PLOTINUS ON PLATO
[Posted on Bryn Mawr Classical Review Blog on November 22 2008: http://www.bmcreview.org/2008/11/20081121.html ]
I do not propose to comment on Professor Gerson’s review. I merely offer some reflections evoked by the first paragraph of the review.
Plotinus was not wrong in remarking that what Plato said about the soul was enigmatic, regardless of the fact that Plotinus’s own writings are enigmatic in the highest degree. Is there cause for complaint in that? I think not. A philosophical statement that is not enigmatic is of little worth. Philosophy deals with ultimates. All that is ultimate is in some significant sense absolute. What is absolute cannot be contained in a determinate linguistic statement — cannot be conveyed in fixed conceptual terms. Hence a statement claiming or seeking to give expression to a genuine philosophical insight cannot but be metaphorical, paradoxical, enigmatic or mythical. That is why (1) Plato asserts that the best philosophy cannot be put into any fixed text (Phaedrus 274b-278e, the Seventh Letter 341c-344a); (2) Plato insists in the Republic that dialectic must destroy all its hypotheses (tas hupotheseis anairousa); (3) Plato clothes his profoundest philosophical insights in myths, allegories, and enigmatic statements.
I maintain that myth in Plato extends far beyond the traditionally noted myths in several of the dialogues. The philosophical insight in the notion of anamnêsis for instance, is smothered when this is taken as a doctrine and is quickened when it is taken as a myth: the fecund idea of education in the Republic, for instance, as the turning of the mind’s eye inwards, can then be seen as one of the fruits of that myth. I will stick my neck out so far as to say that, where Plato is concerned, any ‘textually based argument’ is more likely to go astray than to penetrate to Plato’s true intention. Plato’s meaning is in the drama, in the whole, in the give and take of live dialogue, where, as Plato tells us in the Seventh Letter, “like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself” (341c-d, tr. Glenn R. Morrow) — not in fragments lifted from their natural milieu and subjected to laboratory testing.
Similarly, the idea of the soul and of the immortality – better still, the eternity – of the soul, taken as a myth representing what was for Socrates simply that in us which thrives by doing what is right and is harmed by doing what is wrong, gives insight into that inwardness, that locus of ideas and ideals engendered in and by the mind alone, which characterizes us as human beings and constitutes our whole worth, and which empirical and analytical philosophies seek to deny us. The soul as myth secures our spirituality, affirms the reality of spiritual life, assures us of the inward reality of spiritual values, endangered equally by the theological dogma of a separate and separable soul and by the reductionist approach of empiricism. (We then have no need to ascribe to the soul any ‘entitative status’.)
In vain do we seek to fix in definitive form any Platonic solution, or any philosophical solution at all, to any problem posed by Plato. Plato poses a problem; considers it from this angle and that angle, and leaves it without a final conclusion; thus it remains good for exercising our own mind, for it is only in the active process of phronêsis that we may glimpse our inner, strictly ineffable, reality. This is the Platonic development of the Socratic elenchus which, pace Aristotle, was not meant to reach definitions but to produce the aporia that leads the mind to look within itself, where alone it can behold what is real.
I cannot do better than conclude by culling a sentence from Professor Gerson’s article: “According to Plotinus, Plato taught that philosophy is the practice of self-transformation that is the achievement of self-awareness.” This agrees completely with my interpretation of Plato’s position, what I have elsewhere called my version of Platonism.
D. R. Khashaba