© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
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Platonism, a fresh look (part 2)

February 26, 1995

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.

To: plato <plato@freelance.com>
      sophia <sophia@liverpool.ac.uk>,
Date : February 26, 1995, 17:58:42
Subject : Platonism: a fresh look (part 2)

Let us now try and see the questions Plato is asking, and the answers he hints at through the way he orders them.

The very beginning of the introductory dialogue of the first tetralogy puts us in the presence of both the perplexity of Alcibiades (the "thaumazein" which, according to Theaetetus, 155d, is the origin of philosophy) and the "love" of Socrates for him (that "eros" which will be shown to be the driving force behind man's doings in the Symposium, which concludes with the last appearance of Alcibiades, telling himself that he couldn't understand Socrates' love). And this, at the very moment when Alcibiades is supposed to start acting in the public world. And the question raised here is, at least on the surface, a "political" one: who deserves to lead? But right away, Socrates shows us that one cannot answer this question if he doesn't answer first another one: what is it to be a man? In the name of what should a man command other men and other men obey him? All the dialogues are but steps toward the answer to these questions! Plato doesn't take interest in metaphysics, ontology, linguistics, epistemology, and so on, for the sake of it, but only in order to answer the initial questions: what is it to be a man, how should men behave to be happy, and who should lead them to that end.

The first trilogy breaks down the initial question into its component parts: what it is to be a man, "aner" in Greek, is still at the center, when the Laches searches for a definition of manhood, "andreia". And, in order to do this in a society raised to the tune of Homer, Plato starts with a "military" view on courage and sets to task the would-be Achilles and Odysseus of Socrates' time (ain't Nicias, and his Sicilian expedition, a failed Agamemnon, at least for readers of Plato's time?). But we'll learn at the end, in the beginning of the Laws, that the paradigm of society is not war, but peace, and that the paradigm of a peaceful society is common meals, where the needs of the body and of the soul get satisfied, both in "logoi" (food for the body and speeches listened to for the soul) and in "erga" (dance for the body, and speeches made for the soul), the empire over oneself and the obedience to social codes are tested, the cult to Apollo and the cult to Dionysos are rendered, and so much more; and of which the Symposium, in the center of the work, gives us such a nice example.

On both sides of this inquiry into manhood, we find what can be viewed as the inquiry into the meaning of both parts of the word "philosophos". To look into the meaning of "philia" is to search for the driving force behind man's acts: why should I bother to care for my fellow men? Why should I even bother to care for my own self? For my soul if I think that only my body is real, or for my body, if I think that the soul is the self? Yet everybody "acts", looks for something because he deems it "better" for him than something else. Here is the meaning of the so-called Socratic paradox that nobody does willingly evil: nobody does willingly something that he deems evil to himself, but 1) he may not care if it's evil to somebody else and 2) he may be wrong in thinking it's good for him. And that's why, after the driving force, we must then inquire into the goal of our actions, look for the "sophia" that makes it possible for us to find out what is our real good. But right from the start, we will be presented with somebody (Critias) who, unlike young Alcibiades in the first dialogue, seems to know all the answers (wisdom is: "to mind his own business", Charmides, 161b; "to know thyself", 164d; the science of good and evil, 174b), and yet is to become one of the bloodiest tyrants of Athens. Thus, by the end of tetralogy 1, not only are we shaken by a few vital questions, but hints at the answers have already been given, and we have been presented with two of the most famous "friends" of Socrates, who did most to anger Athens against him, and thus, the stage is set for the soon to come trial of Socrates.

But, before we get to that point, we start the inquiry about "wisdom", or "aretè", the perfection of man, with "the many", with the answers that are "in the air of the time", with the "theories" that are in everybody's ear, the pretenses of the sophists. Protagoras tells us that "man is the measure of all things". There are many ways to understand this. But, no matter how I understand it, how does it help me answer the question, if I don't know what "man" is?.. Parmenides tells us that "it's the same to be and to be known (or to know)". Here again, we are not too sure what he meant (and, for us, how to translate it), but see where it leads us in the hands of a Gorgias, a Polos or a Callicles... Hippias may be fully self-sufficient and capable of manufacturing all he wears, yet he is unable to make a difference between a beautiful so and so, and the beautiful; he cannot raise above the materialistic ground level; and he cannot see the difference between knowing how to do things and why to do this or that, nor does he understand that science will never give us the answer as to what to do, because it is the one who knows that can best do both good and evil with his science...

