Platonic Forms as Paradigms in Comedic Philosophy


Here is an intriguing text found in Diogenes Laertius.  It is retold by Diogenes who apparently found it in Alcimus, a certain Greek rhetorician, who relates how Plato owes an intellectual debt to Epicharmus, a poet.  What is certainly bizarre about this relation is that Epicharmus was a comic poet, and the passages of Epicharmus brought forward here concerns the theory of the Forms.  I do not wish to speculate on the likelihood of whether Plato would borrow from a comic poet, or in fact, if these fragments even belong to Epicharmus.  Rather, I am interested in the Platonist conception of forms which this passage is attempting to illuminate.

Yet Alcimus also says this: “Wise men say the soul perceives some things through the body such as a sound, a sight, but other things the soul intuits itself through itself (αὐτὴν καθ’ αὑτὴν ἐνθυμεῖσθαι) while not making use of the body. Therefore, of the things that are, some are sensibles, others are intelligibles. And on account of these things, Plato used to say that it is necessary for those who desire to comprehend the principles of the universe first of all to distinguish the Forms among themselves, for example, likeness and singularity and plurality and magnitude and rest and motion. Secondly, it is necessary to comprehend as many of the forms as are in relation to each other, for example knowledge or magnitude or mastership. (For we must keep in mind that the names in usage [properly] belong to the Forms because they participate in the Forms. I mean, for example, that just things are just insofar as they participate in justness, and beautiful things are beautiful insofar as they participate in beauty). Furthermore, each one of the Forms is eternal and a thought, and in addition, does not undergo change. Therefore he also says that the Forms by their nature stand as paradigms, and other things resemble these because they were established as likenesses of the Forms. Therefore, Epicharmus speaks in this way concerning the good and the Forms:


A: So is flute-playing a certain thing?

B: Yes, entirely.

A: Then is a flute-playing a man?

B: Of course not.

A: Come see then, what is a flute-player? Who does he seem to you to be? A man? Or not a man?

B: Entirely a man.

A: Therefore do you think that it would also be this way concerning the good?


The good is a certain thing in itself, and whoever learns that would know, and is already become a good man. For just as there is a flute-player because he learns flute-playing, or a dancer because he learns dancing or a weaver because he learns weaving, or any such thing in like manner, whatever you could wish to come up with, so the man himself would not be the craft, but in fact he would be the craftsman (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Plato, bk. III. ch. 12-14). [1]

I will refrain here from commenting on the possible comedic merit of this excerpted dialogue, except to say that I would personally very much enjoy a comedy involving Platonic Form!  I want to focus on A’s point in leading B to the conclusion that a craftsman is not a craft.  I take it that the last paragraph above is also part of A’s dialogue, since Diogenes has said that Epicharmus will speak about the good and Forms, and Epicharmus has not, so far at least, spoken of the good.

A establishes that flute-playing is not a flute player (or grammatically, the reverse is likely as well).  The path that leads to this conclusion, or what we are to take from this conclusion, however, are less than clear to me.  Perhaps the idea is that, keeping in mind the language of ‘paradigm’ used to describe the Forms in the first paragraph, we could force a sharp distinction as to the origin of the flute-player’s craft.  What I mean is that, from the untutored perspective, it appears that the flute-player looks to another flute-player to learn his craft.  However, this would be fruitless if what he is looking at is not flute-playing, while A’s interlocutor has already agreed that a flute-player is not a flute-playing.  Therefore, it must be the case that the would-be flute-player is observing something.  This something is the paradigm of the Platonic Form of flute-playing, to which he must turn to see flute playing not as something perceivable, but entirely intelligible.

In addition, there might be an emphasis on the priority of the Form as against its particular instantiations.  That is, ‘flute-playing’ comes before a flute-player, even though one might mistakenly think that flute-playing is entirely dependent on a flute-player.  But in fact, it is the flute-player who must turn to the already existing, eternal, intelligible Form of flute-playing, as the paradigm from which he learns.

Is there perhaps some other line of thought that Epicharmus, the erstwhile Platonist, is conveying?


