The Philosophy of Plato: Cosmology

Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World


by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

The Philosophy of Plato: V. Ionians: Cosmology

The sensible world is presented to us under a twofold aspect, the first rational, the second irrational, corresponding respectively to form (essence) and matter. Let us take a tree as an example. We know that it is a tree because it has the form of a tree. If we prescind from that form and from any other form whatsoever, what remains? There remains an element without form and hence unintelligible.

Now if we follow this line of abstraction with reference to all things in the sensible world, if we thus prescind from all form, we find ourselves confronting a space without form but filled with formless matter. This is Chaos, Platonic non-being, called such not because it is nothing, but because there is in it no form (intelligible being). These two aspects of sensible reality correspond to two metaphysical states, preexistent to the sensible world. Thus there is had on one hand non-being (chaos, unformed matter) and on the other being (Ideas), co-eternal and opposed to each other. But how are these two opposed worlds united to form this sensible world, which is presented under the aspect of being and non-being?

To resolve this problem Plato has recourse to Demiurge, a divine artificer, the intermediary between unformed matter and the world of Ideas. Demiurge first infuses a soul into matter, by means of which space takes on life and form. Then, with successive infusions of souls, it forms the heavens and the earth. Demiurge is directed in its labor according to the order of the world of Ideas, which are as it were models in ordering the matter.

In this way matter has become a participant in the intelligible world, and through this participation the world of experience is made up of a combination of rational and irrational elements, of being and non-being. Matter, in the order given to it by Demiurge, remains always an opaque, irrational element which tends to resist complete penetration by the form, and hence is the root of multiplicity of beings and also of their imperfections. (Evil takes its origin from matter.) The rational element is represented by the form. But how is the form made present in matter by Demiurge? Plato gives various answers. At times he speaks of the descent of idea into matter; at other times he speaks of imitation.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work. “Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World” was designed and organized by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D. Copyright ©1992 -2011 The Radical Academy. Copyright renewed in © 2011 -2013 The Radical Academy (a project of The Moral Liberal).

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