According to Plato, are the ideas of Beauty and Courage objectively real, or are they notions that we invent in our minds whenever we want to? Do you think these ideas are objectively real? Provide an argument to back up your answer.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

For Plato, ideas like Beauty, Courage, Love, Justice, and all other metaphysical concepts only have any real basis in capital "T" Truth whenever they are contemplated outside of the senses. As he argued in The Republic, individuals are only able to come to an authentic reality of a concept once they have gone through an extensive process of dialectic, which, for him, was a rigorous examination of one's strongly held beliefs. This examination, which consisted of putting one's perceptions of the world up for question, would only be complete once an individual had reached a point of interrogation at which they no longer found any inherent contradictions between what they believed to be true and the real form of the idea itself. Knowledge arrived at by this method was the purest of all forms, and Plato believed it to reflect the Truth about the reality of the world.

Thus, as a direct answer to your question, Plato would argue that the ideas of Beauty, Courage, and the like are real, but that we can only arrive at an accurate understanding of them at the level of human reason. Plato strongly argued against any attempt to understand the world and form strong opinions of it by reference to the senses alone. He illustrated the point by evoking the imagery of the tree. In the summer time, a person may look at a tree when its flowers are blooming and believe that it is very beautiful. However, in the winter, this same tree, now wet, without its leaves, and morbid, is unappealing, and that same observer may believe that it is no longer beautiful but is rather ugly. But how can a single object be both beautiful and ugly at once? Or, put another way, how can the same object, viewed by the same viewer, possess contradictory elements? For Plato, this was because understanding granted by the senses alone was always bound to lead to inaccuracies.

What was the solution, then? Plato believed true knowledge of a metaphysical idea like Beauty or Courage to only be accessible at the highest levels of individual contemplation. The purest form of an idea, one that had been freed of any internal contradictions (like the tree) of thought, was what Plato called and Idea (with a capital "I"), and it resided in the realm of pure reason alone. The Idea of a metaphysic (say, the Idea of Beauty, the Idea of Courage, etc.) was not the thing as it manifested in any one particular object in nature (i.e., the beauty of a particular tree or the courage of a particular soldier) but rather an abstracted, purified form. This Idea then gave reality to all of the things in the material world that corresponded to it. Thus, the Idea of Courage provided all things in the material world that could be courageous with courage.

Plato explained this apparently difficult philosophical concept quite well in Bbook 6 of The Republic with his metaphor of the Sun....

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The Sun is not sight (sight being a property of the eyes and any visible object in the world), but it is the object that allows sight to render things visible. Thus, Plato said that "sight is the most sunlike of the senses." Because the Sun allowed sight to exist in the things that are visible, it has a unique power above and superior to it (sight) in that it gives it its reality and perfection. As Plato says,

So that what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower is the form of the good. And thought it is the cause of knowledge and truth, it is also an object of knowledge. Both knowledge and truth are beautiful things, but the good is other and more beautiful than they. In the visible realm, light and sight are rightly considered sunlike, but it is wrong to think that they are the sun, so here it is right to think of knowledge and truth as goodlike but wrong to think that either of them is the good—for the good is yet more prized.

The Sun is greater and more desirable than any individual thing that it provides sight to. This reasoning can be applied to any one of the Ideas. The Idea of Beauty, for example, is greater and more perfect than any single thing in particular that may be considered beautiful. But, just as visible things are made visible by the Sun, beautiful things are made beautiful by the Idea of Beauty, something which transcends the individual worldly items that it gives reality to.

Therefore, the ideas of beauty, courage, and everything else are objectively real, but only as deracinated abstractions of reason that exist in the mind alone. The things in the real world that they correspond to are only representations of these ideas, not the Ideas themselves.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team