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Lecture Fifth: The Nature of Ideas and their Systematic Unity

IN the last lecture I pointed out that Plato goes beyond Socrates in two ways: in the first place, in so far as he puts opinion—which is his name for the ordinary consciousness before it has been changed by any process of reflexion—between ignorance and knowledge. In other words, he maintains that we are never in a state of pure ignorance from which science has to deliver us. If we ever were in such a state, learning would be impossible, for it would have nothing from which it could start. Opinion, however, is inchoate knowledge; it is a knowledge of appearances, which must indeed be partly illusive, but which cannot be absolutely without relation to the truth. It, therefore, affords a starting-point from which investigation may begin, a material from which, by synthesis and dialectic, truth may be extracted.

In the second place, Plato transforms the view of morality which is attributed to Socrates in the Protagoras. He rejects the idea that the principle of morals is to be found in thee pleasure which accompanies, or forms an element in all attainment of our ends, and that the science of morals is therefore simply a calculus of pleasures. Such a view would involve that the whole good of life was merely the sum of the parts, whereas for Plato the particular goods of life must rather be estimated and determined by the nature of the whole. The fundamental idea of ethics must therefore be conceived as a principle of unity and order, which is implied in all our particular ethical judgments, but fully expressed in none of them, and which, when it is discovered, can be used to correct and complete the judgments from which it is derived.

So far Plato has been dealing mainly with the problem of philosophy as it is conceived by Socrates. He has been seeking to define the universals which underlie our ethical judgments and these only. But it was impossible for him to confine his speculations to this sphere. For in every judgment we make, we use universals or general ideas, and in every case the same maxim will apply, namely, that the universal must be taken neither as the sum of the particulars nor as the abstraction of a commons element in them, but as a principle of unity which is implied in them, and which, when discovered and defined, will make them intelligible. Thus it is not only such predicates as ‘good,’ ‘just,’ ‘temperate,’ that require definition, but all the predicates we use even in our simplest judgments, such as ‘one,’ ‘equal,’ ‘great;’ ‘beautiful.’ In all our immediate judgments we use general ideas such as these, to determine particular objects, without any previous definition of the general ideas themselves. In all equally we assume that we know that of which we are ignorant, and in all equally the Socratic process of investigation is necessary in order to define our universals, and to correct the uncertain and imperfect use of them which must prevail so long as they are undefined.

Nor could Plato be content with the definition of these general terms taken separately. Each of them is the name of a principle of unity within a certain limited sphere, but all special spheres of existence are elements in the one great whole of reality. Hence, just as in the moral life all our definitions of particular virtues had to be carried back to the definition of the good, as the principle of unity in human life, so all definitions of general ideas must be carried back to one principle of unity in the universe. The problem of philosophy is, therefore, to rise from opinion to truth, not only in ethics, but in all spheres of reality; and not only to find special principles of unity in all particular spheres of reality, but to bring them all together into one system by the discovery of one highest principle.

The dialogues which are most important in relation to this development of the ideal theory are the Symposium, the Phaedo, and the Republic—dialogues which on the whole belong to the same stage of thought, and which were probably not far distant from each other in time of composition. The Symposium and the Phaedo in particular seem to be counterparts and complements of each other, the former dwelling upon the positive relation of the particular and the universal, the latter upon their negative relation; the former giving us a view of the education of man in which sense and opinion are treated as stepping-stones on which he may rise to truth, while the latter regards sense and opinion mainly as hindrances to his progress, and insists on the necessity of a complete emancipation from both. Yet it may easily be shown that there is no essential discord between the two views; for Plato has already taught us to recognise the double nature of sensible experience, as the necessary starting-point or datum of science, and yet at the same time as in itself only an imperfect and illusive apprehension of things, which it is the business of science to correct and transform. Thus the object of opinion at once is, and is not. It is a phenomenon or appearance; and as the appearance both discloses and hides the reality, as it “half reveals and half conceals the soul within,” it has an ambiguous character, and may be regarded either as that which prevents us from attaining to knowledge, or as that which is the necessary and only means of attaining to it. It becomes a hindrance, in so far as the appearance is taken for the reality; and in this point of view the great effort of science is to rise above opinion, to tear away the illusive veil which it casts over the truth, and to grasp the permanent unity which is disguised in its changing forms. Hence opinion is sometimes represented as a kind of dream in which shadows are taken for substances1 “He who recognises the existence of beautiful objects but not of beauty itself, and is not capable of perceiving it even if it be pointed out to him, does he not seem to live in a perpetual dream rather than in waking reality?”2 For in no one of the particular objects to which he ascribes beauty is the principle of beauty adequately realised: and so it is with all the other principles of unity. “Of all the many beautiful things there is none which may not appear ugly, of the many just acts none that may not appear unjust, of the many equals none that in another relation may not appear unequal.”3 And the reason is that, while beauty, justice and equality have definite natures, and while each of them is one self- identical thing, in their particular presentments, where they are confused with one another and with the subjects in which they appear, they take manifold and diverse forms.4

