The second doctrine we find builds upon this notion of educating the soul: ‘learning is recollection’. This is an early theory of innate knowledge. When Meno (Meno 80e) poses this paradox – how can you know or find out about what you have no idea of? and if you did know of what you didn’t know, how would you even recognise this unknown? – Socrates presents an uneducated slave boy with a mathematical problem. After providing him with the tools to solve the puzzle, upon his success, Socrates declares that the knowledge must have been in him all along. The truth “has been in the soul forever… and that means that if there’s something you do not happen to know about right now, or rather, happen not to have remembered yet, you mustn’t be afraid to try and find out about it” (86b). This opens up Plato’s mysticism: Plato argues that the soul is imperishable and lives outside of the material world, until it is born into the body with innate knowledge of truths seen outside worldly experience. Knowledge is therefore recollection of the soul’s past experience.
If we apply this idea back to Plato’s dialogues, we find that innate knowledge does not simply concern arithmetic, but also knowledge of moral virtue, and of goodness in itself. Perhaps you noticed that in steps 1 and 3 of the dialogical pattern I gave, it was not Socrates but Laches and Nicias who proposed definitions of bravery. And step 4’s definition is a combination of Laches and Nicias. So this definition would come from them, not from Socrates, who only claims to be a midwife to their knowledge. So where did this definition come from? Plato would argue that these answers come from the souls of those open to philosophy, and that their wise discussion triggered the remembering of the innate idea.
The essential truths Plato is interested in knowing are what we translate as ‘Forms’ or ‘Ideas’ (eidon in Greek). Put simply, the Forms are objective eternally-existing templates of all that can be known about. But we live in a world of particulars, and what we experience everyday is an imperfect mixture of the Forms, so obscuring them from us, so that we must seek them. Plato would expound on this idea most clearly in the Symposium, with his ‘Ladder of Love’ analogy, where he describes the search for true beauty as a continual process, experiencing a multitude of associations and discarding the naive aspects until reaching a core of truth. Seeing beauty in bodies moves up to seeing beauty in minds; which moves to art; and communities; finally arriving at knowledge of the Form of Beauty ‘in itself and by itself’, whereby “gold and clothing and good-looking boys and youths will pale into insignificance beside it” (Symposium 211 b-d). The lasting impression I obtain from this, is that we can aspire to transcend the here and now in knowledge, since even flawed dreams draw us closer to the truth.
The truths remembered may not be perfectly-remembered truths. However, a theory of recollection demonstrates that all individuals, regardless of gender or social position, have the power to vanquish falsehood with reason, and so all are capable of becoming virtuous. However, Plato’s ethics cannot flourish in a world of commercial needs and political realism. For education to transcend the particular and aspire to grasp the essential truths of existence, a reconstruction of society of utopian proportions will be required.
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