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The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Selections Annotated and Explained by Malaspina Great Books Web Editor Russell McNeil PhD
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:
Selections Annotated and Explained

Russell McNeil, PhD
Editor, Malaspina Great Books

In 1862 the English literary critic and poet Matthew Arnold described Marcus Aurelius as "the most beautiful figure in history." The Stoicism of Aurelius is grounded in rationality and rests solidly on an ethical approach rooted in nature. Stoicism promises real happiness and joy in this life and a serenity that can never be soured by personal misfortune. This philosophy has universal appeal with practical implications on problems ranging from climate change and terrorism to the personal management of sickness, aging, depression and addiction. I truly believe that the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius has much to offer us now...(Click on book cover for more)

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Plato (born in Athens about 427 BC, died about 347 BC) was an immensely influential classical Greek philosopher, student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. His most famous work is The Republic in which he outlines the ideal state. He is also well known for Laws and his many dialogues featuring Socrates. He founded the Academy, one of the earliest known organized schools in Western civilization, named after the spot it was founded on, holy to the hero Academus. He also began the discussion of Atlantis by mentioning it in his Timaeus and Critias.

Plato was an aristocrat decended from a moderately well-off family. His ancestor, Glaucon (not to be confused with his older brother Glaucon and a character in The Republic), was one of the best-known members of the Athenian aristocracy. Unlike his teacher Socrates, Plato wrote down his philosophical views and left a considerable number of manuscripts (see below).

Plato was deeply influenced by the Pythagoreans, whose notions of numerical harmony have clear echos in Plato's notion of the Forms (sometimes thus capitalized); see below. In Plato's writings, many centuries before Copernicus and Galileo, one finds the heliocentric theory of the universe. One finds debates concerning republican and democratic forms of government, long before the founding fathers of America formed their republic. One finds debates concerning the role of heredity and environment in human intelligence and personality long before the publication of "The Bell Curve" or the formation of Human Genome Project or the discovery that schizophrenia has a genetic basis. One finds arguments for the subjectivity--and the objectivity--of human knowledge which foreshadow modern debates between Hume and Kant, or between the postmodernists and their opponents.

One of Plato's legacies, and perhaps his greatest, was his dualistic metaphysics, often called (in metaphysics) simply realism or Platonism. Whatever it is called, Plato's metaphysics divides the world into two distinct aspects: the intelligible world of forms and the perceptual world we see around us. He saw the perceptual world, and the things in it, as imperfect copies of the intelligible forms or ideas. These forms are unchangable and perfect, and are only comprehensible by the use of the intellect or understanding (i.e., a capacity of the mind that does not include sense-perception or imagination).

In The Republic, Books VI and VII, Plato used a number of metaphors to explain his metaphysical views: the metaphor of the sun, the well-known allegory of the cave, and most explicitly, the divided line. Taken together, these metaphors convey a complex and, in places, difficult theory: there is something called The Form of the Good (often interpreted as Plato's God), which is the ultimate object of knowledge and which as it were sheds light on all the other forms (i.e., universals: abstract kinds and attributes) and from which all other forms "emanate." The Form of the Good does this in somewhat the same way as the sun sheds light on, or makes visible and "generates," things in the perceptual world. But indeed, in the perceptual world, the particular objects we see around us bear only a dim resemblance to the more ultimately real forms of Plato's intelligible world: it is as if we are seeing shadows of cut-out shapes on the walls of a cave, which are mere representations of the reality outside the cave, illuminated by the sun. We can imagine everything in the universe represented on a line of increasing reality; it is divided once in the middle, and then once again in each of the resulting parts. The first division represents that between the intelligible and the perceptual worlds. Then there is a corresponding division in each of these worlds: the segment representing the perceptual world is divided into segments representing "real things" on the one hand, and shadows, reflections, and representations on the other. Similarly, the segment representing the intelligible world is divided into segments representing first principles and most general forms, on the one hand, and more derivative, "reflected" forms, on the other. (See the divided line of Plato.)

Plato's metaphysics, and particularly the dualism between the intelligible and the perceptual, would inspire later Neoplatonic thinkers (see Plotinus) and Gnosticism) and other metaphysical realists. For more on Platonic realism in general, see Platonic realism and the Forms.

Plato's thought is often compared with that of his best and most famous student, Aristotle, whose reputation during the Middle Ages so completely eclipsed that of Plato that the Scholastic philosophers referred to Aristotle as "the Philosopher." One of the characteristics of the Middle Ages was reliance on authority and on scholastic commentaries on writings of Plato and other historically important philosophers, rather than accessing their original works. In fact, Plato's original writings were essentially lost to western civilization until their reintroduction in the twelfth century through the agency of Arab scholars who had maintained the original Greek texts of the ancients. These were eventually translated into Latin and later, into the local vernacular. Only in the Renaissance, with the general resurgence of interest in classical civilization, did knowledge of Plato's philosophy become more widespread. Many of the greatest early modern scientists (e.g., Galileo) and artists (with the support of the Plato-inspired Lorenzo de Medici) who broke with Scholasticism and fostered the flowering of the Renaissance saw Plato's philosophy as the basis for progress in the arts and sciences. Today, Plato's reputation is as easily on a par with Aristotle's. Many college students have read Plato but not Aristotle, in large part because the former's greater accessibility.

A work is marked (1) if it is not generally agreed by scholars that Plato is the author of the work. A work is marked (2) if it is generally agreed by scholars that Plato is not the author of the work.
  • Euthyphro
  • Apology
  • Crito
  • Phaedo
  • Cratylus
  • Theaetetus
  • Sophist
  • Statesman
  • Parmenides
  • Philebus
  • Symposium
  • Phaedrus
  • Alcibiades (1)
  • Second Alcibiades (2)
  • Hipparchus (2)
  • Rival Lovers (2)
  • Theages (2)
  • Charmides
  • Laches
  • Lysis
  • Euthydemus
  • Protagoras
  • Gorgias
  • Meno
  • Greater Hippias (1)
  • Lesser Hippias
  • Ion
  • Menexenus
  • Clitophon (1)
  • Republic
  • Timaeus
  • Critias
  • Minos (2)
  • Laws
  • Epinomis (2)
  • Letters
  • Definitions (2)
  • On Justice (2)
  • On Virtue (2)
  • Demodocus (2)
  • Sisyphus (2)
  • Halcyon (2)
  • Eryxias (2)
  • Axiochus (2)
  • Epigrams
Plato's metaphor of the sun

Plato, in The Republic (507b-509c) uses the sun as a metaphor for the source of "intellectual illumination," which he held to be The Form of the Good?, which is sometimes interpreted as Plato's notion of God. The metaphor is basically about the nature of ultimate reality and how we come to know it. (Socrates is the speaker of The Republic, but it is generally believed that the thoughts expressed are Plato's.)

The eye, Plato says, is unusual among the sense organs in that it needs a medium, namely light, in order to operate. The strongest and best source of light is the sun; with it, we can discern objects clearly. Analogous things, he writes, can be said of intelligible objects (i.e., the fixed and eternal forms that are the ultimate objects of scientific and philosophical study):

When [the soul] is firmly fixed on the domain where truth and reality shine resplendent it apprehends and knows them and appears to possess reason, but when it inclines to that region which is mingled with darkness, the world of becoming and passing away, it opines only and its edge is blunted, and it shifts its opinions hither and thither, and again seems as if it lacked reason. (The Republic bk. VI, 508d; trans. Paul Shorey) By "the world of becoming and passing away" Plato means the familiar visual or perceptual world we see around us. Thus if we attempt to understand why things are as they are, and what general categories can be used to understand various particulars around us, without reference to any forms (universals), we will fail completely, as if [we] lacked reason. By contrast, "the domain where truth and reality shine resplendent" is none other than Plato's world of forms--illuminated by the highest of the forms, that of the Good. Since true being resides in the world of the forms, we must direct our intellects there to have knowledge, on Plato's view; otherwise, we are stuck with mere opinion of what may be likened to passing shadows. Plato also says the sun and the Good ("the object of knowledge") are both sources of "generation":

The sun ... not only furnishes to visibles the power of visibility but it also provides for their generation and growth and nurture though it is not itself generation. ... In like manner, then ... the objects of knowledge not only receive from the presence of the good their being known, but their very existence and essence is derived to them from it, though the good itself is not essence but still transcends essence in dignity and surpassing power. (509b)

This is one of the passages that leads some to infer that the Good is, for Plato, God, though there is some dispute about this point. Many modern readers will find it puzzling that one and the same thing is called the Good, the source of being (the being of the forms, at least), something that (somehow) sheds light on all other forms, and a universal. Indeed, exactly how it is Plato thinks "very existence and essence is derived to [the forms] from" the Good is a matter of considerable interpretive difficulty.