When he is dwelling upon this point of view Plato sometimes seems almost, if not altogether, to fall back upon the unmediated opposition of knowledge and ignorance as it was conceived by Socrates. The ideal reality of things is represented as existing in eternal self-identity, as the one beyond the many, or as the permanent substance which is far removed from all the variableness of the phenomena. Thus, especially in some passages of the Phaedo, opinion is set in direct antithesis to science, and the negative relation of the latter to the former is insisted upon in language which approximates to the utterances of eastern mysticism. The idea in its pure nature, it is alleged, is not seen until we have purged away all the imperfections and irrelevancies which attach to its particular embodiments; and this means also that the mind that would grasp it must altogether free itself from the dominion of the senses. It will be observed that these two, the objective and the subjective aspects of Plato's idealism, go together and imply each other. The ideal type is a definite form, a pure universal in which there is no variableness of aspect or compounding of different elements, but a transparent and unchanging unity. But, as such, it is invisible, and cannot be presented to sense or imagination, but only grasped by the intelligence: and the intelligence which grasps it must itself be of kindred nature to it. Furthermore, even the intelligence can only grasp such a unity when it withdraws into itself from the confusions of sense which distract and disturb its pure activity. For “when in its perception of things it uses the body as its instrument, apprehending through sight or hearing or any other sense, then it is dragged down by the body into the region of things that never maintain their identity; it wanders and is confused, and loses control of itself, and is as it were intoxicated, because it is dealing with things that have no stability in themselves. But when it returns into itself and reflects, it passes into another region, the region of that which is pure and everlasting, immortal and unchangeable; and feeling its kindred thereto, it dwells there under its own control and has rest from its wandering, and is constant and one with itself, as are the objects with which it deals.”5 From this point of view the body is a kind of tomb of the soul from which it can rise only at death, and the whole life of the philosopher has to be conceived as a practice for that final moment in which it shall free itself from this “muddy vesture of decay” that doth so “grossly close it in,” and hinder it from the vision of the intelligible world.

It is in such passages as these that we find the strongest support for the common conception of Plato's idealism as a kind of apotheosis of abstractions, an attempt to find the truth of things in the most general and therefore empty predicates which we attach to them. Further, this conception of Plato's meaning is favoured by the circumstance that he has usually been read under the influence of the unsympathetic criticism of Aristotle, or through the interpretations of the Neo-Platonists, who could appreciate only the negative aspect of his philosophy. We have, however, to observe, in the first place, that Plato, even in the passages where he goes farthest in the direction of mysticism, constantly upholds the doctrine that opinion is not ignorance but imperfect knowledge, and that it is only through opinion, which is mediated by sense, that we can rise to a knowledge of the ideal reality of things. We know ideas at first only as predicates of particular objects, though really they are absolute types to which these objects are never adequate, which they recall, but of which they necessarily fall short. Thus when we give the predicate of equality to two material objects, we are attributing to them something to which they may approximate but which they never exactly attain. The pure mathematical relation can never be adequately realised in sensible experience, though it is constantly suggested by it. And the same is the case with such predicates as ‘beautiful,’ ‘just,’ ‘holy,’ and so on. No particular thing can realise the type, though every one suggests or recalls it; and indeed it could not become an object of our consciousness unless it did so. And “must we not allow that when any one, looking at an object, observes that the thing which he sees aims at being some other thing, but falls short of, and cannot be that other–he who makes the observation must have had a previous knowledge of that to which the other, though similar, was inferior?”6

Setting aside the idea of Reminiscence, what Plato here puts before us is that we always know the particular through, and in relation to, a universal, which has a wider import. The universal is, therefore, logically prior to the particular, in the sense that in apprehending the particular we presuppose it; though it is also true that it is not till later that we direct attention to the universal for itself or attempt to define it.

