Studies In Comparative Philosophy
by Swami Krishnananda

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Plato

To Plato, worthy disciple of Socrates, philosophy is the 'dear delight', which aims at the knowledge of the Universal Being, Reality. Sense-perception cannot reveal the nature of Reality but gives only appearance. True knowledge is knowledge that knows itself as knowledge, knowledge based on reasons, knowledge that is sure of its own ground. Evidently, Plato here means by knowledge that which is not dependent on its contents or external objects and which corresponds with the ideal consciousness of the Reality propounded in the Vedanta. Consciousness, to the Vedanta, if it is to be genuine, knows itself alone as the Absolute Being. This knowledge is above sense-perception and is identical with existence itself. It is 'chit' (Consciousness) which is the same as 'sat' (Existence). Plato's vision of the genuine knowledge of True Being is the Indian sage's Darshana (vision) of the Absolute.

To Plato, love of truth is aroused by the contemplation of the beautiful ideas. Contemplation of beauty is the way to the contemplation of Truth. Love of Truth creates a distaste for sense-objects and raises us beyond sense-perception, from the particular to the Idea, the Universal. The Idea or the Notion is inherent in the Soul, it does not come from sense-experience by way of induction. Man, to him, is the measure of things, for in man's soul are imbedded universal principles or ideas which are a priori. If, by the contemplation of beauty, Plato means dwelling upon objects of sense, which appear beautiful to perception, the Vedanta would deny that such a contemplation is the way to the knowledge of Reality. For beauty is not objectively existent and it has its being in certain relations brought about by the contact of the subject and the object. Beauty is a relative value and not an absolute principle. Here, we discover a great difference between the Greek conception of the meaning and value of beauty and the Indian view thereon. The constitution of beauty changes itself when the constitution of the perceiver of the beauty is changed in relation to the objective conditions which play an important role in the enjoyment of all aesthetic values. But, if Plato means by beauty the Reality underlying things, the Vedanta has no objection to accepting that the contemplation of beauty is the way to the realisation of Truth.

The love of Truth mentioned by Plato, which is said to bring about a dispassion for objects of sense is akin to the nitya-anitya-vastu-viveka (discrimination between the real and the unreal) mentioned in the Vedanta, as the precondition of real vairagya (distaste for sense-objects). It is this love of Truth, devotion to the Eternal, that gives life and value to the sadhana or spiritual practice undertaken by the seeker of knowledge. It is this, again, that raises the individual to the Universal by bringing about a total transfiguration in the individual. The Vedanta says, as does Plato, that this viveka (understanding), the higher discrimination, does not come through the senses but wells up from within the Soul when the mind is sufficiently purified by freedom from the lower appetites. Viveka is a priori knowledge in a higher sense.

Knowledge, according to Plato, is the correspondence of thought and Reality, or Being. The universal idea of Truth, goodness and beauty, for example, must have objects or realities corresponding to them. The idea is an ideal which must be real and have an existence, independent of some thought. This highest rule or Truth is the object of genuine knowledge, different from mere opinion in regard to the world which is changing, fleeting, transient, mere appearance. True Being is unchangeable, Eternal. Here Plato brings Heraclitus and Parmenides together and transcends them in his higher idealism. Plato declares that knowledge of Eternal Being is true knowledge. This knowledge is identified with thought, conceptual thought, which alone is said to grasp the Eternal. True knowledge is conceptual knowledge. According to the Vedanta, lower, relative knowledge consists in the correspondence of thought and its object, but in the higher, universal knowledge there is no correspondence but identity, for, in universal knowledge the knower and the known are one. The Vedanta would accept rather the coherence theory in its epistemology than the theory of correspondence, as far as trans-empirical knowledge is concerned. But it has no objection to the correspondence theory as far as empirical knowledge is concerned. The Vedanta metaphysics accepts, in agreement with Plato's, that the objects of thought cannot be absolutely unreal and that they ought to have realities behind them. This is true even of ordinary thought, for all thought in the world of experience is tremendously influenced by the materials supplied by the senses. The unchangeable Eternal of Plato is the kutastha-nitya (immutable Reality) of the Vedanta, to which true knowledge is not conceptual or mere thought, for such knowledge consists in Self-realisation where thought expires in experience.

In his famous 'Doctrine of Ideas' Plato holds that the Ideas behind particulars are the essences, the substantial realities existing as the archetypes of all things. These Ideas are not mere thoughts in the minds of men, but are independent, and even the Thought of God is dependent on these eternal transcendent essences which exist prior to all things, unaffected by the changes characteristic of the appearances. The particulars of Plato are copies or imperfect representations of the universal Ideas. The universals such as horseness, manness, etc. exist independent of horses, men, etc. These ideas constitute a well-ordered relational cosmos and do not merely form some disordered chaos. There is an organic interrelatedness among these Ideas which are all logically arranged to be finally subsumed under the Supreme Idea, the Idea of the Good. The Idea of the Good is the ultimate cause of all causes and is the absolutely real Being. Truth, Reality and the Good are the same. Plato holds that the unity of the Good is meaningful only when there is plurality, and that there can be no plurality without unity. The universe is a logical system of Ideas, an organic unity of spiritual entities. This system is determined by the absolute purpose of the Idea of the Good. Philosophy is conceived by Plato to be the pursuit of the knowledge of the Idea of the Good in this rational system of a moral and spiritual cosmos.

