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Lecture Ninth: The Final Results of the Platonic Philosophy

IN the last two lectures I attempted to show the nature of the transition by which Plato passes from the general doctrine that the idea or universal is the real, to the doctrine that the ultimate reality is to be found in mind. Absolute Being, ‘that which is in the highest sense of the word,’ must be a principle which transcends the opposition, maintained by the earlier schools, between being and becoming, between the one and the many; and which also transcends the new opposition, which was brought into view by Socrates, between the subject and the object. It cannot be conceived as rest without motion, as permanence without activity; but as little can it be conceived as an objective ideal principle without consciousness or intelligence; or, on the other hand, as a mere subjective thought or state of consciousness without objective reality. If it is intelligence, it is not intelligence as separated by abstraction from the intelligible world, but as presupposing and including it. It is ‘divine reason,’ as the ultimate unity of all the ideas of things, and so as the principle at once of knowing and of being.

But this involves another transition. If mind be the principle of the universe, we cannot contemplate all the parts of the universe as equally far from it and equally near to it. There are ideal principles in all things, but the principle of life and consciousness raises the beings that partake in it above other beings or things; for all soul is divine and “has the care of all inanimate or soul-less being, and traverses the whole universe,”1 taking one form at one time and another at another. Every soul, as such, is a self-determining being, whose life cannot be overpowered or destroyed by anything external to itself. It is thus immortal, and above the power of death and time. And if, in any sense, it be made subject to them, it must be by its own act.

This at once brings us to a problem which greatly exercised the mind of Plato in the latest period of his life, as is shown by the Philebus and the Timaeus, the problem of the relation of the ideal to the phenomenal world. In one way this problem had now become much more complex and difficult for him; for he could no longer be content, if he ever were content, with the broad contrast between the permanent and the changing, the one and the many, seeing that he had recognised that the ideal world contains both these elements. The supreme principle could not now be conceived, if it ever were conceived, as an abstract unity resting in itself; it is now definitely recognised as the keystone of a system, and as one with itself in all the ideas which it binds into a whole. It is a conscious and active principle, whose activity manifests itself in every element and part of the universe. It “lives through all life, extends through all extent, spreads undivided, operates unspent”; but in a higher sense it reveals itself only in the individual souls who partake in its immortality.

But, though in this way the ideal world appears to take up into itself all the characteristics by which the phenomenal world was at first distinguished from it, Plato does not give up the fundamental contrast of the two. The multiplicity and movement that belong to the ideal world have still to be distinguished from the multiplicity and movement which are found in the world of genesis and change, the world of space and time. When we pass to the phenomenal, that transparent unity with itself through all its differences which belongs to the pure intelligence, is obscured and disturbed, and its resting identity with itself in all its activities is broken up and lost in opposition and contradiction. “The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not.” Thus, in spite of the progress which Plato made towards a thorough-going idealism, in which the abstract antagonisms of earlier philosophy were overcome, he was never able to escape from the dualism implied in his original contrast of science and opinion.

We might perhaps regard this as due in part to a mistaken view of the abstraction which is necessary for science. Every science selects some aspect or sphere of reality, and isolates it from all other spheres or aspects of it, in order that it may thoroughly elucidate that which it has chosen as the object of its investigation. Every science thus rejects an immense variety of detail with which its peculiar object is surrounded, as being for it accidental and irrelevant. And, though what is irrelevant and accidental for one science may not be so for another, yet, however far we go in this direction, there seems to be much in objects and in their coexistences and successions, which cannot be explained by any science. Further, even if philosophy can grasp some Idea of Good—some principle which unites all the sciences, because it transcends their limited points of view—yet it must always be impossible for us to trace the operation of this principle in the endless detail of changing phenomena which make up our daily life. The utmost knowledge we can attain still leaves the ordinary course of the world for us a mass of contingencies, of accidental juxtapositions and successions, of which we can only say that it is, and not why it is, still less that it is for the best.2 Hence our philosophy is too apt to become an effort to find our way to an ideal world in which we may take refuge from the confusions of the world of sense, even though we may acknowledge in words that it is this ideal world that gives to the world of sense all the order, significance, and reality which it possesses. Now, it is just here that Plato seems to take up his position, recognising what we may call the ideal kernel of existence, which gives to this world all the intelligible reality it possesses, but unable to see that in any sense or from any point of view it can be regarded as a pure manifestation of the ideal. Hence his optimism, in the strict sense of the word, is reserved for this ideal kernel, and in regard to everything else he is forced to lower his tone, and to declare that it is not the best but only as good as it can possibly be in a phenomenal world; since in that world the ideal is present only as reflected upon the sensible, as a “likeness of good things, but not the perfect image of those things.” Hence also there is in Plato a strange fluctuation, both of thought and feeling, in regard to the phenomenal world. Sometimes it is almost exalted to the ideal from which it is derived, and sometimes it is contemned as a phantom world of shadows which hardly redeems itself from non-existence. The phenomenal world for Plato is so far real and divine, as it is a reflexion of the divine intelligence; but it is undivine and unreal, because it is only a reflexion of it.

