Plato’s theory of Being and Becoming, and its relations to the forms, is rooted in the dichotomy between being and not-being. Prior to Socrates the Sophists, from Parminedes to Gorgias, had argued that because it was impossible by definition for Nothing to exist, it was impossible to describe or vocalize a negative state, and therefore also impossible to utter falsehood. “And now arises the greatest difficulty of all. If Not-being is inconceivable, how can Not-being be refuted? (Plato, Sophist) All that could be said must be somehow true, as false speech would not be speech and therefore could not be uttered. Being was arranged across the divide from an incomprehensible and/or impossible Not-Being. In addition, the nature of Being itself was somewhat suspect, as it was seen alternately as a great static or fluctuation One-ness, or as a multitude of ones; either position had flaws.
When Socrates/Plato arrived at a solution for the paradox of Being and Not-Being, their solution was that both Being and Not-Being were inherent in all things and defined not by negation of one another but by clarification of one another’s properties, and that it then became apparent that the truth or reality of a thing is determined by the degree to which its professed or apparent nature lines up with what is otherwise the objective standard (be that metaphysical or experiential). This idea of a standard by which Being could be judged, apart from interaction with Not-Being, leads naturally to the idea that there are abstracted complex “forms” which are the sets of ideals or defining characteristics. The forms, by which the truth of other things can be judged, are abstract, complete, and relatively static. Actual reality, however, is concrete and incomplete, (the “falseness” of “not-being” fully ideal runs through all reality, corrupting it from the form) and therefore in a state of flux — because of that, it is not actually Being at all, but Becoming. This clarification also is based on the Being/Not-Being debate, because that debate had suggested that Being was static and that falsehood and Not-Being were impossible partly because contradictory things could not both be true of one object (e.g. that it was both moving and at rest), so motion and change were largely illusory or were evidence of the fragmentation of reality. In response, the relationship between forms and functions came to be understood as a reaction between the overarching Being of archetypes and norms and the transitory Becoming of physical relativity. So to understand the significance of Being and Becoming in Plato’s theory of forms, it is necessary to understand that the issue of Being and Becoming is in many ways the same as the issue of Being/Not-Being, and as such is bound up with issues of language and truth which make it fundamental to the theory of forms.
The preceding, rough explanation of the relationship between Being/Not-Being and Being/Becoming deserves a little further historical perspective before continuing with the examination of the topic. Plato did not develop this idea of forms in a vacuum — in fact, in his drama/dialogue Parmenides, Plato shows how Socrates was given serious critiques and direction on his theory of forms by the older Sophist, whose intelligent questioning and rhetorical skill effectively dismantled the younger philosophers convictions for at least the space of that conversation. Socrates in all of the works consistently references other philosophers and schools of thought, the most notable of which would be the Sophists, (who were scribes and philosophers for hire) whom he vilified and also suggested were responsible for theories that there were no possibility for the existence of truths or falsehoods.
So Plato and Socrates had from these forerunners a heritage of thought which may have distorted their own vision to some degree. As the introduction to the Project Gutenberg edition of Plato’s Sophist suggests, the idea that “no Being or reality can be ascribed to Not-being, and therefore not to falsehood, which is the image or expression of Not-being. Falsehood is wholly false; and to speak of true falsehood, as Theaetetus does (Theaet.), is a contradiction in terms…The fallacy to us is ridiculous and transparent… It is a confusion of falsehood and negation, from which Plato himself is not entirely free.” Yet this was a vast, overarching preoccupation among philosophers at the time, and much of what might now be considered somewhat absurd in the argument was at the time a very serious question of the questionable possibility of full human communication, or as to whether humans could truly affect the world around them and see it change, or if it was essentially unchangeable.
“It was to Parmenides contrary to the logos for any real change to take place at all. In particular, it was impossible for a One Being to become many. For if the unity and being of the One are taken seriously, the One cannot in reality become other than what it already is — no manifold world can actually proceed out of the One, no opposites actually exist to transform into each other. Therefore plurality, becoming, change, motion, flux, and so on, are not real, despite what our senses may lead us to believe.” (McFarlane)
Plato would take this idea of the united unchanging One, and agree that it applied to Being. However, he synthesized this idea with an earlier theory by Herclitus which suggested that though the world is one, it is one in eternal flux. “All Flows,” he suggests, and in this there is a perpetual cycle of life and death, of seasons, of moving and falling, and so forth. This constant flux was driven by the transformations and dualties of opposites, “the flux of existing things is characterized by the transformation between pairs of contrary principles. … everything is One through the dynamic transforming of opposites into each other. Yet, Heraclitus sees structure in this flux.” (McFarlane) Plato would suggest that both of these theories were true to some degree — that while what he would call Being is indeed immune to change, that which he called Becoming was in constant flux. The world of forms (which is the manifestation of the One) is essentially unchanging, the expression of those forms in the world of shadows (which is the human reality) is changeable and mutable. To refer to the metaphor of the cave, one might add that the fire light flicker cast moving shadows on the wall when the form objects may not have moved.
