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§ 11 – Plato

Plato’s General Conception of Philosophy

Philosophy, says Plato, speaking half-allegorically, springs from a certain «divine madness» caused by the recollection, at the sight of the «beauty of earth,» of that «true beauty» of which the soul had a vision in a pre-existent state.(1) And this «madness» is no superficial thing: it springs from the very essence of the soul as an immortal being: it is a prophecy of the soul’s return to the knowledge and enjoyment of eternal reality. This return is brought about by philosophy. By philosophy alone can the Idea of the Good be represented among men and they become like God, «in whom is no unrighteousness at all».(2) Not, indeed, that any philosopher has perfect wisdom, for God alone is wise, and the Idea of the Good is with difficulty discerned.(3)

Men are, as it were, confined in a dark den, where they can scarcely tell shadows from realities. The ascent to the upper world is slow and difficult, and the Idea of the Good is seen last. In this ascent there are four stages, in the last of which, only, is the real truth apprehended.(4) The first is mere opinion; the second, right opinion, or true belief, which, however, is «without reason,» i.e., is unscientific; the third is understanding, or what is commonly termed science, though it is in reality only quasi-scientific, because it rests on certain unproved presuppositions; the fourth is science, or completely reasoned knowledge, knowledge in which there are no unexamined or unfounded presuppositions or hypotheses.(5)

Now the last stage is reached only through a course of discipline which may be described as follows. The «divine madness» being presupposed to exist, in germ, at least, in all minds, but especially in certain ones who are, therefore, embryo philosophers, there must, in the first place, be «right opinion» «engrafted» on it. This must be done by training in gymnastics and music,—gymnastics for the body and music for the soul. (Music is to be understood here as including poetry.) «He who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth even before he is able to know the reason of the thing: when reason comes, he will recognize and salute her as a friend with whom his education has made him long familiar». The gymnastic education(6) supplements the musical with strength and firmness, courage and spirit, both animal and mental. But, in the second place, there must be mathematical training to enable the soul to «rise out of the sea of change and lay hold of true Being». Such training gives measure, harmony, unity to thought, and tends in its results towards the «vision of the Idea of the Good; it furnishes the mind with a method and enables it to give something like scientific form and validity to its «right opinion». Such training, however, is but the «prelude» to the actual strain of philosophy».(7) Philosophically speaking, the defect of mathematics (i.e., arithmetic and geometry) is that it is but a half step from sense. It reasons correctly, but it reasons about that which is, as compared with being, semi-sensuous, and its first principles are mere hypotheses: «as to the mathematical arts, which, as we were saying, have some apprehension of true being—geometry and the like—they only dream about being, but never can they behold the waking reality so long as they leave the hypotheses which they use, undisturbed, and are unable to give any account of them.(8) It is «dialectic and dialectic alone which does away with hypotheses in order to establish them; the eye of the soul, which is literally buried in some outlandish slough, is by her taught to look upward; and she uses as hand-maids in the work of conversion the sciences we have been discussing. Custom terms them sciences, but they ought to have some other name, implying greater clearness than opinion and less clearness than science; and this in our previous sketch was called understanding.(9) Dialectic, then, is the highest science, the «coping-stone» of the sciences. The preparation required for it is of the severest kind, and demands the strongest and steadiest minds. Only the «unwearied, solid man,» who loves labor, has a good memory, is morally whole and sound, should undertake it; dialectic, in fact, cannot be undertaken without risk of intellectual and moral disintegration (such as the Sophistic culture fosters) until the age of thirty, and even then only by the best minds in the best bodies. Five years must be given to the theoretical mastery of it before any attempt to make practical application of it to the affairs of state (for the state is to be ruled by philosophy); the remaining years of a man’s life after fifty are to be given to the pursuit of it.(10) Such is Plato’s general notion of philosophy.

PLATO. The Divisions of Philosophy and their General Relations

Plato nowhere formally makes a division of philosophy into distinct parts. Circumstances had made his task one of synthesis rather than of analysis. He had gathered together what he saw to be the strands of philosophy which earlier thinkers had held in separation, and in his hands philosophy became for the first time something like a complete whole. But such a division or analysis was virtually contained in his synthesis, and was made actual by a pupil of his, Xenocrates. The parts recognizable in Plato’s philosophy, are, then, Dialectic, the theory of thought and being, as such, Physics, the theory of nature, and Ethics, the theory of the Good. Now of these parts dialectic is highest, the «coping-stone»; as regards both method and content it furnishes to the other parts the ideal of truth. In its purest form it is the science of absolute knowledge and being, whereas all other sciences are sciences of being that is derivative and has cognoscibility and reality only in so far as it «participates» in that true supreme being.

PLATO. Dialectic as a Twofold Science

The dialectic of Plato may be described as the natural result of the Socratic conception developed under the influence, in Plato’s mind, of the negative, or repelling, force of the Heraclitic doctrine of the eternal flux of things of sense, and the positive, or attracting, force of the Eleatic doctrine of being as one and unchangeable. Plato, in other words, held with Socrates that knowledge exists only in the form of the conception, a definite, unchanging notion, and, with the Eleatics, that that of which there is knowledge is not the world of sense as Heraclitus had characterized it, but being, one and universal. Knowledge and being are thus correlative, and dialectic is hence a twofold science, the science of knowledge and of being. It is also the application of the science of knowledge in the getting of knowledge, and hence is a method; and, we may say also, of the science of being in action, though Plato does not use the term frequently, if at all, in this sense.

