Unit 2: Metaphysics
Plato’s “Simile of the Sun” and “The Divided Line”
And which, I said, of the gods in heaven would you say was the lord of this element? Whose is that light which makes the eye to see perfectly and the visible to appear?
You mean the sun, as you and all mankind say.
May not the relation of sight to this deity be described as follows?
Neither sight nor the eye in which sight resides is the sun?
The eye like the sun, but not the same with it. Yet of all the organs of sense the eye is the most like the sun?
By far the most like.
And the power which the eye possesses is a sort of effluence which is dispensed from the sun?
Then the sun is not sight, but the author of sight who is recognised by sight?
True, he said.
And this is he whom I call the child of the good, whom the good begat in his own likeness, to be in the visible world, in relation to sight and the things of sight, what the good is in the intellectual world in relation to mind and the things of mind:
Will you be a little more explicit? he said.
Why, you know, I said, that the eyes, when a person directs them towards objects on which the light of day is no longer shining, but the moon and stars only, see dimly, and are nearly blind; they seem to have no clearness of vision in them?
Divisible objects are to be seen only when the sun shines upon them; truth is only known when illuminated by the idea of good. But when they are directed towards objects on which the sun shines, they see clearly and there is sight in them?
And the soul is like the eye: when resting upon that on which truth and being shine, the soul perceives and understands, and is radiant with intelligence; but when turned towards the twilight of becoming and perishing, then she has opinion only, and goes blinking about, and is first of one opinion and then of another, and seems to have no intelligence?
The idea of good higher than science or truth (the objective than the subjective).Now, that which imparts truth to the known and the power of knowing to the knower is what I would have you term the idea of good, and this you will deem to be the cause of science, and of truth in so far as the latter becomes the subject of knowledge; beautiful too, as are both truth and knowledge, you will be right in esteeming this other nature as more beautiful than either; and, as in the previous instance, light and sight may be truly said to be like the sun, and yet not to be the sun, so in this other sphere, science and truth may be deemed to be like the good, but not the good; the good has a place of honour yet higher.
What a wonder of beauty that must be, he said, which is the author of science and truth, and yet surpasses them in beauty; for you surely cannot mean to say that pleasure is the good?
God forbid, I replied; but may I ask you to consider the image in another point of view?
You would say, would you not, that the sun is not only the author of visibility in all visible things, but of generation and nourishment and growth, though he himself is not generation?
As the sun is the cause of generation, so the good is the cause of being and essence. In like manner the good may be said to be not only the author of knowledge to all things known, but of their being and essence, and yet the good is not essence, but far exceeds essence in dignity and power.
Glaucon said, with a ludicrous earnestness: By the light of heaven, how amazing!
Yes, I said, and the exaggeration may be set down to you; for you made me utter my fancies.
And pray continue to utter them; at any rate let us hear if there is anything more to be said about the similitude of the sun.
Yes, I said, there is a great deal more.
Then omit nothing, however slight.
I will do my best, I said; but I should think that a great deal will have to be omitted.
I hope not, he said.
You have to imagine, then, that there are two ruling powers, and that one of them is set over the intellectual world, the other over the visible. I do not say heaven, lest you should fancy that I am playing upon the name (οὐρανός, ὁρατός). May I suppose that you have this distinction of the visible and intelligible fixed in your mind?
The two spheres of sight and knowledge are represented by a line which is divided into two unequal parts. Now take a line which has been cut into two unequal parts, and divide each of them again in the same proportion, and suppose the two main divisions to answer, one to the visible and the other to the intelligible, and then compare the subdivisions in respect of their clearness and want of clearness, and you will find that the first section in the sphere of the visible consists of images. And by images I mean, in the first place, shadows, and in the second place, reflections in water and in solid, smooth and polished bodies and the like: Do you understand?
Yes, I understand.
Imagine, now, the other section, of which this is only the resemblance, to include the animals which we see, and everything that grows or is made.
Would you not admit that both the sections of this division have different degrees of truth, and that the copy is to the original as the sphere of opinion is to the sphere of knowledge?
Next proceed to consider the manner in which the sphere of the intellectual is to be divided.
In what manner?
Images and hypotheses. Thus:—There are two subdivisions, in the lower of which the soul uses the figures given by the former division as images; the enquiry can only be hypothetical, and instead of going upwards to a principle descends to the other end; in the higher of the two, the soul passes out of hypotheses, and goes up to a principle which is above hypotheses, making no use of images as in the former case, but proceeding only in and through the ideas themselves.
I do not quite understand your meaning, he said.
