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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 desirable society in Athens, and enjoyed both intellectual and personal ascendancy over some of its liveliest minds.

Socrates was often seen in the company of Alcibiades, the glamorous rogue aristocrat, the most sought-after person in the city. Plato describes him in intimate conversation with blue-blooded patricians, Plato’s own kinsmen; with the great comic poet Aristophanes; with generals and statesmen and internationally famous intellectuals. After his death a new genre of literature was invented, the “Socratic” dialogue, in which he played the leading part.

We know something of the dialogues produced by half a dozen writers apart from Plato. Charles Kahn opens his book with a survey of them. It is striking that they were written by men from all over Greece, not only by Athenians: by Phaedo of Elis, after whom Plato named his own account of the Master’s death, and Eucleides of Megara, and Aristippus of Cyrene, the Greek city in North Africa. Socrates actually seems to have been the first person whom the Greeks found interesting enough to write anything biographical about; and in the visual arts he was the first to be the subject of a real (as opposed to an ideal) portrait.

His fascination is twofold. On the one side he plays the leading part in most of the dialogues of Plato, which are not only important for philosophy but also, in many cases, literary masterpieces of inexhaustible interest. On the other, he is the first historic martyr in the European tradition (Antigone is the first in imaginative literature), put to death unjustly and accepting his execution with serene courage as the price of living his chosen philosophic life.

It is the latter aspect that appeals particularly to Alexander Nehamas in his Sather Lectures. He is unhappily aware, as many people are, that philosophy has lost much of the special prestige that it used to possess: “Philosophy today is faced with the irreparable loss of the authority it once derived from being thought to constitute the best way of life”; that goes with the fact that it “has few implications for the life of those who practice it.” In the ancient world that was not so. A man who called himself by the proud title of philosopher was expected to have a system, and to live in conformity with it; that idea came above all from the example of Socrates’ life and death. Nehamas declares bravely that

This book aims at opening a space for a way of doing philosophy that constitutes an alternative, though not necessarily a competitor, to the manner in which philosophy is generally practiced in our time.

Kahn, too, emphasizes that Plato began by wanting to convey the effect of Socrates’ character, more than his actual doctrines: and that for him philosophy is inseparable from a way of life. It is tempting to detect here a sense of dissatisfaction in the modern academic philosopher at the contemporary definition of his subject. That dissatisfaction may well be the strongest among those who study the thinkers of the ancient world.

Nehamas takes an intriguing set of thinkers, Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Foucault, as examples of those who have based their philosophy on reflection on the problems of constructing a real life. He observes that there are others in the same category: Pascal, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Emerson, Thoreau, “and, on one reading at least, Wittgenstein as well.” His chosen three are discussed in their relation to the figure of Socrates, with whom the considered art of living may be said to have begun, in the sense of creating for oneself a striking, original, and harmonious style of life. Nehamas emphasizes the importance of personal style: it has in recent times been thought a (merely) literary matter, not fit for the attention of philosophers.

The results are very different in his three different cases. That is essentially because Plato’s Socrates is inscrutable. Plato treats him with a bottomless irony, which does not reveal either Socrates’ real attitudes or Plato’s toward him—“Plato,” Nehamas writes, “whose disdain for people is matched only by his passion for improving them.” Plato’s attitude toward his reader, even, is left ambiguous: we feel encouraged to identify with Socrates as he triumphs over his obtuse or bigoted or indifferent opponents, but we are revealed to be just like them. Thus in the Euthyphro we find the eponymous part is played by a man of outstanding stupidity, who is unmoved by Socrates’ arguments, and who ends the dialogue by announcing that he has something else to do. What a boor, we think; and yet we, too, have no real intention of allowing Plato/Socrates to change our attitudes and our lives. Because this Socrates is inscrutable, Nehamas comments, “to imitate Socrates is therefore to create oneself, as Socrates did; but it is also to make oneself different from…Socrates as well.”

He well compares the irony of Plato with that of Thomas Mann toward Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain. We see events through Castorp’s eyes, we are involved in his self-deceptions; he is both exceptional and ordinary; despite his endless conversations, he remains essentially a blank. The comparison is a fair one. Even more suggestive, and much more controversial, is the idea that Plato himself did not understand Socrates. Socrates is never shown in the process of self-formation: we never hear him explainhow and why he became so different from everybody else. He disclaims any knowledge of virtue, yet, we are told, he lives an outstandingly virtuous life. How are we to interpret that puzzle? Most scholars treat it, like Socrates’ denial that he is a teacher, as essentially an educational ploy (“I incite you to seek for the truth that I hold back”). This is not a superficial but a deep irony, and the paradox is especially acute for Plato, whose own thought tends to identify virtue with knowledge. Plato himself found Socrates in important respects inexplicable; the bewildering variety of the depictions of Socrates in the books his disciples wrote about him showed that he really was not easy to fathom, and “his secret…is that we cannot comprehend him.” *

Plato’s early dialogues do not explain Socrates’ virtuous and exceptional existence—an existence, a style of life, which itself (rather than his opinions) is his great achievement. Then, Nehamas argues, in the dialogues of the middle period, Meno, Gorgias, and Phaedo, Plato set out to explain how Socrates became the man he was, serenely claiming to live a life of philosophical virtue; and in the Republic, finally, Plato tried to prove the superiority of his mode of life to all others. In the Meno Plato shows that sure knowledge is possible after all, since it can be acquired before birth and remembered in this life; in the Gorgias he shows why he is right to reject the life of power and political activity for that of philosophy; and in the Republic he sets up a system of institutions which will ensure the production of more Socrateses in the future (the present one being apparently the result of a fortunate but inexplicable chance). Thus it is in order to justify and defend Socrates’ extraordinary way of life, and not for the sake of the logical problems themselves, that Plato was forced to invent philosophy.

That account is very attractive in many ways. What I miss is an important place given to two central Platonic dialogues: the Phaedo, in which Plato proves the immortality of the soul, and the Symposium, in which he sets out the cosmic power of love and describes the soul’s ascent, as it seeks the supernatural vision of the unity and beauty of the world and of the timeless and changeless Form of the Good-and-Beautiful. Plato believed that Socrates had experienced that vision, and he based the solidity of Socrates’ wisdom and virtue on his familiarity with the unseen world of true, eternal reality. That quasi-mystical side is rather neglected by Nehamas in favor of representing Socrates as a self-made figure of impressive, but (it seems) essentially this-worldly, virtue and wisdom. Kahn, by contrast, gives full value to precisely those dialogues and that eternal aspect of Plato’s portrait.

  1. *

    In his new collection of his academic essays on Plato and Socrates, Virtues of Authenticity (Princeton, 1999), Nehamas returns to this central problem repeatedly and from different angles. He says here, “There is little ground for supposing that Socrates’ contemporaries and near contemporaries… must have understood him better than we do.” Kierkegaard was right: “Even if I were to imagine myself his contemporary,” he writes, “he would still always be difficult to understand.” And: “We can interpret Plato’s whole philosophical project as a lifelong strug-gle to understand Socrates’ strange personality.”

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