But, in the second place, Plato's view of the particular, as like the universal and therefore capable of recalling it, is closely connected with his conception of art and also with his idealisation of love. Art is for him the great means of presenting the higher under the form of the lower. Its business is to give to the particular object of sense a form in which it will more adequately represent its idea. In other words, art by a kind of ‘noble untruth’ removes from the object all the imperfections of finitude and makes it serve as a substitute for the idea itself. Art and poetry bring down the idea into the region of ordinary experience, and make it a presence in the sensible world for those who cannot raise their minds above that world to the intelligible reality of which it is but a semblance. And the same may be said of natural beauty. For, as Plato says in the Phaedrus, the beautiful is the form in which the ideal comes nearest to the senses, and is presented most vividly to the ordinary consciousness;7 while the purely ethical and intellectual ideal has at first no form or comeliness that can commend it to the sense or imagination. And his explanation of the passion of love is that it arises just from that confusion or identification of the ideal with the sensible, of the universal with the particular, which beauty seems to authorise. Hence in the Symposium Plato gives us the picture of a process of education or elevation of the soul, which begins in the wonder and desire produced by the outward beauty of one finite individual; and which rises by gradual stages from the body to the soul, from one to all beautiful forms, till it finds at last its perfect satisfaction in the contemplation of the ideal principle of beauty itself.8

In this way Plato seems to pass from a negative to a positive view of the relations of the particular to the universal, from the mystic longing to be freed from the bonds of sense to the recognition that the madness of the poet and the lover, who see the ideal in the sensible, has in it something of divine inspiration. But this is not all. Aristotle brings against Plato the charge that he sought the one beyond the many instead of seeking it in the many. But science, as Aristotle himself recognises,9 must necessarily do both. It must go beyond the phenomena with which it starts in order to explain them. If it seeks a principle of unity in the diversity of the things of experience, it must isolate the particular aspect or sphere of reality it is investigating from all that is irrelevant to it or not immediately connected with it. Thus the geometrician has to free his figures from every characteristic that does not flow from their definition as spatial forms or determinations of abstract space; and the arithmetician has to isolate his numbers from every determination that does not belong to them as discrete units, standing in external relations to each other. The existence of such sciences depends on our being able to consider the relations with which they deal apart from every other relation—i.e. apart from everything that cannot be explained by the principle of unity that governs the special aspect or sphere of reality in question. And though such abstraction cannot be so fully and definitely attained in other cases, yet it remains true that in every science we have to deal with a special aspect or sphere of reality; and that in order to deal with it successfully, we have to abstract as far as possible from all that is unconnected with its immediate object. In other words, we seek to free each science from irrelevancies, and to make it into a transparent body of truth, each part of which implies the whole. In many cases we may not be able perfectly to realise such a systematic unity, but it is the ideal we have always to strive after. For knowledge can hardly be regarded as worthy of the name of science till it ceases to be a collection of facts, and begins to take the form of an organic whole, all the elements of which are determined by the same principle of unity.

Now, if Plato's ‘one beyond the many’ meant this—and we shall find reason to maintain that it did so—it is not liable to the objection that its unity is a mere abstraction. A science must abstract from what is irrelevant to its special point of view, in order that it may work out more fully and definitely what in that point of view is relevant. It must abstract from all that is not connected with its own specific aim, or included in the specific sphere of existence it has to investigate, in order that it may take as complete a view as possible of all that contributes to that aim, or falls within that sphere. And—subject to a qualification to be explained in the sequel—the Platonic ideas may be fairly interpreted in this sense; for by an idea Plato means something which can be defined, and from the definition of which consequences can be drawn, i.e. he means not a bare unit but a unity of differences, not a simple abstraction which excludes all distinction, but a content whose elements, though distinguishable, are yet in transparent unity with each other. When, therefore, he speaks of the exclusion of multiplicity and change from his ideas and from the science of them, what he means to express is that, when we reach the inmost nature of anything we find in it, not parts that are external to each other, or phases that merely succeed each other, but a whole, the elements of which are recognised as essentially connected with each other. In other words, what he is aiming at is not the negation of all difference, but only of differences that do not flow from one principle or are not involved in it. This seems to be the real meaning of Plato, though we have to acknowledge that at this stage of his development he dwells too exclusively upon the negative aspect of science, upon the permanent unity and simplicity of the idea as opposed to the multiplicity and variableness of the phenomena; and that his language, especially in the Phaedo, might encourage the notion that all that is necessary to attain the ideal is to turn away from the world of sense and opinion. His mind, in fact, is occupied almost wholly with the movement upwards to apprehend the principles of unity in things, and hardly at all with the movement downwards to reconstitute the phenomena by a new interpretation. And this over-emphasis, natural as it might be in the first effort to rise from opinion to science, inevitably led to the misunderstanding to which we have referred—a misunderstanding which seems to have arisen at an early period in the Platonic school itself, and which in his later dialogues Plato seeks to correct. Whether he ever completely corrected it so as to exclude the error of mysticism, or whether he was finally driven to admit an irreconcilable division between the world of sense and the world of intelligence, we shall have to consider hereafter.

