Jacques Maritain Center : A History of Western Philosophy Vol. I / by Ralph McInerny

Part II: The Classical Period

Chapter II


A. The Man and His Work

Plato was born in 428 or 427 B.C., probably at Athens, into a family distinguished both in paternal and maternal lines, and died in 347, giving him a lifespan of approximately eighty years. It may be that "Plato" is simply a nickname and that his real name was Adstocles; whatever the truth of this, it is as Plato that he is known and recognized as standing in the very front rank of philosophers of all time. Pathetic attempts to discount his claim to greatness are not wanting, but nothing can change the fact of his awesome reputation in antiquity, and in the early middle ages when little else of his was known than the Timaeus, and in the West generally after the introduction of the rest of his writings. The dialogues of Plato represent one of the few indispensable sources of philosophizing, so much so that ignorance of them is tantamount to ignorance of philosophy itself. A mark of their greatness is their inexhaustibility; as instruments of philosophizing, they are at the disposal equally of the novice, the adept and the scholar. Philosophers of every view feel kinship with Plato and are at pains to show that he anticipated them. If it is difficult not to profit from a reading of Plato, it is equally true that the dialogues do not yield a comprehensive meaning easily, for reasons we shall be hinting at in a moment. For now, suffice it to say that they are the vehicles of a genius which has put its indelible stamp on what we call philosophy, the man who is the greatest pupil of Socrates and the master of Aristotle.

Plato's father was Ariston, whose ancestry can be traced to the kings of Athens; Plato's mother, Perictione, was descended from Solon. Adeimantus and Glaucon, who turn up as characters in the Republic, were Plato's older brothers; he had a sister, Potone, whose son Speusippus succeeded Plato as head of the Academy. Charmides and Critias, both uncles of Plato, appear as characters in dialogues. After the death of his father, Plato's mother remarried and her son, Plato's half-brother, Antiphon, appears in the Parmenides. Plato's aristocratic connections are sometimes invoked to explain his distaste for the Athenian democracy -- a distaste abetted, no doubt, by the execution of Socrates. We have Plato's own word for his political attitudes.

Once upon a time in my youth I cherished like many another the hope, directly I came of age, of entering a political career. It fell out, moreover, that political events took the following course. There were many who heaped abuse on the form of government then prevailing, and a revolution occurred. In this revolution fifty-one men set themselves up as a government, eleven in the city, ten in the Piraeus (both of these groups were to administer the market and the usual civil affairs), and thirty came into power as supreme rulers of the whole state. Some of these happened to be relatives and acquaintances of mine, who accordingly invited me forthwith to join them, assuming my fitness for the task. No wonder that, young as I was, I cherished the belief that they would lead the city from an unjust life, as it were, to habits of justice and really to administer it; so that I was intensely interested to see what would come of it. Of course I saw in a short time that these men made the former government look in comparison like an age of gold. Among other things they sent an elderly man, Socrates, a friend of mine, who I should hardly be ashamed to say was the justest man of his time, in company with others, against one of the citizens to fetch him forcibly to be executed. Their purpose was to connect Socrates with their government, whether he wished or not. He refused and risked any consequences rather than become their partner in wicked deeds. When I observed all this -- and some other matters of similar importance -- I withdrew in disgust from the abuses of those days. Not long after came the fall of the thirty and of their whole system of government. Once more, less hastily this time, but surely, I was moved by the desire to take part in public life and in politics. To be sure, in those days, too, full of disturbance as they were, there were many things occurring to cause offence . . . As it chanced, however, some of those in control brought against this associate of mine, Socrates, whom I have mentioned, a most sacrilegious charge, which he least of all men deserved. They put him on trial for impiety and the people condemned and put to death the man who had refused to take part in the wicked arrest of one of their friends. (Ep. VII)

If these events turned Plato away from an active political career in Athens, the problem of government never ceased to occupy a primary place in his thoughts. And, as we shall presently see, Plato came to be involved in political events in Sicily which must have done little to strengthen his belief in the practicality of the ideal expressed in the seventh letter and in the Republic, that the only solution was that philosophers become rulers or that rulers become philosophers. Plato's distaste for democracy, then, must be seen as part of a recognition that all existing governments were bad. The fact that Plato lived at the time of the Peloponnesian war would not, of course, have induced in him a high opinion of the Athenian democracy's ability to cope with so serious a situation. Plato's lively sense of the imperfection of men and of the institutions of his day doubtless has something to do with the combination of visionary ideals and nostalgia for the past in the dialogues. Burnet cannot be far wrong in seeing the dialogues as memorials not only to Socrates but as well to the better days of Plato's own family.{24}

If Plato has no hesitation to introduce members of his family into the dialogues, he himself shows up rarely. From them, we learn that he was present at the trial of Socrates (Apology, 38) and was among those who expressed their willingness to pay the fine if that should be the court's punishment. From the Phaedo (59), we learn that due to illness he was not present at the death of Socrates. If the acquaintanceship of members of his family with Socrates, everywhere evidenced in the dialogues, is not pure fiction -- an unlikely possibility -- Plato must have been aware of Socrates throughout his own youth. There is no evidence that he was among the intimates of Socrates, however; indeed, the seventh letter seems to suggest that he was definitively converted to philosophy by the death of Socrates. This does not do away with the fact that he learned from Socrates, of course; other philosophical interests, in the doctrine of Cratylus, the Heracitean, reported by Aristotle (Metaphysics. I,6,987a32ff.), may also go back to his youth.

According to Hermodorus, an early biographer, Plato, along with other followers of Socrates, left Athens for Megara after the death of the master; there they spent some time with Eucides. Nothing is known for certain about Plato's life between the death of Socrates and twelve years later when Plato was forty. There are stories of extensive travels, to Egypt, for example, and to Cyrene, but we are only certain of a voyage to Sicily at the age of forty. This was the beginning of an extensive involvement in Sicilian politics which lasted into Plato's old age.

What were Plato's reasons for going to Sicily the first time? He probably went there to converse with Pythagoreans. At any rate, we know that he made the acquaintance of Archytas; Diogenes Laertius tells us that Plato wanted to see Mount Etna. Whatever brought him there, Plato met Dion, the brother-in-law of the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius, and thereby hangs the tale. Dion showed great enthusiasm for philosophy, and his contact with Plato brought about a great change in his life. Plato spent perhaps a year at Syracuse on this first visit and, when he returned to Athens, founded the Academy. Plato's first visit took place around 388/387; twenty years later, in 367, Dionysius died. He was succeeded by his son, Dionysius II, and Dion sent a request to Plato, asking him to come and influence the young king probably hoping that the change Plato had wrought in him could be reproduced in the young tyrant. "He thought that Dionysius might perhaps become one of these [i.e., those who held virtue dearer than pleasure] through the cooperation of the gods. Moreover, if he were to become such a one, the result for him and for the rest of the Syracusans would be the attainment of a life beyond all calculation blessed. Furthermore he felt it to be absolutely necessary that I come to Syracuse as soon as possible to lend a hand in the work." (Ep. VII, 327c;Post) Now 60, Plato set off, accompanied it is said, by Xenocrates, a member of the Academy (Diogenes Laertius, IV, 6). When he got to Syracuse, he found that Dion was in jeopardy due to accusations that he was intent on deposing the tyrant. A few months after Plato's arrival, Dion was sent into exile, and Plato found himself in a sticky position. Dionysius fils kept Plato a virtual prisoner, but finally let him go. Back at the Academy, Dion was enrolled as a pupil, but Plato continued to keep in contact with the Syracusan tyrant, not yet in despair of winning him over to philosophy. In 361, Plato responded to the request of Dionysius II that he visit Syracuse once more. The offer was made attractive in a number of ways; a trireme was sent to bring Plato, and Archedemus, a disciple of Archytas, came along to persuade Plato; moreover, Dionysius offered to accept any plan Plato might propose with respect to Dion. Not to be forgotten was the forlorn hope that the tyrant might be won over to philosophy. Thus, for the third time, with his nephew Speusippus, Plato set out for Sicily. Plato failed to accomplish either of the purposes for which he made the trip, and managed to leave Syracuse only at the intervention of Archytas. Plato seems to have continued a correspondence with Dionysius despite these set-backs. Dion had long since despaired of persuading Dionysius of anything; in 357 he returned home with an army and captured Syracuse. Dion held shaky control for three years; in 354 he was assassinated at the instigation of an Athenian companion, Calippus, who set himself up as tyrant. A year later, the party of Dion set up a son of Dionysius as tyrant and the whole sorry business came full circle. The seventh and eighth letters of Plato are addressed to these followers of Dion and partly at least they amount to an apologia by Plato of his role in the sequence of events in Syracuse.

