Plato — His position — His prose — Indebted to Socrates — Monotheism — The popular gods — Socrates' one principle — His method — Universalized by Plato — Epinomis — The Timaeus — The eyes etc. — Kant here — Subject and object — Mechanical and final causes — The former only for the latter — Identity and difference — Creation the world — Time and eternity — The Christian Trinity — The two goods — Religion the Laws — Prayer — Superstition — Hume Dugald Stewart Samuel Johnson Buckle — The Platonic duality — Necessity and contingency — Plato's work.
Gifford Lecture the Sixth.
WITH the name of Plato we feel that we are approaching one of the greatest figures in all time. As a philosopher the first place and without a single dissentient voice was universally accorded him throughout the whole of antiquity. So completely was this the case that it does not seem for a moment to have been as much as dreamt that even Aristotle could dispute it with him. Nay it cannot he doubted that at this very day were the question put to the world at large as to which of the two philosophers were the greater an immense majority of votes would be handed in for Plato. The very quality of his writing would with the general public readily secure for him this. With an ease and fulness that are natural simplicity merely there is as we can only name it that amenity in the compositions of Plato that constitutes him unapproachably the greatest sweetest most delicate and delightful master of prose that ever wrote it. One can feel oneself here then in such a presence only with a certain apprehension. What however comes to save us from being altogether oppressed at the call to speak on Plato is the consideration that it is not of the great whole that we are required to give an account but only of what in it has a bearing historically on the proofs for the Being of a God. And here we can see at once that Plato as usual only receives the torch from his master Socrates not merely to carry it and hand it on to his further fellow but to make it blaze withal both brighter and wider. That too is as much as to say that said proofs being concerned we have here on the part of Socrates and Plato two degrees in the advance to monotheism. What Socrates actually said in this regard comes to us in the course of his conversation now with Aristodemus and again with Euthydemus as respectively recorded in the first and fourth books of the Memorabilia. It is as τὸ θϵι̑ον simply as the Divinity he characterizes the gods when he speaks of them to the former as “seeing and hearing all things at once as being everywhere present and as equally caring for all things;” while to Euthydemus he names one sovereign god and others subordinate. “The other gods” he says “who give us good things do not come before us visibly in so doing and he who regulates and keeps together the whole world—he is manifest as thus effecting what is greatest but even in such consummation he too is invisible to us.” There is (no doubt) in such words as these a monotheistic tinge; but it is not yet pure. In that regard there is a certain advance in Plato; he still makes respectful reference to the popular gods in whatever has a public bearing at the same time that in other circumstances he reprobates as in the second book of the Republic the traditional fables about the particular gods almost as though these gods themselves were fabulous.
If we do but consider however the scientific principles which dominated the thoughts whether of Plato or Socrates we shall not wonder at this. As we have seen the one great principle of Socrates was the good whether in a moral or a physical regard; for even in the adjustment of the external universe he took it with enthusiasm from the hand of Anaxagoras that all was for the best or that everything precisely was where it best should be. Now there was unity in the very thought here. If all was for a purpose and if we were all to strive to a single end there was necessarily a direction given in our thoughts and wills towards a single power. The whole tendency of such teaching could not but be monotheistic—could not but lead away from the traditional gods with question and doubt. Plato directly says “God least of all should have many shapes;” and again “God is what is absolutely simple and true” (Rep. 381 B and 382 E).
The mental attitude on the part of Socrates to which his principle was the vital force has been made abundantly plain to us both by Xenophon and Plato. Almost any single conversation in the one or dialogue in the other will suffice for proof. So far there is a certain sameness in them all. For example let us but hear on the one hand Socrates ask Hippias what Beauty is; and on the other hand Hippias answer Socrates that it is a beautiful maiden—let us but hear such question and answer knowing well the retort of Socrates in the end that he does not want to know what a beautiful person is but what is Beauty itself and we are well-nigh admitted to the very heart of the mystery. Beauty itself courage itself justice itself—that was the perpetual quest of Socrates. This quest of his too was on the whole always in a moral direction. It was always also by a certain dissection of the very thinking of his respondent or opposite that he came to his result. Now what Plato did was simply to universalize all this. As he deified the man Socrates so he deified his work. Firstly to extend the moral quest of Socrates into the whole field of knowledge—this for Plato was to discover the Ideas. Then again secondly the mental dissection of Socrates became for Plato his express Dialectic. While thirdly and lastly what was an indefinite unity or “scattering and unsure” unities with Socrates was carried up by Plato into the single unity of the Good—a good that was to Plato more than moral good more than a summating and consummating goodness—a good that was to Plato God. And all that is in our own direction—all that is towards monotheism—all that is towards Natural Theology—all that is towards realization of the proofs for the Existence and Attributes of God.