This doctrine conveyed by the metaphor of the sun is, incidentally, an excellent example of how, traditionally, the subjects of metaphysics and epistemology have been closely intertwined: accounts of what exists, at a fundamental level, often deeply inform (and are informed by) accounts of ways or kinds of knowing. It also neatly sums up two views for which Plato is well-known: his rationalism and his realism (about universals). Plato goes on to describe the levels of reality and knowledge with the device of the so-called "divided line" (509d-513e). Immediately afterwards, at the beginning of Book VII, the same doctrine is elaborated using the famous allegory of the cave (514a-520a).

Divided Line

Plato, in The Republic Book IV (509d-513e), uses the literary device of a divided line to teach his basic views about four levels of existence (especially "the intelligible" world of the forms, universals, and "the visible" world we see around us) and the corresponding ways we come to know what exists.

Plato asks us to imagine a line divided into two parts. The larger part (segment CE) represents the intelligible world and the smaller (segment AC), the visible world. Then, he says, imagine each part of the line further divided. As it turns out, the divisions in the segment for the intelligible world represent higher (DE) and lower (CD) forms, respectively. Moreover, the divisions in the segment for the visible world represent ordinary visible objects (BC), on the one hand, and their shadows, reflections, and other representations (AB), on the other. To clarify the basic metaphor, the reader could do far worse than to turn to the text itself. In the following passage, Socrates, who is made to be the narrator, is the first speaker, and he speaks for Plato; Glaucon, Plato's older brother, is represented as Socrates' pupil:

You surely apprehend the two types, the visible and the intelligible. I do. Represent them then, as it were, by a line divided into two unequal sections and cut each section again in the same ratio--the section, that is, of the visible and that of the intelligible order--and then as an expression of the ratio of their comparative clearness and obscurity you will have, as one of the sections of the visible world, images. By images I mean, first, shadows, and then reflections in water and on surfaces of dense, smooth, and bright texture, and everything of that kind, if you apprehend. I do. As the second section assume that of which this is a likeness or an image, that is, the animals about us and all plants and the whole class of objects made by man. I so assume it, he said. Would you be willing to say, said I, that the division in respect of reality and truth or the opposite is expressed by the proportion--as is the opinable to the knowable so is the likeness to that of which it is a likeness? I certainly would. Consider then again the way in which we are to make the division of the intelligible section. In what way? By the distinction that there is one section of it which the soul is compelled to investigate by treating as images the things imitated in the former division, and by means of assumptions from which it proceeds not up to a first principle but down to a conclusion, while there is another section in which it advances from its assumption to a beginning or principle that transcends assumption, and in which it makes no use of the images employed by the other section, relying on ideas only and progressing systematically through ideas. (The Republic bk. VI, 509d-510b; trans. Paul Shorey)

It is important to note that the line segments are said to be unequal: the proportions of their lengths is said to represent "their comparative clearness and obscurity" and their comparative "reality and truth," as well as whether we have knowledge or instead mere opinion of the objects. Hence, we are said to have relatively clear knowledge of something that is more real and "true" when we attend to ordinary perceptual objects like rocks and trees; by comparison, if we merely attend to their shadows and reflections, we have relatively obscure opinion of something not quite real. Plato uses this familiar relationship, between ordinary objects and their representations or images, in order to illustrate the relationship between the visual world as a whole (visual objects and their images) and the world of forms as a whole. The former is made up of a series of passing, particular reflections of the latter, which is eternal, more real and "true." Moreover, the knowledge that we have of the forms--when indeed we do have it--is of a higher order than knowledge of the mere particulars in the perceptual world. Consider next the difference between the two parts of the intelligible world, represented by segments CD and DE. Plato's discussion of this is apt to seem obscure. The basic idea is that the lower forms (represented by CD) are the real items of which the ordinary particular objects around us are merely reflections or images. The higher forms, by contrast--of which the so-called Form of the Good is the "highest"--are known only by what has come to be called a priori reasoning, so that strictly speaking, knowledge of them does not depend upon experience of particulars or even on ideas (forms) of perceptually-known particulars. This can be explained a bit further. In geometry and arithmetic, we often use particular figures to fix our ideas and make demonstrations clear. Moreover, in these sciences, we make certain postulates and draw conclusions that are only as trustworthy as the postulates. By contrast, the intelligible is "that which the reason itself," rather than image-assisted imagination, lays hold of of by the power of dialectic, treating its assumptions not as absolute beginnings but literally as hypotheses, underpinnings, footings, and springboards so to speak, to enable it to rise to that which requires no assumption and is the starting point of all, and after attaining to that again taking hold of the first dependencies from it, so to proceed downward to the conclusion, making no use whatever of any object of sense but only of pure ideas moving on through ideas to ideas and ending with ideas. (511b-c)

What all this might mean is essentially to ask, "What are the details of Plato's rationalism?" The reference to and idolization of "pure ideas," as well as deduction as it were without assumptions (or with one grand assumption or principle, as The Form of the Good is sometimes portrayed), is something reflected again and again in later rationalists. The above text finds later echoes in Descartes' interest in pure, a priori deduction and Kant's transcendental arguments. Plato explicitly names four sorts of cognition associated with each level of being:

[A]nswering to these four sections, assume these four affections occuring in the soul--intellection or reason (noesis) for the highest, understanding (dianoia) for the second, belief (pistis) for the third, and for the last, picture thinking or conjecture (eikasia)--and arrange them in a proportion, considering that they participate in clearness and precision in the same degree as their objects partake of truth and reality. (511d-e)

Not too much weight should be put on the English (or Greek) meanings of the words here, however. Any significant meaning that these words have, when used as technical terms for Plato, needs to be informed by the metaphysical and epistemological edifice that supports them.

Allegory of the Cave

Plato's allegory of the cave is perhaps the best-known of his many metaphors, allegories, and myths. The allegory is told and interpreted at the beginning of Book VII of The Republic (514a-520a). The allegory is probably best presented as a story, and then interpreted--as Plato himself does.

Imagine prisoners chained since childhood deep inside a cave. Not only are their limbs immobilized by the chains, their heads are as well so that their eyes are fixed on a wall. Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way, along which men carry shapes of various animals, plants, and other things. The shapes cast shadows on the wall, which occupy the prisoners' attention. Also, when one of the shape-carriers speaks, an echo against the wall causes the prisoners to believe that the words come from the shadows. The prisoners engage in what appears to us to be a game--naming the shapes as they come by. This, however, is the only reality that they know, even though they are seeing merely shadows of images.

Suppose a prisoner is released and compelled to stand up and turn around. His eyes will be blinded by the firelight, and the shapes passing will appear less real than their shadows. Similarly, if he is dragged up out of the cave into the sunlight, his eyes will be so blinded that he will not be able to see anything. At first, he will be able to see darker shapes such as shadows, and only later brighter and brighter objects. The last object he would be able to see is the sun, which, in time, he would learn to see as that this it is that provides the seasons and the courses of the year and presides over all things in the visible region, and is in some sort the cause of all these things that they had seen. (The Republic bk. VII, 516b-c; trans. Paul Shorey) This part of the allegory, incidentally, closely matches Plato's metaphor of the sun which occurs near the end of The Republic Book VI.

Once thus enlightened, so to speak, the freed prisoner would no doubt want to return to the cave to free "his fellow bondsmen." The problem however is that they would not want to be freed: descending back into the cave would require that the freed prisoner's eyes adjust again, and for a time, he would be inferior at the ludicrous process of identifying shapes on the wall. This would make his fellow prisoners murderous toward anyone who attempted to free them.

Not content with mere suggestion, Plato interprets the allegory (beginning at 517b): "This image then [the allegory of the cave] we must apply as a whole to all that has been said"--i.e., it can be used to interpret the preceding several pages, which concern the metaphor of the sun and the divided line. In particular, Plato likens "the region revealed through sight," i.e., the ordinary objects we see around us:

to the habitation of the prison, and the light of the fire in it to the power of the sun. And if you assume the ascent and the contemplation of the things above is the soul's ascension to the intelligible region, you will not miss my surmise... . [M]y dream as it appears to me is that in the region of the known the last thing to be seen and hardly seen is the idea of good, and that when seen it must needs point us to the conclusion that this is indeed the cause for all things of all that is right and beautiful, giving birth in the visible world to light, and the author of light and itself in the intelligible world being the authentic source of truth and reason... . (517b-c)

The brilliant sun outside the cave represents the Form of the Good, and this passage among others can easily give the impression that Plato regarded this as a creative god. Ordinarily we are held captive, viewing mere shadows of particular shapes that are themselves not even the genuine article--which can only be found "outside the cave," in an intelligible world of forms known by reason, not (relatively "dim") perception. Moreover, after "returning from divine contemplations to the petty miseries of men," one is apt to cut "a sorry figure" if,

while still blinking through the gloom, and before he has become sufficiently accustomed to the environing darkness, he is compelled in courtrooms or elsewhere to contend about the shadows of justice or the images that cast the shadows and to wrangle in debate about the notions of these things in the minds of those who have never seen justice itself? (517d-e)

Plato could, perhaps, be thinking (or subtly reminding the reader) of the trial of Socrates here. It might appear strange that, while acknowledging the political ineptness of one "returning from divine contemplations," Plato has all the while been describing the ideal state, ruled by philosopher-kings, a qualification of which is that they are in regular intercourse with the Form of the Good.