Academy. We have already noted that Plato founded the Academy after returning to his home city from his first visit to Sicily, perhaps after twelve years of exile from Athens. It is suggested that the Academy -- it drew its name from a gymnasium outside the walls of Athens where Plato had a house and garden -- was modeled on already existing schools. That of Eucides at Megara, which Plato had known, the Pythagorean society with which he had contact on his travels, the contemporary school of Isocrates in Athens -- all of these are thought to have influenced. Plato. The academy was organized somewhat on the lines of a religious society, with a temple and, perhaps, days of special observance. The work of research was carried on by individuals, particularly in mathematics, and it is said that Plato himself posed problems for solution, indicating that such individual efforts were part of the common task. The view of the Academy as a research institute is bolstered by the fact that Eudoxus is said to have moved his whole school of mathematics to Athens and incorporated it with the school of Plato. Now, since men of the caliber of Eudoxus, Speusippus and Xenocrates and Aristotle remained at the Academy for many years, whereas some were there for relatively short periods and then went into the world, very often into politics, it seems necessary to say that there were grades of membership. Plato, of course, was undisputed head; then there would be senior members and junior members. It appears that there were public lectures also, since we have reports that Aristotle remarked on the reaction of those who came to hear Plato's lecture on the good, a lecture, incidentally, of which Aristotle and several others were said to have published versions. There is reason to believe that the attendants at this lecture were candidates for entrance into the Academy, and in this connection, the seventh letter gives us some important indications as to Plato's method of introducing another to philosophy. After a "protreptic" discourse, whetting the candidate's appetite for philosophy, there came the grim picture of the program to be followed if one were to achieve the goal, a program consisting largely of mathematics. Here is Plato's description of his procedure with the younger Dionysius at Syracuse.

When I had arrived, I thought I ought first to put it to the proof whether Dionysius was really all on fire with philosophy or whether the frequent reports that had come to Athens to that effect amounted to nothing. Now there is an experimental method for determining the truth in such cases that, far from being vulgar, is truly appropriate to despots, especially those stuffed with second-hand opinions; which I perceived, as soon as I arrived, was very much the case with Dionysius. One must point out to such men that the whole plan is possible and explain what preliminary steps and how much hard work it will require; for the hearer, if he is genuinely devoted to philosophy and is a man of God with a natural affinity and fitness for the work, sees in the course marked out a path of enchantment, which he must at once strain every nerve to follow, or die in the attempt. Thereupon he braces himself and his guide to the task and does not relax his efforts until he either crowns them with final accomplishment or acquires the faculty of tracing his own way no longer accompanied by the pathfinder. When this conviction has taken posession of him, such a man passes his life in whatever occupations he may engage in, but through it all never ceases to practise philosophy and such habits of daily life as will be most effective in making him an intelligent and retentive student, able to reason soberly by himself. Other practices than these he shuns to the end. As for those, however, who are not genuine converts to philosophy, but have only a superficial tinge of doctrine -- like the coat of tan that people get in the sun -- as soon as they see how many subjects there are to study, how much hard work they involve, and how indispensable it is for the project to adopt a well-ordered scheme of living, they decide that the plan is difficult if not impossible for them; and so they really do not prove capable of practising philosophy . . . This test then proves to be the surest and safest in dealing with those who are self-indulgent and incapable of continued hard work, since they throw the blame not on their guide but on their own inability to follow out in detail the course of training subsidiary to the project. (340b-341a;Post)

The test described here would have fairly general application to anyone seeking admission to the academy; moreover, if there is validity in the information we have about the Pythagorean society to the effect that in the final analysis it was appeal to the authority of the master which counted -- ipse dixit -- the Platonic Academy would rather be defined by its effort truly to teach, to make the doctrine a possession of the student himself; his to defend on its own basis and not because he had gotten it from the master. This could only come as the fruit of long, sustained effort in the company of others so that dispute and dialogue would be the means of achieving the goal. Personal interaction, not the reading of books, is the way to philosophy.

I certainly have composed no work in regard to it, nor shall I ever do so in the future; for there is no way of putting it in words like other studies. Acquaintance with it must come rather after a long period of attendance on instruction in the subject itself and of close companionship, when, suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and at once becomes self-sustaining. (341c-d;Post)

What was this long program of study which would issue in the possession of philosophy? Scholars have always thought that we have a good indication of the practice of the Academy in the educational program set forth in the Republic. That program is ordered to the formation of the ruler, of course, but it is predicated on the ideal that the best ruler is the philosopher. The most striking thing about this for the higher education of the guardians scheme is the requirement that ten years, from the age of twenty to thirty, be devoted to study of mathematics. The disciplines are arithmetic, plane geometry, solid geometry, astronomy and harmonics. We will see later, in our analysis of the Phaedo particularly, how the ascetic and pedagogical concerns become one in Plato; it is sufficient to point out now that mathematics are propaideutic not only because they seem to be the only sciences recognized by Plato, but because they wean the soul from the sensible world and train its eye to see the truly real. After this decade of mathematical work, the future philosopher is to be introduced to dialectics. Plato's reason for postponing what we think of as characteristic of Socrates to this age is of great importance.

There is a danger lest they should taste the dear delight too early; for youngsters, as you may have observed, when they first get the taste in their mouths, argue for amusement, and are always contradicting and refuting others in imitation of those who refute them; like puppy-dogs, they rejoice in pulling and tearing at all who come near them . . . and when they have made many conquests and received defeats at the hands of many, they violently and speedily get into a way of not believing anything which they believed before, and hence, not only they, but philosophy and all that relates to it is apt to have a bad name with the rest of the world. (Republic, 539)

Plato is not interested in eristic -- in arguing solely to maintain a point; dialectic for Plato is the search for truth. We are reminded of those dialogues in which Socrates is gently prodding a Sophist to become serious. We shall see later that the precise meaning of the Platonic dialectic is not easy to discern, that it is argued that we have a change of attitude towards it in the dialogues, but the passage in question indicates that prior to the free give and take of dialectic, there must be firm grounding in mathematical subjects. Thanks to this grounding, the student comes to an appreciation of what true being and science are, and is prepared to seek such being and knowledge in a realm which transcends the mathematical. With the taste acquired in the study of mathematics, dialectic, the method of this further pursuit, is not likely to be abused and degenerate into the eristic of the Sophists. Philosophy is patently no game for Plato; it is indulged in with deep earnestness and only continuous, sustained effort can bring one to the goal. It is because philosophy has become detached from such seriousness that, according to the Republic, it has fallen into such disrepute. The fault lies with the men and with the community in which they live; both must be changed -- this is the whole point of the Republic.

If mathematics was obviously stressed in the Academy, we have some indirect evidence that concern for the natural, biological, world was also present. A fragment of a comic poet, Epicrates, describes the efforts of students at the Academy poring over a pumpkin trying to decide what species it is. It seems likely that the anecdote is rather evidence of practice in the search for definition than of the kind of interest in the natural world we find later in Aristotle.

The Academy was at once a school, a training ground for politicians, a research institute, and a religious fraternity. There seems to be no single analogue for it in the modern world; what sets it off most definitively from what today is the general view of philosophy, is that the society Plato hoped to form was conceived of as a way of life. The perfection of the intellect was never divorced from the perfection of the man. The identification of the two movements, towards truth and goodness, must be remembered if we are to understand many remarks of Plato concerning the nature of philosophy and the steps to its acquisition. The Academy, founded to form new men and, hopefully, a new society based on the truth of things, was destined to have a long history. Although it changed its character a number of times, and even for a long period drifted into the scepticism against which Plato warned so eloquently, the Academy continued at Athens, though not in precisely the same location, until 529 A.D. when the philosophical schools were closed by Justinian. This was far from being the end of the influence of Plato, however; from the material influence evident in our use of the term "academy" and its derivitives, to the continuing role the dialogues have played as sources for philosophizing, it is evident that, for philosophers consciously and for all men unconsciously, Plato of Athens is a contemporary.

Writings. Plato's written work consists of thirteen letters, some of disputed authenticity, and the dialogues. The function of the letters is fairly obvious from their content; that of the dialogues is obscure and much disputed. That the nature and purpose of the dialogues cannot easily be decided upon becomes evident when we look once more at Plato's seventh letter (which is quite generally considered authentic). Plato there discusses the rumor that Dionysius has taken it upon himself to write about philosophy.

One statement at any rate I can make in regard to all who have written or who may write with a claim to knowledge of the subjects to which I devote myself -- no matter how they pretend to have acquired it, whether from my instruction or from others or by their own discovery. Such writers can in my opinion have no real acquaintance with the subject. I certainly have composed no work in regard to it, nor shall I do so in the future; for there is no way of putting it in words like other studies. (341 b-c; Post)

The same thought is expressed in the second letter.

Take precautions, however, lest this teaching ever be disclosed among untrained people, for in my opinion there is in general no doctrine more ridiculous in the eyes of the general public than this, nor on the other hand any more wonderful and inspiring to those naturally gifted. Often repeated and constantly attended to for many years it is at last gold with great effort freed from alloy. Let me tell you, however, the surprising thing about it. There are men, and a good many of them, too, who have intelligence and memory and the ability to judge a doctrine after examining it by every possible test, who are now old men and have been receiving instruction not less than thirty years who have just reached the point of saying that what formerly they thought most uncertain, now appears to them quite certain and evident; while what seemed most certain then, appears now uncertain. Consider these facts and take care lest you some time come to repent of having now unwisely disclosed the doctrine. It is a very great safeguard to learn by heart instead of writing. It is impossible for what is written not to be disclosed. That is the reason why I have never written anything about these things, and why there is not and will not be any written work of Plato's own. What are now called his are the work of a Socrates grown beautiful and young. Farewell and believe. (314a-c;Post)

Dionysius is urged to read the letter many times and then burn it. Thus far, we may feel that Plato's reluctance to publish is not due to the impossiblity of writing his doctrine but to the fact that those who understand it imperfectly or not at all will thereby have occasion to ridicule it; to the initiate, we might feel, the written work would speak and speak the truth. However, in the seventh letter, (the same thoughts are found in the Phaedrus), Plato goes on to argue that words cannot be vehicles of the ultimate truth, that the stricture against writing is caution against attempting the impossible. It will be well to record here his argument for the inefficacy of words; not only does it pertain to our present subject, but it will give us a first taste of Platonic doctrine.

For everything that exists there are three classes of objects through which knowledge about it must come; the knowledge itself is a fourth; and we must put as a fifth entity the actual object of knowledge which is the true reality. We have, then, first, a name; second, a description; third, an image; and fourth, a knowledge of the object. (342 a-b;Post)

Plato exemplifies what he means by the case of circle. There is the thing itself -- the circle -- and there is the word "circle." There is the description of the circle which is composed of nouns and other verbal expressions. Next there are the objects which are drawn and erased, made in wood and destroyed, and so forth. But when the wooden wheel is broken, nothing untoward happens to the circle as such. Finally, there is our knowledge of correct opinion concerning the circle itself. Since our understanding is in our mind where things do not have the qualities sensible bodies have, of all the things mentioned, our knowledge has most affinity with the real object in question, namely, the circle itself. These remarks can be applied to anything whatsoever, mathematical objects, the good and beautiful, artificial and natural things.

For if in the case of any of these a man does not somehow or other get hold of the first four, he will never gain a complete understanding of the fifth. Furthermore these four -- names, descriptions, bodily forms, concepts -- do as much to illustrate the particular quality of any object as they do to illustrate its essential reality because of the inadequacy of language. Hence no intelligent man will ever be so bold as to put into language those things which his reason has contemplated, especially not into a form that is unalterable -- which must be the case with what is expressed in written symbols. (342e343a;Post)

Language seems as much concerned with the particular quality, that is, with the circles we draw and make, and consequently see, touch, etc., as with the essential reality, that is, circle itself. The object of philosophy is knowledge of essential reality which cannot be conveyed by language, since language will be taken to be about sensible particulars or observable instances and the whole discussion will seem involved in contradictions. Names and verbal descriptions and particular instances are necessary if one is to achieve knowledge of essential reality, but once this knowledge is attained its vast difference from the means of achieving it will be seen and, consequently, the impossibility of expressing it in words. But the way is difficult and arduous and Plato once more insists on this.

To sum it all up in a word, natural intelligence and a good memory are equally powerless to aid the man who has not an inborn affinity with the subject. Without such endowments there is of course not the slightest possibility. Hence all who have no natural aptitude and affinity with justice and all the other noble ideals, though in the study of other matters they may be both intelligent and retentive -- all those too who have affinity but are stupid and unretentive -- such will never any of them attain to an understanding of the most complete truth in regard to moral concepts. The study of virtue and vice must be accompanied by an inquiry into what is false and true of existence in general and must be carried on by constant practice throughout a long period, as I said in the beginning. Hardly after practicing detailed comparisons of names and definitions and visual and other sense-perceptions, after scrutinizing them in benevolent disputation by the use of question and answer without jealousy, at last in a flash understanding of each blazes up, and the mind, as it exerts all its power to the limit of human capacity, is flooded with light. (344a-b;Post)

Now all this would lead us to suspect that the dialogues that have come down to us do not and cannot represent the authentic teaching of Plato such as it could have been learned by a member of the Academy. There is, as we shall see, some ground for this interpretation. Nevertheless, the dialogues do exist, they do convey a doctrine and, as works of Plato, they can be said to convey a Platonic doctrine. That it may not be the very same sort of thing as was taught in the Academy to the initiate need not keep us from studying it with great care.

In one of the passages quoted, we heard Plato describe his writings as giving not his teaching but that of a Socrates grown young and beautiful. Now this will be seen to cover a good number of the dialogues, but certainly not all of them, since there are dialogues in which Socrates does not appear and several in which, though he appears, he is far from being the main speaker. The fact is, as Field has pointed out,{25} that we would not be well-advised to ask ourselves, what is the purpose or function of the dialogues? Not all the dialogues proceed in the same way nor seem to address themselves to the same audience. Of many of them, particularly of what are called the early dialogues and in which Socrates is far and away the main figure, it can be said that they are addressed to the general public; their effect if not their purpose was to make known to the outsider what interested the Academy and often to induce him to enter. Difficulties arise when we find discussed in the dialogues precisely those points which Plato claimed he would never discuss in writing. Thus, in the Republic everything finds its focus in the doctrine of essential realities or Ideas or Forms -- the things that really are and towards which the mind strains in philosophy. Moreover, in the later dialogues the discussions become much more abstruse and difficult than in the so-called "socratic dialogues" and it does not seem likely that they were directed to a popular audience. Field suggests that one possible explanation is that Plato is addressing himself to philosophers outside the Academy who could be expected to profit from such advanced discussions which, nevertheless, fall short of any attempt to put into writing statements about essential realities themselves. This is not unlikely, nor is it unlikely that more difficult dialogues should have been used within the Academy as loci for discussion. Indeed, it is possible to multiply motives with the inspection of particular dialogues; the important thing is that we refrain from seeking some one motive which covers all the dialogues without exception. This is important because, while we must accept the fact that there is a distinction between Plato's dialogues and what Aristotle calls his unwritten doctrine (knowledge of which we obtain from Aristotle), it is equally necessary to accept a difference in the philosophical content of the dialogues themselves. It has been maintained that Plato gave no oral teaching, that everything he taught is in the dialogues and finally, that whenever Aristotle ascribes something to Plato which is not to be found in the dialogues it must be rejected as at best a misunderstanding. Ross{26} has drawn attention both to the implausibility of this image of a Plato completely aloof doctrinely from the members of the society he had formed and to the sufficient evidence for accepting Aristotle's remark that there were indeed things which Plato taught but did not write down. One example is the lecture on the Good given before a public audience. We need say no more of this now, since it can be discussed more fittingly when we come to those doctrines ascribed to Plato which are not clearly present in the dialogues themselves.

There is some evidence that we possess, in the dialogues that have come down to us, all that Plato wrote -- no dialogue is referred to by name in ancient authors that we do not have today. The question is, are all thirty-five of the dialogues attributed to Plato actually his? We know for certain that twenty-four dialogues are generally recognized as authentic works of Plato. These are: Apology, Crito, Euthyphron, Laches, Protagoras, Charmides, Lyris, Gorgias, Meno, Euthydemus, Hippias Maior, Cratylus, Symposium, Phaedo, Republic, Phaedrus, Theaetetus, Parmenides, Sophist, Statesman, Philebus, Timaeus, Critias, Laws. There seems to be insufficient reason to reject: Ion, Hippias Minor, Menexenus and Epinomis. The question of the chronological order in which the dialogues were written is often discussed. One way of deciding the question is from internal evidence such as the mention of historical events. The Apology, for example, could hardly have been written prior to 399 B.C. when Socrates was put to death. From ancient sources as well as such internal evidence, the Laws can be taken to be among the very last things Plato wrote. On the basis of the Laws as ultimate, it has been possible to subject the other dialogues to a stylometric test and guess their relative distance from the last work insofar as they are near or far from it in style. It goes without saying that any proposed chronology will amount only to a more or less educated guess.

Why is it important to decide on the order in which the dialogues may have been written? From many points of view, the question obviously has no importance. Acceptance of a chronology often leads to the quest for changes of mind, a search which usually finds its object, and we are left with several conflicting Platos. Now while it may seem that if one Plato is good several are better, the quest for a unified doctrine is surely to be commended; however, divergence between the dialogues is not something the recognition of which is inextricably wedded to matters of chronology. We shall have to address ourselves to the question of the unity of Plato's thought since some dialogues (those which happen to be put later chronologically) seem to differ considerably from others (which, as it happens, fall towards the beginning of most chronological lists). We will want to see if arguments for the unity of the Platonic method go hand in hand with indifference to the chronological question while those who profess to find more or less irreconcilable differences base their claim on a development from a young to an older and perhaps wiser Plato. We have our own interest in chronology, of course, since, when we were discussing the Socratic Problem we grandly dismissed it in favor of the acceptance of the Socrates who has come down to us in the Platonic dialogues and disavowed all concern with the unknown and mayhap unknowable historical Socrates. Dialogues which have been located as early ones are also often called "Socratic dialogues" because in them Socrates occupies the central position. These dialogues exhibit that interest in definition in moral matters which Aristotle says was characteristic of Socrates, meaning no doubt the historical Socrates. These dialogues are of course artistic presentation, indeed in the judgment of those in a position to say, the best literary style and imagination of Plato are more uniformly present in the early dialogues. There is no point, of course, in denying that the Socrates of these dialogues is, as Plato confessed, a Socrates grown young and beautiful. This cannot simply mean that Socrates has achieved immortality by being caught and held in the net of art; there seems to be as well the admission of conscious idealization. Of course, even if, (though it is impossible), these were simply records of actual conversations, the editorial hand would alter them by selecting which ones were to be preserved for posterity and, doubtless be evident as well in omissions and ordering whereby the vagaries of daily intercourse would take on that beginning, middle and end they seldom have in real life. Plato cannot be regarded as the recording secretary of the Athenian Socratic Society; he is no Boswell. There is nevertheless some evidence that these artistic reconstructions bear an intended relation to what Socrates actually did. We need only mention the admission in the Republic, when Socrates urges the study of solid geometry on the part of the guardians, that this science has not yet been discovered. Burnet makes much of this, arguing that if the Socratic Dialogues were pure invention there would be no need for pointing out any anachronisms they might contain; that is, if Socrates were simply the vehicle of Plato's own thought, he could take this as sufficiently evident to those of his readers who had known Socrates and would not have to make a point of his putting in Socrates' mouth remarks that he could not possibly have made. Dialogues which are placed earlier than the Republic can generally be taken to present conversations based on those Socrates actually engaged in and as hewing rather closely to what he actually did say or might have said. Plato, accordingly, either identifies himself entirely with his memory of Socrates or is quite self-effacing with respect to his own interests and allows Socrates to speak for himself. In a dialogue like the Phaedo, we find Socrates presenting the doctrine of Ideas without apology on Plato's part. This can mean either that Aristotle is wrong in saying that Socrates never taught this doctrine or that Plato is now using Socrates in a somewhat different way. We adopt the latter possibility and claim that there are dialogues in which Socrates is presented more or less as Plato thought him to have been, whereas in other dialogues Socrates takes on a more or less symbolic function, while things are discussed that Socrates himself never discussed. If this is tenable, our earlier dismissal of the Socratic Problem does not entail that we have no further right to distinguish between Socrates and Plato.

B. The Doctrine of Forms

The distinctive characteristic of the philosophy of Plato is the doctrine of Forms -- the "essential realities" of the seventh letter. In the first book of his Metaphysics, where he is offering a synopsis of his predecessors' views on causes, Aristotle gives us brief statement on this fundamental Platonic doctrine, indicating that it is the point of difference between Socrates and Plato.

After the systems we have named came the philosophy of Plato, which in most respects followed these thinkers (i.e., the Pythagoreans), but had peculiarities that distinguished it from the philosophy of the Italians. For, having in his youth first become familiar with Cratylus and with the Heraclitean doctrines -- that all sensible things are ever in a state of flux and there is no knowledge about them -- these views he held even in later years. Socrates, however, was busying himself about ethical matters and neglecting the world of nature as a whole but seeking the universal in these ethical matters, and fixed thought for the first time on definitions; Plato accepted his teaching, but held that the problem applied not to sensible things but to entities of another kind -- for this reason, that the common definition could not be a definition of any sensible thing, as they were always changing. Things of this other sort, then, he called Ideas, and sensible things, he said, were all named after these, and in virtue of a relation to these; for the many existed by participation in the Ideas that have the same name as they. Only the name 'participation' was new; for the Pythagoreans say that things exist by 'imitation' of numbers, but Plato says they exist by participation, changing the name. (987a29-987b13)

Something of this same movement seems to show up as we pass from the "Socratic Dialogues" to subsequent ones.

Such dialogues as the Charmides, Laches and Euthyphro are asking about a particular moral quality -- temperance, courage, piety -- what is it? Socrates is interested in seeking an answer to such questions as "What is piety?", because he thinks that few people can answer correctly. And they do not even know they cannot answer them. Not knowing what a virtue is, they cannot possess that virtue -- since knowledge of the virtue and possession of it are one and the same thing. Socrates assumes knowledge of Greek in his interlocutor; he does not expect or try to induce puzzlement concerning the grammar of the word "Piety" for example. The word is known and certain actions to which the word is applied are known. The question then becomes, what does the word mean when it is applied to those actions? If we call several actions courageous, isn't there something in all actions that is one and the same? And can't we formulate a definition which will express this one, same thing they have in common?

And therefore, I adjure you to tell me the nature of piety and impiety, which you said that you knew so well, and of murder, and of other offences against the gods. What are they? Is not piety in every action always the same, and impiety, again -- is it not always the opposite of piety, and also the same with itself, having, as impiety, one notion which includes whatever is impious? (Euthyphro, 5)

There must be some one thing, piety, in terms of which all pious acts are said to be pious; so too with impiety and the rest. That is what we are seeking when we ask, what is piety? That is why Socrates is impatient with replies to the question which consists of giving an inventory, piling up examples of pious acts.

Remember that I did not ask you to give me two or three examples of piety, but to explain the general idea which makes all pious things pious. Do you not recollect that there was one idea which made the impious impious, and the pious pious? . . . Tell me what is the nature of this idea, and then I shall have a standard to which I may look, and by which I may measure actions, whether yours or those of any one else, and then I shall be able to say that such and such is pious, such another impious. (Ibid., 6)

The occurrence of the word "idea" in this passage permits us to remark that, for our purposes, "Idea" and "Form" are synonyms. The Greek terms they translate both derive from the verb "to see"; their first meaning, accordingly, would be, that which is seen; soon they come to mean the visible shape -- that whereby things seen are distinguished from one another, their visible difference. Gradually the terms come to mean distinguishing mark of specific characteristic without restriction to what can be grasped by the sense of sight. It is just this distinguishing mark, grasped by thought and expressible in words, that Socrates is after in his questions about virtue. Thus, he is after what anyone is after when he asks, "Well, what is goodness?" This question can be thought of as prompted by the bewilderment consequent on noticing what diverse things are called good. It is not necessary that the posing of such a question follow on the recognition of the wider problem it involves. Recall the divisions that Plato gave in the seventh letter. There is the word, the verbal description; there are observable things to which the word is applied and which are accordingly instances or examples of what the word means. It is fairly easy to accept this breakdown; it is the next step that causes difficulty; and Plato, by taking it, seems to go beyond what Socrates' quest involved. Plato asks, must there not be, besides the word "circle" nd our verbal expression of what it is and particular circles, the Circle itself? This Circle itself, the essential reality, the Form or Idea -- Plato's view of it is what takes him beyond Socrates to a distinctive doctrine of his own.

In the Phaedo, Socrates is made to recount his dissatisfaction with the actual practise of Anaxagoras after he had been struck by the view that Mind governs the universe and had hoped to be told why things are better as they are than otherwise. But Anaxagoras does not tell him this, giving instead the same kind of explanation of things that the other natural philosophers give. Socrates feels that they only recount those things without which the cause cannot be a cause, but leave the cause itself unstated. He turns from natural philosophy to what he calls a second-best way of proceeding -- second-best to discovering the Good which would explain why things are better as they are. The method described gives us one way of seeing into the doctrine of Forms. And because of its generally recognized importance, we reproduce it here.

Socrates proceeded: I thought that as I had failed in the contemplation of true existence, I ought to be careful that I did not lose the eye of my soul; so people may injure their bodily eye by observing and gazing on the sun during an eclipse, unless they take the precaution of only looking at the image reflected in the water, or in some similar medium. So in my own case, I was afraid that my soul might be blinded altogether if I looked at things with my eyes or tried to apprehend them by the help of the senses. And I thought that I had better have recourse to the world of mind and seek there the truth of existence. I dare say that the simile is not perfect -- for I am very far from admitting that he who contemplates existences through the medium of thought, sees them only in images any more than he who considers them in action and operation. However, this was the method which I adopted: I first assumed some principle which I judged to be the strongest, and then I affirmed as true whatever seemed to agree with this, whether relating to the cause or anything else; and that which disagreed I regarded as untrue. But I should like to explain my meaning more clearly, as I do not think that you as yet understand me . . . There is nothing new, he said, in what I am about to tell you; but only what I have been always and everywhere repeating in the previous discussion and on previous occasions: I want to show you the nature of that cause which has occupied my thoughts. I shall have to go back to those familiar words which are in the mouth of everyone, and first of all assume that there is an absolute beauty and goodness and greatuess, and the like; grant me this, and I hope to be able to show you the nature of the cause, and to prove the immortality of the soul . . . Well, he said, then I should like to know whether you agree with me in the next step; for I cannot help thinking, if there be anything beautiful other than absolute beauty should there be such, that it can be beautiful only insofar as it partakes of absolute beauty -- and I should say the same of everything . . . He proceeded: I know nothing and can understand nothing of any other of those wise causes which are alleged; and if a person says to me that the bloom of color, or form, or any such things is a source of beauty, I leave all that, which is only confusing to me, and simply and singly, and perhaps foolishly, hold and am assured in my own mind that nothing makes a thing beautiful but the presence (parousia) and participation (koinonia) of beauty in whatever way or manner obtained; for as to the manner I am uncertain, but I stoutly contend that by beauty all beautiful things become beautiful. This appears to me to be the safest answer which I can give, either to myself or to another, and to this I cling, in the persuasion that this principle will never be overthrown, and that to myself or to anyone who asks the question, I may safely reply, that by beauty beautiful things become beautiful. (99-100)

The Forms or Ideas are appealed to here through a second best way of arriving at an explanation of the things around us; the best way would to trace in detail the working of Mind in the universe, which method would enable us to see that things are better the way they are. The second-best way explains something's becoming beautiful or big or two or just by participation in, respectively, beauty, bigness, twoness or justice. The method of the second-best way consists in turning away from sensible things, since the object of true knowledge cannot be conveyed by sensation (cf. 65-66), and concentrating on propositions which are said to be images. They are images, not of the sensible world, but of the intelligible, the world of Forms. The supposition of the method of hypothesis which the passage describes is, as Hackforth puts it{27}, that the world of discourse is a faithful representation of true being. The method of hypothesis consists in accepting as true as well as everything which follows from its acceptance, while rejecting whatever is incompatible with it. In the Phaedo, the hypothesis in question is precisely the doctrine of Forms; if there are Forms or Ideas, then the soul is immortal. We are interested now in the doctrine of Forms and not in the attempt to prove the immortality of the soul.

The situation Socrates presents here is the following. We are in a world surrounded by objects; we speak about these objects and in doing so we are, of course, applying a given word to a number of objects. If we say of an action that it is just, we can also say this of another; if we say of some stones that they are two or three, "two" and "three" can be applied to other groups as well. As Plato will say in the Republic, the point he is getting at is suggested whenever we have a group of things which share a common name. Now a just act is one which has the note of justice; this action is not justice itself, nor is that thing one, and so on; nor is the group of all just acts what justice is, since justice is that whereby we recognize the particular acts as just. Justice is not the word, nor is it the mental notion we form and express verbally in the definition. Plato is suggesting that we are led inexorably to recognize another type of entity, something apart from the word, concept or instance: Justice itself. Now earlier in the Phaedo, the question has arisen as to how we acquire knowledge of such entities as Justice itself, and so forth, with the true object of every common name. The body is denied any role in such knowledge.

Then must not true existence be revealed to her in thought, if at all? . . . And thought is best when the mind is gathered into herself and none of these things trouble her -- neither sounds nor sights nor pain nor any pleasure -- when she takes leave of the body, and has as little as possible to do with it, when she has no bodily sense or desire, but is aspiring after true being? . . . Is there or is there not an absolute justice?

-- Assuredly there is.

-- And an absolute beauty and absolute good?

-- Of course.

-- But did you ever behold any of them with your eyes?

-- Certainly not.

-- Or did you ever reach them with any other bodily sense? -- and I speak not of these alone, but of absolute greatness, and health, and strength, and of the essence or true nature of everything. Has the reality of them ever been perceived by you through the bodily organs? or rather, is not the nearest approach to the knowledge of their several natures made by him who so orders his intellectual vision as to have the most exact conception of the essence of Each thing which he considers?

-- Certainly.

-- And he attains to the purest knowledge of them who goes to each with the mind alone, not introducing or intruding in the act of thought, sight or any other sense together with reason, but with the very light of the mind in her own clearness searches into the very truth of each; he who has got rid, as far as he can, of eyes and ears and, so to speak, of the whole body, these being in his opinion distracting elements which when they infect the soul hinder her from acquiring truth and knowledge -- who, if not he, is likely to attain to the knowledge of true being? (65-66)

This withdrawal of the mind into itself is, in the Phaedo, described in such a way that the movement from the sensible order and the triumph over sensuality are but different ways of viewing the same process. In this fashion, there are steps by which the soul is weaned from the sensible order so that its eye can turn to the true essences of things. This true essence or being of things is not to be thought of as in particulars; it is apart from them, separated, in another realm. The world of the Forms or Ideas is another and better world than that around us. The influence of Orphic and Pythagorean religious doctrines on the Plato who wrote the Phaedo is often mentioned and is undeniably there; but if there is mysticism, it is a mysticism which is wedded to science. Plato is not interested in elevating what we might call "existential affinity" with real being above the cognitive grasp of it; in the seventh letter he speaks of those who have a natural affinity with moral ideals but no intellectual capacity. They are not apt students of philosophy and it is philosophy that is being discussed in the Phaedo.

If the senses do not enter into the knowledge of reality as constituents of such knowledge, they nevertheless have a role to play in acquiring knowledge. It is the fact that many sensible things have a common name that presents the problem which can lead to the recognition of the Forms. And yet, involved in the recognition of the problem would seem to be the very knowledge we seek. If we are able to recognize some acts as just, must we not have some sort of imperfect knowledge of justice already? A first answer to this problem can be found in the Meno, although it is not there explicitly connected with the Forms. In that dialogue, Socrates elicits from a slave boy, by means of carefully ordered questions, the solution to a mathematical problem although the boy has had no training whatsoever in mathematics. Socrates makes use of the incident to suggest that the boy's soul had already possessed the knowledge in question, but had simply forgotten it. What he needed was a diagram and a few questions and the knowledge comes back to him. "And if there have been always true thoughts in him, both at the time when he was and was not a man, which only need to be awakened into knowledge by putting questions to him, his soul must have always possessed this knowledge, for he always either was or was not a man?" (Meno, 86) Here we have the Platonism of the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality. Issued from the hand of God, the soul lives in the presence of the Forms, of true being; its being placed in a body is the death of that former pure existence and, due to the corrupting and obscuring effect of the body, the previous knowledge is pushed into subconsciousness. When it is elicited by questions, it is rather a matter of remembering (anamnesis) than of learning. This notion that the soul is imprisoned in the body and that it must purge itself from the body -- that what we call death is in fact the release and rebirth of the soul to its true life -- is everywhere present in the Phaedo. Moreover the notion of anamnesis is also involved there. When we say that two sticks are equal, we have an instance of equality. But the recognition of them as equal involves a knowledge of equality which is neither derivable from the instance before us nor from any other instance. Close inspection of any pair of equal sensible things would reveal that they are not perfectly equal. We cannot, then, have gotten the notion of perfect equality, of equality itself, from such instances. Nevertheless, the recognition of instances can prompt us to ask what is the ideal to which they approximate and, further, to ask how we acquired knowledge of such ideas.

Thus far, then, Plato seems to have divided the world into sensible things and the Forms which are the causes of sensible things. If these are the poles of the emerging Platonic universe, there is more than emptiness between. There is first of all the question as to the status of the soul. It would appear to be neither Form nor sensible thing; consequently it must be an intermediary kind of entity. Moreover, although when it comes to exemplifying what he means by Forms, Plato speaks as often of mathematical as of moral Forms; mathematics itself will introduce a kind of multiplicity which is not that of the sensible world. If 2 and 2 are 4, the two 2's in question need not be sensible instances and, as more than one, they seem to fall short of the Form, Twoness itself. We will see later that this is precisely the problem of intermediate entities which in turn is part of the problem of the unwritten doctrine and the reliability of the testimony of Aristotle. It is well to recognize from the outset that the Platonic universe is susceptible of greater complexity; that the written doctrine of Plato itself makes that universe more complex is something that will emerge.

Republic. We find, in the middle books of the Republic, three connected passages which have importance for determining what Plato conceived to be the relationships between the Forms and things and, indeed, among the Forms themselves. These passages present the analogy of the sun and the Good, the "divided line," and the allegory of the cave. The Fifth Book begins with a discussion of the difference between knowledge and opinion. To know has as its object what truly is; not to know in anyway would have nothing or non-being to respond to it. To have opinion or to believe has as its object not what truly is, for opinion can be false, nor what wholly is not. Forms or Ideas are what truly are, and knowledge will be of them. Opinion or belief has as its object the instances of the Ideas which can be grasped through the senses. One who has only opinion is one who recognizes some things as beautiful, for example, but does not know what Beauty is. He who knows can discern the essence of beauty as well as the things which participate in or imitate it, and he never confuses the one with the other. The status of the objects of sense perception is somewhat anomolous, according to this view. They are in the realm of seeming, of phenomena, of what appears. To know what sensible things are, their true nature, is to know something other than the things grasped by the senses. Ignorance, opinion, knowledge, these three -- the greatest, of course, is knowledge and the passages which interest us now speak of the transition from the other mental states to knowledge.

The transition in question is once more triumph over the body as well as progress in knowledge, but the process is taken as aimed at the Good. The highest knowledge is possession of the Good.

. . . I am certain that you have heard the answer many times, and now you either do not understand me or, as I rather think, you are disposed to be troublesome, for you have often been told that the idea of good is the highest knowledge, and that all other things become useful and advantageous only by their use of this. . . . Do you think that the possession of all other things is of any value if we do not possess the good or the knowledge of all other things if we have no knowledge of beauty and goodness? (Republic VI, 504-5)

The great difficulty is to acquire this knowledge, for what is the Good? Whatever if is, the guardians of the ideal commonwealth are going to have to know what it is. Not that Plato conceives the primacy of knowledge of the Good as of moment only for practical concerns; we shall see that this knowledge is primary with respect to mathematics as well. It is the comparison of the sun and the Good which begins to clarify the function Plato assigns to the Good and to knowledge of it.

In the visible order more is required than eyes to see with and things to see; there is need as well of light. The source of light is preeminently the sun, and the sun is spoken of by Plato as the child the Good has created in the visible world as a symbol of itself.

And the soul is like the eye: when resting upon that on which truth and being shine, the soul perceives and understands and is radiant with intelligence; but when turned towards the twilight of becoming and perishing, then she has opinion only, and goes blinking about, and is first of one opinion and then of another, and seems to have no intelligence. . . . Now, that which imparts truth to the known and the power of knowing to the knower is what I would have you term the idea of good, and this you will deem to be the cause of science, and of truth in so far as the latter becomes the subject of knowledge; beautiful too, as are both truth and knowledge, you will be right in esteeming this other nature as more beautiful than either; and, as in the previous instance, light and sight may be truly said to be like the sun, and yet not to be the sun, so in this other sphere science and truth may be deemed to be like the good, but not the good: the good has a place of honor yet higher. (508)

We have here the suggestion of a hierarchy among the Forms or Ideas themselves. Just as the Forms take precedence over sensible things, so in the realm of Forms, the Good takes precedence over the others: Whether or not we are to take all other Forms to be on the same level, there is no doubt as to the primacy of the Good. "And so with the objects of knowledge: these derive from the Good not only their power of being known, but their very being and reality; and Goodness is not the same thing as being, but even beyond being, surpassing it m dignity and power." (509) We will see the implications of that passage drawn out by Neoplatonism.

We have seen a division of opinion from knowledge, of the visible from the invisible. Plato proposes to illustrate this by an example.

Now take a line which has been cut into two unequal parts, and divide each of them again in the same proportion, and suppose the two main divisions to answer, one to the visible and the other to the intelligible, and then compare the subdivisions in respect of their clearness and want of clearness, and you will find that the first section in the sphere of the visible consists of images. . .

(Republic VI, 509-510) Let us first set before us the illustration Plato intends.

Visible Intelligible  
ImagesVisibiliaMathematicals Forms(Objects)
noesis / episteme
(States of Mind)

Previously the role of the sun in the visible world provided a bridge to the discussion of the role the Good plays in the intelligible world; here Plato first examines that part of the line devoted to the visible. By images Plato tells us he means "in the first place, shadows, and in the second place, reflections. . . ." what we have designated as visibilia in our diagram includes "animals which we see and everything that grows and is made." The images (shadows or reflections) relate to visible things as copy to reality; moreover, knowledge of a thing through its image is likened to opinion, while knowledge of the visible thing in itself is likened to science. The same relation is to be found in that part of the line devoted to the intelligible.

There are two subdivisions, in the lower of which the soul uses the figures given by the former division as images; the enquiry can only be hypothetical, and instead of going upwards to a principle descends to the other end; in the higher of the two, the soul passes out of hypotheses, and goes up to a principle which is above hypotheses, making no use of images as in the former case, but proceeding only in and through the ideas themselves.

This is a difficult passage and is recognized to be such by Plato, who goes on to clarify his meaning. Let us follow his development.

. . . you will understand me better when I have made some preliminary remarks. You are aware that students of geometry, arithmetic and the kindred sciences assume the odd and the even and the figures and three kinds of angles and the like in their several branches of science; these are their hypotheses, which they and everybody are supposed to know, and therefore they do not deign to give any account of them either to themselves or others; but they begin with them, and go on until they arrive at last, and in a consistent manner, at their conclusion. . . . And do you know also that although they make use of the visible forms and reason about them, they are thinking not of these but of the ideals which they resemble; not of the figures which they draw, but of the absolute square and the absolute diameter, and so on -- the forms which they draw or make, and which have shadows and reflections in water of their own, are converted by them into images, but they are really seeking to behold the things themselves, which can only be seen by the eye of the mind? (510)

The geometer makes use of diagrams drawn in sand; these diagrams have the status of the objects which fall into the second division and as such they can have reflections and shadows (we can see now perhaps why Plato puts things made into the class of visible things opposed to images). For the geometer, however, the diagram is only a means of turning his eye on the Form itself, e.g., triangle itself, of which the illustration is but an image and copy.

So much is fairly clear; what is not so clear is what Plato means by hypothesis. The hypotheses of the geometer seem to be the axioms which are not proved by the geometer but assumed to be true. The suggestion is that the soul must rise above these hypotheses.

And when I speak of the other division of the intelligible, you will understand me to speak of that other sort of knowledge which reason herself attains by the power of dialectic, using the hypotheses not as first principles, but only as hypotheses -- this is to say, as steps and points of departure into a world which is above hypotheses, in order that she may soar beyond them to the first principle of the whole; and clinging to this and then to that which depends on this, by successive steps she descends again without the aid of any sensible object, from ideas, through ideas, and in ideas she ends. (511)

Now it is difficult to avoid interpreting all this as coming down to the following. Among the sciences, mathematical sciences enable the soul to rise above the sensible world; they accomplish this by making using of sensible diagrams which are not the object of study, but which are instruments enabling the eye of the soul to gaze upon Forms. The mathematical concern with Forms, however, does not establish their existence so much as it assumes that there are Forms. Consequently, the mind must turn to these Forms which are assumed to exist and rise to the point where their existence is no longer a matter of assumption. This would seem to be precisely the acquisition of knowledge of the Good, knowledge which permits us to perform a contrary movement, thanks to which, by what appears to be a deduction, all of the Forms are seen to depend upon the Good.

This concern with the Forms as such, without having recourse to the sensible as mathematics must, is called Dialectic. The culmination of philosophy, it is, in a sense, philosophy. Moreover, the methodology of this passage bears obvious resemblances to that presented in the Phaedo (99d-102a). We recall that there Socrates had introduced a second-best method which consisted of assuming something to be true and accepting what follows and rejecting what does not follow from it. This aspect of the methodology of the Phaedo answers to the description of the procedure of mathematics in the Republic. What is more, there is a hint of the procedure of dialectic, of the passage beyond hypotheses, in the Phaedo.