PLATO. Dialectic as a Theory of Knowledge and as Method

As a science of knowledge it is a true account of the way in which true conceptions are formed and of conceptions in their relations. But this way is dialectic as method. In its lowest form dialectic is simply the art of speech, the art of developing and expressing clearly and effectively our ideas concerning the «essence of each thing».(11) This, it will be seen, is but a description of the Socratic practice in its outward aspect, which Plato seems always to have regarded as of vital importance. To him philosophy was an energizing of the whole soul, a matter of life as well as of thought, preeminently a personal thing. Hence that preference of his, already mentioned, for the spoken over the written word. Inwardly the dialectic method was with Plato the Socratic induction supplemented by division and classification and the comparing of the consequences of opposite hypotheses.(12) This is the method of thought (not of sense) and is based on the hypothesis that real knowledge is contained in conceptions, not in sensations. The sensational theory of knowledge, the theory first propounded by Protagoras, Plato condemned with arguments among the principal of which are the following. If the sensational theory be true, «I wonder that he [Protagoras] did not begin his great work on Truth with the declaration that a pig or a baboon or some other stranger monster which has sensation is the measure of all things»; again, that theory fails to account for the permanent character of knowledge, since on the supposition that both «object» and «percipient» are in constant flux there can be no permanence anywhere; and, finally, the theory is self-contradictory, since by its own terms it may be just as well false as true. No, the truth is that knowledge is given in conceptions and conceptions only. The method of knowledge is the method of thought; the seeing of «unity and plurality in nature». «If I find any man» who can do that, «him I follow and walk in his footsteps as if he were a God». Now induction, the «upward way» of knowledge, is to Plato but tentative, suggestive, not final and conclusive; a begetter of insight but not of science; and must be supplemented by division, the «downward way» of knowledge. Induction suggests a hypothesis or possible definition of some whole; division verifies or overthrows the hypothesis by exhibiting distinctly and in their relations the parts of the whole defined. With regard to division Plato says, «you should not clip off too small a piece… the safe way is to cut through the middle, and this is the more likely way of finding classes. Attention to this principle makes all the difference in a process of inquiry».(13) This method of division is known as dichotomy. The method of investigation which consists in following out opposite hypotheses and comparing their consequences is, of course, Eleatic in origin. That hypothesis whose consequences are the most probable is the truer hypothesis. The dialectic method as just described is, as we shall see, the precursor of the Aristotelian logic.

Dialectic as a System

PLATO. Thought and Being

In the conceptions arrived at by the dialectic method, then, we have knowledge, i.e., we have the real thought of being, and the only real or permanent conviction possible for us. That this is true appeared to Plato, not only as a consequence of the synthesis of the Eleatic and Socratic doctrines of being and knowledge but from such considerations as the following: The «divine madness» that seizes upon ingenuous natures» and impels them to philosophy, can be but the working of the soul’s innate knowledge of a higher state than the present, a state in which thought and being are more immediately one. Again, the source of knowledge even in the present existence is not the organs of sense, but the soul working through them, and our cognitions, which must be cognitions of something, are cognitions, not of the world of sense as such, but of being. Finally, we cannot suppose that there is anything absolutely out of relation to us, for in such a case, God who, if anything, would be out of relation to us, since he is absolute, could not know us and our world: we should constitute an absolute being by ourselves,—all of which is absurd, «monstrous».(14) But if this be true, being is intelligent, since thought as the thought of being is (by virtue of the unity of thought and being) being so far as it (being) is capable of being thought. Being, therefore, thinks or is intelligent.

PLATO. The World of Ideas

To determine, then, the nature of being as an object of thought (and it is only as such that we can know it) we must determine what are the absolute conceptions. These, in number and nature, correspond with the types or classes of phenomenal existence. Now as thought and being are one, and as the absolute conceptions have each a separate character and place in thought, it follows that being is not merely one in nature but many also. Being as one in many is termed by Plato the Idea or World of Ideas (εϊδη). So far as we can speak of beings, there are, then, corresponding to the types or classes of phenomenal existences, certain entities, which are noumenal: Ideas. As objects of definite knowledge, the Ideas are distinct, fixed, independent(15): in this they are in sharp contrast with sense-natures, which as Heraclitus held, are fleeting and pass into their opposites, «admit generation into or out of one another». But the Ideas «participate» in, or «commune» with, each other. Not, however, promiscuously, but in certain cognizable ways. The ideas of rest and motion, for example, do not participate in each other except indirectly, through participation in being.(16) The communion of being and not-being is explained as follows. Being is all-inclusive, embracing even not-being, unless, indeed, being is «pure and fixed emptiness». But being is not such: we cannot conceive it «to be devoid of life and mind, and to remain in awful unmeaningness and fixture».(17) In speaking, therefore, of not-being, i.e., generation, motion, variety, etc., we speak not of something opposed to being but different merely. In general, then, not-being is the element of otherness or difference inherent in being.(18) The Ideas together constitute an organism which is governed by the Idea of the Good (the end of all things). The Idea of the Good embraces within itself a «mixture»(19) of «mind» (which is definite and knowable) and «pleasure» (which is relatively indefinite and unknowable) together with the cause of the «mixture,» or soul. The Good is thus not abstract but concrete; and as the only causal principle in the universe is soul, the Idea of the Good is a concrete, intelligent (and intelligible) power. The Good is further described by Plato as including measure, beauty, symmetry, as well as «mind,» «pleasure,» and «causality».(20) Of the Good as the supreme Idea he says: «Whether I am right or not God only knows; but, whether true or false, my opinion is that in all the world of knowledge the Idea of the Good appears last of all and is seen only with effort, and when seen, is inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and lord of light in this world, and the source of truth and reason in the other: this is the first great cause which he who would act rationally either in public or in private life must behold».(21) Again, «the Good is not only the author of knowledge in all things known [as the sun is of «visibility in all things visible»] but of their being and essence, yet the Good is not essence [mere being?] but exceeds essence in dignity and power».(22) As the supreme Idea is an intelligent and intelligible power, those below it must, as partaking in it, also be intelligent and intelligible powers. (Being, indeed, is simply power(23).) The realm of Ideas is, then, a spiritual kingdom: an independent, self-existent, eternal community of intelligent beings.(24)