This idea was backed up by a sophisticated and somewhat sloppy argument regarding transformation over time, and how at every individual moment in time the transforming thing is not actually transforming, it either is or is not in a given state. So things do not flux, when viewed abstractly frozen in time, but when they come to life through the intervention of time (or other beings) they begin to Become. So the Being self, which is an abstract form, is different from the experientially bases Becoming Self. That deformation from the One Being to the One Becoming is an idea that was unique to Socrates at the time, however it is not an idea that could have spring up without the intervening arguments regarding Being and Not-Being.
As was mentioned earlier, Parmenides and his sophist contemporaries suggested a number of variations on the theme that there cannot be a thing which is not. This is inherent in the “numbering” nature of language itself, which is to stay that in speech one always refers to the Not-Being thing as a thing, or an it, or some other object-term which implies selfhood. It is inappropriate and self-contradictory to say that there is a thing which is not a thing, or that there does exist “some thing which does not exist.” This is because the negation of being assumes a being to be negated, and therefore (by simultaneously performed an assumption and destruction of being) is meaningless.
Plato proposed that the way around this dilemma was not to consider Not-Being as actually a form of negation, but rather as a form of relationship. That is to say that “Not-Being” is a particular variety of being, even as injustice is a form of justice, or poor grammar still a form of speech. Not-being is, precisely, the Other of Being — it is everything which lies outside the form-ulaic definition of the Being thing, which is necessary to have be as well in order that the Being thing can be seen in relief. The Other, “Not-Being,” thing can include very many or very few variations. The “Not-Being” of alive may only be dead or unborn, but the “Not-Being” of white can include the entire rainbow. Being is far more specific, one quickly notices, than Not-Being. However, it also cannot be understood without understanding Not-Being. White, for example, has no real meaning if there are not other colors to compare it to which are not-white. To quote Plato directly on this subject:
“We have discovered that not-being is the principle of the other which runs through all things, being not excepted. And ‘being’ is one thing, and ‘not-being’ includes and is all other things. And not-being is not the opposite of being, but only the other… And the essence of the not-beautiful is to be separated from and opposed to a certain kind of existence which is termed beautiful. And this opposition and negation is the not-being of which we are in search, and is one kind of being. Thus, in spite of Parmenides, we have not only discovered the existence, but also the nature of not-being — that nature we have found to be relation.” (Plato, Sophist)
Once this has been resolved, the riddle of truth and falsehood also very quickly dissolves. If Not-being is a valid category for discussion, then Plato can effortlessly and correctly describe truth as anything which accurately represents a thing as it is, while falsehood is that which deviates from representing a thing as it is. This is distinct from the earlier view that suggested that the false could not even be “seen” or conceived of by means of language. By solving this problem and presenting a valid understanding of the nature of truth and falsehood, Plato opened the door to what can become a legitimate understanding of Being and Becoming. “In denying that wisdom is sight and folly blindness we come to understand that truths are not objects of mental sight. What is true or false is not an object or a name. Thus Plato’s explanation of truth, falsehood, and meaning has important consequences for his conception of the nature and objects of knowledge, and therefore for his theory of Forms.” (Moravcsik, 22-23)
If truth does not reside in objects or in names or semantics, then truth must be external to the physical and mental experiences of humankind. This is the basic philosophical revelation which leads from the idea of Being and Not-Being into the theory of forms. Falsehoods are redefined as anything which varies in comparison to this greater, extra-physical Being. It will be recalled that Becoming things are those which are in (or capable of being in) a state of flux, while Being things are those which are fixed forms. Nothing can Become which does not first exist in Being, however, there can be fluctuations and distortions in the Becoming, and erroneous perceptions made about it, so that that which has Become is sufficiently different from that which had been its Being. In this case, the Becoming thing is a false representation — as injustice is a perversion of the Just form, or lust a perversion of the form of Love. In order to determine truth from falsity, it is necessary to lead an examined life and to apply wisdom and reason to the world. Thoughts are the souls mediation between what has Become and that which has Being. The works regarding the later part of Socrates’ life and his death seem to indicate a belief that mankind is largely a Becoming thing inhabited by a soul which has it’s own Being — an “I am” soul that experiences, but does not undergo, change. This Being soul is capable of Unbecoming (dying) and returning to a state of pure Being.