And if anyone assails you there, you would not mind him, or answer him until you had seen whether the consequences which follow agree with one another or not, and when you are further required to give an explanation of this principle, you would go on to assume a higher principle, and a higher, until you found a resting-place in the best of the higher. (1O1a)

Let us turn now to the allegory of the cave. In a deep cave prisoners are chained with their backs to the entrance, facing the wall, a condition they have been in since childhood. Behind them a fire burns, but between them and the fire is a raised screen. Behind it walk men carrying images of men and animals, which they hold up in such a way that the shadows of the images are projected on the wall for the prisoners to see. It is only these shadows that the prisoners have ever seen; they cannot turn and look at the graven images. Due to the acoustics of the cave, when those carrying the images speak, the sound seems to come from the shadows on the wall, and if the prisoners talked among themselves, their words would be taken to refer to the shadows before them. ("You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners. -- Like ourselves, I replied. . . ." 515)

Suppose now that one of these prisoners is unchained and turned towards the light and the images. His eyes would be dazzled, and he would not discern them clearly. If questioned, he would say that the images are less real than the shadows he is used to, and since his eyes would ache at the brightness of the fire, he would want to return to his wall and shadows. But suppose he were dragged back through the long entrance to the mouth of the cave, and out into the sunlight which had never penetrated to his original habitat. He would be doubly dazzled now and unable to look at any of the things he is told are real. Here; too, he would first see their shadows and images reflected in water, and only later the things themselves. Finally he would turn his gaze to the heavenly bodies and, last of all, the sun itself could be studied in its reflections.

We shall not now concern ourselves with Plato's penchant for telling a story like this one to illustrate or substitute for a difficult doctrine. What we must be concerned with is the connection between the three passages we have considered: Sun/Good; Divided Line; the Cave. In the first of these passages, Plato has distinguished between the visible and intelligible, the world of becoming and the world of being. By an analogy with sight and its need for the sun by whose light the visible is seen, the Good is spoken of as that Form or Idea in terms of which all other Forms are intelligible. In the divided line passage, a gradation of mental states was pointed out, answering to the way in which the mind must be led from its immersion in the sensible world through mathematics to dialectic which attempts to analyse Ideas into the Good and then deduce the structure of the world of Ideas from the Good. The cave parable seems to go over the steps of this ascent in story fashion, returning to the symbol of the sun -- the child of the Good in the visible world.

It is after the story of the cave that Plato outlines the various sciences which, we have already seen, were to constitute the higher studies of the guardians. These are all on the intelligible plane, of course, and it is a question of arithmetic; geometry, plane and solid; astronomy and harmonics. Finally, by means of dialectic, one turns to the Ideas themselves without any dependence on the visible order. We might ask ourselves here whether Plato leaves us with several sciences or one alone, dialectic. Cornford is of the opinion that the five disciplines mentioned are truly sciences for Plato. He observes that Plato has added solid geometry to the four traditionally recognized, and adds,

These sciences are here described and criticized with respect to their power of turning the soul's eye from the material world to objects of pure thought. They are the only disciplines recognized by Plato as sciences in the proper sense, yielding a priori certain knowledge of immutable and eternal objects and truths. For him there could be no "natural science" no exact knowledge of perishable and changeable things.{28}

One wonders whether this judgment is in accord with Plato's remark on these disciplines in 534. In Cornford's own translation, "From force of habit we have several times spoken of these as branches of knowledge; but they need some other name implying something less clear than knowledge, though not so dim as the apprehension of appearances." (p. 254) Shortly thereafter Plato groups these mathematical disciplines under "intelligence concerned with true being" and we recall that mathematics earlier seemed to be drawn into dialectic itself: " . . . because they start from hypotheses and do not ascend to a principle, those who contemplate them appear to you not to exercise the higher reason upon them, although when a first principle is added to them they are cognizable by the higher reason." (Republic VI, 511d) It is as if mathematics is distinct from dialectic only in its imperfect state; at the term of the ascent, all is one science -- triangle itself, circle itself, etc., are Forms and thus objects of dialectic.

To summarize our discussion thus far: it was the search for definitions which led Plato, following Socrates, to the view that there are Forms or Ideas in which individual sensible things participate. How do we recognize the need for Ideas or Forms? "Whenever a number of individuals have a common name, we assume them to have also a corresponding idea or form." (Republic, X, 596) Such Ideas are the objects of knowledge as distinct from opinion. Not only are there Ideas, but they have certain relations, either of mutual exclusion (coldness is opposed to and excludes heat and vice versa -- cf. Phaedo, 102a-105b) or of subalternation (whatever participates in threeness also participates in oddness). In the Republic the point is seemingly made that there is one supreme Form or Idea in terms of which all the others have their being and their intelligibility. That is why true knowledge, which is of true being or the Ideas, must ultimately terminate in the Idea of the Good.

It should be pointed out that Plato explicitly excuses himself, in the Republic and elsewhere, from saying what the Idea of the Good, or indeed any other Idea, truly is, or from saying what exactly the method he calls dialectic is. We have seen that, in the seventh letter, Plato disavows ever having written about his doctrine of Ideas; surely this is why Plato's thought as it has come down to us in the dialogues is in so many respects both teasingly attractive and maddeningly frustrating. Despite the difficulties, the dialogues we have thus far looked at present a picture of a realm of entities over, and above, separate from, the sensible things in the world around us; these separate entities are true being -- a note they have largely because of their immunity from change and apparent contradiction. They are causes of sensible things because these exist by participation in or imitation of the Forms. Obviously it is not easy to see how there can be any one type of relation of particular changeable things to the world of Forms, especially when we consider the difference between the two types of things which usually figure in attempts to describe the theory of Ideas, namely, mathematicals and moral ideals. It is easier to see how a particular action can be described as striving to imitate a perfect pattern of action than to see how a figure in the sand is striving to imitate triangularity itself. Not that the Forms are restricted to the essential realities behind mathematicals and moral actions. We have just quoted a passage in the Republic which makes it clear that any common name requires that we posit a Form -- even "bed." In the Phaedrus, there is a mythical account which speaks of the Ideas as dwelling above the heavens. "There abides the very being with which true knowledge is concerned: the colorless, formless, intangible essence, visible only to mind, the pilot of the soul" (247) Since these words occur in a myth, we need not take too seriously, perhaps, the location of the Ideas. Nevertheless, because Plato stresses so strongly the separation of the Ideas from sensible particulars, the question as to where these Ideas are naturally arises. Doubtless it is legitimate to point out that, since the Ideas are conceived to be utterly different from things that are in place, the question is nonsense. For all that, Plato is quite clear as to where the Ideas are not: they are not in sensible things and they are not concepts in our minds. The latter denial is made most emphatically in the Parmenides, a dialogue which, along with several others, can be looked upon as a product of Plato's own critical reflection on the doctrine of Ideas and the method of dialectic he had set forth with reference to the Ideas. We can point out that, already in the Phaedrus, which is thought to have been written prior to the dialogues we shall be considering in the next section, a slightly different conception of method is described. Socrates, looking back over a previous discussion, points out that it involved two principles: (1) a gathering of particulars under one Idea which is then defined; that is, first a process of generalization (synagoge); (2) the division into species. "I am myself a great lover of these processes of division and generalization; they help me to speak and to think. And if I find any man who is able to see 'a One and Many' in nature, him I follow, and 'walk in his footsteps as if he were a god.' And those who have this art, I have hitherto been in the habit of calling dialecticians; but God knows whether the name is right or not." (266) Let us turn now to those dialogues in which Plato casts doubt on the doctrine of Ideas itself and has things to say about dialectic which seem quite different from the descriptions he has previously given.

{24} Burnet, Greek Philosophy, Thales to Plato (London: Macmillan, 1928), p. 208.

{25} C. C. Field, Plato and His Contemporaries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), pp. 5911.

{26} Sir David Ross, Plato's Theory of Ideas, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951), Chap. IX.

{27} See R. Hackforth, Plato's Phaedo (Cambridge, England: University Press, 1952), p. 138.

{28} F. M. Cornford, The Republic of Plato (London: Oxford, 1941), p. 236.

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