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Lecture Third: The Precursors of Plato

IN the last lecture I suggested that Plato is the first systematic theologian, the first philosopher who distinctly grasped the idea that lies at the root of all religion, and used it as the key to all the other problems of philosophy. Or, if this statement require some qualification, we may at least say that he is the philosopher to whom all our theology may be traced back, and to whom it owes most. Emerson once said that Plato's Dialogues were the Bible of educated men; and if by this he meant that from them the reflective consciousness has drawn its greatest nutriment and support, it is not too much to say of the writings of one who is the fountain-head of idealistic, we might even say of ideal, views of life. Plato has done more than any other writer to fill both poetry and philosophy with the spirit of religion, to break the yoke of custom and tradition “heavy as frost and deep almost as life,” which cramps the development of man's mind, to liberate him from the prejudices of the natural understanding, and to open up to him an ideal world in which he can find refuge from the narrowness and inadequacy of life. In the Terrestrial Paradise, on the summit of the Purgatorial mount, Dante is made to drink of the waters of Lethe to wash away from his memory all his earthly cares and sins, and then of the waters of Eunoe to refresh and strengthen his spirit for the vision of the heavens. Plato's writings may be said to be Lethe and Eunoe in one, at once the liberation of thought from that which is limited and temporary, and its initiation into a new ideal way of conceiving the world. To put it more directly, Plato is the source of two great streams of theological thought which have flowed through all the subsequent literature of religion down to the present time. On the one hand, we may find in him the source, or at least one of the sources, of that spirit of mysticism which seeks to merge the particular in the universal, the temporal in the eternal, and ultimately to lose the intelligible world and the intelligence in an absolute divine unity; a spirit which, through the Neo-Platonists, has exercised a very powerful influence upon the thought of Christendom, sometimes deepening and elevating it, though, on the whole, tending to give it a false direction. But Plato is also the main source of that idealism which is the best corrective of mysticism, the idealism which seeks not merely to get away from the temporal and the finite, but to make them intelligible; not to escape from immediate experience into an ideal world in comparison with which it is a shadow and a dream, but to find the ideal in the world of experience itself, underlying it, and giving a new meaning to all its phenomena. These two tendencies conflict in Plato, as in subsequent philosophy and theology, and if we cannot say that in his writings their conflict comes to a definite issue, or results in the final victory of the more comprehensive view, yet the very statement of the alternative was of immense importance in the history of religious thought, and makes the study of Plato essential to any one who would understand its development.

There is always an element of illusion in the attempt to sum up the thought of a great writer in a few words of definition. But I may give a succinct view of Plato's work, and at the same time prepare the way for a more detailed statement, if I say that there are two principles or tendencies the union or coalescence of which gives its distinctive character to the Platonic philosophy. In the first place, his thought is always moving from the particular to the universal, from the part to the whole; he is constantly endeavouring to show the relative and illusive nature of the former as separated from the latter, and to reach a principle of unity deeper than all the differences of thought and things, a principle on which they depend and in relation to which alone they can be understood. And, in the second place, he is bent on establishing an ideal or spiritual conception of this principle of unity; or, in other words, on proving that thought or mind is the ultimate ground, at once the first and the final cause, of all reality. Now, in the former of these points, Plato is following up a line of thought which had been marked out by the earlier Greek philosophers, while in the latter he was giving a deeper meaning and a wider scope to an idea which he had derived from his master, Socrates. It will therefore be necessary for the interpretation of Plato to go back for a little upon his predecessors.

