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Lecture Sixth: The State and the Idea of Good

WE have now reached the point at which Plato's philosophy passes into theology, in so far as all the ideas are made to centre and culminate in one absolute ideal principle. This result is specially associated with the Republic, that treatise of Plato's manhood in which he sums up all the conclusions he had then attained on morals and politics, on metaphysics and religion, and endeavours to weld them into a connected whole. It is impossible within any moderate compass to give a complete estimate of this great book, but for our purpose it is only necessary to refer to one or two leading features of it. Perhaps it might best be described as a treatise on Education, regarded as the one great business of life from the beginning to the end of it. But it lays emphasis on one aspect of this education which had been quite secondary with Socrates, and was altogether neglected by the Minor Socratics, namely, that it is the education of a social being, and therefore must be realised, in the first instance at least, through society. Plato, therefore, tries to imagine a perfect community after the highest type he knew, that of the Greek City-State. As an organised society the State, in his view, is founded neither on the force of the strong man, nor on the conspiracy of the weak; it is not the creation of arbitrary choice, even in the form of a social contract between its individual members; it originates not in the will of men at all, but in their nature, as beings who are essentially parts of a whole, each in himself fragmentary and incomplete, but finding his necessary complement in the rest. For such beings, to be isolated is to be weak and undeveloped, to be united is to be strong and have their individual capacities drawn out in the service of each other. For such beings, therefore, the ideal of individualism, the ideal of self-seeking and self-aggrandisement, is suicidal and contradictory. It is only as they give themselves up to the general good that individuals can possibly attain their own, and to seek happiness merely for themselves is the way to lose it. They must die to themselves that they may live in the general life. In short, it is only in the discharge of their social duty that they can be in harmony with themselves; and any attempt to make the general life of the community subservient to their own, must lead to inner discord, disorganisation and misery. Thus the ideal which Plato sets before us is that of a perfectly unified society, in which each individual, confining himself strictly to his own function, shall in that function be a pure organ and expression of the general will.

Plato has thus risen to the organic idea of the State, as a union of men which is based upon the division of labour according to capacity, and in which the citizen is united to the whole by the special office he discharges. But in working out this idea in the form of the Greek City-State, he lands himself in two great inconsistencies. On the one hand, sharing, as he does, in the Greek view that the higher life is only for the few—for those who are capable of intellectual culture, and in proportion as they are capable of it—he is unable to conceive the lower classes, those engaged in agricultural or industrial labour, as organic members of the State; he is obliged to regard them as the instruments of a society in whose higher advantages they have no share. And, on the other hand, he is so solicitous to exclude all self-seeking, and directly to merge private in social good, that he deprives even the favoured citizens of personal rights, and destroys the family lest it should become the rival of the State. He thus seems to secure the unity of the State, not by subordinating the personal and private interests of its members, but rather by preventing any consciousness of such interests from arising; and the result is that he reduces it to a mechanical, instead of raising it to a spiritual or organic unity. In the reaction against the individualistic tendencies represented by the Sophists, he finds no way to maintain order except by the absolute suppression of individual freedom.

At the same time, this is not the whole truth, and it could not be the whole truth for one taught in the school of Socrates. Plato, indeed, made a great change in the views of his master, when he recognised that virtue cannot rest primarily upon scientific knowledge, but only upon what he calls right opinion, that is to say, upon a moral sentiment which is in great part the result of social training. The virtue of the mass of men at all times, and of all men in the earlier part of their lives, must be the product, not of philosophic reflexion, but of the unconscious influences under which they grow up as members in a society, and of a teaching which has no scientific character. Yet Plato could not but hold that in its highest sense ‘virtue is knowledge,’ i.e. that it must rest upon conscious principle; and that any other kind of virtue—any virtue that is based upon rules whose principle is not present to him who obeys them—is inchoate and imperfect. If not for the mass of men, yet for the chosen few, there must be a complete liberation from the life of mere use and wont. Nor, indeed, can the life of use and wont produce its highest results, unless it is regulated by the providence of governors who have risen above it, and have attained to philosophic insight into the meaning and object of man's existence. The affairs of men will never be perfectly ordered “unless philosophers be kings or kings philosophers.” What is wanted for the perfecting of the moral life is not, therefore, as Socrates taught, that all individuals should be able to guide themselves by a clear reflective consciousness of the end of all human action and of the means whereby it may be attained; it is only that there should be a few individuals in the State—even one night be enough—who have such a consciousness, and who are thereby fitted to become shepherds of men, and to guide and mould the lives of all the others. These wise governors, like Carlyle's ‘hero-kings,’ will have the duty of selecting for each of the citizens the office which he individually is suited to discharge, and giving to him the mental and bodily training which he requires to discharge it aright. They will have to keep away from the lives of the citizens everything that is discordant and inharmonious, and to surround them with what is becoming and beautiful, so that healthful and inspiring influences may reach them from every quarter. They will take the religion of the people under their care, and will provide that the poetry and mythology—the stories of gods and heroes through which truth is first presented to the immature minds of the young—shall be such as to suggest ideas of purity and goodness; and they will banish from the State all profane and licentious tales such as pollute the pages of even the greatest of the Greek poets. For in the ideal city the philosophic legislator cannot permit the poet to follow his own sweet will, but must stand by his side and exercise a censorship over his works, so that nothing unseemly or unlawful may reach the ears of the citizens.

