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by RW FRA. Trevor Steward, UGLE
Ancient Greece produced not only the first but also some of the greatest philosophers. Some of the most outstanding of the earliest of these were Thales, Pythagorus, Xenophanes and Heraclitus. But the one who is most widely known came after these. He was Socrates. The pre-Socratic philosophers are said to have had one common aim: to discover the underlying, universal principles that would help us to explain Nature completely. They were as much concerned with ‘cosmology’ as they were with ‘philosophy’. Socrates, however, rebelled consciously against this tendency. He claimed that what we most need to learn is not so much how Nature functions but how we ought to live. Therefore, what we need to consider first are moral questions.
Socrates never wrote anything down. So far as we are able to determine now he merely taught orally. Since none of the teachings of these early Greek philosophers have come down to us directly, we have to rely on summaries – some of which are very full indeed and which even contain what are claimed to be direct quotations. These have been produced by their disciples and by some critics. This means that everything that we have inherited from those far off days as come to us second-hand.
But the first philosopher who wrote down his teachings in books - the texts of which we actually do possess - was Plato (428 BC – 348 BC), one of Socrates’ pupils. In fact, it is through Plato’s writings that we know most about Socrates. In his own right, however, Plato is one of the very greatest of philosophers the western world has produced and for that reason alone he merits revisiting often.
An Athenian aristocrat by birth, Plato might have been expected to have played a part in the politics of that city. However, he, like many other young men of those times, came under the influence of Socrates who fired his enthusiasm for speculative thinking. He was about 31 years of age when Socrates died and he lived for a further 50 years. During that half-century he founded a famous school, or Academy, in Athens – the prototype of what we might call a university – and he produced a series of remarkable texts. Nearly all of these take the form of ‘dialogues’ – a conventional philosophic form - in which different arguments are put into the mouths of various characters, one of whom is nearly always Socrates. Most of them, though not all, are called after the name of the principle person with whom Socrates is talking. Thus we have the Phaedo, the Laches, the Euthyphro, the Theaetetus, the Parmenides, the Timaeus etc. There are about 28 of them. Some of them are just 20 pages long; others are 80 pages and two of them are more than 300 pages in length. The most famous of them all, for some people, are the Symposium and the Republic. The best of them are not only provocative works of high philosophical content but also works of literary merit with an aesthetic form, dramatic qualities and balanced, ‘cool’ prose.
I suppose that Plato’s career as a philosopher might be said to have started with Socrates’ death in 399 BC. That must have been a dramatic event for lots of people then. Socrates had been a spell-binding presence in and around Athens for many years. He was much loved and much hated. He was even caricatured in the Athenian comedy theatre at a public festival in front of the whole population. Suddenly, the familiar, somewhat physically grotesque figure was no longer there. The reason why was that he had been condemned to death – by self-administered, fatal drink of hemlock – on the trumped-up charge of impiety and of corrupting the youth of the city state. The actual cause and the manner of his untimely death may have been even more distressing for his supporters than the death itself. He had had many devoted disciples. Some of them, including Plato, began writing ‘Socratic’ dialogues, or philosophical ‘conversations’ in which Socrates took the leading role. It must have seemed, for a time at any rate, that there was a veritable chorus of voices claiming to the Athenians:
And, of course, these 'Socratic' dialogues defended his reputation. They were attempting to show that Socrates had been unjustly condemned to death; that he was the great teacher of the youth of the day and not a corrupter of them.
Plato’s Early ‘Dialogues’
Socrates’ death was not just an emotional experience that got Plato started with his philosophical writings and then was put behind him safely later on. In a sense all of his career can be explained with reference to Socrates. Keeping the spirit of his teacher alive meant for Plato going on doing philosophy very much in the same way.
He gave up all thought of any political career, left Athens in disgust at that city’s ill-treatment of his beloved master and is said to have travelled widely throughout the then known world, even to fabled Egypt to learn there from their sages. However, we do not have any really reliable biographical information about him at that stage of his long life. After his first visit to Italy and Sicily in 387 BC, he returned to Athens and there he founded what was to become a famous school for the formal education of young men in philosophical thinking.
