PLATO’S UNIVERSE OF DISCOURSE
D. R. Khashaba
David Hume famously said: “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion” (Enquiry, 12). No one can deny that Hume’s condemnation applies to all works of philosophy without exception. Throughout some twenty-five centuries of philosophizing philosophers have not produced a single work that can stand to Hume’s double test, and many thinkers during the past two centuries have been vociferous in emphasizing Hume,s conclusion. Yet philosophers, without stopping to answer Hume’s challenge, have continued to produce valuable work. How are we to resolve this paradox?
The solution is quite simple though modern and recent philosophers have chosen to turn a blind eye to it. The simple answer to Hume is that Works of philosophy are neither required to “contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number” nor to “contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence”. Socrates told us so, plainly and in language that brooks no mistaking. But thinkers, from Aristotle onwards, have found his meaning too simple to be absorbed by clever minds.
I have been harping on this in all my writings. Let me now put what I am saying as bluntly as can be. Philosophy is not concerned with truth about the objective world neither is it concerned with producing demonstrable propositions having the certainty of “abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number”. Socrates was all his life bent on following the Delphic injunction: gnôthi sauton, know yourself. He explored his mind and helped others explore theirs. In questioning an interlocutor he was not trying to reach a definition, as Aristotle has misled us into thinking, but was trying to lead the interlocutor to see that he can only find the meaning of the notion under examination in his own mind.
Plato found out that in exploring our mind and the intelligible forms, that arise in the mind and have no being and no home but in the mind, we come face to face with the only reality we know as opposed to the ephemeral shadows that surround us in the outside world. That reality is, in the strictest sense of the word, ineffable. It can never be exhausted or contained in any formula of thought or language. It can only be intimated in myth, parable, and metaphor.
If a philosopher can give us no truth and no certainty, what can or does she or he give us? Every genuine philosopher gives us a set of creative notions that unite organically in a whole — notions that have no objective validity, no actuality in the outer world but have reality in and for the mind.. That whole may only superficially and delusively take the form of a consistent thought system, a system that can always be shown to be riddled with contradictions and necessarily crumbles under examination. That is the fate of all dogmatic metaphysics, though I still doggedly maintain that it does not thereby lose what positive value it has. At best the set of creative notions united in a whole takes the form of an imaginative vision that refuses to be encapsulated in any fixed formulation. That is the best of philosophy. Such is the philosophy of Plato, and scholars who decry Plato’s lack of system and consistence fail to see that that is his great merit.
The set of creative notions forming an integrative vision is what I term a universe of discourse. Every genuine philosopher, even a dogmatic metaphysician, gives us such a universe of discourse that we can live in and that confers intelligibility on the world and on human life. I live in the universe of discourse of Plato, of Leibniz, of Spinoza, of Schopenhauer, of Nietzsche, of Bradley. Each of these gives me an intelligible Weltanschauung. There is no necessary contradiction here; the contradiction only arises when one or the other of the philosophies claims or is taken to be objectively true. Then the dogma becomes a superstition as is the case with all theologies.
I reiterate: What an original philosopher leaves us of genuine and lasting value is not a system of thought (which, however carefully worked out, will always be found to be riddled with contradictions); it is not a theory or set of theories; it is a vision that we can share and a unique universe of discourse that enriches our cultural heritage and the constituent ideas of which we can creatively develop for ourselves. (This last point is my apology for going beyond Plato at points.) Begging Plato’s pardon, I would alter his dictum and instead of saying that philosophy is the greatest music would say that philosophy is the greatest poetry and poetry the best philosophy.
In what follows I will survey the main creative notions that form Plato’s universe of discourse. There will be reiteration and repetition in what I write: since I am giving an account of a single vision from various standpoints this is inevitable and may not be without benefit.
I have no intention of drawing a line between Socrates’ thought and the thought of Plato. Where I write ‘Socrates’ you may read ‘Plato’. Lndeed, the Platonic Socrates may well be the greatest and best of the pregnant myths that Plato has left us.
The notions are not arranged in any intended order. No significance attaches to the relative placing of this or that item. Since Plato’s vision is an integral whole we can start from any of his creative notions and find it leading to the other consituents of his universe of discourse.
