relies solely on the strongest of the three parts. This makes more sense when analyzing the theory from a historical perspective, wherein Ancient Greece was composed of three classes: The working class, the warrior class, and the ruling class. The three classes directly correspond with the three states of human nature, implying that Plato believed in the Greek class system not just as a system of governance, but also as a mode of fulfillment for the human soul. When an individual functioned as a distinct part of society to the best of their natural inclination, they themselves benefitted as well as society. It was this philosophy that Plato believed was the true order of human nature, a school of thought that naturally fit into the context of ancient Greek Society.

Plato placed ‘justice’ in very high regard, likening the virtue of justice to righteousness and morality, and ultimately the whole duty of man. Plato’s theory of Justice encompasses both theories of Metaphysical Dualism and Trichotomic anthropology as a basis for its explanation, as expounded upon in Plato’s work, “The Republic”.

In order to explain Plato’s concept of Justice, it must be separated into Individual Justice and Social Justice. Individual Justice is the intrinsic virtue of justice in the soul of each person. Individual justice is carried out by each person fully utilizing the strongest of their own trichotomic states of the soul. The collective result of individual justice as societal order and harmony; the ruling class utilizing their strong intellect, the warrior class utilizing their emotional proficiency, and the working class utilizing the appetitive portion of the soul. As mentioned, the terms of social justice fall upon the shoulders of the ruling class, or those that are the most intelligent. These are the select few that are the wisest, and have an awareness of the metaphysical realm of “the forms”. The ruling, knowledgable class has the keenest awareness of justice, and it is by this virtue that they are fit to lead. Inherent within this quality of leadership, the ruling class is then in the position to make decisions that benefit the whole of society, a system that in its ideal state would promote societal order at its pinnacle. The combination of intrinsic societal and individual justices are the intrinsic values that invariably produce good, which is the whole duty of man (Plato, and Jowett).

Most interesting to me about the writings of Plato, are that his theories are a combination of both historical byproduct and timeless transcendence. Plato’s theory of Metaphysical Dualism is an example of thought that was completely out of touch with the majority thought of classical Greek society, in the most positive sense. Plato himself even knew that the concept of metaphysical dualism was too abstract for the world to bear. Plato regarded a knowledge of the forms as a burden for a select few, citing in his allegory of the cave that ‘the chained prisoners, having seen the adulterated eyes of the freed prisoner who had seen the light, discredit his views as outlandish, and revert only to what they know, which are the shadows, a mere reflection of true reality’ [paraphrased]. This is an example of transcendent thought that separated Plato as one of the great thinkers in human history. The modern implication of Plato’s “forms” are spiritual in nature. The metaphysical could be interpreted as the spiritual, unseen world. Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike might all contend that they possess an awareness of this realm, citing their respective beliefs. Many other societies have cultural ties to religion and would express their belief similarly. Plato is purposefully ambiguous when referring to the forms, although there are instances in where Plato discusses the belief in the Greek gods, as the sole possessors of “good”. On the same token, Plato stood by the notion that the gods were uninvolved in human affairs.

Plato’s theory of Trichotomic Anthropology is an interesting example of philosophical thought from a historically Greek perspective. The development of the three divisions of the soul parallels perfectly the three main classes of Greek Society. While correlation does not necessarily mean causation, I believe that the development of the theory was strongly based on his familiarity with Greek society. In the hypothetical event that Plato’s theory is the truest form of internal reality, much of the contemporary world is doing itself a great disservice as not to adapt their respective societies to the Greek three-class system. The devil’s advocate to Plato’s theory may contend that it is a communist, and restricts social mobility, by telling a person that they are only assigned to one particular service to society. While the validity of communistic rule is an essay in itself, there is a significant school of thought that would contend that communism and lack of social mobility are detrimental to human happiness.

Plato’s theories of Justice utilize the combination of the two aforementioned theories to create societal and individual order. The concept of societal order by class is a concept that is historically polarizing, but to the Greeks at the time was simply what existed. This concept brings rise to the concept of social mobility that will be addressed in the contemporary analysis of Plato’s theories. The intrinsic value of justice still carries weight today and is held in high regard anywhere in the world. However, justice varies depending on who you ask. “treat others the way you would like to be treated” and “turn the other cheek” are common contemporary phrases that encapsulate an altruistic view of justice, while “an eye for an eye” is another common phrase that praises a pain/pleasure justice equilibrium. Ideas about what justice truly is vary around the globe. Plato may respond by citing the shadows as the subjective view of justice, while only a select few of the ruling class have a true understanding of justice as it actually exists. If this were truly the case, I believe that Global Wars and territory disputes would be far less common than they have been. The only remaining explanation would be that society is out of balance, and those who are fit to rule are simply not ruling society, and it is leading to social disorder. I could theoretically stand by this theory, as it seems that our modern-day ruling class is led by the emotional division, while the intellectual class seems more concentrated in academia.

Regarding the Metaphysical and physical realms, I have no concrete evidence to confirm or deny the existence of the metaphysical. Understandably so, as the metaphysical is not sensory in nature. But I would agree with the metaphysical as a byproduct of an idealistic and executable vision. By this, I mean that the ‘metaphysical realm’ could exist, if not simply as a vision in the mind. It is the function of every person to make their metaphysical ideal a reality by executing a plan to create that reality. Some people are better than others at executing a plan, just as some people have a more realistic ideal reality that they want to implement. It is the function of society to collectively transform the metaphysical into the physical, which turns their idealistic ideas into reality. I define ‘ideal’ as perfection in the mind of the individual entity, be it a singular person, or a group. regardless, modern society is the interplay between competing ideals. The ability of these entities to carry out, or even impose their metaphysical ideas is a determining factor in shaping the physical reality.

Plato’s theory of Trichotomic Anthropology is too static, and too closely intertwined with Ancient Greek society for me to believe that it is the end-all-be-all of human nature. I believe that human nature subscribes much more strongly with what Plato would describe as the appetitive and emotional divisions, in that all people are innately subject to their animalistic instincts. Survival by any means necessary was essential for human evolution, and our genetic makeup has ensured that these instincts live on to some degree. Today’s instincts have adapted to modern society, in that I am less likely to kill a man for food that I might have been thousands of years ago, due to an adaptation to the social construct. The intelligence division could be explained by humankind’s ability to reason beyond any other animal in the kingdom. I can agree that reason must prevail among the ruling class. I would also agree with Plato that a very select few have the capacity for leadership through reasonable discourse. It is a disservice to society as a whole, namely American Society, that the electing of our political leaders is based less in fact than it is the collective perception of fact created by competing politicians. However, it is the role of the citizens to remain informed, in order to see less of “the shadows” and more of “the forms” as they truly are.

Plato’s ideas resonate throughout Western culture as we continue in the tradition of teaching future generations the importance of introspection and virtue. Philosophers and academics alike continue to instruct using the groundwork laid out by Plato, passing knowledge along with these immutable truths to the youth that they might live on in the physical realm for years to come.

Works Cited

Maiman, Ohad. "Plato's Theory of Justice." N.p.. Web. 12 Mar 2014. <>.

Meinwald, Constance. "Plato." Encyclopedia Brittanica. Chicago: 2014. <>.

Plato, , and Benjamin Jowett. "The Republic ." Web Atomics, n.d. Web. 12 Mar 2014. <>.

Plato, , and Mark Cohen. "The Allegory of the Cave." University of Washington, 07 Nov 2013. Web. 12 Mar 2014. <>.