Forms as separate from their Instances

One objection to be anticipated here is that Plato seems to indicate in his dialogues that forms are radically separate from their instances. What could such separation of forms from their instances mean except that very dualism we discussed before? And does such separation of forms (to which the soul or mind belongs) from their instances not undergird the hostility to the body as we think we encounter it in Origen or Evagrius? Did these two “platonists” not teach that the realm of un-incarnate souls (or minds if you prefer) were punished by imprisonment in bodies? Does the thought of bodies as prisons for fallen souls not provide proof of unhealthy, and unbiblical animosity towards the body? These are all questions that deserve both to be asked and answered.

The Meaning of separation.
In his Meno Plato has Socrates express the distinction between things and their forms by using figures (shapes) and colors:

You understand, of course, that this principle of mine applies to everything: if someone asked you the question I put to you just now: What is figure, Meno? and you replied: Roundness; and then he said, as I did: Is roundness figure or a figure? I suppose you would answer: A figure.

And for this reason—that there are other figures as well?


And if he went on to ask you of what sort they were, you would tell him?

I would.

And if he asked likewise what color is, and on your answering “white” your questioner then rejoined: Is “white” color or a color? your reply would be: A color; because there are other colors besides.

It would.

And if he bade you mention other colors, [74d] you would tell him of others that are colors just as much as white?


Now suppose that, like me, he pursued the argument and said: We are always arriving at a variety of things, but let me have no more of that: since you call these many things by one single name, and say they are figures, every one of them, even when they are opposed to one another, tell me what is that which comprises round and straight alike, and which you call figure—[74e] including straight equally with round under that term. For that is your statement, is it not?

Round is a figure (a shape) but not all figures are round. White is a color but not color itself. For there are other figures and other colors. The difference is clear and easy to grasp. One form can be used for many things, even opposing things! But does this distinction imply a separation of such a sort that we need to speak of two worlds or twoworldplatonicrealms? Where color-itself (form) and figure-or-shape-itself (form) exist in a higher realm and where round and white exist in a lower realm and only partially participate in their respective forms and are thus to be understood as defective copies of their forms in the higher realm?

No. Nothing in what we have seen Plato write requires the two-world theory. Let us start with form-as-the-whatness-of-things so that forms are in things as their essence (such as we have spoken of before). This establishes a connection rather than a separation of forms and their instances. Figure presents round (which is a figure) to awareness, and color does the same for white. Without figure and color there would be no figures and nothing could be white. So even though things could be so different as to oppose on another, they might still be named under one form.

So it is establsihed once again that forms are not things. They could not be. After the thing white is not the form of color. The form color is given to awareness in particular colors – such as white (but also blue, red, etc). The figure is given to awareness in particular figures such as round (straight, triangular, spherical, etc). Forms are perceived by the mind in things that apprehended by the senses (such as our sense of sight). Things are therefore sensible whereas their forms are their intelligible content (presented to the mind). The forms are sense perceptible rather they are intelligible. The forms are not ‘ a look for the eye’ but for the mind. “Forms are ideas, not in the sense of concepts or abstractions, but in that they are apprehended by thought rather than by sense. They are thus ‘separate’ in that they are not additional members of the world of sensible things, but are known by a different mode of awareness Eric D. Perl, Thinking Being, p. 28).”

Is there such a thing as health? Obviously there is. This need not be argued. But can we see health-itself with our eyes? No, we cannot. This does not, however, mean that health is some perfect idea inhabiting a higher realm of existence. It simply means that health-itself is not sense-perceptible but something that must be apprehended by thought. The separation of form and instance does not need to be understood as a radical dualism at all. The ‘separation’ Plato mentions in his dialogues need mean nothing more but ‘distinction.’ Forms and their instances are distinct, but not thereby truly separate in the two-world theory sense.

So the relationship between the one and the many in Plato is not necessarily the source for the apparent dualism we think to find in Origen and Evagrius. In fact, in time, we will come to find that Origen nor Evagrius are necessarily to be understood as dualists themselves! For the connection and distinction between form and instantiation as we have encountered it here does not automatically lead to soul / body dualism of the “Origenist” sort. This has implications for the issue of Origenism and the school of exegesis often associated with it. It will become clear, I hope, that the allegorical inerpretation of Scripture (such as we find it in the Breviary, the Mass, and the Fathers of the Church) is also not necessarily dualistic. So that literal and spiritual sense are not to be understood as separate to the extent that the spiritual must undo the literal. Rather the spiritual and the literal are connected and distinct in a way similar to to how form and instantiation are connected and distinct.

Fr. Gregory Wassen


About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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