History

Platonic Idealism

In 1998’s The Truman Show, the titular character, played by Jim Carrey, lives in the fictitious world of Seahaven. It is an idyllic, quaint coastal town, with bustling businesses and friendly faces. It is the world Truman has known since his birth. Yet, unbeknownst to him, his entire life is an elaborate ruse; a joke everyone is in on but him. He is the star of the world’s most popular show: the ultimate in reality Television. Everyone he knows, from his mother and father through to his wife is an actor.

When asked why Truman has never realized the truth behind his life, the show’s creator remarks: “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented. It’s as simple as that.”

In doing so, he evoked an ancient pillar of western philosophy: platonic idealism. Indeed, the story of Truman’s life mirrors Plato’s famous tale of The Cave. In the cave, we find a group of people chained up. They face forward, unable to move. They spend their entire lives staring at the wall, upon which black, shadowy images dance. One day, a man breaks free. He ventures up out of the cave, discovering a great fire with a platform in front, upon which people walked carrying objects – the source of the images. Eventually, reaching the mouth of the cave, the man is blinded by the power of the sun.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

The story has a melancholy ending. Having discovered the truth about the world, the man returns to free the others. However, unable to describe the real world and convince them of the truth, the people murder him instead.

The idea described in these stories is simple: you can’t trust the world you perceive, the world of sensory perception.

Here Plato distinguished between two worlds. The first was our world, ever-changing; the second was a World of Forms, where the perfect idea (or Form) of everything existed. Our world, the first, was a mere shadow.

Take a house, for example. Each has a door, or a few, several windows, a roof of a specific style, and walls made of a particular material. Each is as different as the last. No two are the same, even if their first appearance suggests otherwise. However, Plato would contend that the House is an ideal of which each of us is aware. Through this ideal, we can identify the imperfect reflections which line our streets.

Perfect versions of all objects exist in the World of Forms. But not all that exists there is equal. Plato drew a dividing line above which is the Form of the Good, and below which is everything else. It is through this Form that all others are realized. Only a philosopher could understand, or perceive this endless, changeless Form of the Good.

Many have criticized Platonic Idealism for the blurry line between things which have a Form, and those which do not. Does every person have a perfect representation or every ethnicity, or is just each species, or each gender?

Plato’s Statue – Hellenic Academy

Despite such criticism, Platonic Idealism found success in mathematics. No perfect triangle has ever existed, yet we know what it would be: three angles equal to 180 degrees. Still, it raises interesting and persistent ideas about reality. How do we know what is real? What makes a particular object that object? Does the world shift with our words or perceptions?

As Plato said, “Reality is created by the mind, we can change our reality by changing our mind.”

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