[1] Ἔτι φησὶν ὁ Ἄλκιμος καὶ ταυτί· “φασὶν οἱ σοφοὶ τὴν ψυχὴν
τὰ μὲν διὰ τοῦ σώματος αἰσθάνεσθαι οἷον ἀκούουσαν, βλέπουσαν,
τὰ δ’ αὐτὴν καθ’ αὑτὴν ἐνθυμεῖσθαι μηδὲν τῷ σώματι χρωμένην·
διὸ καὶ τῶν ὄντων τὰ μὲν αἰσθητὰ εἶναι, τὰ δὲ νοητά. ὧν ἕνεκα
καὶ Πλάτων ἔλεγεν ὅτι δεῖ τοὺς συνιδεῖν τὰς τοῦ παντὸς ἀρχὰς (5)
ἐπιθυμοῦντας πρῶτον μὲν αὐτὰς καθ’ αὑτὰς διελέσθαι τὰς ἰδέας,
οἷον ὁμοιότητα καὶ μονάδα καὶ πλῆθος καὶ μέγεθος καὶ στάσιν
καὶ κίνησιν· δεύτερον αὐτὸ καθ’ αὑτὸ τὸ καλὸν καὶ ἀγαθὸν καὶ
(13.) δίκαιον καὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα ὑποθέσθαι. τρίτον τῶν ἰδεῶν συνιδεῖν
ὅσαι πρὸς ἀλλήλας εἰσίν, οἷον ἐπιστήμην ἢ μέγεθος ἢ δεσποτείαν
(ἐνθυμουμένους ὅτι τὰ παρ’ ἡμῖν διὰ τὸ μετέχειν ἐκείνων ὁμώ-
νυμα ἐκείνοις ὑπάρχει· λέγω δὲ οἷον δίκαια μὲν ὅσα τοῦ δικαίου,
καλὰ δὲ ὅσα τοῦ καλοῦ). ἔστι δὲ τῶν εἰδῶν ἓν ἕκαστον ἀίδιόν τε (5)
καὶ νόημα καὶ πρὸς τούτοις ἀπαθές. διὸ καί φησιν
ἐν τῇ φύσει τὰς ἰδέας ἑστάναι καθάπερ παραδείγματα, τὰ δ’ ἄλλα
ταύταις ἐοικέναι τούτων ὁμοιώματα καθεστῶτα. ὁ τοίνυν Ἐπί-
χαρμος περί τε τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ καὶ περὶ τῶν ἰδεῶν οὕτω λέγει· (10)

(14.) {—} ἆρ’ ἔστιν αὔλησίς τι πρᾶγμα;

{—} πάνυ μὲν ὦν.

{—} ἄνθρωπος ὦν αὔλησίς ἐστιν; {—} οὐθαμῶς.

{—} φέρ’ ἴδω, τί δ’ αὐλητάς; τίς εἶμέν τοι δοκεῖ;
ἄνθρωπος; ἢ οὐ γάρ;

{—} πάνυ μὲν ὦν.

{—} οὐκῶν δοκεῖς οὕτως ἔχειν <κα> καὶ περὶ τἀγαθοῦ;

τὸ μὲν (5)
ἀγαθόν τι πρᾶγμ’ εἶμεν καθ’ αὕθ’, ὅστις δέ κα
εἰδῇ μαθὼν τῆν’, ἀγαθὸς ἤδη γίγνεται.
ὥσπερ γάρ ἐστ’ αὔλησιν αὐλητὰς μαθὼν
ἢ ὄρχησιν ὀρχηστάς τις ἢ πλοκεὺς πλοκάν,
ἢ πᾶν γ’ ὁμοίως τῶν τοιούτων ὅ τι τὺ λῇς, (10)
οὐκ αὐτὸς εἴη κα τέχνα, τεχνικός γα μάν.


Why Should Philosophers Care About Ancient Philosophy?

The apologist in the humanities springs forth as a perennial, an eager advocate for this old man or that classic tome, often as not incurring the wrath of modernity at least as great as his own love for antiquity.  Even these defenses of the humanities ––classics, philosophy and literature being closest to my heart–– have become treasured chestnuts: “It enriches the individual,” “Humanities matters for its own sake,” “It is the source of X or Y.”

Instead of these appeals, which, in my understanding, would only reach those already possessed of a humanistic sympathy, I wish to offer four pragmatic reasons to be interested in ancient philosophy.  These reasons are particularly addressed to those interested in philosophy, especially modern philosophers, whether professors or students or avid amateurs.

1) Ancient Philosophy is a 2,300 year old conversion with great minds.
While there are undoubtedly many great treatises that are being written, or have been in recent memory, there are a number of benefits from focusing on a field of study which has persisted through millennia.  As opposed, to say, Wittgenstein, who has had less than 100 years worth of great minds commenting and interacting with his work, Aristotle has had a prolonged engagement with generation upon generation of thinkers.  Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Hobbes, have all either borrowed, adapted, or explicitly confronted Aristotelean ideas.  These, fortunately, are only some of the philosophers who have gone to the mat with Aristotle; there are countless others, including commentators from late antiquity whose sole ambition was to write on Aristotle.  So two philosophical birds can be had with one stone: if you read other great philosophers on Aristotle, you get two great minds on worthwhile topics.

