|© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE||Last updated November 21, 1998|
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This page is part of the "e-mail archives" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "e-mail archives" section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.
This set of posts was written in answer to the following post by Mark Ast <firstname.lastname@example.org> to the <sophia> and <plato> lists, dated Wed, 25 Oct 95 04:18:44 -0500, and titled "why bother studying Plato, anyway?"
The interchange between Kalev and Tony is specifically related to *how to read* Plato and whether his style and vocabulary change--and whether this question is of importance.
This provides an opportunity for me to subsume that question under a much larger question (actually, a group of questions) that I would like to pose. I do so because in the past I have conducted something of an informal survey among several influential Plato scholars, asking the following questions:
1) Do you take Plato's philosophy seriously?
2) Apart from Plato's historical position and importance (including, but not limited to, the fact that he was one of the earliest philosophers, and he formulated many problems that most philosophers of the past discussed, and he introduces certain interesting and intellectually challenging problems, and he was very influential in setting the framework for discussions of issues in the past, and the fact that he writes in what is often an easy-reading quasi-poetic style...)--apart from these historical considerations--is there anything in Plato's philosophy that:
a) Provides useful and meaningful answers for the intellectual, moral and practical problems of contemporary life?
b) Provides tools to make fundamental decisions about how to think, how to act and how to live one's life?
3. Specifically, with regard to the theory of Forms:
a) Does it have any validity?
b) Can you in any meaningful or significant way use the theory of Forms in your intellectual, moral and practical life (apart from getting a slot to teach a course on ancient philosophy)?
4. Should we study Plato merely to exercise our minds and study the (outmoded) ideas of the past, or can Plato's philosophy actually be used:
a) As an aid in studying modern problems from crime to education to government (to choose just a few examples)?
b) Not merely as an aid (as suggested in the immediately preceding [4a]), but as providing approaches or *solutions* superior to, or more sophisticated than, those offered today by the social sciences or the physical sciences?
5. For those who believe that Plato actually formulated and advanced a theory of Forms, did he succeed to any degree in proving the existence of Forms--and does anybody who believes so, take the proof and/or the Forms, seriously?
The answers received to date have been, virtually all of them, emphatically negative, and even when I probe further, and ask "Do you know any other Plato scholar who really takes Plato's philosophy and method, and his theory of Forms, at all seriously; whose life and actions are actually influenced by Plato and the theory of Forms in some serious or significant way?"; the answer is almost uniformly negative. In one case, however, the answer was positive--I was informed that one author,with whose name I was familiar, really was now took Plato's philosophy seriously. Yet when a colleague of mine happened to meet with the very prominent Plato scholar in question, he explained (and then hearing this account, I recalled his argument) that Plato never had a theory of Forms, and this notion (that Plato ever formulated or advocated the Forms) is a pure fiction; rather, he explains, one should study Plato only for his dramatic/artistic qualities.
Perhaps some of you will respond to the above group of questions. Surely it makes a difference whether, in teaching Plato, you are: a convinced advocate of Plato's method of philosophizing and/or his theory of Forms; indifferent and consider them of no importance except as historical curiosities; or, fiercely opposed.
If anybody takes Plato to be of more than literary/historical interest, please let us know what, specifically, you find important or philosophically fruitful.
Mark Ast, Ph.D.
Xcelleration Research Corporation
To: sophia <email@example.com>
Date : October 27, 1995, 06:25:37
Subject : Re: why bother studying Plato, anyway? (part 1)
> 1) Do you take Plato's philosophy seriously?