The conception of an absolute principle of unity in the universe which is deeper than any of the special forms of existence, was the earliest thought of Greek philosophy; but it was not clearly grasped before Xenophanes, who first set the permanent unity of all things in opposition to all their diversity and change. Xenophanes very naturally expressed this thought in an attack upon the anthropomorphism of Greek mythology, which he regarded as an illegitimate attempt to raise one particular kind of being, one of the forms of the finite, into the place which could be given only to the Absolute. “There is one God, greatest of all gods and men, who is like to mortal creatures neither in form nor in mind.” It is man's petty ambition and vanity that makes him think of God as such an one as himself, and, “if the oxen or the lions had hands and were able to paint pictures or carve out statues like men, they would have given their own forms to the gods.” We have here a criticism of the humanised Polytheism of Greece, a criticism which rests on the basis of an abstract Pantheism and repudiates the idea of giving any form whatsoever to the absolute Being, even the form of man himself. In other words, we have here the idea of God as the mere negation of the finite—an idea which could not be adequately represented in mythology; though we may find a partial expression of it in the Homeric representation of fate as a power beyond the gods. In the apparently antagonistic philosophy of Heraclitus we have what is really another aspect of the same idea: for the endless flux of the particular forms of the finite, whose existence is nothing but the process whereby they pass away and merge in each other, is but the opposite counterpart of the changeless unity of the whole. “The One remains, the many change and pass.” The Heraclitean philosophy exhibits what has been called the “dialectic of the finite,” or, in other words, its self-contradiction when taken by itself: and this, as we have seen, is just the dialectic of the religious consciousness, by which it is lifted from the particular to the universal, from the transitory to the eternal, from the finite to the infinite. Take any partial or limited existence, take even matter or mind in its abstraction, and we find that the idea of it ultimately breaks down and carries us beyond itself, and that to treat it as a self-determined whole, an absolutely independent substance, involves a contradiction; in other words, we cannot think it at all except as transitory and changing. And what makes this movement of thought real for the common consciousness, even where its logical necessity is not reflected upon, is that the very existence of a finite being is found to be the process of its dissolution. “The process of its life is the process of its death.” This lesson is brought home to everyone by the experience of a life, which is lived under the shadow of death, and in which everything inward and outward seems to be perpetually slipping away from us. But the Greek mind was specially open to this pathos of finite existence, just because of its keen sensitiveness to its joys. The refrain of mortality is continually appearing even in the earliest song of Homer with all its fresh delight in the beauty of life: and as reflexion deepened, it seemed to the Greeks only to disclose more distinctly—beyond all the brightness of earthly existence and even beyond all the beautiful forms of the gods of Olympus—the harshness of an inexorable law of destiny.

Now, the first reading of this lesson of the vanity of all finite things tends to carry the mind to the idea of an Absolute in which all is lost and nothing is found again; from mere change and multiplicity to mere permanence and unity, from the nothingness of the finite world to a God who is only its negation. From this point of view we may recognise the philosophies of Xenophanes and Heraclitus as half-thoughts, each of which finds its complement in the other, the whole thought which arises out of their recombination being just that conception of an absolute unity mediated by the negation of all difference and change, which we have already recognised as the basis of all theology.

This, then, is the first of the two characteristic elements in the philosophy of Plato. But so far we have only a pantheistic unity, a principle of unity which is negatively related to all things, and which therefore cannot be properly conceived as an ideal or spiritual, any more than it can properly be conceived as a material principle. The second element, the idealistic or spiritualistic element, in the Platonic thought is derived, mainly if not entirely, from Socrates. It is true that Anaxagoras first referred the order of the universe to a rational principle, when he said that “all things were in chaos till reason came to arrange them”; but apparently all he meant was that the world is a system capable of being understood, because the connexion of its parts is determined by definite laws, and not that, as a whole, it is a manifestation of reason, or a system in which the highest good is realised. It was Socrates who first reached the conception of such a system. In a passage in the Memorabilia1 he is represented as declaring that, just as the substances that go to constitute man's body are derived from the material world, so his mind is a little ray of intelligence drawn from the great soul of the universe. Socrates then proceeds to give expression to a few of the ordinary arguments from design, based mainly on the adaptation of man's environment to his needs or of his physical organism to the purposes it has to subserve. It is clear, therefore, that if Socrates had attempted to construct any system of nature, he would have adopted a teleological view of things in which God would have been conceived as a designer working with conscious purpose to realise an end, and that end the happiness of his creatures and especially of man. In short, Socrates, in so far as he attempted a theory of the universe at all, was disposed to think of it in the same way as he thought of the moral life of man. But he rather put aside all such ambitious designs and, except in this one place, he is represented as confining himself entirely to the sphere of ethics. And even ethics was for him not so much a science, as an art of life.