Detailed Biography

Plato (Platon, "the broad shouldered") was born at Athens in 428 or 427 B.C. He came of an aristocratic and wealthy family, although some writers represented him as having felt the stress of poverty. Doubtless he profited by the educational facilities afforded young men of his class at Athens. When about twenty years old he met Socrates, and the intercourse, which lasted eight or ten years, between master and pupil was the decisive influence in Plato's philosophical career. Before meeting Socrates he had, very likely, developed an interest in the earlier philosophers, and in schemes for the betterment of political conditions at Athens. At an early age he devoted himself to poetry. All these interests, however, were absorbed in the pursuit of wisdom to which, under the guidance of Socrates, he ardently devoted himself. After the death of Socrates he joined a group of the Socratic disciples gathered at Megara under the leadership of Euclid. Later he tra<>velled in Egypt, Magna Graecia, and Sicily. His profit from these journeys has been exagerrated by some biographers. There can, however, be no doubt that in Italy he studied the doctrines of the Pythagoreans. His three journeys to Sicily were, apparently, to influence the older and younger Dionysius in favor of his ideal system of government. But in this he failed, incurring the enmity of the two rulers, was cast into prison, and sold as a slave. Ransomed by a friend, he returned to his school of philosophy at Athens. This differed from the Socratic School in many respects. It had a definite location in the groves near the gymnasium of Academus, its tone was more refined, more attention was given to literary form, and there was less indulgence in the odd, and even vulgar method of illustration which characterized the Socratic manner of exposition. After his return from his third journey to Sicily, he devoted himself unremittingly to writing and teaching until his eightieth year, when, as Cicero tells us, he died in the midst of his intellectual labors ("scribens est mortuus") ("De Senect.", v, 13).

WORKS


It is practically certain that all Plato's genuine works have come down to us. The lost works ascribed to him, such as the "Divisions" and the "Unwritten Doctrines", are certainly not genuine. Of the thirty-six dialogues, some -- the "Phaedrus", "Protagoras", "Phaedo", "The Republic", "The Banquet", etc. -- are undoubtedly genuine; others -- e.g. the "Minos", -- may with equal certainty be considered spurious; while still a third group -- the "Ion", "Greater Hippias", and "First Alcibiades" -- is of doubtful authenticity. In all his writings, Plato uses the dialogue with a skill never since equalled. That form permitted him to develop the Socratic method of question and answer. For, while Plato elaborated to a high degree the faculty by which the abstract is understood and presented, he was Greek enough to follow the artistic instinct in teaching by means of a clear-cut concrete type of philosophical excellence. The use of the myth in the dialogues has occaisioned considerable difficulty to the commentators and critics. When we try to put a value on the content of a Platonic myth, we are often baffled by the suspicion that it is all meant to be subtly ironical, or that it is introduced to cover up the inherent contradictions of Plato's thought. In any case, the myth should never be taken too seriously or invoked as an evidence of what Plato really believed.

PHILOSOPHY
(1) The Starting Point

The immediate starting-point of Plato's philosophical speculation was the Socratic teaching. In his attempt to define the conditions of knowledge so as to refute sophistic scepticism, Socrates had taught that the only true knowledge is a knowledge by means of concepts. The concept, he said, represents all the reality of a thing. As used by Socrates, this was merely a principle of knowledge. It was taken up by Plato as a principle of Being. If the concept represents all the reality of things, the reality must be something in the ideal order, not necessarily in the things themselves, but rather above them, in a world by itself. For the concept, therefore, Plato substitutes the Idea. He completes the work of Socrates by teaching that the objectively real Ideas are the foundation and justification of scientific knowledge. At the same time he has in mind a problem which claimed much attention from pre-Socratic thinkers, the problem of change. The Eleatics, following Parmenides, held that there is no real change or multiplicity in the world, that reality is one. Heracltus, on the contrary, regarding motion and multiplicity as real, maintained that permanence is only apparent. The Platonic theory of Ideas is an attempt to solve this crucial question by a metaphysical compromise. The Eleatics, Plato said, are right in maintaining that reality does not change; for the ideas are immutable. Still, there is, as Heraclitus contended, change in the world of our experience, or, as Plato terms it, the world of phenomena. Plato, then, supposes a world of Ideas apart from the world of our experience, and immeasurably superior to it. He imagines that all human souls dwelt at one time in that higher world. When, therefore, we behold in the shadow-world around us a phenomenon or appearance of anything, the mind is moved to a remembrance of the Idea (of that same phenomenal thing) which it formerly contemplated. In its delight it wonders at the contrast, and by wonder is led to recall as perfectly as possible the intuition it enjoyed in a previous existence. This is the task of philosophy. Philosophy, therefore, consists in the effort to rise from the knowledge of phenomena, or appearances, to the noumena, or realities. Of all the ideas, however, the Idea of the beautiful shines out through the phenomenal veil more clearly than any other; hence the beginning of all philosophical activity is the love and admiration of the Beautiful.

(2) Division of Philosophy

The different parts of philosophy are not distinguished by Plato with the same formal precision found in Aristotelean, and post-Aristotelean systems. We may, however, for convenience, distinguish:
  • Dialectic, the science of the Idea in itself;
  • Physics, the knowledge of the Idea as incorporated or incarnated in the world of phenomena, and
  • Ethics and Theory of the State, or the science of the Idea embodied in human conduct and human society.
(a) Dialectic

This is to be understood as synonymous not with logic but with metaphysics. It signifies the science of the Idea, the science of reality, science in the only true sense of the word. For the ideas are the only realities in the world. We observe, for instance, just actions, and we know that some men are just. But both in the actions and in the persons designated as just there exist many imperfections; they are only partly just. In the world above us there exits justice, absolute, perfect, unmixed with injustice, eternal, unchangeable, immortal. This is the Idea of justice. Similarly, in that world above us there exist the Ideas of greatness, goodness, beauty, wisdom, etc. and not only these, but also the Ideas of concrete material objects such as the Idea of man, the idea of horse, the Idea of trees, etc. In a word, the world of Ideas is a counterpart of the world of our experience, or rather, the latter is a feeble imitation of the former. The ideas are the prototypes, the phenomena are ectypes. In the allegory of the cave (Republic, VII, 514 d) a race of men are described as chained in a fixed position in a cavern, able to look only at the wall in front of them. When an animal, e.g. a horse, passes in front of the cave, they, beholding the shadow on the wall, imagine it to be a reality, and while in prison they know of no other reality. When they are released and go into the light they are dazzled, but when they succeed in distinguishing a horse among the objects around them, their first impulse is to take that for a shadow of the being which they saw on the wall. The prisoners are "like ourselves", says Plato. The world of our experience, which we take to be real, is only a shadow world. The real world is the world of Ideas, which we reach, not by sense-knowledge, but by intuitive contemplation. The Ideas are participated by the phenomena; but how this participation takes place, and in what sense the phenomena are imitations of the Ideas, Plato does not fully explain; at most he invokes a negative principle, sometimes called "Platonic Matter", to account for the falling-off of the phenomena from the perfection of the Idea. The limitating principle is the cause of all defects, decay, and change in the world around us. The just man, for instance, falls short of absolute justice (the Idea of Justice), because in men the Idea of justice is fragmented, debased, and reduced by the principle of limiation. Towards the end of his life, Plato leaned more and more towards the Pythagorean number-theory, and, in the "Timaeus" especially, he is inclined to interpret the Ideas in terms of mathematics. His followers emphasized this element unduly, and, in the course of neo-Platonic speculation, the ideas were identified with numbers. There was much in the theory of Ideas that appealed to the first Christian philosophers. The emphatic affirmation of a supermundane, spiritual order of reality and the equally emphatic assertion of the caducity of things material fitted in with the essentially Christian contention that spiritual interests are supreme. To render the world of Ideas more acceptable to Christians, the Patristic Platonists from Justin Martyr to St. Augustine maintained that the world exists in the mind of God, and that this was what Plato meant. On the other hand, Aristotle understood Plato to refer to a world of Ideas self-subsisting and separate. Instead, therefore, of picturing to ourselves the world of Ideas as existing in God, we should represent God as existing in the world of Ideas. For, among the Ideas, the hierarchical supremacy is attributed to the Idea of God, or absolute Goodness, which is said to be for the supercelestial universe what the sun in the heavens is for this terrestrial world of ours.

