by Swami Krishnananda
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.