Sunday, March 13, 2011
PLATO (427 B.C to 347 B.C.)
Plato’s enthusiasm for mathematics, astronomy, and musical theory appears everywhere in his writings, and he also displays a far from superficial knowledge of the medicine and physiology of his day. In ancient times competent judges held that he had promoted the advance of mathematics, especially geometry, in his lifetime.1 Theodore of Cyrene and Archytas of Tarentum were his friends, and Eudoxus of Cnidus, Theaetetus, and Menaechmus his colleagues or pupils. His critics assert that his theory of knowledge rules out any empirical science and that, owing to his idealism, he had a radically false idea of the procedure and value of the mathematics that he admired. Even so, it can be said that the Academy, founded by him at Athens at a date not exactly known (380 B.C.?), became a center where specialists—not all of them sympathizers with his philosophy and epistemology—could meet and profit by discussion with him and with one another.
Our object here must be to trace Plato’s intellectual development and, incidentally, to submit part of the material upon which an estimate of his services or disservices to science must be based. It must be considered how far he is likely to have carried out in his school the project, sketched in the Republic, of a mathematical training preparatory for and subordinate to dialectic, and whether, in the writings believed to belong to the last twenty years of his life, he took note of recent scientific discoveries or was influenced by them in matters belonging to philosophy.
As for sources of information, the account of Plato’s life and doctrine by Diogenes Laertius (probably early third century A.D.) is based on previous authorities of unequal value. He reports some evidently reliable statements by men who were in a position to know the facts and who were neither fanatical devotees nor detractors, and he has preserved the text of Plato’s will. Aristotle gives us a few details, and Cicero a few more.
The Epistles, ascribed to Plato and printed in the Herrmann and Burnet editions of the Greek text of his works, would, if genuine, furnish us with a personal account of his conduct at important crises in his life; and, what is more, they would tell far more about his ideals of education and the work of the Academy than can be gathered from the dialogues. Unfortunately, opinion regarding authenticity of the Epistles is so divided that caution is essential. In the ensuing account, where reference is made to this source, the fact has been indicated.
Plato’s writings have been preserved entire. But the double fact that they are dialogues and that the scene is usually laid in the past leads to difficulties of interpretation which are sufficiently obvious. Moreover, nothing definite is known about either the manner of their first publication or their relative order, still less the dates. Some hypothesis about the latter is a presupposition of fruitful discussion of Plato’s development.
A statistical study of the style of Plato’s works, in which the pioneer was the Reverend Lewis Campbell (1869), has led to results which have met with wide approval: many scholars hold that Parmenides and Theaetetus were written later than the Republic, and that a group of dialogues having close stylistic affinity to one another and to the Laws (which is plainly a work of old age) came still later. This is credible from a philosophical point of view, and its correctness is assumed here; but such a method can only yield a probable result.
Several members of Plato’s family are mentioned, or appear as characters, in his dialogues. He himself was the son of Ariston2 and Perictione, and was born either at Athens or Aegina, where his father may have gone as a settler when the Athenians occupied the island. Nothing reliable is known of his father’s ancestors, but those on his mother’s side were men of distinction. Perictione was descended from Dropides, a close friend (some say brother) of Solon, the famous poet-statesman of the sixth century B.C. She was a cousin of Critias, son of Callaeschrus, an intellectual daring in both speculative thought and action. It was Critias who in 404 B.C. led the extremists among the Thirty Tyrants and put to death the moderate Theramenes. He became guardian of Perictione’s brother Charmides and drew him into public affairs. Both perished in the battle which put an end to the Thirty’s six months of power.
Plato was one of four children. His brothers Adeimantus and Glaucon take a leading part in the Republic, where they are depicted with admiration and a clear impression of their personality is left. They appear once more briefly in the Parmenides, and Xenophon presents Socrates proving to Glaucon the folly of his trying to address the Assembly when he is not yet twenty.3 The brothers were considerably older than Plato, and his sister Potone (mother of Speusippus, who followed him as head of the Academy) was doubtless born in the interval.
Plato’s father, Ariston, appears to have died young. Perictione then married Pyrilampes, son of Antiphon, who had been prominent in state affairs as a close associate of Pericles; he was probably her uncle. Another son, called Antiphon after his grandfather, was born; this half brother of Plato’s has a part in the Parmenides. Most of these persons are mentioned either in Charmides (155–158), or in Timaeus (20E), or at the opening of Parmenides.4
Plato’s social position was such that he might well have aspired to an active part in public affairs, but it could not have been easy for him to decide what role to assume. Some scholars take it for granted that the example and writings of Critias left a deep impression upon him; others point out that it was only in the concluding phase of the Athenian struggle against the Peloponnesians that Plato’s maternal relatives emerged as reactionary extremists, and that in his stepfather’s home he would have been imbued with liberal opinions and respect for the memory of Pericles.