(b) Physics

The Idea, incorporated, so to speak, in the phenomenon is less real than the Idea in its own world, or than the Idea embodied in human conduct and human society. Physics, i.e., the knowledge of the Idea in phenomena, is, therefore, inferior in dignity and importance to Dialectic and Ethics. In fact, the world of phenomena has no scientific interest for Plato. The knowledge of it is not true knowledge, nor the source, but only the occaision of true knowledge. The phenomena stimulate our minds to a recollection of the intuition of Ideas, and with that intuition scientific knowledge begins. Moreover, Plato's interest in nature is dominated by a teleological view of the world as animated with a World-Soul, which, conscious of its process, does all things for a useful purpose, or, rather, for "the best", morally, intellectually, and aesthetically. This cnviction is apparent especially in the Platonic account of the origin of the universe, contained in the "Timaeus", although the details regarding the activity of the demiurgos and the created gods should not, perhaps, be taken seriously. Similarly, the account of the origin of the soul, in the same dialogue, is a combination of philosophy and myth, in which it is not easy to distinguish the one from the other. It is claer, however, that Plato holds the spiritual nature of the soul as against the materialistic Atomists, and that he believes the soul to have existed before its union with the body. The whole theory of Ideas, in so far, at least, as it is applied to human knowledge, presupposes the doctrine of pre-existence. "All knowledge is recollection" has no meaning except in the hypothesis of the soul's pre-natal intuition of Ideas. it is equally incontrovertible that Plato held the soul to be immortal. His conviction on this point was as unshaken as Socrates's. His attempt to ground that conviction on unassailable premises is, indeed, open to criticism, because his arguments rest either on the hypothesis of previous existence or on his general theory of Ideas. Nevertheless, the considerations which he offers in favour of immortality, in the "Phaedo", have helped to strengthen all subsequent generations in the belief in a future life. His description of the future state of the soul is dominated by the Pythagorean doctrine of transmigration. Here, again, the details are not to be taken as seriously as the main fact, and we can well imagine that the account of the soul condemned to return in the body of a fox or a wolf is introduced chiefly because it accentuates the doctrine of rewards and punishments, which is part of Plato's ethical system. Before passing to his ethical doctrines it is necessary to indicate one other point of his psychology. The soul, Plato teaches, consists of three parts: the rational soul, which resides in the head; the irascible soul, the seat of courage, which resides in the heart; and the appetitive soul, the seat of desire, which resides in the abdomen. These are not three faculties of one soul, but three parts really distinct.

(c) Ethics and Theory of the State

Like all the Greeks, Plato took for granted that the highest good of man, subjectively considered, is happiness (eudaimonia). Objectively, the highest good of man is the absolutely highest good in general, Goodness itself, or God. The means by which this highest good is to be attained is the practice of virtue and the acquistion of wisdom. So far as the body hinders these pursuits it should be brought into subjection. Here, however, asceticism should be moderated in the interests of harmony and symmetry -- Plato never went the length of condemning matter and the human body in particular, as the source of all evil -- for wealth, health, art, and innocent pleasures are means of attaining happiness, though not indispensable, as virtue is. Virtue is order, harmony, the health of the soul; vice is disorder, discord, disease. The State is, for Plato, the highest embodiment of the Idea. It should have for its aim the establishment and cultivation of virtue. The reason of this is that man, even in the savage condition, could, indeed, attain virtue. In order, however, that virtue may be established systematically and cease to be a matter of chance or haphazard, education is necessary, and without a social organization education is impossible. In his "Republic" he sketches an ideal state, a polity which should exist if rulers and subjects would devote themselves, as they ought, to the cultivation of wisdom. The ideal state ismodelled on the individual soul. It consists of three orders: rulers (corresponding to the reasonable soul), producers (corresponding to desire), and warriors (corresponding to courage). The characteristic virtue of the producers is thrift, that of the soldiers bravery, and that of the rulers wisdom. Since philosophy is the love of wisdom, it is to be the dominant power in the state: "Unless philosophers become rulers or rulers become true and thorough students of philosophy, there shall be no end to the troubles of states and of humanity" (Rep., V, 473), which is only another way of saying that those who govern should be distinguished by qualities which are distinctly intellectual. Plato is an advocate of State absolutism, such as existed in his time in Sparta. The State, he maintains, exercises unlimited power. Neither private property nor family institutions have any place in the Platonic state. The children belong to the state as soon as they are born, and should be taken in charge by the State from the beginning, for the purpose of education. They should be educated by officials appointed by the State, and, according to the measure of ability, which they exhibit, they are to be assigned by the State to the order of producers, to that of warriors, or to the governing class. These impractical schemes reflect at once Plato's discontent with the demagogy then prevalent in Athens and in his personal predilection forthe aristocratic form of government. Indeed, his scheme is essentially aristocratic in the original meaning of the word; it advocates government by the (intellectually) best. The unreality of it all, and the remoteness of its chance to be tested by practice, must have been evident to Plato himself. For in his "Laws" he sketches a modified scheme which, though inferior, he thinks, to the plan outlined in the "Republic", is nearer to the level of what the average state can attain.

THE PLATONIC SCHOOL


Plato's School, like Aristotle's, was organized by Plato himself and handed over at the time of his death to his nephew Speusippus, the first scholarch, or ruler of the school. It was then known as the Academy, because it met in the groves of Academus. The Academy continued, with varying fortunes, to maintain its identity as a Platonic school, first at Athens, and later at Alexandria until the first century of the Christian era. It modified the Platonic system in the direction of mysticism and demonology, and underwent at least one period of scepticism. It ended in a loosely constructed eclecticism. With the advent of neo-Platonism (q.v.) founded by Ammonius and developed by Plotinus, Platonism definitely entered the cause of Paganism against Christianity. Nevertheless, the great majority of the Christian philosophers down to St. Augustine were Platonists. They appreciated the uplifting influence of Plato's psychology and metaphysics, and recognized in that influence a powerful ally of Christianity in the warfare against materialism and naturalism. These Christian Platonists underestimated Aristotle, whom they generally referred to as an "acute" logician whose philosophy favoured the heretical opponents of orthodox Christianity. The Middle Ages completely reversed this verdict. The first scholastics knew only the logical treatises of Aristotle, and, so far as they were psychologists or metaphysicians at all, they drew on the Platonism of St. Augustine. Their successors, however, in the twelfth century came to a knowledge of the psychology, metaphysics, and ethics of Aristotle, and adopted the Aristotelean view so completely that before the end of the thirteenth century the Stagyrite occupied in the Christian schools the position occupied in the fifth century by the founder of the Academy. There were, however, episodes, so to speak, of Platonism in the history of Scholasticism -- e.g., the School of Chartes in the twelfth century -- and throughout the whole scholastic period some principles of Platonism, and especially of neo-Platonism, were incorporated in the Aristotelean system adopted by the schoolmen. The Renaissance brought a revival of Platonism, due to the influence of men like Bessarion, Plethon, Ficino, and the two Mirandolas. The Cambridge Platonists of the seventeenth century, such as Cudworth, Henry More, Cumberland, and Glanville, reacting against humanistic naturalism, "spiritualized Puritanism" by restoring the foundations of conduct to principles intuitionally known and independent of self-interest. outside the schools of philosophy which are described as Platonic there are many philosophers and groups of philosophers in modern times who owe much to the inspiration of Plato, and to the enthusiasm for the higher pursuits of the mind which they derived from the study of his works. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Plato and the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911).]

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The Great Books: Plato

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Malaspina Great Books Lecture Series

The Republic of Plato

Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Malaspina Great Books Exclusive]

A. Introduction

Socrates - the real Socrates - was tried and convicted by an Athenian jury on charges of "impiety" and the "corruption of youth" in 399 BCE, about five years after the end of the war we've been reading about in Thucydides. Plato's Republic was written perhaps 20 years later - there's some disagreement on the exact date.

Considering the temper of the times, the accusations leveled against Socrates in 399 can to some extent be regarded as directed against the activity of philosophy itself. It is true that Athens had restored its democracy after the war, and except for a brief but savage period of 8 months in 404 under the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, Athenian society was attempting to carry on its life in the grand spirit of the Golden Age that had preceded the war. But much had changed. The war had wreaked havoc on the social and political harmony of Athens, reduced her economic power, and changed day-to-day existence for most of her citizens. Athens has restored her democracy, it's true, but the mood was at very least conservative - if not reactionary. Unorthodox ideas would be viewed with suspicion if not downright hostility. The Republic was far from orthodox.