PLATO. Relation of the Ideal, to the Phenomenal, World

In the foregoing is virtually contained Plato’s answer to a question that now naturally arises, What is the relation of the world of Ideas to the phenomenal world? to knowledge and objects of knowledge in the world given to us? The answer is, in general terms, as follows: «That which imparts truth to the object and knowledge to the subject is what I would have you term the Idea of the Good, and that you will regard as the cause of science and truth as known by us». But to speak particularly, first, of Ideas as related to human knowledge. It is by virtue of the presence of the Idea in us that we are self-moving, self-identifying, and so, capable of knowledge, whether it be scientific comprehension or common understanding. The idea as the source and synthesis of cognition and being, makes possible for us by its working in us the true thought of reality. For Plato, consequently, knowledge possessed certain elements not recognized by earlier philosophers. The Eleatics failed to find in our cognition of phenomena anything but opinion; Plato declaring things themselves, and our cognition of them to be of the Idea, posited philosophically (and was the first who did so) the knowledge of the real in the phenomenal. Again, the Lesser Socratics affirmed that only «identical propositions» are valid. Plato discovered a principle of synthesis, and thus showed the possibility and the necessity of real judgments. Thirdly, Socrates did not entirely rise above the notion of merely correct conceptions to that of ontologically true conceptions, was sceptical as to the possibility of absolute science, hence did not attain to a pure metaphysics. Plato did this in positing the Idea as the fountain of knowledge and being. In so doing, he gave a new content and a new method to philosophy. The content of philosophy is not the abstract entity termed by the Eleatics Being, nor the purely phenomenal world, which the Sophists declared knowable only in individual sensation, and Socrates only in individual conception, but the concretion of these, the world of Ideas, in itself and as having effect and manifestation in the phenomenal world, and the phenomenal world as having its source and cognoscibility in the Ideal world. Again, from the fact that the Idea is the source of knowledge and being, it follows that the true method or «way » of knowledge is the «downward way,» induction being but an eye-opener, merely a condition of nascent or incipient insight. Dialectic, then, is in the last analysis, not merely the method of our thinking and our theory of the Idea, but is also the method of the Idea and the Ideal theory of the Idea. And as the «downward way,» it is not mere division, but, since the Idea is universal and not to be absolutely divided—also synthesis; it makes place for the «unity of opposites.» But, secondly, as to the relation of the Ideas to the world of objective, sensible phenomena, the Ideas are conceived by Plato, not only as causes(25), but as archetypes of things, the eternal patterns to which the artificer of the world looks in framing the world.(26) The world of Ideas is self-existent and independent; phenomenal objects «participate» in Ideas or are «imitations» of them. The exact nature of this participation, or imitation, seems not to have been explained by Plato quite satisfactorily to himself (or to those coming after him). In fact, Plato recognized at this point certain unsolved difficulties in his theory of Ideas, and was impelled towards a modification of the theory.(27)

For example, if the Ideas are entirely independent of the phenomenal world, how can they be the source of existence to other things or of knowledge in us? These difficulties were afterwards pointed out and used against the theory by Aristotle.(28) Though participating in Ideas, phenomenal objects are but imperfect representations of Ideas. Why this is so, is explained in the theory of nature, or of that which, instead of being uncreated, fixed, and scientifically cognoscible, is created, changing, and an object of «opinion» and «sense».

Physics, or the Theory of Nature

PLATO. The Method of Physical Speculation

In the philosophical study of nature it is necessary, first of all, Plato reminds us, to remember that, owing to the contingency pertaining to things created and changing, we cannot, in speculating upon such things, proceed with dialectic exactness and certainty of method, but must »observe the rule of probability».(29) Plato shared, to some extent, Socrates’s distrust of physical speculation, (as well as Heraclitus’s view of the mutability of all phenomenal things), regarding it, however, as a kind of pardonable and perhaps praiseworthy indulgence, though far from possessing the dignity and value of dialectic, or true science. «A man may sometimes set aside arguments about eternal things, and for recreation turn to consider the truths of generation which are only probable; thus he attains pleasure not to be repented of, and makes for himself during his life a wise and moderate pastime».(30)

PLATO. The Cosmos

The created world is as perfect an imitation and manifestation of the Idea as was practicable: it is a living, intelligible being, a «blessed god». God formed the world because he is good and «desired that all things be as like himself as possible.» The world is not an absolutely perfect manifestation of the Idea because there was, when the world was created, a certain element of necessity which reason had to «persuade» or «get the better of,» though it could not completely overcome it.(31) This element of necessity and obstacle to the complete manifestation of the Idea is «matter». God (Idea as power working towards an end) formed, first, the world-soul, by uniting as perfectly as possible, according to certain numerical relations, an unchangeable, indivisible essence (Idea is fixed, intelligent and intelligible nature) and a divisible, corporeal, movable nature, thus creating an intermediate essence partaking of the nature of the «same and other» and possessing the power to declare the «sameness and diversity of things». This mediating, mathematical intelligence (the world-soul)—mathematics, we have seen, is, with Plato, intermediate between science and opinion—God diffused throughout, and united perfectly with, a perfect body made of the four elements, fire, air, water, earth—»in the harmony of proportions»—and smooth, even, perfectly spherical. The soul he formed prior in time and excellence to the body to be the «ruler and mistress of it».(32) The world is, accordingly, a «blessed god,» not eternal, indeed, but an image of eternity and a perfect whole, indissoluble except by the hand of the Creator. Time and the world, created together, are without end. The world is divided according to the «sameness and diversity» of «motion» into two spheres, that of the fixed stars and that of the planets, all these having souls and being gods. The latter revolve about the earth (which is fixed and spherical and is pierced by the spindle or axis of the universe) in spiral courses from west to east. The four elements are not eternal but were created out of an eternal indestructible somewhat, the «receptacle and in a manner the nurse of all generation,» an «invisible, formless being which receives all things and attains in an extraordinary way a portion of the intelligible, and is most incomprehensible». Plato seems to identify it with space, a «third nature» —the indivisible essence and the corporeal, divisible essence being the first and second—which is «eternal and perceived without the help of sense and by a spurious reason».(33) It is not a corporeal substance for it is not that out of which but that in which phenomena have become, and it is in its very essence negation or not-being (passive, however, rather than active), and the occasion of the relative not-being, or the mutability, of phenomena. It may be likened to a mother, phenomena to a child, and the source of phenomena to a father.(34) It is the mean, or middle term, between phenomena and the Idea.(35) It is that element of «necessity»—»matter»—which hinders, while it makes possible, the manifestation of the Idea. Fire, air, water, and earth are, consequently, not corporeal but merely geometrical bodies, fire being four-faced, air eight-faced, water twenty-faced, earth six-faced (cubical). All this (and much more of similar character), it must be remembered, is, to Plato, only «probable» or conjectural—not science.