In the meantime we must go on to deal with a second point, in which theology is vitally interested, namely, that for Plato, even in this earliest form of the ideal theory, all ideas form a whole, and point to one highest idea which includes or absorbs all the others into itself. For in Plato's philosophy, as already stated, the conceptions of Socrates are in such wise deepened, enlarged, and universalised, that the ideal principle which Socrates sought to introduce into morals is made the basis of a philosophy of the universe. In accordance with this view we find in the Phaedo a kind of transfigured rendering of the fact, vouched for by Xenophon, that Socrates at one period of his life had occupied himself with the physical theories of the earlier philosophers, but had finally turned away from them to investigate the ethical principle by which the conduct of man must be regulated. Plato accommodates this fact to his own case, and makes Socrates turn away from the theory of Anaxagoras—who, though he had spoken of reason as the ordering principle of all things, had nevertheless adhered to the methods of explanation which were employed by the other physical philosophers—to the principles and methods of his own idealism. Thus the Platonic Socrates tells ue that there was a time when he was content to explain all phenomena by physical causes, treating e.g. the growth of animals as the result of some interaction of heat and cold, and even the perception and thought of man as due to the action of the blood or the air on the matter of the brain. But he soon began to find a difficulty in such explanations; for he found it impossible to understand how the unity of life and mund should be produced by the combination and reciprocal influence of the material parts of the body. He therefore began to doubt what before had seemed a “self-evident truth, that the growth of a man is simply the result of eating and drinking, and that, when by the digestion of food flesh is added to flesh and bone to bone, the lesser bulk becomes larger and the small man great.”10

Socrates could not see how such a process would explain the facts. Nay, he could not see how such an hypothesis would explain any ideal unity whatever, not even that which is involved in the art of arithmetic. “I could not satisfy myself that when one is added to one, the one to which the addition is made becomes two, simply by reason of the addition.”11 In other words, as Kant afterwards pointed out, there is a synthetic principle involved even in the operations of arithmetic, a principle of connexion which mediates in the addition of one element to another; and we cannot say that the mere bringing of the terms together will explain this process, unless we can find some connective idea by means of which they are reduced to unity. Plato thus, as it appears, opens up the general question of the need of synthetic principles; and that not only for the explanation of life and mind, but wherever, in thought or in things, we discover a real unification of elements which seem in the first instance to be given as diverse.

Socrates then goes on to tell us that, while troubled with this difficulty, he heard of a book by Anaxagoras which seemed to promise such an explanation of the universe as he wanted, a book in which it was maintained that reason is the disposer and cause of all things. “I was delighted at this notion and I said to myself: ‘if mind is the disposer, mind will dispose all things for the best, and put each particular thing in the right place’: and I argued that, if anyone discovered the cause of the generation or distribution or existence of anything, he must find out what state of being, doing, or suffering, was best for it: and therefore a man need only consider the best for himself and others, and then he would also know the worst, since the same science comprehended both.”12 In other words, Socrates expected to get from Anaxagoras a teleological system of the universe, which would solve the problem of ethics as a necessary element in its general explanation of reality. But when he read the book, he found that Anaxagoras had assigned for the causes and reasons of things only the particular elements and their actions and reactions upon each other; and that he had not in any way attempted to explain the universe, or indeed anything in it, as a whole, the elements of which were united by one teleological principle.

“I might compare Anaxagoras to a person who began by maintaining that mind is the cause of the actions of Socrates, but who, when he endeavoured to explain the causes of my several actions in detail, went on to show that I sit here because my body is made up of bones and muscles; and the bones, as he would say, are hard and have joints that divide them, and the muscles are elastic and they cover the bones, which also have a covering or environment of flesh and skin which contains them: and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction and relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my joints, and this is the reason why I am sitting here in a curved posture:—that is what he would say; and he would have a similar explanation of my talking to you, which he would attribute to sound and ear and hearing, and he would assign ten thousand other causes of the same sort, forgetting to mention the true cause, which is that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better to remain here and undergo my sentence: for I am inclined to think that these muscles and bones of mine would have gone off long ago to Megara or Boeotia—by the dog they would, if they had been moved only by their own idea of what is best, and if I had not chosen the better and nobler part, instead of playing truant and running away, to endure any punishment which the State inflicts. There is surely a strange confusion of causes and conditions in all this. It may be said, indeed, that without muscles and bones and the other parts of the body I cannot execute my purposes. But to say that I do this because of them, and that this is the way the mind acts, and not from a choice of the best, is a very careless and idle mode of speaking. I wonder that they cannot distinguish the cause from the condition, which the many, feeling about in the dark, are always mistaking and misnaming.”13

