World's Great Philosophers:
The Early Greeks
Socrates And Plato
Epicurus, Zeno, Pyrrho
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Socrates And Plato
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Among all the ancients few have a more distinct or interesting personality than Socrates. Socratic wisdom is a proverb. His name has come down to us as the suggestion of all that is heroic, virtuous, noble. His life and character have been surrounded by a halo that has become brilliant in inverse ratio to the distance that separates his own time from that of his historians. He is portrayed to us as a noble, self-sacrificing, imperturbable moralist. His death is pointed out as the acme of sublime and virtuous resignation. His slightest words are treasured as gems of sapiency; his most commonplace actions detailed over and again with the unctuousness of slavish admiration. It is remarkable that Socrates has not been deified. But if he be not worshiped as a god he is reverenced as sincerely as it is possible for mere man to be.
Fortunately, we have no lack of data concerning the life and the sayings of this most illustrious of Greeks, but a prudent consideration of these will not, it must be confessed, dispose any but those who are more warm than critical to be over-enthusiastic on the subject of Socratic perfection. His biography has been written by Xenophon and by Plato, who quotes Alcibiades. His teachings have been preserved by his two learned biographers, who disagree somewhat as to the master's beliefs. But it is not for his personality that Socrates is remembered. It is for the striking picture his way of life and his character present in contrast to the frame which surrounds it.
Socrates was born in the year 469 B. C. His father was Sophroniscus, his mother Phaenarete. The father was a stone-cutter, the mother a midwife. Modern historians, who can find no flaw however small in this paragon of paganism, adhere to the tradition, which came later, that Sophroniscus was a sculptor. As Socrates learned the paternal trade he is likewise said to have been a sculptor, but there is no evidence for the entertainment of this view except the doubtful story of a group of graces executed by his father. The character of Socrates, even when we take it from the deft touches of Xenophon and Plato, is more in keeping with the tradesman who has the gift of speech and a desire for knowledge from which lack of early education debars him, than with the polished, learned artist of the golden age of Pericles.
When Socrates lived the Propylaea, the Erectheum, and the Parthenon graced the Acropolis with their noble columns and their superb style. Phidias, whose work has never been approached, had been left by Cimon to Pericles as a heritage of the times. Greek sculpture and Greek poetry were at their best. The finest physical and mental products of Greek aesthetics were about Socrates everywhere. It is hard to believe that the Talker of the Agora and of the public places of Athens was in sympathy with the aestheticism of his time. He was born in the very midst of a civilization of art and letters through which he could not have lived uninfluenced had he been reared in the studios of men like Phidias and his fellows. It has been said that the influence of Socrates remains. It might not be an easy undertaking to verify this assertion.
It is reasonable, then, to take Socrates for what Timon describes him a stone-cutter. It is probable that he was the mechanical assistant of some eminent sculptor. Phidias, who had complete superintendency of the sculptural, mural and architectural works of the Acropolis, had under him numerous lesser sculptors, and under these again were artisans and modelers. The latter can be no more called sculptors than can the "second" of the modern sculptor, who chisels the marble block in the rough.
It is disputed that Socrates was a pupil of Anaxagoras, for he declared that the study of physics was impious. The extravagant eulogies of Socrates that are found in Plato as being a record of the opinions of Alcibiades prove too much. And if any accurate information is to be derived from these records the general conclusion we may draw from them is this, that Socrates adopted the methods of the Sophists, at the same time loudly proclaiming, on all sides and at every opportunity, the splendor of his own virtue and purity while at the same time he took care to point out the wickedness and the foibles of all other men.
There is one thing we may certainly know of this Greek, and that is that, though lustrous as he may have been in all the virtues besides, he was positively lacking in one, and that one modesty. He insisted obtrusively that he himself knew nothing, but he was careful to point out that nobody else among men knew even that much. "They know not," he said, "and know not they know not. I know not and know I know not." His wisdom, how-ever, did not reach the sublime heights of the Saracens who "knew and who knew that they knew." To justify the view that Socrates was a tradesman who aimed at being considered one of the philosophers, attention will be called in another place to his peculiar manner of living and teaching in Athens a manner of life made possible only by the heterogeneous condition of Greek thought in his time, and the character in general of Greek philosophers.