It is in the Philebus and the Timaeus that this view of the universe gets its fullest expression. In the former of these dialogues, Plato contrasts the divine intelligence which is one with itself in all its action, and so raised above all change and conflict, above all pleasure and pain, with the complex world of genesis and decay, of formation and dissolution, where a principle of order, which is derived from the divine intelligence, has to maintain itself in an element of chaos, and more or less successfully to reduce it to a cosmos. All finite existences, even finite spirits, are a kind of compromise between what Plato calls the limit and the unlimited, between a law which would regulate all things and confine them within definite bounds, and a vague indeterminate material or basis of phenomenal existence, which has no law in itself, and therefore must receive its determination from without. And, as that which is determined from without can never be perfectly determined, so this material3 is ever ready to escape from the limitations to which it is subjected, and to return to the lawlessness from which it has been redeemed. If it could exist by itself, it would swing unchecked from excess to defect, from defect to excess, and the ‘golden mean’ could only partially and for the time be established in it. It is like the marble of the sculptor, which always has some flaw or imperfection in it that makes it a less than perfect embodiment of his idea; or like the forces of nature, which can be subjected to man's design, but have no direct affinity with the purpose they are made to serve and never exactly conform themselves to it. This disconformity shows itself in the continual passing away of everything finite, in the defects that attach to all natural existences, above all in the continual division and conflict of human life. In man this contrast of the material with the ideal which realises itself in it, appears as the opposition of mind and sense, of the intelligence that apprehends and seeks the good with the impulses which, left to themselves, tend to any object that promises pleasure without asking whether, or how far, the good is realised in it. The ideal of man's life is that it should exhibit in itself “an immaterial principle of order maintaining a noble sovereignty over a living body”;4 and this involves not only the subordination of the natural to the spiritual, but also the most perfect order and gradation of all spiritual aims, and the restriction of enjoyment to pleasures that are simple and pure—pleasures that accompany the highest activities of the soul and do not disturb them. But such an ideal can never be completely realised in the ‘mingled’ and divided nature of man.

The same contrast is expressed in another way in the Timaeus, where Plato gets over some of its difficulties by adopting a mythic form of expression. “We must first,” he declares, “make a distinction of the two great forms of being and ask: What is that which is and has no becoming, and what is that which is always becoming and never is? The former, which is apprehended by reason and reflexion, is changeless and ever one with itself; the latter, which is apprehended by opinion through irrational sensation, is ever coming into being and perishing, but never really is. Now, everything that begins to be, must be brought into being by some cause; for without a cause it is impossible for anything to be originated. But whatever things have been produced by the Creator, moulding the form and character of his work after the pattern of that which is ever the same, are of necessity beautiful; while those things which he has produced after the pattern of that which has come to be—a pattern which is itself not original but created—cannot be beautiful. Now as to the whole sphere of heaven, the ordered universe, or whatever we please to call it, our first enquiry in this as in every other subject must be, whether it always existed and had no birth or origination from anything else than itself, or whether it came into being and had a beginning in something else. It did begin to be, I reply; for it is visible and tangible, and it has a material body; and of all such sensible things, which are apprehended by opinion with the aid of sense, we must say that they are in process of becoming and are the results of such a process; hence we must needs say that it had a cause.”

“Now the Maker and Father of this universe is hard to find, and even if we had found him it would be impossible to reveal him to all men. There is, however, an enquiry which we may make regarding him, to wit, which of the patterns he had in view when he fashioned the universe,—the pattern of the unchangeable, or of that which has come to be. If the world indeed be beautiful and its artificer good, it is manifest that he must have had in view the eternal as his model and pattern; but if the reverse be true, which cannot be said without blasphemy, then he had in view the pattern which has come to be. Now anyone can see that he looked to the eternal as his pattern; for the world is the most beautiful of creatures, and he is the best of causes. Having, then, come into being in this way, we may say that it has been created in the image of that which is apprehended only by reason and intelligence, and which eternally is. The universe, then, it appears, is a copy and not an original.”

“Now in every discussion it is most important to make a beginning which agrees with the nature of the subject of which we treat. Hence in speaking of a copy and its original, we must see that our words are kindred to the matter which they have to express. When they relate to the abiding and unchangeable reality which is apprehended by reason, they must be fixed and unchanging, and, in so far as it is possible for words to be so, they must be incapable of refutation or alteration. But when they relate to that which is an image, though made in the likeness of the eternal, they need only have likelihood and make such an approach to exactness as the case admits; for truth stands to belief as being to becoming. If, then, amid the many opinions about the gods and the generation of the universe, we are not able in every respect to render all our ideas consistent with each other and precisely accurate, no one need be surprised. Enough, if we are able to give an account which is no less likely than another; for we must remember that I who speak, and you who judge of what I say, are mortal men, so that on these subjects we should be satisfied with a likely story, and demand nothing more.”5

