Mosaic believed to depict Plato’s Academy.
Found in the ruins of Pompeii.
(Continued from part 1.)
Plato never wrote out a full statement of his philosophy in any one place, and the literary aspect of his work makes it difficult to identify what that philosophy even was. In that respect, Losev did a great service just by concisely explaining it. I will therefore turn the floor over to him:
These simple, deliberately crude examples spell out a deep insight into the nature of human reason, which seems more difficult to grasp the more one thinks about it. We are able to interact with the material world through generalization. When you draw a circle in the sand, you know that you are looking at a circle, even though a “circle” has nothing to do with sand, and really doesn’t even have much to do with the specific shape that you drew. Nonetheless there is a certain abstract concept, a “generalized circle” which can easily be mentally connected to this specific circle and to all other circular shapes of various sizes and materials, and it is through this generalized circle that we are able to categorize and understand specific shapes. The existence of this concept, separate from the material objects that it represents — a generalized circle that encompasses all specific circles, and contains only what is truly essential for understanding them — constitutes Plato’s main contribution to human thought.
The existence of ideas has many implications. Once the “essence” of a thing has been divested from any of its material qualities, there is now a certain sense in which the thing exists forever, independently of the physical world. There is a famous philosophical example, also dating back to ancient Greece, called the Ship of Theseus: over time, every wooden part making up the ship is gradually replaced, so that eventually all of the ship’s original parts have ceased to exist, and the question is whether the ship itself still exists. Plato’s answer to the question would be that the ship is defined by its idea, rather than by its physical realization. The individual material components of the ship have no relevance to its idea; in fact, even if the physical ship were to be permanently destroyed, its idea would continue to exist, undisturbed.
This sounds like exactly the kind of detached, empty verbiage that amazes philosophy students and no one else, but in fact we implicitly rely on this notion whenever we attempt to interact with culture from the past. The world-famous Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia has been in ruins for much of modern history, and after it was restored by French specialists around the turn of the 20th century, it was again heavily damaged during the civil war. Many buildings in the complex look like this —
— and the grounds are strewn with piles of massive, eroded stones that, contrary to their abandoned appearance, have been duly catalogued and are waiting to be reassembled into other buildings. A few decades ago, many of the buildings that are standing today likewise existed only as piles of rubble. Evidently, there is an idea of Angkor Wat, which is not reducible to the buildings and stones, and whose existence was entirely uninterrupted by the repeated destruction of these material objects. The recreation of the complex is made possible and guided by this idea. It may well be that the recreation falls short of the idea — but then, as we will see, no physical representation can ever be adequate. In a certain sense, the original Angkor Wat, as it was constructed by ancient Cambodians, was just as “flawed,” as a reflection of its idea, as any other physical form in which the complex has ever existed.
Having explained the immaterial nature of ideas, Losev then delves into the debate between “materialism” (the belief that ideas are secondary to matter) and “idealism” (the opposite). He has to tread carefully in this discussion, since Soviet ideology was aggressively hyper-materialist, and Lenin treated the word “idealism” basically as a profanity. Plato’s name, of course, is first on the list of idealists throughout the ages, so Losev develops a long apologetic explanation to the effect that, “most important in Plato…is the discovery of the very existence of ideas, of their necessity for understanding all things, and of their immaterial character… Ideas in this sense are not only Plato’s discovery: without them there can be no philosophy, no science and no human understanding of any sort, even the most routine and elementary. This is the source of Plato’s greatness, and this is what forever secured for him a major role in the subsequent history of culture. We may react to this with delight or indignation, as much as we choose, but the role of Platonism in world history will not be affected one bit.” (121)
I, however, am not particularly interested in the history of the long arguments between 19th- and 20th-century ideological thinkers; in this discussion, I think it is more important to understand what “ideas” meant to Plato himself, at the time when he was writing. But this, as we said before, is not easy to do, since Plato never laid out a full statement of this system of thought. Rather, it appears in fragments throughout his dialogues, mainly those in the middle and late period. Ironically, Aristotle had to give a more systematic presentation of Plato’s ideas, for the sole purpose of criticizing them, than Plato himself had ever done:
(Metaphysics, book I, chapter 9)
Aristotle, regarding the world with
the intent expression of the consummate scientist.