PLATO. Body and Soul

Thus much for that portion of the work of creation which God himself performed. The rest was given into the hands of the created gods. These, «imitating the power» of God, formed man and animals, the latter being but a lower type of the former.(36) The «seed» of the immortal part of the soul of man was provided by God himself. It is, of course, by this part, which is simple, self-identical, self-moving, and indestructible, that the soul participates in the Idea and is rational. The mortal part has two portions, the «spirited» (courage) and the appetitive (desire). The former is naturally inclined to obey the immortal, or rational, part of the soul, but is too often dragged down by the appetitive part, which is animal, and even vegetable, in its tendencies. The rational part of the soul is located in the head, courage in the heart, and desire in the lower portion of the trunk, particularly the liver, which is the seat also of inspiration and prophecy, these being but a very low order of knowledge. To Plato the so-called parts of the soul are not parts but faculties. Of their inter-connection he offers no explanation. Perception is of like by like (as with Empedocles). In sight, for example, the fire from the eye meets the external fire, and vision is the result. Sight and hearing are the noblest of the senses. «Thus much let us say: that God invented and gave sight to this end,—that we might behold the courses of intelligence which are akin to them, the unperturbed to the perturbed; and that we, learning them and being partakers of the true computations of nature, might imitate the absolutely unerring courses of God and regulate our own vagaries. The same [mutatis mutandis] may be affirmed of speech and hearing».(37) The soul was «implanted in the body by necessity»: entered into it in consequence of a fall from a nobler, preëxistent state. There is not between the two that perfect harmony which exists between the world-soul and its body («the perfect animal»). On the contrary, there is a certain antagonism(38) between body and soul, the influence of the former upon the latter being evil and degrading, the cause of ignorance and spiritual disease. The body, indeed, is the soul’s prison. The relation between the two is represented as follows in the well-known allegory of the Charioteer and Winged Horses, in which are symbolized, on the one hand, reason, on the other, «courage,» or passion, and appetite.(39) «Now the winged horses and the charioteer of the gods are all of them noble, and of noble breed, while ours are mixed; and we have a charioteer who drives them in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble origin, and, as might be expected, there is a great deal of trouble in managing them… Now the chariots of the gods, self-balanced, upward glide in obedience to the rein; but the others have a difficulty, for the steed who has evil in him, if he has not been properly trained by the charioteer, gravitates and inclines and sinks towards the earth, and this is the hour of extremest agony and conflict of the soul. For the immortal souls, when they are at the end of their course, go out and stand upon the back of heaven [the sphere of the fixed stars], and the revolution of the spheres carries them around and they behold the world beyond». When, through the unruliness of the steeds, the soul becomes unable to rise sufficiently high to «behold the vision of truth, and through some mishap sinks beneath the double load of forgetfulness and vice, her feathers fall from her and she drops to the earth, then the law ordains that this soul shall in the first generation pass not into that of any other animal but only of man, and the soul which has seen the most of truth shall come to the birth as a philosopher, or artist, or musician, or lover; that which has seen the truth in the second degree shall be a righteous king, or warrior, or lord; the soul, which is of the third class, shall be a politician, or economist, or trader; the fourth shall be a lover of gymnastic toils or a physician; the fifth, a prophet or hierophant; to the sixth, a poet or imitator will be appropriate; to the seventh, the life of an artisan or husbandman; to the eighth, that of a sophist or a demagogue; to the ninth, that of a tyrant: all these are states of probation, in which he who lives righteously improves, and he who lives unrighteously deteriorates his lot. The soul’s chief inspiration to righteousness is the recollection of the eternal beauty of which it had heard or caught a glimpse. This «wingless probation» continues for the soul of the philosopher or the lover who is faithful to his insight, three thousand years, the soul then returning to the place whence it came. Others are judged «when they have completed their first life,» and, at the end of the first thousand years, they have a new choice of life, the good and the bad souls alike taking what they prefer, i.e., what their natures prompt them to take. «And the soul of the man may pass into the life of a beast, or from the beast again to the man»; but the souls of those who have not seen the truth will not pass into human forms, but into those of animals. After death souls are classified as holy, moderately good, curably wicked, and incurably wicked. The last are punished eternally.—From the foregoing may be gathered several essential points in the Platonic psychology: the mixed nature of the soul, its participation in the Idea, and the necessity that the Idea be in a manner realized in it, the preëxistent state, and the recollection of that state, the immortality of the soul, future retribution, and the transmigration of souls. The logical connection between these may be briefly, though imperfectly, indicated as follows: the soul as participating in the Idea must be prior to the body; it must, even though immersed in the slough of sense, retain some recollection of that preëxistent state, for the Idea is and cannot be obliterated by sense; but the Idea as the Good cannot be completely attained to in the world of sense; hence there must be a future state and future retribution; and finally, the character of the retribution must vary with the bodies or immediate environment of the souls of men. The doctrines of preëxistence and of recollection, or reminiscence, demand special notice. They seemed to Plato to follow not only from the theory of the soul as an offshoot of the Idea, but also from the nature of knowledge as such. A certain boy, Meno, knows nothing of geometry, and yet Socrates succeeds in getting him to understand a geometrical demonstration and in drawing from him certain principles of demonstration; which would be impossible, thinks Plato, if the principles of demonstration had not lain already in the boy’s mind.(40) Again, though we say that pieces of wood or stone are equal, we yet perceive that they are not absolutely equal, and the conclusion must be that the soul possesses, by a sort of recollection implying preëxistence, the conception of absolute equality.(41) The argument for the immortality of the soul may be summarized as follows(42): The soul is «ever in motion» and self-moving; it cannot be destroyed by immorality, the only thing that could destroy it, if anything could; the soul is immortal because God is good, and cannot allow so beautiful a creation to perish; the thirst for absolute knowledge and for a future life, implies immortality; opposites pass into each other, sleeping into waking, death into life, etc.; preëxistence implies immortality; the soul is an invisible essence, and so possesses the imperishable, indestructible character of the Idea; the soul is not a «harmony» of bodily activities, but is itself; the rather a principle of harmony; it participates in the Idea of life, is immortal by virtue of the fact that it lives. In the Phœdo (p.79) Plato conceives immortality as synonymous in essence, not with everlastingness, but with wisdom, i.e., perfect self-knowledge and self-determination.