If, by Plato, you mean that guy who wrote dialogues all through his life, changing his mind as he grew older (scholars would prefer to say "evolving"), starting with journalistic reports on Socrates' trial and life, developing a "theory of forms" of his own whereby the changing world is but a pale image of an everlasting "world" of "forms", the only one real, the only one worth our time and efforts, only to later tell Athens and the world that "oups! excuse me, there was a glitch in my theory, I should go back to my drawing board, but be patient, I'm sure I'll find a way out and let you know as soon as I do, in the meantime enjoy a few of Parmenides' tricks"; who spent his life picking on the rhetors, but couldn't resist the pleasure of showing them he was better at their own games; who whould announce works in installment only to change his mind as time passed, dropping a Philosopher to start a new trilogy, but then get bored in the middle of the second volume to start a fancy of old, a code of laws that would never be finished... if that's the Plato you are talking about, then, sure I don't take him very seriously and I can understand why "several influential Plato scholars" didn't either. But then, why is it they keep working on it, because this Plato is their Plato, their creature, their means of defusing a highly subversive work in order not to have to ask themselves disturbing questions the dialogues face us with?
But this is not the real Plato, or at least not the Plato I found in reading Plato rather than those "influential Plato scholars" (who can recommend themselves of the patronage of a good "disciple" of Plato, a guy by the name of Aristotle). And the Plato I found, I take most seriously, and hold it to be the greatest philosopher that ever lived, and maybe the only one you really need to study to become a philosopher yourself...
> 2) Apart from Plato's historical position and importance (including, but not limited to, the fact that he was one of the earliest philosophers, and he formulated many problems that most philosophers of the past discussed, and he introduces certain interesting and intellectually challenging problems, and he was very influential in setting the framework for discussions of issues in the past, and the fact that he writes in what is often an easy-reading quasi-poetic style...)--apart from these historical considerations--is there anything in Plato's philosophy that:
> a) Provides useful and meaningful answers for the intellectual, moral and practical problems of contemporary life?
> b) Provides tools to make fundamental decisions about how to think, how to act and how to live one's life?
The Plato I found in reading his dialogues times and again does not develop "theories", be they "of forms" or of anything else, he doesn't provides "answers", because he was a teacher, and he new that there is only one place one can find answers, at least to those fundamental questions about life, and that's within oneself. No ready-made answers served by somebody else will do. The most somebody else can do for you, and what he did, is to lead you along the way towards these answers, to help you explore alleys, to point at wrong or insufficient answers, to pave the way, to shatter your unchallenged certitudes, to make you ask yourself the right questions; but when it comes to providing the answers, you're on your own, because it's your life, and answers are not mere words, simple logoi, the most you could find in books, but they are deeds, erga (check the dialogues to see how many times the expression "en logoi te kai en erga" or similar words are found, or the opposition between logoi and erga is relevant to structure a dialogue: see for instance the Phædo; Socrates is our guide in the dialogues because he is the man who would live by his idea of justice to the price of his life, and die for it).
I find this "guide" thousand times more relevant to my life here and there than all the answers that, let's say an Aristotle, tried to dump on me to show how smart he was and how good he had been at pointing at supposed weaknesses in Plato's "theories" he thought he had understood but hadn't (he was only picking at his early answers to misunderstood questions)...
... to be continued...
To: sophia <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date : October 28, 1995, 11:19:22
Subject : Re: why bother studying Plato, anyway? (part 2)
As I see it, Plato did write the Philosopher. But that too is an answer one has to find by himself: the Philosopher is not one among the dialogues, it is the whole set of dialogues, conceived by their author as a whole, made up of seven "tetralogies" (each tetralogy is itself made up of an "introductory" dialogue and a trilogy, hence hesitations in the past between classifications in trilogies and tetralogies), written late in Plato's life, after he had finished "evolving", based on the experience of tens of years of teaching at the Academy... This work is not intended to make us "theoricians" (ones who "theorein" the everlasting world of forms to better evade this changing world and fall in the ditch with Thales), but to make us "politicians", because that's what the true philosopher should be; politicians not in the manner of Alcibiades (the one with whom we get started in the journey towards our own truth, that is, our own being, which is not given in "entelechy" at the start, in some kind of ADN string than only has to mechanically deploy its potentialities, hoping that anagkè will not get in the way, but must be constructed by ourselves with our logos, which makes us men different from beasts), not in the manner of Alcibiades, said I, but in the manner of Socrates, and of the unnamed Athenian in the Laws, tackling "reality" to order it and bring more reason in it to make our cities a little more like god created kosmos we should take as a model in doing so.
