Plato’s Grand Design

“Saint Socrates, pray for us”; so wrote Erasmus at the end of his Religious Symposium, comparing the pagan philosopher to Saint Paul. The comparison can be extended in curious ways. Both Plato and Paul had a Master, condemned to death by law, but posthumously triumphant; each was the highly literate disciple of a Master who left not a word on paper; each was the system-building successor who turned the Master’s utterances into a stately structure of thought, soon hardening into dogma. In each case, finally, posterity has scratched its head as it tried to separate the contribution of the disciple from that of the Founder himself.

The history of the interpretation of Plato is a great part of the history of philosophy. Every generation has found it necessary to deal with that huge presence. Not, of course, that they have all found him to their taste. For many years he was in the shadow, dark and malign, of Karl Popper’s bitter The Open Society and its Enemies, which casts him as a villain, the precursor of other wicked system-builders, notably Hegel and Marx; and at Oxford recently one professor used to open his lectures by saying, “I shall be talking about Plato the Fascist.” A few years ago Sir Kenneth Dover, editor of Plato’s Symposium although highly antipathetic to Plato, said to me: “A wonderful stylist, of course; but have you ever been convinced by anything he said?”

And yet: there he still is, still fascinating some of the subtlest and most interesting philosophers of the day. The new books of Alexander Nehamas, of Princeton, and Charles Kahn, of the University of Pennsylvania, are very different. Together they are lively testimony to the continuing vitality of Platonic studies; as for Socrates, who did not even bequeath any books to us which we could put on our college syllabuses or excerpt in our anthologies, his personality is as magnetic as ever.

Socrates must certainly have been one of the most remarkable men who ever lived. Athens in the late fifth century was a democracy, and it was humming with artistic and intellectual activity; but it was a highly elitist society, in which family connections and stylish behavior counted for a great deal, and in which also there was an extraordinarily high premium on good looks. A popular tag of the time listed the good things of life: “Good health is top for a mortal man; the next best thing is to be good looking” (the third, rather charmingly, is “to be rich without cheating”); and when an Athenian wanted to write on a wall “I love X,” what he actually wrote was “X is beautiful.” Of course, he loved her (or, more often, him); but the interesting thing was less the lover’s feeling than the beloved’s good looks. It was thus doubly amazing that an eccentric, a social nobody—the son of a stonecutter and a midwife—who also happened to be grotesquely ugly, should have become the darling of the most…

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