PLATO’S GREATEST HOAX
D. R. Khashaba
After the execution of Socrates, Plato left Athens and spent several years moving around. The duration of his voluntary exile is differently assessed by different scholars; but that it was years rather than months is undisputed. He must have been mulling what to do with his life. He had been profoundly influenced by the character, life, thought, and ideals of Socrates and he felt it his duty and his mission to preserve all that.
Plato knew that to the last Socrates maintained that he had no philosophy to teach. When at his trial Socrates declared that it was his mission to teach philosophy and virtue, he made it clear in the sequel that he did that by questioning people, seeking to make them examine themselves and correct their evaluations and their priorities. And even if Plato had not yet definitely articulated the thought in the words of Phaedrus 275c-d, yet he was already convinced that philosophical insight is not something to be conveyed in set words but is a fire kindled through the converse of minds. (See Protagoras, 347c-348a, Phaedrus, 274b-278e, Epistle VII., 341b-345a.)
Plato was a born poet and it is said that he had attempted drama in his early youth. He now started writing dramatic pieces to keep alive the memory of Socrates and do homage to “the best, and wisest, and most righteous man”. No more than Aeschylus or Sophocles would Plato use drama to propagate positive doctrine. In his dramatic pieces the arguments themselves are among the dramatis personae; they have their role in the drama. The end of a Platonic dialogue is not a conclusion established argumentatively but a total impression created artistically, a vision.
Naturally every piece would aim at specific effects and not one piece of Plato’s works serves solely a single purpose. The two Hippias pieces make fun of the bombastic sophist. In the Hippias Minor whose paradox puzzles erudite scholars the paradox is the crux of the drama. It has a hidden proviso: intentionally (hekôn) doing what is bad – if that were possible – would be better than doing what is bad unintentionally (akôn). In the Crito, when Crito says that the many can inflict the greatest harm, Socrates says, “Would that the many could inflict the greatest harm, for they would then be capable of doing the greatest good” (44d). For Socrates-Plato capability, knowledge, virtue are inseparable. As Spinoza was to say, only one with adequate ideas acts; with inadequate ideas one is simply driven hither and thither.
The dramatic genius of Plato needs no showing. In the opening part of the Crito you can touch the quivering vocal chords of the good old man, choked with anxiety and grief. The Protagoras is a masterpiece of character portraiture, not only of Protagoras but of all the participating individuals. I wonder why no literary critic has made a full study of Plato’s works as sheer drama.
The Apology and the Crito stand apart as perhaps the only dialogues that are to be taken at face value, (which is not the same as taking them for factual accounts: dramatic truth is deeper than fact). I could take up the dialogues one by one to show that argument is the element of least import in them. If, as I approach my ninetieth birthday, I could reasonably count on having two more years or so, I would set on doing that as my last work. But now I will be content with demonstrating my point by going through the Phaedo.
The Phaedo is clearly a multi-purpose dialogue. In the first place it was to immortalize the heroic martyrdom of Socrates. This provides the narrative framework. Along the way it ranges over five fields. (1) The Socratic conception of the intelligible realm. (2) Praise for the philosophic life as the best life for a human being. (3) Integrally connected with this, affirmation of the divinity of the soul. (4) In the ‘autobiographical’ passage (95e-102a), curiously neglected by all scholars, we have the Socratic-Platonic definition of the nature and scope of philosophical thinking. (5) Then we have the argument for immortality which I designate as the great hoax. We will take up these five threads one by one in this order. In what follows I have made use of Chapter Five, “The Meaning of the Phaedo”, of my Plato: An Interpretation (2005), I confess that this paper has been partly a cut-and-paste job.
THE INTELLIGIBLE REALM
Socrates was convinced that we are human only inasmuch as we live in a world formed by the ideas and ideals that are born in the mind. This was the basis of the Socratic distinction between the intelligible and the perceptible realms and this insight was the first foundation of the Socratic-Platonic vision.
The perceptible we find all around us in the world; the intelligible – to noêton – we do not ‘find’ anywhere, we bring it to birth in our mind. It is with this inner world that Socrates was wholly concerned, for Socrates saw that, for good or for ill, when we act as human beings, our action is governed by ideas, ideals, values, and aims formed in and by the mind.