The Republic presents a unified treatment in ten books of a single overarching idea: justice and why justice is good. But this unified treatment of justice required an exploration of a vast range of subjects: education (a radical view), politics (philosophers should rule), religion (an essentially monotheistic perspective), gender (equality of women), the family (a communistic model), reason (coming to know through a process of dialectic). It also offered novel thinking about emotion, science, understanding, the role of art, the immortality of the soul, and the nature of reality. And, just about everything the Republic offers on each of those subjects was - and is still -- thoroughly controversial. Here are four examples drawn from philosopher Richard Kraut:

1. It proposes that the real world is invisible and that what we see is a mere shadow.
2. It argues that a human being not one object but three, and that we can achieve a kind of unity (justice) only if we live in extraordinarily favorable circumstances;
3. It attacks not only Athens beloved democracy; it also attacks the popular arts (music, theatre and poetry) because they undermine the health of the soul;
4. It portrays an ideal city as one in which philosophers have absolute power, women are educated and hold power, and sexual liaisons are arranged for eugenic purposes.


Such a philosophy, if taken seriously - how could it not -- posed a very real threat to anyone in a position of power. As the trial of the real Socrates in 399 had already demonstrated, controversial ideas - did not have to be explicitly political to be regarded as a threat to the political fabric and power of the State.

The Platonic Socrates in the Republic captures a glimpse of this "anti-intellectual" climate of the times. In Book X where the activity of philosophy (referred to as "bitch") - is characterized in the chilling phrase as: ...that yelping bitch shrieking at her master. Philosophers are parodied by poets in this text as a, mob of over wise men - holding sway. Holding sway means holding power. So, the question of power, who should hold power, and what power really means is central to understanding why this work was considered so radical.

It could be argued the Republic is an attack on power itself. This attack isn't direct. It's done with craft through the back door. Plato writes about virtue - the virtue of Justice. But Plato offers more than a reexamination of justice. He redefines it. Good god, the Greeks had been writing about justice for a long time. If you asked a Greek on the street what justice was, the answer probably would look much the same as you or I might offer today: Justice means being fair, playing by the rules, giving each his due, etc., etc... The Greeks - like us -- might differ about what "being fair" meant, what the "rules" were, giving each his "due" requires...but, most people, the democrats certainly, would feel they had a handle on justice - as we do now. But it was this "common sense" almost instinctive understanding of justice that Plato was challenging. This "old fashioned" idea (old fashioned to Plato) had nothing to do with what justice was really about. These "being fair" definitions of justice were EXTERNALLY defined and socially determined. Justice as so defined has meaning only in relation to the group. Remove the group and "pop" justice disappears. In fact, if you could put on a magic ring and make yourself disappear, remove the judgment of the community from any action you might take, there was no reason for you as an individual to be just.

So Plato's Socrates turns justice inside out. He dismisses the conventional externally referred definitions of justice as well as the three other classic Greek virtues (wisdom, courage and moderation) and redefines all four as impersonal INTERNAL qualities - then ties all four to a strange concept called soul.

Why might this redefinition of virtues as internally defined be seen a threat to those in power? The achievement most highly valued in the Greek mind was to lead a life of eudemonia, a concept that embodies the notions of acting well, living well, and living a life free of misfortune. The path that leads to eudemonia is the path of virtue. And justice is of course one of those virtues. Justice - when referenced to external and socially determined norms, as it had been before the Republic - easily accommodates the idea of power. If living well is your highest value, power is the strongest tool available to you that will allow you to control those forces that might prevent you from living well. When justice is tied to external norms - playing fair, being "impartial" - the exercise of power is less open to charges of injustice. Power and its exercise can easily be adjusted to suit social circumstances. However, if the idea of justice is tied to impersonal internal qualities and if this new idea of justice is accepted, then the just exercise of power becomes far, far more demanding. For these reasons the Republic would be viewed as threatening to the Athenian establishment. The text is radical for its particulars - the elimination of private property, the equality of women, the abolition of the family, and so on. But perhaps the most thoroughly radical aspect of the Republic is its program for the seizing of power generally. It is as subversive a text as we will see in this program.

In modern political terms Athens was as I've mentioned in the grip of a conservative surge. In our times mild conservative reactions might be labeled "reform." At times those reactionary surges reach extremes and those who question the wisdom of those in power are actively suppressed. Political courage is required to keep on going in times such as those. These reactions seem to occur in the wake of wars or disasters, or difficult economic periods. In such times philosophy -- intellectual activity generally -- comes under fire. They are times when individuals and entire groups are targeted as responsible for the "social ills" or "injustice" that has befallen society at large -- as we saw with "fascism" in Germany in the 1930's -- or "McCarthyism" in the United States in the 1950's.

That language Socrates alludes to, that yelping bitch shrieking... in these contexts is somewhat prophetic. The Republic has interesting modern analogs as for example when the "yelping bitch" translates as "Darwinism" in the 1920's; I'm thinking of the Scopes monkey trials. Or "Zionism" in the 1930's; I'm thinking of the holocaust. Or "Communism" in the 1950's; I'm thinking of McCarthyism. When students are singled out as the yelping bitch, they too become targets -- as we saw with the Vietnam era killings at places such as Kent State in the 1960's, or the Massacre at Tianamin Square in China in the 1980's. In the examples I use here I make no distinction as to type of regime -- the attacks emerge from within oligarchies, tyrannies, and democracies. When Plato refers to the virtue of "courage," as an internally referenced "preservation" of opinion "about what is terrible," in Book IV on p. 107, I believe he is talking about the political courage necessary to hold the line against the abuses of power exercised in those kinds of reactionary times. I'll return to the question of power at the end.

B. The Question of Justice: Care of the Soul

The Republic looks at the question of justice as manifest in community -- the state -- and as manifest in the individual -- the soul. In the end, Plato is pessimistic about State justice. As far as real regimes go, the utopian political ideal of justice as examined here is unachievable - unachievable because most real regimes would be entirely hostile to the notions of justice examined here.

Let me say this in another way. If there is any optimism in The Republic around justice, that optimism surrounds the potential of developing individual justice, a idea Socrates refers to in the text as care of the soul. The Just City serves the primary purpose of illuminating the Just Soul.

On the surface, this question of justice rings false to our ears. Justice? What a strange question! Strange in that the answer to the question of justice unfolds in these 300 pages more like an answer to the riddle, "What is the Meaning of Life?" The question of justice demands that we pay attention first to the metaphysical ordering of the cosmos: shadows, things, invisible shadows, invisible things. These invisible things -- forms -- are manifestations of -- or children of a crowning essence -- the good.

Through Socrates Plato describes a certain turning and tuning of mind -- an epistemology -- a way of coming to "know" the Truths at the top of this cosmic ordering through a process of dialectic. Seeing the world in these terms requires a certain disposition, a certain training, a certain talent. ...fine things are hard, says Socrates. But the claim is there. It is within the realm of human potential to discover these "truths" intellectually. How is it possible to come to know anything without positive experience?

In this context black holes are interesting. They are completely unknowable in conventional modern scientific terms. No experiment, measurement, or positive observation will ever be possible to see inside. You or I can never know the "contents" empirically. Physical impossibilities are minor impediments to physicists like Stephen Hawking. The contents of a black hole are intellectually retrievable via thought experiments -- gedanken experiments. Theory here is as good if not better than the real thing. Platonic epistemology lives on in the 20th century.

The road to justice in the individual -- in the Republic is illuminated by analogies to political organization--and there is much about political organization it teaches us. These political ideas emerge from a particular "thought experiment" in which Socrates builds a city--in speech--and gives it a name--Callipolis--beautiful city. But it is not a book about a real city, or a city that we might ever expect to see. Near the end of this long process Plato confirms this in Book IX where Glaucon asks Socrates:

...I don't suppose [this city whose foundation we have laid in speeches {in the mind} exists anywhere on earth.

Socrates answers: [No...] But in heaven, perhaps, a pattern is laid up for the man who wants to see and found a city within himself ... It doesn't make any difference whether it is or will be somewhere. For he would mind the things of this city alone, and of no other.

The choice then of what the Republic is really about is important. Is it a book about public or private matters? Is it personal or is it political? Is it about both? If about both, where do we place the emphasis?

In any event Plato does hold out two ideas -- perfect standards of justice to which we can refer in our public and in our private lives. That neither is perfectly achievable does not mean they are not helpful ideas or ideals. The real question then about the Republic is not whether the Callipolis ideals are achievable. The real question is, do these personal and political "models" of justice make sense? Has Plato left anything out in building his models? Are these really the ways that cities and souls work?

What is this "soul" Plato refers to? It's certainly not the thing Christians call soul and identify with self. The Platonic soul is eternal - it always was and always will be. Plato argues simply that soul "is." It is interesting that the existence of soul is neither inferred from what we moderns might call "faith," nor is it handed to us by the god. It's existence is reasoned from Platonic metaphysics. The immortality of soul is drawn from the notion of soul as not subject to decay or death of the body. But immortality does not mean perfection. The question "why be just" is tied an idea of perfectibility and reward.

