The Republic, by Plato

Book VI.

Having determined that the many have no knowledge of true being, and have no clear patterns in their minds of justice, beauty, truth, and that philosophers have such patterns, we have now to ask whether they or the many shall be rulers in our State. But who can doubt that philosophers should be chosen, if they have the other qualities which are required in a ruler? For they are lovers of the knowledge of the eternal and of all truth; they are haters of falsehood; their meaner desires are absorbed in the interests of knowledge; they are spectators of all time and all existence; and in the magnificence of their contemplation the life of man is as nothing to them, nor is death fearful. Also they are of a social, gracious disposition, equally free from cowardice and arrogance. They learn and remember easily; they have harmonious, well-regulated minds; truth flows to them sweetly by nature. Can the god of Jealousy himself find any fault with such an assemblage of good qualities?

Here Adeimantus interposes:—‘No man can answer you, Socrates; but every man feels that this is owing to his own deficiency in argument. He is driven from one position to another, until he has nothing more to say, just as an unskilful player at draughts is reduced to his last move by a more skilled opponent. And yet all the time he may be right. He may know, in this very instance, that those who make philosophy the business of their lives, generally turn out rogues if they are bad men, and fools if they are good. What do you say?’ I should say that he is quite right. ‘Then how is such an admission reconcileable with the doctrine that philosophers should be kings?’

I shall answer you in a parable which will also let you see how poor a hand I am at the invention of allegories. The relation of good men to their governments is so peculiar, that in order to defend them I must take an illustration from the world of fiction. Conceive the captain of a ship, taller by a head and shoulders than any of the crew, yet a little deaf, a little blind, and rather ignorant of the seaman’s art. The sailors want to steer, although they know nothing of the art; and they have a theory that it cannot be learned. If the helm is refused them, they drug the captain’s posset, bind him hand and foot, and take possession of the ship. He who joins in the mutiny is termed a good pilot and what not; they have no conception that the true pilot must observe the winds and the stars, and must be their master, whether they like it or not; — such an one would be called by them fool, prater, star-gazer. This is my parable; which I will beg you to interpret for me to those gentlemen who ask why the philosopher has such an evil name, and to explain to them that not he, but those who will not use him, are to blame for his uselessness. The philosopher should not beg of mankind to be put in authority over them. The wise man should not seek the rich, as the proverb bids, but every man, whether rich or poor, must knock at the door of the physician when he has need of him. Now the pilot is the philosopher — he whom in the parable they call star-gazer, and the mutinous sailors are the mob of politicians by whom he is rendered useless. Not that these are the worst enemies of philosophy, who is far more dishonoured by her own professing sons when they are corrupted by the world. Need I recall the original image of the philosopher? Did we not say of him just now, that he loved truth and hated falsehood, and that he could not rest in the multiplicity of phenomena, but was led by a sympathy in his own nature to the contemplation of the absolute? All the virtues as well as truth, who is the leader of them, took up their abode in his soul. But as you were observing, if we turn aside to view the reality, we see that the persons who were thus described, with the exception of a small and useless class, are utter rogues.

The point which has to be considered, is the origin of this corruption in nature. Every one will admit that the philosopher, in our description of him, is a rare being. But what numberless causes tend to destroy these rare beings! There is no good thing which may not be a cause of evil — health, wealth, strength, rank, and the virtues themselves, when placed under unfavourable circumstances. For as in the animal or vegetable world the strongest seeds most need the accompaniment of good air and soil, so the best of human characters turn out the worst when they fall upon an unsuitable soil; whereas weak natures hardly ever do any considerable good or harm; they are not the stuff out of which either great criminals or great heroes are made. The philosopher follows the same analogy: he is either the best or the worst of all men. Some persons say that the Sophists are the corrupters of youth; but is not public opinion the real Sophist who is everywhere present — in those very persons, in the assembly, in the courts, in the camp, in the applauses and hisses of the theatre re-echoed by the surrounding hills? Will not a young man’s heart leap amid these discordant sounds? and will any education save him from being carried away by the torrent? Nor is this all. For if he will not yield to opinion, there follows the gentle compulsion of exile or death. What principle of rival Sophists or anybody else can overcome in such an unequal contest? Characters there may be more than human, who are exceptions — God may save a man, but not his own strength. Further, I would have you consider that the hireling Sophist only gives back to the world their own opinions; he is the keeper of the monster, who knows how to flatter or anger him, and observes the meaning of his inarticulate grunts. Good is what pleases him, evil what he dislikes; truth and beauty are determined only by the taste of the brute. Such is the Sophist’s wisdom, and such is the condition of those who make public opinion the test of truth, whether in art or in morals. The curse is laid upon them of being and doing what it approves, and when they attempt first principles the failure is ludicrous. Think of all this and ask yourself whether the world is more likely to be a believer in the unity of the idea, or in the multiplicity of phenomena. And the world if not a believer in the idea cannot be a philosopher, and must therefore be a persecutor of philosophers. There is another evil:— the world does not like to lose the gifted nature, and so they flatter the young (Alcibiades) into a magnificent opinion of his own capacity; the tall, proper youth begins to expand, and is dreaming of kingdoms and empires. If at this instant a friend whispers to him, ‘Now the gods lighten thee; thou art a great fool’ and must be educated — do you think that he will listen? Or suppose a better sort of man who is attracted towards philosophy, will they not make Herculean efforts to spoil and corrupt him? Are we not right in saying that the love of knowledge, no less than riches, may divert him? Men of this class (Critias) often become politicians — they are the authors of great mischief in states, and sometimes also of great good. And thus philosophy is deserted by her natural protectors, and others enter in and dishonour her. Vulgar little minds see the land open and rush from the prisons of the arts into her temple. A clever mechanic having a soul coarse as his body, thinks that he will gain caste by becoming her suitor. For philosophy, even in her fallen estate, has a dignity of her own — and he, like a bald little blacksmith’s apprentice as he is, having made some money and got out of durance, washes and dresses himself as a bridegroom and marries his master’s daughter. What will be the issue of such marriages? Will they not be vile and bastard, devoid of truth and nature? ‘They will.’ Small, then, is the remnant of genuine philosophers; there may be a few who are citizens of small states, in which politics are not worth thinking of, or who have been detained by Theages’ bridle of ill health; for my own case of the oracular sign is almost unique, and too rare to be worth mentioning. And these few when they have tasted the pleasures of philosophy, and have taken a look at that den of thieves and place of wild beasts, which is human life, will stand aside from the storm under the shelter of a wall, and try to preserve their own innocence and to depart in peace. ‘A great work, too, will have been accomplished by them.’ Great, yes, but not the greatest; for man is a social being, and can only attain his highest development in the society which is best suited to him.

Enough, then, of the causes why philosophy has such an evil name. Another question is, Which of existing states is suited to her? Not one of them; at present she is like some exotic seed which degenerates in a strange soil; only in her proper state will she be shown to be of heavenly growth. ‘And is her proper state ours or some other?’ Ours in all points but one, which was left undetermined. You may remember our saying that some living mind or witness of the legislator was needed in states. But we were afraid to enter upon a subject of such difficulty, and now the question recurs and has not grown easier:— How may philosophy be safely studied? Let us bring her into the light of day, and make an end of the inquiry.