Socrates expected from Anaxagoras a theory of the universe as an order based not merely upon law but upon design, not upon efficient, but upon final causes. He had expected that Anaxagoras would reduce the order of the universe to a system arranged in view of an absolute good: or, to put it otherwise, that he would explain the world as an intelligible world, the beginning and end of which were to be found in the intelligence. But he soon perceived that in his explanations of particular things Anaxagoras had really followed the same method as his predecessors, the method of physical causes; that in other words, he had dealt only with the particular relations of things as they seemed to present themselves to the senses, and had sought only to determine how they acted and reacted upon each other. Now, this method, in Plato's opinion, was doomed to failure: for, as he puts it, when we gaze upon the world with the eyes of sense our minds are confused and dazzled as by the sun in eclipse. Hence it is not in this way that we can hope to rise to the principle of unity in the universe, or even to the principle of unity in any part of it. Being thus disappointed in the high hopes which he had entertained of Anaxagoras, the Platonic Socrates is represented as turning, as a secondary resource, to the theory of ideas and the method of dialectic;14 that is, he is represented as turning to the Socratic method of induction and definition as it had been recast by Plato himself. That method, he thought, would ultimately bring him in another way to the result which he desired: for it would enable him, in the first place, to attain to the definition of the general predicates by which we characterise particular classes of things, and so to the discovery of the principles which explain particular spheres of reality; and then, in the second place, if doubt were thrown on any one of the principles so established, it would enable him to make a further regress upon some higher universal which he would endea vour to define by the same method: and thus he would proceed step by step till he reached a highest principle by which he could explain all the others. An ideal principle reached in this way would not be a mere name—like the ordering mind in the system of Anaxagoras; it would be seen to be the one principle of unity in which all the differences of things found their reconcilement and solution. This conception of a Jacob's ladder of science leading up to the highest idea, which is indicated in the Phaedo only by a few pregnant words, is worked out more fully in the Republic, where Plato gives his view of the special sciences as preparing the way for the final science of dialectic or philosophy. The sciences—Plato speaks particularly of the mathematical sciences which alone had been developed in his time—are there described as each finding its principle in some one idea which has to be separated from everything irrelevant, and developed to all its consequences. Each of these sciences deals with a whole or sphere of reality which is only a part in the greater whole of the universe, and its principle is therefore a hypothesis which must rest upon something else than itself. Hence to reach an absolute principle we must take a synthetic view of the principles of all the sciences, and seek for the idea which is at the basis of them all; for only one who can see things in their unity is worthy to be called a dialectician or philosopher. Thus the true method is to go back from particulars to universals, and from these to still higher universals, till we reach the highest universal, the principle that binds them all together and has no principle beyond it—the Idea of Good which is the light of the intelligible, as the sun is the light of the sensible world.

Now, without entering at present upon the discussion of Plato's Idea of Good as it is presented in the Republic, let us consider the general contrast of methods which he here sets before us. Plato rejects the view of Anaxagoras because, though reason was his nominal principle, he did not, on the basis of it, work out a conception of the world as an intelligble, or, what is the same thing for Plato, a teleological system—an organic whole, in which the Good which is the essential aim of reason is realised. On the contrary, he fell back upon an explanation of phenomena by the special relations of the parts of the world, as acting and reacting upon each other according to physical laws which might be discovered by observation. Such a method could never, in Plato's opinion, lead to a final explanation of things; nor, however far it was carried, could it verify the assertion of Anaxagoras that the world is the manifestation of intelligence. But Plato thought that his own method of ideas, the method of dialectic and definition, if it were steadfastly pursued, would ultimately lead to the desired result, would carry the mind up from idea to idea till it reached the Idea of Good, as the most comprehensive of all principles from which all other principles might be deduced, and would thus enable us to conceive the world as a rational system.