No one can say with certainty what the complexion of his views was at the age of twenty-four, except that he was obviously no friend to egalitarianism and full democracy. The story which he tells, or is made to tell, in Epistle VII seems probable. His friends and relatives among the Thirty at once called upon him to join them, but instead he determined to wait and see what they would do. They soon made the former regime seem highly desirable by comparison. Socrates was commanded to help in the arrest of a man who was to be put to death illegally under a general sentence, so that he would either be involved in their impious actions or refuse and thus expose himself to punishment. When the Thirty were overthrown, Plato again thought of public affairs—but with less eagerness than before. The democratic leaders restored to power showed moderation at a time when ruthless acts of revenge might have been expected. Nevertheless Socrates was brought to trial on the pretext of impiety and found guilty. As Plato grew older and the politicians, laws, and customs of the day displeased him more and more, he was thrown back on a theorist’s study of ways of reform.5
None of this is inconsistent with what is otherwise known. Socrates’ disobedience to the illegal command of the Thirty was a fact widely spoken of. Plato would probably have been impressed to an equal degree by Socrates’ courageous independence in such matters and by his faith in argument (argument with himself when he could not find a respondent). He became conspicuous among Socrates’ habitual companions, as distinct from the occasional listeners to his conversation. With Adeimantus he heard Socrates’ provocative defense in court against the charge of impiety;6 when a majority had found him guilty, Plato was one of those who induced Socrates to offer to pay a substantial fine, for which he would be a guarantor.7
Owing to illness, Plato was absent from the last meeting of Socrates’ with his friends.8 After the tragedy, he retried, with other Socratics, to Megara, the home of Euclid.9 The attack on Socrates was personal, and perhaps the prosecutors did not desire his death. His Athenian friends can hardly have been in danger. But there are some hints in the Phaedo that he advised those present, among whom were the Megarians Euclid and Terpsion, to pursue the search for truth in common and not lose heart when plausible reasoning led them nowhere; rather, they must make it their business to master the “art of argument,” logōn techuē.10
Probably his wish was piously carried out by his followers, and a few years elapsed before the different direction of their interests became clear. As a metaphysician Euclid was a follower of Parmenides, and accepted the Socratic thesis that there is a single human excellence, not a plurality of “virtues.” His thought had no religious coloring, nor was he an educational reformer. His younger disciples turned in earnest fee the hoped-for logon techne, and not without result; they prepared the way for the propositional logic of the Stoic school.11 This might be supposed to go together with an interest in the sciences, but this is not recorded of the Megarians. Plato, on the other hand, began to turn in that direction; his first dialogues and the Apology must have been written during the years 399–388 B.C. He felt it his duty to defend the memory of Socrates, especially since controversy about his aims had been revived by hostile publications. As the chance of political action remained remote, he gradually developed the idea of a training of the young not in rhetoric but in mathematics—and in Socratic interrogation only after the mathematical foundation had been laid. Part of his diagnosis of the ills of Athens was that young men had bewildered themselves and others by engaging too soon in philosophical controversy; these ideas probably found little sympathy among the Megarians. How long he remained among them is not recorded, but he was liable to Athenian military service, probably as a cavalryman. A statement has indeed come down to us 12 that he went on expeditions to Tanagra (in Boeotia) and Corinth. This is credible in itself, and in the latter case the reference could be to an engagement in 394 B.C. outside Corinth, in which the Spartans and their allies defeated the Athenians and Thebans. But neither does it seem inconsistent with Plato’s regarding Megara for a time as his home. About 390 he resolved to visit the West, where Archytas of Tarentum survived as a maintainer of the Pythagorean system of education and was also active in research.
Plato’s views at the time of departure on his journey to the West are well seen in the Gorgias. It is his first major constructive effort as a moralist, but there is as yet no positive doctrine of knowledge and reality. When Callicles spurns conventional justice, as a means of defrauding the strong and energetic of what naturally belongs to them, and declares that temperance is not a virtue (why should a clear-sighted man choose to curb his own desires?), Socrates confidently develops an answering thesis: the supervision of the soul must be supposed comparable in its operation to the arts, which impose form and design (eidos, taxis) and preserve the natural subordination of one part of a subject to another (kosmos). Human good does not consist in the ceaseless satisfaction of desires, irrespective of their quality (if it did, man would stand apart from the general world order), and self-discipline is the basis of happiness. But the statesmen of Athens, the dramatists and musicians, the teachers and learners of rhetorical persuasion, have all alike failed to understand this and have flattered rather than guided the public.