The implications of all this are far reaching. The imperative to be "just" makes demands on us. We must be just because as humans we are more than shadows. It suggests grand things about human potential; about who we are, why we are, how we must relate to one another, how we must think about happiness, and how we need to think about pushing the envelope of the "dialectic journey." We need to respond too because this "dialectic journey" frees us from the enslavement of injustice

How does it all work? Well, Plato begins with the city - a community of many souls. This fleshing out of the characteristics of a community of souls is an exercise designed to bring us back to the soul of one. The city has three parts; three arenas of specialization: a money making part- A, an auxiliary part S, and a ruling part R. The men and women assigned to these parts are assigned by nature and temperament to these three parts: bronze, silver and gold.

In functional terms the bronze, the money making class comprises the artisans, merchants, and business class. These are the hewers of wood, and drawers of water. These are the people who by nature and instinct are drawn to service the needs of the various appetites of the city: farmers, shoemakers, laborers, money lenders, doctors, and so on.

The auxiliaries, the silver, are the protectors, the defenders and the warriors. These are men and women who by nature and instinct are drawn to this task: the soldiers, the police, the para-military.

The rulers, the guardians, the gold, are the class of people who by nature or instinct are fit to rule: the kings, queens, presidents, legislators, and tyrants.

Justice in a city does not emerge spontaneously. The three fold division of natures within a city needs cultivation. Plato pays closest attention to the cultivating and selection requirements for the ruling and Auxiliary (or Guardian) classes. These two, gold and silver, are characterized by the primary virtues seated in each. Rulers are expected to be wise; the spirited guardians courageous.

A raw propensity for wisdom or courage does not guarantee the emergence of wisdom or courage. Wisdom requires a turning of intellect towards knowledge. These "dialectic" skills require special training in calculation, geometry and astronomy. Courage requires a harnessing of the "spirited" nature to avoid the excesses of savagery or the timidity of weakness--a balance ensured by exposure to the harmonizing and moderating educational influences of gymnastic and music to bring about a proper balance between tension and relaxation.

"Justice" emerges in this model when rulers rule and all three classes perform their proper roles -- each according to its own nature and without interference. They take care of, and mind their own business. Injustice is a meddling or interference of parts.

That this kind of independent action can occur within an integrated unity is illustrated by the beautiful example of the spinning top on page 115. A spinning top can maintain a true and steady alignment in one direction while spinning rapidly in another.

The transition from city to soul -- that to which this whole metaphor of the city refers -- begins at line 435b.

Socrates: Then the just man will not be any different from the just city, but will be like it.

Yes, Glaucon said, he will be like it.

But says Socrates, a city seemed to be just when each of the three classes of natures in it minded its own business and, again, moderate, courageous, and wise because of certain other affections and habits of these same classes.

True, Glaucon said.

Then it's in this way, my friend, that we'll claim that the single man--with these same forms in his soul -- thanks to the same affections as those in the city, rightly lays claim to the same names.

Quite necessarily, Glaucon said.

This dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon proceeds to extract from the city the idea that what is in one man must of necessity mirror what is in many.

The three divisions of city: ruling, auxiliary and money making mirror in soul as a calculating or rational part, a spirited part allied with the rational, and the irrational, desiring or appetite part: gold, silver and bronze. Wisdom resides in the rational. Courage in the spirited, and, as in the city moderation runs through all three. Modern terminology for these three divisions might correspond to Intellectual, emotional and physical.

The just man appropriates, cultivates and harmonizes the regime of his soul in a fashion similar to the just city. The rational part rules because it is wise. The rational, in consort with the spirit, work together to prevent enslavement or rule by the irrational or desiring part of soul.

Callipolis--the Republic of the soul--takes shape with these thoughts:

He doesn't let each part in him mind other people's business or the three classes in the soul meddle with each other, but really sets his own house in good order and rules himself; he arranges himself, becomes his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts, exactly like three notes in a harmonic scale....

Why? There's a pay off. We're free here to choose justice or injustice, just as we were free to abide by moral principles handed down to us from the gods. But the reason choosing the just course is a rational one. Justice provides an immediate and measurable dividend. We don't buy into this model of justice for reasons of faith or hope. We choose justice because it is right and we can come to know this is so.

We can do that by harnessing our intellectual resources. This idea of justice puts flesh on moral decisions. Just action is right action because we benefit from justice. We become better. We become more wise. We shake off the phantoms and shadows that masquerade and enslave us. Justice breaks the chains that bind us--we become truly free. We experience the real thing!

How does this "freeing" work? It means we become lovers of wisdom. It works this way. The ordering of the parts of the Republic of soul can be seen as a hierarchy of pleasures: appetite, power, wisdom. When reason leads--as it must in the just soul--we can participate fully in the pleasures of all three. When we are enslaved by the lower parts of soul -- appetite in particular -- we cut off that which is above.

Socrates: ...the kind of pleasure connected with the vision of what is cannot be tasted by anyone except the lover of wisdom.

C. Justice, Power and Individualism

I'd like to return to the question of power raised earlier by offering a few thoughts about the challenges the text presents on the conventional notions of power.

If this ideal of internally defined justice is only achievable in the soul, why does the ideal represent a threat to those in power?

The Socratic definition of justice requires a rejection of certain choices of how to live, or act, on the grounds that those choices would undermine what it means to be distinctively human. One cannot for example value a life patterned on reason while at the same time, act in a way that undermines achieving this in others or in oneself. With this idea of justice you should see that we are also bound therefore to oppose any action that forces such choices upon us.

This notion is also radically opposed to the modern conception of justice which values individualism, the self. It is left to each of us individually to determine what counts as success. This is very non-Socratic. The idea of justice developed in the Republic is not individually defined or determined. It is completely impersonal. It simply is. In our current world view, and in the world view of the Greeks before Plato, what is important is NOT how we view what constitutes success, or living well. What is important as far as the exercise of justice is concerned is the idea that we do not unfairly limit the rights of others to develop their personally defined ideas of living well. There is nothing educative in the modern notion of justice.

D. Modern Implications

We can cite two modern examples suggested by Australian philosopher Kymon Lycos of places where the modern and Socratic notion of justice would differ. The justice system in a modern Democracy like ours considers that justice is well served if all members of the society are treated equally under law. By and large that is how our system of justice works. However, in the application of this system we ignore the very real fact that the cultural, social, educational and racial backgrounds of those who receive justice differ enormously. That means that justice is perceived and assessed by its recipients in very different ways. In other words there in nothing in the administration of "equal" justice that demands that the administration of justice be educative. The Socratic model would demand that it be so.

The second example focuses on human rights. Each of us has the right to non-discrimination on irrelevant grounds. We consider fighting discrimination a matter of justice. But, the measures we take to fight discrimination do little to remove the underlying causes of the oppression of sexism, racism, elitism, and so on. In other words there is nothing effectively educative in the application of justice around these issues. In fact, because of the modern notion of individualism, we actively defend the rights of those who continue to hold oppressive views - as long as those views do not interfere with the individual rights of oppressed minorities. The Socratic notion of Justice would question the right to hold oppressive views in the first place because such views would conflict with the root meaning of what it is to be human.

The impersonal Socratic model of justice clearly represents a significant challenge to the concept of justice as developed in the modern world, and it represents a threat to the power base that has come to rely on modern models of justice. Whether the Socratic Model represents a better model is what we need to talk about. When we apply this model to the enormous emerging global problems rooted in the social, cultural, economic and environmental spheres, it may well be argued as a better model. But, if applied to the letter, Socratic Justice would most definitely represent a severe limitation of many of the individually defined freedoms that individuals, institutions and many corporations, have come to accept in a modern democracy for the simple reason that many of the so-called freedoms would be deemed to be just.

- end -


Malaspina Great Books Lecture Series

Plato's Apology


Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)

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Few people have had more influence than Socrates. Twenty three hundred years after his death, Nietzsche, the most influential philosopher of the modern era said this: Socrates is so close to me that I am always engaged in a struggle with him.

What is it about this man who wrote nothing, yet has such lasting appeal? Is it his win-win attitude towards death? For to fear death, men, is in fact nothing other than to seem to be wise, but not to be so: no one knows whether death does not happen to be the greatest of all goods for the human being; but people fear it as though they knew well that it is the greatest of evils . Death is either an endless sleep or an opportunity to continue inquiry. An authentic life, for Socrates, is not a life directed towards death, but a life directed towards the good. Socrates never claims to know what the good is. But he remains ever open to the possibility that in all the uncertainty and non-knowledge he professes, that this -- that which is - always remains. When we keep -- this - alive and ever present, life has meaning and death brings peace.