Even in that reference even specially in the matter of design we may not altogether wrongly assume Plato to have still followed his master; but in him we do not find so easily and so commonly as in Socrates instances of what we may call particular design. As we saw indeed the design instanced by Socrates was not always free from the reproach of externality. For example we do get many advantages from the animals we have domesticated; but we can hardly intimate as Socrates would seem to wish that pigs and poultry were directly made for us. Illustrations in this kind are perhaps chiefly or alone to be found in Plato when as in the Timaeus he is engaged in his fanciful description of the construction of man. There is a passage in the Epinomis that refers to the earth producing fruits for us and food for animals as well as to winds and rains that we see to be seasonable and in measure. The Epinomis is denied to Plato and transferred to Philip of Opuntium. Philip however as a pupil of Plato's may possibly in this case be only repeating his master. The illustration too however external on the whole is not insusceptible of relative application for I know not that it is unallowable to point to the possibility of human existence as dependent on the totality of influences though for the rest winds certainly do blow as they list and rains certainly do fall on the barren sea and the unproductive desert. In the Timaeus we have (45 E) the eyelids and the hair (76 C and D) of the head spoken of; the former as protective and the other as a covering production by intention being assumed in both cases. Plato talks of the flesh simply as clothing but designedly thin on the joints not to impede motion (74 E). Had he been more of an anatomist contracting muscles with their pointed terminal tendons would have better suited his purpose. The Timaeus dwells (46 E 47 A) on the wonders of the eyes too and on the wonders of what has been submitted to them. But for the eyes it is said proof of the universe there would have been found none since without them we should never have known of either stars or sun or heaven; but “now day and night and the changes of the year yield to us the knowledge of time and the power of investigating the universe;” and “from these we have attained to that thing called philosophy than which a greater good has not ever come nor ever will come a gift from the gods to the race of mortals” (47 B). Here what Plato has in mind is simply the information we attain by sight simply the intellectual advantage of that information. He has no idea of what the world would be we may almost say physically were there no seeing subject anywhere to be found in it. Such an idea was of course impossible to Plato who knew nothing about the undulations of the aether etc. Something of the same thought but more in a moral reference occurs in Kant. He says in the Kritik of Judgment (§ 86) “If the world consisted of beings merely inanimate or some animate and some inanimate but the animate still without reason the existence of such a world would have no worth at all for there would exist in it no being that possessed the slightest notion of any worth … the existence of rational beings under moral laws can alone be thought as final cause of the existence of a world.” I may also remind you here of a quotation from Colebrooke which I specially emphasized as of future use. This namely: “There must be one to enjoy what is formed for enjoyment: a spectator a witness of it: that spectator is soul.” Nature as I said then too is not there independently self-subsistently and on its own account: it is there only for a purpose and as a means. Evidently a universe without a spectator to make it his object without subject would be a gross self-stultification a manifest meaninglessness an idle anomaly a palpable monstrosity an arrant cheat.
Proceeding nearer to our main subject of design generally we may remark that in the Timaeus Plato is very full and clear on that to us essential interest final causes and in their opposition to physical ones. “There are two genera of causes” he says (Tim. 68 E) “the one necessary and the other divine.” The one cause that of necessity being subordinated to that of intellect and made its minister and servant merely. “The genesis of this world” it is said (48) “has been effected by the conjunction of necessity and intellect;” but necessity is under the rule of intellect. The causes of necessity in short are only “the accessory causes which the Deity in realizing the idea of the possibly best uses only as hodmen for the work;” adding however that that “is not the conception of the most who hold the causes of things to be cold and heat solidification and liquefaction etc.; but both causes ought to be spoken of.” We see thus that it is here with Plato just as we saw it was with Socrates in reference to Anaxagoras. Both will insist on final causes as equally present with mechanical ones but as being at the same time the ruling and directing powers of these which are only the physical materials and mechanical agents in realization so to speak of the counsels and will of the causes we call final. This point of view is perfectly plain in Plato. He is perfectly well aware he says that there are those who maintain that the causes of necessity are the only causes and that what are named final causes are merely secondary causes that result from these; that for example; fire and water and earth and air are all of them from nature and chance and none of them from plan and contrivance—that in short chance and physical necessity are to be credited with the production of all things heaven with all that is in it the seasons and earth and animals and plants. But he will still believe that earth and sun and all the stars and the seasons so beautifully arranged in years and months as well as the universal faith of man whether Greek or barbarian prove that there are gods. Besides this passage in the Laws (886) there is another to a like effect in the Timaeus.
