On the Whole

Republished in June 2022.

It is common to see the world as fundamentally divided. We think that we are separate from other people, and that people are separate from the natural world. Some philosophers agree. Nature, as early-modern Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza put it, is divided between the properties of thought and matter. Plato thought that the natural world was a lie, partly because it is divided in this way. If Nature is a lie, what is true, for Plato? Form.

Spinoza said the world was made of one substance – Nature – but Plato holds that this is not all there is. If Nature is what there is, Form is what there ought to be. Forms, for Plato, are universal abstractions, like in logic or mathematics. Nature is filled with concrete objects, which are temporary and fleeting; Form is filled with abstract objects, which are eternal and unchanging.

The Milky Way galaxy, an image of Nature, a shadow of Form, and a part of the Whole.

The highest Form is the Form of the Good, which shines upon the intelligible abstract objects, or forms, as the sun shines upon the concrete physical objects we see upon the Earth. Nature is darkness, or a ‘realm of appearances’; Form is the light of true reality. Nature can only tell us what is right in front of us. Form is the transcendent reality beyond us, from which we can deduce all moral truths. We can do so by contemplating Form, spending time thinking, rather than doing. In philosophic contemplation, we get closer to Form. In political action, Plato suggests, we ought to apply true philosophy to the world. It’s hard to do this when most of us, most of the time, are caught up in the shadowy world of Nature, alien from the light of Form. This, on the surface, seems like a very strange view, indeed.

Before turning to the ways in which Plato’s view is more typical than it seems, I would like to consider the justification for the identity between Form and morality. Moral claims, claims about what we ought to do, are universal, and so require a degree of abstraction that is not inherent in concrete objects. A descriptive claim, of what is, holds among some cases. A normative claim, of what ought to be, holds across all cases. A descriptive claim, as Kant noticed, is hypothetical — it takes the form ‘if this, then that’. A purely normative claim is categorical — it takes the form ‘do that’. What must we do in all cases, no matter what? We cannot follow a concrete object, which is particular, or even the totality of Nature, which is mutable and subject to decay. We must follow a principle which is not present in Nature, and which is not subject to natural decay that affects everything physical. We cannot follow an ‘is’ — we must follow an ‘ought’. We must follow the Good, the general moral principle which can be applied to all particular situations. The Good, because it is the foundation of all morality, cannot be defined. To derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ is impossible. Ought claims come first. Morality comes first. The Form of the Good comes first.

But Plato’s view, though unusual, is still somewhat ordinary. Plato agrees with the common-sense view that everything is divided – he just holds there is a level of reality on which there is no division: the Form of the Good. For his reason, neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus calls the Good ‘the One’, as opposed to the divided physical world of many momentary phantoms and apparitions. Aristotle tried to show that forms existed in Nature, defining a form as the function of a given object. But what Aristotle missed was the ways in which the natural world is far from ideal. The separation between Nature, what is, and Form, what ought to be, seems real. But how can the division be bridged? It seems at least possible for Nature to be something other than red in tooth and claw. Aristotle asks this question about politics, which he takes to be an extension of the ‘natural’ institution of the family, and answers that the one and the many can be balanced in the common sphere of the state.

Through politics, at the level of the city-state, we can satisfy the needs of ‘bare life’, until we have the conditions for living the ‘good life’, too. A city may come into being for natural ends like survival, but it ‘persists’, Aristotle insists, to pursue other ends, corresponding to what is ‘good’ for human beings. Aristotle, however, did not maintain that the Good exists apart from Nature, and therefore risks making many facts in the natural and political worlds acceptable that just aren’t. For instance, Aristotle thinks that slavery is acceptable partly because he sees it everywhere. But the logic is false. Just because something is done often does not make it right. Just because extreme hierarchy exists does not justify it. Indeed, Aristotle advocates more balanced constitutions for free citizens. Could that balance be extended to everyone?

Perhaps. If so, what is balance grounded upon? Division, or unity? The problem we have with the Platonic-Aristotelian view we’ve come to is that Aristotelian balance is grounded on Plato’s division between what is and what ought to be. Aristotle tries to collapse the distinction – but this can’t be right, either, for reasons we’ve explored. Is there an alternative? Perhaps Nature and Form, or the Many and the One, can be balanced partly because they are not really separate. Perhaps Nature and Form are also, on some level, one. Perhaps Nature and Form are pillars of a deeper unity of what is and what ought to be – though, on the surface, it seems that there is a division between these things. If Nature is the false surface of reality while Form is true, deep reality, then what is reality in its entirety? What is the union of truth and falsity, reality and appearance, or surface and deep reality? My answer: the Whole. 

The Whole can be seen (though perhaps not strictly defined) as the underlying unity of all things. The Whole is Nature and Form, is and ought, appearance and reality, superficiality and depth, the Many and the One. If the State is the intermediate reality between surface Nature and deep Form, then the Whole is the underlying union of deep, intermediate, and surface dimensions of reality. The Whole is reality in its entirety. The Whole is not characterised by the disunity of Nature. Nor is it characterised by the unity of Form. Nor is Whole characterised by the balance of the ideal State. The Whole is disunity, unity, and balance – all at the same time. The Whole is Omnity. The Whole is us.

The Whole (Omnity):

  1. Form of the Good (the One) = deep reality (unity);
  2. Nature (the Many) = surface reality (disunity); and the
  3. State (the Common) = mediating reality (balance).

When we realise this truth, we realise that we are not alone, and that all separateness, as conceived of both by common sense and by philosophers, is illusory. There is no dualism. Not really. That’s just the deception of incomplete reality – surface, deep, or mediating. There is holism. There is the Whole. We are members of this vast existential community. We all partake in the Whole. In an age of confusion and depression, it can be hard to find solace. Perhaps this is something to get us going – because it is, in a sense, everything we ever needed or will ever need: each other – fellow travellers of the Whole. Safe passage on your travels. Until we meet again – as many, as one, as common. As Whole. 

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