In this passage Plato makes a broad division between the eternal reality of things and the world of becoming and change, and a corresponding division between the faculties of the soul by which they are severally apprehended, the former being the object of the pure intelligence and of knowledge, the latter of opinion, or, in other words, of a judgment directly based on sense. And it is to be noticed that by this he does not mean merely that opinion is a kind of knowledge which is imperfect by reason of the weakness of our minds. He means that this imperfection lies in the nature of the case; for no changing finite existence can be the object of the pure intelligence, which always contemplates that which absolutely is. The phenomenal world can be pictured by the imagination but, strictly speaking, it can never be understood. It is seen under the form of time which is the moving image of eternity and breaks up the eternal ‘now’ into past, present, and future. The ‘is,’ which is the only tense of science, loses its highest sense in the dubious region of phenomena which are continually changing. It is true that there is something like the unity and permanence of absolute being in the recurrent movement of the heavenly bodies, which, passing through long cycles of change, are supposed ever to return again to their original order and to resume their courses. And in another way we have the same return of the time-process upon itself in the course of animal life, which, as Plato says, imitates eternity by the continual reproduction of the species in new individuals, who go through the same cycle of change.6 In this world of generation and decay, however, we find no substantial existence, no permanent reality that ever remains one with itself: for, even if we go down to the four original elements, we find them also changing into one another. Nothing, therefore, that we know or experience in this world, seems to have a substantive reality of its own, or to be more than, so to speak, an adjective or passing phase of existence. And, if we ask what is the substance of which such adjectives are predicated, we are obliged to say that it is a thing of which in itself and apart from these adjectives, we can say nothing.

“Suppose an artificer who has given all sorts of shapes to a piece of gold, to be incessantly remoulding it, substituting one shape for another; and suppose somebody to be pointing to one of them, and to ask what it is: the safest answer that could be made would be, that it was gold; but as to the triangles and other shapes the gold had taken, it would be best not to speak of these shapes as if they really existed, seeing that they change even while we are making the assertion. . . . Now the same argument applies to the universal nature that receives all bodies. It must be always regarded as the same, as it never departs from its own nature. For, while receiving all indiscriminately, it never itself assumes a form like any of those things that enter into it. It, indeed, is the original recipient of all impressions, and is moved and transformed by them, and appears different from time to time by reason of them: but the things that go in and out, are but imitations of realities, modelled after their image in a way hard to explain, which we shall discuss hereafter.”7

Plato then goes on to say that this receptive nature, being itself formless though it receives all forms, is hard to define, but that the admission of its reality is forced upon us by the necessity of providing a substratum in which the change to which all things are subjected may take place; and that in spite of the fact that its changes are so complete that they seem to leave nothing at all behind which can be regarded as constituting such a substratum. And he sums up his whole doctrine as to the real, the phenomenal, and its basis or substratum in the following passage which contains in it the germs of much later speculation. “We must agree that there is one kind of being which is always the same, uncreated and indestructible, never receiving anything into itself from without, nor itself going out to any other, but invisible and imperceptible by sense, and of which the perception is granted to intelligence alone. And there is another kind of being which bears the same name with this and is similar to it, a created being which is always in motion, coming to be in a certain place and again perishing out of it, and which is apprehended by sense and opinion. And there is a third kind of being, namely, space, which is eternal and indestructible but provides a seat for all the changeful forms of existence, and which is apprehended without the aid of sense by a kind of spurious reason and is hard to believe in. Looking to this tertium quid as in a kind of dream, we say of all existence that it must be somewhere and occupy a space, and that that which has no place either in earth or in heaven, cannot be anything at all. And such is the power of this dream of ours that it makes us unable when we wake to realise the truth, to wit, that an image, or reflexion—seeing that by its essential nature and function, it has no basis in itself but is the flitting shadow of something else—must have something else than itself, in which it is and by means of which it lays hold upon existence: otherwise it will be reduced to nothing at all. On the other hand, in order to vindicate the reality of the real we must call in the aid of the following accurate rule of reason, namely, that if there be anything which has two different constituents, it is impossible that one of these constituents should inhere in the other in such a way that they shall form a self-identical unity in spite of their difference.”8

The train of thought here is a little difficult to follow. In the first place, Plato maintains that that which changes, as such, cannot be absolutely real, cannot have that permanent reality which science seeks to grasp. And as this change extends to all the qualities which we recognise in the phenomenal object, we are driven, in seeking for permanent reality, to look beneath the qualities for something which is equally receptive of them all. This common basis is then taken as the quasi-substance of things sensible, while yet, as absolutely indeterminate, it is not a proper substance at all. To Plato a true substance must be a perfectly definite and determined object of knowledge, and, in this point of view, the qualitative states through which the substratum passes are more like substances than the supposed substratum itself; yet they cannot be taken as substances, because they change and pass away. Such, then, is the strange puzzle of phenomenal existence. We know it under distinct predicates which are definable, but which in it are continually changing; and on the other hand, the substance, to which we seem obliged to refer these predicates, turns out to have no intelligible character. It is something which we are driven to assert as real by what Plato calls a “spurious and illegitimate reasoning,” that is, by the argument that, as every particular kind of existence has a material out of which it is formed, so all the forms of existence, as they change into each other, must have a substratum in which the change takes place. Of this substratum, however, we are able to give no account, except that it is the seat of everything else—that to which we refer when we say that everything must be somewhere: in other words, it seems to be one with the condition of being in space, to which all sensible existence is subjected. Yet we are not able to conceive empty space as a substance, in which qualities inhere and changes take place. This riddle of phenomenal existence, however, is partially explained when we recognise that phenomenal existence is essentially an image or reflexion of something else than itself, and that, therefore, we are obliged to think of it as a reflexion in something else than itself. Thus the image in one way looks to the ideal reality as its substance, and in another way to that in which it has, so to speak, its local habitation. It is characteristic of the phenomenal that it can be presented to us only through this curious combination of metaphor and analogical inference, but no such ambiguous nature could possibly belong to that which is real in the full sense of the word.