Plato’s Ethics

General Basis

The conception of the soul as participating in the Idea and as immortal, is the basis of Plato’s ethical doctrines. The life of the soul is one life; it is, by reason of the very nature of the soul as an original indissoluble harmony and principle of harmony, the union of the individual with himself and others, not only in the present existence, but in a future state also; it is the life of justice with its necessary concomitant happiness. The state, therefore, in which alone the individual soul is furnished with the conditions necessary for the realization by the soul of harmony in itself and with others in this present existence, is but an instrument of the Ideal, eternal life, the life of the Idea of the Good.(43)

PLATO. The Method of Ethics

From the immediately preceding statements it appears that Ethics and Politics, the sciences of individual and of statal good and virtue, are to Plato one. And it is an essential characteristic of the method of Plato in the Republic that he begins with a consideration of the state as being the «individual written larger and on a larger scale»(44), and having given a merely tentative theory of that, passes to the individual, then back to the state, and so on. This characteristic as well as the content of his theory has its source in Plato’s ever-present anxiety about the true ideal totality of things, his never-ceasing quest after a true and comprehensive principle of synthesis among things. By the use of this method he diminishes, if he does not obviate altogether, the appearance of arbitrarily applying to one sphere principles discovered in another. To him there is no abstract individual: the individual is the state in miniature.

PLATO. Nature and End of the State

Historically considered, the state, Plato agrees with the Sophists in holding, arises out of natural, human necessity: physical need, self-interest, lead to division of labor and to association for common and mutual benefit. But the state is not merely an association for the better supplying of natural or animal wants, the realization of the nature of the individual as such; government is not merely a police force having its only use in the prevention of the clashing of individual wills and interests. The state is an organism, a vital totality, whose essence lies in its being an instrument and manifestation of the Idea; the individuals constituting it consciously coöperate in the realization of the absolute conception of the whole. The state exists for the special benefit of no particular individual or class of individuals.

PLATO. The «Parts» of the State and the Virtue pertaining to Each

The members of the state are divided into three classes: the husbandmen, who supply the natural needs of the state; the fighters or military class, who defend the state against encroachment from without, or make conquests for the enlargement of the territory of the state; and the rulers, or counsellors, who determine the plans by which the state subsists as an instrument of the Idea, the embodiment of the conception of justice. The two last-named classes Plato designates as the guardians of the state. Each of these classes has its peculiar virtue: the virtue of the husbandmen being temperance, that of the fighters courage, that of the rulers wisdom. A careful and long-continued training is necessary to the making of the guardians: they are to be tried «more thoroughly than gold is tried in the fire». They are not only to be given that education in music, gymnastics, and the sciences which is requisite as a preparation for the study of philosophy, but they are to be tried with tests of memory, with «toils and pains and conflicts,» and «with enchantments and terrors». If they retain under all circumstances, a rhythmical, harmonious nature, such as will be most serviceable to the man himself and to the state, they are worthy to become guardians of the state(45). They are to have no property beyond what is absolutely necessary, to have no private houses, to be allowed only a «living» salary, to have common meals, and to reside together.—But what are the virtues in themselves, and where is justice? To answer this latter question, we must, says Plato, by the «method of residues» carefully eliminate the known virtues, one after another, until we arrive at justice. First, then, is wisdom, the virtue of the counsellors, which is knowledge that advises «not about any particular thing in the state [e.g., carpentering, brazen implements, agriculture] but about the whole state, and considers what may be regarded as the best policy both internal and external».(46) Next may be eliminated courage, the virtue of the fighters, or auxiliaries of the counsellors, which is the «preservation in the soldiers of the opinion which the law ordains about the true nature of dangers». Temperance, the virtue of the husbandmen, may be best described as the «natural harmony of master and slaves, both in states and individuals, in which the subjects are as willing to obey as the governors are to rule».(47) Now justice, also, would appear to be a harmony, and is not with perfect ease to be distinguished from temperance. It is, however, that harmony wherein each individual minds his own business and is not a «busy-body,» and each class in the state preserves its own sphere. Justice is the all-pervading spirit of harmony, the union of the many in one, of whole and part in the state.

PLATO. Virtue in the Individual

According, now, to the method proposed at the beginning, we are to apply what has been found to be true of the state to the individual. The individual, then, has in him the three principles of wisdom, courage, and temperance; wisdom being the virtue of reason, courage of spirit or passion, and temperance of appetite. The individual, therefore, «whose several principles do their own work will be just, and will do his own work». «Assuming the threefold division of the soul, must not injustice be a kind of quarrel between these three —a meddlesomeness and interference, and rising up of a part of the soul against the whole soul, an assertion of unlawful authority, which is made by a rebellious subject against a true prince, of whom he is the natural vassal—that is the sort of thing: the confusion and error of these parts is injustice, and intemperance, and ignorance, and in general all vice»(48). Further, the qualities that make a state, make a man: the good citizen is the good man.—As a corollary to this theory of virtue, it follows that the Sophistic notion of virtue as the whim or pleasure of the individual, and of justice as the will or pleasure of the strongest(49), is false. And (it may not improperly be added at this point) to Plato the Socratic idea that virtue is knowledge is not quite the correct one. Virtue, as we learn from the dialogue Philebus, is a union of «mind,» or knowledge, and pleasure, and there is a kind of natural virtue consisting in a disposition, unconsciously acquired, to do right deeds. The great benefit of education to the young is the creation in them by it of this tendency (unconscious though it may be) to take pleasure in good things, to have good instincts, to entertain right feelings generally.(50)