THE INTELIGIBLE REALM
The first ground of Socrates’ philosophical position is the notion of the intelligible. We are surrounded by a world of things but we, in our human character, do not live in that world of things; we as human beings live in an intelligible world of our own creation. The perceptible world outside us has, strictly speaking, no meaning in itself; it only acquires meaning when we clothe it in ideas which are generated by the mind and which have no being other than in the mind. Hard as it may sound, a tree is not a tree for me, is not perceived by me as a tree, until I name it a tree. Two stones lying before me side by side are a single inchoate shape until I form the idea ‘two’. The ‘two’ is not out there; is not in either of the two; is not in the two stones collectively; it is only in the mind and it is by the idea of twoness in the mind that the ‘two’ is two and the two stones are two, as Socrates tells us in the Phaedo. (See the ‘autobiographical’ passage in the Phaedo (96a-101e), discussed in my Plato: An Interpretation (2005), Cnapter Five, “The Meaning of the Phaedo”.)
This is the basis of Plato’s notion of Forms. (Plato’s so-called ‘theory of Forms’ was nothing but Plato’s experimentations with linguistic formulations relating the intelligible to the perceptible, all of which Plato found unsatisfactory.) The Forms are simply the intelligible ideas. Things in themselves have no meaning and no reality. Things themselves do not give us knowledge. All knowledge, all understanding, comes from the mind. In things outside us there is no permanence; they have no character. You cannot even say of a thing in the outside world ‘this’, for before you utter the word the thing is engulfed in Heraclitian flux. In the Theaetetus Plato constructs an elaborate theory of perception to bring out what sense there is in Protagoras’s ‘Man the Measure’, but in the end it is found that sense perception does not yield knowledge.
Socrates makes a radical distinction between investigating thimgs in the outer world and investigating the ideas in the mind. Investigating things in the outer world gives information about things, enables us to manipulate things and to control certain processes of nature. That is the basis of all of our material civilization. But it does not yield answers to any questions relating to ideals, values or purposes. It does not reveal to us the reality of things. Newton knew that the concept of Gravitation enabled him to determine the orbit of the earth round the sun and of the moon round the earth, but he confessed that he could not attach any meaning to it. Hume saw only one side of the truth. He rightly affirmed that in the actual, the factual, the empirically verifiable we can find no ground for any value judgment. Socrates knew it long before Hume but he also knew that it is only in the ideas in the mind that we find answers to all questions of meaning, value and purpose. He renounced physical investigation simply because it could not answer properly philosophical questions. He knew that physical investigation and the investigation of ideas are two totally distinct worlds. Our ‘philosophers of mind’, failing to see this, are condemned to a Sisyphus burden of seeking to find the reality of the mind by investigating the brain.
In the above lines there are many hard sayings, but in the light of the other notions we will survey they will not look so hard.
The ideas of psuchê (soul) and nous (mind) merge in Socrates’ thought. In Homer the psuchê is an insubstantial, lifeless shadow. For Heraclitus it was the inward reality of a human being. But it is to Socrates that we owe the concept of ‘soul’ inherited by Christianity and made central to Western culture until it was marred by Descartes who made it into a substance on the same level as the body: a substance that could not be located anywhere in the body (despite Descartes’s fantastic idea of placing it in the pineal gland) and could not be verified by empirical means was subsequently dumped by modern thinkers, except within the Church where its fate was hardly any better.
For Socrates the soul, identified with the mind, is what constitutes the humanity of a human being. Socrates commonly referred to the soul as that within us which flourishes by doing what is right and is withered by doing what is wrong. For good or for ill, when we act as human beings, our action is governed by ideas formed in and by the mind and to be found nowhere but in the mind. The ideals of justice, generosity, nobility, magnanimity, are not anywhere in the natural world; their only fount and home is the mind: so also are the ideas of personal power, the value set on wealth, the motive of revenge; these are all based on ideas born in the mind. When in the Euthyphro Socrates asks the self-righteous soothsayer for his definition of piety he is not seeking a formal definition. His aim is to show the man that his thought is riddled with contradictions. That was what Socrates did in subjecting his interlocutors to his piercing examinations: he wanted to help them clear up the confusions and disentangle the blinding entanglements in their thinking.