But we cannot leave the matter at this point. If Plato be right in saying that we fall into an illegitimate way of thinking when we attribute independent substance to the phenomenal, he cannot be right in saying that such a way of thinking is necessary. He is, in fact, attempting to find a way between the two horns of a dilemma. He is trying to conceive the ideal as manifesting itself in the phenomenal, and yet at the same time, as having an absolute reality which is complete in itself without any manifestation. Conversely, he would like to treat the phenomenal as if it were nothing at all, or at least a ‘mere appearance’ which adds nothing to the ideal reality. Yet he cannot deny that even an appearance or image has a kind of reality of its own, and that it needs to be accounted for. Hence, when he abandoned the simple method of Parmenides, who denied that phenomena have any reality at all, he was obliged to treat them as an illegitimate kind of substances—which yet are no true substances, because they do not belong to the ideal or intelligible world. The only possible escape from this logical impasse, would have been to set aside altogether the abstract opposition of the ideal world and the world in space and time, and to substitute for it the conception that they are correlative factors in the one real world. If Plato had adopted this course, he would have done justice equally to the distinction and to the unity of these factors; and he would have avoided the opposite dangers of an abstract monism and of an irreconcilable dualism. He would have conceived the intelligible reality, or the divine intelligence which is its central principle, not as resting in itself, but as essentially self-revealing; and he would have treated the world in space and time as its necessary manifestation. Are there any traces of such a view in Plato?

Before answering this question, let me first refer to the fact that Plato here identifies the substratum of phenomena with that which attaches spatial conditions to them, so that every one of them must be somewhere. We must remember, however, that this, whatever it is, has already been represented by Plato as also attaching temporal conditions to them; so that every one of them must be in a ‘now,’ which is only a state of transition from what it was to what it will be.9 Plato's thought, then, seems to be that the world in space and time is a sort of disrupted and distorted image of the intelligible world, in which the organic unity and eternal self-consistency of the ideal loses itself in dissonance and change. For, as reflected into space, the pure unity of ideas with each other through all their differences, is exchanged for the combination of parts which are external to each other and without unity in themselves; and, as reflected into time, the ideal movement of the intelligence, which remains one with itself in all its activity because it grasps its whole system in every idea, is turned into the vicissitude of an external sequence in which one thing is continually passing away to make room for another. With this Plato combines the further conception, that that which is essentially self-external, as in space, and essentially in flux, as in time, must be externally determined in all its changes. Hence the phenomenal is contrasted with the intelligible world, or, what is the same thing, with the intelligence, as that which is moved by another with that which is moved by itself; or, in other words, as that which is under the sway of necessity with that which is self-determined or free.10 But though primarily and in itself the phenomenal world is the sphere of necessity, even in it Plato holds that actually necessity is subjected to a higher principle, which, however, never completely does away with it. “All these things, constituted as they are by the necessity of nature, the Creator of what is best in the world of becoming took to himself at the time when he was producing the self-sufficing and most perfect God;11 and while he used the necessary causes as his ministers in the accomplishment of his work, it was by his own art that he realised the good in all the creation. Wherefore we must distinguish two kinds of causes, the necessary and the divine; and, so far as our nature admits, we must make the divine in all cases our end and aim; but we must seek the necessary causes for the sake of the divine, considering that, without them and isolated from them, it is impossible for us to know or attain or in any way share in those highest things which are the objects we really desire.”

Reason, in short, realises its designs in the world only so far as necessity will permit; it rules, in Plato's metaphor, by ‘persuading necessity’; and necessity can never be completely persuaded. Hence, in our enquiry into the nature of the world, as Plato had already pointed out in the Phaedo, we have to study both the causes of things, i.e. both the ends realised in them, and the conditions sine quibus non, imposed upon their realisation by the material in which they are realised. But we can never bring these two together, or conceive the necessity of nature as anything more than an external and partly recalcitrant means whereby the purposes of reason have to be realised.