Socrates was wedded with Xanthippe, who bore him three children. It is possible that this unfortunate woman has been sacrificed to the idolatry that has placed her husband on a pedestal and has bowed before him in blind adoration. It should not be forgotten that Socrates, after all, was only a man, and that he lived in ancient Athens. The debate of the market-place was naturally more attractive to his polemical disposition than was the shop of the artisan or perhaps the aspect of a cheerless home and a complaining spouse. Whatever may have been the private troubles of this celebrated pair, it is certain that Socrates gave over his trade when he had reached middle age and went out into the streets to engage in the unintellectual tourney that was there in daily progress. He boasted of his entire poverty. But it is quite easy to be poor when one prefers discussion to hard labor, and possibly Socrates could not be blamed for his choice. Socrates busied himself with questions of education, yet the thoughtful man will be struck by his neglect of his own children. Still, Xanthippe may have been responsible for that. Then, besides, Socrates had other and more important duties. There were the Sophists going about like ravening wolves with none but Socrates' shrewd tongue and biting wit to discomfit them. There were the pretentious Ionians prating about first causes and none but Socrates to drag them into the light of day and expose their shallowness. There were the licentious, bold, bad boulevardiers who flaunted their vices in the public eye. Who but Socrates was competent to put them to rout?
It is true, of course, that Socrates often suffered rude interruptions from Xanthippe, who would break in upon his discourses with disconcerting demands for money to market with. What cared Socrates for money? Turning to his friends, after the wife left him, he was wont to liken her to a spirited horse. When he could tame Xanthippe, he said, he found other fractious animals easy to his hand. The amiable manner in which he treated his wife has been the cause of much contrasting of the two, to the great credit of the husband. But it is possible that Xanthippe was not entirely to blame. She had to provide the family meals. Even philosophers must eat. And although Xanthippe has come down to us as the prototypic shrew and her husband as the most lovable of men, she should not be too hastily condemned. She is not the only woman whose temper has been incompatible with that of a husband who was fonder of the platform than of the hearthstone.
The children do not seem to have formed a bond of union between the philosopher and his wife. Socrates and Xanthippe made a common mistake. She appears in all particulars as the tradesman's wife. Her family was poor; if it were rich she would not have had to beg her husband for funds to buy food for herself and her children. It is a pity that the Athenian sage was ever married. When he could do so much active work as a philosopher with a millstone like Xanthippe tied about his neck, what might he not have accomplished had he been a free and careless bachelor? We must resist the desire, however tempting, to pass judgment on and fix the blame for the infelicity of the Socratic household. So much has been said upon this theme that it is at best a worn one. The life of Socrates, apart from his too severely criticized mate, is more to the point and more important to the purpose here in hand.
Of the philosopher's personal appearance we have information as detailed and as accurate, possibly, as we have of his habits. He had a low, squat body with a protuberant abdomen, the swayings of which were commonly the subject of ridicule for less rotund and not admiring critics. Supporting this Faistaffian embonpoint were stout, short, muscular legs set firm and solid on the ground by strong, hard feet. He could stand for hours in one spot to waddle away without the least symptom of fatigue.
His face was sensuous, his lips very thick, his eyes large and heavy, standing out beyond the brow with startling effect. His personal appearance, striking and even repulsive, at once assimilated itself with that of a Satyr, the most immodest and disgusting of all the abortions produced by pagan imagination. He was commonly called "Silenus," and the minute anatomization to which he was subjected by Alcibiades leaves a portrait from which a painter could recreate his figure in absolute detail. But Alcibiades was one of the worshipers at the shrine of this satyr and likens him to those statutes of satyrs in the idol shops which, when opened, disclosed within their hideous exterior the figure of a beautiful god.
The combination of this startling figure and face suggesting, as they must have suggested, shady woods and Priapic orgies with the lofty protestations of personal pulchritude of soul which Socrates constantly uttered was, to say no more, grotesque. Passers by, attracted by the hideousness of the central figure in any of the Socratic groups that were ever to be seen in the streets of Athens, were at first repulsed by the appearance of the philosopher, but, listening to his speech, interrupted now and again by loud laughter or spontaneous applause whenever he scored some signal refutation of his opponent, the new comer was fain to stay and hear more of the lively and acrobatic de-bate; or, fixed by the sententious and proverbial style of the Socratic monologue, would linger to learn what such a monstrously ugly man could say to win such close attention.
Socrates had a sharp tongue and a quick wit. This we learn from his easy victories over his opponents who do not seem, by the way, to have been eminent philosophers. The Sophists of his day were light conquests and, although he is credited with having fought them vigorously and on all occasions, there is no doubt whatever that it was from them he learned his dialectics. As has been said before, Socrates was a Sophist, but one who claimed to be good, holy, and virtuous, who believed in right and wrong, or said he did, who sacrificed to the gods and who even requested with his dying breath that a cock be offered for him after he had given up his life.
