Birds, Swirds and Celestial Bears: The function and effectiveness of Plato’s Forms.

space-bear-loveEarth Man lives in the world of the senses, Sense World, whereas Rilato, as a student of philosophy, while existing bodily in Sense World, knows something of Form World. (Plato’s Theory of Forms). Earth Man does not believe in Form World and questions the function and effectiveness of such a place existing. They are walking together through a Museum in Modern Day Sense World.
Rilato: As I was saying earlier, Earth Man, Form World is where everything exists as a pure idea. Plato believed that Form World was the true world and that Sense World was only transitional. Plato says ‘true existence consists in certain incorporeal forms which are objects of the mind’ .
Earth Man: Pfft. There is no Form World, only Sense World. I believe what I see, touch, taste, hear and smell, and nothing else exists.
Rilato: Yes, but ‘all things accessible to the senses are in a constant state of flux’ (Aristotle).
Earth Man drops his empty coffee cup into the bin.
Earth Man: I concede your point; that coffee was certainly of a temporary nature. And it was accessible to the senses….
Rilato: It is because Form World exists that you recognise the things that you observe with your senses. Take that stuffed bear for instance, without the Form of Bear in Form World, you wouldn’t know what that was because our knowledge of such things is recollection, not learning (Plato).
Earth Man: Not even true, I know that is a bear because I was told so as a tiny earth boy.
Rilato: ‘Our souls existed apart from our body before they took on human form and they had intelligence’(Plato) and before they arrived in Sense World, they existed in Form World and obtained ‘a priori’ knowledge of such things as the Form of Bear. So you see, even though you were told about a bear when you were a tiny earth boy, it wasn’t so much teaching, as reminding you that you already knew it (Plato).
Earth Man: So, in Form World there is a giant stuffed bear that I hung out with when I was a soul… a sort of heavenly teddy bear, in the sky? Or an ‘incorporeal form… somewhere in the unseen’? (Plato).
Rilato: Exactly, but a perfect Bear Form, from which each bear in the Sense World draws from to partake in Bear-ness.
Earth Man: Well, this one also participates in dead-ness and stuffed-ness.
Rilato: Death is just part of Becoming.
Earth Man: Becoming Dead. *laughs* But, that bear is certainly both bear and dead at the same time, your theory does not stand up.
Rilato: What you are describing is duality, but it works better with a thing like Good, or Just. Ontological Duality though, is about the split of the mind and body; Sense World vs Form World, and the Forms vs the imperfect copies of the Forms in Sense World. Also the duality that exists in opposites, like for instance Great and Small being opposed principles, yet part of the same thing, the unity of the Great and the Small actually become Numbers this way (Aristotle).
Earth Man: I was actually joking.
They continue walking past the bird exhibit.
Earth Man: Ok, what about birds. What if somebody decided that flight was a critical part of being a bird? That would mean that kiwis and emus would no longer participate in the form of bird that exists in Form World. This would create a new form, which I call blird. Would a Blird Form pop into existence in Form World if we all agreed that flightless birds would be Blirds and not Birds?
Rilato: I see your point Earth Man, this would invalidate the idea that our souls have ‘a priori’ knowledge of the Forms, however, this can be pulled back into Plato’s Form theory by saying that Blirds are simply imperfect copies of the Bird Form and are in fact birds, because they take part in MOST of the aspects of Bird-ness, flight being just one of them. Equally, penguins would not be swirds (swimming birds). The Forms in Form World were always there and the Blird and Swird were already covered, and would be rejected as forms. Aristotle on the other hand, could make use of the Blird and Swird as a sub-category of Bird, as his Forms allowed for a little more flexibility and was based more in Sense World. His Forms existed within the objects themselves, believing it ‘impossible that… Ideas [forms] and the substances of things…[could] exist apart’ (Aristotle).
Earth Man: Aristotle sounds like my kind of guy.
Rilato: Well, if it wasn’t for Plato’s Form World, Aristotle would not have come up with the categorizing system that this Museum uses to classify species.
Earth Man: Let’s get some lunch.
Rilato: Sure, philosophizing is hungry work. Interesting though, when Plato distinguished between being and becoming, ‘it was the true precursor to Aristotle’s theory of categories’ (Plato).
Earth Man: Let’s have chips! Just don’t talk about the perfect potato Form because I have never seen two potatoes the same!
Rilato: Well, that’s exactly the point of Forms, Earth Man. The Form is the Ideal, or Idea of the Potato, and these are just the little ‘b’ being kind, but as a chip, they are ‘becoming’ (Aristotle).
Earth Man: I put it to you Rilato that chips are potatoes in a state of Heracletean flux, which actually validates your Form World, because there has to be a Potato Form in order for potatoes to continue to be potatoes, because these ones just don’t last long. And tomorrow they will be in a state of flush. *snort*. (Aristotle).
Rilato: ‘All things are always in process of change, in every respect’ (Plato). Hence everything is becoming and never being, unless they are Being, and Being can only occur in Form World (Heidegger), although being is what a thing is at its core, while the becoming stuff is the surface changes, like haircuts, growing old, losing attributes etc, so it is explained by Plato in two different ways. However the Being of the Celestial Bear, or Potato Ideal, is only in Form World.
Earth Man: These are good chips.
Rilato: It’s like they followed a form-u-la.
Earth Man: What about the kind of Good that is in Superman, saving the world and what not. There’s not a form for that, because it has no shape, it’s neither a bird, nor a bear, nor a potato.
Rilato: Ah. Well, it doesn’t need one. In Form World, the Good doesn’t have to have a shape, and when it appears in Sense World we recognise it, even if it appeared in that bear, if that bear performed a moral good for instance, like not stealing a picnic, it would be partaking in the Forms of both Bear and Good at the same time. So, you can see it pass through the form of Good, while it performed a Good action, thus, ‘the Forms can be thought, but not seen’ (Plato).
Earth Man: That would show that the bear thought about what it was doing and chose wisely.
Rilato: Yes, it would have been wise in choosing what was good for the whole bear (Plato).
Earth Man: A self-improving bear. A critically thinking bear. Becoming iBear 2.0.