Plato didn't write the Menexenus to brag about his skills as a writer, but as part of a tetralogy on logos, to show readers to what absurdities can lead ill used logos: introduced by the Cratylus because, before talking about speech, one must understand its building blocks, words, this tetralogy confronts us with the extremes of the poietes' logos absolutized to the point of taking the place of the "real" world (Ion); of the eristics' logos which is no logos at all but a mere play with words that can prove anything and its contrary for the sole purpose of individual success (Euthydemus); of the politicians' logos, which can justify any kind of atrocities, war after war to killed soldiers' parents, with a few rhetor's tricks (here comes the Menexenus). And this lesson is quite relevant today in view of the reviving fundamentalisms of all brands, of the increasing demagogery of today's politicians, and of the sophistry of those who assist them.
Plato didn't write the Parmenides to let us know he had found a glitch in his so called "theory of ideas" with no solution in sight, but to tell us that it is not because you cannot find an adequate description of "forms" that you should dump them, because there is no way you can do without them, and explain the world with only "material" principles; and to warn us at the same time of the risk there is to go all the way in the opposite direction and assume only "forms" are real, and end up with a purely "logical" world of "thoughts" in which the only rules are the rules of "formal logic" applied on words which have no "referents" elsewhere to check the "truth" of what comes out of "logical" deductions; he wrote this dialogue as an introduction to the trilogy on dialectics (Theætetus, Sophist, Statesman) in which we are told what "science" is not, why we cannot say anything but must seek for rules of "participation" of "forms" with "forms", "forms" with "instances" (as a computer's programmer, I find this quite relevant today in the most advanced fields of programming like "object-oriented" analysis), and what true politics is.
Plato didn't "abandon" the Critias to switch to the Laws, but deliberately carved a "test" for his readers! OK for the true "poietical" muthos of nature that Timæus has just "read" for us, and that we should use as a model to build the city, rather than Homer's muthoi; but when Critias, of all least fitted to lead the city, is about to rewrite a new Iliad, better to defuse Socrates' subversient ideals of the Republic, moving back in a remote past the recent history of Athens, changing names and locations without realy fooling us, has summoned one more assembly of the gods he doesn't believe in, and is about to have the god of god talk about a plan to "fix" men's mess, Plato just shut him up, and let us faced with ourselves to provide our own "krisis" (what better speaker than Kritias to bring us there?), our own "judgment"! Are we of those who miss the end of Critias myth, who will spend the rest of their life seeking the lost Atlantis, the most successfull myth ever carved by man? Or are we of those who are glad it's finally over and, rather than waiting for a Syracusan general ushered in by a traitor to Athens to talk politics "a la maniere de" Pericles/Aspasia" in a living-room chat after a good dinner, sitting in cosy sofas around a drink or two, shall we stand up and walk, joining the unnamed Athenian to rebuild the city, on our way towards god's sanctuary, not waiting for him to fix our mess but fixing it ourselves to reach it?... Is the lesson outdated? Does it have only "historical" interest? I don't think so!
Plato tries to make us realize that "science" doesn't give us "answers", but only "tools". He does that right from the start, and with that same Critias, (the guy who has all the right answers but doesn't want to use them) in the Charmides, seeking for a "science of sciences" which would tell each science what his good is; and again in the Hippias minor, where he tells us that it is the same science that can most surely do good and evil in its field, the good doctor that can most surely kill his patient if he decides so. Science does not tell what to do with it; science is not sophia. Is there a lesson that is more relevant for today's world, where too many people think we should do anything only because we can do it (you only have to look at medicine as an exemple, once again, the same Plato would use in his time). We are not on earth to build (or destroy) the earth with more and more powerfull "technai", playing "demiourgoi" only to end up condemning Socrates once again (Anytus was a "demiourgos", by the way); somebody else has done that already and we should take it as a model. We are here on earth to build ourselves, as individuals and as "social" creatures, with the logos our maker gave us in the first place.