Attempts that have been made to show that Socrates was a monotheist are made in the face of precise and indubitable evidence to the contrary. Xenophon marvels that the charge of impiety could have stood against him for a single moment. He believed in the current poly-theism, sealed his belief by his public practice. Disbelief in the gods, nay, even avowed atheism, was taught in Greece before him by men who did not suffer for their opinions. His contemporaries, the Sophists, as we have seen, even in Athens were not condemned for running counter to the prevalent theology. Socrates was no wiser than the rest of his fellow-citizens in this respect. A man who was so far above and beyond the bodily and intellectual foibles of his kind as he is reputed to have been would never have countenanced by precept and practice the degrading superstitions of the Greeks as we know Socrates to have done. Let us hear Xenophon : "When he sacrificed he feared not his offering would fail of acceptance in that he was poor. But giving according to his ability he did not doubt but, in the sight of the gods, he equaled those men whose gifts and sacrifices overspread the whole altar. For Socrates always reckoned it as a most indubitable truth that the service paid the gods by the pure and pious soul was the most grateful service."
If Socrates were an infidel at heart he concealed that fact admirably. and it is not incredible that Xenophon should wonder that he was condemned for impiety.
Indeed, the rhapsodies into which we find Plato, Alcibiades, and Xenophon constantly lapsing concerning their bewitching Silenus have the appearance at times of admirably constructed satires which even the truly pathetic accounts of the death of the philosopher do not remove.
Socrates, whatever else might have been his real short-comings, possessed a keen and quick wit and a ready tongue. He said that he sought the truth and, although persistent in his assertions that he alone of men knew all of truth that was known, he ferreted out the philosophers, the poets, the artists, the artisans and the politicians to find out whether or not they were wiser than he. The pre-text of this quest is found in Plato's story relating how Socrates once heard that Apollo had pronounced him the wisest of men. The satire here is obtrusively obvious. Socrates, we are told, deeming it impious to question the dictum of so great a god as Apollo, was desirous of verifying the divine utterance by practical tests. He therefore appealed to all those who were considered learned. But after a thorough catechisation of the reported wise ones he comes to the conclusion that all such were far beneath him in knowledge in that they believed themselves wise, but were not. Even skilled tradesmen are condemned because, knowing many things of which the sapient inquirer was ignorant, they conceived that they were in-formed in lines without their special occupations. Socrates, therefore, sets himself down, or up, as the wisest of all men.
Socrates ambled around the streets of Athens looking for prey to his dialectic skill. His hunting was fruitful. Hearing some teacher expounding his doctrines in physics or metaphysics he would approach and ask questions. Innocently requesting his victim to define this or that term used, he pressed his desire for further definitions and definitions of definitions until his vis-a-vis, becoming tangled in a net of his own weaving, would depart in wrath, leaving the field clear to his leering victor. Then Socrates would proceed to harangue the crowd, keeping his own virtue full in view his bodily presence needed no advertisement and enlarging upon the qualities of virtue, truth, morality, fear of the gods, simplicity of living, serenity of mind, and other generalities without a great degree of applicability. "Define your terms and discussion ceases" is a Socratic bon mot, but we have to learn that Socrates ever defined such terms as he himself used. He sought to tear down what was building, but did not concern himself with the basis and structure of all true knowledge.
It was but natural that a man of his physique would make a brave soldier, and such he was. On the field of battle he was lion-hearted ; in the camp, in the bivouac and on the march cheery and indefatigable. Plato relates one anecdote of Socratic endurance from which it is hard to eliminate a sub-consciousness of exceeding keen irony. In one of his campaigns Socrates was observed standing wrapped in meditation. He had taken up his position thus in the early morning, and when noon arrived he was still immovable, "arguing within himself." At dusk when some Ionians, having supped, came near the spot to sleep under their blankets, Socrates was still transfixed in meditation. And when the soldiers awoke the next day the philosopher had not yet given up his post; nor did he stir until the sun rose, saluting which god with a prayer, he went on his way.
