Exercise: Towards the essence of everything

Plato_exercise_iconPlato envisions a journey of self-transformation that takes us from familiar, everyday matters to the essence of those matters. It transforms our everyday understanding to an understanding of the essence of things, and eventually the essence of everything.

No one can say for sure what exactly Plato meant by comprehending the essence. In his writings, he sometimes talks about essences – or more accurately “ideas” or “forms” – such as square-ness (the common essence of all square things), horse-ness (the common essence of all horses), and similarly about the common essence of all loves, of all good things, of all beautiful things, and so on. What does it mean to comprehend (experience? envision? intuit?) essences, or “forms”? We can start exploring this question in the following exercise.

Let us start with a simple task: Sit quietly and pacify your mind. Then look at an object, for example a book. Now, shift your attention from the book to the shape of the book. In other words, try to ignore the book as a whole, and experience only its rectangular shape—its rectangularity. Once you attain this experience, we might say (in the Platonic language) that you now see that the book is one concrete exemplar of a more general essence. To put it differently, you are looking “through” the book to see the higher essence of rectangularity that lies behind it.

Now return to the book as a whole, and in the same way shift your attention to the color of the book. Try to ignore the book as a whole and focus only on its color. Again, try to look “through” the book and see it’s blue-ness (or whiteness, or blackness, etc.).

You can continue doing this with the book’s texture, three-dimensional depth, etc. You can also try bringing together several different essences, for example both shape and color.

These simple exercises can serve us as a metaphor for deeper and more difficult kinds of comprehension. For example, try to focus on your headache, or your anxiety or pleasure, your friendship with a friend, your love of ice cream, even your self. If Plato is right, then these are all concrete exemplars of something more general, more sublime, higher. Try to see if you can attain some kind of comprehension of those higher essences. Does it make sense to talk about headache-ness? Anxiety-ness? Selfhood?

It is a good idea to try this exercise in a variety of ways – for example, in an experiential way or an intellectual way, in your visual imagination or in your thoughts, with your eyes open or closed. Try to find the most promising way to explore this Platonic path. After all, who knows what exactly Plato meant?