But if we try to follow up Aristotle’s reference to “Phaedo,” it will not be clear exactly which part he is talking about. Perhaps he meant this:
In other words, the beautiful quality of material things is imposed on them by the idea of beauty that, in some deliberately unspecified way, is linked with these things. Another relatively clear statement can be found in the beginning of “Parmenides”:
Socrates, in “Parmenides”
One can find more examples like these, but doing so would create a misleading impression of how Plato predominantly talks about this theory. A much more representative example, also from “Phaedo,” is the following:
Here, Plato reveals the true purpose of his theory. It is not enough that the world of ideas exists. It must also be endlessly superior to the world that we actually see. In “The Republic,” the physical world is famously compared to a cave whose denizens are unable to comprehend the true world that lies outside:
Socrates and Glaucon (“The Republic,” book VII)
“Plato’s allegory of the cave,” Jan Saenredam, 1604.
The artist has overloaded the scene with bodies,
completely overlooking the disoriented solitude of Plato’s vision.
At this point, college freshmen everywhere wonder why this bizarre digression appears in what they were told was a political pamphlet. Their professors aren’t sure, but think that it’s probably a metaphor for the greatness of the American political system or something.
With this disquieting image, Plato has reached the point where it is also no longer enough for the world of ideas to merely be superior to the material world. In fact, the material world cannot really be called “real” at all. Everything that we perceive is nothing more than a shadow cast on the wall by a light that burns somewhere in the true world, the abstract world of ideas. Clearly, anyone capable of writing these words did not like the real world very much — and, clearly, the world of ideas meant much more to him than a toolkit for abstract thought. Plato’s descriptions of it are pure poetry, far removed from Aristotle’s sober analytical tone. There isn’t really anything philosophical about them; they have more resemblance to religious visions.
You may have heard of the term “Platonic love.” It is a direct application of Plato’s theory, laid out in the “Symposium.” After a series of increasingly exalted speeches, by various speakers, in praise of the god Eros, it is now Socrates’ turn. He frames his speech as a flashback to a time when he allegedly met the wise priestess Diotima of Mantinea, who instructed him in “the mysteries of love” as follows:
Diotima, via Socrates, in the “Symposium”
“Socrates and Diotima,” Franz Causig, 1810.
Diotima has not fared well in the visual arts;
this frivolous pastoral was the only depiction I could find.
In other words, physical desire, being the most “material” expression of the idea of love, is also its “least” expression. Socrates chooses to abandon it because, at some point, it becomes an obstacle blocking the way to the superior love that exists only in the world of ideas. But, more than that, love of any one person, even if it is more spiritual than physical, is still imperfect. The only proper object of love is love itself. Any other object would dilute the purity of the idea and bring it down to our world.
When studying Plato’s theory of ideas, one eventually comes to “Parmenides,” by far the most curious work in the entire Platonic corpus. This dialogue shows Socrates as a young man (quite different from most of his other appearances) in his twenties, already focused on philosophy but less sure of himself than he is elsewhere. He visits the elderly philosopher Parmenides, who, like most characters in Plato’s dialogues, was a real historical figure, quoted by Aristotle and other thinkers; unfortunately his sole philosophical work has not survived to the present day. In a brief debate with Parmenides’ student Zeno (also a real historical figure, author of Zeno’s paradoxes), Socrates lays out the theory of ideas and proposes it as a way of resolving various philosophical challenges.
Parmenides hears him out favourably, expressing admiration for Socrates’ commitment to philosophy. As far as the content goes, however, Parmenides suggests that Socrates might still be too young to see the full implications of his theory, and cautions him that it might also lead to unresolvable problems:
Parmenides then explains that, if ideas exist independently from the things that pertain to them, they can only be known through the idea of knowledge (knowledge in itself), rather than any earthly knowledge; but, since ideas do not exist inside us, we fundamentally lack the capacity for such knowledge. Thus, if the world of ideas exists, then its existence is completely closed off from the material world; not only is it impossible for us to penetrate into the world of ideas, but similarly the world of ideas lacks any mechanism for understanding us. But then it seems hard to claim that this world is superior to ours (or even relevant to ours) in any meaningful way.