And if we go from theory to action, it's no better. All these theories, as Callicles hinted already, lead to to death of Socrates, who was the best of men. People don't take time to search what it is to be a man. They think they know. A Meno does not want to find out what "virtue" is; he only wants to know how to get it! And fast, if you please. And the only way Socrates can try to show him that knowledge is not the same thing as belief, be it true belief, is through an experiment (the experiment with the slave works with each reader, because the point is not to see whether the right answer was actually found by the slave alone or elicited by Socrates maneuvering, but to see the difference between belief and knowledge: whether the reader already knows the answer to the problem before he starts reading the dialogue or not, once he knows it, he also knows that, from there on, there is no way he could answer otherwise). Anytus too knows best what a sophist is. And he does not even think a test is needed to know that Socrates is one of them. He does not bother to even talk with him! No wonder, with such people, that they view Euthyphro, the supposed "seer", who sticks to the letter of the law to the point of bringing his own father to trial for an involuntary murder on the person of a slave of his, as the truly pious man, and Socrates, the man who did most to try and better his fellow citizens by "bugging" them to induce them to take care of their souls, who has the spirit of the law in such high esteem that he prefers to abide by it, even when he knows that the law is wrong, and wrongs him to the point of death, rather than to evade it, which would be to commit an impious act worthy of death.

But now that we have heard and seen it all in this world, now that Socrates is all but dead, and that his acceptance of death bears witness to the truth of his words, it's time to pause for a while and, in a lengthy flashback between the return of the ship and Socrates' execution, to listen to what he has to say to justify his behaviour. The central tetralogy is the key to it all, the bridge between the visible world that has been exposed so far and the intelligible one that is yet to come, in much the same way the soul is that bridge in the "real world", which is neither the material world of becoming, of "phusis" in space and time, alone, nor the eternal world of being, of "forms" outside space and time, alone, but both of them together, neither so separated as to be two distinct worlds, nor merged together to the point of indistinction, but "participating" in one another according to rules that have to be found.

This tetralogy starts with one night in the life of Socrates, enlarged to his whole external life, told by the beloved disciple, the drunken Alcibiades who could not understand the master, at the end of speeches that present the theory of love, before the song of the cock announcing a new day to an audience put to sleep by Socrates' speeches and heavy drinking; and it ends with one day in the death of Socrates, enlarged to his whole "internal" life told by himself to the grieving disciples that are a living proof of love in action, before he asks Crito to offer to Asclepios, the healer of bodies, the cock that will no longer have to sing to awake Socrates, the healer of souls, who alone will go into an eternal sleep when night comes. It includes both the "physical" center of the whole work (the death of Socrates, at the end of the Phaedo, is the middle of the dialogues thus arranged, in number of pages) and its "logical" center, the middle of the middle dialogue of the middle trilogy, which is Republic, V, 471c-474c, where Socrates states the paradigm of the philosopher-king, which is also stated in the VIIth letter as the turning point in Plato's thought about politics, and was most likely the reason for founding the Academy.

We have already shown that the introductory dialogue, the Symposium, is kind of a summary of the whole work, whose structure it mimics, from the standpoint of the driving force behind our whole behaviour, eros. The ensuing trilogy tells us about the soul's origin, its judgment and its destiny in three myths and much more "logos". But it also draws bridges between both "worlds":

(to be continued)

(1) A more detailed plan of the Phædrus may be found in the pages dealing with this dialogue. It differs somehow from this earlier draft, but the new version doesn't reduce the importance of psuchagogia in the structure of this part of the dialogue. (back)

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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