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The following post is more substantial and lengthy than usual. I may have gotten carried away. I make no apologies, however. 🙂

After reading John Peter Kenney’s Contemplation and Classical Christianity, I am on a philosophical kick again. In the next couple posts, I want to summarize Plato and Plotinus’s view of ‘contemplation,’ which they summarize variously as they discuss recollection/dialectic (Plato) and the soul’s epistemic, ethical, and mystical ascent (Plotinus). While these views are not biblical, and while they do not adhere to the Christian worldview, they are interesting and useful, profitably contributing to the broad contours of a philosophical account of spiritual epistemology.

Indeed, I find myself often defending Plato and Plotinus in the classroom. My students (especially at Ivy Tech) generally do not like these two philosophers. While I may disagree with these men’s views, I have to defend them. They purport thoughtful, relatively holistic, and constructive views. Their views are simply too profound and elegant to ignore them or shrug them off.

In this post, I want to discuss Plato and his unique position that elaborated, focusing, in the end, on his theory of contemplation. In order to accomplish this goal, this post will be a bit lengthy, discussing (1) the contours of contemplation in ancient Greece in general, (2) Plato’s view of dualism (especially body-soul), (3) his epistemology following his dualism, and finally (4) his account of contemplation.

Three preliminary notes: First, I am not being anachronistic to suggest that Plato held to a form of contemplation. As I will show throughout this post, his postulation of recollection necessarily led to an epistemic dialectic between ‘this’ world and the world of forms; this dialectic, in its final stage of gazing beauty, is itself what can rightly be called contemplation. Kenney, as far as I read him, would agree with this general assessment as well. Second, throughout my post, I am defining contemplation as that restful, transcendent gazing upon the divine, or in Plato’s case, the higher forms (especially of the Good/Beauty). Third, this post is a sketch. While it is lengthy, I am in no way attempting to be comprehensive. As always, I am open to feedback.

The Contours of Contemplation in Ancient Greece

Philosophically speaking, the need for and use of contemplation begin whenever a worldview holds to a kind of dualism, especially a dualism between a ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ world. This kind of dualism may be loosely discerned in Heraclitus, as he postulated that the material flux of the empirical world was united by a transcendental Logos above. Dualism is also existent in Pythagoras’s conception of a spiritual and transcendent reality, even beyond that of the immaterial numbers. (While we do not have record of how he elaborates this notion, I think that it is implicit in his nod to the existence of the immaterial soul.) Even Parmenides’s more rational conception of the unchanging ‘One’ might have lent itself towards a ‘formal’ dualism, though we have no record of this. I am simply communicating that these proto-dualistic views—if I can call them this—contain the bare minimum ingredients necessary for the construction of a philosophical development of contemplation.

Plato’s Dualism

Historically speaking, the need for and use of philosophical conceptions of contemplation did not arise until the thoughtful architecture provided by Plato. Plato suggested that there is a dualism between the world as we empirically know it (the world of matter) and the world that must be (the world of forms). The latter reality is the transcendental grounding of the former. One might liken the forms to the universal blueprints of the world of matter. In the same way that a building infers the existence of an architectural blueprint, so also the reality of matter implies a design. If there is no design, if matter is all there is, then there can be no universals (such as goodness, justice, ethics, etc.). Indeed, if there is no blueprint, then there is no acceptable explanation concerning composition and form of one material thing versus another. Plato finds these suppositions problematic, rejects them, and thus avers the necessary existence of a transcendental world. In this way, Plato asserts what can be called classical transcendentalism, which, Kenney explains, is “the postulation of a level of reality that is both separate from the world of space and time and also superior to that world” (15).

For example, Plato often maintains that the body is an impediment to the soul. One cannot have true knowledge or attain full wisdom while the body is connected to the soul. Why? Plato answers on the basis that the body’s “companionship disturbs the soul and hinders it from attaining truth and wisdom” (Phaedo, 66a). The body is even “contaminated by such an evil” that “we shall never attain completely what we desire, that is, the truth” (Ibid., 66b). He reasons that the body has all sorts of needs (e.g., physical, emotional, etc.), in addition to being evil, and these issues distract the soul’s pursuit (66c). He concludes,

Because of all these things, we have no leisure for philosophy. But the worst of all is that if we do get a bit of leisure and turn to philosophy, the body is constantly breaking in upon our studies and disturbing us with noise and confusion, so that it prevents our beholding the truth, and in fact we perceive that, if we are ever to know anything absolutely, we must be free from the body and must behold the actual realities with the eye of the soul alone (66d-e).

