"'Eagle! why soarest thou above that tomb?
To what sublime and starry-paven home
'I am the image of great Plato's spirit
Ascending heaven; Athens doth inherit
His corpse below.'"
"Out of Plato" says Ralph Waldo Emerson "come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought." All else seems ephemeral, perishing with the day. The science and mechanic arts of the present time, which are prosecuted with so much assiduity, are superficial and short-lived. When Doctor James Simpson succeeded his distinguished uncle at the University of Edinburgh, he directed the librarian to remove the text-books which were more than ten years old, as obsolete. The skilled inventions and processes in mechanism have hardly a longer duration. Those which were exhibited at the first World's Fair in 1851 are now generally gone out of use, and those displayed at the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876 are fast giving place to newer ones that serve the purposes better. All the science which is comprised within the purview of the senses, is in like manner, unstable and subject to transmutation. What appears today to be fundamental fact is very certain to be found, tomorrow, to be dependent upon something beyond. It is like the rustic's hypothesis that the earth stands upon a rock, and that upon another rock, and so on; there being rocks all the way down. But Philosophy, penetrating to the profounder truth and including the Over-Knowledge in its field, never grows old, never becomes out of date, but abides through the ages in perennial freshness.
The style and even the tenor of the Dialogues have been criticised, either from misapprehension of their purport or from a desire to disparage Plato himself. There is a vanity for being regarded as original, or as first to open the way into a new field of thought and investigation, which is sometimes as deep-seated as a cancer and about as difficult to eradicate. From this, however, Plato was entirely free. His personality is everywhere; veiled by his philosophy.
At the time when Plato flourished, the Grecian world had undergone great revolutions. The former times had passed away. Herakles and Theseus, the heroes of the Myths, were said to have vanquished the manslaying monsters of the worship of Hippa and Poseidon, or in other words supplanting the Pelasgian period by the Hellenic and Ionian. The arcane rites of Demeter had been softened and made to represent a drama of soul-history. The Tragedians had also modified and popularized the worship of Dionysos at the Theatre-Temple of Athens. Philosophy, first appearing in Ionia had come forth into bolder view, and planted itself upon the firm foundation of psychologic truth. Plato succeeded to all, to the Synthetists of the Mysteries, the Dramatists of the Stage, to Sokrates and those who had been philosophers before him.
Great as he was, he was the outcome of the best thought of his time. In a certain sense there has been no new religion. Every world-faith has come from older ones as the result of new inspiration, and Philosophy has its source in religious veneration. Plato himself recognized the archaic Wisdom-Religion as "the most unalloyed form of worship, to the Philosophy of which, in primitive ages, Zoroaster made many additions drawn from the Mysteries of the Chaldeans." When the Persian influence extended into Asia Minor, there sprung up philosophers in Ionia and Greece. The further progress of the religion of Mazda was arrested at Salamis, but the evangel of the Pure Thought, Pure Word, and Pure Deed was destined to permeate the Western World during the succeeding ages. Plato gave voice to it, and we find the marrow of the Oriental Wisdom in his dialectic. He seems to have joined the occult lore of the East, the conceptions of other teachers, and the under-meaning of the arcane rites, the physical and metaphysical learning of India and Asia, and wrought the whole into forms adapted to European comprehension.
His leading discourses, those which are most certainly genuine, are characterized by the inductive method. He displays a multitude of particulars for the purpose of inferring a general truth. He does not endeavor so much to implant his own conviction as to enable the hearer and reader to attain one intelligently, for themselves. He is in quest of principles, and leading the argument to that goal. Some of the Dialogues are described as after the manner of the Bacchic dithyrambic, spoken or chanted at the Theatre; others are transcripts of Philosophic conversations. Plato was not so much teaching as showing others how to learn.
His aim was to set forth the nature of man and the end of his being. The great questions of who, whence and whither, comprise what he endeavored to illustrate. Instead of dogmatic affirmation, the arbitrary ipse dixit of Pythagoras and his oath of secrecy, we have a friend, one like ourselves, familiarly and patiently leading us on to investigation as though we were doing it of our own accord. Arrogance and pedantic assumption were out of place in the Akademe.