Thus the demand of Socrates, that morality should be based on a clear reflective consciousness of the end of action, is not renounced, but it is limited to the few who stand at the head of the State. And no question is raised as to the general doctrine, that the life of society as a whole is to be guided by scientific knowledge; though it is admitted that in a private station men may do with something less. In modern times even this modified form of the Socratic doctrine would be challenged. What we now expect from ethical theory is that it should analyse and explain the moral consciousness of the past and the present, but not—except to a very limited extent—that it should furnish a guide for the future. We recognise that morality is progressive, and that in this progress the clear reflective consciousness of any form of life is rather the last product of its development than the beginning from which it starts. It is not given to nations any more than to individuals to scheme out the plan of their lives beforehand. What exists at first is at most some intuitive perception which grows clearer as it is brought into action, but which can be fully understood only when it is completely realised. And the attainment of definite knowledge—such knowledge e.g. as Plato and Aristotle had of the ethical basis of the Greek State—was an indication that the work of that kind of State was all but ended, and that men were advancing to other forms of social and political life.

But neither Plato nor Aristotle could look at the matter in this light. They were without the general idea of progress, and to them the Greek City-State was the πέρας τη̑ς αὐταρκείας, the absolute form of man's ethical life, beyond which nothing could be achieved. What seemed to them possible was only that the lessons drawn from the past experience of Greek politics might be used to perfect the type, and produce a city in which all the good points of Greek cities (especially of Athens and Sparta) might be united, and all their mistakes avoided. Plato perhaps faintly perceived that this ideal State—this Sparta without its rudeness, this Athens without its indiscipline—was a πολιτεία ἐν οὐρανῳ̂, a pattern laid up in heaven and in the soul of the philosopher. But neither he nor Aristotle discerned that they were pouring new wine into old bottles, and that, by the very fact that they were able to theorise Greek political life so perfectly, they were carried beyond it. They were putting more into the framework of the City-State than it could bear, and clothing a forecast of the future in the forms of the past.

One of the points in which Plato's overestimate of the practical power of theory, and his defective comprehension of its real place in development, are shown most clearly, is in his scheme for remoulding Greek mythology and purifying it of all the elements which seemed to him to be immoral or irreligious. He sees no anachronism in placing the philosopher, who has meditated on all the problems of speculative theology, side by side with the poet, who gives imaginative form to the mythology of a nation, and sings the fresh songs that express its inchoate religious ideas. He fails to discern that the creation of a mythology could not be the work of an age of reflexion; and that, even if per impossibile the poets could produce such a mythology, neither they nor any State authority could ever make it an object of belief. The conditions which call forth such deep and far-reaching speculations as those of Plato and Aristotle are altogether inconsistent with the creative spontaneity which gave rise to the legendary tales of gods and heroes, and equally inconsistent with the simple uncritical faith that accepted them as truth. It was natural, indeed, that a philosopher, who saw how much had been done by poetry to excite and educate the mind of Greece in the era when conscious reflexion was at its minimum, should express a pious wish that this great service could have been performed in a less ambiguous way, without the intermingling of so many weakening, and even immoral, elements: but to suppose that in any circumstances the miracle of the first great spontaneous outburst of Greek poetic production could be repeated, and repeated under the guidance of a fully developed philosophical criticism, was an obvious anachronism. A mythology cannot be produced of malice prepense, or by those who do not believe in the gods whose actions they describe. The law of development will not permit us to have the flower along with the fruit, for the simple reason that the decay of the flower is the condition of the appearance of the fruit. And just because philosophy is the further product of a consciousness which has already expressed itself in a mythology, it is impossible that the two should flourish together; still more that the former should preside over the genesis of the latter. There is, no doubt, a kind of poetry that belongs to an age of reflexion; but it cannot be like the simple spontaneous song of an earlier time, nor can it create the kind of myths in which the popular imagination finds the first satisfaction of its spiritual needs.