Consequently, Plato maintains that we need to avoid, “so far as possible,” sex, communion with the body, purity, and all foolishness of the body (67a-b).[1] While embodied, in other words, the soul is affected by the material powers of the body. While reason (i.e., the soul) must drive the chariot, the reality is that embodied people necessarily fail. A person is only released from the effects of the body after physical death. Notably, Plato suggests, a person can (partially) overcome the powers of the body through the soul’s moral attempts toward perfection, that is, moral goodness (cf. 67a-b). For these reasons, Kenny also notes, Socrates himself even allows suicide (cf. 62b-c). The soul is the source of moral goodness within itself, for it—and it alone—has been eternally acquainted with the forms. A person can therefore know and do the good through cultivating the powers of the soul. (Notice how Plato’s argument runs entirely against the Christian worldview at these points—the nature and goodness of the soul, the relation between soul and body, the soul of goodness, and suicide.)

Plato’s Epistemology

In order to understand more comprehensively Plato’s notion of contemplation, it is necessary to explore his epistemology on a general basis. Plato’s thought contains a surprisingly united epistemology. In his view, knowledge is attained through a person’s intuition of the forms. The forms are the eternal and immutable basis of knowledge and objectivity in the material world. Plato argued that the forms are constants or universals, accounting for logic, justice, moral absolutes, and human dignity, among other things. Individual things (e.g., a table) are particular instances of these universals that “participate” in the universals (e.g., brownness, hardness, woodness, etc.). In other words, following Heraclitus, Plato accepts the relativity of sense knowledge and the fact that this world of matter is in flux; following Parmenides, he also accepts the existence of a transcendental world that can account for stability.[2] As he argues in the Republic, in the same way that the light of fire is derivative of the light of the sun, so also knowledge of material things is derivative of the forms.[3] Given his understanding of the forms, he continues in the Theaetetus to argue staunchly against the idea that “knowledge is perception.”[4] Under the guise of Socrates, he instead maintains that knowledge, as it corresponds to the forms, is objective and immutable, so much so that the person is an “infallible judge” of truth.[5] Using the broad language of my dissertation, knowledge for Plato includes an external dimension, that is, the unchanging forms.

Some influential scholars, such as Georg Hegel, unhelpfully terminate their description of Plato’s epistemology at this point, contending that Plato is merely an externalist or objectivist.[6] This argument, however, fails. Plato continues to suggest that knowledge includes what you might call an internal dimension, which is grounded in his conception of recollection and the dialectic process. Plato’s concept of recollection (“anamnesis”) makes the claim that the objective forms of the world exist in the person’s mind through intuition. Through this multifarious process, the person is in contact with the eternal forms so that the forms are apprehensible by the intellect.[7] Therefore, Plato’s concept of recollection is grounded on the fact that knowledge includes not only the immutable but also the mutable, not only the external forms but also the internal person.[8] The person thus knows only in so much as their immortal soul recollects (i.e., intuits) the forms. This epistemic action is the soul’s[9] ascent towards knowledge, that is, the higher ideals of beauty. (I will discuss this process more in the following section.)

Recollection, Dialectic, and Contemplation

The preceding begins to illuminate Plato’s basic conception of contemplation. Indeed, Plato’s concept of recollection itself is an upward dialectic process. As a person lives, he begins to recall or re-collect the truth of reality through his familiarity with the forms. Because all souls—before embodiment—were ‘swimming around’ the celestial pool of the forms, to put it crudely, all people have recollection of the universals.

Recollection, therefore, is an upward dialectic process. According to Plato, the dialectic process is a mental progression whereby the person is able to arrive at knowledge itself. Plato also calls this process the ascent towards knowledge—something that his follower, Plotinus, extensively elaborated (see my next post). As Plato says, by the person’s dialectic, the soul is raised “to the contemplation of that which is best in existence.” Or, more literally, this activity “has the ability to uplift the best part of the soul toward the contemplation of the best in things that are in the real world (Plato, Republic, 532c-d, cf. 531d–534d).”[10] Plato thus bridges the external and internal in knowledge as he simultaneously maintains the objectivity of truth in the world of forms and the internal subjectively of the person whose knowledge (correctly) corresponds to those forms. Copleston sums masterfully,

Man appears as the knowing and willing subject, the being who realizes, or should realize true values in his individual life and in the life of society, the being endowed with an immortal soul; and human knowledge, human nature, human conduct and human society, are made the subject of profound and penetrating analyses and considerations.[11]

Knowledge requires the immutable forms and the mutable mind, which knows the forms through the re-collective dialectic process. Knowledge, in other words, is acquired through an upward process whereby the person recollects the universal and thereby contemplates good/beauty itself, the highest, most abstract form. (Because Plato can speak of good and beauty simultaneously as the most transcendent form, I will henceforth call it ‘beauty’ for short.)

