Plato and His Philosophy | Intro Course


1. The Preparation of Plato

Plato's meeting with Socrates had been a turning point in his life.

He had been brought up in comfort, and perhaps in wealth; he was a handsome and vigorous youth—called Plato, it is said, because of the breadth of his shoulders; he had excelled as a soldier, and had twice won prizes at the Isthmian Games:

Philosophers are not apt to develop out of such adolescence:

But Plato's subtle soul had found a new joy in the "dialectic" game of Socrates:

it was a delight to behold the master deflating dogmas and puncturing presumptions with the sharp point of his questions;

Plato entered into this sport as he had in a coarser kind of wrestling;

and under the guidance of the old "gad-fly" (as Socrates called himself) he passed from mere debate to careful analysis and fruitful discussion.

He became a very passionate lover of wisdom, and of his teacher:

"I thank God," he used to say, "that I was born Greek and not barbarian, freeman and not slave, man and not woman; but above all, that I was born in the age of Socrates."

He was 28 when the master died; and this tragic end of a quiet life left its mark on every phase of the pupil's thought:

It filled him with such a scorn of democracy, such a hatred of the mob, as even his aristocratic lineage and breeding had hardly engendered in him;

it led him to a resolve that democracy must be destroyed,
to be replaced by the rule of the wisest and the best.

It became the absorbing problem of his life to find a method whereby the wisest and the best might be discovered, and then enabled and persuaded to rule.

Meanwhile his efforts to save Socrates had narked him out for suspicion by the democratic leaders:

his friends urged that Athens was unsafe for him, that it was an admirably propitious moment for him to see the world. And so, in that year 399 BCE, he set out.

Where he went we cannot for certain say; there is a merry war of the authorities for every turn of his route:

He seems to have gone first to Egypt;

and was somewhat shocked to hear from the priestly class which ruled that land, that Greece was an infant-state, without stabilizing traditions or profound culture, not yet therefore to be taken seriously by these pundits of the Nile.

But nothing so educates us as a shock:

the memory of this learned caste, theocratically ruling a static agricultural people, remained alive in Plato's thought, and played its part in writing his Utopia.

And then off he sailed to Sicily, and to Italy; there he joined for a time the school or sect which the great Pythagoras had founded:

and once again his susceptible mind was marked with the memory of a small group of men set aside for scholarship and rule, living a plain life despite the possession of power.

12 years he wandered, imbibing wisdom from every source, sitting at every shrine, tasting every creed.

Some would have it that he went to Judea and was moulded for a while by the tradition of the almost socialistic prophets; and even that he found his way to the banks of the Ganges, and learned the mystic meditations of the Hindus. We do not know.

He returned to Athens in 387 BCE, a man of 40 years now, ripened to maturity by the variety of many peoples and the wisdom of many lands.

He had lost a little of the hot enthusiasms of youth, but he had gained a perspective of thought in which every extreme was seen as a half-truth, and the many aspects of every problem blended into a distributive justice to every facet of the truth.

He had knowledge, and he had art; for once the philosopher and the poet lived in one soul; and he created for himself a medium of expression in which both beauty and truth might find room and play—the dialogue.

Never before, we may believe, had philosophy assumed so brilliant a garb; and surely never since. Even in translation this style shines and sparkles and leaps and bubbles over.

"Plato," says one of his lovers, Shelley,

"exhibits the rare union of close and subtle logic with the Pythian enthusiasm of poetry, melted by the splendour and harmony of his periods into one irresistible stream of musical impressions, which hurry the persuasions onward as in a breathless career."

It was not for nothing that the young philosopher had begun as a dramatist.

The difficulty in understanding Plato lies precisely in this intoxicating mixture of philosophy and poetry, of science and art;

we cannot always tell in which character of the dialogue the author speaks, nor in which form; whether he is literal or speaks in metaphor, whether he jests or is in earnest.

His love of jest and irony and myth leaves us at times baffled; almost we could say of him that he did not teach except in parables:

"Shall I, as an older person, speak to you, as younger men, in apologue or myth?" asks his Protagoras.

These dialogues, we are told, were written by Plato for the general reading public of his day:

by their conversational method, their lively war of pros and cons, and their gradual development and frequent repetition of every important argument,

they were explicitly adapted (obscure though they may seem to us now) to the understanding of the man who must taste philosophy as an occasional luxury, and who is compelled by the brevity of life to read as he who runs may read.

Therefore we must be prepared to find in these dialogues much that is playful and metaphorical; much that is unintelligible except to scholars learned in the social and literary minutiae of Plato's time;

much that today will seem irrelevant and fanciful, but might well have served as the very sauce and flavour by which a heavy dish of thought was made digestible for minds unused to philosophic fare.

Let us confess, too, that Plato has in sufficient abundance the qualities which he condemns:

He inveighs against poets and their myths, and proceeds to add one to the number of poets and hundreds to the number of myths.

He complains of the priests (who go about preaching hell and offering redemption from it for a consideration—cf. The Republic), but he himself is a priest, a theologian, a preacher, a super- moralist, denouncing art and inviting vanities to the fire.

He acknowledges, Shakespeare-like, that "comparisons are slippery" (Sophist), but he slips out of one into another and another and another; he condemns the Sophists as phrase-mongering disputants, but he himself is not above chopping logic like a sophomore.

But this is the worst that we can say of him; and after it is said, the Dialogues remain one of the priceless treasures of the world:

The best of them, The Republic, is a complete treatise in itself, Plato reduced to a book:

here we shall find his metaphysics, his theology, his ethics, his psychology, his pedagogy, his politics, his theory of art.

Here we shall find problems reeking with modernity and contemporary savour:

communism and socialism, feminism and birth-control and eugenics, Nietzschean problems of morality and aristocracy, Rousseauian problems of return to nature and libertarian education, vital and psychoanalysis —everything is here.

"Plato is philosophy, and philosophy Plato," says Emerson; and awards to The Republic the word of Omar about the Quran:
"Burn the libraries, for their value is in this book."

Let us study The Republic.