© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
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Platonism, a fresh look (part 3)

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, 18:01:30
Subject : Platonism: a fresh look (part 3)

Tetralogy 5 shows us the illusions of speech, all sorts of speeches, in much the same way tetralogy 2 had shown us the illusions of "virtue", after an introductory dialogue, half serious, half joke, analyses the building blocks of speech, words themselves. And tetralogy 6 can then present us with the laws of reasonable speech, its relationship with what it "represents", its limits, and its goals, after an introductory dialogue, half serious half joke, exhibits the danger of thinking in a purely "intelligible" world, without reference to the material world.

These two tetralogies can be viewed both as "symetric" to the second and third tetralogies across the dividing line of the soul, or as parallel. The setup of their introductory dialogues leads to symetry. Words and speeches are to thoughts what acts are to intentions, they are the "material" side of thoughts. Thus the Cratylus, introducing the "materialistic" side of the "invisible" world, starts as abruptly, in an ongoing conversation in direct style, as does the Meno, introduction to the "pragmatic" side of the visible world. And the Parmenides, introducing the trilogy that goes deep into the inner circles of thought and most clearly exposes dialectics, is a story told in indirect style by someone who got it from someone who got it from..., in much the same way the Protagoras, who introduces the illusions of sophistry as a teacher of virtue, is a story told in indirect style by Socrates to a friend. Looking at it this way, the Sophist is an answer to the Gorgias, in that it gives the rules of true speech, while the Euthydemus is an "answer" to the Apology, in that it is the "true" comedy that Aristophanes might have written on the sophists in place of the Clouds, the comedy that might have allowed Anytus to distinguish between Socrates and the two clown brothers. The Crito, where Socrates gives us the true reasons why he should himself die for his country, contrasts with the Menexenus, where a politician uses somebody else's speech to give false reasons why other people have died for their country. And the Statesman, giving goals for political action and ways of intertwining contrasting characters in a well knit city, answers the hesitations of Hippias, who prefers Achiles and his changing mood and pseudo-franckness, and opposes it to Odysseus and his unchanging goal. And the Ion ridicules the cult of Homer that made possible the piety of a Euthyphro, while the Theætetus gives Hippias a hint of what he should learn to understand the difference between a beautiful girl and the beautiful.

But, from another standpoint, words and speeches are "eicones" of thoughts in much the same way the theories of the sophists are "eicones" of true virtue as lived by Socrates; they are mere icons, because they "represent", at least in true speech, thoughts, beings, that preexist to them. In this parallel, it is the Sophist that parallels the Apology, in staging the "intelligible" parricide of Parmenides by a fellow citizen in order to free thought, and avenge the condemnation of Socrates that was made possible by the influence of rhetoric, itself a byproduct of Parmenides' theories, as a counterpoint to the "physical" condemnation of Socrates by his fellow citizens. And the Euthydemus contrasts the futility of mere eristic clowns, that only kill thought with words, with the danger of Callicles and his likes, who don't content themselves with words, but act, and get a Socrates to trial and death. And so on...

But then, where does that leave us? Well! If the Republic was the first summit along the way (and probably the high point), the Sophist is another key place in the dialogues. We might call it the "dialectical" center of the dialogs. And what does it tell us?.. It tells us that "being" is not the problem, because anything "is", and, yes, anything that I can think of "is", at least as a thought in my mind! But once I have said that, I have said nothing yet, because "being" is the least meaningful of all predicates. The problem is that "things" that "are", whatever that may be, are not isolated monads, nor are they an indistinct whole (as Parmenides would like it to be). "Things" relate to one another in specific ways that have to be found, because they don't all depend on us, and can't always be what we want. For instance, all things are not at rest (Parmenides), neither are they all in flux (Heraclitus): both "rest" and "movement" "are"; but then, all other beings don't participate to "rest" or to "movement". Some participate to the one, other to the other, and we have to find out which ones rest and which ones move. And if some "move", it means that they "change", that is, that their participation or non participation with other "beings", be they "forms", that is unchanging beings, or other "moving" beings, changes in time.

