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6.9: Degrees of Clarity (the Line)

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    See 509c-511e. Book VI ends with Socrates ranking four kinds of awareness with respect to their relative clarity: (1) “understanding” is clearest, (2) “thought” is next, (3) “belief” is still less clear, and (4) “imagination” least. (1) “Understanding” is of forms, and is achieved through “dialectic,” the activity of philosophical inquiry. (2) “Thought” is also of forms, but of forms that are contemplated indirectly, as when students of geometry use diagrams to help think about the properties of circles and triangles. (3) “Belief” is of particular things experienced directly, through sense perception. (4) “Imagination,” or “imaging” in some translations, is of particular things experienced indirectly, also through sense perception, but by means of likenesses such as “shadows . . . reflections . . . and everything of that sort.” That Socrates intends “everything of that sort” to include the artistic representation of things – especially descriptions in poetry – will become evident as the dialogue unfolds. (Notice Socrates’ description in Book VII of the shadows in the cave, and, when you get to it, his criticism of the poets in Book X.) In order to better appreciate what he is getting at in distinguishing these four levels of clarity, it may be helpful to consider how they might be used to describe a person’s growing awareness of justice. As a child, one might acquire a level (4) awareness of justice through fairy tales. Snow White, for instance, is driven off into the forest because of her beauty and goodness; then things are set to rights, and she returns home. One is aware, even at a very early age, that this is a happy ending, a just resolution of the story’s problem. But appreciation of this point requires only the vaguest conception of justice. Later, as one matures, one comes to have firsthand experience of functional and dysfunctional groups, as well as functional and dysfunctional people. The result is an awareness of justice at level (3). One is not yet able to define justice, and may not even have words to describe the distinction one recognizes between justice and injustice, but one can remember something of the strife and resentment characteristic of injustice, as well as something of what it feels like to be treated fairly by a person of good will, and one cares about the difference. (Socrates observes in the dialogue Alcibiades, at 110b-c, that children are sensitive to when other children are playing fairly and when they are cheating.) Moving up to level (2), one’s awareness of justice grows close to an understanding of the virtue’s essential nature. Indeed, this may be the relation Socrates, Glaucon, and the others are in at present with respect to justice, now that they have come to realize that it is every part of the city or soul doing its own proper work. Like the diagrams of circles and triangles that point students of geometry to the general natures of circularity and triangularity, the phrase “every part of the city or soul doing its proper job” amounts to being a sketch in words that points to the form of justice. This is still not full clarity, however, for there remains a “hypothetical” element (a supposition) in the definition. Consider the proper work of even one of these parts, the rational part of the soul. What is this work supposed to be? To rule the soul well. And what is it to rule the soul well? Wisely. And what is wisdom? Knowing what is good for the soul. And what does one know when one knows that? Ultimately, Socrates would say, the form of the good, the basis of all true value judgments. This is what one must know if one is to achieve a fully clear, “unhypothetical,” level (1) understanding of justice. (Socrates will briefly return to describing the difference between the hypothetical and unhypothetical understanding of forms when he takes up the topic of dialectic at 533b-c.)

    • Recall Socrates’ suggestion at 401e-402a that a person can encounter and get a feeling for the beautiful while still young, “before he is able to grasp the reason.” Which level of awareness would this be?

    • Suppose someone were to object that this four-level ranking glorifies the abstract over the particular to an absurd degree – that what it is, for instance, to understand a violin is to have it in one’s hands and use it well, not to theorize about its essence. How might Socrates reply?

    This page titled 6.9: Degrees of Clarity (the Line) is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Douglas Drabkin.

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