The first result of Plato’s intention to represent his Socratic inheritance was a group of early ‘dialogues’, the most important of which are the Apology, the Crito, the Euthypho, the Laches, the Charmides, the Protagoras and the Gorgias. These depict Socrates discussing all sorts of question in which he was interested. They were mostly moral questions. However, since to do philosophy Socratically means to do it philosophically, the process leads gradually to Plato developing his own ideas in ethics and other areas of philosophy. Therefore, there is a slow evolution of the picture of Socrates that we derive from these ‘dialogues’. From the gadfly questioner of the early ‘dialogues’, he appears to change into someone who expounds some very profound theories in politics, metaphysics and philosophical methodology. That is the persona of Socrates as he evolves in the so-called ‘middle-period dialogues’.
In other words, in his early ‘Socratic dialogues’, Plato deals with those subjects which interested his teacher, Socrates, and he deals with them in Socrates’ way. Very often he puts into Socrates’ mouth what he actually knew to have been Socrates’ opinions. As the years go by, however, the momentum of his task carries him on into dealing with other subjects that interest him. He deals with these in his own ways; he expresses his own opinions but still mostly as though they were coming from Socrates’ mouth. Whenever he can present the new ideas plausibly as the outcome of thinking about Socrates’ thinking, then he assigns them to Socrates. This is very important because Plato’s historical claim was that Socrates was a man who thought for himself and taught others to do the same. It is as if Plato were saying:
If you want to be a follower of Socrates, then that means having to think for yourself and, if necessary, to depart from ideas and subjects that Socrates had marked out for his own.
Plato’s early ‘dialogues’, in which Socrates deals with ethical questions, have a characteristic pattern:
This technique is still used in some universities even today to teach philosophy. One starts by exposing young students to a familiar and important concept – one that is important in everyday life – and one tries to get them to realise for themselves that there are real difficulties inherent in that concept. One tries to get them to think about these problems and even to produce answers. The point, however, is that the answers are not necessarily firm, complete solutions but merely represent the acquisition of a much better grasp of the concept than hitherto. One has been drawn into the problem, are left still wanting to get to the answer and feeling that, somehow and some day, one might actually be able to contribute to achieving it.
After more than 2500 years we are still puzzling about the meaning of concepts such as ‘beauty’, ‘loyalty’, ‘courage’, ‘fortitude’ etc. Perhaps, in one sense, we have made some progress towards achieving a better understanding of such concepts and in another we have not. Plato would have insisted, for example, that even if he did know the answers, it would not have done us any good for him to simply tell us. He would claim that it is in the very nature of these questions themselves that one has to puzzle them out for oneself. An answer is worth nothing unless one strives to achieve it though one’s own thinking.
In Plato’s early ‘dialogues’, therefore, the one thing that Socrates keeps on saying is that he has no positive doctrines to teach. He claims that all he is doing is asking awkward questions. But some underlying doctrines, though not many, do emerge. One significant group of concepts emerges in the Apology where Socrates claims that no real harm can come to a genuinely good man either during his life or after his death. In the Gorgias he argues at length that injustice harms the doer and justice benefits the doer. What he seems to be claiming is that the only real harm is harm to the soul. One may lose all of one’s money or be stricken by a crippling disease but that is nothing compared to the damage done – by oneself to oneself – if one leads an unjust life. Conversely, there is no achievement like that which a good man has gained from the practice of virtue. Consequently, there can be no loss that he would reckon as harm except the loss of his virtue. Socrates is very emphatic about these ideas. These are the points on which he claimed to have some knowledge. And this is an area about which Plato never reneged on Socrates. He remained convinced of the truth of the proposition that injustice actually harms the doer and that justice really does benefit him who practises it. Providing one’s soul remains unharmed, worldly misfortunes cannot actually do one much deep, lasting damage.