2) Ancient philosophy provides a common framework for philosophy.
If the definition of philosophy is frustratingly difficult to come by, perhaps we can at least have (or preserve) the canonical philosophy that the Greeks have given to us.  The questions about what is, how we ought to live, how we can know, are central to ancient philosophy, to be sure, but these inquiries continue to guide philosophy in modern intellectual contexts as well.  It is hard to imagine a philosophical question worth pursuing that does not first show up in the pages of Plato, even if it shows up in the philosophical master’s periphery and was not his whole landscape.

3) Ancient Philosophy offers a helping hand.
It is uncontroversial, I hope, to say that every age has its moral or intellectual blindspots.  There are problems we face and cannot solve precisely because we are the responsible party for the undetected arrival of the original difficulty. A benefit of ancient philosophy, however, is that, at the very least, these thinkers do not share the same handicaps that we do.  For their faults, whatever they are, they will not count among them either consumerism, political correctness, or technological worship.  What this means is that when it comes to overlapping philosophical interests, the ancients will have different perspectives and concerns than us, which in turn can provide us novel and insightful answers to the issues we think we have discovered for the first time.

4) Ancient Philosophy explains the ancient origins of modern philosophy.
Did you know that Aristotle gives philosophical reasons to adopt a systematics, that is, a system of animal classification, hundreds of years before Carl Linnaeus? [1] And that this system of classification was in direct response to competing Platonist classifications?  Although surprising, a seemingly “modern” area of philosophy such as the philosophy of biology was already blooming in ancient literature.  Similarly, although outdated in many parts, Aristotle’s Physics and Plato’s Timaeus offer compelling reasoning in such areas as the philosophy of time [2] and various elements of the cosmological argument.  Of course, metaphysics and ethics are plentiful in the Platonic and Aristotelean corpus, and never go out of style.  There are few, if any, books on ethics which can surpass the Nicomachean Ethics.  Even in logic [3] or philosophy of language [4] there is a robust fount of philosophy that began well before those influential modern disciplines, and still have much to offer for those willing to put in the time.


[1] See Parts of Animals, Book 1
[2] See Aristotle, Physics, Book 4, Ch. 1-14
[3] see Aristotle’s Organon
[4] The Organon once again, and Plato’s Cratylus)

Aristotle: Measuring Virtue by Pleasure

Aristotle’s Rhetoric is thought by many to be among his most polished works, yet it still can be a dry read for the technical jargon and lengthy list-like discussions found within it.  It also has, at least in part because of the poor, sophistical reputation that rhetoric, as a field, has acquired for itself, suffered a philosophical fate worse than it probably should have.

Nevertheless, because of the daunting enormity of the task in becoming virtuous according to Aristotelian rigor, in that one must possess all of the virtues and be virtuous in such a way that a given action is expressed spontaneously as a reflection of a developed character, I have begun to wonder if there is way to measure progress toward that goal.

One possibility occurred to me as I was reading the Rhetoric on the topic of pleasure.  Aristotle says, in enumerating the things that are pleasurable, that:

For the habitual [is pleasurable] as if it has already become to be by nature.  And a habit of a certain kind is like nature, for often is similar to always, and nature pertains to the always, while the habitual pertains to the often.  Furthermore the non-compulsory [is pleasurable] (Rhetoric, 1370a6-10). [1]

One notion that is assumed in this discussion is that the natural is pleasurable,[2] as can be inferred from this passage, but also from Aristotle’s remark that the non-compulsory is pleasurable.  Presumably then, the compulsory is not-pleasurable, nor natural, while the non-compulsory is natural, or can approach being natural (which always happens) by occurring “often” even if not “always.”

Thus for one practicing the Aristotelian virtues, a very pertinent question to ask oneself in  making ethical progress is whether or not you are experiencing pleasure while doing it.  If, during given instances of practicing character or intellectual virtues, you feel no pleasure, you have probably not achieved the ideal of virtue in that sphere.  Do you feel no spark of joy while performing what you know to be a just action?  Do you have no pleasure when an act of courage is called for?  Are you not pleased when acting prudently, and in general, avoiding the extremes of ethical endeavors, as opposed to the mean? Then it is perhaps necessary to re-evaluate the status of your ethical condition in general and in particulars.


[1] καὶ γὰρ τὸ εἰθισμένον ὥσπερ πεφυκὸς ἤδη γίγνεται·
ὅμοιον γάρ τι τὸ ἔθος τῇ φύσει· ἐγγὺς γὰρ καὶ τὸ πολλάκις
τῷ ἀεί, ἔστιν δ’ ἡ μὲν φύσις τοῦ ἀεί, τὸ δὲ ἔθος τοῦ πολ-
λάκις καὶ τὸ μὴ βίαιον (παρὰ φύσιν γὰρ ἡ βία, διὸ τὸ
ἀναγκαῖον λυπηρόν…

[2] Perhaps a contentious notion.  Also worth noting here is that although Aristotle will later deny that pleasure is a motion (NE 10.4.2), as he takes it to be here, I think this not relevant to the point I am making .