Plato's discussion of the poetic mythology of Greece is one-sided and inadequate. He seems to condemn it in a body as immoral and misleading; and he makes no distinction between the crude and almost savage stories which we find preserved in Hesiod, and the bright picture of humanised divinities which is set before us in Homer; nor does he recognise the great advance both in an intellectual and in a moral aspect which is involved in the latter. He sees only that in both cases the gods are represented as doing deeds which, by the developed conscience of his own time, would be accounted discreditable; and he demands that divine beings should always be represented as perfectly good and also perfectly unchangeable—not noticing that at least the latter of these two demands is inconsistent with the very existence of mythology. On the other hand, he regards it as the business of art and poetry to present the truths of ethics and religion in a form suitable to minds that are yet unripe and unfitted for the reflective processes of science. In particular, he thinks that it is the office of mythology to inculcate a simple faith in the omnipotence of goodness upon those who are not yet prepared to grapple with the problem of evil; and in this poetic teaching he would have all the perplexing difficulties of life evaded, and all inconvenient facts suppressed. “If they can be got to believe us,” says Plato, “we shall tell our citizens that quarrelling is unholy, and that never up to this time has there been any quarrelling among citizens.”1 Evil is to be kept out of sight, and, so far as may be, treated as an impossibility. Poetry is to tell its ‘noble untruth,’ and no scepticism or criticism is to be allowed to breathe a breath of suspicion upon it.

Now, it may be true, as Plato thinks, that faith in God—a faith that good is stronger than evil, and even that it is all-powerful—is the necessary basis of our higher life, and that without some such faith morality is apt to shrink into a hopeless striving after an unattainable ideal, and must, therefore, cease to exercise its highest inspiring power. To hold that what we regard as best and highest is also the ultimate reality—the principle from which all comes and on which all depends—is the great religious spring of moral energy. Even from early times the social union finds its consecration in the idea that it is a union of men based on their common relation to a god, who is the guardian of the destinies of his people. On such a faith Plato would found his State. But his difficulty was that the first form of the religious faith of Greece was, in an ethical point of view, so imperfect, and that, such as it was, it was rapidly disappearing before the widening knowledge of men, and the loosening of social bonds that went therewith. The civic State, torn by faction, no longer rested securely on the belief in its protective deities; and even if the State had remained what it was, the sympathies of men had begun to reach beyond it. For this condition of things there seemed to be only two possible remedies: either that the old ideal life of citizenship—with all its wholesome narrowness of view, with all the religious beliefs on which it rested—should be restored, and that thus the thoughts and aims of men should again be confined within the limits of the microcosm of the city; or, if this were impossible, then philosophy must face all the wider problems suggested by the knowledge and experience of the new time, all the difficulties that had arisen out of the hard facts of life, and especially out of the existence and prevalence of evil, and it must find some way of explaining them in consistency with the idea that good is the ultimate reality. Either the course of civilisation must be turned backward, so as to revive the ‘good old times’ of the fighters of Marathon, as was the dream of Aristophanes; or else—as a pupil of Socrates might rather be expected to hold—philosophy must take account of the reasons upon which pessimistic views of life may be based, and must find its way to an optimism that has an answer for them all.

Now, Plato—and this is what constitutes the peculiar characteristic of the view which he presents in the Republic—does not adopt one of these alternatives to the exclusion of the other, but in a way accepts them both: the former for the benefit of the citizens in general, the latter for the philosophic rulers. For the many, he would restore in a higher form the order of the Greek municipal State, in which the citizen, disciplined in civic virtue and patriotic self-devotion, inspired by a purified mythology, and surrounded by beautiful forms of art—aesthetic types of goodness and purity—should live a life of faith, sheltered from all doubt and intellectual difficulty. And, on the other hand, for the philosophic few who had outgrown the stage of culture in which the mind can be fed with imaginative pictures, he would endeavour to provide a higher kind of education, in which all the secrets of science and philosophy should be revealed. Furthermore, the men thus educated were to take the place of kings or governors of the State, and to find in their contemplation of the intelligible universe the exemplar, after which, so far as possible, they should mould the life of the community over which they ruled. For, in Plato's view, he who has grasped the supreme principle of truth, which he calls the Idea of Good, is by it carried beyond all the contradictions of ordinary experience, and has become able to regard the confused and shadowy world of appearance from a higher point of view. He has become possessed of a divine pattern, by means of which he can bring order into the transitory life of men in this world.