In his use of the varied senses of kosmos (which, according to the context, means world or world order, moral discipline, or adornment). Socrates is here on Pythagorean ground; and ideas are already present which Plato expanded only in his later writings and his oral instruction.13 The Gorgias passage is also an emphatic answer to the friends who had sought to draw Plato into Athenian politics.14
Concerning the journey itself, in Epistle VII Plato says, or is made to say, that he was then forty years old (324A) and that in Italy and Sicily he was appalled by the sensuous indulgence which he found taken for granted there. On crossing to Syracuse he made the acquaintance of Dion, the young brother-in-law of the tyrant Dionysius the Elder, who listened attentively to his discourses and aroused his admiration by his intelligence and preference for a sober life. In the tyrant’s entourage this was viewed as an affectation of singularity and led to Dion’s becoming unpopular.15
If this evidence is set aside as suspect, the next best source is Cicero.16 He says that Plato visited Egypt before proceeding to Italy; that he spent a considerable time with Archytas and with Timaeus of Locri; and that the object of the voyage was to gain acquaintance with Pythagorean studies and institutions. To this some reservations must be made. First, it can hardly be true—if Cicero means this that when he boarded the ship Plato was altogether ignorant of mathematics. In his own dialogues there is clear evidence that the sciences were to some extent taught to boys at Athens and that there was an opportunity of learning from specialists in mathematics and astronomy, no less than from those in music, meter, and grammar. About Pythagoreanism also Plato already had some information, judging from the Gorgias passage mentioned above; he could have obtained this (as Wilamowitz suggests) from the Thebans Simmias and Cebes, pupils of Socrates who are said to have met Philolaus.17
Secondly, it does not seem likely that Timaeus of Locri was still alive at the time of Plato’s journey. In Timaeus 20A he is described as a man of intellectual distinction who has already held high office, and this is at a time certainly previous to 415 B.C. (It is possible that at this time Plato met Philistion of Locri, and derived from him the interest in the physiology of the Sicilian Empedocles, which is visible in both Meno and Phaedo) Cicero’s report may be wrong in some of its detail, but it seems true in spirit. Plato’s purpose in visiting the West was to see for himself how the Pythagoreans conducted their science-based educational system, and he did at this time establish a connection with Archytas.
Plato returned to Athens, after two years’ absence, in 388 B.C. (Ancient biographers related, with some circumstantial detail, that at Syracuse he had exasperated the tyrant Dionysius the Elder by open criticism of his rule and had been handed over as a prisoner to a Spartan envoy. But such insolence is hardly in character for Plato, and probably his voyage home was of a less sensational kind.) He might at this time have visited the Pythagoreans at Phlius, in the Peloponnesus. The setting of the Phaedo suggests personal acquaintance with their leader Echecrates, and Cicero confirms this.18
Nothing definite is recorded about Plato’s personal life during the ensuing twenty-two years. But the Academy was founded, or gradually grew up, during this time, and he composed further dialogues in Socratic style. The Meno and Euthyplwo, Euthydemus. Phaech, Symposium, and Republic must all be assigned to these years. In them he puts forward the distinctive account of knowledge which has taken shape in his mind; explains his purpose and method in education and shows the continuity of his aims with those of Socrates; and differentiates himself, where necessary, from the Italian Pythagoreans. It is natural to place the Republic at the end of this series, and to regard it as either a prospectus for a proposed school or as a statement to the Athenian public of what was already being carried out among them.
Aristotle gives a clear analysis of the factors which produced Plato’s doctrine of Forms.19 Plato was acquainted from youth with an Athenian named Cratylus, who declared with Heraclitus that there is no stable substance, or hold for human knowledge, in the sense world. Plato did not deny this then or later but, wishing to take over and continue the Socratic search for universals, in the sphere of morals, which do remain permanent, he necessarily separated the universals from sensible particulars. It was he who termed them Ideas and Forms. In his view particulars (that is, things and states of things, actions and qualities) derive reality from Forms by “participation” and when we name or speak of these particulars, we in effect name Forms.
In the dialogues Plato often starts from a contrast between knowledge and opinion. To live in a state of opinion is to accept assertions, either of fact or of principle, on authority or from mere habit. The opinion may be true and right; but since it is held without a rational ground, it may be driven from the mind by emotion and is less proof against forgetfulness than knowledge is. The holder of it may also be deceived in an unfamiliar instance. Based as it is on habit, an opinion cannot easily be transmitted to another; or, if the transmission takes place, this is not teaching. In terms of the theory of Forms, the holder of knowledge knows the Forms and can relate particular instances to them (although Plato did not successfully explain how this occurs), whereas the contented Holder of opinions moves about among half-real particulars.
In middle life, then, Plato had advanced from his Socratic beginnings toward beliefs, held with assurance, from which many practical consequences flowed. The chief elements were the knowledge-opinion contrast; the belief in a realm of immutable Forms, with which human minds can make intermittent contact and which on such occasions the minds recognize as “their own” or as akin to them;20 given this, the soul, or its intellectual part, is seen to be likewise eternal; and the belief that the Forms, each of which infuses reality into corresponding particulars, in turn derive their existence, intelligibility, and truth from one supreme Form, the Good.
The advance from the plurality of Forms to their source is in consequence regarded as the ultimate stage in human study, megiston mathēma;21 it is a step which will be taken by only a few, but for the welfare of mankind it is important that a few should take it. Within the dialogue it is described but cannot be accomplished. There are hints of a methodical derivation of the other Forms from the Good; but for the present the image, whereby the Good is shown to have the same relation to other objects of intellection as the sun has to other visible things, takes its place. In reading the Republic and later dialogues, one must therefore reckon with the possibility that in the school Plato amplified or corrected the exposition which he chose to commit to writing.