PLATO. State Administration (51)

But how shall the state be managed, and, in particular, what is to be done with the women and children? Is not the state to be conducted on the principle that «friends will have all things in common»? It is, in the first place, hardly possible to refuse to the women the same education that is given to men, ridiculous as such a plan may appear at first sight. The mere difference as regards the begetting and bearing of children is unessential. The education that makes a man a good guardian will make a woman, also, a good guardian. In the second place, there must be not only sameness of education and pursuits but also community, or the holding in common, of women and children—»no one is to know his own child, nor any child his parent». The union of the sexes must be made as «holy» as possible, and, to this end, must be under the strict and scientific supervision of the wise men of the state. The best of either sex must be «united with the best as often as possible, and the inferior with the inferior, and they are to rear the offspring of the one sort of union, but not of the other». The union is to be managed secretly and by proper officers, who will also take charge of the offspring. There must, of course, be no irregular or illegitimate unions. But, in the third place, there must be community of property. The public spirit of the guardians must not be allowed to suffer a check from any such distinction as meum and tuum. As to the practicability of a state in which there is community of women, children, and property, there is, indeed, some doubt. In times of war there would be no difficulty; the women and children would accompany the men. The children should become accustomed to the sight of such dangers as they themselves may have to face when they become adults. Acts of bravery must be recompensed by increased liberty to beget children; acts of cowardice by degradation to the rank of husbandmen or artisans. Love for the state must be kept pure and strong. It remains true, however, that only «when philosophers rule, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, will this ideal state, as has been said, have a possibility of life and behold the light of day». But the theory is, nevertheless, none the worse as a theory «because we are unable to prove the possibility of a city being ordered in the manner described.(52)

PLATO. The False Forms of State and their Genesis

Having constructed the pattern state, which he designates as the Aristocracy, Plato gives, with a view to showing still more pointedly the nature of justice and injustice and the relation between them and happiness and misery, an analysis of the false forms of the state, together with the kinds of individuals corresponding to them, and of the genesis of these forms and the classes of individuals corresponding to them. The false forms of the state are four in number; the timocracy, or government of honor; the oligarchy, or government of the few and the rich; the democracy, or government of the (uneducated) multitude; and tyranny. There are, of course, four sorts of individuals to correspond with these. The false forms of the state, taken in the order in which they have just been named, are regarded by Plato as successive degenerations of the true form, or aristocracy, i.e., the government of the wisest and best. «All political changes originate in divisions of the actual governing power,» that is, in strife. Now the strife by which aristocracy degenerates into timocracy arises in the following way. The guardians losing, through ignorance and mismanagement, the control of marriages and births, there springs up a weaker race, which undervalues knowledge and culture, and, lacking thus the principle of harmony, falls into inequality, irregularity, and, finally, strife. The courageous, or «spirited» element gets the advantage of the knowledge-loving and, although the guardian class remains the honored class and does not fall back into the place of the husbandmen or artisans, philosophers are excluded from power, the military class predominates, and the state is better fitted for war than for peace: one thing, and one thing only, is predominantly seen,— the spirit of contention and ambition. Such is the timocratical state and its genesis. The timocratical individual and his genesis are like unto them. The son of a «brave» but «easy-going» father, he comes to lack «single-mindedness towards virtue,» and to be a lover of power and honor; he is no longer wise and morally sound and whole, but ambitious and contentious. Oligarchy arises when the desire of power and honor, which characterizes the timocracy, grows into a thirst for gold and exclusive possession. For the realization of this desire, force and intimidation are resorted to. The evils of such a form of government are manifestly these: riches hold the place of knowledge; the state is divided against itself, the rich on the one side, the poor on the other; war cannot be carried on because the rich rulers are more afraid of the poor subjects than of the external enemy of the state; there is no longer a systematic division of pursuits; there is in the state a large floating element that has no vital interest in it: in short, oligarchy is a government of the wildest extremes. The oligarchical individual is of the same pattern; avaricious, selfish, arbitrarily coercing his better impulses and bending all his energies to the hoarding of wealth. Instead of rationalizing and ennobling his passions, he keeps them in slavish subjection to his one desire, and they are ready to turn against him at the earliest opportunity. Democracy and the «democratical man» originate as follows: the rich come to rule arbitrarily and exasperate the poor; war comes, from within or without, and then the rich must fight against or by the side of the poor, and there is a general redistribution of power and privileges. Then follow false freedom, irreconciliable differences of opinion, a throwing off of responsability to the State, entire abandonment of principle, an altogether «charming form of government, full of variety and diversity, and dispensing equality to equals and unequals alike». As for the democratical individual, he grows out of the oligarchical in the most natural manner possible. He just gets a taste of the honey of dissipation and the unrestrained gratification of desire, and away fly the old, miserly habits, the passions grow fierce and numberless, and «insolence and anarchy and waste and impudence,» under the lead of vain conceit, come trooping into his soul in «bright array» called by the sweet names of «breeding,» «liberty,» «magnificence,» «courage»! If he attempts to reform, he assumes one virtue, then another and another, and finally «shakes his head and says they are all alike, and that one is as honorable as another». He is a rare being, full of «liberty, equality, and fraternity,» an epitome of all mankind, is emulated by all—men and women alike—but he knows nothing about order and law». «And now comes the most beautiful of all, man and state alike, tyranny and the tyrant». Tyranny springs from democracy by excess of liberty. In the anarchy that follows «when all things are ready to burst with liberty,» the people «always have some champion whom they nurse into greatness» and make «protector,» and he, with the mob at his back, accuses, condemns, and banishes or kills whomsoever he pleases. If he is driven out he gets back again, for he is the «people’s friend»; then he is more of a «wolf» than ever. Happy man! he flatters and is flattered, hates and is hated, suspects and is suspected, plots and is plotted against, and the state over which he tyrannizes is in a most «blessed» condition. The tyrannical individual is like unto him. Giving his appetites full liberty he is obliged to deceive, to coerce, and to perform deeds of violence in order to maintain himself and his rabble. He has in him the essence of the highwayman, the robber of temples, the man-stealer; is just the sort of creature the rabble choose for their leader when anarchy comes. No man is meaner and more unhappy than he; none more of a slave, more of a coward—except the tyrant in public station. Unquestionably the tyrannical man and the tyrannical state are the worst—the most unjust and the most miserable—of all.—The upshot of Plato’s masterly analysis of the false forms of state and the individuals like unto them is this: justice and happiness, whether in the individual or the state, are inseparable. «Must we hire a herald or shall I proclaim the result —that the best and justest man is also the happiest, and that this is he who is the most royal master of himself; and that the worst and most unjust man is also the most miserable and that this is he who is the greatest tyrant of himself and of his state.(53)