Let me go out of my way to give an illustration from history of how the worst of misdeeds are necessarily governed by such entanglements of ideas. I am re-reading T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in a version edited by Nevill Coghill, from whose ample notes I take the liberty of reproducing the following excerpt on the ideas motivating the Knights who brutally murdered Becket in his cathedral church in the year 1170:
“It is probable that these men were wicked by stupidit; they had got it into their feudal heads that since Becket had been appointed to the Archbishopric by the King, he was the King’s ‘man’, and his appeal to the Pope, over the King’s head, was therefore treason. Treason is a powerful and heady word and a stupid man can inebriate himself with it, so that he appears to himself in a heroic light …” (Murder in the Cathedral, Faber and Faber, 1965, with an introduction and notes by Nevill Coghill, n.1, p.96).
They were “wicked by stupidity”: that reflects exactly Socrates’ much-maligned position of the identity of virtue and understanding. As I have said elsewhere, Socrates identification of virtue and understanding would be false as psychology of human behaviour but is insightful as moral philosophy: when we are truly human our understanding leads our action, our action issues from our understanding. Alas! the best of us are truly human, truly live on the spiritual plane, only intermittently; most of the time we merely live on the biological plane of our being. As finite beings we cannot escape “That subtile knot which makes us man’ (John Donne, The Ecstasie).
CARING FOR VIRTUE, CARING FOR ONE’S SOUL
Here again we find the two notions of epimeleia aretês (tending virtue) and epimeleia psuchês (tending the soul) converging in Socrates’ thought. Socrates held that our soul is harmed by wrongdoing and prospers by doing what is right. In the Crito we find his lifelong friend Crito trying to persuade him to escape prison where he was waiting execution. Socrates maintains that if he did that he would be doing wrong. He proceeds:
“Soc. … In the matter of just and unjust, fair and foul, good and evil, which are the subjects of our present consultation, ought we to follow the opinion of the many and to fear them; or the opinion of the one man who has understanding, and whom we ought to fear and reverence more than all the rest of the world: and whom deserting we shall destroy and injure that principle in us which may be assumed to be improved by justice and deteriorated by injustice; is there not such a principle?
“Cr. Certainly there is, Socrates.
“Soc. Take a parallel instance; if, acting under the advice of men who have no understanding, we destroy that which is improvable by health and deteriorated by disease- when that has been destroyed, I say, would life be worth having? And that is- the body?
“Soc. Could we live, having an evil and corrupted body?
“Cr. Certainly not.
“Soc. And will life be worth having, if that higher part of man be depraved, which is improved by justice and deteriorated by injustice? Do we suppose that principle, whatever it may be in man, which has to do with justice and injustice, to be inferior to the body?
“Cr. Certainly not.” (Crito, tr. Jowett.)
At his trial, addressing his judges, he says: “ … while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one of you whom I meet and saying to him after my manner: You my friend, … are you not ashamed of heaping up the largest amount of money and honour and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?” (Apology, tr. Jowett.)
One can hardly go through a page of any of the early dialogues of Plato without coming across the word epistêmê (knowledge). Perhaps the choice of word on the part of Socrates or on the part of Plato was unfortunate, but the insight behind it is profound. In those early dialogues we invariably find Socrates starting the examination of his interlocutor by posing the question ‘what is x’, ‘x’ being usually one of the conventional virtues. I have said it a score of times and will not tire of saying it again and again: Socrates does not seek a formal definition. He wants his interlocutor to bring out to the light what he finds in his mind associated with the notion in question. The notion is commonly found engulfed in obscurity and entangled with other notions that may not be compatible with each other. In the course of the examination the virtue in question is either identified with epistêmê (knowledge) (or Sophia, wisdom) or it is found that for the virtue in question to function properly or beneficially it has to be accompanied by knowledge (or wisdom). Then Socrates asks: “What knowledge? Knowledge of what?” Various sciences, various arts, various kinds of know-how, are surveyed, but none is found to serve our purpose. The knowledge needed is not knowledge of anything objective. It is an insight, an inner light. So the Socratic examination always ends in aporia (perplexity). This perplexity in which the Socratic examination invariably ends does not signify the failure of the examination. It is a stage on the way to enlightenment for it is intended to remove what Socrates termed ‘the worst kind of amathia (ignorance), when one believes one knows what one does not know. Only then is one ready to clear the clutter of false notions and the entanglement of disparate concepts and seek meaning in the self-evidence of ideas in the mind.