There are other two terms very current in Plato here at once in the Timaeus for example which involve pretty well the same distinction as the two kinds of causes do. They are identity and difference for to that meaning the Greek words ταὐτόν and θάτϵρον amount. These are really just as in the form of final and physical causes the warp and woof of the whole divine fabric. The one the same namely or identity as identity is the principle of the permanent of that that eternally is. And that plainly is the side of the intellect the side of thought the side of the in and in. The other as the difference the otherwiseness is just as it is named the other as other the outer. This is the side of the show of the externalization the side of the senses the side of the mutable and transitory. Either too is necessary to the other. Identity would be indistinguishable unless differenced differentiated. And what would be a difference that was only difference and by consequence unidentified? The inner must be outered the outer innered. Whatever is must be able to appear. The physical cause is but the realization of the final cause. The θάτϵρον the other the difference is but the realization of the ταὐτόν of that that is the same of that that is the identity.
But if there is a side of the intellect if there is a final cause in the constitution of things then design is at the heart of them design is the root and the centre of the universe. And in fact it seems the very purpose of the entire dialogue of the Timaeus to prove this. That dialogue may be named a teleological exposition throughout. The God for the sake of what is good only fabricates in beauty and harmony the entire world and man in particular. The former indeed the world is itself described as a “blessed god” possessed of intelligence life and soul. All that is made in it is made after an eternal pattern the most beautiful of things and from the most perfect of causes. For the God is good and there is never any grudge or envy in the good about anything whatever; and he made the world consequently to be like unto himself. Thus then this world has reason in it and is truly made by the providence of God. Further created most beautiful in the perfect image of the most beautiful it is declared sole and single; for as is implied perfection needs no multiple.
It is in this part of the Timaeus that Plato comes to the genesis of time. We have seen some of his expressions in that reference already; but it is difficult to follow him here. Difficult I suppose the subject itself proved to Plato and his words are correspondently obscure. The notion itself of the Eternal Being that was and is and always will be offered as a notion probably no hardship. It is easy to use the words the predicates that describe what we conceive to be eternal as for example in the terms of Plato to say that the eternal “what is always unmoved the same can become by time neither older nor younger nor has been made nor appears now nor will be in the future nor can any of those things at all attach to it which mortal birth has grafted on the things of sense;” but how to bring into connection with this everlasting rest the never-resting movement of time—that is the difficulty. Plato seems to say that all the phenomena of sense are nothing but “the forms of time imitating eternity and moving numerically in its circle.” Now if I read my own notion into these obscure words perhaps it will help to the formation of no irrelevant idea. Suppose eternity a continuum and time to measure the discreta of it—eternity to be a continuity and time to enumerate the parts or divisions of it—eternity to be a completed and an ever-enduring circle and time to be the counting the traversing of the dots the infinite dots that compose its periphery—suppose we conceive this then we may have something of a picture of both the unmoved and the moving and yet in coherent relation. Now that may be the truth. Time may be no straight line as we are apt to figure it but a curve—a curve that eventually returns into itself. In that way the phenomena of sense will be but as the hands of time externalizing its moments the moments of time even as the hands of the clock point out or externalize the divisions of the hour.