Socrates was thus, as it were, a philosopher by accident, one who took to philosophy to satisfy not a speculative but a practical want. Living in an age of enlightenment, an age when the old guides of life, religion and law and custom, were losing their hold upon the mind of man, he was compelled to find a substitute for them by reflexion upon the meaning and object of human existence. Hence he is the prophet of clear self-consciousness, who takes the Delphic epigram, ‘Know thyself,’ as his motto, and maintains that virtue must always be founded on such knowledge. For him the great source of error and evil is want of thought—that men go on living without considering the meaning and value of life, or asking themselves what good they expect to get out of their existence as a whole. Hence, though their wish is for the good—and, strictly speaking, no one can wish for anything else—they neither know what the good is, nor where to find it, and they blunder on from day to day, taking anything that attracts them for the good which they really desire. The aim of Socrates is to awake men to a realisation of what they are, and what therefore they must seek, if they would make the best of their existence and find satisfaction for themselves. Morality, he contends, is nothing but the art of living, and the conditions of success in it are like those of any other art. Now, every kind of art, whether mechanical or fine art, has to prescribe a definite course of conduct in which actions are regulated with reference to an end; and it therefore involves a clear consciousness of that end, and of the means whereby it is to be attained. But while no one would attempt to practise any common art without such knowledge, in the greater art of living men constantly act in this way, without asking themselves what they are living for, or whether the particular actions they do are fitted to secure it.

Is there then no end at all for human life, no good which it may be expected to secure for him who uses it aright? To suppose that this is so, is to forget that in all our ethical judgments, in all our expressions of moral approval or disapproval, in all our characterisation of actions as good or bad, we presuppose that there is such an end; and that it is the standard to which we are bound to bring our lives, and by which we must estimate their worth. But this general acknowledgment is fruitless, because no attempt is made to realise what such language really means. It is supposed that everyone knows, and just for that reason no one enquires; but so long as no one enquires, it is impossible that ignorance can be removed, or that any remedy can be applied to the ills which ignorance brings with it.

Hence the first demand of Socrates is for ethical reflexion and investigation. ὁ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτòς ἀνθρώπῳ:2 “a life without criticism, or reflexion upon the meaning of life, is unworthy of a man”: it is rather the life of an irrational animal. For ‘virtue is knowledge,’ both in the negative sense that there can be no virtue without knowledge, and in the positive sense that, if knowledge is attained, virtue must follow. As to the former of these senses, Socrates maintains that he who is not conscious of the good, or does not know in what it consists, cannot possibly pursue it, or even consider the means whereby it is to be attained. If a virtuous life is a moral work of art in which every part is determined by the idea of the whole, it is impossible that it should be realised except by one who has that idea. It is possible that the particular actions done by an individual without any knowledge of the good may be similar to those which he would have had to do in order to attain it; but they will not really have the same character as if they were so done. Indeed, as not being done with a view to the good, they will have the character of vice. “He who is courageous without knowledge is courageous by a kind of cowardice: he who is temperate without knowledge is temperate by a kind of intemperance.” On the other hand, if men are once awakened to a consciousness of their real good, how can they do otherwise than pursue it? “We needs must love the highest when we see it.” In all that we seek, what we really wish to find is the good; and if it be once revealed to us, if we are enabled to see through the illusions which make us mistake something else for it, we must pursue it and it alone. It is just because men are blind, because “they know not what they do,” that they are led away from the right path; and if we can awake them to reflexion, we shall have laid the foundation for their moral regeneration.

The first step, therefore, is to make men conscious of their ignorance, i.e. not merely of ignorance in general, but of ignorance of that in which they continually regard themselves as wise. For every moral judgment, every judgment with such predicates as just, unjust, temperate, intemperate, right, wrong, involves such a claim to ethical knowledge; yet this claim is found to be invalid and baseless so soon as those who confidently use such general terms are called upon to define or explain them. The aim of the Socratic interrogation was, therefore, in the first place, to awake a consciousness that knowledge was wanting, and that without it men were like vessels without rudder or steersman; and, secondly, to teach them the method of reflexion and investigation by which alone such ignorance could be removed. To find what is meant by the moral universals, the words of ethical import which we are continually using, above all to define ‘the chief good,’ to which all such words point as their ultimate basis, is the great object of all theory, as to realise it in our lives is the great object of all practice. Thus a virtuous life is for Socrates a life in which every thought and feeling, every impulse and action, is regulated in view of that good which man's nature fits him to realise and enjoy. And the first condition of such a life is that this good should be clearly defined, and that the means to it should be deliberately chosen. Whether the individual is a part of a wider teleological system or no, becomes thus for Socrates a secondary question; and what he is mainly interested to maintain is that each man for himself should work out such a system in his own life. Socrates thinks, indeed, that each individual, in achieving his own mission, will also be serving the State and realising the divine will; but his starting-point is individualistic and ethical, and the social and religious aspects of life fall into the background. He does not bid men rebel against authority, but he finds the source and sanction of all authority not without but within, in the reason and reflexion of the individual. Let each man be man and master of himself knowing what he seeks in life and steadfastly seeking what he knows. This is to Socrates the unum necessarium, the first principle of ethics, the one condition of moral existence to which everything else is to be subordinate.