This is very unusual for Plato. It is true that, sometimes, his dialogues take on surprising conversational plausibility and realism, but this is almost always a purely literary device. When it comes to actually modeling and engaging with possible counter-arguments to his work, Plato is far more frugal. In his early dialogues, Socrates’ companions may offer answers to his questions (earlier we saw Euthyphro’s attempts to define piety), but they are rarely made to argue with him in a compelling, intellectually substantive manner; Callicles’ malicious harangue in “Gorgias” is a rare exception. In Plato’s later work, the other participants do not even do this much — more typically, they reply with “Yes,” “Of course,” “No doubt,” “How could it be otherwise?” and other such empty affirmations. When they fail to challenge what seems to be an obvious logical leap by Socrates (like how, in “Meno,” he uses a slave boy’s knowledge of mathematics to extrapolate the pre-existence of souls with no attempt at rebuttal by his opponent), the effect is irritating; one feels that one is being manipulated by Plato.
In light of this general tendency, “Parmenides” is all the more striking. On one hand, Socrates is clearly serving as Plato’s mouthpiece: his position is in full agreement with what Plato wrote elsewhere. But, on the other hand, he is shown as having no rejoinder to Parmenides, who is given articulate and understandable intellectual arguments. Plato’s portrayal of Parmenides is exceedingly respectful, perhaps uniquely among Plato’s portrayals of anybody. (Well, Socrates expressed deep respect for Diotima, but she was probably a fictional character — at least, there is no independent evidence that she ever existed — whereas Parmenides was unquestionably a real person.)
And this is only about half of the dialogue. In the remaining half, Parmenides talks through a series of very abstract arguments, using a young student named Aristoteles (not the famous one) as a foil, while both Socrates and Zeno listen silently. These arguments focus on the ideas of “one,” “many,” and “other.” These notions are interpreted Platonically, as ideas, i.e., absolute abstractions that express the essence of the concepts they describe — thus, “one” is meant as “oneness,” or the “essence” of being “one.” Parmenides variously assumes that these ideas do or do not exist, and logically derives unresolvable paradoxical conclusions from each of these assumptions. I will summarize the first of these arguments:
- If one is one, then it is not many.
- If one is not many, it cannot consist of parts, and thus cannot be a “whole” (otherwise it would be made up of parts).
- Then, one is limitless, having no beginning or end (otherwise those would be parts of one).
- One cannot be in any place, because it cannot be contained inside anything, nor can anything be contained inside it.
- One cannot move, because it is not in any place, and one cannot change, otherwise it would no longer be one.
- Therefore, one can neither move nor stay still (if it stayed still, it would be somewhere).
- Similarly, one cannot be equal or unequal to itself: if it were unequal to itself, then it would not be one, and if it were equal to itself, it would be different from other, but only other can be different from anything.
- Similarly, one cannot be similar or dissimilar to anything, including itself.
- Similarly, one cannot become older or younger, or exist in time in any way.
- Therefore, one cannot exist, because it has been shown that one cannot possess any possible form of existence.
- If one existed in any other way, it would pertain to existence; however, existence is many, because there are many things that exist, and they all pertain in some way to existence. Therefore, if one existed, it would be many.
This goes on for a long time — the remainder of the text is a sequence of dense abstract statements that eventually lead to contradictions that, ostensibly, cannot be resolved (the final conclusion is, “if one does not exist, then nothing exists”). There is no resolution; the dialogue simply ends with no comment from Socrates. Consequently, the question left on everyone’s mind is what the point of all this was. On the surface of it, Plato just proved that his own philosophy was meaningless. By adopting the theory of ideas, one is led into an intellectual fog, from which there seems to be no escape, as soon as one attempts to analyze even a single idea.
“Dialectic logic is, there’s only love and hate:
you either love somebody, or you hate them.”
(One of many flashes of genius in Apocalypse Now. The American psyche does not handle even small encounters with classical culture very well.)