Plato, then, makes a sharp division between an earlier stage of religious development of his citizens, in which they are to be kept out of sight of moral and religious difficulties, and taught simply that all things are ordered for the best by perfectly good gods, and a later stage of it, in which they are to face all the problems of existence, and to endeavour to solve them by the aid of philosophical reflexion. At the same time, he is deeply conscious of the difficulties of the transition from the first to the second of these stages; or, in other words, of the dangers of that period of doubt and criticism with which philosophical enquiry must begin. In the seventh book of the Republic, he illustrates these dangers by the image of a youth who is brought up to reverence certain persons as his parents, and who is protected from temptation by his belief in their rightful authority over him, but who suddenly learns that they have no such natural claim to his obedience, and is tempted in consequence to disregard all the commands they have laid upon him. In like manner, as Plato would indicate, the young man who is prematurely initiated into the dialectical methods of philosophical criticism, will learn to detect the illusion of his first faith in those mythological divinities whom he has been taught to regard as the authors of the ethical rules under which he has hitherto lived; and he will therefore be in danger of falling into a fatal scepticism, and losing his hold upon all ethical rules whatever. Hence Plato urges that this initiation, even in the case of those who are fitted for it, should be delayed till the character has been thoroughly confirmed in the love of what is good and the hate of what is evil; and that, in the case of the great body of the citizens, it should not take place at all.

Now, as we have already seen, there is a great difficulty in admitting the conception of such a division between two classes of citizens in the same State—a division in which the higher class possesses for itself the esoteric truth of philosophy, while the lower class is fed with mythological fables. There is, indeed, at all times, a certain difference between the ordinary consciousness which is content with half-pictorial modes of thought, and the reflective spirit of science which cannot be satisfied with anything but exact definition and clear logical connexion: but it is impossible to draw any definite line of separation between two classes of human beings, not living in different ages, but at the same time, and as members of the same society. Still more impossible—if there are grades in impossibility—would it be, in an age of reflexion, to push men back into an earlier stage of culture and save them from all the dangers of doubt. In such an age, the sphere of opinion cannot be sharply divided from that of science; nor is it possible by any artificial barriers such as Plato proposes, to secure men from the disturbing power of a dialectic, which detects the ‘noble untruths’ of poetry. The idea of a class of philosopher-kings who are to keep the keys of knowledge for themselves, and act as a kind of earthly providence to other men, sins, like Carlyle's conception of hero-worship, against the solidarity of humanity. A secret doctrine of philosophy is almost a contradiction in terms: for philosophy cannot live, and refuse to communicate itself to anyone who is capable of receiving its lessons. Something like it we may find in early stages of civilisation, as among the Egyptian priesthood, or in a modified form in the divided society of the middle ages. But such exceptions prove the rule: for in both cases philosophy was enslaved by tradition and smitten with barrenness. It was not the free evolution of thought which alone Plato would have thought worthy of the name.

In the case of the few who are admitted to the higher training in dialectic, Plato thinks that philosophy is able to replace the optimism of faith by a higher optimism, which is not, like the former, attained by a mere evasion of difficulties—by refusing to admit the reality of that which is ignoble or evil, or by taking refuge in the pure heaven of art—but which is to look all such problematical phenomena in the face, and to explain them in consistency with the absolute reality of the good. Now, it is manifest that philosophy can do this only in one of two ways: either by showing that what we call evil may itself from a higher point of view be resolved into a means to good, or into a phase in its development; or, at least, by showing that evil has only a secondary and transitory existence, which is incidental to the realisation of good in this phenomenal world. I here put these two alternatives in contrast; for they point to two paths of idealistic philosophy of which we shall have much to say in the sequel, and which, therefore, it is well to have before us from the first. I say, then, that the difficulties and contradictions that seem to attach to the facts of our earthly existence, and especially the problem of evil, may be met by philosophy in two possible ways. On the one hand, philosophy may admit that there is some resistant element, or negative characteristic, in the phenomenal world, by reason of which the highest good cannot be realised in that world; but, at the same time, it may maintain that this element becomes secondary and accidental in our eyes, when we turn to the permanent ideal being which gives even to the world of phenomena all the reality to which it can lay claim. Or, on the other hand, in the spirit of a more thorough-going idealism, philosophy may maintain that evil exists only in the part when we isolate it from the whole, or only in the particular phases of existence when we separate them from the complete process to which they contribute. Which of these solutions Plato adopted, we must presently consider. In the meantime we have to note that the religio philosophi, to which we advance in the second part of the Republic, centres in the Idea of Good, as a principle of unity on which ‘all thinking things’ and ‘all objects of all thought’ are dependent.