We end, therefore, with a conception of the phenomenal world as the resultant of two kinds of causation, which cannot be brought to a unity; for we cannot in any way bridge over the gulf between the actus purus of reason and the mere passivity of corporeal existence, which is supposed to be able to receive and transmit motion or action, but not to originate it. The only way, therefore, in which the two can be united is by the external subjection of the one to the other; and this subjection, just because it is external, can never be complete; for, where the means are not inherently related to the end, the end can never be perfectly achieved. It does not occur to Plato to ask whether either of the abstractions between which he has divided the world—the abstraction of pure activity or the abstraction of pure passivity—is intelligible by itself, or can be regarded as representing any reality. On the contrary, he treats the former as that which alone is absolutely real and intelligible; and his only problem is to explain how the latter can exist, or be thought at all. This problem he seeks to solve by the externality or spatial character of all corporeal existences; for, as realised in space, the ideal forms are torn asunder from each other and even from themselves, and their difference shows itself as disharmony and conflict. And, finally, when he has to meet the difficulty of conceiving extension or space as a substance, he finds his escape in the conception that the phenomenal world is a world of images which, as such, cannot be made intelligible and cannot therefore be regarded as absolutely real, yet which cannot be denied all reality. This baffling ambiguity of nature withdraws it from the cognisance of science, and assigns it to the sphere of opinion. On the other hand, it is the nature of the ideal reality of things to be transparently one with itself in all its difference; as it is the nature of the pure intelligence to comprehend such reality, apart from all the confusions of the appearance. We are left, therefore, with a dualism which is at once subjective and objective; nor is it anywhere admitted that there is a principle which can dissolve the contradiction and reduce the two worlds to one.

Yet, while we say this, we must at the same time notice that Plato does supply us with a suggestion which might have removed this difficulty, if only he had fully developed its consequences. For, after all, Plato does not accept the doctrine that the relation of the real to the phenomenal is an altogether external or accidental relation. On the contrary, he not only refers the phenomenal to the ideal, as its cause, but he finds in the latter a kind of necessity for the former.

In the first place, let us look at what he says of the reason for the existence of the world. “Let me tell you why nature and this universe of things was framed by him who framed it. God is good; and in a perfectly good being no envy or jealousy could ever exist in any case or at any time. Being thus far removed from any such feeling, he desired that all things should be as like himself as it was possible for them to be. This is the sovereign cause of the existence of the world of change, which we shall do well to believe on the testimony of wise men of old. God desired that everything should be good and nothing evil, so far as this was attainable. Wherefore, finding the visible world not in a state of rest but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order, thinking that in every way this was better than the other. Now it is impossible that the best of beings should ever produce any but the most beautiful of works. The Creator, therefore, took thought and discerned that out of the things that are by nature visible, no work, destitute of reason, could be made, which would be so fair as one that possessed reason, setting whole against whole. He saw also that reason could not dwell in anything that is devoid of soul. And because this was his thought, in framing the world he put intelligence in soul, and soul in body, that he might be the maker of the fairest and best of works. Hence, taking the account of things that has most likelihood, we ought to affirm that the universe is a living creature endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God.”12

Even making some allowance for the mythic form of this statement, we can see that Plato finds in the goodness of God the reason for the creation of the world. The ideal reality, which in its ultimate conception is one with the divine intelligence, is not conceived as indifferent to all that is outside of it, but as by the necessity of its nature going beyond itself, and manifesting itself in the universe. Yet, on the other hand, this necessity is conceived as a conditional one, implying the previous existence of something else external to the divine being, something which has no order in itself, and therefore must receive order, must be turned from chaos to cosmos, by the operation of the divine intelligence. And, just because of this, the universe, though the ‘best of all possible worlds,’ is not conceived as in itself essentially good. It is good so far as the nature of the case admits, or so far as the material to be used is capable of goodness. But this material is in itself formless, and even when it is brought under form, it never is completely subjected thereto. It, therefore, brings division, conflict and change into the life of the created universe; or, putting it in another way, it makes that universe phenomenal and unreal, or real only with the partial reality of an image, which has no substance in itself, but only in that which produces it. Thus, just because the divine intelligence is not conceived as essentially self-manifesting but as manifesting itself only in relation to something given from without, Plato's pregnant conception of the goodness of God loses its meaning, and the phenomenal and the real are again divorced from each other.

We must, however, call attention to a second attempt of Plato to bridge the gulf between the eternal intelligence and the transitory world of sense, namely, by means of the idea of the soul as an intermediate or mediating existence. It is, indeed, quite in the manner of Plato to introduce a middle term between extremes which he is unable directly to unite. Thus the soul itself is described as compounded of the elements of ‘the same’ and ‘the other,’ i.e. of the self-identical unity of the idea and the unmediated difference of space, which are held together by an οὐσόα, or essential being that contains both these elements.13 But such an expedient only raises the same difficulty in a new form. For, if the extremes be absolutely opposed to each other, the middle term that connects them will itself require another middle term to unite its discordant elements. Now, in the present case, the intelligence and the bodily nature are conceived as essentially disparate, and the soul, which partakes of both, cannot be regarded as transcending or reconciling their difference. Hence neither for the connexion of the divine intelligence with the world, nor for the connexion of the intelligence of man with his body, can we find a mediating principle in the soul. And in the soul itself the pure principle of thought breaks away from the powers of sensation and appetite which are connected with the bodily existence; nor is it possible to discover any link of connexion between them, either in the discursive reason, or in those higher desires which are summed up by Plato under the name of θυμός

And this leads to a further result in relation to the question of immortality. For that which is essentially connected with the body must share its fate. But if none of the powers of the soul are to survive the body, in what sense can it be said that man as an individual has any permanent being which is not touched by death? That which abides can only be a pure universal intelligence, without memory or individual consciousness, which can hardly be distinguished from the divine intelligence. Indeed, even the idea of God as an individual Being seems to disappear when he is conceived as a purely contemplative intelligence, who is complete in himself, apart from any manifestation in the world. These results of his dualistic view were not, indeed, realised by Plato, but they begin to show themselves in the metaphysic of Aristotle. Meanwhile they were held in check by other tendencies of Plato, and especially, as I have already indicated, by his conception of the goodness of God, as leading to the communication of good to all his creatures.