In the ‘autobiographical’ passage of the Phaedo Socrates distinguishes between two kinds of aitia (cause). Socrates is seated on his prison bed. A physiologist would account for his being in that position by speaking of bones and joints and sinews and muscles. That gives us one kind of explanation, a surface explanation we may say. But only Socrates’ principles of right and wrong give us understanding of why he remains seated in his prison rather than escaping as his friends were urging him to do. All natural explanations are of the first kind; philosophical explanations are of the second kind; the two are completely different and answer totally different questions, so that philosophers and theologians who think they can reach knowledge of the outer world by reasoning and scientists who try to reach answers to questions of value and meaning and purpose by scientific methods are equally deluded.
In the Timaeus we are told that all that becomes necessarily becomes by some agency; it is not possible apart from some agency for anything to come into being, (28a). I have used ‘agency’ here to translate Plato’s aitia since using the ambiguous word ‘cause’ would be confusing and. in my opinion, would not convey Plato’s sense propwely. There can be no agency apart from intelligence. Already in the Phaedrus we had been assured that all soul is in charge of all that is without soul, psuchê pasa pantos epimeleitai tou apsuchou (246b). That rules out materialism as a philosophical position. Further on in the Timaeus we read: "This is as valid a principle for the origin of the world of change as we shall discover from the wisdom of man, and we should accept it" (29e-30a, tr. Desmond Lee). Yet I would insist that in speaking of a “valid” (orthotata) “principle for the origin of the world” we are speaking of an intelligible vision and not of knowledge that can be affirmed true of the outer world.
The Greek word alêtheia is commonly translated ‘truth’. In other contexts this is a proper translation, but in translating Plato this is grossly misleading and wastes away a fundamental and most original and most fertile idea of Plato’s. For Plato alêtheia (reality), to on (what is), and ousia (not ‘essence’ which again would obscure Plato’s meaning, but ‘being’) are interchangeable words.
We have to work hard to understand what Plato means in holding that the idea is real as opposed to things we see and touch and weigh and measure, which are for Plato unreal. The difficulty for us stems from the circumstance that our common usage is the reverse of this. For our humdrum practical purposes we cannot reverse our usage, but in philosophical discussion we have to distinguish radically between metaphysical reality and what we conventionally term ‘real’, between the ‘unreal real’ and the ‘really real’. In my writings I distinguish between reality and existence: the mind is real, things in the objective realm exist. In my usage to say “the mind exists” would be a contradiction in terms.
It is to Plato that we owe the metaphysical idea of reality. The things in the outer world are all fleeting shadows, constantly changing; you cannot say of a thing ‘it is this’ or ‘it is such’, for before you say it is something else; it is sheer mockery to call such a thing real; there can be no knowledge of such a thing. In the Republic Plato affirms that “what wholly is is wholly knowable, what is not is in no way knowable” (477a). In truth, the only reality we know is our mind and the ideas in our mind. This theme will be developed further when we come to speak of ‘the divided line’, uf the Form of the Good, and of dialectic.
In the Phaedo we are told that a genuine philosopher practises death throughout his life. This is not a call for asceticism. A philosopher’s practising of death is more akin to the unworldliness of Buddhist or Christian saintliness. It is not incompatible with a wholesome enjoyment of the good things of life. Alcibiades in the Symposium relates that when they (he and Socrates) “went on the expedition to Potidaea; there we messed together, and I had the opportunity of observing his extraordinary power of sustaining fatigue. His endurance was simply marvellous when, being cut off from our supplies, we were compelled to go without food — on such occasions, which often happen in time of war, he was superior not only to me but to everybody; there was no one to be compared to him. Yet at a festival he was the only person who had any real powers of enjoyment; though not willing to drink, he could if compelled beat us all at that” (tr. Jowett). otherworldliness is another thing; it is often a sham, bartering pleasure here and now for an expected everlasting pleasure in the hereafter.
To say that a philosopher practises death throughout life simply means that a philosopher is not hooked to the body and does not set as much value on the unrealities of the world as on the realities of the mind. I dwell on this point because Plato’s statement has been grossly misinterpreted by scholars who should know better.
