D. R. Khashaba
We all know what is meant by 'reality' in common usage. In common usage 'reality' is closely connected with the notion of 'truth', and 'truth' is understood to be what can be verified and ascertained by examining the thing itself; a thing commonly accessible to sight or touch; a thing that can be measured or weighed; a thing that can be put in a test tube. In some languages the two notions are not distinguished by separate words. When I started translating my books into Arabic I had much trouble trying to elucidate this distinction.
The earliest Greek philosophers did not encounter this problem. Their investigations were peri phuseôs, about Nature, although 'nature' did not mean to them exactly what it means to us. And they were not primarily concerned with the verification or with the validity of their ideas about nature. They were developing imaginative visions that made sense of the appearances and the happenings surrounding them. Parmenides, who may justly be called the father of metaphysics, took for his subject, his starting point, 'esti', 'It is' or 'That which is'.
It was Plato who gave us an original concept of reality which, I maintain, we have not yet fully absorbed and for which he did not have a special word. He used the word alêtheia which commonly means 'truth' but gave it a completely new meaning. He also used ousia and to on as synonyms for alêtheia in that special, original sense. And that is what I call Metaphysical Reality and that is what I have been trying to expound in all my writings and what I will try to depict in bare outline here.
Plato's well-known Allegory of the Cave (in Book VII of the Republic) has perhaps contributed to give unfortunate emphasis to the view Plato repeatedly expresses as to the 'unreality' of the things we perceive through our bodily senses. It is commonly considered that Plato thought of the perceptible things we encounter in our daily life as illusory and as deceptive appearances. It is true that Plato uses language that can be rendered in such terms, but these words he used did not mean to Plato what they have come to mean for us. Plato was a Hellene and was a poet, and no Hellene and no poet can think of the 'plane-tree by the Ilissus with the choir of the cicadas filling the surrounding air' (Phaedrus) as deceptive appearance, nor can the man who wrote the Charmides and the Symposium be insensitive to the charm and force of bodily beauty. What Plato meant in his denigration of perceptible things had two dimensions or two levels. In the first place, as these things are constantly subject to change and as our senses themselves are never completely reliable, these things cannot be the source or the foundation of the truthful knowledge and understanding we desire. In the second place, all things of the world and all bodily things, are in and by themselves vanity of vanities. So if these things are 'unreal' in the double sense of failing to give us certain knowledge and failing to infuse our life with meaning and value, where do we find what is real as opposed to those things?
Again we find Plato answering this question on two levels. On the first level the answer rests on the Socratic distinction between the intelligible and the perceptible. It is in the intelligible realm, in ideas and ideals born in the mind and to be found nowhere but in the mind, that we find knowledge and understanding and find the ideals and values that constitute our characteristically human nature and that give meaning and value to human life. These things are real as opposed to the things of the outer world. In this the Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, Shelley, Emerson, Gandhi, Schweitzer are in complete accord with Plato. And in this, to my mind, Plato did not go beyond Socrates.
But Plato goes on to create for us a wholly original Reality. (I purposely say 'create an original Reality' and not 'create an original concept of Reality'.) Plato speaks of the philosopher having a comprehensive vision of all time and all being. He speaks of seeing the one in the many and seeing the many in the one. He asserts that only he who has this synoptic vision is a philosopher. Plato is the first philosopher to form clearly and advance expressly the concept of the Whole in the sense of the integral and integrating all-embracing Reality. In the Republic he pictures this all-embracing, all-generating ultimate Reality as the Form of the Good that is at once beyond Knowledge and beyond Being, at once transcends Knowledge and Being. This is Metaphysical Reality, the concept of a Wholeness that makes us whole. In the Form of the Good Parmenides's passive One becomes the living, creative Fount of all being and all understanding. And this is ultimate Reality, which is not a transcendent god or creator, nor any existent world nor anything objective. The vision of this Reality, which is confessedly the child of the human mind, which gives us insight into our own inner reality, makes us whole and makes us real, and we may reasonably say that our inner being is the only reality and all the reality we are aware of immediately and indubitably as opposed to all the fleeting, ephemeral, transient things outside us.
This ultimate Reality, Plato tells us, is strictly ineffable. It gives us wholeness and meaning as a principle, but we cannot confine it in any determinate formulation of thought. We can only give expression to it is myth, parable, and metaphor. And we must constantly undo our myths and metaphors and parables, for if we permit them to parade as final truths they turn into superstitions.
This is Metaphysical Reality. Philosophers give us visions of this Reality, insightful visions that infuse meaning and value into our life. But philosophers are in error when they think their particular formulations representing their vision are definitive accounts of objective reality.
Here I have outlined what I mean by Metaphysical Reality but I would be an utter fool if I fancied for a moment that what I have said is adequate or sufficiently clear. Plato gave us the original concept and great thinkers have failed to grasp it and other great thinkers have fumbled on its outskirts. I have been trying to put it forward in book after book, but I find that even those who read my writings with sympathy and embrace certain aspects or details of my statements still seem to find what I regard as the foundation of my whole work difficult to grasp or they may even be totally oblivious of it.
Sixth-October City, Egypt,
24 October 2013