This is the basis of Plato’s notion of Forms. The Forms are simply the intelligible ideas. Things in themselves have no meaning and no reality for us. 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. (For further elucidation of this, see section V below.)
This is the gist of Plato’s grossly misunderstood and much maligned ‘Theory of Forms, and reluctantly I permit myself to digress here to address for the nth time this prevalent misunderstanding..
Tomes have been written debating Plato’s ‘Theory of Forms’. I adamantly insist that Plato had no such theory. The notion of the intelligible ideas is not a theory but a creative idea. Plato tentatively tried various metaphors for relating the ‘forms’ to the perceptible objects: participation, inherence, communion, repliction. Each of these metaphors, if affirmed positively and definitively, would be a ‘theory’; and it is these provisional theories that Plato makes Parmenides blast in the first part of the Parmenides.
An aspect of the supposed ‘Theory of Forms’ is said to be the assertion of the ‘separate existence’ of the Forms, a misunderstanding initiated by Aristotle. The chôrismos affirmed by Socrates and Plato is the separation of the intelligible and the perceptible. Plato sings the praise of the ideal Forms in winged words and in the Phaedrus gives us the myth of the celestial abode of the Forms. But Socrates in the elenctic discourses finds all ‘forms’ merging together and in the end they are found to be one with Sophia, nous, phronêsis. Plato regularly speaks of the antitheses of the moral forms in the same vein as of the moral forms. In the first part of the Parmenides Socrates’ hesitation to admit forms of hair and dirt is blamed on his immature age. In the Sophist the ‘Friends of the Forms’ are taken to task for thinking “that change, life, soul, understanding have no place in that which is perfectly real — that it has neither life nor thought, but stands immutable in solemn aloofness, devoid of intelligence” (248e-249a, tr. Cornford.) How can all this be compatible with a ‘theory’ that gives Forms a ‘separate existence’? Above all, would not the ‘separate existence’ of the intelligible negate the distinction between the intelligible and the perceptible?
THE PHILOSOPHICAL LIFE
Early in the dialogue Socrates says that a true philosopher makes of his whole life an exercise in dying and being dead (64a). Not only is a philosopher least concerned with things of the body but she or he also find the body an impediment in the contemplation of the mind. Where does the soul (mind) come into contact with reality? When it tries to examine anything through the body it is led into error. It is in reasoning that it approaches what is real. It reasons best when it gives up dependence on the body and reaches out for true being. The philosopher’s soul (mind) therefore shuns the body and seeks to be in itself. Now, we say there is such a thing as justice, and beauty, and goodness. But we never perceived any such thing with our senses. It is when we examine these in thought that we come closest to knowing them. (65b-66a)
But when the soul (mind) reflects all by itself and in itself it moves into that which is pure and constant, and then it rests from wandering, being in communion with what is real and constant. (79d)
Such is the philosophical life. When Socrates said at his trial that daily to converse about virtue is the greatest good for a human being (38a), he was instituting the ideal of the philosophical life. This is the life of active, creative intelligence that is the proper aretê (excellence, virtue) of a human being, that Plato variously calls Sophia, nous, phronêsis and identifies with alêtheia (reality) because it is there and only there that we are in communion with reality and ourselves attain reality.
THE DIVINITY (ETERNITY) OF THE SOUL
What is commonly referred to as the ‘affinity argument’ (76d-84b) is of much more import and value than being one in a series of arguments for immortality. It is in a class by itself and is farther removed from having the semblance or pretense of being a logical argument. It is more openly poetical and emotional. In ascribing to the philosophical life and the intelligible realities with which it is concerned all the characteristics of divinity it amounts to a proclamation of the divinity of the soul.
Socrates says: If beauty and goodness and all such realities have being, and if we discover these within ourselves, then our soul must have been prior to our birth. (76d-e)— Though Socrates here is ostensibly referring to temporal priority, yet beneath this we have the essental union of the reality of the intelligible ideas and the reality of the soul (mind), kai ei mê tauta, oude tade (76e). Socrates identifies the soul with the intelligible realm, or more particularly, with the principle of intelligence. At the core of this insight we find not the idea of temporal continuity but that of supra-temporal eternity. This is a creatively original metaphysical notion.
