THEORY OF FORMS

The assertions I am planning to make will heavily depend on sources which are not primarily from Plato nor Augustine themselves, but from scholars whose, work and understanding are directly from primary sources. To understand Plato’s theory of ideas or Forms, I will appeal to Dr. Samuel Enoch Stumpf suggestion that to understand Plato’s theory we must answer some questions. I will not answer all the questions he gives because I do not think is relevant for this brief presentation.

PLATO VS ST. AUGUSTINEPlato-+-St.-Augustine-300x170

WHAT ARE THE FORMS?

Stumpf says that “the Forms are those changeless, eternal, and nonmaterial essences or patterns of which the actual visible objects that we see are only poor copies.”[1] He gives the example of a beautiful person that only displays a copy of Beauty. Stumpf also asserts that for Plato knowledge is absolute because the true object of thought is not the material order but the changeless and eternal order of the ideas or Forms.[2] I like the way Dr. Wellum puts it, “the Forms account for logic, justice, moral absolutes, and human dignity.”[3] These are the so called “Universals.”  This belief is the very foundation of Plato’s epistemology.

Augustine viewed the Forms as eternal and immutable; they are patterns of particulars things, and they are grounded in the mind of God, they are the foundation of all created reality, and an indispensable element in human knowledge.[4]

WHERE DO THE FORMS EXIST?

The Forms are separate from concrete things; they exist apart from the things we see. Its existence persists even though particular things perish.[5] For Nash, it would be a mistake to think that Plato believed these Forms exists only in people’s minds. The point to his theory is that these Forms have an objective or extra mental existence.[6] It seems like a controversy when it comes to where these Forms exist, whether in the mind of Plato’s Demiurge or somewhere else, Nash explains that “they would exist even if no human being existed or were thinking of them…Only when human minds focus on the Forms does genuine human knowledge become possible.”[7]

For Augustine, as I mentioned before, the Forms existed in the mind of God.

HOW DO WE KNOW THE FORMS?

According to Dr. Stumpf, Plato describes three ways we come to know the Forms. (1) Recollection. (2) Dialectic. (3) Desire. First, Recollection means that people now recollect what their souls knew in their prior state of existence. Second, Dialectic means the power of abstracting the essence of things and discovering the relations of all divisions of knowledge to each other. Finally, Desire means a step by step pattern which leads to the knowledge. For instance, from the beautiful object to the beautiful thought and then to the very essence of Beauty itself.[8] Dr. Nash explains that in Plato’s theory reason is king. The reason is the vehicle by which we attain knowledge, and sense experience can only lead us to opinion.[9]

In Contrast, Augustine believed that the human knowledge of the Forms is intrinsically related to the doctrine of Divine illumination, which means that God is the one who assists for the human agent to come to the knowledge of Universals. It is important to note the three major points that are related to this doctrine as Dr. Nash present to us, “God is light and illumines all human to different degrees; there are intelligible truths, which God illumines; and human minds can know the divine truths only as God illumes them… The divine light is Augustine’s answer to how humans know the eternal ideas that subsist in the mind of God.”[10]

MY VIEW

After a very brief summary of a Plato and Augustine’s view points, I do not agree with Plato’s view of the Forms beginning from a rationalist perspective, who reject any kind of sense experience. Any Christian must reject Plato’s complete rejection of knowledge arising from a sensory experience. As Dr. Nash noted that “the fact that relevant content of the Bible depends upon human experience and testimony,[11]” is an apparent objection of why we should accept the knowledge that comes from experience and evidence. Moreover, I believe the doctrine of divine illumination is grounded in scripture, and Augustine does give an excellent basis for this belief and also answers to some objections. On the other hand, Plato’s view of how we come to knowledge, especially the concept of recollection, is an entirely distant view for the believer.

It is important to say that Augustine’s views are very complicated and hard to explain in brief presentations such as this. For instance, the concept of a priori idea that we learn with Plato, and in Augustine’s understanding would have to be further developed and explained. Another example is the necessary condition of knowledge which we can briefly agree with Dr. Nash when he says “human knowledge could not be explained solely in terms of an external light…there is also an internal light, the human mind, which reflects the light from God.”[12]

[1] Stumpf Samuel Enoch, Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy (McGraw-Hill, 1999), 55

[2] Ibid., 55

[3] Wellum S. J. Introduction to Philosophy Lecture Handout, (PH103 WW, 2008), 13

[4] Nash Ronald, Life’s Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 149

[5] Ibid 1., 57

[6] Ibid., 63

[7] Ibid.,

[8] Stumpf Samuel Enoch, Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy (McGraw-Hill, 1999), 58

[9] Nash Ronald, Life’s Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 70

[10] Ibid., 153

[11] Ibid., 152

[12] Ibid., 159

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