Now, this scheme of Plato is apt to be regarded as only an attempt to substitute the barren pursuit of final causes for the fruitful ways of science. And, in a sense, we must admit the truth of the charge. Plato did not understand, and could not anticipate, how much science was to gain by the method he repudiates, the method which begins with isolated facts or elements of reality and aims only at finding out the laws of their action and reaction upon each other. Further, we have to admit that it was impossible for science to advance very far in the way which Plato preferred, by the direct attempt to discover formal or final causes. Not even in the case of the organic world, where final causes have their most natural application, could satisfactory results be reached by such a method. Even there we must begin with the use of lower categories, with the second causes or conditions on which Plato looks so slightingly. We must analyse the whole into its parts, and try to discover the ways in which these severed parts act and react on each other. To comprehend the living being as a whole or organism is the last, and not the first, thing in science. In this respect Plato's view is like that of Goethe, who objected to the analytic work of science that it ‘murders in order to dissect,’ and that in the end it leaves us with the parts in our hands, while the spiritual bond, that held them together and made them parts of one living being, has disappeared in the process. Yes, it may be answered, in the end we cannot explain life by the action of the parts of the dead body. But it is not less true that we must begin by dissecting, we must analyse the organism into its parts, else we shall never know much about it. If, indeed, after we have dissected and have the parts in our hands, we think that we have done all that is required, or that we can explain the animal fully by the mechanical and chemical relations of its parts—still more if we think we can explain mind on such a method—then we shall deserve Plato's censure; but, on the other hand, he deserves ours, for his attempt at once to attain the ultimate secret, and for his contempt of the process of analysis which is the necessary pre-supposition of any conclusive synthesis. Plato does, indeed, introduce a saving clause; for while, in the passage just quoted, he declares that the mechanical conditions of the actions of man or any other being, are not the real causes of these actions, he admits that they are conditions without which the real causes would not operate. But if this be true, these conditions also require investigation, and it will not do to pass them over, or treat them as something which may be taken for granted. Indeed, it is only after we have mastered the nature of the parts taken in isolation or as externally acting upon each other, that it is safe to go on to recognise that after all they are not isolated, nor is their relation merely external. It is just when analysis has done its work as completely as possible, that we become clearly conscious that no final account of such a being can be given, till we have discovered the one principle that manifests itself in all its differences, and binds them into one organic whole.

So far I have spoken of organic beings in the narrower sense; but Plato maintains that the same thing is true of all forms of existence, and of the universe itself. He maintains, in other words, that we can never get an ultimate explanation of anything by the method of the physical philosophers. For all things, so far as they are independent realities, are in a sense organic, i.e. they are systematic wholes, in which we have to explain the difference from the unity and not the unity from the difference, the parts from the whole, not the whole from the parts. Even in mathematics, we cannot explain the unity—say of a geometrical figure—by a synthesis of parts which are external to each other; we must, on the contrary, first define the unity, and then deduce the correlation of the parts from it. We cannot see e.g. what a triangle is, unless we are able to deduce all its distinctive characteristics from its definition. No ultimate explanation of anything can be given, if we accept the principles of Plato, except by the discovery of its formal or final cause.

But admitting all this, we must still maintain that no such reconstruction of the parts from the idea of the whole can be attained without a previous investigation of the parts in their distinction and their external relations. Teleology may not under all circumstances be a barren study, but it must be barren to anyone who is not prepared to go through the patient labour of dissection and analysis. Plato's main defect is that he anticipates the end or ultimate result of philosophy, and that he does not realise the magnitude and slowness of the mining process of science through which it is to be reached. And perhaps we may add that it is just because of his hasty anticipation of the ultimate ideal view of reality which is the goal of science, that his idealism finally remained imperfect, and that both he and his great follower Aristotle were obliged to recognise the existence of something in the world which could not be ideally explained. A philosophy that would be thorough in its idealism, must stoop from the intuition of the whole to the detailed investigation of the parts; it must wait for the complete realisation of its ideal principles till science has reduced the scattered phenomena into a system of necessarily, though it may be externally, related elements. The revolt of science against a premature teleology was a necessary step in the very history of the process by which in modern times philosophy has been advancing to a more complete teleological view of the universe.

Note on Plato's Relation to Anaxagoras.