This is attitude. It's an attitude that makes him indestructible, immortal. It's an attitude you just can't shake. In life Socrates questions everything we see as self evident, certain. In death, we, like Nietzsche, continue to struggle with him. He is forever there, in our face. The priestess at Delphi proclaimed Socrates as wise. Socrates interpreted this as a riddle. To learn why he was the wisest man - something he knew he was not - he refers to himself, to know himself. But for Socrates, the idea of the self comes from knowledge of the good and the true. To be truly authentic, truly one's self, is to be guided by the truth. That is what freedom is. Conversely to be guided by what is false is to be enslaved. He trusted that the truth would disclose itself if he persisted in questioning. This is also what he meant by education -- self education - the pursuit of that of which he was only dimly aware in dialogue with others. In doing that he frustrates us, he perplexes us, he infects us. In his questioning he sees himself not as a purveyor of knowledge but as midwife. He does not give birth. Truth cannot be passed from hand to hand - it can only be awakened. The Socrates of the Apology recognizes one absolute authority - the good.

This approach is radical.

It demands a radical transformation in the way we think. The Athenian jury resisted it. We resist it. Of course we do. Of course they did. It rests on a trust in something few moderns or ancients dare face -- one absolute authority -- the good. Without the trust the process is meaningless. Worse, the method he uses cannot be taught. There is no manual. Still we struggle. We struggle because the promise of freedom, enlightenment, or rebirth is so tempting. If Socrates was/is right perhaps we can transcend the world without denying the world. The two cruel masters of our existence - death and suffering -- would cease to be our masters.

That's why we struggle with this. [Karl Jaspers]

Following the analysis of one 20th century philosopher, Karl Jaspers, only three other important figures in the history of human thought have made demands as radically transforming as these: they are the Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus. But these three became founders of religious movements - Socrates did not. Socrates was and is thoroughly human. His demand for a transformation rests thoroughly on reason.

For the Buddha the transformation comes from meditation; we free ourselves from the world through contemplation; for Confucius we free ourselves from the world as it is by molding ourselves to -- in essence redefining the world ; for Jesus we free ourselves by orienting ourselves towards another world, and submitting to the will of God. Confucius demands education; the Buddha demands insight; Jesus demands faith; Socrates demands reason; These four figures are as dissimilar as night and day. But they are similar is this: all four push us to the boundaries of our existence. They suggest ways around, through or reconciliation with the apparent hopelessness of existence. All four demand transformation.

These four figures target different audiences. Socrates does not question everyone - his daemon differentiates -- it is not always apparent why; Buddha directs his teaching to the man of understanding; Confucius directs his teaching to the man of talent; Jesus directs his message towards the dispossessed, and the despised.

These four figures reflect differing attitudes on important ideas such as love and war. Socrates argues that evil retaliation (an eye for eye) is unjust; Confucius insists that our enemies be treated with justice; the Buddha advises us to suffer injustice with infinite patience; Jesus demands we love our enemies.

If we call the transformations demanded by these figures as paths towards truth, and if we attempt to compare for example Jesus with Socrates we could say this. Jesus knows the path; Socrates does not; Jesus claims one path; Socrates leaves us free to choose our own; Jesus offers salvation; Socrates provokes us to search for truth.

If we look for commonalities amongst these four figures they look like this: they all use allegory, metaphor, and parables. Their communication is also indirect. But, all four offer ways in which we may reconcile the dilemma of existence through radical transformation. All four leave us no peace. Two, Socrates and Confucius, point to paths that we all might follow, if we were to choose, while the other two, Buddha and Jesus offer modalities of life that are impossible to emulate.

An Athenian jury tried and condemned Socrates in 399. They had to. Socrates was a genuine threat.

There is no transcript of the trial itself, although the Apology by Plato may come close -- I'll say more about that in a moment. But there was the charge. And this is as official as historical records go:

This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus of Pitthas against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Impiety -- Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the State; and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death. [Note: There is a popular misconception that Atheism was one of the charges against Socrates. It wasn't. The accuser Meletus is trapped by Socrates in the Apology at one point in making the claim that Socrates is an Atheist, which suited Socrates purpose, but Atheism as such never was included in the indictment.]

Please don't make the mistake of regarding these charges as quaint anachronisms issued by a naive culture ever fearful of divine retribution. I have no idea how many of the Athenian jury really believed in the State gods or any gods for that matter. I would not be surprised if the proportion was less than in modern Nanaimo, or even in this room. The gods in Athens were important symbols of State. To blaspheme the gods was to show disrespect for state symbols, like in more modern terms burning the flag, blowing up the statue of Liberty, ripping up the constitution.

Now we have in this reading, Plato's Apology, a detailed formal statement of justification or defense against those charges -- or so we would assume. But the response as we'll see does not fit into the convenient shoe that we would expect for a defense. In some respects the answer Socrates offers to the charges has the opposite effect -- it strengthens the case against him. Moreover it is crafted deliberately to do that. Some call it judicial suicide. But Socrates offers the only response that is consistent with his philosophy. He could easily have avoided death, but for Socrates death is irrelevant.

Historical Reliability

Before we get too wrapped in details of the answers Socrates offers, it might be helpful to ask how reliable Plato's account is. Well, at one level reliability may not matter. What matters is that Plato has crafted an extraordinary speech -- some would say the finest example of rhetoric ever written. For that reason alone it demands our attention. However, there was a real Socrates. He was charged under this indictment, and Plato was present at those proceedings. The confusion around the accuracy of this text stems from two observations. First, there was a tradition held for a long time in the Greek work after Socrates death, that Socrates remained silent. Second, other 'apologies,' notable one written by Xenophon, who was not present, differ in details from the one written by Plato. But they do not differ in spirit. In both Plato and Xenophon, the essential elements are there. Xenophon in his preface says that what Plato wrote was how Socrates actually spoke. The main reason Xenophon writes, as Xenophon himself explains, is to offer some background for readers who were struck by the apparent arrogance of Socrates in Plato's account. To this end Xenophon offers this tidbit from a conversation between a certain Hermogenes and Socrates which occurs before the trial:

H: Really, Socrates, ought you not to be considering your defense?

S: Don't you think that my whole life has been a preparation for a defense?

H: How?

S: Because I have consistently done no wrong, and this, I think, is the finest preparation for a defense.

H: (note this) Don't you see that the Athenian courts have often been prevailed upon by argument to put Innocent men to death, and equally have often acquitted wrongdoers, either out of piety aroused by the speeches or because they have been flattered?

S: If revealing the opinion I have of myself annoys the jurors, then I will be choosing to die rather than to remain alive without freedom and beg, as an alternative to death, a vastly inferior life.


In writing this way Xenophon sets Socrates up as a sort of martyr for philosophy transforming his arrogance into courage.

Now the Apology by Plato is NOT a stenographic report of the trial of Socrates. However, there is no good evidence that the substance of the trial as crafted by Plato here is inaccurate. There is good evidence, from Xenophon, and other sources, Isocrates mainly, that Plato's Apology is accurate. Plato also had no good reason to offer an account of the trial that was at variance with the actual event. The event he writes about is within living memory of many who were also there. In fact, given the state of the Law in Athens and the charges -- and the claim that Socrates was ignorant of what impiety (or piety) and virtue were, the speech offered by Plato can be seen as the only consistent response he could have made.

Did He Do It

Okay. Before we run off to examine the trial in more detail, it might be helpful to ask if Socrates did any of the three things sworn in the indictment. That's not the same question as guilt. I'll treat that separately in a moment.

So did he do it? Was there substance to the charges laid by his accusers? Let's take the charge of impiety. In Athenian practice, impiety was a serious offence. But the charge of impiety was reserved and applied to offenses such as gross blasphemy or sacrilege or the mutilation of sacred objects. Socrates certainly was never party to anything remotely resembling an impious act in the sense that impiety was normally understood in Athens.

Did Socrates deny the State Gods? In a loose way he did. Socrates challenges the gory bits of Homer and Hesiod -- raises questions about the accuracy of those portrayals. But that's hardly denial; at best we might characterize it as a sort of heresy. But creed and doctrines didn't bind Greek religion. Religion in Athens was evidenced by what you did, not by what you said. It was ritualistic. Socrates was never accused of ignoring ritual.

Did Socrates introduce new divinities? Socrates had this Sign or Daemon, or conscience -- some might call it now. And he said that his Sign was a constant guide, turning forever away from temptation to certainty. But, so what? At best this shows Socrates as unorthodox in his style and beliefs. But Athenians more than tolerated unorthodoxy; they revered this. Athenians were not known for punishing people for their opinions. Pericles in the funeral oration in praise of Athens suggests the importance of this freedom: in our private intercourse we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbour if he does what he likes

Did Socrates corrupt the youth? Several of Socrates former young followers had been involved in subversive or treacherous actions against the state, including two of the so-called 30 Tyrants, Critias and Charmides and of course Alcibiades, who defected to Sparta during the Sicilian campaign. But after the war with Sparta, Athens declared a general amnesty -- the first ever political amnesty by the way. The effect of this amnesty was to wipe the slate clean for these former state criminals. And although these men were surely on the minds of those who laid the charges against Socrates, in no formal way could their former crimes be used against them or against Socrates -- who had been their teacher.