But leaving these dark matters it is in this part of Plato that we find that reflexion of the Christian Trinity which is so often referred to. The words Maker and Father occur about a dozen pages on from the beginning of the Timaeus. There it is said: “Of this the All to find the Maker and Father is difficult and having found him it is impossible to declare him to all men.” Farther on (37 C) we have this: “When the Father that created it saw it moving and alive this the created image of the blessed gods he was well pleased.” We have seen this creation itself already called “a blessed god;” and a few pages earlier than the last quotation (at 31 A and B) unity ϵἱ̑ς is not only asserted of this “blessed god” but it is even called μονογϵνής a word that in St. John and elsewhere is always translated “only-begotten.” This remarkable term too is to be found repeated at the very end of the dialogue. Lastly (50 D) we have this that is the “only-begotten” also called “Son.” The Greek word is not υἱίς indeed but still it is ϵ̓́κγονος a word of exactly the same import. On the whole it is not surprising that these expressions in Plato of an only-begotten Son made in the image of the Father should on the part of the Christian world have attracted so much attention. This passage in Plato probably it was that led the Fathers of the Church followed by the ecclesiastical majority of the Middle Ages to represent as I formerly remarked the existent world as the Son. The Jew Philo of Alexandria it is to be said also used in respect of the world the same expression of Son of God. We may note here also that Numenius of Apamea (a Pythagorean philosopher familiar with the writings of Plato who lived in the second century) has distinct references to the Good as God and to the world as his only-begotten Son. Philo was still a Jew at least forty years after the death of Christ so that it is not to be thought that either he or Numenius had a Christian reference in the use of the phrase. Even as regards Plato the analogy I doubt not is only to be characterized as verbal. What in truth he means by the two that he names here God and World or Son are simply the two principles which we have so often seen already—identity and difference; the two causes design and necessity or the two Goods as in the Laws (631 B) the divine and the human the latter conditional on the former so that “if any city receives the greater it possesses also the less; but if not it is without either.” “It is not possible” says Plato (Laws 967 D) “for any one of mortal men to become permanently pious who accepts not these two affirmations that the soul as it is the eldest of all that is created is immortal and rules everything corporeal.” That is again the duality in question and we see it is made here the condition of piety; for piety is to Plato always the ultimate result. “Whoso according to the laws believes that there are gods he never willingly did a wrong deed nor spoke a wrong word” (Laws 885 B): accordingly Plato is at pains to prove the existence the power and the justice of God. The whole of the tenth book of the Laws may be regarded as such proof; and a very slight change might make the whole discussion of the religions element there assume quite a modern look. We are not surprised then in Plato to find the first of every inquiry as in the Timaeus (27 C) to be an invocation for the blessing of the God and a prayer that whatever might be said should be agreeable to his will and becoming to themselves the inquirers. And probably just such a state of mind is natural to humanity as humanity. I fancy that in front of any serious emergency of any grave responsibility invocation rises spontaneously in a man were he even an atheist. No one to Plato (Epin. 989 D) can even teach unless the God lead. This piety on the part of Plato as on the part of Socrates his has been stigmatized as superstition.
Now there are undoubtedly such things as superstitions and they may exist in weak minds in such excess as seriously to interfere with the sound and healthy transaction of the business of life. “It is natural” says Hume (Nat. Hist. of Rel. iii.) “that superstition should prevail everywhere in barbarous ages.” And then he tells us also of the superstition of the educated—of such men as Pompey and the advanced Cicero and the wily Augustus. “That great and able emperor” he says of the last “was extremely uneasy when he happened to change his shoes and put the right-foot shoe on the left foot.” Dugald Stewart also is to be found quoting this same anecdote of Augustus and reflecting somewhat loftily on superstition occasionally appearing in the most enlightened. In illustration he quotes a long paragraph from Boswell about Dr. Johnson counting his steps so as to have his left or right foot first in reference to an entrance or an exit and winds up with this reflection from his Professorial Chair: “They who know the value of a well-regulated and unclouded mind would not incur the weakness and wretchedness exhibited in the foregoing description for all his literary acquirements and literary fame.” Dugald Stewart is one of our very best and most elegant writers of philosophical English. Philosophically he had an excellently well-filled mind too and seldom writes anything that is not interesting and valuable. Despite a little spoiling moreover from a vast success social and otherwise he kept on the whole as we see in his intercourse with Burns his manhood by him. Nevertheless when he prelects in that grandiose fashion on poor Johnson he can only remind us of the great Mr. Buckle evolving his periods monthwards like the ribands of a showman from the very drum-head of the Aufklärung. “They who know the value of a well-regulated and unclouded mind” that is the very jargon of the general position and is not more Dugald Stewart's than it is Thomas Henry Buckle's and a hundred others' David Hume among them. “The weakness and wretchedness exhibited in the foregoing description”—that means the counting of his steps on the part of Johnson; and looking at it