In the contemplation of this idea, the philosopher is carried beyond the State, and the morality of use and wont which is bound up with its existence, to the contemplation of the whole system of the universe, in comparison with which the State is a very little thing. For the philosopher, in Plato's ideal picture of him, is one whose thought, in the first instance at least, is directed away from all that is particular, finite and transitory to that which is universal and eternal. He is a “spectator of all time and existence,” and he cannot be chained down, either in thought or action, to any particular finite object or interest. He has freed himself from the narrow ambitions and desires of his transitory life as a mortal man, and is therefore perfectly generous and fearless: all mean cares and grudges have been taken out of his heart. The vision of absolute reality reconciles him to the universe, and to all things and beings in it, at the same time that it lifts him above the tendency to attribute too great importance to any of them, and above the passionate impulses which are the consequence of such overestimate of the finite. “Such σμικρολογία,” such a tendency to ascribe excessive value to the little things of time, says Plato, “must least of all be the characteristic of a soul that seeks to grasp the whole compass of reality human and divine.”2 As it is expressed in the parallel words of Spinoza, “love towards that which is eternal alone feeds the soul with unmingled joy,” so that no room is left for disturbance about finite and transitory things.

There is something that looks like a contradiction in the fact that Plato, who has hitherto been carefully building up the system of the State as a social and political ideal to be realised in the immediate life of man, now seems suddenly to soar away from all such practical considerations, and to regard all earthly existence as “less than nothing and vanity.” And an ingenious, though somewhat one-sided German writer, has even maintained that there is an absolute opposition between the two parts of the Republic—an opposition which, indeed, runs through all ideal views of life, and which cannot be in any way solved or bridged over. “Here,” he declares, “we find a great rift in Platonism. It was as the moralising follower of Socrates that Plato drew the first sketch of the ideal State, but it is as the metaphysician—who looks beyond the changing appearance to the real being of things—that he completes it. These two tendencies meet in conflict, yet neither can free itself from the other. The reformer, who would heal the disease of his people, must believe in the usefulness of his own art; but the speculative thinker must contemn the fleeting forms of life in view of the substantial reality that underlies them. This rift in Platonism is, however, the rift that rends the life of all noble spirits. They work in the present with their best energy, yet they know that the present is but a fleeting shadow.”3

Krohn here seems to suppose that the last word of Plato, and indeed of philosophy, is that there is an absolute division in our spiritual life, and that morals and metaphysics are essentially contradictory. But there is, surely, no essential contradiction in rejecting the claim of the particular objects and interests of our ordinary experience to be real in themselves and, as it were, in their own right, and yet asserting their relative reality, when they are regarded as the manifestation of the one principle which is absolutely real. Nor is there any inconsistency in condemning the actual state of the world as at discord with itself and unstable, in so far as it suggests an idea of which it falls short, and, at the same time, thinking of it as a step in the realisation of that idea. It is only in so far as Plato holds, not merely that there is “something in the world amiss” which “will be unriddled by and bye,” but that there is something in it essentially unideal and irrational, that we can find in his philosophy such an ultimate contradiction as Krohn alleges. But with this point we are not yet prepared to deal.