The whole Platonic teaching is based upon the concept of Absolute Goodness. Plato was vividly conscious of the immense profundity of the subject. "To discover the Creator and Father of this universe, as well as his operation, is indeed difficult; and when discovered it is impossible to reveal him." In him Truth, Justice and the Beautiful are eternally one. Hence the idea of the Good is the highest branch of study.
There is a criterion by which to know the truth, and Plato sought it out. The perceptions of sense fail utterly to furnish it. The law of right for example, is not the law of the strongest, but what is always expedient for the strongest. The criterion is therefore no less than the conceptions innate in every human soul. These relate to that which is true, because it is ever-abiding. What is true is always right — right and therefore supreme: eternal and therefore always good. In its inmost essence it is Being itself; in its form by which we are able to contemplate it, it is justice and virtue in the concepts of essence, power and energy.
These concepts are in every human soul and determine all forms of our thought. We encounter them in our most common experiences and recognize them as universal principles, infinite and absolute. However latent and dormant they may seem, they are ready to be aroused, and they enable us to distinguish spontaneously the wrong from the right. They are memories, we are assured, that belong to our inmost being, and to the eternal world. They accompanied the soul into this region of time, of ever-becoming and of sense. The soul, therefore, or rather its inmost spirit or intellect, (1) is of and from eternity. It is not so much an inhabitant of the world of nature as a sojourner from the eternal region. Its trend and ulterior destination are accordingly toward the beginning from which it originally set out.
The Vision of Eros in the tenth book of the Republic suggests the archaic conception generally entertained that human beings dying from the earth are presently born into new forms of existence, till the three Weird Sisters shall have finished their task and the circle of Necessity is completed. The events of each succeeding term of life take a direction from what has occurred before. Much may be imputed to heredity, but not all. This is implied in the question of the disciples to Jesus: "Which sinned, this person or his parents, that he should be born blind." We all are conscious of some occurrence or experience that seems to pertain to a former term of life. It appears to us as if we had witnessed scenes before, which must be some recollection, except it be a remembrance inherited from ancestors, or some spiritual essence has transferred it as from a camera obscura into our consciousness. We may account it certain, at any rate, that we are inhabitants of eternity, and of that eternity Time is as a colonial possession and distinct allotment.
Every thing pertaining to this world of time and sense, is constantly changing, and whatever it discloses to us is illusive. The laws and reasons of things must be found out elsewhere. We must search in the world which is beyond appearances, beyond sensation and its illusions. There are in all minds certain qualities or principles which underlie our faculty of knowing. These principles are older than experience, for they govern it; and while they combine more or less with our observations, they are superior and universal, and they are apprehended by us as infinite and absolute. They are our memories of the life of the eternal world, and it is the province of the philosophic discipline to call them into activity as the ideals of goodness and truth and beauty, and thus awaken the soul to the cognizing of God.
This doctrine of ideas or idealities lies at the foundation of the Platonic teachings. It assumes first of all, the presence and operation of the Supreme Intelligence, an essence which transcends and contains the principles of goodness, truth, and order. Every form or ideal, every relation and every principle of right must be ever present to the Divine Thought. Creation in all its details is necessarily the image and manifestation of these ideas. "That which imparts truth to knowable things," says Plato, "that which gives to the knower the power of knowing the truth, is the Idea of the Good, and you are to conceive of this as the Source of knowledge and truth."
A cognition of the phenomena of the universe may not be considered as a real knowing. We must perceive that which is stable and unchanging, — that which really is. It is not enough to be able to regard what is beautiful and contemplate right conduct. The philosopher, the lover of wisdom, looks beyond these to the Actual Beauty, — to righteousness itself. This is the episteme of Plato, the superior, transcendent knowing. This knowledge is actual participating in the eternal principles themselves — the possessing of them as elements of our own being.
Upon this, Plato bases the doctrine of our immortality. These principles, the ideals of truth, beauty and goodness are eternal, and those who possess them are ever-living. The learning of them is simply the bringing of them into conscious remembrance. (2)
In regard to Evil, Plato did not consider it as inherent in human nature. "Nobody is willingly evil," he declares; "but when any one does evil it is only as the imagined means to some good end. But in the nature of things, there must always be a something contrary to good. It cannot have its seat with the gods, being utterly opposed to them, and so of necessity hovers round this finite mortal nature, and this region of time and ever-changing. Wherefore," he declares, "we ought to fly hence." He does not mean that we ought to hasten to die, for he taught that nobody could escape from evil or eliminate it from himself by dying. This flight is effected by resembling God as much as is possible; "and this resemblance consists in becoming just and holy through wisdom." There is no divine anger or favor to be propitiated; nothing else than a becoming like the One, absolutely good.