Now, the obvious criticism upon this view of moral life is that it would exclude the greater part of what we commonly call morality. For the virtue of childhood in all cases, and the virtue of most men throughout life, is not what Socrates demands, not the conscious pursuit of that which is recognised as the highest moral end; it is only the habitual practice of certain kinds of action which are accepted as good, the habitual obedience to certain rules which are regarded as right, without any reflexion upon the reasons why they are so regarded. Men from their, earliest years are moralised by the silent influences, of their social environment in the family and the, State, aided by the sanctions of religion. But if, for a virtuous life, we demand a definite conception of the good of human existence and a definite regulation of all a man's ways by such a conception, we shall find very little virtue in the world, if indeed we can find any virtue at all. Comte said that the ideal of a happy life was that the aspiration after some great object or achievement should be awakened in youth and gradually followed out to its completion in inaturer years. But such a continuity of growing purpose is given to very few, and even to them it is not given in the definite form which Socrates seems to require. It is given rather as a dim anticipation which becomes clearer and clearer as the man advances toward its fulfilment, and which rises into perfect distinctness only when it has been attained. Thus life, even to those who realise most fully what their aims are, is a strangely mingled web of consciousness and unconsciousness, and the star which they follow is a light shining in darkness. “A good man,” said Goethe, “in his dark strivings is somehow conscious of the right way”; while Oliver Cromwell, looking upon the opposite side of the shield, declared that “we never rise so high as when we do not know whither we are going.” At least we may say that it is not given to any man to order his life from beginning to end with a clear knowledge of its meaning and purpose, and that action guided by conscious principle is rather the highest form to which morality rises than its normal type. Even Socrates himself may be quoted in the same sense; for he did not profess in all cases to guide his own life by ethical science, but fell back on what he called a divine voice that spoke within him, i.e. upon an unreasoned intuitive perception of what ought to be done, which he regarded as a kind of oracle of the gods.

The truth is that in the moral life we cannot draw a sharp line of division between consciousness and unconsciousness, or rather we must say that there are many grades of relative consciousness or unconsciousness; reaching down, on the one hand, to the mechanical observance of rules prescribed by an external authority; and up, on the other hand, to the full realisation of a universal principle as furnishing a guide in all the details of action. The child is, in the main, externally guided or constrained to practise certain habits and to obey certain rules; but these rules and habits have generally some rationale behind then, as being rules and habits which are needful to the maintenance of order in the society to which he belongs. And the intelligence of the child, while he is taught to observe them, does not remain entirely passive. What is commanded, so far as it has a rational meaning, commends itself to his reason and conscience, and helps to develop them. The rule from without is met by the ‘greeting of the spirit’ from within, and obedience is made easier by an awaking consciousness of its necessity. There is, no doubt, a long way from such dawning appreciation of the order to which his life is subjected to the full and loyal acceptance of it as his own law, and therefore as a law of liberty; and from that again to a reflective consciousness of the universal principle that underlies all the particular rules, at once giving them their authority and limiting their application. Nor is it possible at any point in this advance to draw a sharp line of distinction between conscious and unconscious morality. Rather we might say that there is no stage at which morality is either completely conscious or completely unconscious; and that every stage may be called conscious in relation to the stage before it, and unconscious in relation to the stage after it. It is true, indeed, that the continuity of the moral life is sometimes interrupted by crises and even by revolutions, in which men seem to break away from their past and to make an entirely new beginning. There is such a thing as conversion. But such breaks are apt to be treated as more sharp and complete than they really are, and often—at least in cases where the individual has had any good social training—the main feature of the change is that lie learns to realise the full meaning and spirit of the rules he has been taught to obey, and so vivifies the half-mechanical life of habit by the apprehension of the principle from which it derives its value. Thus revolution in individual as in national life is generally the culmination of a long process of preparation, like the lighting of the spark for which the explosive train has been laid ready, or, to use a better illustration, like the first emergence of the plant from underground where its germinative forces have been slowly maturing.