So one sees how easily the dichotomy between Being and Not-Being becomes a dichotomy between Being and Becoming, based on the same principles. The ideas of Being, Not-Being, and Becoming are all tied together in a single purpose: to make the ever-changing yet ever-constant world intelligible to those who lead the examined life, and to allow for that examination through dialogue and reason — goals which the Sophist understanding of Being had denied. Plato’s real goal in exploring Being does not actually appear to be solipsistic questions regarding the state of the soul within a possibly nonexistent world, though in some works expressing the nature of forms (which are a somewhat separate topic) is a primary goal. Plato’s real goal in discussing Being — particularly in dialogues like Sophist — is to discover the nature of truth, the role of the philosopher, and the relationship between word (logos) and form. “logos is made possible by the weaving together of Forms…[but] not every case of logos is a case of knowledge. It is just the difference between true and false discourse, in fact, that ultimately marks the difference between philosophy and sophistry. To complete the ‘official’ mission of the Sophist, which is to make the nature of the latter clear, the distinction between truth and falsity in judgment must be firmly established.” (Sayre, 228)
Once dialogue has been proven possible, then not only Being and Becoming will become clearer, but so too will all other aspects of the world. In Timaeus, Plato writes: “As being is to becoming, so is truth to belief.” This statement begins to show the way in which Being and Becoming inform much of the rest of Plato’s work, while never losing their connection to the issue of truth and language. Being is the utmost reality which makes Becoming possible and meaningful, and so as well Truth (which is the actual Being-nature of Forms) is that which makes beliefs possible and meaningful. Yet neither belief nor Becoming is guaranteed to stay true to the original, and in either ase perversion and falsity is possible. Yet if dialogue has been established as a legitimate approach to the world, then one can speculate about Being and Truth and learn to understand Being by analyzing what is True or not true about that which has Become and that which is believed.
Socrates suggests that things which have Being and Truth are the Forms, mathematical concepts and objects, and the abstract Good. All other things which are based off of these, such as visible, tangible things and images are merely Becoming. The world of Becoming is the world of appearances, where humans generally reside. Yet humans, he suggests, have something of the Being about us. This is shown in Socrates’ interview with the little slave boy in the Republic dialogue, in which the boy is shown (albeit somewhat leadingly) to have knowledge of mathematical forms without being schooled in them. This seams to indicate that humans already have some knowledge of Being within them, waiting only to be accessed. Regarding this, Plato suggests that embracing our knowledge of true forms can be difficult and even painful, requiring a certain disillusionment and alienation from the so-called “real” world of appearances. “Whereas… just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being, or in other words, of the good. . .” (Plato, Republic)
Plato provides many impressive ideas in his work on Being and Becoming, particularly when one takes into consideration the heavy intellectual load of previous Sophism that he had to overcome. To again quote the introduction to the Project Gutenberg addition to Sophist: “he [Plato] has lost sight altogether of the other sense of Not-being, as the negative of Being; although he again and again recognizes the validity of the law of contradiction. Thirdly, he seems to confuse falsehood with negation. Nor is he quite consistent in regarding Not-being as one class of Being, and yet as coextensive with Being in general.” This complaint is evident when one sees that Plato not dealing with the theoretical possibility of the void, or even the simpler negation claims such as “I have no wife.” He speaks freely of falsehood, such as claiming someone is flying when one is not… this would include obviously false statements of being. However, he seems far less vociferous concerning negation statements, such as claims that certain things or ideas simply do not exist. So Plato avoids the issue of Not-Being not only by integrating most of it into Being, but also by neatly sidestepping the idea that there may still need to be an issue with the Void, where nothingness is (or is not, as the case may be)
In conclusion, Being and Becoming are very central to Plato’s theory of the forms, because the are the representation of what forms of existence are held individually by forms and by the expression of those forms. Being is the proper term for the existence of a form, as Becoming is for the product or appearance of a form. Yet these terms are not only important because they are the words of activation for the theory of forms, but also because they are the link between the theories of forms, which is one of the “truths” espoused by Plato, and the theory of Being and Not-Being.
Being and Not-Being, and the Oneness of the Universe, were two of the most central questions of the presocratic philosophers. By combining the answers in the theory of forms and a theory of Being, Not-Being, and Becoming, Socrates and Plato were able to find a more complete answer to the riddle of truth than had previously been successfully discovered. If Being and Not-Being are one, then it is possible to communicate about them in an intelligible way, and through intellect to discover the world of forms. Moreover, if they are one in flux, then Being and Becoming provide an answer to the state of the universe.
McFarlane, Thomas. “Plato’s Parmenides.” Integral Science. Dec 1998.
Moravcsik, Julius. “Being and Meaning in the Sophist.” Acta Philosophica Fennica 14, (1962)
Sayre, Kenneth. Plato’s late ontology. A riddle resolved. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1983.
Plato. Sophist. Project Gutenberg Edition.
Plato. Republic. Project Gutenberg Edition.
Plato. Symposium. Project Gutenberg Edition.
Plato. Timaeus. Project Gutenberg Edition.
Plato. Parminedes. Project Gutenberg Edition.
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