PLATO. The Eternal Life

Plato’s account of justice does not end with his analysis of the state. With him justice is a matter of the soul as an immortal being, and of the Idea; and ethics, in the broad sense of the term, is more than politics. The paramount thought with Plato is that of the Eternal Life, the life of the Idea, or God. Justice, instead of being merely the proper performance of duties incident to membership in. the social order, is the perception, enjoyment, and application of absolute truth and beauty; the being like God, and the living as a member of an eternal order. The just man is the child of the gods as well as the state. In all this is to be found further proof of the union of justice with happiness: for the enjoyment of that which, as the pleasure of the just man must be, is essential and permanent, is itself essential and permanent, and the «gods have a care of any one whose desire is to become just and to be like God, as far as man can attain his likeness by the pursuit of virtue». The true life is therefore a blessed life; the crown of victory in the immortal race belongs to the just alone.(54)

PLATO. Beauty and Art

To the foregoing account of the Good we may append a word on Beauty, which is inseparable from goodness. Beauty is the symmetry pervading that mixture of «mind» and «pleasure» which constitutes the Good; and the business of art is to reproduce, or imitate, ideal reality, or the symmetry of the ideal truth and goodness that are reflected in phenomena. Plato cares nothing for «art for art’s sake»: he cares only for the Idea,—a faithful «imitation,» or representation, of that is respectable, but an «imitation» of an «imitation» of it is abominable. The good man «imitates» the Idea, and is beautiful; but the tragic poet who «imitates» bad men, even perfectly, is a monster, «thrice removed from the king and from truth».(55) «We must remain firm in our conviction that hymns to the gods, and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our state.(56) Homer and his followers must therefore be expurgated or else must be driven out. As for rhetoricians and orators, let them learn the nature of the soul and speak, accordingly. The Idea, whether in men’s minds or the outward universe, is sufficient unto itself. Rhetoric as practised by the Sophists and professional rhetoricians is on a level with the art of cooking; it is a mere «knack,» gotten by a kind of accident and having nothing in common with a science of the soul or with dialectic, which is the true and only science and art of thinking and speaking.

The Later Form of Plato’s Philosophy

The foregoing is a sketch of the philosophy of Plato in that form which is most conspicuous in his writings, and has been historically the more celebrated and, perhaps, more influential. There are certain other doctrines of Plato, later, apparently, in origin than those already considered. From Aristotle(57) we learn that Plato, who, as we have seen, was not completely satisfied with the doctrine of Ideas in its earlier form, came, under the influence of Pythagoreanism, to hold that Ideas, instead of being original, were derivative, having for their elements, on the one hand, the One, and on the other, the Great and the Small; the One being the principle of definiteness in the Ideas, and the Great and Small, which are elements of «duas» or duality, being the principle of diversity and indefiniteness, i.e., the material principle. «Plato,» says Aristotle, «conceived that, since the Ideas are causes of all things else, the elements of them are the elements of all existences. The Great and the Small, therefore, are causes as matter (i.e., material causes) and the One and Numbers as substance (i.e., formal causes). From the the Great and the Small Ideas arise by participation in the One». Plato held with the Pythagoreans that the One is an entity, not a predicate of something else; also that numbers are the causes of existence to all other things (than Ideas). But though the Pythagoreans identified numbers and phenomenal existences, Plato regarded them as separate, having been determined so to do by his method. In the later theory of Plato, then, Ideas and numbers constitute, as distinguished from phenomenal existences, a class by themselves. Aristotle expressly says, however, that Plato held the Ideal numbers to be intermediate between Ideas proper and sensible things. Ideal numbers differ from ordinary numbers in being qualitatively different from one another. This theory of Ideas and Ideal numbers has affinity, it will be observed, with the doctrine of the Timœus, already stated, that the world-soul is mathematical in nature. —In the Laws Plato gives a theory of the «second best» (not an Ideal) state; «the first and highest form of the state, and of the government, and of the law,» being «that in which there prevails most widely the ancient saying that friends have all things in common»(58) (the form described in the Republic). In the Laws, as in the Republic, it is declared that the state has as end the good of all, not of any person or party merely.(59) But the good is conceived not so much as the Ideal good (the rule of the Idea in the lives of men) as the good of man as such. The rulers of the «second best» state need not be dialecticians, but only morally and religiously wise and prudent men. Instead of philosophy, they have, as their guide, religion and the science of number.(60) The supreme power in the government is a council of twenty persons, ten old and ten young, —priests, «guardians of the law,» and » the general superintendent of education».(61) Community of property, and of women and children, does not obtain in the «second best» state. There are, however, certain regulations as to the maximum and minimum amounts of property that may be held by any person, and as to the disposition of property by purchase, sale, marriage, inheritance, etc.; regulations, also, regarding marriage, the number of families (5040), the disposal of children not heirs.(62) Education is strictly a state affair, and men and women are to be educated alike. The citizens, of whom there are four classes (the class distinction being based on a property distinction), devote themselves to the state and their mental and bodily development; agriculture, commerce, and the industrial arts generally, being carried on by slaves or resident foreigners. The «second best» state is (as, indeed, the title of the work expounding it should suggest) a state based upon the idea of government by law instead of by the decisions of wise men, or philosophers, merely. It has no immediate relation to the Idea, the theory of Ideas playing no part in the Laws.