We can see, however, that it was very natural for Socrates, as for other teachers in a similar position, to exaggerate the difference between conscious morality and that which is relatively unconscious. His whole purpose, his essential work and vocation, was to awaken men to refiexion, to arouse them to a clear consciousness of themselves, to call upon them to take life seriously and realise for themselves what they were to make of their lives. His attitude was like that of a modern religious teacher who is endeavouring to make men feel the necessity of acting from the highest principle; and who, in view of this object, is not careful to nuke a distinction between one who is outwardly respectable and satisfies the demands of the ordinarily accepted code of morals, and one who falls below that standard, or even one who is openly vicious. For what he seeks is not merely to make men act rightly, but to make them act upon the right motive; and lie may even be inclined to accept the dangerous maxim that “whatever is not of faith is sin,” and to treat the outwardly good and the outwardly bad as upon the same level, in so far as the former, no less than the latter, want that deep religious principle from which alone, in his view, true moral life can spring. So it was with Socrates. No action seemed to him virtuous which was not based upon a knowledge of the ethical end, and he even asserted the paradox that it was better to do ill with knowledge than to do well without it. Nor does he seem to have allowed that there was any middle term between knowledge and ignorance, between the deliberate pursuit of the highest good and a life guided by casual impulses and mechanically accepted customs which are entirely without any moral value.

Such a view, however little Socrates might intend it, was essentially individualistic and unsocial in its effect. It set each man to think out the problem of life for himself; and if it did not put him in opposition to society, at least it made him regard his relations to it as secondary, and not as the essential basis of his moral existence. And from the point of view of a religion like that of Greece, which was essentially national (and even municipal) in its spirit, consecrating the City-state as a kind of church or divine institution, this was a profoundly irreligious attitude. Thus, literally and absolutely, Socrates was guilty of the charges which were brought against him. He “corrupted the youth and brought new gods into Athens,” if it were corrupting the youth to teach them to set reason above authority, and if it were bringing new gods into Athens to appeal to inward conviction as the one authentic voice of God. Hence also it was a natural result that many of the immediate followers of Socrates, the Minor Socratic schools as they are called, should have adopted a thorough-going individualism, which withdrew them from the community, and repudiated all its claims, as well as all the religious ideas that were connected therewith. Thus with them, as with some of the Sophists, the appeal to conscious reason took a distinctly revolutionary form, breaking the bonds of kindred and citizenship, and making the individual a law and an end to himself, independent at once of gods and men. This conception was developed in a hedonistic way by the Cyrenaics, who made pleasure, and even the pleasure of the moment, the end of all action: and it was developed by the Cynics in the direction of an asceticism which sought to secure the freedom of the individual by breaking all the ties which bind him to the things or beings that are without him. The Cynic philosophy, with its intolerance, its defiance of all law and authority, its revolutionary effort to liberate man by stripping him of every covering of his nakedness which civilisation or the customs and institutions of social life have provided, was the extreme form, we might say the reductio ad absurdum, of the Socratic idea of independence. And the Cyrenaic philosophy seemed to reach the same result by showing that he who lives for himself must live for pleasure, and—since individual pleasures as such have no necessary unity or connexion—for the pleasure of the moment.

We have now considered the two main lines of speculation which contributed to the development of the Platonic philosophy. Plato, in fact, entered upon the whole inheritance of Greek thought, and his idealism was the result of a synthesis of all the tendencies that show themselves in it. In particular, to adopt a phrase of Green's, he read the earlier philosophers with the eyes of Socrates, and Socrates with the eyes of the earlier philosophers, and thus was enabled to rid himself of the presuppositions of both, and to reconstitute philosophy on a new basis. It was his great work to combine that idea of a fundamental principle of unity in all things, which inspired the earlier schools, with the Socratic conception of reason, as the one power which is able to produce order out of chaos and to reduce all the manifold and conflicting elements of reality to one self-consistent whole. This conception which Socrates had set before himself and his pupils as an ethical ideal, Plato treated as the master-key to the real nature not only of man, individual and social, but also of the whole universe. In doing so, he was led gradually to correct and supplement the errors and inadequacies of the philosophy of Socrates—his abrupt and unmediated contrast of knowledge and ignorance, the indeterminateness of his conception of the good, his tendency to over-emphasise the subjective aspect of ethics and to withdraw the individual from the community, and man front the universe of which he is essentially a part. On the other hand, while thus freeing the ideas of Socrates from their onesidedness, Plato drew the Eleatic conception of the unity of all things out of its abstraction, and found in the teleological ideas of Socrates the means of combining it with the Heraclitean conception of manifoldness and change. He thus laid the foundations of idealistic philosophy for all subsequent times.

It will be my endeavour in the following lectures to show how these views are developed in the successive dialogues of Plato.

  • 1. Mem., I, 4, 8.
  • 2. Apologia, 38 A.