Meanwhile let us consider what it is that Plato finds in his Idea of Good. There are three ways in which he endeavours to answer this question. In the first place, as is indicated by the very name of the Good, it is the chief and final satisfaction for which our souls are always looking, which they anticipate from the first and for the sake of which they desire everything else; yet it is the last thing they come clearly to understand. From this point of view the Republic exhibits to us a series of stages in the process of defining it. In the first book, it is represented, as Socrates had represented it, as the goal of the individual life, which each man has to discover for himself by a consideration of his nature as a man and of the work for which it fits him. Then, at the next stage of Plato's argument, man is shown to be essentially social, essentially a member of a State, so that he can find his good, only as he discovers his proper place in the social organism, i.e. the place for which his special tendencies and capacities fit him. But even here Plato cannot stop: for the social organism itself has to be regarded sub specie aeternitatis; and, so viewed, it is found to be a microcosm, a little world in itself, but one which can only attain the perfection of which it is capable, when it is moulded after the similitude of the macrocosm. Hence it is the philosopher—who lives in the contemplation of the universe, and apprehends the principle of order that is manifested in it—and he alone, who can give to the State its true or ideal constitution. He alone can make all things “after the patterns howed him in the Mount.” Thus ethics and politics find their ultimate basis in a theology which contemplates the world as a teleological system, and of this system the Idea of Good is the end and principle.

The next step is taken by means of an analogy: which is really more than an analogy, since the object used as an image is declared to be the ‘offspring’ or product of that which it is taken to illustrate. In other words, the material world, from which the image is drawn, is not for Plato an arbitrary symbol of the ideal reality; it is its manifestation or phenomenal expression; and, therefore, the principle of unity in the one is essentially akin to the principle of unity in the other. Now, what is the principle of unity in the material world? It is, Plato suggests, the sun; for the sun, as the source of the heat which is essential to growth, may be regarded as the cause of the existence of the objects we see; while at the same time, as the source of light, it reveals the forms and colours of those objects, and enables us to see them. In like manner, Plato bids us regard the Idea of Good as at once the cause of existence to all things that exist, and of knowledge to all minds that know them. It is thus ‘beyond existence’ and ‘above knowledge’; as it is that in which they both originate, and by which they are united to each other as elements in one whole. By the aid of this analogy, therefore, Plato carries us beyond the conception of a principle of unity in the objective world, and suggests to us the thought that, if the Idea of Good is the ultimate cause or reason of the universe, it must be also the principle of unity in the consciousness of man, the principle that constitutes his intelligence and makes knowledge possible to him.

The third and last point in Plato's exposition of the Idea of Good is derived from its relation to the other ideas. In the Phaedo, as we saw in the last lecture, he had already spoken of a regressive method that goes back from one idea to another till it reaches a principle which is ultimate and self-sufficient. Here he speaks of a similar method by which the intelligence advances from the special sciences to philosophy. Each of the special sciences is shown to have some organising idea which gives order, self-consistency and systematic connexion to our view of a special sphere of reality, and thus lifts us above the empirical co-existences and sequences of phenomena within that sphere. But, as the world is one world, and all special spheres of reality are parts of one great all-inclusive sphere, it is impossible for the intelligence to be satisfied with the results of the special sciences. The principles of these sciences are hypothetical, in the sense that they are not ultimate but find their basis in something deeper and more comprehensive than themselves. The true dialectician is ‘one who sees things in their unity,’ who is unable to rest in any fragmentary and incomplete view of things, but must feel insecure till he has found one all-embracing principle, which enables him to view the universe as a systematic or organic whole. Having found such a principle of principles he will be able to give their proper place to all the investigations of the special sciences.4 The Idea of Good, then, is the teleological principle of Socrates, as applied not to the individual life but to the universe. It is the final end of all things, not as something external to them, but as immanent in them; it is, therefore, beyond all the differences of the finite, and especially it transcends the distinction of knowing and being, the distinction between the intelligence and the reality which is its object. Lastly, it is the principle on which all other principles rest, and in which all science finds its unity.

If we gather together these different aspects of the Idea of Good, I think we can see what is Plato's true purpose and meaning, and at the same time we can guard against the misconceptions of many of his professed disciples. Thus, taking hold of those expressions in which he separates the Idea of Good from all others, and especially of his declaration that it is ‘beyond being’ and ‘above knowledge,’ the Neo-Platonists identified the Good with a unity which we cannot define or express, a unity which we can only experience in an ecstasy wherein all thought and even all consciousness is extinguished. They did not observe that Plato reaches his conception of it, not by abstraction, but by synthesis, not by turning away from all the special principles of knowledge, but by ‘thinking them together,’ that is, by finding the one principle which shall determine the place and relations of all the others. Nor did they attach sufficient weight to the passages in which the good is spoken of as a unity which is always presupposed, though never distinctly reflected upon, in our ordinary consciousness of the world. For Plato the Idea of Good is so far from being unintelligible that it is that which constitutes the intelligence.

There is, however, a real difficulty in the question which is not sufficiently met by such general statements. For how is it possible to characterise a principle of unity which is beyond all the differences of the finite, and, in particular, beyond the difference of being and knowing? If we seek to define the unity of the whole in terms of any of its parts, we seem to be committing an obvious paralogism. But it is not less illogical to define it by simply putting the different parts together, as if the infinite were a collection of finites. Hence we seem to be driven to the resource of defining it not positively, but negatively, that is, by denying of it everything that we assert of its parts. But we are brought in this way to the result of the Neo-Platonists, who argue that, because the Good is ‘beyond being’ and ‘above knowledge,’ it cannot be characterised by any terms derived from either: which means that it cannot be characterised at all.

This difficulty is a real one, and it has often driven men into Agnosticism; for it seems as if our minds were forced to make a demand which yet it is impossible for them to satisfy. On the one hand, it is a necessity of thought to regard the world as a self-consistent whole. We cannot conceive the possibility of there being two worlds, which are not parts of the same universe, because to do so would make all our thinking incoherent. In all our intellectual life we go upon the hypothesis that the universe is one; and that everything in it has its definite place in relation to the whole, by ascertaining which we can define it. We go upon this hypothesis, indeed, for the most part without thinking of it at all; but it is the essential business of philosophy to realise it, and to carry back all subordinate principles to it as the ultimate presupposition of the intelligence. Yet the moment we try to define this unity, we are met with the dilemma just mentioned, that either we must give up the attempt to characterise the whole at all, or else we must characterise it in terms of one or all of its parts. All definition seems to rest upon the distinction of one object from another within the whole, and therefore the whole itself and its principle of unity seem to be beyond definition. Or if we define it in terms of one of its parts, we carry up into the whole the limitations of that part. Thus to say that the ultimate reality is matter as opposed to mind, or mind as opposed to matter, seems to involve a denial of the real existence of the alternative we reject, or to reduce it to an illusion. Is not the Idealist forced to declare, as Berkeley declared, that matter is a mere idea or subjective existence, and the Materialist to maintain that mind is really a quality or phase of matter, which by some illusion we treat as independent? Or, on the other hand, if we say that the Absolute is a tertium quid, which is neither mind nor matter, though it is the source of both, how are we to define this tertium quid, or avoid reducing it to the Unknowable of Mr. Spencer?

The key to this problem is to observe that the distinction of mind and matter, or of knowing and being, like all other distinctions we make, is a distinction within the intelligible world, a distinction in consciousness, which presupposes a unity beyond the difference. It is not, therefore, a distinction between two terms which stand on the same level, as if we had knowledge on the one side and reality on the other—each given altogether independently of the other—and had then to seek for something to mediate between them. To suppose such a dualism would be to assert the complete separation of two things, which are never presented in our experience except in relation to each other. It would be to deny thought its essential character as consciousness of an object, or reality its essential character as the object of thought. For we do not—as might seem from some psychological theories—first know ourselves, and then infer the existence of objects from the nature of certain of our thoughts; but it is only in distinguishing ourselves from, and relating ourselves to an objective world that we know the self within us at all. On the other hand, it is equally true—and it was a large part of the work of Kant to prove it—that objective reality is in essential relation to the conscious subject, and that it is impossible ultimately to think away this relation from it. Furthermore, so intimately associated in our experience are object and subject, that it might easily be shown that we cannot enlarge our inner life or deepen our self-consciousness, except by widening our experience and knowledge of the objective world; and that we cannot widen our experience of the world, except by a process that draws out the capacities and enriches the inner life of the self. Hence to ask how we get from the subject to the object, or from the object to the subject, or from their difference to their unity, is to put the question in such a way that it cannot be answered; for, if we could suppose them to be primarily unrelated, it would be impossible to pass from the one to the other, or, even if we had both, to discover their unity.

