WAS PLATO'S PHAEDO A YOUTHFUL DIALOGUE?
WAS PLATO’S PHAEDO A YOUTHFUL DIALOGUE?
D. R. Khashaba
I have frequently, both in my latest book – Creative Eternity – and previously characterized Plato’s over-emphasis in the Phaedo on the constancy, immutability, and ‘separateness’ of the Forms as youthful enthusiasm. Richard Schain reminds me that scholars classify the Phaedo as a middle-term dialogue. I have no intention to contest the placing of the dialogue in the middle term (many would say ‘early middle’) but find no reason for changing my position. Yet clearly that calls for explanation and justification.
The chronology of Plato’s dialogues is a very contorted question and although the dating of the Phaedo is not crucial to my position, let us nevertheless put it to rest with a few remarks. Plato’s date of birth is traditionally given as 428/7 BC but Debra Nails (“The Life of Plato of Athens”, A Companion to Plato, ed. Hugh H. Benson. Blackwell, 2006) thinks it should be corrected to 424/3. Plato would have been about 24 at the time of Socrates’ death. According to Nails, Plato turned 30 in 394 and it was about that time that Plato, Theaetetus, Archytas of Tarentum, Leodamas of Thasos, and perhaps Neoclides “began congregating … in the grove of the hero Hecademus … to pursue their studies” . That gives us an early date for the ‘gestation’ of the Academy although the formal ‘founding’ was to take place a decade later when Plato was about 40. When were the ‘early’ and the ‘middle’ dialogues written? Perhaps we should rather speak of ‘very early’, ‘early’ and ‘late’ dialogues. On this count all the dialogues preceding the Republic would have been written by Plato in his thirties. Perhaps for a time he was too busy with the Academy and with his Sicilian misadventures to do much writing. Be that as it may. I emphasize that I do not base my position on such considerations and while the word ‘youthful’ may have been inapt, I see no reason to modify my reading of Plato’s position regarding the Forms. I will now give a summary of that reading.
It is incontestable that Socrates was primarily concerned with moral questions and concentrated on the examination of the moral notions — dikaiosunê, sôphrosunê, andreia, etc. That he distinguished these as intelligible eidê or ideai and contrasted them to perceptible impressions is probable. In any case I imagine that Plato in re-enacting the Socratic investigations in the early dialogues saw two things: (1) These notions have their birth in the mind and their whole meaning in the mind and that meaning can only be beheld in the self-evidence of the ‘ideas’in the mind. (2) It is these intelligible ideas that give meaning to perceptible things. Without these intelligible ‘forms’ nothing whatever has any meaning for us.
As a consequence of (2) Plato saw that the intelligible forms cannot be confined to the moral ideas and ideals. In the first part of the Parmenides the aged sage of Elea attributes Socrates’ reluctance to admit forms of dirt and hair to Socrates’ immaturity.
Pursuing (1) Plato developed the view of the philosophical life depicted in the Phaedo, unfolded in the Symposium, poetically portrayed in the Phaedrus. The Forms were clothed in holiness and sanctity. The Forms were divine and imbued us with divinity. (I do not gravely sin when I call that youthful exuberance even if displayed by an old man.) But in that same first part of the Parmenides Plato shows that all theoretical attempts to relate the Forms to the objective things on the understanding that these are two separate entities must fail. That is the chôrismos that Aristotle castigates and that scholars continue to lampoon as Plato’s “Theory of Forms”.
In the Sophist Plato criticizes the ‘Friends of the Forms’, maintaining that what is real cannot be rigidly fixed but must have life and intelligence. (See Plato: An Interpretation, Chapter Ten, # IV.)
This is the philosophy I find for myself in Plato. My approach to Plato as to all philosophy is not scholarly. I never claimed to discover what Plato thought or meant; I only offer what vision Plato or any other philosopher inspires in me. The philosophy I offer is confessedly my philosophy and must be judged on its own merits.
Cairo, August 13, 2016.