Plato tries to make us realize there is no way we can bring order in the "city" unless each one of us first brings order within himself; that justice, which is the goal of man, the idea of man, is a private business before being a social one, because you can't ask others to do what you yourself don't want to do. He does that best of all in a dialogue, the Republic, which is the "logical" center of the whole work, through the mouth of the man, Socrates, whose death is at the "physical" center of the work (the exact middle of the 28 dialogues the way I order them is at the end of the Phædo), in the middle of the middle trilogy (Phædrus, Republic, Phædo, introduced by the Symposium) which takes place in a "suspended" time between Socrates' "logical" death (his acceptance of it in the Crito for the sake of "justice" as he sees it) and his "physical" death. And this lesson is quite relevant today, as much as it was in Plato's time. And no one that I know of ever put it in a better "form".
... to be continued...
> 3. Specifically, with regard to the theory of Forms:
> a) Does it have any validity?
> b) Can you in any meaningful or significant way use the theory of Forms in your intellectual, moral and practical life (apart from getting a slot to teach a course on ancient philosophy)?
> 4. Should we study Plato merely to exercise our minds and study the (outmoded) ideas of the past, or can Plato's philosophy actually be used:
> a) As an aid in studying modern problems from crime to education to government (to choose just a few examples)?
> b) Not merely as an aid (as suggested in the immediately preceding [4a]), but as providing approaches or *solutions* superior to, or more sophisticated than, those offered today by the social sciences or the physical sciences?
"Forms", there are in Plato's dialogues, all over the place! But "theory", there is none. As I said, Plato doesn't write "theories", he wants only to help us theorein (Timæus), "criticize" (Critias), and get moving (Laws) as "philosopher-kings" in order to make as many people as possible as "happy" as possible, of man's true "happiness" investigated in the Philebus. The problem is most "scholars" think a philosopher should write to develop theories, give answers; and because they could not find any prepackaged in the dialogues, they thought Plato didn't have them, or worse, had different ones at different times, and saw conflicts where he was thought-provoking. Taking Aristotle to his word, Aristotle who couldn't help giving answers and kept changing them as he grew older, Aristotle who couldn't get past the Parmenides, as Plato was perfectly aware of and tried to make him understand in giving his name to Parmenides shadowy respondent, they devised a so-called Platonic "theory of forms" only to give themselves a chance to follow on Aristotle' footsteps and criticize it, pointing at Plato's contradictions...
Plato can't say precisely what "forms" are, but he "knows" that we cannot do without them, and shows us how we can use them. And he does that best of all precisely in the dialogue where most people don't want to see them, in the Timæus! This dialogue is kind of an inventory of all the "forms" of man one can think of. And forms are all over the place. And to make sure we get the message, Plato mentions them by name only when talking about things we should least of all expect to find them in: matter! Yes! matter too has "form", is "made up" of forms, triangles in that case. But remember this is just an "eikosi muthos", a mathematical model, as would say today's scientists... And when it comes to man, it is true one way to look at him is to see him as "formed" of matter, of chemical compounds obeying to their own "laws" (one way to look at "forms" is to see them as "laws"; but it's only one way...), and to assume these laws are laws of man (this is the meaning of Gyges' story in the Republic, the antithesis of the Cave's parable, where Gyges descends into a cave brought forth by the mere forces of nature, only to find a dead body inside an open horse-soul, the only thing "science" can exhibit about man, and bring back a ring that allows him to escape all responsibility, sort of a freudian "unconscious", and yet become king in killing the king with the help of the queen's eros).