Closely connected with the idea of the mediation of the soul, is another doctrine of which we find considerable traces in the Philebus and the Timaeus, but which we know mainly through the Aristotelian criticism of it. Aristotle tells us that Plato in his later years laid great emphasis upon the conceptions of number and measure, and, indeed, that he represented the quantitative determinations of things with which mathematical science has to deal as a special kind of existences, which lie midway between the ideal and the sensible, differing from the latter by their generality, and from the former by their multiplicity; for we can have many identical repetitions of the same numbers or figures, but there cannot be two identical ideas. We may suspect that in the statement of this theory Aristotle, with his usual tendency to insist on differences, has fixed and hardened the distinctions of Plato, and thereby given them a somewhat strange and unnatural appearance: but what we actually find in the Platonic dialogues enables us partially to understand what is meant. In most of his works, indeed, Plato does not hesitate to speak of ideas of number and quantity; but in the later dialogues we can trace a growing tendency to regard such conceptions, not as ideas, but as conditions of the manifestation of the ideas in the sensible or phenomenal world. Already in the Republic the mathematical sciences are referred to the discursive reason, as distinguished from dialectic which is referred to the pure or intuitive intelligence; though the main difference between them which is distinctly stated is that these sciences do not go back to first principles, but are based upon hypotheses which have only a relative generality.

In the Philebus, however, the divine cause of all things, the ideal principle of all reality, is clearly distinguished from what is called ‘the limit’ (τὸπέρας); that is, from the measure or quantitative determination, to which in the phenomenal world ‘the unlimited’ element (τὸ ἄπϵιρον) is subjected, in order to bring within bounds the endless possibility of increase and diminution which is characteristic of that element. The pure unity of the ideal or intelligible reality, in which the whole is present, in every part—or, what is the same thing in another aspect, the absolute self-identity of the divine intelligence, which is one with itself in all its activity and therefore combines in one the attributes of rest and motion—this pure unity and identity has to manifest itself in the sensible world as a law which determines the quantitative relations of the elements of each particular existence, and the order and extent of its changes. And the same mediating principle of measure can be observed also in the soul of man, in so far as there is an order and harmony of the inner life, which maintains itself in all the endless vicissitudes of states due to its association with the body. Thus the good of man consists in the due regulation of all the elements of his nature, or, as Plato expresses it, in the “rule of an immaterial order over a living body”; and this is clearly distinguished from the absolute Good, which has in it no distinction of parts, and in which, therefore, there is no need for one part to control another. Thus the pure organic unity of the ideal translates itself in the sensible world into the quantitative proportion of different elements, as determined by laws which maintain themselves, not absolutely but with relative constancy, amid all the difference and change of nature and of the soul of man. This might be otherwise expressed by saying that the good in its manifestation becomes the beautiful; for beauty is dependent on symmetry and proportion.14

The same fundamental conception is repeated in the Timaeus, where ‘the unlimited’ of the Philebus is identified primarily with space and secondarily with time. In the Timaeus, therefore, it is represented that the ideal, as reflected into the dispersion of space and the flux of time, is partly infected by the characteristics of these forms; but it recovers itself in so far as the externality of spatial existence is brought under the unity of definite geometrical figures, and its changes are determined to a definite order of succession. Further, this succession is conceived as constantly repeating itself, so that, through a long cycle of movement, everything is brought back again and again to the same point. We are thus able to understand how it was that the mathematical relations became for Plato the expression of the ideal in the sensible, and in what sense Aristotle could justly attribute to him the doctrine that they form a kind of ‘intermediates’ (τὰ μϵταξύ) between the two. But it is manifest that this doctrine fails in the same way as the doctrine of the mediation of the soul; for time and space are simply presupposed or assumed as existing external to the reality and the ideal; nor is there anything in its nature, as Plato has described it, which can supply a rationale for its being reflected into space and time, so as to give rise to the phenomenal world. In both cases we see Plato endeavouring to escape from the difficulties of an absolute division by the introduction of a middle term—an expedient which for reasons already given must necessarily fail. For no mediation between two extremes is possible, unless we can find a higher principle which transcends them both and reduces them to different forms or expressions of its own unity.