The Greek word erôs signifies erotic love as distinct from philia, the affection toward and between family members and close friends, and agape, the sentiment of benevolence rendered in the Authorised Version by the word ‘charity’ whose meaning has been stringently narrowed in modern usage. In the Symposium, friends gathered at a party, agree that, for entertainment, each one in turn should give a speech in praise of Erôs (the god of love). The first two speeches, made by Phaedrus and Pausanias respectively, keep within conventional ideas of erotic love in fifth-century-BC Greece. They are followed by the physician Eryximachus who finds love working in all aspects and all the phenomena and processes in nature. Plato thus makes Eryximachus unwittingly raise Love to a universal principle. This is followed by the comic poet Aristophanes who, in a bold myth, makes love an invincible drive in every man and women to seek one’s missing half. It is easy to move from this mythological idea to the notion that behind all human desire and all human strife is the aspiration to perfect our inherent imperfection. May we not go a step further and speak of the desire of all imperfect being (and any particular finite existent is an imperfect being) for perfection? Is this not the universal aspiration that Shelley envisages in “the desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow”?
Agathon’s clever empty word jiggling that follows is nothing but an interlude in the drama to prepare us for the ascent to the summit. For the speech that Socrates puts in the mouth of the wise Diotima crowns the process of ideas. The universal principle of Love working in all things is here transformed into a metaphysical principle beyond all things. In Diotima’s speech Love takes us on an ascent, through the love of particular beauties, to the vision of absolute Beauty, the ultimate perfection that is the fount and ground of all activity, all creativity. This s a theme I will return to in the sections on ‘Procreation in Beauty’, ‘The Form of the Good’, and ‘Creativity’.
Socrates was the last of the original party members to speak, but then Alcibiades joins the party, and when asked to take his turn in making a speech in praise of Love, he insists that he will only speak in praise of Socrates. This is a sort of appendix to the Symposium as if Plato wanted to give us the portrait of a man who has beheld the vision of ultimate perfection.
All of the dialogues of Plato have more than one theme and more than one dimension but these are usually well integrated. In the Meno however we have three (we could say four) distinct, self-contained themes. Meno’s initial question about the teachability of virtue is immediately waived by Socrates on the ground that we cannot consider it before considering what virtue is. (It is taken up in the Protagoras as its central theme.) There follows a short examination of the meaning of ‘virtue’ in the manner of the ‘elenctic’ dialogues which ends in the usual aporia (perplexity), though Meno is too conceited to genuinely acknowledge his ignorance. Then Meno introduces a sophistical objection to the possibility of knowledge in the form of a dilemma: a man cannot seek to discover what he already knows, nor can he seek what he does not know. Socrates at this point does not question the validity of the sophistic dilemma: in the Republic we will see that there is a state between knowledge and ignorance; this resolves the dilemma. Instead, Socrates tells of a tale told by ancient priests and priestesses affirming that, since the soul “is immortal and has been born many times, and has seen all things both here and in the other world, has learned everything that is” (Meno, 81c, tr. Guthrie). If that is so, what we call learning is really recollection of knowledge that is inborn in us. To support this claim Socrates carries out the famous geometrical experiment with Meno’s ‘boy’. The third (or fourth) theme is the distinction between knowledge and opinion which is first introduced in this dialogue and is fully developed in the Republc.
Thus what is called Socrates’ or Plato’s doctrine’ that all knowledge is anamnesis (remembering) is here frankly given as a myth told by priests and priestesses as reported by Pindar and other poets. Behind the myth is the Socratic fundamental insight, that all knowledge, all understanding is generated in the mind and by the mind. This is the ground of Socrates’ radical distinction between the intelligible and the perceptible realms which is creatively developed in the separation of investigation in ideas (en logois) from investigation in things (en ergois) in the ‘autobiographical’ passage of the Phaedo.
In the Theaetetus we have another image for the derivation of knowledge and understanding that is inherent in the mind. Socrates there poses as practising midwifery, helping young men deliver the thoughts they bear in their mind. Some scholars see this as a departure from the anamnesis doctrine’. As I see it, both the anamnesis myth, openly given as a tale told by priests and [riestesses, and the maieusis image, clearly presented as a playful fancy, are symbolic of the insight Socrates never wavered from, that all knowledge and all understanding have no fount and no home other than the mind.