Rilato: Yes, there is a hierarchy between good choices and bad. ‘It should be noted that the functional…and metaphysical theory of the Form of the Good… favour reason as the ruler of our lives,’ (Plato).
Earth Man: I see, in a way, striving to achieve Good, and value things that are close to the perfect Forms provide us Sense World dwellers with goals and social norms. In a way, it gives us a sense of purpose, to try to achieve Plato’s Good Life.
Rilato: Yay! The Forms provide standards, and the power to judge those standards is in the hands of the philosophers (Flew).
Earth Man: Holy Crap! That means, all those years ago, that this guy Plato was trying to put power in the hands of the thinkers, rather than the guys with the armies!
Rilato: Yup. ‘The word philosopher [came to mean] one who knows the Forms’ and those who ‘know the forms are the ones fit to rule’ (Flew). Plato didn’t mince words either, he said ‘[there must be] a conjunction of … philosophy and political power [to save the] human race’ .
Earth Man: That’s kind of appropriate today as well.
Rilato: Yeah, it’s timeless. Hegel said ‘Reason is the sovereign of the world’ and he meant sovereign as in monarch or ruler.
Earth Man: Okay, I would really like to see this Form World then, though I’m still not convinced it’s a thing, it seems more like knowledge or something.
Rilato: ‘If ever we are to have pure knowledge we must escape from the body [and Sense World] and observe things with the soul…itself [in Form World]’ (Plato)
Earth Man: I have to die?
Rilato: That’s one way of doing it. Plato did say ‘those who practice philosophy in the right way are in training for dying and they fear death least of all men’ though it’s not entirely necessary. Education in metaphysics, understanding, realisation that the world is an illusion, can help you peer into Form World. What ‘escape from the body’ probably means is forget about earthly stuff, worrying about what to eat and pooping and such, and ‘observe with the soul’ means engage with your mind. Think!!!
They leave the café and begin to walk through the Asiatic Mammals section of the Museum.
Rilato: Okay, so if you look at it as levels, it might help you understand. See that little antelope over there, dead, and stuffed, it’s a lowly Sense World form of antelope, but in Form World there is the perfect Antelope that has the essence of what it is to be an Antelope in it. This Sense World antelope is like an opinion of what the Form World Antelope might be. This stuffed antelope is ‘becoming’ or a little ‘b’ being form of the Form World Antelope which is a capital ‘B’ Being Antelope. The One Antelope that rules them all, or as Aristotle explained, ‘the one over many’.
Earth Man: … but Sense World functions perfectly well without Form World, it’s okay to have a bunch of imperfect antelopes. (to the antelope) You were a perfectly ok antelope, little guy, or girl….
Rilato: There! You said ‘were’. This Sense World antelope has ceased to exist but the Form World Antelope is eternal. Because it exists in the Realm of Ideas it is unchanging. (Aristotle). Sense World cannot exist without Form World providing the patterns. Plato says: ‘there is no other way in which an individual can come into being [without] participating in… the Forms’ .
Creepy music plays over the loud speaker then shuts off abruptly..
Earth Man: (slightly unnerved by the music). Okay, so, without Form World and its Ideas, could a, um, Tiger cub still grown into a Tiger?
Rilato: Well, no. because the telos of a creature is like a code that comes from the existence of its Form, ‘the forms are both causes of being and becoming’ (Aristotle). It gives it something to strive for. Like, if we had no idea of what Good was, we could never live a Good Life, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ (Plato). Without Forms, there would be no plan and the world would descend into chaos. Bears would always steal picnics and Superman would not save you, tigers could grow into trees, it would be nuts.
Earth Man: So, what you are saying is that Form World keeps everything together?
Rilato: Yay, have a Mintie.
Earth Man: So, am I right?
Rilato: Can’t say really, it’s only a theory.
Earth Man: I could ask Plato… he is probably in Form World now.
Rilato: I don’t think so, his earthly body would be here, well composted, but his essence, or soul, would have entered Form World, attained the knowledge of all things, and would now be partaking in the Form of Man and the Good.
Earth Man: Didn’t St. Augustine say something about being taught by the Platonists to ‘seek incorporeal truth’, and thus found God, bodiless, floating in the cosmos?
Rilato: Beats me how he found God amongst all the antelopes, bears, potatoes and the pure Good, Just and Beauty.
Earth Man: *laughs* There should be Form World tours. (pauses). Is this why we are in a museum?
Rilato: Maybe. *laughs*. Plato created an analogy of a Cave to explain to Sense World people the way to get to Form World.
Earth Man: Do tell!
Rilato: In Sense World, we are all living in a cave, where we only get to see the shadows of the Forms, but we think they are real. It is only by breaking away from your beliefs, or educating yourself by learning to think critically, or by death, that you can get out of the cave and experience the reality of the world of Forms, where the Good is as bright as the sun.
Earth Man: So what’s the point of forms and caves and good and knowing about True birds, bears, and potatoes then?
Rilato: The point is Earth Man, that Plato has given us a structure that shows a path to achieving a Good Life and that we can achieve great things by critical thinking and he provided the basis for categorizing everything in the world. If it wasn’t for Forms, or Ideals, we would have no breed standards for animals, or social norms or ideals of beauty or moral compass. Without this we would have no goals. He also gave us a sense of participation in the universe that goes beyond death and although this is clearly a stepping off point for Christianity; ‘in the beginning it was just the Word and the word was […]Go[o]d’ (John 1:1), but the word in fact was the idea that knowledge is power and that those who gained education would be the best rulers.
Also, that there is more to life than just feeding the body, one must also feed the mind! As for the rule of reluctant Philosopher Kings, at the very least we now have leaders who have managed to get a University Degree in the Western World rather than being led by conquerors, which is what monarchies and dictatorships are based on. The idea of the Forms underpins the whole of Western civilization.
Earth Man: Wow! You know, whether Form World exists or not is irrelevant. It is comforting to think of things being eternal, that there is a plan, and a structure, and that we can get to places by thinking, and improve our lot by striving towards a perfect form. Perhaps thinking is a super power?
Rilato: Perhaps.
Earth Man: There are bears in space though aren’t there?
Rilato: *winks*. Just the one.