There is, however, still one other form of expression, by which Plato seeks to escape the difficulties of dualism; and it is one which deserves special attention, because of its influence upon Christian theology. The phenomenal world—which, as we have seen, is conceived by Plato as a living being with a soul and a body—is represented in the Timaeus not only as the image or reflexion of the intelligible world, but also as a ‘second god.’ Thus, though it has only a derived existence, it is regarded as possessing a relative completeness and self-sufficiency, which entitle it to be called divine, in contrast with all other creatures which draw from it their being and well-being. Furthermore, this ‘second god’ is called the ‘son’ and even the ‘only-begotten son’ of the first God. This idea is expressed in the concluding words of the Timaeus: “All our discourse about the nature of the universe hath here an end. Having received all living beings, mortal and immortal, into itself and being therewith replenished, this world has come into existence in the manner explained above, as a living being which is itself visible and embraces all beings that are visible. It is, therefore, an image of its maker, a god manifested to sense, the greatest and best, the most beautiful and perfect of all creatures, even the one and only-begotten universe.” With this idea of the sonship of the phenomenal universe—which is conceived as a living and conscious individual embracing all other creatures in itself—Plato seems almost to cross the border that separates the dualistic philosophy of Greece from the peculiar doctrines of Christianity. But, after all, it remains with him simply a strong metaphor, conveying indeed the idea of the nearness of the derivative to its original, but still excluding the thought of any unity that really transcends the difference. All we can say is, that the ambiguous nature of the phenomenal world makes Plato at one time exalt it almost to the ideal, and at another time set it in almost absolute opposition thereto; and that here, in his final utterances, we find him dwelling more on the positive than on the negative aspect of the relation.15

We seem, then, in the Timaeus, which may be regarded as the last word of Plato's theology, to be brought to a somewhat ambiguous conclusion, a sort of open verdict, which may be interpreted in two opposite ways according as we emphasise one or the other of the aspects of his thought. On the one hand, if we lay stress upon Plato's synthesis of opposites, upon his attempted reconciliation of Parmenides and Heraclitus, upon his conception of mind as a self-moving principle which produces motion in all other things, and lastly, upon his conception of God as a goodness which communicates itself and therefore is the cause of being and well-being to all his creatures, we seem to be brought within sight of an absolute idealism, which transcends all distinctions, even the distinction of the material and the spiritual. On the other hand, if we lay stress upon the sharp contrast which he draws between intelligence and necessity, between that which is the self-moving and self-determined and that which is moved and determined by another, between the unity through all difference and the permanence through all activity which belong to the real or intelligible world, and the self-externality and endless flux which are characteristic of the phenomenal, we shall find in the Platonic writings a scheme of doctrine which is essentially dualistic, and even, as regards the world of sense, pessimistic. It is only if we keep all the threads together that we can understand the loftiness of his idealism, and the way in which he often seems to reject its consequences. Thus he holds that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds,’ the image of the invisible, the manifestation of the goodness of God, and even that it is a ‘second god’: yet at the same time he is able to declare, that “evils can never pass away; for there must needs exist something which stands opposed to the good. They have no seat among the gods, but of necessity they cling to the nature of mortal creatures, and haunt the region in which we dwell.”16 In like manner, Plato's absolute confidence in philosophy as the supreme gift of God to man, does not preclude an almost agnostic tone in many places of his writing, as when he declares that “the Father and Maker of this universe is hard to find out,” and that even if we could find him, it would not be possible to communicate what we know to other men. We know God, Plato seems to say, through the world which is his reflexion; but it is a world of genesis and decay in which the divine can only be imperfectly adumbrated; and we ourselves, though rational and so partakers of the divine nature, are in another aspect of our being only fragmentary and imperfect existences—parts of the partial world, who can never completely gather into their minds the meaning of the whole. “It is hard to exhibit except by analogies, any of the things that are most important: for each of us seems to know everything as in a dream, and, again, in waking reality to know nothing at all.”17 This strange alternation between the consciousness of absolute knowledge as his portion, and the sense that what he knows is only a foretaste of something greater, is, however, not such a paradox as it seems. As the religious man says: “I believe, help thou mine unbelief,” so the great idealistic philosopher feels it no contradiction to say: “I know,” while yet he can hardly find expressions strong enough to characterise his ignorance. He knows, we might say, simply because he can, like Socrates, measure his ignorance. He has an idea of the whole, as an outline which he cannot fill up, though his whole life is a progress in filling it, and the goal he seeks is assured to him from the beginning. As man and as philosopher, Plato is conscious that he is born to be “a spectator of all time and existence,” and he never thinks of the highest reality as inaccessible to the intelligence. It is, as I have shown, an extreme misunderstanding of the words which he uses about the Idea of Good when the Neo-Platonists attribute to him the notion of an absolute unity, in which all distinction is lost, and which therefore cannot be apprehended except in an ecstasy in which thought and consciousness are annihilated. On the contrary, it is his fundamental thought that that which is most real is most knowable, and that which is most knowable is most real.18 It is not, therefore, in the silence and passivity of the spirit, but in its highest and most perfect activity, that it comes nearest to the divine; and it is only because this activity is obstructed and weakened by our mortal nature, that we do not know God fully and as he is.