IMMORTALITY, ETERNITY OF THE SOUL
The Apology, I believe, gives the true position of Socrates on the question of survival after death. The notion seems to have been in the air in fifth-century-BC Athens. Socrates, I think was not much concerned with it and had no fixed opinion on the matter. In his final speech at his trial, a speech addressed to those who had voted for his acquittal while the officials were completing formalities and arrangements for taking him to prison to await execution, he said:
“Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good, for one of two things: either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain. For if a person were to select the night in which his sleep was undisturbed even by dreams, and were to compare with this the other days and nights of his life, and then were to tell us how many days and nights he had passed in the course of his life better and more pleasantly than this one, I think that any man, I will not say a private man, but even the great king, will not find many such days or nights, when compared with the others. Now if death is like this, I say that to die is gain; for eternity is then only a single night. But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead are, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this? If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, he is delivered from the professors of justice in this world, and finds the true judges who are said to give judgment there, Minos and Rhadamanthus and Aeacus and Triptolemus, and other sons of God who were righteous in their own life, that pilgrimage will be worth making” (tr. Jowett).
The Phaedo ostensibly argues for immortality in the sense of survival of the soul in an afterlife. Whatever may have been Plato’s personal conviction, there is no pretence that any of the arguments for survival is conclusive. What is of true and lasting philosophical value in the dialogue is the notion of the divinity and eternity of the soul presented in the course of the third argument for immortality (78b-84b), commonly referred to as the affinity argument. It is this that I regard as one of the most profound elements of Plato’s universe of discourse and one of his most valuable gifts to human culture.
Socrates says that if beauty and goodness and all such realities (pasa hê toiautê ousia) have being (estin, my terminology precludes the use of the word ‘exist’ here), and if we discover these within ourselves, “then our soul must have been (einai) prior to our birth” (Phaedo, 76e). Here I will venture to say that the priority of our soul to our birth has to be taken in a mythical sense as in the myth of Reminiscence. The priority of the soul is not temporal but logical or metaphysical. Socrates emphatically ties up the reality of the soul (mind) to the reality of the intelligible ideas (76E). For Socrates the soul (mind) is the seat, ground, and fount of the intelligible realm. That is what is in us akin to the divine and is metaphysically eternal.
At this point, giving way to my inveterate laziness, I beg leave to cull freely from my Plato: An Interpretation, Chapter 5, “The Meaning f the Phaedo).
In 79d we have a winged passage, which I allow myself to disfigure in this clumsy literal rendering in order to keep as close as possible to the wording of the original:
“When the soul (mind) all by itself reflects, it moves into that which is pure, always is, deathless, and constant, and being of a like nature to that, remains with that always, whenever it is possible for it to be by itself, and then it rests from wandering, and in the company of that, is constant, being in communion with such; and it is this state that is called intelligence (phronêsis).”
Through the mystical language and imagery here we can clearly see that for Plato, as for Socrates, the forms and the soul are primarily the region of the intelligible or more specifically the plane of intelligent being.
The mind as the abode of the intelligible, is the one area where we have communion with reality and where we ourselves have reality. This is the essence of Platonism. (We will deal more fully with the notion ‘Eternity’ under ‘Activity’.)
PROCREATION IN BEAUTY
In the speech of Diotima in the Symposuum the pregnant phrase tokos en kalôi (giving birth in beauty) is hurled like a thunderbolt from the sky. Although Plato makes no use of the phrase elsewhere, I see it as one of the most fertile notions of Plato’s universe of discourse.
Love is not a passive or static state; it is an act. All perfection is out-going, active, creative. What truly is, is not, but is ever flowing in creative being. Thus in the Timaeus we are told that the maker of the universe made it because, being good, he wanted all things to be as like himself as possible (294d-e). This insight underlies all of Plato’s thought. A virtue is a certain function (dunamis), its proper excellence is its proper activity. In the Republic we are told that a true philosophic nature begets reason and reality (gennêsas noun kai alêtheian). The whole winged passage in 490a-b is reminiscent of Diotima’s speech. This is a theme we will revert to more than once in what follows.
