The Story of Philosophy, 5

The preparation of Plato


Plato’s meeting with Socrates had been a turning point in his life. He had been brought up in comfort, and perhaps in wealth; he was a handsome and vigorous youth—called Plato, it is said, because of the breadth of his shoulders; he had excelled as a soldier, and had twice won prizes at the Isthmian games. Philosophers are not apt to develop out of such an adolescence.

But Will: Had NS Germany been allowed to thrive, instead of the most serious crime of all History that your government perpetrated when you were of my age, some athletes would certainly be philosophers right now…

“I thank God,” he used to say, “that I was born Greek and not barbarian, freeman and not slave, man and not woman; but above all, that I was born in the age of Socrates.”

He was twenty-eight when the master died; and this tragic end of a quiet life left its mark on every phase of the pupil’s thought. It filled him with such a scorn of democracy, such a hatred of the mob, as even his aristocratic lineage and breeding had hardly engendered in him; it led him to a Catonic resolve that democracy must be destroyed, to be replaced by the rule of the wisest and the best.

Exactly what we must feel now about American democracy: delete it! By the way, ‘Catonic’ is an allusion to Cato’s Carthago delenda est.

We must be prepared to find in these dialogues much that is playful and metaphorical; much that is unintelligible except to scholars learned in the social and literary minutiae of Plato’s time.

[Plato] complains of the priests (who go about preaching hell and offering redemption from it for a consideration—cf. The Republic, 364),

The Republic, 364: ‘And mendicant prophets knock at rich men’s doors, promising to atone for the sins of themselves or their fathers in an easy fashion with sacrifices and festive games, or with charms and invocations to get rid of an enemy good or bad by divine help and at a small charge. They appeal to books professing to be written by Musaeus and Orpheus, and carry away the minds of whole cities, and promise to “get souls out of purgatory”, and if we refuse to listen to them, no one knows what will happen to us’.

but he himself is a priest, a theologian, a preacher, a super-moralist, a Savonarola denouncing art and inviting vanities to the fire. He acknowledges, Shakespeare-like, that “comparisons are slippery” (Sophist, 231), but he slips out of one into another and another and another; he condemns the Sophists as phrase-mongering disputants, but he himself is not above chopping logic like a sophomore.

The Dialogues remain one of the priceless treasures of the world. The best of them, The Republic, is a complete treatise in itself, Plato reduced to a book; here we shall find his metaphysics, his theology, his ethics, his psychology, his pedagogy, his politics, his theory of art. Here we shall find problems reeking with modernity and contemporary savor: communism and socialism, feminism…

You see? The damned baobab seeds…

“Plato is philosophy, and philosophy Plato,” says Emerson. Let us study The Republic.