When Eutyphron explained that whatever is pleasing to the gods is holy, and that that which is hateful to them is impious, Sokrates appealed to the statements of the Poets, that there were angry differences between the gods, so that the things and persons that were acceptable to some of them were hateful to the others. Everything holy and sacred must also be just. Thus he suggested a criterion to determine the matter, to which every god in the Pantheon must be subject. They were subordinate beings, and as is elsewhere taught, are younger than the Demiurgus.
No survey of the teachings of the Akademe, though only intended to be partial, will be satisfactory which omits a mention of the Platonic Love. Yet it is essential to regard the subject philosophically. For various reasons our philosopher speaks much in metaphor, and they who construe his language in literal senses will often err. His Banquet is a symposium of thought, and in no proper sense a drinking bout. He is always moral, and when in his discourse he begins familiarly with things as they existed around him, it was with a direct purpose to lead up to what they are when absolutely right. Love, therefore, which is recognized as a complacency and attraction between human beings, he declares to be unprolific of higher intellect. It is his aim to exalt it to an aspiration for the higher and better. The mania or inspiration of Love is the greatest of Heaven's blessings, he declares, and it is given for the sake of producing the greatest blessedness. "What is Love?" asked Sokrates of the God-honored Mantineke. "He is a great daemon," she replies, "and, like all daemons, is intermediate between Divinity and mortal. He interprets between gods and men, conveying to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods. He is the mediator who spans the chasm that divides them; in him all is bound together and through him the arts of the prophet and priest, their sacrifices and initiations and charms, and all prophecy and incantation find their way. For God mingles not with men, but through Love all the intercourse and speech of God with men, whether awake or asleep, is carried on. The wisdom which understands this is spiritual; all other wisdom, such as that of arts or handicrafts, is mean and vulgar. Now these spiritual essences or intermediaries are many and diverse, and one of them is Love."
It is manifest then, that Plato emulates no mere physical attraction, no passionless friendship, but an ardent, amorous quest of the Soul for the Good and the True. It surpasses the former as the sky exceeds the earth. Plato describes it in glowing terms: "We, having been initiated and admitted to the beatific vision, journeyed with the chorus of heaven; beholding ravishing beauties ineffable and possessing transcendent knowledge; for we were freed from the contamination of that earth to which we are bound here, as an oyster to his shell."
In short, goodness was the foundation of his ethics, and a divine intuition the core of all his doctrines.
When, however, we seek after detail and formula for a religious or philosophic system, Plato fails us. Herein each must minister to himself. The Akademe comprised method rather than system; how to know the truth, what fields to explore, what tortuous paths and pitfalls to shun. Every one is left free in heart and mind to deduce his own conclusions. It is the Truth, and not Plato or any other teacher, that makes us free. And we are free only in so far as we perceive the Supernal Beauty and apprehend the Good.
1. Plato taught that the amative or passional soul was not immortal. (return to text)
2. Professor Cocker has given a classification of the Platonic Scheme of Ideas, of which this is an abridgment.
I. The Idea of Absolute Truth. This is developed in the human intelligence in its relation with the phenomenal world, as 1, the Idea of Substance; 2, the Idea of Cause; 3, the Idea of Identity; 4, the Idea of Unity; 5, the Idea of the Infinite.
II. The Idea of Absolute Beauty or Excellence. This is developed in the human intelligence in its relation to the organic world, as 1, the Idea of Proportion or Symmetry; 2, the Idea of Determinate Form; 3, the Idea of Rhythm; 4, the Idea of Fitness or Adaptation; 5, the Idea of Perfection.
III. The Idea of Absolute Good — the first cause or reason of all existence, the sun of the invisible world that pours upon all things the revealing light of truth. This idea is developed in the human intelligence in its relation to the world of moral order, as 1, the Idea of Wisdom or Prudence; 2, the Idea of Courage or Fortitude; 3, the Idea of Self-Control or Temperance; 4, the Idea of Justice. Under the head of justice is included equity, veracity, faithfulness, usefulness, benevolence and holiness. (return to text)