It is natural that a doubt should arise in the mind of a careful student of philosophy as to the validity of Plato's view that the universals such as horseness, etc., are prior to and exist independent of particulars, such as horses, etc. We arrive at the idea of the universal, e.g. horseness, by perceiving through the senses particular objects, e.g. horses. It would thus appear that we arrive at the universal through the particulars by way of induction. Unless Plato is accepted to have had a supersensuous intuition of universals, his theory of the universals as preceding the particulars cannot be logically established. Plato says his ideas are not mere thoughts existing in men's brains but are independent realities. There is no way of justifying this view when the universals are confined to the abstract notions which people have of the general behind particular objects of sense-perception. The Vedanta would not agree with Plato in holding the view that even God's Thought is 'dependent' on these universal Ideas, though God's Thought is the cause of the manifestation of the physical universe, which process the Vedanta terms Ishvara-Srishti, and which becomes the basis of men's having the notion or idea of universals. If the particulars should be mere imperfect copies or shadows of the universal Ideas, the latter should not be confined to any faculty that is present in the particulars, including men, but should be given extramental realities ranging beyond human perception. This is exactly what Plato does, but he seems to identify these universal Ideas with these notions of the general, such as horseness, which cannot be given an independent reality of their own. Plato's Ideas can be independent realities only when they constitute the very stuff of God's Thought and not something on which even God's Thought is to depend. If the universal Ideas are not God's Thoughts, they must be men's thoughts, in which case they cannot be eternal realities.

It is not necessary for the Vedanta that the unity of the Real should be based on plurality, for, to it, plurality belongs to the relative world which does not affect the Real even in the least. There is no permanency in plurality, and what is not permanent is not real. Even according to Plato, the rational universe is an organic system in which case it is necessary to posit a universal consciousness existing as the Soul of the universe. It is hard to understand how the unity of this Soul can be dependent upon plurality of any kind. We can try to bring about a reconciliation between Plato and the Vedanta only by making the Ideas of Plato Ideas in the Mind of God, which are causes even of human individuality and not such universals as horseness etc., which are mere abstract notions. And we have also to understand by the Good not the ethical principle of goodness but the Absolute justification behind it, the supreme good and blessedness of all beings.

Plato's world of sense is not an illusion created by the senses but is reality of a much lower order than the Ideas. To the Vedanta, the world is ishvara-srishti, a creation of God, and is vyavaharika-satta or empirical reality, which has the value of practical workability. The world is not an illusion created by the mind of man as some extreme subjectivists hold, but is a reality co-existent with the body of the Virat, the grossest appearance of the Creative Consciousness. The Vedanta makes a distinction between cosmic creation and individual imagination, technically termed ishvara-srishti and jiva-srishti. It is the imagination of the individual that is the cause of its bondage and not the mere existence of the universe as an object of perception. To the Vedanta, the world and the individual are co-relative realities which arise simultaneously and also vanish simultaneously in the realisation of the Absolute. The two do not have between them the relation of the superior and the inferior or of cause and effect. The individual is a part of the universe and it is only the imaginations of the former that can be called illusions, not the presence of the latter.

Plato posits another principle, namely, matter, different from the Ideas, which forms the appearances constituting phenomenal experience. By itself matter or the sense-world is qualityless, nothing; it derives values from the reality of the Ideas which give form and value to it. To the Vedanta, the phenomenal world consists of nama-rupa, names and forms, and has by itself no other quality, no essence or substantiality other than satchidananda, or existence-knowledge-bliss, which is the threefold constitutive essence and sole reality underlying all things. The world is dependent on Brahman, and independently the world is nothing. Here Plato and the Vedanta are one.

The diversity of the material world is, according to Plato, the dissipated appearance of the eternal Ideas which range beyond sense and opinion. The phenomenal world is real to the extent it is informed by the Ideas. Like the prakriti of the Samkhya, Plato's matter is a realm of unconscious activity and blind causality, which is raised to the status of being guided by a conscious purpose and having an intelligent teleological movement by the interference of the rational Ideas which act here in a manner akin to that of the purushas of the Samkhya. But the Samkhya holds that matter is an eternal entity, while the matter of Plato is valueless without the eternal informing Ideas. What is real is consciousness and the degree to which consciousness manifests itself in the appearances determines the degree of reality put on by the appearances.

Plato appears to feel that matter is an unwilling self of the Ideas. In the philosophy of the Vedanta, matter is not an entity isolated from the realm of eternity but is merely an appearance of the Eternal through space, time and causation. The activities of the material world are all consciously directed towards the fulfilment of the cosmic purpose of Self-realisation. Matter is not an unwilling self but a willing cooperator in the grand scheme of the cosmos. Matter appears to be an impediment when the Spirit is forgotten, but when one consciously and deliberately puts forth efforts towards the realisation of the Spirit in one's own self, one would discover that the material universe becomes a stepping stone in the process of this grand ascent. One would however be inclined to say that Plato's system smacks of dualism, a division between the Ideal world and the real world, between the eternal and the temporal, though it is to be accepted that his system is a perfectly spiritual one. Ardent followers of Plato, however, would feel that his system is non-dualistic on account of his insistence on the sole reality of the Idea of the Good. But this is rather an interpretation than a discovery. All depends upon how much reality Plato credited to his phenomenal world of appearances.