And man, body and soul, is one of these "moving" beings, itself made up of many beings bound together for more or less time, and capable of "moving" by himself within certain limits, that is, for instance, capable of deciding to participate or not participate in some "forms" like "justice", "courage", and so on. In other words, man is not a "being" given from the start and incapable of anything else than deploy in time what was there in the first place, but he is a complex whole of "participating" "beings", both forms and matter, including "movement", which has to "move" from a given "nature" to an ultimate "being" that will in part be what each one wants for himself. Thus, man must try to understand the "forms" he may or may not want to participate in, and find out which "participations" are "good" for him.

And this implies first that he find out how to figure out what is good for him, a task undertaken in the Philebus. Here, we are to find out that good and evil are not contraries in the sense of more or less; that evil is not a "positive" being, but a "lack" of something, a "ponerian" (many references throughout the dialogues from start to end), and that "nature" gave us a hint in that search of what is good for our being, namely pleasure, "the road towards one's own being" ("ten eis ten auton ousian odov", Phil., 32b), provided we find the right measure of it. And such a measure implies that each "part" of our composite being gets its due, no more, no less.

Then, we might want to figure out the "parts", and especially the "forms", we are made up of, and the ones we might be able to participate in. A first step toward this is to investigate "phusin", and that is the task set up in the Timæus. But, before getting started, we must not forget that we have already done most of this work, albeit at a time we were not fully able to understand its full implications, namely, in the Republic. And that's why the Timæus starts with a reminder of the Republic (of the first half of it to be precise). But this reminder has still another meaning: in our search for the form(s) of man (that's what we are doing here in the Timæus), we will find several of these forms along the way. And the first one, actually the ultimate one, the "final cause", as Aristotle would say later, is the justice that was presented us in the Republic, a justice both internal and social.

But there are other forms of man, and, in the Timæus, we get through them in a "descending" order, from the most "abstract" one (justice) down to the most "material" one: after justice, implied by the recollection of the Republic even before the start of Timæus' speech, that is, before the start of the "chronological" account of creation (a way of "implying" that it is the only one that is truly outside time and space, that is "eternal"), the next form we encounter is the soul, created by the demiourgos and handed down to the secondary gods in charge of creating man. And, as he hands this "form" down to them, he describes it and its "laws" for everybody to know (41e-42e). Taking over this "form" of man, his soul and its "laws", the secondary gods build a third "form" of man, a whole body of organs arranged to host that soul, a form that would satisfy a physician, where everything is set according to a purpose provided by the higher form to be accomodated, soul. And note that what is described in the dialogue, is in effect a "form", in that it is not the creation of individual men, but the description of the principles that preside over the creation of any man.

The last "form" of man to come is the "form" of the "matter" his body is built from. Yes! the form of matter! That may surprise you as incompatible words, but I think they are not for Plato. In fact, this section on the form of matter, the triangles, is the only one where he actually uses the language of forms, probably because he knew it's the only place where it could cause problems. And that's why so many people are in pain of finding forms in the Timæus, whereas they are plenty! So, matter too has a form. The only thing that does not have form, Plato tells us explicitely, is the "receptacle", the "place", the "chora", the fact of not having a form being its definition, and that's why it's so hard to grasp (and the first one not to grasp it, halas! was Aristotle...). In giving a form to matter itself, and a mathematical one, what's more (and it does not matter that his "model" is now obsolete; ours will probably be in a few years or decades; what counts is the "spirit" of the approach), Plato was anticipating modern science, much more than Aristotle. But he could not be understood for many centuries... And what counts here is that form is not just triangles, but comes with laws they have to obey: at each stage, form is not mere scheme, figure, it is a complex of principles that guide the "behavior" of whatever it is a form of.