so we may fail to see the wretchedness. It does not appear as though Samuel Johnson had in the main during life been a wretched man. But be it as it may with the wretchedness perhaps we will allow the “weakness”? Well truly estimated and appreciated what underlay and had initiated the habit was certainly a weakness in the sense that it concerned a non-ens; it is quite safe to say that if Johnson had not counted had not thought of his steps but had done unconsciously precisely what he consciously did do—it is quite safe to say that in that way no actual circumstance of time and place varying the events and issue of the day then and thereafter would have been identically the same as they were in fact experienced. But if there was weakness there was also to some extent strength. Johnson made no attempt in any way at concealment; he did not hide the habit; he practised it in aperto. Of course it may be very naturally suggested that Boswell was but a weak brother and Johnson might have been careless of his opinion. But then in Stewart's very quotation from Boswell the information is as of a matter within the common knowledge of “his friends.” I don't know therefore that many of ourselves would have been as bold as Johnson; we might perhaps have felt a greater amount of shame and timidity at the idea of exposing ourselves. And yet we may have our own superstitions not less or not much less than Johnson. In saying this I simply go on the broad fact of our common humanity. Man as man from the first of days to the last will always show the cross the contrarium the contradiction the Platonic duality which forms the frame or groundwork of his nature. Man will never cease to humble himself in heart and soul before the mystic Divinity of this universe; but he will always be found nevertheless sneaking towards a Mumbo-Jumbo that he is rather ashamed of. He will always have his luck and his unluck with the signs and the means to see and foresee to ward or forward accordingly. I suppose he will always count his sneezes and wish them to end in an odd one! Such things as amulets charms luck-articles of a thousand descriptions will never die out. Tokens foretokens and fortune-telling Biblical or Vergilian lots—instances of such things will in no time be lost among us. We may depend upon it that our table-turnings spirit-rappings spectral apparitions and what not will not be without their successors even to the remotest ages. Superstition is the shadow of religion; and they will seldom be found separate—quite as though there were two authorities two ruling powers two dominions: one of the heavens and another of the earth; one of the light and another of the dark; one of our hopes and another of our fears. And so doubtless it really is. Here again it is but the cross the contrarium the contradiction that crops up to us. Once more as has been said we have to look for a rationale to the Platonic duality. Religion shall go with the ταὐτόν the identity; and superstition with the θάτϵρον the difference. Or we may apply in the same way the two genera of causes. He who realizes final causes and the intellectual side is necessarily religious; while he who realizes physical causes and the corporeal side is necessarily superstitious. And as both causes go together the same man as in the case of Johnson may be at once religious and superstitious; rather perhaps it belongs to man as man to be at once both. Now of physical causes the outcome is contingency. I know that the opposite of this is generally said. See the waves upon the shore it is said; there is not one of them that in its birth and in its end and in its entire course between is not the result of necessity. That is true; but it is also true that not one of these waves but is the result of infinite contingency. Every air that blows every cloud that passes every stray leaf or branch or feather of bird that falls every contour of the land every stone or rock in the sea-bottom almost we may say every fish in the element itself has its own effect; and the various waves in their form and size and velocity are the conjoint result. That is necessity; but it is also contingency. That is the serial causal influences cross each other and from their own infinitude as well as from the infinitude of space and time in both of which they are they are utterly incalculable and beyond every ken. That is contingency. There are infinite physical trains in movement. Each taken by itself might be calculable; but these trains cross each other in the infinitude of space and time endlessly; and that is not calculable—the contingency of them the tingency con the touching or falling together of them. This touching together is something utterly unaccountable. The outcome to us in the finite world—so to speak in the terminal periphery can only be that we are submitted to a ceaseless to and fro to a boundless miscellaneousness an infinite pêle-mêle. But that being it is with infinite astonishment that I have heard necessity thrown at philosophy as though the belief of philosophy must necessarily be necessity. Plato's intellectual world the world of the ideas in hypothetical evolution the one from the other may be a realm of necessity; but such necessity is already contingency the moment that this realm the ideas themselves have become externalized—got flung that is into otherness as otherness externality as externality. And thus it is that in philosophy contingency is the category of the finite. Every crossing in the infinite pêle-mêle may be plain to a spaewife possibly; but it offers no problem for any reason as reason. It is in this connection too that I have heard very competent people speak of the system of philosophy as of necessity a system of necessity moral as well as metaphysical and not of free will. That to me as before gives again boundless astonishment. Why it is only in a realm of contingency that there were any scope for free will; it is only against contingencies that free will has to assert itself; it is only in their midst that free will can realize itself.