In his cosmology, Plato comes nearer to the Nyaya and the Vaiseshika philosophies than the other schools. His Demiurge merely fashions a world out of matter and mind which exist already. The Demiurge is not the actual creator of the world, but an architect like the God of the Nyaya and the Vaiseshika, an extra-cosmic being needed just to bring the existing material together to form the world. The ideas which exist as the contents of the creative mind of the God of Plato may be compared with the subtle variegated modes manifest in the Hiranyagarbha of the Vedanta. But Hiranyagarbha is not merely a fashioner of the material existing as the subtle universe, but this universe constitutes the very body of Hiranyagarbha. Sometimes Plato calls these Ideas "That which is", the only reality. But as long as these Ideas reveal plurality in them the attribution of absolute reality to them is hardly tenable. The Hiranyagarbha of the Vedanta is not the ultimate reality but a cosmic principle which explains the unity underlying the diversified universe but itself falls under the relative categories of phenomenal existence. Further, Plato declares the dynamic character of the Ideas, their activity and creativity, which makes it clear that they are far from being the unchangeable eternal.

Plato's Demiurge creates a World-Soul which imparts to the universe the character of an organism. The World-Body came into being after the pattern of the image of the Ideas which impress their stamp on the World-Soul. All these bear striking resemblances to the threefold appearance of the Creator as Ishvara, Hiranyagarbha and Virat in the Vedanta. It is, however, curious that the World-Soul of Plato is stigmatised as an evil principle, though Plato shrinks from emphasising this point too much and would easily assign the seeds of imperfection to man himself.

Plato holds that knowledge is not a fresh acquisition of any new thing but a reminiscence, an anamnesis, of a previous knowledge. Sensation is not the source of knowledge; sensation merely incites the rational part of the soul to function as knowledge which is hidden in it. The soul has knowledge in it even before it comes in contact with objects through sense. It is the view of Plato that the soul has forgotten its original essential nature of the knowledge of Ideas and is only reminded of this knowledge when it contacts the copies of these Ideas in the world of sense. Knowledge is a rediscovery of what is present within but has been forgotten on account of the soul's encasement in material body. When the lower nature is overcome, the soul rediscovers its past glory of true inborn knowledge in a disembodied state. Plato thus establishes the pre-existence of the soul and its immortality.

The Vedanta holds in agreement with Plato that there is a magazine of knowledge and power within us already. We have only to discover and realise it through deep meditation, and, metaphysically, it accepts that all that we know here is merely an imperfect representation of the Absolute. But it would not accept that in sense-perception there is any conscious recognition of the super-sensuous Reality. The embodied soul is not reminded of the metempirical entities in its empirical perception; what it sees is merely a presentation of material bodies which it confuses with Reality. There is no remembrance whatsoever of the Eternal in sense-perception, though metaphysically it is true that all empirical urge is a distorted shadow of one's love for the Eternal.

Plato says that the perception of sensuous beauty is an indication of the aspiration of the soul for Immortal Being. A memory of the Ideal Beauty is aroused in the soul in sense-love. The Vedanta, too, recognises the significance of sense-love in life and it can become a step towards the Eternal, when the process is consciously directed. But sensuous beauty is a distorted and untrustworthy shadow of Divine Being. It is true that the reality of the Divine is reflected in all things; but what attracts the embodied soul in sensuous beauty is not the Divine element but the possibility of a satisfaction of the imperfect side of its nature through finding and contacting its counterpart in the beautiful object. Beauty, as such, is never seen; only the objectification of desire is seen in the beloved objects. It is what the Vedanta calls jiva srishti that creates beauty in things; but Plato makes it a part of ishvara-srishti or extramental reality. There cannot be the perception of beauty without subject-object-relationship, and in Eternal Being all relations are merged in unity. Yes; the Supreme Being is present in all things as their sole reality, but it is not what is beheld in sense-perception, though it is to be conceded that any perception would be impossible but for this reality behind things. Beauty is the result of the interaction of the modes of the incompleteness of human experience and their corresponding counterparts, which brings about an experience of equilibrium, filledness, an all-possessing feeling of repose, a sense of symmetry, rhythm, harmony, system, order and unity, which are ultimately the characteristics of the Absolute, but the Absolute is not 'consciously' experienced in aesthetic enjoyment, for here the characteristics of the Absolute are objectified and thus robbed of their true value, for the Absolute is realised in non-objective experience alone. Beauty is the reflection of the Absolute in sense-experience when the latter reveals a harmony caused by the contact of the subject with its counter-correlative; but this experience cannot lead to a realisation of the Absolute unless one is conscious of what is happening really when there is a perception of beauty, and one deliberately converts it into a stepping stone in the higher ascent.