The philosophical soul is divine in being eternal in the only metaphysically cogent sense of eternity — not as endless extension of time or infinity of time but as the principle of creative activity that transcends temporality in metaphysical reality. The philosophical soul lives not in the fleeting world of shadows but has its being on the plane of divine creative intelligence.
The full import of this comes out in the account ‘Diotima’ gives in the Symposium of the lover’s ascent to the vision of Beauty and is also given succinctly in a prophetic passage in the Republic:
“ … a true philosophical nature aspires to reality (to on), does not tarry by the many particulars that are supposed to be, but goes forth with no blunting and no slackening of her desire, until she grasps the essence of all reality by that in her soul to which it is becoming to grasp that (that is, what is akin), approaching and mingling with what has true being, gives birth to reason and reality; enjoys knowledge and true life and is nourished, and then has relief of her birth pangs …” (490a-b).
THE NATURE AND SCOPE OF PHILOSOPHICAL THINKING
After Socrates had presented the affinity argument, both Simmias and Cebes advanced objections. Simmias’s objection and Socrates’ answer are not particularly relevant to this paper. (See the section “Harmony” in Chapter Five of Plato: An Interpretation.) In answer to Cebes’s objection Socrates says: “The whole question of the cause of generation and corruption will have to be examined.” Then he adds, “I’m going to relate to you my own experience about these” (95e-96a). When he does, it turns out that that experience led him to renounce all search for physical causes. He was convinced that no investigation of things outside the mind can answer any of the questions that concerned him as a philosopher. We will return to this crucial point further on but at the very outset we find something that calls for pause.
Socrates says, “When I was young I was tremendously keen on that kind of wisdom which they call investigation of nature (tês sophias hên de kalousi peri phuseôs historian)” (96a). This is in flat contradiction to what we have in the Apology where Socrates emphatically denies ever engaging in or being interested in physical investigation (19c). What are we to make of this? My own conjecture is that Plato invents this early interest and the whole story of Anaxagoras’s book to dramatize Socrates’ firm renouncement of physical investigation. (That of course does not mean that Socrates did not read Anaxagoras’s book.) Be that as it may. What is indubitable is that we have in the sequel the clear radical separation of physical (scientific, empirical) knowledge on the one hand and philosophical understanding on the other hand.
Socrates exemplifies this radical difference. He is seated in prison on his prison bed. Scientific investigation, giving an account of his position and posture, will give us detailed descriptions of his bones and joints and sinews and neurons. But all of that will not explain why he remains there when his friends were prepared to arrange for his escape. Only his notions of what is right and righteous can make us understand that. (98b-99a)
This is a distinction that both our scientists and our philosophers have chosen to ignore. No investigation into things outside the mind can answer an ultimate ‘What’ question or an ultimate ‘Why’ question. On the other hand, no investigation into pure ideas can give us any factual knowledge about how things are in the natural world. Among modern philosophers only Kant saw this clearly. This is the gist of the principle of philosophical ignorance. Socrates sums this by saying: edoxe de moi chrênai eis tous logous kataphugonta en ekeinois skopein tôn ontôn tên alêtheian (99e). I give this crucial sentence in the original because it is highly liable to corruption in translation. He says he thought he should have recourse to ideas to search in them the — let me say, the reality of what is real, tôn ontôn tên alêtheian, because it would be at best confusing to speak of ‘the truth of things’.
Earlier at 96c-d he explains why he renounced investigation into things. “I was so completely blinded by these studies … I forgot what I had formerly believed I knew … about the cause of man’s growth. For I had thought previously that it was plain to everyone that man grows through eating and drinking; for when, from the food he eats, flesh is added to his flesh and bones to his bones, and in the same way the appropriate thing is added to each of his other parts, then the small bulk becomes greater and the small man large” (96c-d, tr. Fowler).