The hypotheses of mathematics. Then I will try again; you will understand me better when I have made some preliminary remarks. You are aware that students of geometry, arithmetic, and the kindred sciences assume the odd and the even and the figures and three kinds of angles and the like in their several branches of science; these are their hypotheses, which they and every body are supposed to know, and therefore they do not deign to give any account of them either to themselves or others; but they begin with them, and go on until they arrive at last, and in a consistent manner, at their conclusion?
Yes, he said, I know.
In both spheres hypotheses are used, in the lower taking the form of images, but in the higher the soul ascends above hypotheses to the idea of good. And do you not know also that although they make use of the visible forms and reason about them, they are thinking not of these, but of the ideals which they resemble; not of the figures which they draw, but of the absolute square and the absolute diameter, and so on—the forms which they draw or make, and which have shadows and reflections in water of their own, are converted by them into images, but they are really seeking to behold the things themselves, which can only be seen with the eye of the mind?
And of this kind I spoke as the intelligible, although in the search after it the soul is compelled to use hypotheses; not ascending to a first principle, because she is unable to rise above the region of hypothesis, but employing the objects of which the shadows below are resemblances in their turn as images, they having in relation to the shadows and reflections of them a greater distinctness, and therefore a higher value.
I understand, he said, that you are speaking of the province of geometry and the sister arts.
Dialectic by the help of hypotheses rises above hypotheses. And when I speak of the other division of the intelligible, you will understand me to speak of that other sort of knowledge which reason herself attains by the power of dialectic, using the hypotheses not as first principles, but only as hypotheses—that is to say, as steps and points of departure into a world which is above hypotheses, in order that she may soar beyond them to the first principle of the whole; and clinging to this and then to that which depends on this, by successive steps she descends again without the aid of any sensible object, from ideas, through ideas, and in ideas she ends.
I understand you, he replied; not perfectly, for you seem to me to be describing a task which is really tremendous; but, at any rate, I understand you to say that knowledge and being, which the science of dialectic contemplates, are clearer than the notions of the arts, as they are termed, which proceed from hypotheses only: these are also contemplated by the understanding, and not by the senses: yet, because they start from hypotheses and do not ascend to a principle, those who contemplate them appear to you not to exercise the higher reason upon them, although when a first principle is added to them they are cognizable by the higher reason. Return to psychology. And the habit which is concerned with geometry and the cognate sciences I suppose that you would term understanding and not reason, as being intermediate between opinion and reason.
Four faculties: Reason, understanding, faith, perception of shadows. You have quite conceived my meaning, I said; and now, corresponding to these four divisions, let there be four faculties in the soul—reason answering to the highest, understanding to the second, faith (or conviction) to the third, and perception of shadows to the last—and let there be a scale of them, and let us suppose that the several faculties have clearness in the same degree that their objects have truth.
I understand, he replied, and give my assent, and accept your arrangement.
This brief video (5:08) will provide more clarity on Plato’s Sun analogy.
For a relevant and concise overview of Plato’s “Divided Line” (including some additional background information), please review the information here: The Divided Line.
Plato's Metaphysics and Epistemology: The Good
|The Good (source of illumination)||An Example using a shape (triangle)|
|Intelligible realm - accessible via thinking and reasoning||Objects of Knowledge||The Forms||noesis (rational intuition & full understanding)||the essence or ideal standard for triangles (What makes all triangles fall under the category of triangle)|
|Mathematics & hypothesis||dianoia (reasoning)||the properties of a triangle (i.e., 3 sides & 3 angles)|
|"metaphysics" Plato's account of reality||"epistemology" Plato's account of what we can know about reality|
Plato's Metaphysics and Epistemology: The Sun
|The Sun (source of illumination)||An Example using a shape (triangle)|
|Visible realm - accessible via sense & perception||Objects of perception & opinion||Physical Objects||pistis (belief)||a triangular physical & edible slice of pie|
|Images, reflections, & shadows||eikasia (imagination)||a photograph of a triangular slice of pie|
|"metaphysics" Plato's account of reality||"epistemology" Plato's account of what we can know about reality|
Check Your Understanding
Consider the 2 charts above, which summarize Plato’s “Divided Line,” and the information provided on this website: The Four Segments of the Divided Line.
Then follow the instructions to complete two matching exercises below the chart to check your understanding of the concepts.
How well do you understand the epistemology?
For this first activity, consider each word/phrase below the chart. Click and drag each to the section containing the Ancient Greek term to which it most closely matches.
Activity 2 Directions: The tiles below the chart each describe a stage of the character’s awareness in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Drag each tile to the correct row on the chart.
Accessibility note: The background for the activity is an image derived from the two table charts expressed above. For screen-reader access, the four drop zones are associated as follows:
top row: noesis
second row: dianoia
third row: pistis
bottom row: eikasia