The philosophy of Plato is in its genesis a synthesis of elements drawn from earlier thinkers, a conservation of most, if not all, of the truth, with much of the error (as from a modern point of view it must be deemed) contained in the earlier systems. In its idea and end it is an attempt to discover a complete and true universal of thought and being: no thinker could have been more anxious to do full justice to all the elements of experience in the effort to comprehend the universe in a single mental grasp. But, as has already been suggested, and as Plato himself saw, there is a certain lacuna, or gap, in the system: its first principle, the Idea, does not stand in a perfectly concrete relation with the terms that require to be united. As the Idea is merely Plato’s name for perfect intelligence, and will, and power, and is the only possible philosophical first principle, the system of Plato is not at fault in its first principle; it is at fault, rather, in the want of complete development of that. Plato has not fully shown why and how the Idea is the source of being, of knowledge, and of goodness. The «ascent to the Idea,» which Plato describes as so difficult, is made by Plato with sufficient truth and reality: it is the «downward way» that is imperfectly pointed out and traversed. Plato’s thought in this part of his system seems, however, to have undergone a steady development. At first he held that there must be Ideas for all groups of «individuals having a common name»(63), artificial as well as natural; then, that there are ideas for actual natural classes only (not, as he had formerly held, of relations and negations); and, again, that Ideas may perhaps be merely «patterns [or types] fixed in nature».(64) This last thought, it was left for Aristotle to develop. Finally, in the Laws the theory of Ideas found no place.(65) Again, as to the nearness of Ideas to phenomena, the Ideal numbers of the later theory above-described were evidently adopted by Plato as a means of rendering the abstract concrete, or of making the «rational real,» and the «real rational». The mathematical nature of the world-soul was assumed for the same purpose. Finally, the notion of «participation» was explained as equivalent to «assimilation,» or the bearing a likeness, to the Idea. Further critical comment on Plato at this point is rendered superfluous by the fact that we shall have to consider, later, criticisms passed upon him by Aristotle, his truest interpreter and the noblest continuator of his philosophy.


(1) Phædrus, p. 249. 

(2) Theœtetus, p. 176; Phœdo, p. 82.

(3) Phœdrus, p. 278.

(4) Republic, p. 517.

(5) Ibid., pp. 511 and 533.

(6) lbid., p. 4O2.

(7) Republic, p. 525.

(8) Ibid., p. 533.

(9) Republic, p. 533.

(10) Ibid., pp. 535-540.

(11) Republic, p. 534 ; Phœdrus, pp. 277, 278.

(12) Phœdrus, pp. 265, 266; Parmenides, pp. 128 and 136; Republic, pp. 427, 428. In the passage last mentioned, Plato refers to, by name, the method termed by Mill the «Method of Residues». «Modern Inductive Philosophy» was largely «anticipated» by Plato and Aristotle.

(13) Statesman, 262; Sophist, throughout.

(14) Phœdrus, p. 245; Theœtetus, pp. 184, 185, 203-209; Phœdo, pp. 74, 75; Parmenides, 132-135.

(15) Phœdo, pp. 78-103.

(16) The communion of Ideas is treated especially in the dialogues, Sophist, Parmenides, and Philebus.

(17) Sophist, pp. 247-250, 257, 259.

(18) Translated into modern phraseology, this means that all motion, all change, is but the self-affirmation, the self-identification of the Eternal.

(19) Philebus, p. 27.

(20) Ibid., pp. 61,63, 65, 67.

(21) Republic, p. 517.

(22) Republic, pp. 508, 509. See p. 5O6.

(23) Sophist, pp. 247, 248.

(24) There seems to be no real warrant for affirming (as some do) that to Plato the Ideas are merely thoughts in the «mind» of God.

(25) Phœdo, p. 75; Phœdrus, p. 95; Zeller’s Plato and the Older Academy, pp. 262, 268. Schwegler’s Handbook of the Hist. of Philos. (Stirling’s trans.), p 79.

(26) Parmenides, p. 132 ; Timœus, p. 28.

(27) See below, p. 112.

(28) Parmenides, pp. 132-135; Aristotle’s Metaphyscs, Bk. XIII. chs. 4 and 5.

(29). Timæus, pp. 28, 29, 48.

(30). Timœus, p. 59.

(31). Ibid., pp. 30, 33, 48.

(32). Timœus, pp. 32, 34, 35, 38.

33. Ibid., pp. 51, 52.

34. Ibid., p. 50.

35. See Jowett’s Introduction to the Timœus, section 3.

(36). Plato not an «evolutionist».

(37). Timœus, pp. 45, 47.

(38). There is a certain discrepancy between the accounts of the Phœdrus and the Timœus on this point. The Phœdrus has been followed in what is now given.

(39). Phœdrus, pp. 246-255.

(40). Meno, pp. 81-83.

(41). Phœdo, pp. 74 and fol.

(42). See Ueberweg’s History of Philosophy, Vol. I. p. 127; also Phœdrus, p. 245; Republic, p. 609; Timœus, p. 41; Phœdo, pp. 62-107.

(43) Republic pp. 611, 612.

(44). Ibid., p. 368

(45) Republic, Bks. II and III.

(46) Republic, p 428.

(47) Ibid., pp. 428-434.

(48) Republic, p. 444.

(49) Ibid., Bk. I.

(50) Ibid., p. 402.

(51) Ibid., Bk. V.

(52) Republic, Bks. VIII. and IX.

(53) Republic, p 80.

(54) Republic, pp 612, 613.

(55) Ibid., p. 597.

(56) Republic, p. 607. See also Bks. II. and III.

(57) Metaphysics, Bk. I. ch. 6, and other passages.

(58) Laws, p. 739.

(59) Ibid., p. 715. (See Republic, p. 420.)

(60) Laws, pp. 738, 747, 884, 885, 909.

(61) Ibid., pp. 951, 961.

(62) Ibid., pp. 740-745.

(63) Republic, p. 596.

(64) Parmenides p. 132.

(65) Not given up completely by Plato himself, however; only held in abeyance.