However, there is another group of ideas about which Socrates did not claim to have knowledge and about which Plato eventually does renege on him. This group of concepts can be best summed up in the proposition: ‘Virtue is Knowledge’. Whenever someone asks in his early ‘dialogues’, ‘What is piety?’, or ‘What is justice?’, sooner or later as the discussion proceeds a suggestion begins to develop that this ‘virtue’ – be it either ‘ courage’, or ‘piety’, or ‘justice’ – should be properly regarded as a form of ‘knowledge’. This concept is as strong and just as paradoxical as the first group of ideas. Common sense ordinarily supposes that it must be one thing to have the wisdom to know what it is best to do in a given situation and quite another thing to have the necessary courage to do it – especially if that situation involves some danger or difficulty – or to have the forbearance to resist taking an easier option instead. So ‘Wisdom’ is one virtue, a quality that one might admire legitimately in someone else; ‘Courage’ is yet another; ‘Temperance’ is yet another still. One may have one of these and not the others; or one may have them all but not to the same degree in each case. War and the virtues that it engenders in some folk - qualities like Courage, Fortitude and Loyalty – seem to be with us always. We have only to watch our TV screens to be reminded of this fact very day. Furthermore, and away from the many battlefields and bomb-torn streets and hills, many ordinary people display remarkable and sustained courage in the face of the ordeals of their personal vicissitudes and illnesses. That is why these Socratic questions are still relevant and worthy of our consideration. The clues to their possible answers still resonate for human nature has not changed all that much. Solutions might be sought, not necessarily in lofty, spectacular locations or amongst important, knowledgeable people but also in the quiet recesses of ordinary people’s private experience.
But if ‘Courage’ is just this kind of ‘Knowledge’ if what it is best to do, then this kind of contrast cannot arise. If one does not do the right thing, it cannot be that one knew what one should do in the circumstances but lacked the courage to do it. Rather, if one lacked the courage, then one lacked the knowledge. One did not know what was the right thing to do. So, any wrongdoing that one does is done in ignorance. It is done because one simply did not know what was the best thing to do in the prescribed circumstances. However, anything that is done in ignorance is done involuntarily. In other words, according to Socrates’ famous slogan: ‘No one does wrong willingly!’
It may be difficult, some would even claim impossible, for us now to believe that the sources of all of our actions are in our conscious minds or even that they are available to our rational apperception. But perhaps people then did not believe it either! Socrates seems to have been deliberately and knowingly going against common sense. In the Protagoras, for example, he actually describes his position about the meaning of ‘courage’ as one that is contrary to all human belief! The other side of the argument is, however, that there are still philosophers who seem to argue that the only thing which one possesses in order to put oneself into action is one’s belief about what is good and what is bad. If those beliefs do not do that job, what else can there be? Lots of people still find it very difficult to accept the truth of the proposition that there is such a thing as ‘the will’ or that there are forces other than merely cognitive ones functioning within human action.
The ‘dialogue’ format that Plato chose to write gives rise to some important, related but perhaps insoluble questions:
In one sense, one does not need really to worry about such questions. Plato’s portrait of Socrates makes this claim:
Here is a man who thought for himself, who could over-throw long-cherished conclusions if it turned out, after rational inquiry, that they were wrong and who taught others to do the same.
Therefore, if Plato came to think that there is more to ‘virtue’ than just ‘knowledge’ – though ‘knowledge’ does remain the most important contributory factor to our definition and this is something which Plato did hold - then it is completely within the spirit of the ‘Socratic’ tradition to reject the doctrine that ‘virtue’ = ‘knowledge’ and to produce a better view of it. This is something that Plato did later in his Republic.
On the other hand, perhaps one should worry about the questions raised. It is most important that one recognises that is happening when the Socrates in the Republic says something which one knows to be contrary to that said by the Socrates in, say, the Protagoras. It is important to realise that we are being given a new view and how it connects with all of the other concerns of the Republic. How, for example, it makes for a much more complicated vision of moral education and how it makes a new vision of the ideal political society possible. The important thing is the process of inquiry. In other words, because one’s assumptions and beliefs are open to perpetual questioning, our ‘conclusions’, such as they are, do not have any special status. They are merely staging posts on the way to making further inquiries.
Plato’s Middle Dialogues
In his so-called ‘middle period’ Plato began to put forward his own ideas in ‘dialogues’ such as the Meno, the Phaedo, the Republic, the Symposium and the Phaedrus. The two most important of ideas were:
· the theory of Forms and
· the theory that ‘learning’ equals ‘recollection’.
I would like to comment on the second of these first. Put briefly it claims that to learn something is to recover from within one’s mind resources of knowledge that one had before one’s birth. Ideas closely related to this concept have been more or less permanent in western culture. For instance, Idealist philosophers have argued that there must be innate knowledge, or innate ideas. Most of the world’s great religions make that kind of assumption. Even 20th century linguists, such as Noam Chomsky, argue that we are born with a whole grammar pre-programmed into our minds. A belief of this kind deserves serious consideration.
Plato’s version of it was that knowledge is an essential part of the nature of the soul. It is knowledge that one’s soul possesses before one is born. Plato believed that the soul exists before birth and its embodiment in the present world is just one of a series of incarnations. But to understand the proposition that ‘learning’ is ‘recollection’, one needs to consider the Laches ‘dialogue’. Here the main topic under discussion is: ‘What is courage?’ Laches, the general whom Socrates has asked to define ‘courage’ suggests that it is a kind of endurance. Socrates then asks him: ‘Is courage invariably a fine and admirable quality?’ Laches replies, ‘Yes!’ Then Socrates takes him though a series of examples of endurance where Laches is obliged to see that endurance is not admirable at all. Perhaps it is even foolhardy. Or it may just be morally neutral as when a banker keeps on spending money, enduring the losses because he knows, from his knowledge of the stock market, that he will get a profit eventually. So, if endurance can be bad or morally neutral, but courage is always good, then courage cannot be just endurance not even when the endurance is guided by knowledge.
Logically, all that has happened is that Laches has been shown that his beliefs are inconsistent. His answers, when they are taken together, contradict each other. They cannot all be true. But that does not tell us which one of Laches’ answers is false. Typically, Socrates presents the situation as one in which the definition proposed by Laches (that courage is a kind of endurance) has been refuted and shown to be false. In practice, therefore, Plato had Socrates take Laches’ secondary answers as either true, or somehow nearer to the truth, that his original definition. They are made the basis for refuting that definition and for concluding that it was a false answer that must be discarded.
This says something that is important to all serious thinking. We tend to assume that through discussion we can get to the truth. But it really does not have any special power to accomplish that. The most that discussion can do is to show us that our conclusions either match or do not match the premises of our arguments. And even if they do match, this still does not make them true necessarily. The idea that we can arrive at the truth via discussion is actually quite difficult to justify. Plato did not show Socrates trying to justify it. Socrates merely asks his questions, gathered answers to reveal an inherent contradiction and then claims to have refuted the original definition. However, if one wanted to set up an explanation of what Socrates is doing then one would have say that everyone has the means of making that which is true vanquish that which is false. That is exactly what Plato did in the Meno where he produces a theory of Socratic, or philosophical, discussion. It claims that all of us have within our minds already a latent knowledge of the correct answers to questions such as ‘What is courage?’ or ‘What is justice?’ etc. That knowledge is deep within us and is not accessible immediately. It enables us to refute all of the wrong answers and to show that they are wrong. And that knowledge is what emerges gradually in the Laches where Plato writes that one proposition which Laches asserted was used by Socrates to show that something else that Laches asserts must be false.
This doctrine yields the other, more influential one: the theory of Forms. The Socratic ‘dialogues’ are centred on a quest for definitions: e.g., ‘What is Courage?’, ‘What is Justice?’ or ‘What is Beauty?’ If we have latent knowledge of the correct answers to such questions and have acquired that knowledge independently of and prior to our experience of living in this world – the place where we use our physical senses while we move around – then surely what we know of ‘Justice’, ‘Piety’, ‘Courage’ and ‘Beauty’ must itself be independent of and prior to the empirical world which we inhabit. This is the important theory of Forms: that virtues such as Justice and Beauty etc., exist independently of and prior to all of the just actions and of all just persons, of all the beautiful objects and beautiful people one could find in the physical world. Beauty and Justice exist on their own and apart. They exist in the realm of the Forms.