And here we have come at last perhaps to the very angle of the possible rationale of superstition. We have no power ourselves over contingency: it ramps and frolics and careers in its blind way independent of us. Of course it is understood that I speak of things as they are open to the reason which is given us: to omniscience and omnipotence there can be neither contingency nor necessity. But taking it just so as it is to mankind here it seems there were a realm in which chance and chance alone ran riot. How then propitiate conciliate and so to speak win the soft side of chance? It is only so that one can explain or excuse the existence of superstition in so powerfully intelligent and so religiously devout a mind as that of Samuel Johnson. And if we can so speak of the existence of superstition in his mind we may similarly speak of its existence in those of most others. There is no doubt that Johnson prayed most reverently and fervently—there is no doubt that he trusted himself wholly to God; but yet for all that there seem to have been for him as well powers of contingency: he would render them favourable too and have even chance luck on his side. The realm of the infinite the realm of the ταὐτόν the realm of the final causes led him to God; but he could not ignore and turn his back upon the realm of the finite the realm of the θάτϵρον and difference the realm of the physical causes. Of course this also is true: that it is just as the race or the individual advances in knowledge and in wisdom that the latter world disappears more and more from our conscience; and the former world alone has place. Far back in time the race had superstition only and not religion; but as regards the individual it is only some four hundred years since a king of France Louis XI. knelt to a leaden image in his hatband on the ground and invoked his “gentle mistress” his “only friend” his “good lady of Clery” to intercede with God Almighty for the pardon to him of his many murders that of his own brother among them! No man can call that religion. To a Louis XI. heaven was peopled with contingencies even as the earth was. To him final causes there were none; caprice was all. Plato in his perception of physical as but the material for final causes was quite in another region than the most Christian king of France. In fact Plato's whole world view was that of a single teleological system with the Good alone as its heart with the will of God alone as its creator and soul.
Plato then in a way but carries out and completes what Socrates began. Socrates was not content with right action only as action he must see and know why it was right; action as it were he must convert into knowledge; that is for man's action as a whole he must find general principles and a general principle. Now all that involved first a dialectic of search; second the ideas and the idea as a result; and third the realization of the State as its practical application. But that is simply to name the work of Plato in its three moments. The State was his one practical result; the ideas and the idea the media of realization; and the dialectic the instrument of their discovery limitation and arrangement. The ideal system then was the centre of the Platonic industry. Sensible existences the things of sense have for Plato no real truth. All that we see and feel is in perpetual flux a perpetual mutation. The ideas alone are the truth of things; and things have truth only in so far as they participate in the ideas. For ideas are the paradeigmata of things and things are but the sensible representations of these. What the ideas logically are things ontologically are; but the logical element is alone true; while the ontological element as representative is but temporary show only. The only true ontological element the ὄντως ὄν is the Good. To the Good not only is the knowledge of things due but it is the Good also that gives them being. It is for it and because of it and through it that all things are. It alone is the principle and the ratio essendi and the foundation of philosophy itself. Man being in his constitution double the truth of his senses is alone thought. The end-aim of everything and the end-aim of the entire system of everything is thought. That alone is good and the Good alone is God. And God is the creator of the universe. The Good design is so absolutely the principle of all things for Plato that whatever exists exists just because it is better that it should be than not be. Design the one principle of design is the νου̑ς itself: ψυχὴ αἴτιον ἀπάντων the soul is the cause of all things and that amounts to this that all things are first of all in the soul only not externalized. I hope we have some conception of where Plato is historically as regards the proofs required by Natural Theology.
From the book: