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Lectures 21 and 22: Plato (concluded)


THE educational discipline which occupied our attention during the last lecture was intended by Plato to prepare the soul for the contemplation of “that which is best in the world of Being,” in other words, the Idea of the Good. It is with this highest and final stage of the soul's initiation that we are concerned to-day.

We shall place ourselves in the best position for understanding what Plato meant by his Theory of Ideas, if we start from the passage in which Aristotle describes what he conceives to have been the strictly philosophical significance of the doctrine. According to Aristotle's account, the Theory of Ideas was generated out of the union of Socraticism with Heracliteanism.

From first to last Plato, according to Aristotle, agreed with Heraclitus in holding that all perceivable things are “ceaselessly flowing,” and consequently incapable of being known: for the object of knowledge, he assumed, is necessarily constant and unchanging. At the same time, he believed that Socrates was right in the importance he attached to definition and the universals, with which definition is concerned. What then is this universal or constant element which the general term endeavours to express? It cannot be something perceivable, for perceivables are never constant, but always changing. Just because it is permanent and universal, it must be something entirely disparate from sensibles. In this way Plato arrived at his doctrine of Ideas or Forms, which are simply the objective correlates of our general notions; and he further declared that every group of sensibles is separate from its Idea, while at the same time participating in it and called by its name.”1

The reasoning which Aristotle thus drily summarises was known in antiquity as the “argument from knowledge” (οἱ λόγοιοἱ ϵ̑κ τω̑ν ϵ̑πιστηω̑ν). You will observe that, according to this argument, the Theory of Ideas is simply Plato's answer to the question which had occupied Greek thinkers from the time of Parmenides.

Heraclitus was the champion of multiplicity and change, Parmenides of permanence and unity; they stood at the opposite poles of thought, the one denying emphatically what the other no less emphatically affirmed. Their successors, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Democritus, recognising that each of these views contained a measure of truth, endeavoured to effect a reconciliation by identifying the principle of change with combination and dissolution, and the element of unity or permanence with certain changeless though corporeal substances, the four elementary bodies, or the homoeomeries, or, finally, in the case of Democritus, individua corpora or atoms. In the view of Aristotle, Plato unreservedly accepts the Heraclitean doctrine of flux so far as concerns the visible world, while at the same time he does justice to the opposite principle by elevating the Socratic universals into certain incorporeal and unchangeable realities which he calls Ideas. The “argument from knowledge” is, I think, the only formal argument in defence of the Ideal theory with which we meet in the writings of Plato himself.2 Throughout the Platonic dialogues, those with whom Socrates converses are for the most part ready and even eager to accept without demur the existence of the Ideas as an unquestionable truth, somewhat more eager, in fact, than Socrates himself appears to be.

For the present I will ask you to consider the evidence of Aristotle only in so far as it helps to explain, and not to justify, the Theory of Ideas. The first point which Aristotle makes clear is that Plato hypostasised the Socratic universals, giving to them not merely a conceptual, but a substantial existence on their own account; in the second place, we learn that the Ideas are at once transcendent and immanent, at once separate from, and yet present in particulars: for when Aristotle says that every group of sensibles partakes in its Idea, he only repeats what Plato expresses sometimes in this way, and sometimes by the formula of παρουσία, or presence: the Idea, Plato says, is present in the phenomena which bear its name. This union of transcendence and immanence constitutes the great intellectual paradox of the Ideal Theory. About the significance of the paradox I will speak presently; but in the meantime let us examine the Ideas first of all in their transcendental aspect.

That Plato should have attributed a separate existence to his Ideas, independently alike of sensible particulars and of the knowing mind—this at first sight extraordinary phenomenon has often proved a stumblingblock in the path of those who approach the study of Platonism from the side of philosophy pure and simple. The philosophical difficulty, involved in the apparent disruption of the Universe into two mutually exclusive hemispheres, has been so seriously felt that not a few interpreters have regarded the transcendence of the Ideas as no real part of Platonism at all, but only a misconception arising from a narrow and unsympathetic, not to say mechanical and pedantic, study of the dialogues.

For my own part, I think that Plato's actual statements leave us no alternative except to believe that he looked upon the Ideas as transcendent; nor does anyone deny that Aristotle attributed this dogma, from which he himself profoundly disagreed, to his master.3 The duty of a commentator in such a case would seem to be to take Plato at his word, and endeavour to understand the motives that impelled him to have recourse to such a hypothesis. Aristotle, for his part, represents the Ideal Theory as originating in an attempt to find a sure foundation for knowledge and knowledge only; but when we read the dialogues of Plato himself, we cannot but feel that there were other and hardly less powerful impulses at work; and we may perhaps conjecture what these impulses were if we examine some of the different attributes which he assigns to his Ideas.

It is in harmony with Plato's separation of the intelligible from the sensible world that his description of the former is generally conveyed in language which, by its implied antithesis, at once suggests the fundamental contrast between the two spheres. This is not, however, equivalent to saying that he describes the Ideas in terms of mere negation: on the contrary, since phenomena are in themselves less real than the Ideas, there is far more of what Plato would have called negation in his account of the phenomenal than of the Ideal World. In the first place, then, each Idea is one, and not many: there cannot, for example, be two Ideas of the Beautiful, otherwise we should have to postulate a still higher Idea to account for the common element in these two: and in such a case it would be the higher Idea and neither of the two lower that would constitute the really existent Beautiful.4 By virtue of this attribute of unity, the Platonic Idea furnishes a kind of answer to the imperious demand of human nature for some haven of refuge from the sea of multiplicity on which we are tossed.

In the second place, the Ideas are changeless and eternal. On these two characteristics of the Ideal World, Plato never wearies of insisting: they are involved in his description of the Idea as that which “always is” and “never becomes,” as well as in the frequently recurring phrase ἀϵὶ κατὰ ταὐτὰ ὡσαύτως ἔχοντα, “ever immutably the same.” Applying to all the other Ideas what is predicated of the Idea of Beauty in the Symposium, we may say that each Idea is ever-existent, alike uncreated and imperishable; it is what it is always and everywhere and in all relations and respects: it is, in short, αὐτὸ καθ̕ αὑτό, μϵθ̕ αὑτου̑ μονοϵιδϵ̀ς ἀϵὶ ὄν, alone and by itself, simple and everlasting; and while the Idea is at the same time “present” in the particulars called by its name, yet this very “presence” is of such a kind that, although the particulars come into being and perish, the Idea nevertheless suffers no diminution nor increase nor change of any kind at all.5 It is obvious that in this and similar pictures of the Ideal World, the dominating motive is not to provide a severely rational foundation for a theory of knowledge: it is rather to satisfy the instinctive longing of the mind for “an abiding city,” a βασίλϵια ἀσάλϵυτος, or “kingdom that cannot be shaken,” in the contemplation of which we may find rest amid the change and decay of things terrestrial.

The third attribute of the Ideas, and that which seems to throw the greatest light on Plato's reasons for placing them in a world apart, is their perfection. Whereas the Socratic definition expresses only those qualities of the object defined which we have learned by means of an induction that at best is always incomplete, the Platonic Idea is the sum and substance of all the essential characteristics of the thing in question, whether we know them or not, and consequently represents the perfect and complete reality of which our general notions may be only an imperfect copy. In this way the Idea becomes the absolute or standard for the particular group of phenomena over which it presides. It must be admitted, however, that the different examples by which Plato enforces his theory of Absolutes, or, as he sometimes names them, “models set up in nature,”6 are not all equally persuasive. We find it difficult, for instance, to follow him when he speaks of the really existent Bed or Table at which the carpenter looks when manufacturing the beds or tables which we use;7 and ancient as well as modern critics have sometimes doubted whether, in the case of artificial objects, Plato seriously intended to assert the existence of a transcendental Form. Yet even here we feel that the manufactured object is always imperfect—never fully and entirely is what it fain would be. We are conscious of a similar sentiment in connection with the creations of nature, both organic and inorganic: the ideal type, we feel, is never wholly realised.

“That type of Perfect in his mind In Nature can he nowhere find,”

The thought which Tennyson expresses in these lines8 was thoroughly congenial to Plato. When we look upon visible and material things he points out in the Phuedo, we are frequently sensible that they fall short of the ideal. “This thing, which I now see, would fain be like that other, but falls short, and cannot attain thereto, but is inferior.” “All these equals which I see aspire to absolute equality, but do not reach it.”9 But it is in the domain of art and morality that the Platonic conception of an absolute and unchanging standard appeals most powerfully to the idealistic impulses of mankind, and has exercised by far the greatest influence upon human thought.

“Who sayes that fictions onely and false hair

Become a verse? Is there in truth no beautie?

Is all good structure in a winding stair?

May no lines passe, except they do their dutie

Not to a true, but painted chair?”10

It will be allowed that George Herbert, the author of these verses, gives expression in them to a feeling which, whether it be justifiable or not, is at all events deeply rooted in our nature. We are so constituted that we refuse to acquiesce in a purely subjective standard of the beautiful and ugly; on such a hypothesis, indeed, Art criticism becomes impossible, and those who hold the hypothesis in theory, are apt in practice to belie it, when others differ from them on a point of taste. It is also a historical fact that Plato's vision of a transcendent standard of Beauty, “everywhere and always and in all relations beautiful,” has fired the imagination of artists in more than one generation, and was in particular the inspiring motive of the art of Michael Angelo, in whose lifetime the famous Academy at Florence made Platonism live again. And if in questions of aesthetics we feel that there is and must be something more than a merely subjective or conventional standard of right and wrong, the feeling is even stronger in matters appertaining to morality. Inasmuch as Socrates concerned himself almost exclusively with ethical notions, it is not unlikely, as Mr. Waddell appears to suggest in his edition of the Parmenides,11 that the Theory of Ideas itself began with the hypostasisation of Justice, Goodness, and so forth, and afterwards enlarged its scope so as to include the other inhabitants of the Ideal sphere. In any case, the need for asserting the objective reality of the moral standard may well have seemed to Plato all the greater on account of the teaching of the Sophists. We have already seen that one of the prevailing tendencies of the age of Illumination was to look upon Justice and other ethical concepts as determined, according to the usual formula, not by nature, but by convention—θϵ́σϵι, not ϕύσϵι: they are merely matters of agreement between man and man, and correspond to no objective or so-called “natural” realities at all. Protagoras, if we adopt the ancient interpretation of his maxim, went even further, and maintained that the individual, alone and by himself, is for and to himself the only “measure” or standard of all things. Against this extreme development of subjectivity in morals, Plato's theory of Ideas is an emphatic counterblast. It is Protagoras whom he is trying to refute, when, in the Cratylus, he declares that the Ideas have a stable existence of their own, not relative to us, nor dragged to and fro by us according to our fancy, but independent, and relative only to their own essence with that relation which Nature, and not (as we may presume the antithesis to be) Convention, has ordained.12

In view of the three attributes which we have now considered, unity, changelessness, and perfection, it ought to be easy for us to appreciate, at least in some degree, the motives which led Plato to “separate” his Ideas from the region of sense, and assign to them a transcendent existence of their own. In the world of space and time there is no unity without multiplicity, nothing that abides, nothing that is perfect in its kind, although everything speaks to us of a perfection not its own. Just as the inheritance for which the Christian looks, the “inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away,” is not of this world, so the eternal and unchangeable realities which, according to Plato, the Soul in her past history beheld, and which she hopes to behold again hereafter, are necessarily “yonder” (ϵ̓κϵι̑). If they were only immanent and not transcendent, they would cease to be what they are, that is, an Ideal; for an ideal must always be beyond—

“A world above man's head, to let him see

How boundless might his soul's horizons be,

How vast, yet of what clear transparency!?”13

Thus far, then, it would seem that the Ideas of Plato constitute a world of transcendental models or archetypes, the truly existent reality corresponding to all our dreams of perfection, in the spheres alike of nature, art, morality, and knowledge. Plato's religion consists in the passionate uplifting of the mind towards this realm of perfection, to which the Soul in her true nature is akin. It has often been pointed out that St. Paul and St. Peter laid the mysteries under contribution, for imagery in which to shadow forth the spiritual realities of the Christian faith. In exactly the same way the mysteries of Eleusis provide metaphors and phrases for Plato's description of the Ideal world. The account of the “region above the heavens,”14 in the Phaedrus, is steeped in the atmosphere of the Eleusinian rites. The framework in which the narrative is set—a pilgrimage of Gods and souls as yet unfallen, ending in a sacrament—reveals the procession along the sacred way from Athens to the temple of Demeter at Eleusis: and in many details of the picture we can detect a reference to the actual celebrations of the festival. The conception of the Idea as the food or τροϕή of the soul: the employment of expressions referring to the ceremony of initiation—τϵλϵτά for example, μυϵι̑θαι, ἀρτιτϵλής, νϵοτϵλής, ϵ̓ποπτϵύϵιν, τϵ́λϵιος, and perhaps ὇λόκληρος: the use of words like μάκαρ, ϵὐδαίμων, ϵὐπαθϵι̑ν, to describe the rapture of the beatific vision: and the allusion to the αὐγὴ καθαρά, the blaze of light amid which the sacred ϕάσματα or emblems were exhibited—in each and all of these features we may easily recognise the source of Plato's inspiration.15

No one who understands the part played by the mysteries in Greek life will deny that such a description of the Ideal World was intended to arouse religious as well as philosophical enthusiasm. It is consequently something more than a figure of speech when Plato calls the Idea divine—the divine model or παράδϵιγμα after which human institutions should be framed.16 The eternal and invisible Forms are in very truth the Platonic equivalent of Gods; and from this point of view Mr. Pater is justified in describing the Ideal Theory as a sort of “recrudescence of polytheism in that abstract world.” 17 In the words of the same writer, the Ideas seem to become for Plato “not merely substantial things-in-themselves, but little short of living persons, to be known as persons are made known to each other, by a system of affinities, on the old Eleatic rule, ὅμοιονὁμοίῳ, like to like—these persons constituting together that common, eternal, intellectual world, a sort of divine family or hierarchy, with which the mind of the individual, so far as it is reasonable, or really knows, is in communion or correspondence.”18

Up to the present stage; we have considered only the transcendence of the Ideas. I have tried to suggest that the reason why Plato makes them “separate” from particulars is that the Ideal or Type must always be transcendent: neither by nature nor by man is it ever wholly realised. To this aspect of the Ideas we have found a religious parallel in the Christian conception of a heaven “that is above this world and beyond time, not only superterrestrial but supramundane,”19 the ultimate goal of all our aspirations after spiritual beauty, goodness, and truth. We have next to examine the relation which Plato conceives to exist between the region of perfect Forms and the world in which we live. One of the objects of the Ideal Theory is to enable us to understand things as they are; and it is obvious that the creation of a second universe, a kind of archetypal “museum,” as it has been called, so far from having any such result, only multiplies the phenomena to be explained, unless it is brought into some kind of causal and necessary connection with the world of space and time. The relation between the Idea and the particular is a topic on which Plato frequently dwells; but it is characteristic of his genius that he was far more anxious to insist on the reality of the Universal, than to develop a consistent theory of its union with individual things. At the same time we shall, I think, discover that for the student of religious, not of philosophical thought, no little interest attaches to Plato's general conception of the way in which the Infinite comes into contact with the finite, as well as to the terminology which he employs in treating of the subject.

It will be convenient to take as the basis of our discussion part of the famous passage of the Phaedo in which the Platonic Socrates tells the story of his intellectual development. After describing how he had found no rest or satisfaction for his mind in the study of mere secondary causes, he proceeds somewhat as follows:

“Let me now try to show you the sort of cause that interests me. I will return to the old and well-worn story, and begin with the Ideas, postulating a self-existent Beautiful, Good, Great, and so on. If you grant me these, I hope to make you understand what I mean by causation.… I hold that if a thing is beautiful, it is so for no other reason than because it partakes in the Ideal Beauty (μϵτϵ́ϵ̓κϵίνον του̑ καλου̑).… If anyone tells me that such and such a thing is beautiful, because it has the bloom of colour or form or anything else of the sort, I neglect all that: it merely confuses me: and to this one point, simply and artlessly—perhaps you will think foolishly—I cleave fast in my own mind, that nothing makes an object beautiful except the presence (παρουσία) of Ideal Beauty, or their communion (κοινωνία) with each other, or the advent of the Idea in whatsoever way:20 for upon the mode of the connection I do not insist; but only that it is the Idea of Beauty by which beautifuls are made beautiful.”21

Communion (κοινωνία), participation (μϵτϵ́χϵιν, μϵ́ θϵ ξις, μϵταλαμβάνϵιν, μϵτάληψτς), presence (παρουσία)— these, then, are the usual terms employed by Plato to shadow forth the relation between the eternal self-existent Idea and the particulars of which, whatever may be the exact character of the relationship, Plato is profoundly convinced that the Idea and nothing else is the cause. Now, if the particular communicates with or partakes of the Idea, we are just as much entitled to say that the particular is in the Idea as that the Idea is in the particular. To each of these two ways of expressing the communion between the finite and the Infinite the language of religion offers many parallels;22 but Plato confines himself exclusively, I think, to the second formula. The Idea is “present” in or “possesses” (κατϵ́ χϵι)23 the particular. It is worthy of notice, as indicating the religious affinities of the conception, that in common with the rest of the Greeks, Plato attributed also the phenomenon of inspiration to παρουσία or presence—the presence, namely, of the inspiring God. He who is inspired is / ? /νθϵος: there is a God within him: or he is possessed by a God (κατοκωχή). In the same way, as we have seen, the rational faculty is, according to Plato, the divine element in man; but I find no trace in the dialogues of the converse notion that the human soul can be “in God,” although the phrase μϵτασχϵι̑ν θϵου̑, “to partake in God,” occurs in the Phaedrus.24

It appears, therefore, that the Idea, which we have found to be transcendent, is at the same time immanent; and, as I have already stated, it is just this transcendent immanence of the Idea which constitutes the paradox of Plato's Idealism. No one knew better than Plato the difficulties inherent in such a conception, at least so long as it is interpreted in any narrow spirit of literalism. In the Parmenides he puts into the mouth of the veteran Eleatic philosopher the most trenchant criticism which the theory of Ideas has ever received, and a considerable part of that criticism is directed to this very point. Are we to suppose, asks Parmenides, that the whole of the Idea is present in each particular, or only part of it? One of the two alternatives must be true. In either case, we sacrifice the unity of the Idea: for if the whole Idea inheres in each several thing, the Idea is no longer one, but many; and if each particular has only part of the Idea, then the Idea is divisible; whereas Unity is indivisible.25 And so on through a series of objections not less relevant and pointed—objections which (so far as I can see) Plato never succeeded in refuting, though to the last he seems to have upheld the transcendence as well as the immanence of the Ideas. In spite of the theoretical difficulty, Plato was apparently convinced that the Infinite must be at once above and beyond the finite and yet at the same time present in the finite; and here again we are struck by the resemblance between Platonism and Christian theology, which maintains “with equal firmness a belief in the immanence of God in the world, and a belief in the transcendence of God above the world.”26 Each of these two doctrines holds the field, although the difficulty of reconciling them has been felt by Christian thinkers not less than by Plato. Thus, for example, St. Augustine, speaking of the divine immanence, observes, in language that reminds us forcibly of the Parmenides: “But when Thou fillest all things, dost Thou fill them with all Thyself? Or because all things cannot contain the whole of Thee, do they receive a part of Thee, and do all receive the same part at the same time? Or does each receive its own part, greater things a greater part, lesser things a lesser? Then is one part of Thee greater, another less. Or art Thou wholly everywhere, though naught receives the whole of Thee?”27

What, then, it may be asked, does Plato wish to express, when he speaks of the transcendent idea as at the same time present in the particulars of which it is the cause? Perhaps we shall best understand his meaning if we take two examples, let us say the Beautiful and the Just, and consider what this notion of παρουσία or presence would signify in connexion with them. It is clear that the perfect Ideal of Beauty can be said to reside in a beautiful picture only in proportion as that picture resembles the Ideal which, on Platonic principles, is the cause why it is beautiful; and in like manner Ideal Justice or Righteousness is “present” in a human soul just to the extent to which that soul participates in the perfection at which it aims. In other words, the “presence” of the Idea in the particular means the resemblance of the particular to its Idea; and in point of fact, Plato constantly expresses the relationship in this way, not only in the later dialogues, when the paradeigmatic conception of the Idea predominates, but also in the Phaedo and the Republic, side by side with the theory of participation or immanence, on which, indeed, the theory of likeness is only a kind of explanatory gloss.28 The view that the Ideas are παραδϵίγματα or types in which phenomena participate is condemned by Aristotle as a poetical metaphor and nothing more—κϵνολογϵι̑ν ϵ̓στὶ καὶ μϵταϕοράς λϵ́ γϵιν ποιητικάς:29 nor does Plato himself suppose that it provides a satisfactory philosophical account of the relation between the finite and the Infinite.

But if we would understand the religious potentialities of the doctrine, we must turn, as before, to the New Testament. In St. John's Gospel and the Epistles of St. Paul, Ideal Righteousness, which Plato, we must remember, speaks of as divine,30 has become incarnate in Jesus Christ: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”: hence we may fairly say that in these two writers the person of Christ occupies the same relative position as is occupied by the Idea of Righteousness in Plato. It is consequently more than a merely verbal or superficial analogy when the relationship between the believer's soul and Christ is described in the New Testament by the formula of participation or communion: “partakers of the divine nature” (θϵίας κοινωνοὶ ϕύσϵως), “the fellowship (κοινωνία) of Jesus Christ our Lord,” “our fellowship (κοινωνία) is with the Father and with His Son,” “fellow-partakers (συμμϵ́τοχα) of the promise in Christ Jesus,” “partakers of the Holy Ghost,” “partakers (μϵ́ τοχοι) of the heavenly calling.” 31 And if the idea of κοινωνίαor fellowship is common, that of “immanence” is even more so. No doubt the word παρουσία, “presence,” by which Plato generally expresses the relationship, has a different sense in the New Testament, where it refers with few exceptions to the second coming of our Lord and the fulfilment of the reign of righteousness already begun upon the earth. Parousia, in Plato, means partial, incomplete attainment; in Christianity, for the most part, it signifies the final consummation. That is the obvious difference, so far as language is concerned; but it is not a mere question of words: the point is rather that the doctrine of Parousia as the presence of the Infinite in the finite underlies the deepest religious teaching of St. Paul's Epistles, as well as the Gospel and Epistles of St. John, having attained, of course, to new vitality and power by the embodiment of the divine Idea in a divine yet human personality. Plato professes himself unable to conceive of any cause except the immanent Idea; it is the Idea of Righteousness, present in the soul, and nothing else whatever, that makes us righteous. In exactly the same way, according to the New Testament, the indwelling Christ, “Christ in you,” produces the Christian or Christ-like character. Other cause there is and can be none. “I am the bread of life.”… “He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood abideth in Me and I in him.” “Ye shall know that I am in My Father, and ye in Me, and I in you.” “Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” “Sanctify in your hearts Christ as Lord.” “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to work, for His good pleasure.” “No longer I, but Christ liveth in me.” “My little children, of whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you.”32 Nor does the living and life-giving principle which the Apostles identify with Christ reside merely in the soul of the believer. As in Plato the universe of Ideas, afterwards summed up by Philo in the single concept of Logos, constitutes the immanent reality of the world, so in the Fourth Gospel and in St. Paul, Christ is the inherent life and truth of all that is, a cosmic power as well as an influence that works in human lives. The author of St. John's Gospel intended to suggest this great idea when he wrote, “That which hath been made was life in him “(ὃ γϵ́γονϵν, ϵ̓ναὐῳ̑ ξωὴ ἠ̑ν):33 the entire universe, organic and inorganic, lives in Christ. “The world is the poem of the Word to the glory of the Father: in it, and by means of it, He displays in time all the riches which God has eternally put within Him.”34 We meet with the same conception in the Epistle to the Colossians: “In him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible…and in Him all things consist” (τὰ πάντα ϵ̓ν αὐτῳ̑ συνϵ́στηκϵν).35

So much, then, for the religious significance of Plato's doctrine of Parousia. Reverting for a moment to the general question of the transcendent immanence of the Idea, we may sum the matter up by saying that just as by virtue of its transcendence the Idea is never wholly realised in the particular, but stands apart, an object of ceaseless aspiration and desire, so by virtue of its immanence, the Idea is at the same time always being realised, in proportion as the particular approximates to it.

We have next to inquire whether in the Ideal World itself there is any unifying principle. It has been pointed out that each individual Idea constitutes the essential unity of the group of phenomena in which it inheres; but if there is nothing to connect and co-ordinate the several Ideas among themselves, no still higher Being, Potency, or Power—call it by, what name you will—by which they in their turn are comprehended; it is obvious that we do not really escape from multiplicity after all. Such a supreme and ultimate Unity Plato finds in the Idea of Good; and this conception—the θριγός or coping-stone of his entire philosophy—a conception not less full of religious than of philosophical import—it is now our duty to examine.

By the time of Plato, owing chiefly to the influence of Socrates' life and teaching, the question, “What is the good?” had already become the central problem of Ethics; and as such it appears again and again in the minor Socratic dialogues which are usually supposed to be earlier than the Republic. For an admirable account of the doctrine of these and other dialogues, regarded as a preparation for the more comprehensive treatment of the subject in the Republic, I may refer you to Mr. Nettleship's Lectures and Remains;36 but as the Republic gives by far the fullest description of the metaphysical and religious aspect of the Good, it is with the discussion in that dialogue that we are principally concerned.

The Idea of Good, says the Platonic Socrates, is King of the intelligible sphere, as the Sun is of the visible.37 To describe the supreme Idea in itself he will not venture: the Father and Maker of all, we read in the Timaeus,38 is hard to discover, and after he is discovered, impossible to declare unto all. We must be content to apprehend the Good by means of its ἔκονος, or offspring, that is to say, the Sun; for as the Sun in the visible world stands to sight and its objects, so the Good in the intelligible world stands to Reason and the objects Reason knows. In brief, the Good is, as it were, the Sun of the Ideal World: this is the leading thought running through the whole of Plato's exposition.39

In the passage which I have just summarised, you will observe that something of the adoration with which Plato regards the supreme Idea is extended also to its offspring in the realm of visibles. There are traces of sun-worship in Plato, as in Greek religion generally;40 but here it is as the symbol and vicegerent of the Idea of Good that the “clear God and patron of all light” inspires religious feeling. “It is probable,” says Mr. G. R. Benson, “that Plato felt it was no accident that made this imagery available for him.… He probably thought that, so to speak, it was part of the function of the sun thus to present a type of the good.”41 A similar conception frequently occurs in the works of Dante. Thus in the Banquet we read: “There is no sensible thing in all the world more worthy to be an image of God than the sun, which with its sensible light illumines first itself, and then all celestial and elementary bodies; so God first illumines Himself with intellectual light, and then the celestial and other intelligences.”42

Let us see how Plato for his part develops the comparison. The Sun, he says, is the Lord of light, and by means of light enables our sight to see and the objects of sight to be seen. Where no light shines, we see nothing; but where there is light, we see. Similarly, the Good is the Lord of Truth,—the spiritual analogue of light,—and by means of Truth enables Reason, the eye of soul, to know. When the Reason is firmly stayed (ἀπϵρϵίσηται) on that whereon Truth shines, it is roused into activity and knows; but when it looks on the darkness of the phenomenal world, where things arise and pass away, it knows nothing, but merely opines, and is carried to and fro by every wind of doctrine. There is no rest for the soul till it is anchored in the Truth.43

The Good is therefore, according to Plato, the ultimate cause of Knowledge; it is that which enables all the other Ideas to be known. Secondly, the Good is likewise the ultimate cause of Being: for just as the Sun provides the objects of sight not only with the capacity of being seen, but also with generation, increase, and nourishment, so also the Good furnishes the objects of Knowledge not merely with the power to be known, but also with οὐσία or Existence. It is that by reason of which every other Idea is.44

In this way the Idea of Good becomes in Plato the source at once of Knowledge and of Existence. Plato is careful to point out that, although Knowledge resembles, it is not identical with, the Good, any more than sight should be identified with the Sun. The Good, he says, is something higher than Knowledge, and even more beautiful.45 It is also higher than Existence—ϵ̓πϵ́κϵινατη̑ς οὐσίας46 above and beyond all the other Ideas of which it is the cause, ὑπϵρούσιον or “super-substantial,” to use the name by which the transcendence of the Highest was sometimes described in later philosophical and religious thought. As the source of Knowledge, the Good, dwelling itself, as one might say, in light inaccessible (ϕω̑ς οἰκω̑ν ἀπρόσιτον),47 is “that which gives light to all” (τὸ πα̑σι ϕω̑ς ϕω̑ς παρϵ́χον);48 so that from hence proceeds, not only Knowledge, but also whatever light or truth still lingers in those inferior grades of intellectual or quasi-intellectual apprehension enumerated in the simile of the line. Considered, again, as the source of Being, the Good is the author of all the subordinate Ideas, each of which is but a special determination of itself, and through them of the realities of mathematics, as well as of that reflection or semblance of reality which belongs to the world of generation and decay, in each of its two categories, material things and shadows. In short, as Aristotle might have said, it is the principle on which the Universe and Nature hang—the ἀρχὴ ἀϕ̓ ἡ̑ς ἤρτηται ὁοὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ ϕύσις.49

Throughout the foregoing discussion, I have occasionally used language which implies that the Idea of Good stands for Plato's philosophical conception of God. The identification has often been challenged; but the difficulties involved in any other hypothesis appear to be insuperable. If we deny the equation, while still believing that Plato did not exclude the concept of God from his philosophy, we must take up one of three positions. We must maintain that the Idea of Good is subordinate to God, or, conversely, that God is subordinate to the Idea of Good, or else that they are wholly independent of one another, the Idea being as it were a model or παράδϵιγμα, after whose likeness the Creator fashions the Universe, so far as Necessity permits. The first of these solutions is inconsistent with the sovereignty of the Good, on which Plato emphatically insists, and the second cannot be reconciled with the representation of the “Maker and Father of all” in the Timaeus, nor indeed with the suggestion in the Republic that God is the author of the secondary or derivative Ideas.50 The third hypothesis, though held by some distinguished critics, and at first sight supported by the Timaeus, denies to the Idea of Good that creative function which is expressly assigned to it in the Republic. Or are we to adopt a fourth solution, and say that “religion and the Gods on the one hand, philosophy and the Ideas on the other, are two conceptions of the world, which, answering to two different needs of men, are elaborated by two distinct faculties of the mind,” and that while Plato was “a religious person and believed in the Gods like the respectable people of his day, yet in his philosophy, as long as the Ideal Theory held the field, he might have said with Laplace, ‘I have never felt the want of that hypothesis’?” This is the theory which M. Bovet has advanced in his treatise on “Le Dieu de Platon,”51 but such a separation between religion and philosophy would assuredly have been repudiated by Plato, when he wrote the Republic, not less emphatically than when he wrote the Timaeus and the Laws. The doctrine that reason, and not sentiment, is the divine element in man, as it were the link uniting him to God, belongs to the so-called middle as well as to the later Platonism; and no one holding this belief could have kept his religion and his philosophy in two watertight compartments. To impute anything of the sort to Plato involves, I cannot but think, an entire misconception of what Platonism really means.

Consider, in the second place, some of the positive reasons for the identification. To begin with, it establishes between the earlier and later books of the Republic precisely the kind of harmony we should expect. The first and most important of the canons which Plato, in the second book, prescribed for the religious instruction of the young was that God is good. Now we have already seen that the preliminary scheme of education was intended to pave the way for the later and more advanced, by inculcating in a categoric or dogmatic form, as it were, the reflection of philosophical truths which are afterwards to be apprehended in themselves by ratiocination and not by faith. It would accordingly seem that the Idea of Good is the philosophical fulfilment of the doctrine of the divine goodness already imparted at an earlier stage of intellectual development.

A further reason for equating the two conceptions, God and the Idea of Good, is to be found in the analogy between the position of the Good in the Republic, and that of the Creator in the Timaeus. The same characteristics and activities are assigned by Plato to both. In the Timaeus the Godhead is “called the best”:52 in the Republic the Good is τὸ ἄριστον ϵ̓ν τοι̑ς οὐ̑σν, “the best among things that are.”53 The Creator, according to the Timaeus, is hard to discover, and when discovered, difficult to reveal unto all men.54 In exactly the same spirit Socrates in the Republic professes himself unable to describe the Good otherwise than through an image: 55 and it is worth remembering, by way of confirmatory evidence, that Greek writers not infrequently represent the Highest God as the inscrutable one, whose name is not lightly to be spoken.56 Of the Idea of Good we read that it is ἀρχὴ του̑ παντός “the beginning or source of the universe,57 the creator or parent of the visible sun, and through it of the world in which we live.” In like manner, God in the Timaeus is the “maker and Father of all”;58 and Plato expressly attributes to him the creation of the sun and the other “heavenly Gods.” In contradistinction with Necessity, the Creator, himself supremely good, is the sole cause of whatever is good in the world which he creates,59 making it, as far as may be, like unto himself. To the same purpose we are assured in the Republic that the Idea of Good is to everything the cause of all that is right and beautiful.60 These are some of the parallels which may be quoted; but, indeed, the whole of the Timaeus is only a kind of elucidation of one of the functions which the Republic assigns to the supreme Idea, that of the efficient or creative cause.

Yet another argument may be derived from the exposition of the Ideal theory in Book X. of the Republic. Plato is attempting to explain the grounds of his belief that imitative art is twice removed from the Idea. We have here, let us say, the picture of a bed made by the painter. One degree higher in the scale of reality comes the so-called actual or concrete bed, which the carpenter makes, and the painter copies. Highest of all is the αὐτὸ ὃἔστι κλίνη, that is, the “Idea of Bed,” the “model set up in nature,” and this in its turn is the original of which the carpenter produces a more or less imperfect likeness. Who then is the maker of the Idea? Socrates replies, “I suppose we shall say God.”61 On the strength of this passage, we are justified, I think, in holding that the Platonic Socrates would have ascribed the origin of any and all of the subordinate or derivative Ideas to the same cause; and if so, God is a synonym for the Supreme Idea, the Good, which in the sixth book of the Republic is held to be the author of all the rest.62 It should be noticed, too, that just as the picture is third from reality, so also the painter is said by Plato “to be third from King and Truth.”63 In this difficult phrase “Truth” refers, of course, to the Idea which the painter copies at two removes, and “King” must consequently stand for God, the author of the Idea. It will be remembered that in Book VI. the Idea of Good appears as “King” of the intelligible world.64 These are some of the reasons which appear to justify us in identifying Plato's Idea of the Good with his conception of the Godhead. The chief difficulty which a modern reader is likely to feel about the identification may perhaps be thus expressed. How can an apparently abstract and impersonal principle like “Goodness” or “the Good” be equated with so personal a concept as the Deity? A brief consideration of this difficulty is desirable for its own sake, and will incidentally throw some further light on Plato's doctrine of the Good.

It is really correct to say that the Idea of Good, as portrayed in the Republic, is something purely impersonal and abstract. Taken by itself, no doubt, the expression τὸ ἀγαθόν carries no suggestion of personality. At the same time, the principle is frequently personified and becomes the object of religious emotion. Plato speaks of it as father and “king,”65 parent in the visible sphere of light and the lord of light, and in the intelligible sphere, where it is itself the lord, author of truth and knowledge,66 that which gives light to all,67 the brightest and most blessed part of Being,68 in the contemplation of which—the beatific vision, one might say—the soul at last finds rest!69 In all these expressions we are sensible of a certain admixture of religious feeling. But it is when we consider the functions of the sovereign Idea that we find ourselves compelled to suppose that Plato himself regarded the Good as something more than a mere inanimate abstraction. We have seen that the Good is the supreme creative principle alike in the world of sense and in the world of thought. As such, it cannot be separated from soul or life—that self-moving motion which communicates life and movement to all that lives.70 And soul, in its truest and most essential nature, was believed by Plato to be Nous71 so that the attribute of Reason must belong to the supreme Idea. The very perfection of the Good points to the same conclusion; for the rational, in Plato's way of thinking, is always better than what is destitute of Reason. On this ground he declares in the Sophist that perfect Being (τὸ παντϵλω̑ ὄν)—by which, of course, he means the Ideas—cannot be destitute of life and soul and intelligence.72 And in at least one passage of his writings Plato definitely suggests the identity of the supreme Good with the “true and divine mind” (τὸν θϵι̑ον καὶ ἀληθινὸννου̑ν).73 If it be objected that we have no right to interpret the Republic by mean of the later dialogues, we may reply that the same identification is implicitly involved in one of the dialogues almost universally allowed to belong to the same period as the Republic . Socrates in the Phaedo welcomes the Anaxagorean doctrine of a world-creating Reason as equivalent to the doctrine that there is no real cause except the Good; and it is just because Anaxagoras did not develop his epoch-making discovery to this conclusion, but contented himself instead with a host of secondary “causes,” falsely so called, that Plato pronounces him untrue to his own principles. Finally, it may be noted that we have an obvious literary parallel in Dante, to whom the Good is at once the object of universal desire, originating and maintaining all the life and movement of the world by means of the love which it awakens, and also the sovereign Intelligence or Mind who disposes all things for the best.74

We may take it, then, that this eternal and unchanging principle of Goodness, which Plato in the Republic calls the Idea of Good, and in the Timaeus the “maker and father of all,” supreme above all that is, the source alike of knowledge and of existence, the Alpha and Omega of every good75represents the Platonic conception of the highest God—“ one God and father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all”: ϵἱ̑ς θϵὸς καὶ πατὴρ πάντων, ὁϵ̓νπὶ πάντων καὶ διὰ πάντων καὶ ϵ̓ πα̑σιν.76

Let us now endeavour to understand the most important consequences, philosophical and religious, that would seem to follow from the doctrine we have been considering.