But if Plato had to choose between logical analysis and the world of ideas, I think he would pick the latter without hesitation. It seems to me that “Parmenides” is not at all a refutation of the world of ideas — rather, it is a refutation of logic and philosophy, as imperfect tools that cannot provide a satisfactory understanding (to us who are trapped in the cave) of the perfect world that no one has ever fully seen. In “Parmenides,” Plato killed philosophy. If he had heard Aristotle’s rebuttals, he would have contemptuously kept silent: you either understand the world of ideas or you don’t, and there is nothing that mere logic is going to do about it.
Not only does Plato fail to precisely define ideas or to present them in a logically consistent manner, but this “failure” is actually a deliberate choice on his part. After all, Aristotle wrote a more consistent treatment of ideas, and Plato easily could have done the same, if he had wanted. But, in Plato’s mind, the world of ideas is better left undefined — that makes it even more perfect. At any given moment, ideas can be whatever Plato wants them to be, and the logical contradictions that arise merely serve to illustrate their supernatural greatness. In that sense, Plato is not a philosopher at all, but a poet and visionary. Only a Western academic dullard could ever think that “The Republic” was some sort of political treatise…but what does “The Republic” say, after all? Plato gives a long critique of democracy, arguing how it can turn into tyranny:
Socrates and Adeimantus (“The Republic,” book VIII)
In this atmosphere of devalued authority, Plato argues, there will eventually come a leader who will give the debased public what it wants. Well, it’s hard to argue with the truth; he certainly has us figured out. But after that, the scale of the discussion changes:
Socrates and Adeimantus (“The Republic,” books VIII-IX)
What follows is a discussion of “democratic” and “tyrannical” qualities inside the soul of a single individual. The references to statesmanship now turn into metaphors, and the book closes with a long vision of the posthumous judgment of the soul, based on the individual’s ability to exercise mastery over his “tyrannical” side in life. In other words, the political content of the discussion can easily be read as a long digression, intended to create tangible images that could then figuratively stand in for the desires that tempt the individual who has chosen to dedicate himself to philosophy.
The real philosopher was Aristotle — he did exactly what Losev ascribes to Plato, namely, he developed philosophy into an analytical method for studying reality. His work demonstrates that he took an interest in everything on earth, writing about rhetoric, poetry, physics, zoology, or political science with equal depth.
Plato was interested in nothing aside from the world of ideas. Long passages in “The Republic” and “Laws,” and even earlier dialogues such as “Ion,” express deep skepticism toward the arts, and lay out narrow restrictions on what kind of poetry is acceptable and when it is acceptable to listen to it. But even with regard to his one true love, he deliberately steps back from analyzing the world of ideas directly, refusing to specify a mechanism through which ideas are joined with material objects, and preferring to fall back on the language of poetic metaphor whenever logic starts to bore him. Deep down, he is a great obscurantist — the mystery of the world of ideas is the source of its power.
Detail from “The School of Athens,” Raphael, 1509-1511.
Plato (center-left) is pointing upward to the world of ideas;
Aristotle (center-right) is pointing to the material world.
But at the same time, while Aristotle’s philosophy was infinitely more useful to humanity and Aristotle vastly exceeded Plato as a scientist and thinker, Aristotle as an individual seems almost comically small when compared to Plato. Aristotle is a cheerful optimist who ultimately believes in nothing: he can write scientific tracts about the nature of gods or God just as easily as about the weather, or about how to write speeches, and really to him the topic of the discussion is of no particular importance. Plato’s life and writing are haunted by tragedy, the shadow of his larger-than-life teacher, for whose death he could never bring himself to forgive the world. There was never any such person in Aristotle’s life — only Plato himself, wealthy and idle, who never quite crossed that same line of sacrificing himself for philosophy. Thus, for all that Aristotle may have made short work of Plato’s theory logically, this does absolutely nothing to diminish the deep, pained grief that gives weight to Plato’s deliberately obfuscated world of ideas:
These words are spoken by Socrates just before his death — the last speech of the only human being whom Plato ever loved, resigned to his unjust sentence and already in some way removed from the world. Up to this point, the dialogue has been structured like a philosophical exchange, with logical arguments, but now, logic is silent. And indeed, Plato’s “proofs” of the immortality of the soul, which make up the bulk of “Phaedo,” start to seem silly and above all unnecessary next to the clarity and authority of this final vision.
(Continuation: part 3.)