His scorn of physical suffering was otherwise complete. He walked on the ice with bare feet; did not complain when rations were scarce, but ate liberally when they were plentiful. He did not disdain wine, but was perfect in this respect as he was perfect in all other things; for even though he drank his fellow-officers into a state bordering on the maudlin, he himself was the same cool, clear-brained Socrates of the agora. And this, be it remembered, when in his daily life at home he never or seldom partook of spirituous beverages. Search his biographies as we will we can find no moat in the Socratic eye, no blemish or suggestion of blemish on the Socratic character. Fighting in battle like an Achilles, saving the lives of his friends like a demigod, cool and self-possessed in retreat, refusing the prizes of gallant conduct on the field, and glorious even in defeat, there was never such soldier as Socrates. Thus Plato. However, we have one ancient presentation of Socrates that is customarily passed over in silence or slighted by his admirers. This is the picture drawn of the sage by Aristophanes, the playwright, in his comedy "The Clouds." He is here described as a Sophist and it is plain that the dramatist was not deceived by his apparent enmity to the men from whom he borrowed his dialectics.
The trial, condemnation and death of the philosopher have even been a subject of reprobation to the Greeks. That such a perfect creature could be wantonly murdered by the Athenians has never been understood by those who can see nothing in his character but the good, the beautiful, and the true. As we have seen, the charge of impiety cannot stand. The society that could tolerate the Sophists and listened unmoved to the doctrines of mono-theists, magians, and atheists imported from the colonies, would hardly take offense at the free expression of religious thought in Athens. Socrates was considered a source of danger to the youth of the city.
It is no less than absurd to hold that Athenian ire could have been roused against any man who sought to teach Athenian boys the merit of right conduct, of truth telling, of lives wisely and temperately ordered, of devotion to the gods, of justice and of patriotism. Men are not slain for such doctrines as these. Fatuous biographers of Socrates weakly excuse the Greeks by saying that Socrates to them was not what Socrates is to us. And this, while perfectly true, is no commendation for modern thinking. The Greeks, or such of the Greeks as were free and cultured, and these were the rulers, the aristoi, were in no wise inferior to the same class of the men of to-day. They did not have the printing-press and the electric telegraph, but in human sympathies and in those refinements of life that distinguish the best society of this age, they were not at all lacking. That they had deep seated and serious objection to a satyr-like old man mingling with their growing boys and teaching them nobody knew what, when he should have been engaged at home or elsewhere with persons of his own age and station, is not to be wondered at. It is doubtful if a Socrates of to-day would be so summarily dealt with as was the Athenian, but it is more than probable that his career would be cut short much earlier now than then.
Socrates said much concerning the education of youth. But it is odd that he found no patron to assist him in entering upon an educational career and in founding a fixed school of his own. His friend Crito, who is said to have taken him. out of the workshop, does not seem to have been impressed with the qualifications of his protégé as an educator, although he liked his dialectics well enough. The Athenians did not regard Socrates as a fit man to consort with the rising generation. Whether the danger lay in his political or his moral influence on the youth of the city is of no great importance. It is sufficient to know that Athenians were alarmed for their young men and boys. Sequestration from society is the punishment which later peoples have meted out to men of the Socratic stamp. Death was the punishment then.
The short career of Socrates in the Senate was dramatic, as was ever the case with all he did. The senatorial position he held was his only public office. While in that body his opposition and his obstruction made him the principal figure among senators, and these have been expanded, like all his other doings, into marvels of virtue.
The last scene of all has been as minutely described as the other affairs of his life. He was visited while in prison by his friends and, if the Platonic account is to be trusted, these friends and pupils had profited little by the lessons he is said to have taught them.
On the last day of his life he was humanely and considerately treated by the authorities. No man condemned to death in these times is given more freedom or is more kindly served than was Socrates. The Greeks did not hurry the convicted one to death with the wrath of savages. The jail was open to all who cared to visit him or to all whom he cared to see. The executioner who handed him the poisoned cup was respectfully, even tenderly, considerate. The condemned was surrounded by his friends. He spoke to them calmly, but had no fear, while they them-selves were weeping like women.
Shortly before the time for the execution of his sentence his wife and sons came to see him. Xanthippe, in spite of all her shrewishness and all his neglect, could not let her husband die without weeping upon his breast. But Socrates was as insensible to her tears as he had been to her scoldings. He requested that she and the sons be sent away.. He would at least die in peace. His followers, however, he retained, and to them he delivered his final platitudes. He swallowed the poisoned draught, and as he grew cold from his feet upward and the death rigor came upon him, he turned to Crito and requested him to sacrifice a cock to AEsculapius. "We owe a cock to AEsculapius" were his last words.
The biography of Socrates is his philosophy, if he can be said to have had a philosophy. He wrote nothing. He did not offer a rational theory of man or the universe. He was an unconscious methodologist. He despised physics, or pretended to despise it. He held that time devoted to the investigation and observation of natural processes was time wasted. He found no beauty or fascination in the blue sky, the running brook, the noble mountains, the blooming meadows with their varied forms of life and the marvels of their growth and decay. The bees with their honey and their geometry interested him not. It did not occur to the mind of this great man that the infinite spaces all around him contained the matter and the matrix of the All. Whether the earth rested upon the back of a turtle or of an elephant, or whether, perhaps, it circled the sun as one of a family of nobler and more beautiful satellites, was to him a question of the utmost insignificance. The music of the spheres and the rattle of Xanthippe's dishes were all one to him. He said to Phaedrus: "I am very anxious to learn, and from fields and trees I can learn nothing."
It is not impossible that Socrates could not comprehend the physics of some of his contemporaries and predecessors. He did not care to speculate about causes. Once when pushed with this point he replied in words weak beyond expression, indicating a desire to elude discussion upon a subject of which he was perhaps in total ignorance: "I have not leisure for these things," he said, "and I will tell you why. I am not .yet able to know myself, and it appears to me to be very ridiculous to inquire into that in which I am not concerned."
How one holding such opinions as these can be said to have been the inventor of the Baconian method of induction is inconceivable, and yet such has been the position of not a few who are eminent as commentators and historians. If Socrates left anything that is valuable it is. his example in asking questions and insisting on the definition of terms. There he asked for the impossible. Precise as science has been in many respects, it is lacking in this. A writer will hedge his work around with definitions and limitations only to find the structure he has reared fall about his head in ruins when he learns the truth that words are at best inadequate symbols of thought and shade into one another by imperceptible degrees, mocking our efforts to fix their meaning to one clear concept. If the Platonic philosophy, as has been claimed, is the result of the application of the Socratic method that method can not have been in any measure identical with the method of Bacon. Socrates, if anything, was an ethicist, but he was an ethicist with not even as scientific an apology for his doctrines as had his originals and enemies, the Sophists of rich raiment.
Let us pass from Socrates to his pupil; a pupil famous as his master, infinitely better bred and in all ways more deserving the great title of philosopher. Plato's works are read to-day by more men than he could possibly count upon. Those who know him through the many and excel-lent translations that have been of late years placed upon the book market at cheap prices, or those who, more fortunately, are capable of studying him in his own Greek, are fascinated by his many-sided mind and by his broad culture, not less than by his adeptness as a logician and his high polish of person.
Although known to fame and to history as Plato, his true name was Aristocles. The surname he derived from some physical peculiarity, whether broadness of brow or broadness of shoulders is in dispute (and indifferent). He was a native of Athens and he sprang from one of the most aristocratic families of that city. The descend-ant of Solon, he might well have ranked with sons of the proudest lineage, and his wealth was commensurate with the high position to which his nobility of birth entitled him.
Plato's early education was a matter of the gravest concern to his natural guardians. He was sent to the gymnasium, where he was trained with the youth of his class in those physical exercises for which the Greeks are as much remembered to-day as for their art, their philosophy and their poetry. Excellent man that he was in many other ways, he excelled also in athletics and won his trials for the public games.
Intellectually, his youth was much the same as that of an earnest, studious, and ambitious collegian of our own times. Blessed with abounding health and that clear mentality that accompanies hard muscles, good digestion, and sound sleep, he was not without the beautiful melancholy of discontent that is ever found in the nature of such youths as become great in their maturity. Boys of this description almost invariably write poetry. Few of them become even mediocre poets in later life; fewer still master poets. Poetry, being the easiest outlet for the forces generated by the fermentation and stir of adolescence, to poetry they turn. And, as a general rule, they are heartily ashamed of their youthfully ambitious productions when they fall heir to the sobriety of ripe manhood.
Of this type was Plato. Before he was twenty he had written some thousands of verses. Of these but a few remain, and they are not greatly to his credit. We need, therefore, have no great regret that he destroyed a few tragedies, a volume or two of lyrics and a generous quantity of epigrammatic verses. He even essayed an epic and this is no occasion for surprise when we learn that he eagerly gave it to the flames when he compared it with the Iliad. But all this is to his great praise. He was proficient in music, too, and in the arts generally. But to the young mind that is about to burst into flower and is stirred by something deeper and profounder than mere art can labor with and satisfy, poetry and music are but poor ministers. This is the beauty of youth; the source and mother of science and philosophy. And Plato felt it all.
Early did this melancholy and enthusiastic young man address himself to the quest for Truth. He is said to have followed after the pattern of the recluse Heraclitus; to have questioned the trees, the rocks, the clouds. Next we find him deep in skepticism, at the age of eighteen or nine-teen, the age at which boy philosophers are usually plunged into the endless abysses of Doubt, or at which, nowadays, they become the devotees of a burning Hegelianism or of a "divine" Fichteism. Such was the stage to which the mind of Plato had come when, at twenty, he heard the voice of Socrates for the first time.
That Plato immediately burned his tragedies after having listened to his first Socratic discourse, is almost a necessary conclusion; that he returned to hear more from the same source is as certain as gravitation. Now, as Socrates spent his entire day, year in and out, talking in the marketplace to all who would stop to hear him, Plato had ample opportunity to attend and learn.
Plato had written poetry. Socrates smashed the poets and their poems with one iron word. Plato had been taught, as was natural for one of his class, the political science of his day. Socrates leveled the politicians with one blow of his unanswerable ridicule. Plato had studied the physics and the cosmology of the colonial masters. Socrates, with his insidious manner, his prodigious mobility of facial accent, and his inevitable and doom-sealing interrogatories, questioned the colonial cosmogony and physics out of existence. Plato came again and again. The young mind delights in iconoclasm as the child delights in the destruction of physical devices put together at great expense by his elders. Plato drank in, with impatient thirst, the words that came from the heavy mouth of the Talker. He sought the great man personally. He became his pupil, his friend. There is no doubt that Socrates cultivated this new admirer. It was his way.
Plato followed Socrates for a half score years until his death. But by that time the bare morality of the master had grown burdensome to him. He found that Socrates, while an excellent iconoclast, was a poor reconstructor. Plato had desired a system, a theory of the universe, an understanding of mind and matter. Socrates told him that in virtue alone was happiness found. But Plato knew otherwise. Being virtuous, he was not happy. The deep impression made upon Plato by Socrates was the impression on the plastic, eager mind of raw youth. That he loved the old man intensely there is no doubt. To repay the fancied debt he owed him, Plato imbedded Socrates in the very heart of his own fame. He expounds his system through the mouth of his master. And whenever he comes to a conclusion, that conclusion is spoken, in the Platonic dialogic style, by Socrates.
After the death of Socrates Plato gathered up his effects and went on a lengthy journey from Athens. Socrates, dead, was more famous than ever. Plato, his favorite, most distinguished and wealthiest disciple, was regarded with much curiosity. He might have begun teaching at once, but he was in search of knowledge which Socrates, with all his wit, had not been able to teach, and he went abroad. He visited Megara, Cyrene, and Egypt. The influence of the land of colossi and pyramids upon his philosophy is as vigorously controverted as is the question of a similar influence on the system of Pythagoras. Egyptian influence on Greek thought may be exaggerated but there is sufficient reason to believe that Plato brought with him from the Nile theories which could never have arisen from the use of the Socratic Method, as Socrates' insistence on definitions is called. On his return to Athens he was warmly welcomed by all who took an interest in the Athenian movement, which was now rapidly rising to its culmination.
Observe now the difference between pupil and master. Aristocles, the aesthete, the polished, the cultured, the aristocrat, makes no traffic of his lore in the marketplace and highways of the city. He soils not his fine garments by contact with stevedores, apprentices and loungers. He offers no display of his intellectual treasures before the eyes of laughing and empty-headed loons, nor does he argue with politicians, poets, and double-fisted mechanics in order to prove the supremacy of his wisdom above that of all men and the godliness of his character as compared with all other Athenians. Such is not the Platonic way. On the contrary he leaves the city behind, with its blare and its noise and retires to a delicious grove some distance from Athens and takes up his station beneath the shade of grateful trees, with their palmated branches. There he begins to teach and thither flock all of those with whom Plato is pleased to consort. The name of this garden was "Akademia" and Plato's school was called the Academic school, or the Academicians. Thus he gave us the word "academy" with all that it means.
The Academy was truly a delightful spot. The ideal of a site for a school of philosophy that its name ever conjures, probably has not been exaggerated. Here, in the fresh pure air of the country, in a climate that has inspired the most sweetly rural poetry, in the very heart of classic Greece, Plato founded his school and taught his philosophy. Through the grounds of the Academy wound a musical little stream, fringed with many species of flowers, to which the bees paid daily visit, adding the soft, low music of their wings to the babble of the brook and to the natural and artificial beauties of the place. Through the green of the shrubbery the sun lit up here and there the white gleaming figure of a god or goddess, and for those whose piety felt the need of religious consolation, there were temples at hand and altars whereat the sacrifice could be offered, and the libation poured.
To this retreat came none but such as had leisure and propensity to devote themselves wholly to philosophy. There were no stragglers, none who stopped out of curiosity to hear what was going forward, and go on their business. If any came from Athens out of the spirit of vulgar inquisitiveness to see the new teacher, they were sorely disappointed. For Plato was no haranguer, no debater no disputatious interrogator. He was severely philosophical, and when he was not presenting some abstract and difficult problem of dialectics and giving his hearers a demonstration, he was expounding his peculiar theory of metempsychosis or he was discussing the nature of mind or the nature of Beauty, Virtue, Truth, or the essentiality of Being. Such discussions are caviar to uncultured minds, and Plato was not interested in these.
While yet in his thirties, Plato had won an eminent success as a philosopher. He was the first Athenian to bring out a system, and the first Greek to systematize his thought. For several years he taught in the Academy. Only three times after his return from Egypt did he go abroad. These visits were made to Sicily and all of them were unfortunate. On his first visit he was arrested and sold into slavery by Dionysius of Syracuse; on his second visit the successor of Dionysius, Dionysius the Second, ordered him out of the realm, and his third visit was without consequence. He returned to his beloved Academy to leave it no more. There he lived and taught until an aged man and left behind him an extensive literature.
Plato is the only Greek philosopher whose influence and whose doctrines are now of living force in the world at large. Those modern amateurs of philosophy who cling to the Aristotelian cult are not Aristotelians. They accept Aristotle with a provision. They are the intellectual heirs of the dead and gone schoolmen of the Middle Ages, and they have not advanced a step from the point at which the scholastics left the field to the new and fearless thinkers who made the divorce between philosophy and theology complete and lasting. But Plato lives to-day in Platonists and Platonic societies. Journals have been published with his name in the title line and there are many who adhere firmly to his doctrines and who teach them in their academic purity, though often with a resort to interpretation of cloudy passages which, in all probability, would not have received the master's sanction under the palm trees. Plato has been translated so fully that an acquaintance with the original Greek is no longer necessary to an adequate study of his works. But it must be said that the Platonic cult of to-day nearly resembles the Buddhist cult and partakes almost of the character of a religion. His modern followers are disposed to regard him as an idealist, confusing Plato's theory of ideas with the mystic idealism of the later Kantians and adding to this palpable misconception the Academic doctrines of rebirth and reminiscence.
The philosophy of Plato has been the source of inter-minable disputation and controversy. Scholars have differed so widely in the interpretation of his doctrines that it is next to the impossible to summarize their opinions. Nor will a careful study of his writings be of greater service than will be a study of his critics and his commentators. Lewes wisely accounts for this variety of thought by the fact that Plato changed his opinion many times and, leaving his works unamended as he did, the student is naturally puzzled by numerous contradictions and inconsistencies. It will not be out of the way, however, to here correct a few popular and gross misconceptions that prevail with respect to some of his teachings.
Nothing is more trying to one who is familiar with Plato's writings than the use of the expression "Platonic Love." Time and again the error in the widespread misuse of these words has been pointed out, but all to no purpose. By Love Plato meant the aspiration of the soul for the divinely beautiful, and such feeling as may exist in the way of an intellectual bond between the philosopher and his pupil may be the manifestation of that wider attraction that draws the immortal soul toward divinity. It is thus he explains the human desire to worship any object or person that is possessed of striking or singular beauty. He calls attention to the truth, as familiar now as it was then, that great beauty stuns the mind at first sight and leaves us with alternate feelings of awe and love. And this is so, inasmuch as in the individual person or thing is revealed a glimpse of that perfect beauty which, of beauty, is the only real existence. The common disfigurement of this truly noble conception is at least exasperating. The sexes have nothing to do with Platonic love, and the popular usage of this term is worse than travesty. It is entirely possible for one who is not an idealist and who is not under the influence of mystic habits of thought to misconceive what Fichte has in mind when he writes of the "Divine Idea," but it is not improbable that the German philosopher, though not so clear as Plato, had much the same thought as the Greek. Fichte's Divine Idea, interpreted by Plato's Love becomes clarified and intelligible.
In working out his philosophy Plato used the deductive method only. The Beautiful (Tò xaìóv) and The Good (Tò àyaiYóv) have a permanent meaning in our own day and language. But the sense in which Plato used these symbols for his thought is more often lost than otherwise. Plato taught that Virtue, Truth, Beauty, Goodness, exist as entities and are the only real, substantial existences. These existences are the Ideas of Plato. We may simplify the Platonic doctrine by stating its antithesis. We say that virtue, beauty, goodness, are attributes of a man or a thing. There can be no virtue except that there is some person or some thing that is virtuous. There can be no beauty without some person or thing in whom or in which the beauty inheres. The general idea of Man could not exist without individual men to whom manhood pertains. With us the totality of men is Man. The abstract idea of Man is arrived at by the cancellation of all individual men. When we speak of Man in general we mean kind only, genus.
Plato reversed this order. Individual men did not exist for him really. Individual virtue, individual beauty, individual goodness was the reflection in particular cases of the general idea. These particularizations were dependent upon the real Beauty which existed of itself as an actual entity. Virtue, goodness, and beauty did not inhere in things virtuous, good or beautiful, but existed apart and unconditioned by them. For us a genus consists of the totality of the particular individuals of the genus. For Plato genera (called Universals) were realities separate from and independent of particular things. Things were copies of ideas. Thus the idea of a house, a table, a garment, was conceived first and afterward the concrete thing produced, merely a copy of that idea. For, argued Plato, had not the idea pre-existed in the artificer the thing could not have been produced. Ideas and things, in this meaning, have been also called noumena and phenomena. Matter takes on the form of ideas, but ideas exist per se. Nor would it be strictly accurate to say that things are perfect copies of ideas. They are at best imperfect copies, and that necessarily, for although a landscape painting may be like the landscape itself somewhat, it is not a copy, or facsimile of the reality. These categories, the True, the Beautiful, the Virtuous, and so on, are different faces of the Divine and the Good is the Divine itself.
Poetical as all this may seem, it must not be supposed that Plato's philosophy is poetry. Far from it. The doctrines, of which the barest sketch has been here presented, are the results of the most rigorous processes of logic. Of course we know now that such views are false. Psychology has informed us how the idea of a table is built up; how the ideas of perfectly straight lines, perfect circles, perfect surfaces, and all the ideal instruments with which the geometer and mathematician work, have come about. Psychological analysis has shown us the original synthesis. But in Plato's time little was known of the function of the brain and less of its structure. Science had not yet become the midwife of philosophy and such systems as the PIatonic were possible.
If we turn to Plato's conception of physiological processes his ignorance of truth becomes more apparent. His theory of the body was as childish as his theory of the soul, his physiology as crude as his psychology. Ritter presents the Platonic notion of physiological function and structure in the following paragraph, which may be submitted without further comment :
"All in the human body is formed for the sake of Reason, after certain determinate ends. Accordingly, first of all, a seat must be provided for the god-like portion of the soul, the head namely, which is round and similar to the perfect shape of the soul, furnished with the organs of cognition, slightly covered with flesh, which impedes the senses. To the head is given the direction of the whole frame, hence its position at the top, and, since the animal creation possesses all the six irregular motions, and the head ought not to roll upon the ground, the human form is long, with legs for walking and arms for serving the body, and the anterior part is fashioned differently from the posterior. Now, the reason being seated in the head, the spirit or irascible soul has its seat in the breast, under the head that it may be within call and command of Reason, but yet separated from the head by the neck, that it might not mix with it. The concupiscible has likewise its particular seat in the lower part of the trunk, the abdomen, separated by the diaphragm from that of the irascible, since it is destined, being separate from both, to be governed and held in order by the spirit and the reason. For this end God has given it a watch, the liver, which is dense, smooth and shining and containing both bitter and sweet, is fitted to receive and reflect, as a mirror, the images of thought. Whenever the Reason disapproves, it checks inordinate desires by its bitterness, and on the other hand, when it approves, all is soothed into gentle repose by its sweetness. Moreover. in sleep. in sickness or in respiration it becomes prophetic, so that even the vilest portion of the body is, in a certain degree, participant of truth. In other respect the lower portion of the trunk is fashioned with equal adaptation for the ends it has to serve. The spleen is placed on the left side of the liver in order to secrete and carry off the impurities which the diseases of the body might produce and accumulate. The intestines are coiled many times in order that the food may not pass too quickly through the body and so occasion again an immoderate desire for more, for such a constant appetite would render the pursuit of philosophy impossible and make man disobedient to the commands of the divinity within him."
Such is Plato's physiology and his ethics and politics make up a socialism with equality and humanity left out. It is doubtful if aught of real benefit may be gathered from a study of Plato's works beyond that involved in a knowledge of the development of human thought. The interest in him, as in all of the Greek speculators, is historical merely. It is pleasing, if not altogether profitable, for the full grown man to recall the early struggles, joys, and sorrows of his childhood. And as the life of any individual is a recapitulation of the life of the race, it is useful to know what was the intellectual childhood of man. And we may find much of it that is interesting in the philosophy of the Greeks.