If the Good is the sole cause of Being, it will follow, in the first place, that the whole of Nature, so far as it really exists, is a revelation of God. This is the thought which Plato endeavours to work out in the Timaeus, where he represents the world as a divine child, the “image of its maker, a perceivable God, most mighty and good, most beautiful and perfect.”77 The Creator, being altogether free from envy, desired that everything should be made as like as possible unto himself.78 The student of nature is consequently a seeker after God, provided he endeavours to trace, in the phenomena which he investigates, the operation of the Good. We have seen that Socrates tried to inculcate piety by dwelling on the adaptation of nature exclusively to the needs of man. The teleology of Plato is no longer anthropocentric. He believes that each particular organism has its appointed function to perform, and is good just in proportion as it fulfils the purpose and attains the end for which it was created by the divine mind. But at the same time all these different ends conspire together for the good of the whole, which is the ultimate or perfect end. The most emphatic assertion of this thoroughly Platonic doctrine occurs in a famous passage of the Laws. “The ruler of the universe has ordered all things with a view to the excellence and preservation of the whole, and each part, as far as may be, has an action and passion appropriate to it.… For every physician and every skilled artist does all things for the sake of the whole, directing his effort towards the common good, executing the part for the sake of the whole, and not the whole for the sake of the part.”79

In the second place, if the Good is the only cause of existence, it would seem to be a necessary inference that nothing exists save in so far as it is good. That which we call evil or imperfection will therefore be pure and absolute negation. Such a view of evil is apparently involved in yet another passage of the Republic, where Plato describes the world of sensibles and opinables as intermediate between Being and not-Being.80 The element of Being which it possesses comes from the immanent Idea; the rest, which we may call the evil, since it is that by which the world falls short of good, is the absolutely non-existent (μὴ ὄν). By means of this somewhat scholastic way of reasoning, a case might be made out for attributing to Plato a system, not of dualism, but of monism; and it may be allowed that in his treatment of the Good in the Republic he comes nearer to a monistic view of the universe than anywhere else throughout his dialogues. At the same time, unless there is still some hidden power that offers resistance to the Good, it is impossible to explain why the resemblance of the particular to the Idea should always be imperfect ; for we cannot attribute this imperfection to the Good without sacrificing in that degree its essential quality of goodness. If we say, as is sometimes said, that the Idea can never fully realise itself in space and time, that “evil, whatever it may be, is more or less inherent in the very nature of matter and can never be totally abolished,” that it is “an inevitable accompaniment” of finite existence,81 and so on, we in reality set up a rival to the Good in this very principle of inevitability to which, so far, it has to yield. The truth would seem to be that Plato was too profoundly convinced of the effects of evil, both physical and moral, in the world as it now is, to acquiesce in a pantheistic denial of its existence. He tells us more than once that there is more evil than good in human life; and no one can read the extraordinarily powerful description in the Republic of the tyrannical man,82 the living embodiment of active maleficence and vice, without feeling that moral evil at all events was something more to Plato than merely the absence or privation of good.

Hitherto I have spoken of the Supreme Idea as the efficient or creative cause; but in Plato it is represented also as the final cause—the cause δἰ ὅ as well as δἰ οὑ̑ τά πάντα. It is with this conception of the Good that Plato begins his account of the subject; and I think he regarded it as more fundamental than any other. The Good, he says, is that “which every soul pursues, and with a view to it performs all actions, divining its existence (ἀπομαντϵυομϵ́νη τι ϵἃ̑ναι), but perplexed and unable adequately to grasp its nature.”83 Towards this highest end, indeed, not man alone, but the whole of Nature ceaselessly aspires—συστϵνάξϵι καὶ συνωδίνϵι “groans and travails together in pain,” to borrow the strangely Platonic language of St. Paul;84 but in a special sense, it is the goal of human action and endeavour, the ideal to which man should aim at assimilating himself as well as the institutions he may be called upon to frame. The guardians of the perfect city, after they have fulfilled the necessary period of training, are to “lift up the radiant orb of their souls”—τὴν τη̑ς ψυχη̑ς αὐγήν“and look upon that which giveth light to all, and having seen the Good itself, thereafter to order their country, their fellow-citizens, and themselves, in the likeness of that great exemplar.”85 If, again, we consider the Idea of the Good, no longer in its transcendent, but in its immanent aspect, we may regard it as the power for ever working in the world against the forces that make for evil; so that man has the opportunity to become a co-worker with God in the attempt to establish a kingdom of heaven both within himself and upon the earth. To this idea Plato gives a characteristically religious expression in a striking passage of the Laws, thus translated by Jowett: “For as we acknowledge the world to be full of many goods and also of evils, and of more evils than goods, there is, as we affirm, an immortal conflict going on among us, which requires marvellous watchfulness; and in that conflict the Gods and demigods are our allies”—ξύμμαχοι δϵ̀ ἡμι̑ν θϵοί τϵ ἅμα καὶ δαίμονϵς—“and we are their property ”86 It is worthy of notice that Platonic dualism thus affords a solid foundation for morality. The guise under which morality is here presented is that of warfare; and it is just the existence of evil that makes the warfare possible.

We must recognise that the evil is there in order that it may be overcome. This is the true “Olympian victory” of which Plato sometimes speaks87—“ever to cleave to the upward path and follow after righteousness and wisdom by every means in our power, that we may be dear to ourselves and to the Gods, both while remaining here, and when, like victors in the games collecting their rewards, we receive the prizes in store for virtue.”88 And so far at least as concerns the individual, there is hope that the Good will ultimately prevail. The final triumph—the perfect “assimilation to God” which Plato makes the goal of human aspiration—we may suppose to be at last attained by those of whom he says that “having thoroughly cleansed themselves by philosophy, they live without bodies for all future time in mansions even more beautiful”89 than the earthly paradise described in the Phaedo. I do not think, however, that Plato contemplates the ultimate victory of the principle of Goodness in the world as well as in the individual. It is true that in the Laws God is said to have disposed the several parts of the Universe in such a way as to secure as far as possible the defeat of evil and the triumph of Goodness in the whole.90 But there is nothing here to suggest the ultimate elimination of evil altogether;91 the qualifying phrase “as far as possible” precludes such an idea; and in the Theaetetus we are told that evil can never perish, but necessarily haunts our mortal nature and this present world.92 Platonism furnishes no real analogy to that cosmic regeneration which is foretold in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans;93 nor is it easy to see how such a hope was possible for Plato, so long as he held that evil is inseparably bound up with the visible and material.

There remains the question, “By what means do we attain to knowledge, complete or partial, of the Good?” Plato's answer is, “By means of dialectic.” When invited by Glauco to give an account of the character and content of the science, Socrates hesitates; and some have ventured to affirm that he had no answer ready. But the suggestions contained in the Republic do, in point of fact, enable us to form a tolerably clear conception of the general scope and character of the study, as it was understood by Plato when he wrote his greatest dialogue.

It will conduce to clearness if, before attempting to describe the nature of dialectic, we revert for a little to the subject of the hierarchy that prevails in the Ideal World. In the simile of the cave it is said that after the prisoner has emerged from the underworld and fulfilled a period of habituation which apparently symbolises the higher stages of the propaedeutic journey, he will begin by looking upon human creatures and other concrete things, after which he will lift his eyes to heaven by night, and see the moon and stars, till finally he is able to behold the sun: and then he will consider and understand that the sun is the steward (ϵ̓πιτροπϵύων) of all things visible, and in a certain sense the cause even of the shadows and images within the cave.94 By the successive objects to which the now emancipated prisoner directs his gaze, first terrestrial things, and afterwards things celestial, Plato intends to suggest that there is a gradation of Ideas in the supra-celestial sphere. It may be noted by the way that the conception of a scale or ladder of Ideas leading upwards to the sovereign form of Good bears a general resemblance to patristic and mediaeval theories of those heavenly “dominions, principalities, and powers” to which St. Paul refers in the Colossians.95 “In Origen,” says Lightfoot,96 “we have five classes, which are given in an ascending scale in this order: (1) angels (sancti angeli, τάξις ἀγγϵλική); (2) princedoms (principatus, δύναμις ἀρχική, ἀρχαί); (3) powers (potestates, ϵ̓ξουσίαι); (4) thrones (throni vel sedes, θρόνοι); (5) dominations (dominationes, κυριότητϵς).” The conception is greatly elaborated in later Christian speculation; thus, for example, in Dante97 we find three distinct hierarchies of spiritual beings, each with three orders, rising to the “supreme edifice of the Universe, in which all the world is included, and beyond which is nothing,” the tenth or Empyrean heaven, “the abode of that Supreme Deity who alone doth perfectly behold Himself.”98 “These orders,” says Dante, “are all upward gazing, and downward prevail, so that toward God they all are drawn, and they all draw.”99 Plato might have said the same of his Ideas; for every particular aspires to the Idea which it resembles, and each Idea in turn derives its being from the Good or God. With regard to the arrangement of Plato's hierarchy, we can readily understand the general principles by which it must have been determined. We may presume that each of the higher ideas has a wider scope than the next below it, and is also more excellent, since it is nearer to the Good; but Plato nowhere attempts a systematic treatment of the subject, perhaps for the reason that a complete classification of intelligibles in their varying degrees of interdependence and precedence would have been premature, in his day, as indeed it must always be premature, until there is nothing left for man to discover. The important point for us to observe is that Plato, though unable, of course, to justify his belief by the only method whereby it can be finally established, that is, by an induction which leaves no part of nature unexplored, did nevertheless emphatically hold that the universe of knowables constitutes a single organic whole, every part of which is related to every other in such a way that to know one thing perfectly is to know all. “Do you think it-possible,” he asks in one passage, “adequately to comprehend the nature of soul apart from universal nature?”100 “The whole of nature,” we read in the Meno, “is to itself akin.”101

Let us now endeavour to understand the method by which Plato would have the rulers of his perfect city scale the successive heights of the Ideal World. They have learnt by this time to take a comprehensive and synoptic view of the different mathematical studies included in the propaedeutic curriculum; and this in itself forms a useful proposition for dialectic, since the dialectician is above all things συνοπτικός, one who is capable of “seeing things together” and reducing many scattered and apparently isolated phenomena under a a single point of view.102 But in other respects they have been satisfied with mathematical methods; and further progress is impossible until mathematical methods have been discarded. The mathematician begins with a series of hypotheses, comprising his so-called definitions of square, circle, triangle, etc.; and of these hypotheses he does not—quâ mathematician, indeed, cannot—offer any proof: we must accept them, if at all, on trust. As soon as his hypotheses are granted, again, the mathematician proceeds by purely deductive ratiocination with the aid of sensible images or diagrams, downwards, as Plato would say, to a conclusion which in reality expresses nothing that was not implicitly involved in the hypotheses; nor does he, in the course of the argument, ever bring the subject-matter of his study into connection with any other department of thought. Now this is not what Plato calls “knowledge,” in the proper meaning of the word. The mathematician “renders no account” of his principles; and “when a man's first principle is something which he does not know, while the conclusion and the intervening steps depend on what be does not know, how is it possible for such a harmony ever to become knowledge?”103

How then does the dialectician proceed? His object, we remember, is to apprehend the world of intelligibles, and the world of intelligibles is an organic system of mutually related Ideas, ascending by a perfectly graduated scale to the supreme Idea of Good, on which they all depend. Like the student of mathematics, the dialectician also starts from a hypothesis; but he does not treat his hypothesis as ultimate; on the contrary, to him it is something wholly provisional, only a stepping-stone (ϵ̓πίβασίς τϵ καὶ ὁρμή) to something higher. Hence no sooner is the hypothesis propounded, than he proceeds at once to test it by the conclusions to which it leads. “If these conclusions are untenable, the original hypothesis is cancelled or annulled (ἀναιρϵι̑ται),and a new suggestion takes its place, only to suffer the same fate. The process is repeated again and again, until at last we reach an ἀρχή or principle which will withstand every test.”104 The dialectician must not rest satisfied until, says Plato, “as it were in a battle, exhausting every weapon of refutation, striving to test his view not by that which seems, but by that which is, he comes safely to the end with reasoning that never stumbles.”105 “Thus each successive hypothesis serves as an additional step in the stair by which we ascend, and is useful to the dialectician just because he is willing to leave it and mount higher. In the completed dialectic which Plato adumbrates in Books VI. and VII., we are invited to suppose that the whole kingdom of knowables, in the spheres alike of Nature and of Man, has been surveyed and mapped out by this method.… The result is a number of true and irrefragable principles, apprehended not only in their mutual coherence and interdependence, but also in their relationship to the supreme Idea, which is itself, when we have climbed to the summit, no longer a hypothesis, but an ‘unhypothetical first principle,’ because the exhaustive scrutiny of all intelligibles has demonstrated that the Universe of thought and things derives all its reality from the Good.”106

In this summary description of Plato's dialectic there are one or two points that call for explanation and remark.

The first question which seems to suggest itself is this: What is the relation between the hypotheses of the dialectician and the Ideas? The answer would seem to be that, while the provisional, imperfect, or it may be wholly erroneous hypotheses which the dialectician has to discard, correspond only imperfectly or not at all to the Ideal Forms, those that finally survive, the “true and irrefragable principles” of which I have spoken, are perfect counterparts of the Ideas, provided, of course, that the dialectician has completed his ascent and finally adjusted them all in the light of the Good. They are subject to alteration and adjustment up to the last, like the changing figures of a landscape as we ascend a mountain.

In the second place, let us consider for a little the scientific value of this method of procedure by hypotheses. The essential condition of progress, according to Plato, is that we should be willing and eager to surrender our hypothesis as soon as it is proved inadequate. If we think of it, this is the principle on which any discussion or debate, having for its one and only object the discovery of truth, must necessarily be conducted. Just such a debate Plato intended the majority of his dialogues to represent; and throughout his writings we constantly meet with illustrations of the process which he calls τὸ ἀναιρϵι̑ν τὰς ὑποθϵ́σϵις, “the cancelling of hypotheses.”107 And if we take a wider survey, we shall see that the renunciation of hypotheses is a principle essential to progress in every department of human inquiry. In all our investigations, we begin with a collection of isolated facts, and frame a provisional generalisation or hypothesis to account for them; in the light of new facts our generalisation is found to be imperfect or erroneous, and we discard it in favour of another, and so on, our hypothesis increasing in range and content as the horizon of facts expands; but there is no finality, until the phenomena have all been collated and arranged. The moment we acquiesce in any hypothesis as final, we become dogmatists, no longer philosophers or “seekers after truth,” and progress is at an end. The history of investigation and discovery in whatever sphere of thought affords abundant evidence of this too frequently forgotten fact. On the one hand, the road by which science has always travelled is strewn with, nay rather is built out of the wrecks of premature generalisations. And, on the other hand, the periods of greatest stagnation in discovery have been those in which powerful organisations and commanding thinkers have become, as it were, themselves ultimate hypotheses beyond which speculation is unwilling or afraid to travel. The paralysing influence exerted upon the scientific life of the Middle Ages by the union of ecclesiasticism and Aristotelianism is a case in point. Both these hypotheses had to be discarded, or at least revised, in order that the Renaissance might begin. And so it must always be in the intellectual as in the moral progress alike of the individual and of the race—we must always “rise on stepping-stones of our dead selves to higher things.”

Plato speaks hopefully as though be believed it possible for his guardians to attain to a knowledge of the Good by the method which I have briefly indicated; but it is clear that his dialectic, like the objects which it seeks to comprehend, is in reality an Ideal. As such, it has a value of its own, because of its emphatic affirmation of the essential unity of knowledge, and as foreshadowing the general lines on which knowledge has subsequently advanced.