The final stage for Plato, so to speak, is gazing beauty itself, which is the result of contemplation. While the soul has no sensory experience of the “good,” “just,” or “beautiful,” it can apprehend them intellectually (Phaedo, 65d-e). This is the importance of a rational, contemplative mindset (that is, a mindset attuned to the higher transcendental realities). As Kenney notes, the soul alone, at the height of its epistemic power, may grasp these intelligibles (15).

Thus, unsurprisingly, there is a strong association between contemplation and the soul’s salvation in Plato’s writings (cf. Symposium, 210a-e).[12] Plato elaborates the association through the words of a wise Mantinean woman,

When a man has been thus far tutored in the lore of love, passing from view to view of beautiful things, in the right and regular ascent, suddenly he will have revealed to him, as he draws to the close of his dealings in love, a wondrous vision, beautiful in its nature; and this, Socrates, is the final object of all those previous toils (210e).

The lover of beauty, she continues, is characterized as such:

Beginning from obvious beauties he must for the sake of that highest beauty be ever climbing aloft, as on the rungs of a ladder, from one to two, and from two to all beautiful bodies; from personal beauty he proceeds to beautiful observances, from observance to beautiful learning, and from learning at last to that particular study which is concerned with the beautiful itself and that alone; so that in the end he comes to know the very essence of beauty. In that state of life above all others, my dear Socrates,’ said the Mantinean woman, ‘a man finds it truly worthwhile to live, as he contemplates essential beauty. This, when once beheld, will outshine your gold and your vesture, your beautiful boys and striplings, whose aspect now so astounds you and makes you and many another, at the sight and constant society of your darlings, ready to do without either food or drink if that were any way possible, and only gaze upon them and have their company (211c-d).

Summarizing Plato here, one might say that life is not about knowing or loving material things; rather it is about contemplating spiritual, transcendental things. Life is about going ever upward for the sake of beauty to the form of beauty itself. This higher, intelligible beauty exists without change. It is, as Kenney summarizes Plato, the stable paradigm in which beautiful things in this world participate (cf. 211b). As it looks within itself (by contemplation), the soul brings forth fruits “in a plenteous crop of philosophy” (210d), and herein it can perceive the transcendental nature of beauty itself (210e). By contemplating true being itself, the soul might even become immortal (211d). As Kenney well notes, this is the salvific promise of contemplation (15).

Elsewhere, in the Republic, while Plato discusses the allegory of the cave, he also hints at contemplation’s true goal, that is, what later philosophers and theologians would call the ‘beatific vision’:

My opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of the Good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual (Republic, 517b-c).

“The Good” (or “Beauty”) is the highest, most abstract form for Plato, the form in which all other forms participate. For Plato, this form is the author of all others, albeit mysteriously. As later Christian theologians would summarize (e.g., Augustine), the form is analogous to the idea of God.

I will tentatively summarize Plato’s view of knowledge as the following (though bear in mind that this post does not intend to do so comprehensively): (1) empiricism, as it corresponds with the world of matter, is a necessary but incomplete epistemology; (2) knowledge fundamentally is rationally drawn through a recollective process grounded on the world of forms; (3) this knowledge is thus directed upwards in a dialectic process of moving from concrete to abstract forms (e.g., from the ideal color “royal blue” to the ideal reality “beauty”); (4) the philosopher consequently ought to direct his mind upwards into contemplation of the truth; and (5) this temporal contemplation is experienced in perfection through the beatific vision. I realize that Plato’s writings do not consistently distinguish points 2-5. There is a huge debate in Plato studies here, but I will have to refrain. My opinion should be clear: At the very least, I believe that formal distinctions amongst 2-5 are helpful to the reader.


Plato has plenty to say about gazing at the immovable, that is, beauty. Contemplation (or, as he more often calls it, the dialectic or theoria) even becomes a central theme throughout his writings. Indeed, glancing at his philosophy in general, contemplation is the epistemological hinge from which his philosophy swings. As he maintains in the baldest sense, there must be a transcendental world; the only way to know this world is through something like recollection; therefore, the most attuned person, the philosopher, is the person who knows ultimate reality as it is grounded in the forms. Contemplation is thus the postulation that unites his ideological philosophy. It is the only way to know and experience the other, as later philosophers would assert.