In the first place, I say boldly that nothing can be worse than the present mode of study. Persons usually pick up a little philosophy in early youth, and in the intervals of business, but they never master the real difficulty, which is dialectic. Later, perhaps, they occasionally go to a lecture on philosophy. Years advance, and the sun of philosophy, unlike that of Heracleitus, sets never to rise again. This order of education should be reversed; it should begin with gymnastics in youth, and as the man strengthens, he should increase the gymnastics of his soul. Then, when active life is over, let him finally return to philosophy. ‘You are in earnest, Socrates, but the world will be equally earnest in withstanding you — no more than Thrasymachus.’ Do not make a quarrel between Thrasymachus and me, who were never enemies and are now good friends enough. And I shall do my best to convince him and all mankind of the truth of my words, or at any rate to prepare for the future when, in another life, we may again take part in similar discussions. ‘That will be a long time hence.’ Not long in comparison with eternity. The many will probably remain incredulous, for they have never seen the natural unity of ideas, but only artificial juxtapositions; not free and generous thoughts, but tricks of controversy and quips of law; — a perfect man ruling in a perfect state, even a single one they have not known. And we foresaw that there was no chance of perfection either in states or individuals until a necessity was laid upon philosophers — not the rogues, but those whom we called the useless class — of holding office; or until the sons of kings were inspired with a true love of philosophy. Whether in the infinity of past time there has been, or is in some distant land, or ever will be hereafter, an ideal such as we have described, we stoutly maintain that there has been, is, and will be such a state whenever the Muse of philosophy rules. Will you say that the world is of another mind? O, my friend, do not revile the world! They will soon change their opinion if they are gently entreated, and are taught the true nature of the philosopher. Who can hate a man who loves him? Or be jealous of one who has no jealousy? Consider, again, that the many hate not the true but the false philosophers — the pretenders who force their way in without invitation, and are always speaking of persons and not of principles, which is unlike the spirit of philosophy. For the true philosopher despises earthly strife; his eye is fixed on the eternal order in accordance with which he moulds himself into the Divine image (and not himself only, but other men), and is the creator of the virtues private as well as public. When mankind see that the happiness of states is only to be found in that image, will they be angry with us for attempting to delineate it? ‘Certainly not. But what will be the process of delineation?’ The artist will do nothing until he has made a tabula rasa; on this he will inscribe the constitution of a state, glancing often at the divine truth of nature, and from that deriving the godlike among men, mingling the two elements, rubbing out and painting in, until there is a perfect harmony or fusion of the divine and human. But perhaps the world will doubt the existence of such an artist. What will they doubt? That the philosopher is a lover of truth, having a nature akin to the best? — and if they admit this will they still quarrel with us for making philosophers our kings? ‘They will be less disposed to quarrel.’ Let us assume then that they are pacified. Still, a person may hesitate about the probability of the son of a king being a philosopher. And we do not deny that they are very liable to be corrupted; but yet surely in the course of ages there might be one exception — and one is enough. If one son of a king were a philosopher, and had obedient citizens, he might bring the ideal polity into being. Hence we conclude that our laws are not only the best, but that they are also possible, though not free from difficulty.

I gained nothing by evading the troublesome questions which arose concerning women and children. I will be wiser now and acknowledge that we must go to the bottom of another question: What is to be the education of our guardians? It was agreed that they were to be lovers of their country, and were to be tested in the refiner’s fire of pleasures and pains, and those who came forth pure and remained fixed in their principles were to have honours and rewards in life and after death. But at this point, the argument put on her veil and turned into another path. I hesitated to make the assertion which I now hazard — that our guardians must be philosophers. You remember all the contradictory elements, which met in the philosopher — how difficult to find them all in a single person! Intelligence and spirit are not often combined with steadiness; the stolid, fearless, nature is averse to intellectual toil. And yet these opposite elements are all necessary, and therefore, as we were saying before, the aspirant must be tested in pleasures and dangers; and also, as we must now further add, in the highest branches of knowledge. You will remember, that when we spoke of the virtues mention was made of a longer road, which you were satisfied to leave unexplored. ‘Enough seemed to have been said.’ Enough, my friend; but what is enough while anything remains wanting? Of all men the guardian must not faint in the search after truth; he must be prepared to take the longer road, or he will never reach that higher region which is above the four virtues; and of the virtues too he must not only get an outline, but a clear and distinct vision. (Strange that we should be so precise about trifles, so careless about the highest truths!) ‘And what are the highest?’ You to pretend unconsciousness, when you have so often heard me speak of the idea of good, about which we know so little, and without which though a man gain the world he has no profit of it! Some people imagine that the good is wisdom; but this involves a circle — the good, they say, is wisdom, wisdom has to do with the good. According to others the good is pleasure; but then comes the absurdity that good is bad, for there are bad pleasures as well as good. Again, the good must have reality; a man may desire the appearance of virtue, but he will not desire the appearance of good. Ought our guardians then to be ignorant of this supreme principle, of which every man has a presentiment, and without which no man has any real knowledge of anything? ‘But, Socrates, what is this supreme principle, knowledge or pleasure, or what? You may think me troublesome, but I say that you have no business to be always repeating the doctrines of others instead of giving us your own.’ Can I say what I do not know? ‘You may offer an opinion.’ And will the blindness and crookedness of opinion content you when you might have the light and certainty of science? ‘I will only ask you to give such an explanation of the good as you have given already of temperance and justice.’ I wish that I could, but in my present mood I cannot reach to the height of the knowledge of the good. To the parent or principal I cannot introduce you, but to the child begotten in his image, which I may compare with the interest on the principal, I will. (Audit the account, and do not let me give you a false statement of the debt.) You remember our old distinction of the many beautiful and the one beautiful, the particular and the universal, the objects of sight and the objects of thought? Did you ever consider that the objects of sight imply a faculty of sight which is the most complex and costly of our senses, requiring not only objects of sense, but also a medium, which is light; without which the sight will not distinguish between colours and all will be a blank? For light is the noble bond between the perceiving faculty and the thing perceived, and the god who gives us light is the sun, who is the eye of the day, but is not to be confounded with the eye of man. This eye of the day or sun is what I call the child of the good, standing in the same relation to the visible world as the good to the intellectual. When the sun shines the eye sees, and in the intellectual world where truth is, there is sight and light. Now that which is the sun of intelligent natures, is the idea of good, the cause of knowledge and truth, yet other and fairer than they are, and standing in the same relation to them in which the sun stands to light. O inconceivable height of beauty, which is above knowledge and above truth! (‘You cannot surely mean pleasure,’ he said. Peace, I replied.) And this idea of good, like the sun, is also the cause of growth, and the author not of knowledge only, but of being, yet greater far than either in dignity and power. ‘That is a reach of thought more than human; but, pray, go on with the image, for I suspect that there is more behind.’ There is, I said; and bearing in mind our two suns or principles, imagine further their corresponding worlds — one of the visible, the other of the intelligible; you may assist your fancy by figuring the distinction under the image of a line divided into two unequal parts, and may again subdivide each part into two lesser segments representative of the stages of knowledge in either sphere. The lower portion of the lower or visible sphere will consist of shadows and reflections, and its upper and smaller portion will contain real objects in the world of nature or of art. The sphere of the intelligible will also have two divisions — one of mathematics, in which there is no ascent but all is descent; no inquiring into premises, but only drawing of inferences. In this division the mind works with figures and numbers, the images of which are taken not from the shadows, but from the objects, although the truth of them is seen only with the mind’s eye; and they are used as hypotheses without being analysed. Whereas in the other division reason uses the hypotheses as stages or steps in the ascent to the idea of good, to which she fastens them, and then again descends, walking firmly in the region of ideas, and of ideas only, in her ascent as well as descent, and finally resting in them. ‘I partly understand,’ he replied; ‘you mean that the ideas of science are superior to the hypothetical, metaphorical conceptions of geometry and the other arts or sciences, whichever is to be the name of them; and the latter conceptions you refuse to make subjects of pure intellect, because they have no first principle, although when resting on a first principle, they pass into the higher sphere.’ You understand me very well, I said. And now to those four divisions of knowledge you may assign four corresponding faculties — pure intelligence to the highest sphere; active intelligence to the second; to the third, faith; to the fourth, the perception of shadows — and the clearness of the several faculties will be in the same ratio as the truth of the objects to which they are related . . .

Like Socrates, we may recapitulate the virtues of the philosopher. In language which seems to reach beyond the horizon of that age and country, he is described as ‘the spectator of all time and all existence.’ He has the noblest gifts of nature, and makes the highest use of them. All his desires are absorbed in the love of wisdom, which is the love of truth. None of the graces of a beautiful soul are wanting in him; neither can he fear death, or think much of human life. The ideal of modern times hardly retains the simplicity of the antique; there is not the same originality either in truth or error which characterized the Greeks. The philosopher is no longer living in the unseen, nor is he sent by an oracle to convince mankind of ignorance; nor does he regard knowledge as a system of ideas leading upwards by regular stages to the idea of good. The eagerness of the pursuit has abated; there is more division of labour and less of comprehensive reflection upon nature and human life as a whole; more of exact observation and less of anticipation and inspiration. Still, in the altered conditions of knowledge, the parallel is not wholly lost; and there may be a use in translating the conception of Plato into the language of our own age. The philosopher in modern times is one who fixes his mind on the laws of nature in their sequence and connexion, not on fragments or pictures of nature; on history, not on controversy; on the truths which are acknowledged by the few, not on the opinions of the many. He is aware of the importance of ‘classifying according to nature,’ and will try to ‘separate the limbs of science without breaking them’ (Phaedr.). There is no part of truth, whether great or small, which he will dishonour; and in the least things he will discern the greatest (Parmen.). Like the ancient philosopher he sees the world pervaded by analogies, but he can also tell ‘why in some cases a single instance is sufficient for an induction’ (Mill’s Logic), while in other cases a thousand examples would prove nothing. He inquires into a portion of knowledge only, because the whole has grown too vast to be embraced by a single mind or life. He has a clearer conception of the divisions of science and of their relation to the mind of man than was possible to the ancients. Like Plato, he has a vision of the unity of knowledge, not as the beginning of philosophy to be attained by a study of elementary mathematics, but as the far-off result of the working of many minds in many ages. He is aware that mathematical studies are preliminary to almost every other; at the same time, he will not reduce all varieties of knowledge to the type of mathematics. He too must have a nobility of character, without which genius loses the better half of greatness. Regarding the world as a point in immensity, and each individual as a link in a never-ending chain of existence, he will not think much of his own life, or be greatly afraid of death.

Adeimantus objects first of all to the form of the Socratic reasoning, thus showing that Plato is aware of the imperfection of his own method. He brings the accusation against himself which might be brought against him by a modern logician — that he extracts the answer because he knows how to put the question. In a long argument words are apt to change their meaning slightly, or premises may be assumed or conclusions inferred with rather too much certainty or universality; the variation at each step may be unobserved, and yet at last the divergence becomes considerable. Hence the failure of attempts to apply arithmetical or algebraic formulae to logic. The imperfection, or rather the higher and more elastic nature of language, does not allow words to have the precision of numbers or of symbols. And this quality in language impairs the force of an argument which has many steps.

The objection, though fairly met by Socrates in this particular instance, may be regarded as implying a reflection upon the Socratic mode of reasoning. And here, as elsewhere, Plato seems to intimate that the time had come when the negative and interrogative method of Socrates must be superseded by a positive and constructive one, of which examples are given in some of the later dialogues. Adeimantus further argues that the ideal is wholly at variance with facts; for experience proves philosophers to be either useless or rogues. Contrary to all expectation Socrates has no hesitation in admitting the truth of this, and explains the anomaly in an allegory, first characteristically depreciating his own inventive powers. In this allegory the people are distinguished from the professional politicians, and, as elsewhere, are spoken of in a tone of pity rather than of censure under the image of ‘the noble captain who is not very quick in his perceptions.’

The uselessness of philosophers is explained by the circumstance that mankind will not use them. The world in all ages has been divided between contempt and fear of those who employ the power of ideas and know no other weapons. Concerning the false philosopher, Socrates argues that the best is most liable to corruption; and that the finer nature is more likely to suffer from alien conditions. We too observe that there are some kinds of excellence which spring from a peculiar delicacy of constitution; as is evidently true of the poetical and imaginative temperament, which often seems to depend on impressions, and hence can only breathe or live in a certain atmosphere. The man of genius has greater pains and greater pleasures, greater powers and greater weaknesses, and often a greater play of character than is to be found in ordinary men. He can assume the disguise of virtue or disinterestedness without having them, or veil personal enmity in the language of patriotism and philosophy — he can say the word which all men are thinking, he has an insight which is terrible into the follies and weaknesses of his fellow-men. An Alcibiades, a Mirabeau, or a Napoleon the First, are born either to be the authors of great evils in states, or ‘of great good, when they are drawn in that direction.’

Yet the thesis, ‘corruptio optimi pessima,’ cannot be maintained generally or without regard to the kind of excellence which is corrupted. The alien conditions which are corrupting to one nature, may be the elements of culture to another. In general a man can only receive his highest development in a congenial state or family, among friends or fellow-workers. But also he may sometimes be stirred by adverse circumstances to such a degree that he rises up against them and reforms them. And while weaker or coarser characters will extract good out of evil, say in a corrupt state of the church or of society, and live on happily, allowing the evil to remain, the finer or stronger natures may be crushed or spoiled by surrounding influences — may become misanthrope and philanthrope by turns; or in a few instances, like the founders of the monastic orders, or the Reformers, owing to some peculiarity in themselves or in their age, may break away entirely from the world and from the church, sometimes into great good, sometimes into great evil, sometimes into both. And the same holds in the lesser sphere of a convent, a school, a family.

Plato would have us consider how easily the best natures are overpowered by public opinion, and what efforts the rest of mankind will make to get possession of them. The world, the church, their own profession, any political or party organization, are always carrying them off their legs and teaching them to apply high and holy names to their own prejudices and interests. The ‘monster’ corporation to which they belong judges right and truth to be the pleasure of the community. The individual becomes one with his order; or, if he resists, the world is too much for him, and will sooner or later be revenged on him. This is, perhaps, a one-sided but not wholly untrue picture of the maxims and practice of mankind when they ‘sit down together at an assembly,’ either in ancient or modern times.

When the higher natures are corrupted by politics, the lower take possession of the vacant place of philosophy. This is described in one of those continuous images in which the argument, to use a Platonic expression, ‘veils herself,’ and which is dropped and reappears at intervals. The question is asked — Why are the citizens of states so hostile to philosophy? The answer is, that they do not know her. And yet there is also a better mind of the many; they would believe if they were taught. But hitherto they have only known a conventional imitation of philosophy, words without thoughts, systems which have no life in them; a (divine) person uttering the words of beauty and freedom, the friend of man holding communion with the Eternal, and seeking to frame the state in that image, they have never known. The same double feeling respecting the mass of mankind has always existed among men. The first thought is that the people are the enemies of truth and right; the second, that this only arises out of an accidental error and confusion, and that they do not really hate those who love them, if they could be educated to know them.

In the latter part of the sixth book, three questions have to be considered: 1st, the nature of the longer and more circuitous way, which is contrasted with the shorter and more imperfect method of Book IV; 2nd, the heavenly pattern or idea of the state; 3rd, the relation of the divisions of knowledge to one another and to the corresponding faculties of the soul

1. Of the higher method of knowledge in Plato we have only a glimpse. Neither here nor in the Phaedrus or Symposium, nor yet in the Philebus or Sophist, does he give any clear explanation of his meaning. He would probably have described his method as proceeding by regular steps to a system of universal knowledge, which inferred the parts from the whole rather than the whole from the parts. This ideal logic is not practised by him in the search after justice, or in the analysis of the parts of the soul; there, like Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, he argues from experience and the common use of language. But at the end of the sixth book he conceives another and more perfect method, in which all ideas are only steps or grades or moments of thought, forming a connected whole which is self-supporting, and in which consistency is the test of truth. He does not explain to us in detail the nature of the process. Like many other thinkers both in ancient and modern times his mind seems to be filled with a vacant form which he is unable to realize. He supposes the sciences to have a natural order and connexion in an age when they can hardly be said to exist. He is hastening on to the ‘end of the intellectual world’ without even making a beginning of them.

In modern times we hardly need to be reminded that the process of acquiring knowledge is here confused with the contemplation of absolute knowledge. In all science a priori and a posteriori truths mingle in various proportions. The a priori part is that which is derived from the most universal experience of men, or is universally accepted by them; the a posteriori is that which grows up around the more general principles and becomes imperceptibly one with them. But Plato erroneously imagines that the synthesis is separable from the analysis, and that the method of science can anticipate science. In entertaining such a vision of a priori knowledge he is sufficiently justified, or at least his meaning may be sufficiently explained by the similar attempts of Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and even of Bacon himself, in modern philosophy. Anticipations or divinations, or prophetic glimpses of truths whether concerning man or nature, seem to stand in the same relation to ancient philosophy which hypotheses bear to modern inductive science. These ‘guesses at truth’ were not made at random; they arose from a superficial impression of uniformities and first principles in nature which the genius of the Greek, contemplating the expanse of heaven and earth, seemed to recognize in the distance. Nor can we deny that in ancient times knowledge must have stood still, and the human mind been deprived of the very instruments of thought, if philosophy had been strictly confined to the results of experience.

2. Plato supposes that when the tablet has been made blank the artist will fill in the lineaments of the ideal state. Is this a pattern laid up in heaven, or mere vacancy on which he is supposed to gaze with wondering eye? The answer is, that such ideals are framed partly by the omission of particulars, partly by imagination perfecting the form which experience supplies (Phaedo). Plato represents these ideals in a figure as belonging to another world; and in modern times the idea will sometimes seem to precede, at other times to co-operate with the hand of the artist. As in science, so also in creative art, there is a synthetical as well as an analytical method. One man will have the whole in his mind before he begins; to another the processes of mind and hand will be simultaneous.

3. There is no difficulty in seeing that Plato’s divisions of knowledge are based, first, on the fundamental antithesis of sensible and intellectual which pervades the whole pre-Socratic philosophy; in which is implied also the opposition of the permanent and transient, of the universal and particular. But the age of philosophy in which he lived seemed to require a further distinction; — numbers and figures were beginning to separate from ideas. The world could no longer regard justice as a cube, and was learning to see, though imperfectly, that the abstractions of sense were distinct from the abstractions of mind. Between the Eleatic being or essence and the shadows of phenomena, the Pythagorean principle of number found a place, and was, as Aristotle remarks, a conducting medium from one to the other. Hence Plato is led to introduce a third term which had not hitherto entered into the scheme of his philosophy. He had observed the use of mathematics in education; they were the best preparation for higher studies. The subjective relation between them further suggested an objective one; although the passage from one to the other is really imaginary (Metaph.). For metaphysical and moral philosophy has no connexion with mathematics; number and figure are the abstractions of time and space, not the expressions of purely intellectual conceptions. When divested of metaphor, a straight line or a square has no more to do with right and justice than a crooked line with vice. The figurative association was mistaken for a real one; and thus the three latter divisions of the Platonic proportion were constructed.

There is more difficulty in comprehending how he arrived at the first term of the series, which is nowhere else mentioned, and has no reference to any other part of his system. Nor indeed does the relation of shadows to objects correspond to the relation of numbers to ideas. Probably Plato has been led by the love of analogy (Timaeus) to make four terms instead of three, although the objects perceived in both divisions of the lower sphere are equally objects of sense. He is also preparing the way, as his manner is, for the shadows of images at the beginning of the seventh book, and the imitation of an imitation in the tenth. The line may be regarded as reaching from unity to infinity, and is divided into two unequal parts, and subdivided into two more; each lower sphere is the multiplication of the preceding. Of the four faculties, faith in the lower division has an intermediate position (cp. for the use of the word faith or belief, (Greek), Timaeus), contrasting equally with the vagueness of the perception of shadows (Greek) and the higher certainty of understanding (Greek) and reason (Greek).

The difference between understanding and mind or reason (Greek) is analogous to the difference between acquiring knowledge in the parts and the contemplation of the whole. True knowledge is a whole, and is at rest; consistency and universality are the tests of truth. To this self-evidencing knowledge of the whole the faculty of mind is supposed to correspond. But there is a knowledge of the understanding which is incomplete and in motion always, because unable to rest in the subordinate ideas. Those ideas are called both images and hypotheses — images because they are clothed in sense, hypotheses because they are assumptions only, until they are brought into connexion with the idea of good.

The general meaning of the passage, ‘Noble, then, is the bond which links together sight . . . And of this kind I spoke as the intelligible . . . ’ so far as the thought contained in it admits of being translated into the terms of modern philosophy, may be described or explained as follows:— There is a truth, one and self-existent, to which by the help of a ladder let down from above, the human intelligence may ascend. This unity is like the sun in the heavens, the light by which all things are seen, the being by which they are created and sustained. It is the IDEA of good. And the steps of the ladder leading up to this highest or universal existence are the mathematical sciences, which also contain in themselves an element of the universal. These, too, we see in a new manner when we connect them with the idea of good. They then cease to be hypotheses or pictures, and become essential parts of a higher truth which is at once their first principle and their final cause.

We cannot give any more precise meaning to this remarkable passage, but we may trace in it several rudiments or vestiges of thought which are common to us and to Plato: such as (1) the unity and correlation of the sciences, or rather of science, for in Plato’s time they were not yet parted off or distinguished; (2) the existence of a Divine Power, or life or idea or cause or reason, not yet conceived or no longer conceived as in the Timaeus and elsewhere under the form of a person; (3) the recognition of the hypothetical and conditional character of the mathematical sciences, and in a measure of every science when isolated from the rest; (4) the conviction of a truth which is invisible, and of a law, though hardly a law of nature, which permeates the intellectual rather than the visible world.

The method of Socrates is hesitating and tentative, awaiting the fuller explanation of the idea of good, and of the nature of dialectic in the seventh book. The imperfect intelligence of Glaucon, and the reluctance of Socrates to make a beginning, mark the difficulty of the subject. The allusion to Theages’ bridle, and to the internal oracle, or demonic sign, of Socrates, which here, as always in Plato, is only prohibitory; the remark that the salvation of any remnant of good in the present evil state of the world is due to God only; the reference to a future state of existence, which is unknown to Glaucon in the tenth book, and in which the discussions of Socrates and his disciples would be resumed; the surprise in the answers; the fanciful irony of Socrates, where he pretends that he can only describe the strange position of the philosopher in a figure of speech; the original observation that the Sophists, after all, are only the representatives and not the leaders of public opinion; the picture of the philosopher standing aside in the shower of sleet under a wall; the figure of ‘the great beast’ followed by the expression of good-will towards the common people who would not have rejected the philosopher if they had known him; the ‘right noble thought’ that the highest truths demand the greatest exactness; the hesitation of Socrates in returning once more to his well-worn theme of the idea of good; the ludicrous earnestness of Glaucon; the comparison of philosophy to a deserted maiden who marries beneath her — are some of the most interesting characteristics of the sixth book.

Yet a few more words may be added, on the old theme, which was so oft discussed in the Socratic circle, of which we, like Glaucon and Adeimantus, would fain, if possible, have a clearer notion. Like them, we are dissatisfied when we are told that the idea of good can only be revealed to a student of the mathematical sciences, and we are inclined to think that neither we nor they could have been led along that path to any satisfactory goal. For we have learned that differences of quantity cannot pass into differences of quality, and that the mathematical sciences can never rise above themselves into the sphere of our higher thoughts, although they may sometimes furnish symbols and expressions of them, and may train the mind in habits of abstraction and self-concentration. The illusion which was natural to an ancient philosopher has ceased to be an illusion to us. But if the process by which we are supposed to arrive at the idea of good be really imaginary, may not the idea itself be also a mere abstraction? We remark, first, that in all ages, and especially in primitive philosophy, words such as being, essence, unity, good, have exerted an extraordinary influence over the minds of men. The meagreness or negativeness of their content has been in an inverse ratio to their power. They have become the forms under which all things were comprehended. There was a need or instinct in the human soul which they satisfied; they were not ideas, but gods, and to this new mythology the men of a later generation began to attach the powers and associations of the elder deities.

The idea of good is one of those sacred words or forms of thought, which were beginning to take the place of the old mythology. It meant unity, in which all time and all existence were gathered up. It was the truth of all things, and also the light in which they shone forth, and became evident to intelligences human and divine. It was the cause of all things, the power by which they were brought into being. It was the universal reason divested of a human personality. It was the life as well as the light of the world, all knowledge and all power were comprehended in it. The way to it was through the mathematical sciences, and these too were dependent on it. To ask whether God was the maker of it, or made by it, would be like asking whether God could be conceived apart from goodness, or goodness apart from God. The God of the Timaeus is not really at variance with the idea of good; they are aspects of the same, differing only as the personal from the impersonal, or the masculine from the neuter, the one being the expression or language of mythology, the other of philosophy.

This, or something like this, is the meaning of the idea of good as conceived by Plato. Ideas of number, order, harmony, development may also be said to enter into it. The paraphrase which has just been given of it goes beyond the actual words of Plato. We have perhaps arrived at the stage of philosophy which enables us to understand what he is aiming at, better than he did himself. We are beginning to realize what he saw darkly and at a distance. But if he could have been told that this, or some conception of the same kind, but higher than this, was the truth at which he was aiming, and the need which he sought to supply, he would gladly have recognized that more was contained in his own thoughts than he himself knew. As his words are few and his manner reticent and tentative, so must the style of his interpreter be. We should not approach his meaning more nearly by attempting to define it further. In translating him into the language of modern thought, we might insensibly lose the spirit of ancient philosophy. It is remarkable that although Plato speaks of the idea of good as the first principle of truth and being, it is nowhere mentioned in his writings except in this passage. Nor did it retain any hold upon the minds of his disciples in a later generation; it was probably unintelligible to them. Nor does the mention of it in Aristotle appear to have any reference to this or any other passage in his extant writings.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/plato/p71r/introduction6.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:17