The problem, however, takes a very different aspect when we realise that in all our conscious life the unity of both terms is the presupposition of their difference and that it is simply due to the self-ignorance of the ordinary consciousness—to its want of reflexion upon its own nature and conditions—that it fails to recognise the fact. Thus, in our natural dualism, we begin by taking the two terms, the mind and its object, as independent of each other. Then, as reflexion advances, we seek for some tertium quid which shall furnish a link of connexion between them. Lastly, as we become aware of the impossibility of finding any such tertium quid, we are apt to fall back on the paradox of Mysticism—that we know there is a unity of which we know nothing, and to which we approach only as we empty our minds of all positive contents. The truth is that, as the unity of the intelligence and the intelligible world is the first presupposition of all experience, it is not to be reached by abstraction, but rather by correcting the abstraction of our ordinary consciousness; by realising that unity which is always with us—underlying all our thought, though not directly apprehended by it—and only needing to be brought to light by reflexion. As Plato says of the definition of justice, we have been seeking for it far away while it was lying close at our feet. But we need not to search in the heights above or in the depths beneath for ‘that which is in our mouth and in our heart.’ If it is ‘beyond reality,’ it is because it is the substance of which all reality is the manifestation; if it is ‘above knowledge,’ it is only in the sense that we must go beyond experience to realise what experience is.

The question has often been asked, whether the idea of Good is equivalent to the idea of God. I think we must answer that the unity of being and knowing, if we take it positively, cannot be conceived except as all absolute self-consciousness, a creative mind, whose only object is a universe which is the manifestation of itself. This aspect of the idea is not emphasised in the Republic, but it is obviously implied in it. Plato seems, in the first instance, to have regarded his ‘ideas’ mainly as objective realities—the word ‘idea’ itself at first suggesting a form or figure which we see, and then being transferred to the essence of the object as grasped by a thought which goes beyond its appearances. But here in the Republic Plato formulates a truth—which, no doubt, was very near him from the first, though not distinctly formulated—that the object is not complete apart from the thought which grasps it; and the term ‘idea’ is henceforth used by him to express this unity. Plato does not, like most moderns, begin with the subjective consciousness, and ask for an object corresponding to it: he begins with the object and goes on to realise that it is essentially an ‘object thought,’ an intelligible object. But when this point is reached the impersonal ‘idea’ begins to approximate to a consciousness or mind, and we pass beyond idealism to spiritualism. Thus ‘the Idea of Good’ is only a step removed from the idea of a supreme intelligence, the νου̑ς θει̑ος of which Plato speaks in the Philebus.5 We may therefore fairly say that, with the sixth book of the Republic, Plato has extended to the universe the Socratic conception of moral life, and has thereby become the founder of speculative theology.

  • 1. Rep., 378 C.
  • 2. Rep., 486 A.
  • 3. Krohn (Der Platonische Staat, p. 103), quoted in edition of the Republic by Jowett and Campbell, Vol. II. p. 9. Compare the remarkable passage in the Laws (803 B),ἔστι δὴ τοίνυν τἀ τω̑ν ἀνθρώπων πράγματα μϵγάλης μὲν σπουδη̂ς οὐκ ἂξια, ἀναγκαι̂όν γϵ μὴν σποδἀζϵιν In the context it is said that “man was made to be the puppet or plaything of the gods, and that, truly considered, is the beat of him.” Bruns (Plato's Gesetze) draws attention to the contrast of this with many other passages where the acquisition of virtue is spoken of as the earnest work of life (e.g. 770 D). He argues on this and other grounds that the whole passage (803 A-804 B) is due to Philippus, the editor of the Laws. It is possible that there is a shade of pessimism in the passage which is not Platonic, but the general alternation of the two points of view is already found in the Republic.
  • 4. In spite of all that has been said by Mr. Adam in his edition of the Republic (Vol. II. p. 156 seq.), I a not convinced that the doctrine attributed by Aristotle to Plato—that the objects of mathematical science constitute a separato kind of esistenee which stands midway between the ideal and the sensible—is to be found in the Republic. It is true that the mathematical seimices are spoken of as objects, not of νου̂ς but of διάνοια and that they are regarded as constituting the first stage in the ascent of the mind above sensible phenomena. It is true also that they a said to stand in the same relation to the objects of pore intelligence, is which the objects of sense stand to them. Still, the special characteristic by which Aristotle distinguished τἀμαθηματικά from ideas is not mentioned, and Plato has as yet o hesitation in speaking of ideas of quantity. And he can hardly have a considered them disparate from the Idea of Good, since he reaches that Idea by viewing them in their unity,ό γἀρ συνπτικòς διαλϵκτικός (Rep., 537 C). This, I think, supports Jowett's rendering of the words: καίτοι νοητω̑ν ὄντων μϵτ̕ ἀρχη̂ς: “when a first principle is added to them, they”—i.e. the sciences— “are ooguiseble by νους,” as distinguished from διάνοια.
  • 5. Phil., 22 C, 28 D,