So, now, everybody can choose: one can see man as a mere juxtaposition of atoms of matter obeying their own laws, a creature with no responsibility of his own, driven by the forces of nature, much like Gyges in Glaucon's speech in the Republic; or it can see it as a wonderfully arranged complex of organs and functions, but still only driven by the laws of these organs, hunger, thirst, sex drive, the toy of diseases and pulsions, a smarter animal and nothing more; or it can see it as endowed with a soul, headed by a "logos", that relates him to a wider world of eternal beings which should give guidance to his desires; or it can see it as a being in becoming which has to choose between unity within and without, or strife and disharmony until dissolution. But the point is, it's not "either... or...", but "And... and...", because man is all that at once, and must accept the laws of each level and try to put them at the service of the higher levels, taking model on the demiourgos who himself had to cope with "anankè", necessity, in its wondeful works.

And that choice is ours, each one for itself, as the Republic already told us in a myth (the myth of Er) that was precisely the answer to the story of Gyges in the light of the analogy of the cave. This is each one's true "judgment", his "krisis", and we then see an example of it with the man whose name implies that "judgment", Critias!

So, here comes the test! And in what sense is the Critias a test? From a formal point of view, because it looks like an unfinished work. And from that standpoint the test is to see if the reader misses the end, regrets the unfinished state of the work, or not. Which amounts to saying, did the reader understand what Critias was at, and whether it was worth our reading time?

Remember Critias? We met him at the beginning, as the mentor of young Charmides, in the dialogue by that name that ended the first tetralogy, a family story of Plato. Unlike young Alcibiades, he was already a grown up, and he was the guy who had all the right answers, except that he had them all wrong, and couldn't, or wouldn't, stand Socrates' inquiry about them, changing his mind as soon as the debate might become heated. Here, we find him ushered by a Syracusan general by the name of Hermocrates ("the one endowed with the power of Hermes, the messenger of the gods"!... That's what his name means), who might very well have been instrumental in the defeat of Nicias (remember the Laches, searching for "andreia"?). And what he is at is nothing short of "rewriting history" in order to better defuse Socrates revolutionary proposals of the Republic by projecting them as already realized in the past rather than working at making them happen in the future (and everybody knew by the time they read Plato's work what a future he was working at!...). What he is at is making up a worthless myth (and yet this one may have been the most successful of Plato's myths, if we judge by the litterature it elicited up until now!..), supposedly brought back by his ancestor Solon from far away Egypt where Athens' history should be better known than in Athens itself! A myth which is a hardly disguised story of the Medean wars of less than a century ago! A story in which the gods once again mess up with human affairs, beget kings with women, and the like, all things that Socrates wanted to get rid of in his critics of Homer and the poets (but Critias regrets that Solon became a lawgiver rather than a new Homer, Tim., 21c!).

And where does that story get "interrupted"? Well! precisely at the point where the god of gods has convened an assembly of the gods (remember the Illiad) to try and fix Athens and Atlantis' problems, and is about to talk. But the point is, the gods don't fix human affairs, at least not in this way: they do it in having endowed man with reason, with a soul capable of understanding and participation in the "world" of eternal forms, and that's how they talk to them, that's what they should use to fix their own affairs; we don't need an "hermo-crates", a supposed bearer of God's own words, especially if, as was the case with Critias, he does not believe in the gods, and sees in them creation of human mind to enslave other men; everybody is a bearer of god's "words", in his soul and through his reason, and he should look for them inside himself, not in Homer or anybody else's poems.

So, exit Critias, exit Hermocrates, exeunt the gods created by men... But the task set by Socrates, at the beginning of the Timæus, to "enbody" the "ideal" of the Republic (the form of justice) in real men, has yet to be done. And real gods have not deserted us. "God" is the first word of the Laws, a work that is the intended third part of the last trilogy, not a supposedly missing, or never written, Hermocrates. And the whole work is placed under the sign of a long march toward the sanctuary of Zeus, the god of gods, an able image of the long march of man through life toward the divine.

And what are the Laws if not a long description on how to put reason to work in order to better men's lives in the polis, in the light of what was found in the Timæus about the "kosmos" we are a part of, and in the Republic which provides the guiding light (in that respect, the summary of the Republic at the beginning of the Timæus in an introduction to the whole trilogy, not to the Timæus only; and it covers only the first half, because the last trilogy is a "rewriting" of the second half, that shows the philosopher-king at work in the world of becoming)?

But in what sense do the Laws complement the Timæus in a unified trilogy?

(to be continued)

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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