So he didn't do it? Well, obviously his accusers were aware that from the perspective of past practice or precedence, the charges were dicey. Yet they laid them nonetheless. Why? They were convinced they could make them stick. There are two main reasons for that. One is easy. The other is a bit more complex. The easy reason is that although the charges, especially the charge of impiety, did not conform to what was normally understood as impiety, Athenian law was rather vague on where the boundary for impious deeds were. There was no equivalent line -- such as theft over $500 or break and enter to cite two modern examples. With no formal line, all the accusers need to do is to persuade the jury that the charges were reasonable.

The second reason the accusers felt confident they could make the charges stick has to with the nature of legal practice in the so-called dicastic tribunal Socrates was tried under. In many respects and from this distance the procedure looks as if it should have been remarkably fair. In fact, and the way the system worked, procedurally the court operated under the unwritten and psychologically determined rules of mob justice. What counted in this court were not facts but persuasion. Let's examine this in a bit more detail.

First of all there would have been a preliminary hearing -- evidence would be presented before a judge or office called King Archon to determine if there was sufficient evidence for trial. If the case was not thrown out it would then proceed to a final trial in the court of 500. This trial, the one documented in the text, was the final stage. There was no appeal. The fact of no appeal seems unfair to us but was actually designed to prevent manipulation of the legal system. The trial was public. Precautions were taken to ensure impartiality -- the very size was viewed as a guarantee of this; each of the jurors swore an oath that had the effect of a modern oath; there was a form of sequestering to prevent tampering; the accuser and accused were guaranteed equal time for presentations and cross examinations; the process was measured using a water clock; the defendant also had the final word -- a decided advantage in the proceeding; to inhibit malicious prosecutions the accuser was fined if he failed to garner 20% in the final vote -- or 100 votes in this case. Attorneys did not represent defendants, but they could hire Rhetors, professionals skilled in Rhetoric to plead the case of the accused. Tradition has it that a Rhetor named Lysias -- one of the best in Athens -- offered his services to Socrates, who refused. While Lysias might have presented a better defense that Socrates, and probably could have won acquittal for Socrates, such a decision would have been completely inconsistent and decidedly unacceptable for Socrates as we'll see.

While all of the above might seem to suggest that Socrates was tried in a legally fair way, there are several other elements that suggest something quite different. The easiest way to understand this is to go back to the business of legal boundary. The laws -- particularly the laws on impiety -- were not clearly defined. An unclear or ill-defined law is as good as no law at all. With no law -- there was no framework within which a legal process could make reference. As a result matters of fact -- which are so important in a modern court -- are less relevant. In modern Nanaimo you may be found guilt of impaired driving if you register above .08 on a Breathalyzer. The law is clear. The operation of a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 is a crime. A jury will find you guilty if the facts presented show -- beyond reasonable doubt -- that your alleged offence falls within that legal framework. In this trial the framework was not in the least clear. According to Socrates defense, the lack of clarity went further. Not only was the impiety boundary ill-defined, Socrates claims that neither he nor anyone else for that matter knew what piety was.

The legal consequence of all this meant that rather than focus on fact, the Athenian juries often, but not always, relied on persuasion. In effect, your day in court was won if you displayed the best rhetorical skill. Why then did Socrates lose? Was the Plato's speech of Socrates not the finest example of rhetoric in the history of western culture? Arguably, it is. But it was not designed to win acquittal. Socrates has another agenda.

Was Socrates Guilty?

Before going there, I'd like to return to the question of guilt. Was Socrates guilty in any formal sense? Oh, yes. In the strict legal sense, and according to the procedures formulated by a long Athenian tradition, he was guilty. This impartial tribunal of citizens, following attentively and meticulously the procedures developed from centuries of experience, voted fairly, and found Socrates guilty. There was no irregularity in process. Socrates was afforded all of the opportunities guaranteed to all citizens of Athens. He presented his defense, refuted the evidence, was awarded his punishment, and offered a counter-penalty. There was no suggestion of tampering; no evidence of procedural irregularity; and no new evidence was subsequently presented to suggest otherwise.

Would a modern court have found Socrates guilty? That's a really interesting question. It would make a fabulous essay -- or better a movie or play.

Much has changed of course since 399 BCE. Probably the most significant change occurred in 1297 in article 29 of the Magna Carta:

No Freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or lose his Liberties, or be outlawed, or exiled, or otherwise destroyed, nor will we condemn him, but by lawful Judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land.

The relevant principle enshrined here is the notion of legality. It means that no free person can be subjected to retroactive law. And that of course was the effect of Socrates conviction. Because of the vagueness of the charge and the lack of legal definition in the law, the law that convicts him in a real sense was created through the conviction.

A modern court would regard the Socrates trial as illegal because it violates the Magna Carta principle of legality -- you can't try someone for a crime that wasn't a crime when the deed was one. Strangely however, this principle itself should not be applied retroactively. You can't judge the Socrates trial as illegal using the principle of legality -- because that principle did not exist at the time of the trial!!!

The Trial

The response Socrates offers in the Apology is a masterpiece of forensic rhetoric. But it is peculiar in that it completely reverses what a rhetorical defense is designed to do. So in a sense it isn't forensic at all. Some would call it counter-rhetoric. In structure, the speech is a text book classic of rhetorical form containing five distinct sections with clearly defined objectives: an Exordium, Prothesis, a double Refutation, a Digression, and a Peroation. The speech is designed not to win acquittal, but to tell the Truth. In it Socrates denies none of the charges in the indictment -- in modern legalese he refuses to enter a plea -- presumably because he does not know what the charges mean. So, he does not deny the charges of not acknowledging the gods of the city; he does not deny introducing new divinities; he does not deny corruption of youth. I either do not corrupt them or I corrupt them unintentionally. He does not deny impiety.

That's not to say that Socrates denies nothing. He does deny the charges of what he calls the Old Accusers -- the allegations founded on hearsay and widely held, that Socrates was a Sophist who made inquiries into the things of heaven and earth, and who made the weaker argument the stronger. The fact is he says in 19c there is nothing in these charges. That is clearly a denial. But of course that was not the charge. It was however the prejudice that underlies the charges and the main political reason Socrates found himself in this court and in this political trial. And in the end it would be the real reason Socrates was to die.

However, there is a remarkable irony here. Socrates knows he is hated because of his sophist reputation. Socrates knows that his juror's antennae will be finely tuned to detect sophistry. Socrates knows also that the use of finely tuned rhetoric is exactly what Sophists do -- in order to make the weaker argument appear the stronger. Socrates knows that if he is to impress the jurors he ought to avoid rhetoric; he ought in fact to use the simple language of the market, the sort of language he promises in 18a: pay no attention to my manner of speech, it may perhaps be poor But he lies -- or seems to! Instead of the simple language of the market, he offers the finest example of polished rhetoric in the history of western thought. Why? Socrates rhetoric is not in fact of the sophistic kind, the kind the jurors would condemn, based on emotion and empty persuasion. Socrates rhetoric is a new kind of rhetoric, called philosophic rhetoric, crafted in the pursuit of Truth. Socrates knows this, but he also knows that these jurors would not be able to tell the difference. Why is he committing suicide? As I wrote these ideas my thoughts went for the first time to the possibility that the apparent irony this use of rhetoric implies is based on my prejudgment of what knowing means. Perhaps Socrates does not really know any of this. This goading style is only his way of inquiry. Can the jurors tell the difference between true and false rhetoric? Do they really believe he is a sophist? What better way to find out! The irony is a test -- a test of virtue. If the jury passes Socrates will be freed. If the jury fails the test, Socrates will die, but the world will see why and the world will see what virtue is. And that in fact is what happens.

Socrates was tried for corruption and impiety: two things he knew nothing of and was forced therefore to neither deny nor admit. He went down in a final test of virtue, a struggle designed to discover what virtue was. It's a pity that the trial was governed by a water clock. One senses that had he been given the opportunity to pursue the contradictions that his ironic Apology was designed to uncover, in time his questionings would have eventually worn his accusers down.

I said at the outset that Socrates was a genuine threat. He was. He threatened the Athenian way of life. But that Athenian way, and the law on which it rested, needed to change or to die. The death of Socrates can be seem as the the beginning of the end of the Athenian way. That perhaps was Socrates design. Something new was needed. What was needed may have taken 2,000 years to emerge, but it has. The legal system that succeeded Socrates pays attention to the defects that this trial highlights, as I hope we will see in readings we encounter next year. Seen in this relief, Socrates death may be regarded not as as a judicial suicide, with Socrates the loser, but as a judicial assassination of Athenian law with Socrates the winner.

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