The point of Plato's argument in this part of the dialogue has, I think, been often misapprehended. The Platonic Socrates tells us that he went to the book of Anaxagoras with great expectations, because he had heard that Anaxagoras maintained that reason is the principle of all things. He found, however, on reading that book that Anaxagoras had in the main followed the method of the physical philosophers, and that in his explanations of phenomena he started with the particular elements or existences given in sense, and only sought to discover how they acted and reacted on each other. In short, Anaxagoras had at once, as by an immediate intuition, assumed a highest principle of the universe, but had then been unable to make any scientific use of that principle. Socrates, therefore, renounced such ambitious ways of philosophising, and fell back, as a δεύτερος πλου̑ς, on his own humbler ways of speculation; as one whose eyes had been blinded by gazing directly at the sun during an eclipse, might turn to look at its image in water, or some similar medium. “This,” says Socrates, “was what was in my mind: I was afraid lest my soul might be blinded altogether, if I continued to look at things with my eyes, or tried to apprehend them by help of my senses. I thought, therefore, that I ought to take refuge εἰς τὸυς λóγους (i.e. in his own method of explaining things by ideal principles), and contemplate the truth of things in them.”15 “Yet, perhaps,” he goes on, “my metaphor is not very exact, for I do not admit that he who contemplates things ἐν τοι̑ς λóγοις is looking at mere images, any more than he who looks at them ἐν τοι̑ς ́ἐργοις,” i.e. who observes particulars and their relations as they are given in sense, without rising above them to the universal.

The meaning of this will become evident if we remember that Plato is giving a new version of the fact stated by Xenophon, namely, that Socrates turned away from the speculations of earlier philosophy, which had been based upon observation of the outward world, to practise his own method of seeking for the definition of universals in the sphere of ethics.16 Plato here makes two changes in the story in order to fit it to his own case. In the first place, he ignores the limitation of the Socratic philosophy to ethics; and, in the second place, he conceives universals in the light of his own ideal theory, i.e. as principles at once of knowledge and of reality. Making these changes, Plato contrasts his own method of referring things to universal principles by aid of the intelligence, with that of Anaxagoras, who sought at a single stroke to reach the highest principle, and yet, after all, looked at the world only with the eyes of sense, which could apprehend nothing but particular things and their relations. It is a touch of Plato's humour that he speaks of his own method, which rises gradually from the definition of lower to the definition of higher universals, as a δεύτερος πλου̑ς; and, again, that he describes himself as dazzled, as by the “sun in eclipse,” when he looks at things with the eyes of sense, and as, therefore, turning for relief to the reflexion of things in thought. He has used nearly the same language in a passage a little earlier in the dialogue (79 B), where he declares that one who tries to apprehend reality by means of the senses “is disturbed and distracted and staggers like a drunken man,” and contrasts with this the pure and tranquil action of the intelligence, when it contemplates the eternal ideas of things. Plato, we may be satisfied, would never have spoken in earnest of his own dialectic as an inferior method, though it was less ambitious than that of a philosopher who at once asserted the absolute supremacy of reason without working up to this highest universal through any subordinate principles of unity. And, indeed, Plato takes care to guard against such a mistake, when he declares that the metaphor of reflexion does not hold good, and that we do not see reality less directly ἐν τοι̑ς λóγοις than ἐν τοι̑ς ̓́εργοις i.e. through intelligence than through sense. In fact, he believes the reverse of this; he believes that we apprehend the reality of things only as we rise above the particular phenomena of sense and their immediate relations to each other, to the universals or ideal principles of unity, which can only be apprehended by the intelligence. The meaning of the whole passage, then, is that in Plato's opinion we can by the perceptions of sense reach, at the most, only the physical causes or conditions of things, and that the final or formal causes, which alone he thinks worthy of the name of causes at all, can be grasped only by the intelligence. It will be observed that Plato does not here dispute the theory that we can apprehend particular things and their relations by sense alone, and therefore does not distinguish between sensation and opinion. A different doctrine would result from the discussions of the Theaetetus, but these seem to belong to a later stage of the Platonic philosophy.

“Endeavouring to show the kind of cause I deal with,” the Platonic Socrates goes on, “I fall back upon those ideal principles about which there has been so much talk, and I make them my starting-point. In other words, I assume that there is a beautiful in itself, a good in itself, and soon. And if you grant me this, I find in it a sufficient basis for my argument.” Plato thus assumes that the ultimate cause or reason for any characteristic of a particular thing, is to be found in some universal or idea, and that “if there be anything beautiful but the beautiful itself, it must be for no other reason than that it partakes in the beautiful.”…“I know and can understand nothing of these other wise causes that are alleged, and if any one says to me that the bloom of colour in an object, or its shape, or any such quality of it is the source of its beauty, I leave all that, and singly and simply and perhaps foolishly I hold to the conviction that nothing makes a thing beautiful, but the presence, or participation, or communication—whichever you like to call it—of the beautiful itself. For I am not prepared to speak definitely of the nature of the relation between the beautiful itself and the particular things we call beautiful, but only to assert that it is from the beautiful itself that all particular things derive their beauty.”17

The ideas, then, are to be taken as constitutive principles of reality within particular spheres of being, and their definition is the only key to the distinctive characteristics of those spheres. “Laying down, then, the principle,” i.e. the definition of a universal, “that seems to me to be surest, what agrees therewith I set down as true, and what does not agree therewith, I set down as untrue… And if anyone assails18 the principle (ύ̒πóθεσις) itself, you will not mind him or answer him, till you have discovered as to all the consequences which followed from it, whether they agree with each other”; in other words, you will try to work out a self-consistent view on the basis of a particular hypothesis, and will not reject it except on the ground that this cannot be done. But Plato does not stop here, he requires that the philosopher shall rise beyond principles that hold good within special spheres of being, to a highest principle of unity. Hence he says: “When you are required to give an explanation of the principle itself, you will go on to set up a higher principle—the best you can discover among those next in the ascending scale—and so on to one that is higher still, till you reach one that is sufficient for itself. And you will take special care not, like the Eristics, to confuse the discussion of the principle itself, with that of the consequences which follow from it: so only you can hope to attain distinct results about that which really is.”19

This, as I understand it, points to a hierarchical distribution of ideas in which the highest idea is conceived as the ultimate ground of all the others. Thus the ἀνυπóθετος ἀρχή is that to which we work back on the basis of what Aristotle calls the ἰδίαι ἀρχαί, the latter being regarded as hypothetical in the sense that they find their ultimate ground or principle of explanation in the former. This, however, is not worked out in the Phaedo, where Plato does not yet show that by his own method, he is able to reach the Idea of Good as the principle of all knowing and being. Here Plato confines himself to the lower ideas, insisting specially on the point that we must proceed by setting up definitions of special universals, and working out the consequences of such definitions, to see how they cohere with each other. The truth, so far, is to be tested by the coherence or self-consistency of the view which our definition enables us to take of the special sphere, or, as we should rather say, the special aspect of reality included under a universal. In the last resort, however, we must recognise that such universals are not ultimate, and that every subordinate principle must be referred back to some higher principle, and that again to one that is still higher, till we reach that which is adequate, or, as we should rather say, self-sufficient.

  • 1. Symp., 192 D.
  • 2. Rep., 505 E.
  • 3. Id, 479 A.
  • 4. Rep., 476 A.
  • 5. Phaedo, 79 C.
  • 6. Phaed., 74 D.
  • 7. Phaedrus, 250 C.
  • 8. Symp., 210 A. seq.
  • 9. Cf. Anal. Post., II. 19.ϵ̓κ δ̕ ϵ̓μπϵιρίας ἢ ϵ̓κ παντòς ἠρϵμήσαντος του̑ καθόλου ϵ̓ν τῃ̑ ψυχῃ̑, του̑ ϵĸνòς παρἀ τἀ πολλα ́, ὃ ἂν ϵ̓ν ἂπασιν ἔν ϵ̓νῃ̑ ϵ̓κϵίνοις τò αὐτò, τϵ́χνης ἀρχὴ καί ϵ̓πιστήμης
  • 10. Phaedo, 96 D.
  • 11. Phaedo, 96 E.
  • 12. Phaedo, 97 C.
  • 13. Phaedo, 98 C. seq
  • 14. Phaedo, 98 C. seq
  • 15. Phaedo, 99 E.
  • 16. Mem., I. 1, 11 seq.
  • 17. Phaedo, 100 D.
  • 18. There is an obvious difficulty in getting this meaning out of ἔχοιτο but whatever the reading ought to be, the meaning seems by what is said imrnediotely afterwards about the Eristic who confuses the discussion of a principle, taken by itself, with the discussion of its consequences. The discussion of a principle in itself must mean the enquiry whether it can be treated as an ultimate principle. Thus the principle of a special science is that idea which furnishes a basis for a self-consistent view of that sphere or aspect of reality. The idea of umber e.g. may furnish a sufficient basis for arithmetic, but we cannot take it as an ἀνυπóθϵτος ἀρχή: when we examine it for itself, we are forced to carry it back to some more comprehensive idea.
  • 19. Phaedo, D. seq