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Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Yesterday, in my Duke University "Learning in Retirement" course on Plato's REPUBLIC, I reached what may fairly be called the pivotal passage in the entire work -- the famous discussion of The Divided Line. For those of you who have not re-read THE REPUBLIC lately [I do not even want to contemplate the possibility that someone visiting this blog has never read THE REPUBLIC at all!], this is the relatively brief passage in Book VI in which Socrates, after having defended the startling proposition that philosophers must become kings [or kings philosophers] if there is to be any hope of reforming Athens and establishing a just society, responds to the demands of Glaucon and Adeimantus that he say something substantive about the knowledge of the Form of the Good that is the capstone of the education of the philosophical rulers. In Socrates' response, the divided line is an explanatory device designed to aid the listeners in understanding the complex relationships among mere imagining or perception, our beliefs about physical objects, our mathematical knowledge, and the intellectual intuition [noesis] of The Form of the Good.

Re-reading the passage in preparation for lecturing on it, I was struck very powerfully by two thoughts. The first was how completely, and deliberately, unsatisfactory it is. Everything in the previous pages, which by this point number more than two hundred, has led up to this moment. Eagerly, with the very greatest anticipation, we wait to learn the nature of the highest Form, and yet when the moment comes, Socrates tells us that he will not reveal this final mystery to us. As you can imagine, this places a considerable burden on the unhappy lecturer who is trying to hold the interest and satisfy the curiosity of his students. I did my best. I made a joke of it, I confessed at the very beginning of the ninety minute lecture that this class would be profoundly unsatisfying, I said a good deal about mysticism and intellectual intuition and the notion that one must prepare oneself physically, intellectually, and spiritually for the revelation. I admitted that I myself had never been vouchsafed entry to the mystery of mysteries. But there is no getting around the fact that it is all a very big letdown. My students, I am happy to say, were gentle.

The second thought was that almost everything that has been central to philosophy for two and a half millennia comes right out of that little passage -- all the big questions of epistemology and metaphysics, the entire vast intellectual effort by the Church fathers to wed the secular Greek philosophical tradition with the revealed texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition, all the debates in political philosophy about who should rule and what the right way is to order a society -- all of it can be unfolded out of that half dozen pages. I have always known, of course, how important the writings of Plato and Aristotle are to the Western philosophical tradition. How could I not be aware of that after more sixty years of philosophical study, reflection, and writing? But I think the fact had never been brought home to me quite so forcefully.

Plato was a class act.


Kewball said...

""...contemplate the possibility

If that was a call for hands, I'm holding mine up.

English Jerk said...

This is probably wrong in some way I can't see, but here goes: Plato's account of the Form of the Good doesn't actually seem that unsatisfying to me. On his account, all horses share something by virtue of which they are horses, which he conceives of as a Form of Horse. Correspondingly, all forms will share something by virtue of which they are forms, namely the Form of the Good. It's "the Form of the Good" rather than "the Form of Forms" because "Good" here just means excellence or perfection or somesuch (hence the Form of Horse is, in some sense, the most perfect horse, and a morally good action is the most perfect action, and the Form of the Good is the most perfect form). Of course Plato doesn't have a satisfactory account of the relationship between forms and things, and thus he also lacks an account of the presumably similar relationship between the forms and the Form of the Good; he gives us nothing but handwaving about methexis and the like (for which Aristotle gives him, for my money, a well-deserved beating in book A of the Metaphysics). But that doesn't seem to me to be a problem with his account of the Form of the Good, only with his account of the instantiating relationship (methexis or whatever). But maybe I'm missing something.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well, good old Google bleeped my response to English Jerk, so I will try again. I agree completely with your observations about the forms in general. I meant to limit my comments to Socrates' refusal to offer a definition of the Form of the Good, which plays a very different role in his philosophy from, for example, that played by the mathematical forms. Knowledge of the Form of the Good is, Plato says, the key to the ability of the Philosopher-kings to rule well and guide the state toward justice. But he cannot [or will not] say what the Form of the Good is -- what its definition is. So we are left hanging in the dialogue. No?

English Jerk said...