The explanation given of a human being’s growth sounds naïve, but it is of the nature of all scientific explanation. No amount of sophistication will change that nature. Modern science will give us a detailed description of the development of a human child from a fertilized ovum, DNA and all, or may go beyond that to the first appearance of a living organism. Similarly, science may give us a detailed account of the coming into being and passing away of a galaxy from Bang to Whimper. We deceive ourselves if we think that explains anything or makes us understand anything. (See “Stephen Hawking’s Bad Metaphysics”.) The credo of our modern religion is “Knowledge is power”. Yes, science gives us power to manipulate nature and probably eventually to wipe out the human race. But those who speak of science explaining things or giving us understanding simply do not have the notion of true understanding. Macbeth killed his king. The most comprehensive account of every neuron in Macbeth’s brain will not make us understand why he did it. Shakespeare bares Macbeth’s ambition and vainglory ans we understand why.
Then comes a profoundly meaningful passage that our scholars and professional philosophers have found it hard to appreciate:
“By Zeus, so far am I from thinking that I know the cause of such things, that I will not even admit that when somebody puts one beside one, that either the one to which the addition was made has become two, or that the one added and that to which it was added, by the placing of the one beside the other have become two, for I find it strange that when each of them was separate from the other, each was one and they were not then two, but when they approached each other, this was the cause for them to become two, the togetherness of being placed beisde each other. Neither if somebody splits one, can I yet be convinced that this again – the splitting – has been the cause of the becoming of the two, this being the opposite of what was then the cause of becoming two, for then it was the bringing them together and placing each beside each, now it is the taking away and separating each from each. …” (96e-97b).
This is the core of the notion of the intelligible idea (idea, eidos). Let us imagine a man who has just had a terrible shock and as a result has suffered total amnesia. There are trees around him; to him they are just blots of colour, if they are even that. It is only when a tree is singled out and named a tree that it becomes a tree for him. Ideas are not found in things nor do they have any existence in the world outside us. Two sticks lying side by side are just a stick and a stick. It is only when a creative mind creates the idea of the series of numbers and the ideas of the members of the series that the stick and stick become two for us.
It is here (at 100c-d) that Socrates voices the insight “It is by Beauty that all that is beautiful is beautiful” — an insight that was to be re-affirmed by Plotinus ln saying that only a soul made beautiful can appreciate beauty.
It is the ideas created by the mind and having no being other than in the mind that give meaning to all things. The simplest perception iinvolves an idea. A mere sensation is not a perception. (This is the cornerstone of Kant’s transcendental system.) Hence Socrates further on says:
“You would loudly affirm that you do not know how else a thing becomes (what it is) than by participation in the proper reality of whatever it participates in, metaschon tês idias ousias hekastou hou an metaschêi, and that in such cases you do not have any other cause of the becoming of ‘two’ but participation in twoness, and that it is necessary for that which is to become two to participate in this, and for that which is to become one to participate in oneness” (101b-c).
In quoting the passage at 96e-97b above I cut out the last sentence because that is quite another story. The passage concludes:
“Nor do I yet admit to myself that I know the cause of the becoming of one, nor, in short, do I know of anything else through what it becomes or perishes or is, according to this method of inquiry, but I concoct for myself my own method, for that other I will in no way approach” (97b).
This is amplified further on where we read:
“What I am saying is this, nothing new, but what I have always both earlier and in the present discussion never ceased to say. I will try to show you the kind of cause I fashioned for myself, going back to what I have so often been dinning and taking my start from that, laying down there is a beautiful in itself and a good and a large and all other such, which if you grant me and agree such things be, I hope from these causes to show and discover that the soul is deathless.” (100b)
Here we have the very heart of the hoax. Plato here plays on the ambiguity in the terms aitia (cause) and gignesthai (become). In the authentic Socratic sense, the idea is the ‘cause’ of a thing ‘becoming what it is for us’. The cause of a thing becoming what it is in itself is the physical cause that Socrates abstains from looking for. The ‘kind of cause’ Socrates concocted for himself is the principle of genuine philosophical thimking. This involves the renouncement of investigation into things, as giving no understanding, and confining philosophical inquiry to the investigation of ideas, which alone gives answers to genuinely philosophical questions. But Plato by what, if it were not irreverent, we might call a sleight of hand, turns it into a method “to show and discover that the soul is deathless”. We will see what this is worth when we come to consider ‘the final argument’ for immortality.