There has been much discussion among theologians about the immanency or transcendency of God, but it is not quite easy to determine what is meant by these words. If by the transcendency of God be meant that there is in the principle of the intelligible world something not intelligible, we cannot speak of it without contradicting ourselves. The assertion of such transcendency is an attempt to reach a highest superlative, an attempt which overleaps itself, and ends by saying nothing at all. God is a word that has no significance, unless by it we mean to express the idea of a Being who is the principle of unity presupposed in all the differences of things, and in all our divided consciousness of them. In this sense, then, we must think of God as essentially immanent in the world and accessible to our minds. But from another point of view, the principle of unity in the world must necessarily transcend the whole of which it is the principle; and every attempt to explicate this principle into a system of the universe, made by those who are themselves parts of that system, must be in many ways inadequate. The microcosm can apprehend, but cannot fully comprehend, the macrocosm. In trying to realise the unity of the whole we seem only to advance from part to part, from finite to finite, so that “the margin fades for ever and for ever as we move.” The articulation of knowledge always lacks something which the self-involved religious sentiment seems to possess; though on the other hand, that sentiment, if it be not continually explicating itself, soon becomes abstract and empty. For a unity that does not go out into diversity, and cannot therefore return upon itself from it, is no real unity. Thus religion, in one aspect of it, is apt to become opposed to science and also to practical morality, as a contemplative consciousness that is beyond all the discourse of reason and all the deliberative action of the practical understanding. And even philosophy seems to be an enemy to religion, because, in spite of its striving after unity, it is obliged in the first instance to proceed by analysis, to work out every difference to its utmost consequences, and only to return to unity of principle through the reconciliation of opposites. Further, as this return is always being made, but never is made finally, conclusively and once for all; so there always seems to be a gap between the effort to recognise and realise God in the world, and the religious intuition of piety which takes that recognition and realisation as complete. And that gap may be supposed to imply, on the one side, the transcendency of God, and, on the other, the failure of the intelligible universe to realise, and of our intelligence to understand Him. Thus an imperfect consideration of the relation of different aspects of the truth may seem to drive us to the alternatives of mysticism or dualism. It is the great achievement of Plato that he makes us clearly see both horns of the dilemma, as it is his failure that he is not able to discover any quite satisfactory way of escape from it. Hence he could not attain to that end after which he was constantly striving, a complete reconciliation of the opposite lines of thought which meet in his philosophy. I think, however, that it will be evident even from the sketch of his philosophical theology I have given, that he did more than anyone before or since to open up all the questions with which the philosophy of religion has to deal.

  • 1. Phaedrus, 246 B.
  • 2. In the Philebus (16 D) Plato urges that in the descent from the unity of the idea to the multiplicity of phenomena, we should endeavour to carry division by intelligible principles as far as possible, subdividing till “the unity with which we began is seen not only to be one and many and infinite, but also a definite number; the infinite must not be suffered to approach the many until the entire number of the species intermediate between unity and infinity has been discovered—then, and not till then, we may rest from, division, and without further troubling ourselves about the endless individuals, may allow them to drop into infinity.”
  • 3. I use this word as a convenient expression, though it suggests something more definite and substantial than Plato's ἄπϵιρον
  • 4. Philebus, 64 B.
  • 5. Timaeus, 27 E.seq.
  • 6. Symposium, 207 D.
  • 7. Tim., 50 A seq.
  • 8. Tim., 52 A seq. Plato means that the phenomenal, as a combination of an image with that which is its substratum, has not unity with itself, and therefore cannot be regarded as a substantial reality.
  • 9. It would involve a long discussion to explain all that Plato says on this subject. We may agree with Baümker (Problem der Materie in der Griech. Phil., p. 184 seq.) that Plato is led by Pythagorean influence to identify matter with space, and that, consequently, he gives a purely mathematical explanation of the four elements as figures formed by the combination of planes. But it is to be noted that Plato immediately proceeds to speak of it as the ‘nurse of genesis,’ and to trace the continual change of sensible things to the inequality of the determination of different parts of space by different figures, which are, therefore, continually conflicting and passing into each other. They are, as it were, shapes which appear for a moment and vanish to make room for others. The idea of externality is thus immediately connected in Plato's mind with the ideas of conflict and of the consequent flux of becoming. And both seem to imply something analogous to the Aristotelian ὕλη.
  • 10. It is to be observed that Plato views that which is moved by another as entirely passive, and that he has no idea of any reaction involved in the transmission of motion. The abstract contrast of that which is self-moved with that which is moved by another, i.e. pure activity with pure passivity, is what makes the union of mind and body so accidental and external with Plato.
  • 11. Tim., 68 E seq. The universe as an organic whole, as we shall see in the sequel, is conceived by Plato as a ‘second God,’ who is as see like as possible to the first.
  • 12. Tim., 29 E seq.
  • 13. Timaeus, 35 A.
  • 14. Philebus, 64 E.
  • 15. I have not said anything of the two souls, the good and the evil soul, of which Plato speaks in the Laws (896 E), as principles to which the origin of things is to be referred. The idea of an evil soul is directly excluded by the Politicus (270 A), and it is difficult to see how Plato's principles could possibly admit of it. We may explain the admission of it by the popular character of the Laws or by the tendency to pessimism which was characteristic of its editor. And we may observe that though the hypothesis of two souls is admitted for the moment, no use is made of the idea of the evil sent in the sequel, in which Plato seems to refer the whole universe to a good principle, and that without suggesting the existence of any opposite principle, like the ἅπϵιρον of the Philebus.
  • 16. Theaet. 176 A.
  • 17. Politicus. 277 D.
  • 18. Rep., 477 A.