The Socrates-figure's inconclusiveness at that moment in Republic strikes me too as a bit odd. But I'm not entirely sure why. Many of the dialogues focused on defining a virtue also end up inconclusive (most obviously with piety in Euthyphro). So it's not entirely surprising that we don't end up with a conclusive definition of the Form of the Good in Republic. And looking back at that passage, the Socrates-figure just seems to say that he doesn't have enough time to go into the details, so that the analogies he offers are just pedagogical shorthand for a substantive argument that he withholds. Maybe what's odd about it is that the Socrates-figure claims to have knowledge he's unwilling to provide, and this conflicts with the Socrates-figure in the early dialogues who's so insistent on his lack of knowledge. So maybe what's odd here is his secretiveness? (Secretiveness by Socratic standards anyway--he's no Pythagorean!)

Michael said...

I admit that it's been some time since I've read (or reread) The Republic, but I have to quibble with the notion of the definition of "The Form of the Good" as unsatisfactory. If memory serves, and it probably doesn't, Socrates' inability to define the Good is just a part of the general Socratic project of a) showing how facile our supposed understanding often is, and b) showing that even the wisest of us can never be truly of the Form of the Good is, but we must strive to discover it anyway. Upon reflection this sounds a bit too existentialist for my liking (at least for an account of Plato), but I'm still not sure that Socrates has to give an account of the Form of the Good because we will only be able to deal with a likeness of the form, and that it takes constant thought and vigilance to even come close to that.

But then again, I was always charmed by Thrasymacus's dismissal of the idea of the good as a something defined by the stronger (which is a challenge I never thought Socrates met, but that's another discussion).

In lieu of extended and probably misinformed comments on my part, I thought I might recommended a book that helped me in my (undergraduate) study of the Republic. It's by C.D.C. Reeve (who is at UNC, I believe) called "Philosopher Kings."

Thanks for letting me start off my day thinking about Plato.

Charles said...

On the contrary, Prof. Wolff, an answer in the form of a definition of the good would be precisely what is unsatisfying. An answer in some such form would amount to a foundational political program to an extent that it would stifle any instigation of thinking; such an answer would unnecessarily limit the title of philosopher to those who subscribed to the definition supplied – how would this cultivate the philosophical part of the philosopher-statesman? This would be corrupt pedagogy encouraging the very opposite of Socrates' intent in these passages: to re-orient Glaucon's political fascination into a philosophical one. Beyond the call of Glaucon's challenge at 471c, Socrates might say the following: let the cards fall where they may once I have demonstrated what it "might" be like to practice philosophy; anything more than that could be construed as a decisive intervention in Athenian politics. An answer in the form of which you suggest would to some degree risk overstepping the terms of the third wave challenge - demonstrating the ‘possibility’ of an ideal regime (what it might mean to be a ideal city-state [in speech or logos]) not a real political program on which a possible revolution may occur [in deed or praxis]. Socrates cares less about his present day Athens than about encouraging Glaucon to think for himself – which means, loosely, to orient oneself thoughtfully toward universals (the paradigm of the ideal regime) not particulars (a political program aimed at reforming ‘this’ said city-state). How would such encouragement be accomplished with supplying a definition? Certainly, as good pedagogues, we care less about supplying the answer than we care about cultivating an attitude of reflection, especially when the stakes of the answer, and how the answer is achieved, loom large for the young man or woman in hot pursuit.

If Socrates were to provide the definition, he would run the risk of violating his own analogy of the painter (472e, thereabouts): it is not the job of a painter to make the beautiful objects of his painting come alive.

john c. halasz said...

O.K. It's been a billion years since I read the thing, and, since I much prefer Aristotle, I've never gone back and gotten deep into the weeds with Plato. But doesn't Plato say, perhaps somewhere thereabouts, that the good is "epekeina tes ousias", beyond Being or substance? So the good is not just another form, but the form of forms, what makes them "hold good", as the teleological final end of both philosophical desire, eros, and cosmic order. So the form of the good can't be defined as if it were just another substance, but rather it renders such definitions of substance possible. And so must remain unsayable amidst what it allows to be said.