Aristotle, ‘Books I and IV, Metaphysics’, trans W.D. Ross, in The Complete Works of Aristotle Vol 2, Ed. Jonathon Barnes, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984, pp1553-1585, 1586-1599.

Bolton, Robert. ‘Plato’s Distinction between Being and Becoming’ The Review of Metaphysics vol 29, No 1. Pp66-95. Published Philosophical Education Society Inc. 1975.

Flew, Antony. ‘Plato and the Theory of Forms’, in An Introduction to Western Philosophy: Ideas and Argument from Plato to Sartre, London: Thames and Hudson, 1971, pp41-77.

Heidegger, Martin. Early Greek Thinking: The Dawn of Western Philosophy. Harper and Row:USA. 1975. Print.

Horrocks, Chris and Zoran Jevtic. Foucault for Beginners. Icon Books:UK. 1997. Print.

King James Bible, John 1:1, The Official King James Bible Online, Apocrypha Books, 1611, sourced from on 23/11/2013.

Plato, ‘Apology’, in Plato: complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997 pp 17-36.

Plato, ‘The Cave’, in The Republic of Plato, trans. F.M. Cornford, Oxford” Clarendon Press, 1941, pp 222 -227.

Plato, ‘Selection from Phaedo (65b-77a)’ in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997, pp56-67.

Santas, Gerasimos. ‘Plato: Ethics’ in The Blackwell guide to Ancient Philosophy, ed. Christopher Shields, Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, pp 118-129.


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