This theory that there is another ‘world’ or realm other than this terrestrial one - an ideal world in which everything that gives value and meaning to this world exists independently – has been of crucial importance to the development of the whole of western culture. But, although Plato uses phrases like ‘the world of Forms’ or ‘another world’, he did not conceive of a simple contrast between one set of particular things and then another set completely like it but more perfect, more abstract and located somewhere else – perhaps somewhere in Heaven. Plato’s contrast is between the particular and the general. Those questions ‘What is Justice?’, ‘What is Beauty? etc., are general questions. They are not questions about the here and now.
In a passage in the Phaedo ‘dialogue’ Socrates asserts that to do philosophy is, in a way, to rehearse for death. Being dead is having one’s soul separate from one’s body. In doing philosophy one is, so far as one can, separating one’s soul from one’s body precisely because one is not thinking about the here and now where one’s body lies restricted. If one asks the question ‘What is Justice?’ with reference to justice anywhere or at any time – in other words ‘What is Justice itself?’ – one is not inquiring ‘Who did me wrong yesterday or today?’ If one asks the question ‘What is Beauty?’, one is not inquiring ‘What is the most beautiful object in this room?’ And if one is not interested in the here and the now, then - in a sense that Plato was interested in – one is not here and now. One is where one’s mind is – not because one is in some other particular place or a better one. One is not in a place in that sense at all. One is immersed in generalities. So, ‘the world of Forms’ means ‘the realm of invariable generalities’. This, the physical universe which we inhabit is merely a place reflection of a realm of eternal verities. It is the existence of that realm that bestows on us our concrete environment and our experience of it in the here and now. It provides the metaphysical underpinning of all that we can and do perceive in our daily lives.
In the Republic, more than in any other ‘dialogue’, Plato asserts that every philosophical question is connected with every other. The inquiry need never stop. Every conclusion leads to the next problem. Hence, he begins with another fairly straightforward, familiar kind of ‘Socratic’ question: ‘What is Justice?’ This leads to another question: ‘Is Justice a benefit to its possessor?’ The aim of the Republic is to show that Justice is a benefit to its possessor. It is what one needs most of all if one is to be happy. The unjust man is the most miserable of all creatures.
To demonstrate this, however, Plato has to outline a theory of human nature. He divides the soul into three parts. This is where he reneges on Socrates’ theory that ‘Virtue’ equals ‘Knowledge’. ‘Virtue’ involves more than ‘Knowledge’, although ‘Knowledge’ must be in control. The concept that ‘knowledge’ is something that can, and should, be in control of the non-rational factors in the soul also makes viable the concept of a whole society in which ‘knowledge’ is in control. Hence, we get a political theory that depicts a new and better way of life in society. At the same time, Plato emphasises other concurrent questions:
Hence, in the Republic, Plato gives a theory of knowledge. This broadens out to become an inquiry into the nature of science. There is an elaborate discussion about mathematics. He produces an entire vision of what it would be like to have a complete understanding of the world we inhabit in order to support the claim that this understanding really is what should be in charge of ourselves, both individually and in society. It is this understand that will the benefits of justice to the individual and the society generally.
Plato’s Later Dialogues
The late ‘dialogues’ are less literary, perhaps less dramatic, less colourful and more analytical. The irony and imagery and other literary resources which Plato used in his previous works to depict people undertaking discussions are now employed to bring the ideas and the arguments themselves to life. Very often they are ideas and arguments familiar from the earlier works. Plato was the first writer to establish a relationship with his readers so that when he was writing one work he took it for granted that his readers would have read his previous works already. He uses this relationship to build up allusions, resonances and to create surprises when he departs from readers’ reasonable expectations. In fact, he conducts a sort of public self-examination of his earlier ideas and relies on readers recognising them. At the same time it is as though he was admitting:
Don’t become too attached to the ideas in the Phaedo or the Republic. They were all very good, of course, but those truths – if truths they were – are not good to anyone if they cannot be defended against criticism. I propose to take some of them and subject them to really hard critical examination!
Perhaps the best example of this new, self-imposed task of Plato is in his Parmenides ‘dialogue’. Here the tables are turned on Socrates. He is depicted as putting forward the theory of Forms as formulated in the Phaedo. The allusions are clearly to the Phaedo, not only as far as the content is concerned but even to verbal parallels which Plato obviously expects perceptive readers to pick up for themselves. Socrates is now on the receiving end of some awkward questioning. In fact, old Parmenides, who is quizzing Socrates in this ‘dialogue’, produces a series of devastating objections to the theory of Forms. Plato does not tell the answers to these criticisms. He leaves it to us to decide for ourselves whether or not they are fair or unfair and what, if they are fair, we ought to do with the theory of Forms.
The Timaeus ‘dialogue’ stands apart from the rest partly because it contains more cosmology and science than philosophy but it also contains a beautiful Creation myth which is similar to that expounded in the Book of Genesis. The important question about this is: ‘Did Plato believe this literally?’ The whole concept of Creation was controversial even in Plato’s day. His closest associates took the view that Timaeus’ narrative of the Divine Craftsman imposing order on chaos is just a vivid, dramatic way of presenting Plato’s analysis of the fundamental structure of the universe. Plato conceived of the whole universe as order imposed on disorder. By ‘order’ he meant, of course, ‘mathematical order’. This is, of course, very different from the narrative contained in other Creation myths. For Plato the Divine Craftsman is simply a personification of a mathematical Intelligence at work. It is a poetical way of explaining the intelligibility of physical reality that had hitherto been a profound mystery for thinking human beings. The general proposition that the universe is the product of imposing order on disorder is not one which can be proved either in general or in detail. Plato was well aware of this and that was why he clothed the proposition in the literary form of a myth.
Nevertheless, that myth served as the guiding inspiration for those leading mathematicians whose aid he enlisted in the Athenian Academy. Every advance in geometry, astronomy, harmonics – even the medical theory which asserted that health and disease are the results of proportions between those constituent elements in the human body – all of them are seen as further proofs of something that Plato cared deeply about: the idea that mathematical irregularities, harmonies and proportions explain things. Since these mathematical harmonies and proportions are prime examples of goodness and beauty for Plato, this research programme of the Academy was one that was designed to demonstrate that goodness and beauty are the fundamental explanatory factors in the universe.
This fits precisely with what had been proposed in the Republic, which is a sketch of a programme for a scientific, especially for a mathematically scientific understanding of the universe. In the Timaeus Plato begins his carrying out of that work programme. The cosmology and science contained in the Timaeus are the practical working out of the possibilities that had been canvassed in the Republic. Indeed, the Timaeus is presented, in its introduction, as a continuation of the discussion which had taken place in the Republic. Furthermore, the research programme, or the recommendations for making further progress in the mathematical sciences contained in the Republic, was actually being carried out by those leading scholars whom Plato recruited for his Academy in Athens in order to demonstrate the power and scope of mathematical order. It was from their work that many of the greatest achievements in Greek mathematical sciences were devolved – down to the time of Ptolomy. Indeed, Ptolomy’s astronomy was the ultimate descendant from the work in mathematical science done in Plato’s Academy – work that was underpinned by Plato’s recommendations. Since for Plato mathematical order was the expression of goodness and beauty in the universe, those sciences which demonstrate the universe as being mathematically intelligible are also science of value. This is how the metaphysical elements in the Republic ‘dialogue’ (i.e., everything that makes up the content of that understanding which the philosopher-rulers must acquire) can simultaneously be the foundation for a radical new kind of politics. What these philosophers were learning before they can come to rule over the rest are science of value as well as science of fact.
The Theaetetus, another of these later ‘dialogues’, is concerned with the perennially puzzling question: ‘What is knowledge?’ It is a kind of ‘Socratic’ discussion that went on in the earlier ‘dialogues’ but composed on a much grander scale. Plato gives three possible answers:
· knowledge is perception;
· knowledge is true judgement and
· knowledge is true judgement plus a description of it.
Each of these propositions is knocked down one by one in the familiar ‘Socratic’ manner. However, in the end we are not told what Plato thinks knowledge is but we have learnt a great deal more about the problem. Opinion is still very much divided about what is knowledge. A generally accepted view is that which combines all three propositions by asserting that the judgements which constitute knowledge must be derived ultimately from perception but we must provide a rational justification for them.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014