LEVELS OF BEING, LEVELS OF KNOWLEDGE
For Plato knowledge and reality are two sides of one thing. Let us recall that the central part of the Republic, from the latter part of Book Five to the end of Book Seven, which gives us the substance of Plato’s metaphysics and his epistemology as an integral whole, starts as an attempt to define the philosopher. Plato makes us accompany the philosopher on his pilgrimage to the highest reality that is at once the highest understanding. When Socrates is asked about the greatest study he says that the highest knowledge is the form of the Good, hê tou agathou idea megiston mathêma (504d). Plato’s text does not say that the highest knowledge is knowledge of the form of the Good but that it is the form of the Good. This was not a slip of the pen: it is vintage Plato for knowledge and reality are one. I have insisted on this point before and have to insist on it here: it is crucial for a proper understanding of Plato’s position.
The ‘divided line’ is a graphic representation of Plato’s ordering of the levels of knowledge and levels of reality, which is grounded in the principle that what wholly is is wholly knowable, what is not is in no way knowable, to men pantelôs on pantelôs gnôston, mê on de mêdamêi pantêi agnôston (477a). Between what is and what is not there is a range of imperfect being. The notion of levels or degrees of being is regarded by some as an inconceivable absurdity. But this is merely a logical prejudice which presumes there is no middle condition between is and is not, which presumption holds only in the artificially closed world of abstract logic. Nothing is more in accord with common sanity than that the finite and particular (and all actual existents are such) is determined by what it is not, its being is conditioned by other than what it is.
In the ‘divided line’ (509d-511e) Plato ranges levels of knowledge corresponding to levels of being on two planes, the sensible and the intelligible. On the plane of the phenomenal world, we can have images or illusions (eikosia) on the lower level, and we can have perceptions and opinions (pistis, doxa) on the higher level. On the intelligible plane, employing forms, we can have scientific knowledge of perceptible things (dianoia) on the lower level, and we can have a purer form of knowledge concerned with first principles (nous, noêsis) on the higher level. This is what Plato – who was not consistent in his terminology and did not care for system – elsewhere called phronêsis, the creative intelligence in which we have insight that is essentially ineffable and can only be expressed in myth and parable and metaphor — in poetry.
THE FORM OF THE GOOD
The Form of the Good, hê tou agathou idea, is Plato’s vision of ultimate Reality. It is the vision attained by the philosophic soul when, being by nature drawn towards communion with reality, goes on until she grasps the essence of what is by what is in her akin to what is, and approaching and uniting with what has real being, begets intelligence and reality and has understanding and true life and nourishment — as we have been told in that prophetic passage (Republic 490a-b) which I have been freely paraphrasing in these lines.
That vision which the philosophic soul attains by probing her own reality, never going out into the outer world, is the philosopher’s idea of how Reality must be conceived if it is to be seen as intelligible. That Reality must be the fount of all intelligence and all being, while it transcends all intelligence and all being. So at Republic 509b we are told that as the Sun does not only give the things seen the capability of being seen, but is the source of their generation and growth and nourishment, so the Good does not only give knowers the power of knowing, but gives them their very being, while it is itself beyond and above being.
For Plato the real is the intelligible; the intelligible is the Form (idea, eidos). The Forms unite in the Form of the Good. From the Form of the Good flows all being and all intelligence.
Plato uses the term ‘dialectic’ variously in various contexts, but in the Republic Plato says that dialectic, the highest exercise of philosophizing, proceeds by destroying its ground assumptions, tas hupotheseis anairousa, and although Plato at this point continues by saying it does so to reach a first, secure principle, ep' autên tên archên hina bebaiôsêtai (533c-d), we have to understand that for Plato this first, secure principle can never be definitive or final.
Both in the Phaedrus (274c-278b) and in Epistle VII (341c-d) Plato says plainly and emphatically that the profoundest philosophical insights cannot be put in writing. It is not for no reason that Plato never wrote a systematic or theoretical treatise but only gave us dramatic dialogues, intimating that philosophy is in the philosophizing and that no philosophical insight can be encapsulated in a fixed formulation of thought or language.
It is, in my opinion, to drive this lesson home, that Plato wrote that stylistically most unplatonic dialogue, the Parmenides, that has baffled many students of philosophy. He wanted to demonstrate practically that there is no theoretical statement that cannot be overturned.
The business of philosophy is to philosophize, to explore our mind, to probe our inner reality, reflect our insight into that reality in myths that confess themselves myths. To obviate the risk of our enlightening myths turning into blinding superstitions we have dialectically to destroy their grounds, to show that however well formulated they are yet riddled with contradictions.