But there are other "forms" of man in the Timæus: man is "built" by ancilliary gods according to a "design", a "form" whose purpose is to host a divine soul. He is made up of flesh and bones and organs, and submits to "biological" laws: this "form" of man is the one a physician would exhibit. But man godly soul itself is a "form" of man. It helps explain what he is and how it behaves, and it has a "structure", the tripartite structure exhibited in the Republic, a "form" with its own laws. Yet, all these forms are within the "world" of becoming, they are within Timæus' muthos. They all "exist" in some manner, each one its own, and interact, "participate" in one another to help explain man. But there is still another "form" of man, one which is outside time and "space", outside Timæus' myth in that it is shown before the myth starts: this form is the "form" of justice, and it is the whole purpose of the summary of the Republic at the beginning of the Timæus to exhibit it, and to put it as an introduction, not only to the myth, but to the whole concluding trilogy of Timæus, Critias, Laws, because the Laws are nothing more than a way of showing how to use Timæus' "model" of god's work to try and bring forth the best "realization" we can of the Republic's "ideal" along the lines of the principles set forth in the Statesman.
And if the first three "forms" of man represent to him sort of "anagkè", laws of matter, biology, and psychology he must do with, it remains to him, to each one of us for himself, to "perfect" the third one, his "soul" (and we know from the start, from the Alcibiades, that "man is soul"), in deciding whether he wants it to "participate" in that "form" of justice, both within and without, and to what extent (I leave it to each one of you to see if these four "forms" of man might not have to do with the four "causes" in Aristotle's "philosophy"). And we can help one another on that road, through paideia, through "psuchagogia", as Plato does through his dialogues, today as well as 23 centuries ago...
Plato never advocated or... or..., but and's: not "being or becoming", but "becoming towards one's being"; not "matter or forms" but "forms within matter"; not "pleasures or thought", but "measured physical and intellectual pleasures" (the Philebus even goes as far as calling pleasure "the road towards one's being"); etc. There are no two worlds for Plato, but one world that encompasses "material" and "formal" "beings" interacting with one anothers, each having its own way of "being".
Is that (not a "theory of forms") relevant today? You bet! Can we still use it for more than "historical" purpose? Sure! What better guide to help scientists get a little less sure of themselves and more aware of their "anciliary" role; to help politicians realize they are not elected to increase their wealth but to help their fellow men become happier; to help teachers educate youngers and olders alike, because life, and "progress" (progress toward our own being) is not over until it's over... Plato "invented" upper education, and nobody did better since... The reason why he is still fascinating and his study more fruitfull than that of Aristotle is precisely because he did not give answers, did not develop "theories" (at least in writing) that would be outdated today (as I tried to show, even the Timæus is relevant today, provided you don't seek in it a "scientific" theory, but a "way" of looking at the world...) The problems he tackled will last as long as man because they are man's problem, and each man must answer them for himself... And in that, Plato can help, and he never wanted to do more... And so far nobody did it better than him...
> 5. For those who believe that Plato actually formulated and advanced a theory of Forms,...
As I said above, I don't.
> ... did he succeed to any degree in proving the existence of Forms--and does anybody who believes so, take the proof and/or the Forms, seriously?
He didn't try to "prove" anything. He just tried to help us realize we could not do without them, whatever they may be, that is, we cannot explain everything only at the "material" level. Was he successfull in that? With me, certainly; with "influencial scholars", I'm not so sure from what you seem to say. But at least, he succeeded in keeping the question open and alive up to our time, and nobody has ever proven him wrong at that.
And if all of this is no more than a fancy of mine that Plato never put in his dialogues, there remains the fact that I could find it in there, that it helped me find answers to lots of vital (and more mundane) questions, and for all that, I will forever be gratefull to Plato and hope his reading is as fruitfull for many more readers in times to come...
Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.
First published December 8, 1996 ;
Last updated November 21, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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