Plato is the most read philosopher and the most studied but, in my view, he is the least understood.
In the Phaedrus Plato says in the clearest terms “He who thinks … that he has left behind him any art in writing, and he who receives it in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person” (275c-d, tr. Fowler). Yet he has left us about thirty well-wrought pieces of writing of various length. Was he “an utterly simple person” or was he fooling us? Neither. He meant us to read his artistic creations in the light of this clear warning.
Before proceeding further to elucidate what I mean by this we have to clear one hurdle. Plato was a born poet and dramatist. With maybe one or two exceptions, every one of his literary works is a creation of dramatic genius. Character portrayal, scene ‘painting’, situation depiction, are as prominent as the thought content. The dialogue is always tailored to fit the character, be it that of a Euthyphro, a Crito, or a Thrasymachus. The dramatic introductions of the Protagoras or the Symposium for instance are literary masterpieces in their own right. Sometimes the dramatic element is overwhelming. Both the Hippias pieces are character-comedies. The Euthydemus is an odd mix of farce and didactic guidance. This dramatic feast should be enjoyed but should not be allowed to obfuscate the underlying philosophical purpose.
To get to the philosophical purpose we have to go back to the Apology. The Apology was almost certainly not the first dialogue that Plato wrote but it is where we have to begin and it is one creation of Plato’s where we can take all that is said at its face value and without qualification. Perhaps the only other such one is the Crito.
In the Apology Socrates affirms that the greatest good for a human being is to discourse daily of virtue. He sums up his mission in life in admonishing all people to care above all things for virtue and for the good of their souls, these two being one and the same thing. Plato sums all this in affirming that the best life for human beings is the philosophical life. This is the gist of the Phaedo, not the confessedly non-conclusive arguments for immortality.
Philosophy then, for Plato as for Socrates, is a manner of life, not the acquisition of a mass of factual knowledge like science or of deductive certainties like mathematics. But it is integral to the philosophical life to be constantly scrutinizing our ideas, our purposes, our valuations. In saying this we are simply unfolding Socrates’ affirmation that the greatest good for a human being is daily to discourse of virtue. The philosophical life is a ceaseless search of one’s mind.
Plato adds another element to the discourse that constitutes the good life: for just as we have constantly to scrutinize the ideas, aims, and values that determine the character and texture of our lives, likewise, as intelligent beings, we have to satisfy the irking questionings about the Whole and the Ultimate, the All and the ‘really real’. A human being to attain the integrity of her or his personality needs to satisfy this unquenchable urge,
But Plato is unwaveringly clear about the impossibility of there ever being a determinate, definitive answer to these questionings. As we have ever to re-consider our purposes and values, we have also ever to muse our metaphysical questionings. In the Republc Plato offers a vision of Ultimate Reality as the Form of the Good, but when ‘Socrates’ is asked to elucidate he resorts to the simile of the Sun that gives Light and Life. Likewise the Good brings forth Being, Life and Understanding but is above and beyond being, life and understanding. Thus philosophy is an emdless quest. Philosophical life is the quest itself not any definite goal that the quest arrives at. Philosophy is the life of active, creative intelligence. When the mind is satisfied and is at rest it is no longer alive.
I have often said that the best philosophy is poetry and that poetry is the best philosophy. I conclude this essay by quoting two passages from two poets that clearly depict the philosophical venture. I give these without comment.
Coleridge in a prophetic passage of Biographia Literaria, expanding on a thought of Plotinus, speaks of ‘philosophic imagination’ as ‘the sacred power of self-intuition’. He writes:
“They and they only can acquire the philosophic imagination, the sacred power of self-intuition, who within themselves can interpret and understand the symbol, that the wings of the air-sylph are forming within the skin of the caterpillar; those only who feel in their own spirits the instinct, which impels the chrysalis of the horned fly to leave room in its involucrum for antennae yet to come.”
Hölderlin in Hyperion gives us the following words, pregnant with insight and wisdom:
“Poetry … is the beginning and the end of philosophical knowledge. Like Minerva from the head of Jupiter, philosophy springs from the poetry of an eternal, divine state of being. And so in philosophy, too, the irreconcilable finally converges again in the mysterious spring of poetry.” (Tr. Willard R. Trask)