Obviously, this post is not prescribing Plato’s view. While I do find it fascinating and insightful, it is important to remember that it is not Christian. A later post will articulate things we can learn from Plato and Plotinus, but here I can only emphasize that his view of contemplation can be devastating. Indeed, following platonic emphases, many early Christian thinkers naturally but harmfully distinguished contemplation from practice, suggesting that the most virtuous person does not “do” something (e.g., feeding the poor) so much as “gaze” at God. Sadly, as I have experienced, many Christians today implicitly hold to a similar distinction, believing that the more spiritual person is the one who “knows” the most. Anyway, I will tackle this issue at a later time.

Thank you for reading. I realize that this post is not as tight as some of my other posts. It is simply a reflection and elaboration of Plato’s understanding of contemplation and, broadly, his epistemology.

My next post will describe Plotinus’s elaboration of the theory of contemplation.

© copyright Ryan A. Brandt

[1]Translations from Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes, vol. 1, trans. Harold North Fowler (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966).

[2]Cf. Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 1:149-150; 164-165; L. P. Gerson, God and Greek Philosophy: Studies in the Early History of Natural Theology (London: Routledge, 1990), 33-39. These forms exist on their own, apart from the world of the material (Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 1:166ff., cf. 174-175). The forms, in fact, are analogous to numbers (Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, 4:251ff., 525; cf. Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 1:194-196). For an excellent and comprehensive understanding of Plato’s theory of knowledge, see I. M. Crombie, An Examination of Plato’s Doctrine’s: Volume II, Plato on Knowledge and Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), 1-152. Therefore, while Plato was primarily concerned with the objectivity of knowledge of persons, as Copleston notes, “Plato’s effort was not to enrich, beautify and transmute this world by subjective evocations, but to pass beyond the sensible world to the world of thought, the Transcendental Reality” (Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 1:205).

[3]Plato, Republic, in vol. 6 of Plato, trans. Chris Emlyn-Jones and William Preddy, LCL [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013], 516A-517B. Put in another way: just as the Sun is the source of the “seasons, and the years, and governs everything in the visible world,” so also the forms are the source and stability for all knowledge (Ibid., 516B). Plato suggests this analogy in the context of his allegory of the cave. In this allegory, Plato describes people living chained to the wall of a cave for all of their lives. As the fire from the cave casts shadows on the wall, people can only see and describe these shadows. The philosopher, however, is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, but that reality is rather something greater than he could have imagined (Ibid., 514A-520A).

[4]Or, he also says, “perception is knowledge,” an idea that Plato attributes especially to Protagoras, in whom Theaetetus enthusiastically places his trust (Plato, Theaetetus, Sophist, 151E).

[5]Ibid., 160D. In other words, the immutable soul of the person, as it was eternally familiar with the world of forms, may know things objectively according to its familiarity with the forms (cf. Ibid., 160-210). Indeed, continues Plato, existence and non-existence cannot be perceived by wavering perception but only by immutable reason, lest a person confuse existence with a mirage (Ibid.; cf. cf. Copleston, 1:144-146). Plato therefore moves from defining knowledge as perception, as does Protagoras (Ibid., 151E-187), to knowledge as true judgment (Ibid., 187-202), and finally to knowledge as true judgment with a logos or an account (Ibid., 202-210). He continues to suggest that the objects of knowledge must be stable and abiding, fixed, capable of being grasped in clear and scientific definition, which is of the universal (cf. Ibid., 209-210). He concludes, “Then, it seems, if asked, ‘What is knowledge?’ our leader will reply that it is right opinion with the addition of a knowledge of difference; for that would, according to him, be the addition of reason or explanation” (Ibid., 210A).

[6]As Hegel writes with regards to Plato’s Republic, “[T]he principle of subjective freedom is lacking, i.e., the principle that the individual’s substantive activity . . . shall be mediated through his particular volition” (Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M. Knox, in Great Books of the Western World, vol. 46, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins [Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952], 100 [section 299]). Hegel goes on to show that, in Plato, the person in knowledge is completely overlooked (Ibid., 100-106 [sections 300-320]). Or, as he writes elsewhere, Plato “absolutely excluded” the “principle of self-subsistent particularity” from the state and family so that the “subjective will” or “subjective freedom” is “denied;” as he continues, he notes that “this principle dawned in an inward form in the Christian religion” (Ibid., 64 [section 185]). In other words, he suggests that Plato was only interested in the external or outward form of knowledge (as he overlooked the inward or subjective principle), and the inward form of knowledge was only expanded through later Christian writings. While Hegel is right that Plato tends to emphasize the external dimension of knowledge, at least in this particular analysis, he often overlooks the rest of Plato’s philosophy outside of the Republic.