THE NURSE OF ALL BECOMING
The Timaeus introduces the notion of ‘the nurse (tithênê) of all becoming’, the hupodochê. This is usually translated by the word ‘receptacle’, which I do not find quite apt: a receptacle is other than what it receives but the hupodochê, the womb of all existents is one with what it breeds. It is the dimension of existence as opposed to the dimension of reality in the All, the One. To me it is the sphere of transient existents, for all that exists is finite and determinate and essentially evanescent and only has being in the reality that creatively actualizes itself in the flow of transient existents. The nurse of all becoming does not itself exist but is ever breeding vanishing existents. This does away with Aristotle’s notion of primary matter out of which all things are shaped. Matter is nothing but the ceaseless becoming of fleeting shadows.
Existents come and perish away. Existence is not existent but is the womb that breeds perishing existents.
I believe it was A. N. Whitehead who was the first among modern philosophers to appreciate the significance of Plato’s definition of the real as nothing but dunamis, which I prefer to render ‘activity’. It is important to note that the word ‘real’ in this context is not intended in the strict Platonic sense but is used in the wider common sense of all that has being. Plato in the Sophist found it necessary to examine the concept of ‘not being’. To do this he had to “put to the test the doctrine of Father Parmenides, and show both that what is not in some way is, and that what is in some way is not” (241d). We are plainly here not concerned with alêtheia, ousia, or to on in Plato’s special sense of these terms but with all that has being in any sense. That “what is not in some way is”and “what is in some way is not” is a lesson we can draw from the early Socratic discourses where all things merge and all things are interdependent, a lesson further underlined in the Parmenides where it is concluded that whatever we assume to be or not to be, it will seem that both the One and the Many, will be, both in relation to themselves and to each other, all things and no-thing (166c).
Plato proceeds to examine the essence of all that has being in any sense. He puts this unmistakably: If the bodiless things we have spoken of and the things which have body are both alike 'real', what do the materialists see as common to both? (247d.) It is found that things that are, are no other thing than activity, ta onta hôs estin ouk allo ti plên dunamis (247e). Thus to be real in any sense is to act, not to be active but to be activity.
In Plato’s strict sense, to be real is to be intelligible; to be intelligible is to be a creation of the mind; in the end, it is the creativity of the mind that is real.
The agent has no being other than its activity and there is no activity apart from intelligence. Ultimately, to be real is to be creative intelligence, or, better put, to be intelligent creativity.
The conception of a static being, or of an independent being – except as a fiction employed for practical purposes – is an absurdity.
In my philosophy, which I describe as a special version of Platonism, ultimate Reality is creative intelligence or, better still, intelligent creativity. I also name ultimate Reality: Creative Eternity, which is nothing other than eternal creativity. Otherwise said, the real is the act, Reality is the Act. The Act is another name for Creative Eternity.
Permit me to close this essay by this rambling and perhaps mystifying summation of my position, which I yet contend to be of genuine Platonic inspiration.
Creative Eternity is Reality. Creative Eternity is how I find it most satisfactory to conceive ultimate Reality. We do not find this idea by searching the world outside us. We find it within us. That is why all that Plato or any philosopher says about this world or a world beyond can be no more than sheer myth. It is only in intelligent creativity that we ourselves are real and have communion with Reality. It is only then that we are free.
The conception of free will has been muddied and turned into a riddle by confusing it with choice. Choice is a consequence of the imperfection of human nature and the abstraction of human thought. Choice is always determined by its antecedents, though these antecedents are not deterministic as in scientific determinism for the antecedents of choice include our ideals (good and bad), our desires, our hopes, our fears, and even here the outcome is originative, bringing about something new, something that could be expected but not predicted with certainty.
Choice is opposed to freedom. Choice is wholly in time; freedom is in eternity. It is only in the spontaneity of intelligent creativity that we are real and free. In the creativity of artistic and philosophical creation and in the spontaneity of love we live on the plane of eternity. As we are finite conditioned existents our eternity is in time and does not last. That is why I take Plato’s immortality only metaphorically. Our eternity is in time and does not last but it is only when we live on the plane of eternity in intelligent creativity that we ourselves are real and know reality. All else is vanishing shadow and vanity of vanities.
Cairo, 26 November 2014.