Asking one’s self and others what the perfect version of something is the ideal version might sound like a strange idea What is the perfect marriage?
or career? system of government? or school? It can feel immature and naïve to bother much with such questions they’re just daydreams. After all: who cares about ideal versions? we might as well deal with what we’ve got. But the great ancient Greek philosopher Plato strenuously disagrees with this. Throughout his work, he argues that focusing on the ideal version of something is one of the most useful kinds of thought excercises we can generate it’s by knowing how something should be like that we can more clearly start to define what might be wrong and focus on what we need to do to make the world slightly better When he was talking about ideals, Plato used a slightly strange but ultimately useful word:
So he asks not what is the *ideal* friendship or the *ideal* kind of parental love He asks what is the form of friendship, or the form of parental love.
It does sound strange But what he had in mind was something very practical: When a Greek stonemason was carving an ornament, they wouldn’t just make it up themselves. They’d make use of a wooden template, or form, to check if they were getting it right. The form itself was made by the master But if the mason posesed the form, they could more reliably do perfect work. This is Plato’s basic picture of what an ideal is: It’s the guide you need that shows you how to do something well yourself. If you’ve got possession of the form, you can be guided towards a true goal. A form, as Plato sees it, is a blueprint a set of instructions for making a very good version of something. That’s why we all need a very well thought-through set of forms
to guide us in life. And, unsurprisingly, it is philosophy that can guide us to these forms.
So, for example, the form of friendship is a mental model of what a really good friendship actually involves. And if you grasp this model, if this idea is active in your mind, you will know how to be a good friend. Similarly, having a form of education in mind is going to be very useful for the teacher It will stop her being buffeted by events and day-to-day pressures she’ll be able to keep in mind where, ideally, she should be going. We’ve typically thought of ideals as fantasy projections that blindly ignore most of what life is actually like. We think of them as the opposite of being realistic. But Plato sees an ideal as a result of a deep understanding, and careful engagement with reality Someone setting up an airport would need, in the platonic scheme, to have in mind the ideal air traffic control system. Something optimally effective, efficient and safe. This is the person who would, in Plato’s terms, have grasped the form of air traffic control. We all need to have as many forms in mind as we possibly can. Plato is breaking the habitualistic assumption that searching for the ideal is at odds with getting things done in the ruff and tumble of the real world. And he’s pushing us to be more exacting about where we are trying to head to. If an ideal seems utterly distant and hopeless, maybe the problem isn’t that it’s too idealistic, but in a strange, but important, way actually not idealistic enough. That is, we have not quite yet discovered the form.