NOTES ON PLATO - ii
NOTES ON PLATO – II
D. R. Khashaba
4. The “Socratic problem” is a historical enigma that can never be solved. Apart from some biographical details, the “real” Socrates is as elusive as the “historical Jesus”. The correct attitude, in my opinion, is to confess that any portrayal of Socrates’ character and thought, however thoroughly researched and astutely argued, must be openly confessed to be nothing more than an imaginative construction. For myself, I am thankful that Plato has given us the myth of “the best, wisest, and most righteous, of all men”. As to the question where Socrates’ thought ends and where Plato’s thought begins, again we must confess that this cannot be settled. In discussing the ‘philosophy of Plato’ let us say we are discussing the philosophy we find in or derive from the dramatic works left us by Plato, as we would discuss the philosophy of an anonymous work. When a writer ascribes a particular thought or sentiment to Socrates or to Plato let her or him humbly say it is no more than a personal guess.
5. I write as a philosopher. I interpret Plato philosophically. My purpose is not to ascertain what Plato said or what Socrates thought, but to find insight in Plato’s writings. When I say as I have repeatedly said that for Socrates what gives us our distinctive character as human beings is that we live in a world of ideas and ideals engendered by the mind and to be found nowhere but in the mind, I do not claim that there is anywhere in Plato’s writings textual support for thus view, but I maintain that this is implied by what I take to be Socrates’ philosophical outlook. When A. N. Whitehead said (in Adventures of Ideas, 1933) that Plato “in his later mood” held that “being is simply power”, a notable Platonic scholar, F. M. Cornford, thought this was an instance of how "a profound thinker may be misled by a translation" (Preface to Plato’s Theory of Knowledge, 1935). In this particular case I think Cornford was mistaken, but even had he been right, I maintain that Whitehead was discovering a valuable philosophical insight in Plato’s text whether scholars agree or do not agree with his reading of the text. So I read Plato naively to philosophize for myself, not to ascertain what Plato said or thought. That is the business of scholarship. Within its proper boundaries scholarship does valuable work, but I maintain that it becomes counterproductive when it pretends to exclude and to replace philosophical interpretation: and that is what modern scholarship does and does to excess. For instance, when scholars find that Socrates’ firm moral convictions contradicting his profession of ignorance, I say that shows how badly they need a dose of that redeeming philosophical ignorance. Let this be my apology for my frequent tirades against empty erudition.
5. Plato wrote dramatic pieces. He did not want these to be dissected and analyzed, nor did he want the speeches and arguments occurring in these dramas, with all their dramatic hesitations, evasions, posturings, and occasiona fallacies, to be subjected to logical scrutiny, except as a secondary intellectual exercise. He wanted his dramas first, to be read and enjoyed as dramatic works, and secondly and more importantly, to occasion free reflection on the part of the reader, reflection that may hopefully give birth to original insights and original thoughts in the reader’s mind. That is how Plotinus read Plato, how Shelley read Plato, and that is how I read Plato.
Cairo, October 5, 2015.