But so far as the individual investigator is concerned, two further considerations deserve to be taken into account. Inasmuch as, according to Plato, the human mind is akin to the divine, we may suppose that intuition comes to the aid of the analytical or discursive intellect which the dialectician employs throughout his investigations. And, further, Plato's doctrine of immortality contains the suggestion of a continuous growth in knowledge throughout successive lives, until the goal is at last attained. We read in the Phaedo that “the soul takes nothing with her into Hades except her education.”108

In conclusion, it may be well to indicate in a few sentences what would seem to have been the sum and substance of Plato's theory of immortality. He believed, I think, that except in the case of some whose crimes are unpardonable—men who have done irremediable wrong to their fellows—the soul that came forth from God returns to him again, after her wanderings are fulfilled and her purification accomplished. One might, perhaps, argue that such a reunion with the universal mind involves the absorption or transmutation of the individual self into the kind of cosmic consciousness which Euripides describes in the lines—

“Albeit the mind

Of the dead live not, deathless consciousness

Still hath it, when in deathless aether merged.”109

Our position on this matter will necessarily depend on the view we take of that which constitutes the “self” or “ego”; but it seems clear that Plato at least would have held that our essential personality is not extinguished by reunion with the divine; and it is noticeable that the conclusion which he draws from nearly all his attempted proofs of immortality in the Phaedo and elsewhere, has reference to the individual human soul, your soul and my soul. According to Plato, the true and essential “ego” is the rational and spiritual part of our nature, what he calls Nous;110 and he would consequently hold that we do not lose, but rather regain, our perfect individuality by union with the all-embracing, all-sustaining mind or spirit in which even now we live and move and have our being. Such, I conceive, is Plato's view of the ultimate destiny of the soul; and other philosophers have maintained a somewhat similar theory.111 In this way immortality, according to Plato, becomes the crown and consummation of the religious life.

  • 1.

    Met. A 6. 987a 29-b10.

  • 2.

    Rep. v. 476 A ff. Cf. Tim. 51 D ff.

  • 3.

    Professor Gomperz pronounces it “a monstrous supposition” that Plato should have been “misunderstood by Aristotle in regard to his principal doctrine” (Greek Thinkers iii. p. 328).

  • 4.

    Rep. x. 597 C.

  • 5.

    Cf. p. 433 ff.

  • 6.

    Parm. 132 D.

  • 7.

    Rep. x. 596 A ff. Cf. Crat. 389 A ff.

  • 8.

    The Two Voices.

  • 9.

    Phaed. 74 A ff.

  • 10.


  • 11.

    P. xxix.

  • 12.

    Crat. 386 E. Cf. p. 426.

  • 13.

    Matthew Arnold, A Summer Night

  • 14.

    The ὑπϵρουράνιος τόπος, Phaedr. 247 C.

  • 15.

    Phaedr. 246 A ff., esp. 250.

  • 16.

    Rep. vi. 500 E.

  • 17.

    Plato and Platonism p. 153.

  • 18.

    lb. p. 138.

  • 19.

    S. D. F. Salmond in Hastings' Dict. of the Bible, ii. p. 323b.

  • 20.

    Reading (with the MSS.)προσγϵομϵ́νη.

  • 21.

    Phaedo 100 B ff

  • 22.

    e.g. “Abide in Me, and I in you.”

  • 23.

    e.g. Phaed. 104 D.

  • 24.

    253 A.

  • 25.

    130 E ff.

  • 26.

    Chase, Credibility of the Acts p. 227.

  • 27.

    Confessions, tr. Bigg, i. c. iii.

  • 28.

    See Parma. 132 D.

  • 29.

    Met. A. 9. 991a21 f.

  • 30.

    Theaet 176 E al.

  • 31.

    2 Pet. i. 4; 1 Cor. i. 9; 1 John i. 3; Eph. iii. 6; Heb. vi. 4, iii. 1.

  • 32.

    St. John vi. 48, 56, xiv. 20; 1 John iv. 4; 1 Pet. iii. 15; Col. i. 27; Phil. ii. 13; Gal. ii. 20, iv. 19.

  • 33.

    i. 3. So in one of the Logia published in 1897 Jesus saith: “Raise the stone, and there thou shalt find Me; cleave the wood, and there am I.

  • 34.

    Inge, Christian Mysticism p. 47.

  • 35.

    Col. i. 16. Cf. Inge, l.c. p. 66.

  • 36.

    Vol. i. pp. 237-336.

  • 37.

    vi. 509 D.

  • 38.

    28 C.

  • 39.

    vi. 506 D ff.

  • 40.

    e.g. Tim. 40 A; Symp. 220 D.

  • 41.

    Nettleship's Lectures and Remains ii. p. 235 n. 2.

  • 42.

    iii. c. 12, § 4, tr. K. Hillard: cf. Purg. 7. 26 (1'alto Sol che tu disiri); Par. 9. 8, 76 al.

  • 43.

    Rep. vi. 508 A-D.

  • 44.

    vi. 509 B

  • 45.

    vi. 508 E.

  • 46.

    vi. 509 B

  • 47.

    1 Tim. vi. 16.

  • 48.

    Rep. vii. 540 A.

  • 49.

    See Met. A 7. 1072b14. Cf. Dante's account of the Deity (Par. 28. 41 f.): da quel punto Depende il cielo, e tutta la natura.

  • 50.

    x. 597 B.

  • 51.

    P. 76.

  • 52.

    29 A, E, 37 A. Throughout this paragraph I have closely followed Biehl, Die Idee des Guten p. 65.

  • 53.

    vii. 532 C.

  • 54.

    28 C.

  • 55.

    vi. 506 E.

  • 56.

    Eur. Troad. 885. Cf. Plato, Euthyphr. 12 A.

  • 57.

    vi, 511 B.

  • 58.

    28 C.

  • 59.

    Tim. 68 E al.

  • 60.

    vii. 517 C.

  • 61.

    x. 597 B.

  • 62.

    509 B.

  • 63.

    x. 597 E.

  • 64.

    509 D.

  • 65.

    vi. 506 E, 509 D.

  • 66.

    vii. 517 C.

  • 67.

    vii. 540 A.

  • 68.

    vii. 518 C, 526 E.

  • 69.

    vii. Cf. 525 A, 532 B, C, E, 540 A.

  • 70.

    See Phaedr. 245 C; Laws, x 895 E f.

  • 71.

    See Rep. x. 611 B.

  • 72.

    249 A.

  • 73.

    Phil. 22 C.

  • 74.

    See Par. 8. 97 ff., 24. 130 ff.

  • 75.

    Dante, Par. 8. 87, la 've ogni ben si termina e s' inizia.

  • 76.

    Eph. iv. 5.

  • 77.

    92 C.

  • 78.

    29 E.

  • 79.

    x. 903 B ff., tr. Jowett.

  • 80.

    v. 477 A ff.

  • 81.

    See Archer-Hind's Timaeus of Plato p. 92.

  • 82.

    ix. 571 A-580 A.

  • 83.

    vi. 505 E. Cf. Dante, Purg. 17. 127 ff. “Everyone confusedly apprehends a good in which the mind may be at rest, and which it desires; wherefore every one strives to attain it” (tr. Norton).

  • 84.

    Rom. viii. 22.

  • 85.

    vii. 540 A. Cf. p. 401 (ὁμοίωσις τῳ̑ θϵῳ̑).

  • 86.

    x. 906 A.

  • 87.

    Rep. v. 465 D.

  • 88.

    Rep. x. 621 C. Cf. p. 412.

  • 89.

    Phaed. 114 C.

  • 90.

    x. 903 B. Cf. 897 C.

  • 91.

    As Ackerman seems to suppose (Das christliche in Plato p. 320).

  • 92.

    176 A.

  • 93.

    viii. 21.

  • 94.

    vii. 516 A, B.

  • 95.

    i. 16.

  • 96.

    note ad loc.

  • 97.

    Convito ii. c. 6 (p. 76 of K. Hillard's translation). See also Paradiso 28. 98 ff.

  • 98.

    Convito ii. c. 4, pp. 65, 66 Eng. tr.

  • 99.

    Par. 28. 127 ff., tr. Norton.

  • 100.

    Phaedr. 270 C.

  • 101.

    81 C.

  • 102.

    Rep. vii. 537 C; Phaedr. 265 D ff.

  • 103.

    Rep. vii. 533 C.

  • 104.

    See my edition of the Republic of Plato, vol. ii. p. 176.

  • 105.

    Rep. vii. 534 C.

  • 106.

    See my edition of the Republic of Plato, vol. ii. p. 176.

  • 107.

    Ib. vol. ii. p. 177.

  • 108.

    107 D.

  • 109.

    See p. 309.

  • 110.

    Cf. Phaed. 64 A ff.

  • 111.

    See, e.g., Professor Royce's Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality.