JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl


Plato's Life and Writings -- General Character of his Philosophy.

§ 28.

1. We come now to the greatest and most renowned of the pupils of Socrates, for whom it was reserved to complete the work planned and begun by the master. We speak of Plato. The Socratic doctrines formed the basis of his philosophic system; but he did not confine himself to these; he borrowed also from Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, and Parmenides, such notions as he found suitable to his purpose. But Plato did not merely collect and reproduce for us the opinions of these philosophers, he constructed for himself an original philosophy. The final results of the philosophical investigations of others he took only as the materials for the structure which he had planned in his own mind. The prominent feature of his philosophy is its thoroughly ideal character. "As the blood," says a modern writer, "flows from the heart to all parts of the body, and returns to the heart again, so in the Platonic philosophy everything proceeds from the Idea as from a centre, and everything returns thither again." Hence the great wealth of material which we observe in the Platonic Philosophy. With this wealth of material is united a grace of style and of exposition which has never been surpassed.

2. Plato was born at Athens, B.C. 425. He was originally named Aristocles. Ha was the son of Aristo, a descendant of Codrus, and of Perictone, who was a descendant of Dropides -- a near relative of Solon, and who was also a cousin of Cretias, one of the Thirty Tyrants. He is said to have devoted himself to poetry in his youth, a statement which the graceful style of his later writings renders probable. The weakness of his voice rendered him unfit for the duties of the public speaker. The stories regarding his military service rest on slender foundation. He appears to have pursued philosophical investigations at the same time that he was cultivating the poetic art, for he made acquaintance with Cratylus while still a youth, and learned from him the doctrines of Heraclitus. But Socrates seems to have been the first to give an entirely new direction to his efforts. He was twenty years old when he attached himself to Socrates, and he continued till the death of his master to enjoy the benefit of his teaching, and to be ranked among the most faithful and most esteemed of the philosopher's disciples.

3. After the death of Socrates, Plato, with some other disciples of the philosopher, joined Euclid at Megara. His intimacy with Euclid must have exercised considerable influence on the system formed by Plato. After his stay at Megara be undertook his first great journey (probably not before returning to Athens and sojourning for some time in that city). He visited Cyrene in Africa, and there made acquaintance with the mathematician Theodorus. He next proceeded to Egypt to pursue the study of Mathematics and Astronomy under its priests, and thence he continued his journey to Asia Minor. After another sojourn at Athens, he undertook, at the age of forty, a journey into Italy, to make acquaintance with the Pythagoreans. Thence he travelled to Sicily, where he formed a close intimacy with Dion, brother-in-law of the tyrant Dionysius the Elder. His moral admonitions are said to have provoked the tyrant himself to such a degree that he induced the Spartan envoy, Pollis, to sell the philosopher into slavery in Łgina, as a prisoner of war. He was ransomed by Anniceris, and returned to Athens, where he founded, B.C. 887, his school of philosophy in the garden of Academus (Academy). His teachings as we observe in his writings, and as we learn from an express statement in the [Phaedrus] (p. 275), took the form of dialogue; though he seems, at a later period, especially for his more advanced pupils, to have delivered sustained discourses.

4. In the year B.C. 367, after the death of Dionysius the elder, Plato undertook another journey to Sicily. He did so at the suggestion of Dion, who hoped that the teaching of Plato would influence the new ruler of Syracuse, Dionysius the Younger, and would help to induce a change in the government of Sicily to the aristocratic form. The plan failed owing to the weak and sensual temperament of Dionysius; he suspected Dion of aiming at the sovereign power, and he condemned him to exile. In these circumstances Plato could no longer maintain his position, and he therefore returned once more to Athens. He visited Sicily a third time in B.C. 361, in the hope of effecting a reconciliation between Dionysius and Dion. But he failed in his purpose. His own life was in peril from the suspicions of the tyrant, and he owed his safety to the interposition of the Pythagorean, Archytas of Tarentum. Returning to Athens he again began to teach by writings and oral instruction, and to this task he devoted the remainder of his life. He died at the age of eighty-one in the year B.C. 348 (or 347).

5. "The works of Plato, which have come down to us, consist of thirty-six treatises, (the letters being counted as one), besides which others, pronounced spurious by the ancients, bear his name. Aristophanes of Byzantium, a grammarian of Alexandria, divided a certain number of the treatises of Plato into five trilogies, and the neo-Pythagorean Thrasyllus (of the time of the Emperor Tiberius), divided the treatises which he accepted as genuine into nine trilogies." In recent times many hypotheses have been framed regarding the order, and the succession in time of the dialogues of Plato. The most important theories on this point are those of Schleiermacher, Hermann, and Munk. (a) Schielermacher assumes that Plato had a definite plan of instruction before him when composing his several works (his occasional treatises excepted), and that they were composed in the order required by this plan. He accordingly divides them into three groups: elementary dialogues, mediatory dialogues, and constructive dialogues. In the first group he sets down as the leading dialogues: [Phaedrus, Protagoras,] and [Parmenides;] subsidiary dialogues, [Lysis, Laches, Charmides, Euthyphro;] occasional treatises, the [Apology] of Socrates and [Crito;] partly or wholly spurious, [Io, Hippias II., Hipparchus, Minos, Alcibiades II]. To the second group he assigns as the leading dialogues: [Theaetetus, Sophistes, Politicus, Phaedo, Philebus;] subsidiary dialogues: [Gorgias, Meno, Euthydemus, Cratylus,] the [Banquet;] partly or wholly spurious, [Theages, Erastae, Alcibiades I., Menexenus, Hippias I., Clitopho.] To the third group belong as leading dialogues: The [Republic, Timaeus, Critias,] and, as subsidiary dialogue, the [Laws.]

(b) On the other hand, K. F. Hermann maintains that there is no single plan traceable in Plato's works, that they are merely the expression of the philosophical development of his own mind. He fixes, therefore, in the literary career of Plato three periods, each of which has its distinguishing characteristics. The first period extends to the death of Socrates; the second covers the time of Plato's stay at Megara, and includes his subsequent travels in Egypt and Asia Minor; the third begins with Plato's return from his first visit to Sicily, and ends with his death. He assigns to the first period the dialogues: [Hippias II., Io, Alcibiades I., Charmides, Lysis, Laches, Protagoras, Euthydemus;] and to the "transition stage" between the first and second periods: the [Apology, Crito, Gorgias, Euthyphro, Meno, Hippias I.] To the second period he assigns the dialogues: [Cratylus, Theaetetus, Sophistes, Politicus, Parmenides;] to the third: [Phaedrus, Menexenus,] the [Banquet, Phaedo, Philebus,] the [Republic, Timaeus, Critias,] and the [Laws.]

(c) Munk is of opinion that Plato in his writings followed an order ideally representing the life of Socrates, the genuine philosopher, and that this order portrayed the several stages of the life of Socrates. Accordingly he distinguishes three series of treatises: (alpha) corresponding to Socrates' devoting himself to philosophy, and his attacks upon the current false teaching (B.C. 389-384); [Parmenides, Protagoras, Charmides, Laches, Gorgias, Hippias I., Cratylus, Euthydemus,] the [Banquet;] (beta) corresponding to Socrates' teaching of true wisdom (B.C. 383-370): [Phaedrus, Philebus, Republic, Timaeus, Critias;] (gamma) corresponding to Socrates' defence of his own teaching by criticism of rival schools, and to his death (after B.C. 370): [Meno, Theaetetus, Sophistes, Politicus, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo.] Cfr. Ueberweg, Vol. I., p. 95.

6. The controversy regarding the arrangement and succession in time of Plato's dialogues is not yet ended; no certain result has yet been obtained. It seems to us that the hypothesis of Hermann is the simplest and most natural; all the more than there is observable in the dialogues of Plato an unmistakable development of philosophic thought. Whether the classification given by Hermann is perfect in all its details, may be left an open question. Without attempting to discuss it, we shall indicate briefly the substance of the several dialogues, adopting the order suggested by Hermann.

First series: [Hippias II.] treats of Free Will in Wrong-doing; [Io,] of Inspiration and Reflection; [Alcibiades I.,] of Human Nature; [Charmides,] of the virtue of Temperance; [Lysis,] of Friendship; [Laches,] of Courage; [Protagoras,] of Virtue -- it is directed against the Sophists; [Euthydemus,] is a treatise on the same subject; the [Apology] of Socrates is a defence of that philosopher against his accusers; [Crito] treats of Right Action; [Gorgias] is a discussion upon Rhetoric, and a condemnation of the abuse of it by the Sophists; [Euthyphro] treats of Holiness; [Meno] of Virtue, and the possibility of its being taught; [Hippias I.] is directed against the Sophists.

In the second series: [Cratylus] contains philosophical investigations on Language; [Theaetetus] is an inquiry into the nature of Knowledge; it is chiefly a refutation of the Sophists, and contains little positive teaching; [Sophistes] is a treatise on the concept of Being; [Politicus] on the Statesman, what he should know, and how he should act; [Parmenides] treats of Ideas, and the notion of the One.

In the third series: [Phaedrus] treats of Love, and the Beautiful as the object of love; [Menexenus] of the Useful; the [Banquet] again of Love; [Phaedo] of the Soul and Immortality; [Philebus] of the Good, more particularly of the Supreme Good; the [Republic] is a treatise on Political Philosophy, but the ten books of which it is composed contain many important questions of large philosophic interest; [Timaeus] is a treatise on Cosmogony; [Critias] is a pretended history of primeval political institutions; the [Laws,] a treatise, in twelve books, on the State; not an inquiry as to the best possible (ideal) state, like the [Republic] ([[politeia]]) but a discussion as to that State which will best suit certain given conditions. (The genuineness of the [Meno] and [Epinomis,] which treat of Laws, is disputed.)

7. The writings of Plato were first published in a Latin translation in 1483-84; the translation was the work of Marsilius Ficinus. A Greek edition was published at Venice in 1583 by Aldus Manutius, aided by Marcus Musurus. The edition of Oporinus and Grynneus was published at Basle in 1534, followed by another edition in the same city in 1556. Then came the edition of Henricus Stephanus, accompanied by the translation of Serranus, Paris, 1578, the paging of this edition is inserted in the more recent editions, and is usually cited in quotations. Of the complete editions which have been published in recent times we have: the [Editio Bipontina] (1781-87) by Croll, Exter, and Embser; the Tauchnitz edition (1813-19) by Beck; the edition of Immanuel Bekker (Berlin, 1816-23); the editions of Ast, of Stallbaum, of Baiter, Orelli, and Winkelman (Zurich), of Schneider, and of Hermann.

8. Philosophy, according to Plato, is the science of the Unconditioned and the Unchangeable -- of that which is the basis of all phenomena. The Unconditioned and the Unchangeable are for him the ideas of things, for these he holds to be really existent ([[ontôs ôn]]) and thus to stand in contrast with the changeable fleeting things of the phenomenal world. Accordingly he holds Philosophy, rightly defined, to be the science of Ideas, the science of the really existent. But Philosophy is not mere theory, in Plato's estimate, it essentially includes a practical element also; it directs the whole man, Reason and Will alike, towards the Ideal, and is thus the complement of man's intellectual and moral life. Perfect wisdom belongs to God alone; man can only be a striver after wisdom ([[philosophos]]), his business is to approach ever nearer and nearer to the perfect wisdom of God. This effort must spring from a love of the Good and the Beautiful, and from wonder at the great phenomena which the objective order of things sets before the mind as so many problems to solve. These feelings give rise to a desire for a certain knowledge of the ultimate reasons of all things, and all phenomena, and thus the efforts of the philosopher are called forth.

9. Plato distinguishes between Philosophy and the preparatory sciences. Among the latter he reckons Mathematics. The science of Mathematics is not a part of philosophy; for it assumes certain notions and certain principles without giving any account of them, taking them as if they were evident to all -- a proceeding which philosophy as a pure science cannot admit. Furthermore it makes use, in its demonstrations, of visible images, though it does not treat of these, but of something which the mind alone perceives. It stands, therefore, midway between mere correct opinion and science; clearer than the one, more obscure than the other. But though Mathematics is not philosophy, it is nevertheless an indispensable means for training the mind to philosophical thought, a necessary step to knowledge, without which no one can become a philosopher. It is, in a certain sense, the vestibule of philosophy.

10. The [organon] proper of philosophical knowledge is Dialectic. Dialectic is the art of reducing what is multiple and manifold in our experience to unity in one concept, and of establishing an organic order and interdependence among the concepts so acquired. The dialectician is skilled to discover the several single concepts which underlie the many and varying objects of our cognition, and to arrange and classify these concepts according to their mutual relations, In the latter process the method he follows will be either the analytical method -- proceeding from below upwards, or the synthetical -- proceeding from above downwards. Dialectic will thus include the twofold process -- ascent from the particular to the general, and descent from the general to the particular.{1}

11. How and to what extent this Dialectic is the organon -- the operative factor in philosophical knowledge -- we find indicated in the relations which, according to Plato, subsist between the concepts to which it leads, and Ideas -- the really existent entities, which are the proper object of philosophy. Ideas are the objects of these concepts; in forming these concepts we are apprehending in them the ideas of things -- we are apprehending the really existent, and are arriving at the knowledge which is the ultimate end of all the efforts of the philosopher. Dialectic is thus the real organon, the vivifying centre of all philosophy. Hence it is that Plato not unfrequently uses Dialectic and Philosophy as synonymous terms.

12. Mythical notions prepare the way for dialectical knowledge, and, where it fails, come in to supplement it. The myth is an aid to the mind in its efforts to form right conceptions, but it is, in itself, an imperfect way of representing things; the dialectical method is the only method which leads to philosophical knowledge. The myth must, however, be appealed to when dialectical knowledge is either unattainable, or very difficult of attainment. Plato himself makes use largely of the mythical form in his expositions; he very frequently introduces the ancient myths and legends in order to state his theories through them. To this circumstance the charm of his writings is largely due.

13. With regard to the division of the Platonic philosophy, we find that Cicero (Acad. post. I., 5, 19) ascribes to Plato himself the division into Dialectics, Physics, and Ethics. According to Sextus Empiricus (adv. Math. VII., 16), this division was formally made by Plato's disciple Xenocrates, though Plato may be considered to have virtually ([[dunamei]]) established it himself. If this division is not expressly mentioned in Plato's writings, it is nevertheless practically adopted in his exposition of his theories. It will, therefore, be the most suitable for us to follow in setting forth Plato's doctrines. As, however, we have already indicated the general character of the Platonic Dialectic, it only remains for us to set forth, under the first head, Plato's theory of Ideas -- the central doctrine of the Dialectic, and indeed of the entire Platonic philosophy, and his theory of Knowledge. We shall therefore treat in order, first, Plato's theory of Ideas, in conjunction with his theory of Knowledge, which arises out of it, and depends on it; next, his Physics; and finally his Ethics, in which we shall include his Political Philosophy.

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{1} Plato himself describes these two methods, which together constitute the whole dialectical process (Phaedr. 265), as, on the one hand, the union in intuition of several individuals, and their reduction by this means to unity of essence; and on the other the division of unity into plurality, in accordance with natural classifications. The first method leads to Definition -- the knowledge of the essence of things; the second is the Division of the generic notion into the subordinate specific concepts.