[7]Plato, Symposium, in vol. 3 of Plato, trans. W. R. Lamb, LCL (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 175-208. The eternal forms, then, are truly known and acted upon by the person. For example, Plato (in the guise of Socrates) suggests that we know love and beauty through this process. He uses the example of Alcestis, Orpheus, Achilles and several others to make his point (Ibid., 179, 201, 206). Contact with the forms, then, simultaneously presumes the immortality of the soul (Ibid., 206). In this sense, Plato’s high view of the forms is inseparable from his high view of the subject of the person (Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, 4:389; Michael L. Morgan, “Plato and Greek Religion,” in The Cambridge Companion to Plato, ed. Richard Kraut [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992], 236-238). This idea does not entail that the forms are confined to the mind (Gerson, God and Greek Philosophy, 33-39, 52-56; Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 1:174-175, cf. 1:164). For an excellent discussion on recollection, especially concerning Plato’s Meno, see J. T. Bedu-Addo, “Sense-Experience and Recollection in Plato’s MenoAJP 104:3 (1983): 228-248; or Norman Gulley, “Plato’s Theory of Recollection” CQ 4:3/4 (1954): 194-213.

[8]This argument runs contra Parmenides, with whom he often dueled. In the Sophist, for example, he says that the philosopher must include both the “moveable and immoveable” in his definition or understanding of “being and the universe” (Plato, Theaetetus, Sophist, 249D). He is obviously responding to Parmenides’ conception of being here. Moreover, Plato continues, both “motion and rest” are real and not opposed to one another, and thus we must admit what changes and change itself are real things (Ibid., 250A; cf. 250B-261; cf. Copleston, 1:187-8; 1:179ff.). For Parmenides, see Parmenides, Fragments, in Plato and Parmenides: Parmenides’ ‘Way of Truth’ and Plato’s Parmenides Translated with an Introduction and a Running Commentary, ed. Francis MacDonald Cornford (London: Humanities Press, 1951); and his Fragments, in The Fragments of Parmenides, ed. A. H. Coxon (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1986).

[9]He calls the soul the motion of the body. This idea is perceived most clearly in Plato, Laws, in vol. 11 of Plato, trans. R. G. Bury, LCL (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984), 896:A-B, 775ff., wherein he defines the soul as “the motion able to move itself.” It is, therefore, “self-movement,” or the movement of the self. It is the volitional or willful capacity of (or rather, within) the body. For an excellent discussion here, see Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 1:207-209.

[10]Therefore, the dialectic allows one to transcend the flux of reality and to know that which is truly infallible. As Guthrie notes, the dialectic “aims directly at a knowledge of beauty and goodness” and ultimately “reaches the self-authenticating source of their existence and intelligibility: the Form of the Good” (Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, 1:524, 526; cf. Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 1:151-160). In this sense, the ascent is primarily intellectual. It was not religious or mystical (cf. A. E. Taylor, Plato, the Man and His Work [London: Methuen, 1926], 225). Copleston suggests a possibility of the latter, but he concedes that its more likely upward, ethical or intellectual dialectic (Copleston, A History of Philosophy, I:197, 200). Namely, Plato writes in his Symposium, “Beginning from obvious beauties he must for the sake of that highest beauty be ever climbing aloft, as on the rings of a ladder . . . so that in the end he comes to know the very essence of beauty” (Plato, Symposium, 211C; cf. 179, 201, 206; cf. Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 1:199-200; Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010], 26-27). This ascent includes a threefold ethical and intellectual process: purification, illumination, and contemplative union (Plato, Symposium, 210 A-D [Diotema’s Speech]; cf. 179, 201, 206; he explains the ascent in terms of beginning with [1] purifying beauty by being “in love with one particular body,” [2] illuminating beauty by seeing how the beauty attached to the first body is “cognate” to others, and finally, and of “higher value,” [3] “contemplating” the splendor of the soul until “he decries a certain single knowledge connected with a beauty which has yet to be told” [Ibid.].). For other excellent descriptions of the dialectic, see Ian Mueller, “Mathematical Method, Philosophical Truth,” in The Cambridge Companion to Plato, ed. Richard Kraut (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 183-194; and John Sallis, Being and Logos: The Way of Platonic Dialogue, 2nd ed. (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities, 1986). Interestingly, some argue that Plato replaced his earlier idea of recollection (i.e. anamnesis) with the dialectic (cf. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, V:174, n. 2). As Guthrie notes, however, most scholars do not take this recourse.

[11]Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 1:491. In other words, Plato, for all his emphasis on the object, also left room for the person in knowledge by his understanding of recollection and the person’s dialectic process.

[12]All references from Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes, vol. 9, trans. Harold N. Fowler (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925).