In the first place, how could Plato make Socrates argue with so much assurance for the survival of the soul, when in the Apology he had made him distinctly express agnosticism on the question? (40c ff.) In Socrates’ Prision Journal (2006), “Day Twenty-Nine”, I reversed the positions of Cebes and Simmias on the one side and Socrates on the other side, making the two young men argue for survival and Socrates checking them.
At 97b Socrates says plainly that he can no longer say that he knows the cause of anything coming into being or perishing or continuing to be. Does this not amount to a repudiation of all the ostensible arguments in the Phaedo? It tells us plainly that all the speculation earlier in the dialogue about the cyclical character of genesis and about reminiscence and the like, all that was mere play. Plato certainly wanted his readers to examine and criticize such arguments. Plato often – to work his readers’ minds or as part of the dramatic ploy – purposely planted the faults and inconsistencies that scholars ‘discover’ in the dialogues.
The gist of Socrates’ ‘autobiographical’ account is that, as a philosopher, he is not concerned with the outside world. How can that be compatible with any serious consideration of life in another world external to us? Socrates’ conception of the nature of philosophical thinking makes any knowledge of the external world beyond the reach of pure reason. This was, strictly, Kant’s position. This was also the ground for Wittgenstein’s insistence that we can make no statement about the World — a position that Bertrand Russell failed to grasp because Russell as a confirmed Empiricist and Pluralist could not entertain the conception of the metaphysical Whole. (See Russell’s My Philosophical Development, 1959, p.86, quoted in “The Wittgenstein Enigma”, The Sphinx and the Phoenix, 2009.)
The Phaedo comprises four arguments for the immortality of the soul: the cyclical argument, the argument from reminiscence, the argument from affinity, and the fourth argument, commonly regarded as the principal argument. At no point does Plato claim or give the impression that any of the proofs is conclusive or sufficient. Throughout the dialogue we have broad hints that the arguments are not to be taken seriously. Simmias and Cebes persistently raise objections and ask for reassurance. The final word on the whole tissue of the arguments of the Phaedo is given by Simmias in 107a-b: “I can’t help still having in my own mind some disbelief about what has been said”, to which Socrates responds approvingly and adds, “also our first hypotheses, even if you find them acceptable, nevertheless need to be examined more closely” (107b). This is in harmony with Plato’s insistence in the Republic that dialectic must always undermine the assumptions (hypotheses) of any philosophical statement. (533e)
After what I have been saying above it would be sheer mockery for me to examine the Phaedo arguments in detail. After all, our learned scholars have completely and repeatedly shredded to pieces not only these arguments but all of Plato’s arguments and so-called doctrines and theories. I have already taken up the affinity argument separately as an integral aspect of Plato’s hymn of praise for the philosophical life. For the cyclical argument and the argument from reminiscence the general remarks above and the general comments on argument and proof below suffice. Of the ‘final argument’ for the sake of which the special hoax in the concluding part of Socrates’ ‘autobiography’ was purposely planted, let me say this: When the method of argument from hypotheses comes to be applied it turns out to be little more than playing with words, and even if the conclusion – “the soul is dearhless” – is admitted, what ‘soul’ does the argument address? Only the soul as the principle of life. Thus the conclusion, if admitted, applies to the meanest bug in the same measure as to Socrates, but that signifies nothing about the survival of personality. It would be blasphemous to suppose that Plato could be blind to this. At no point could Plato be in earnest about the arguments or expect them to provide proof. The whole tissue of arguments, culminating in the ‘final argument’, is the substance of the hoax.
The crucial notion of the intelligible as opposed to the perceptible realm, the vision of the philosophical life and of the divinity of the soul, as of the conception of the nature and scope of philosophical thinking are all advanced without argument (in the narrower sense of the term) and without proof. You can take it as a rule: where Plato argues most strenuously and advances proofs and demonstrations, there he is least in earnest.
The whole series of arguments for immortality begins by defining death as the separation and release of body from soul and of soul from body (64c). This assumes the conception of a human being as made up of two separable (not simply distinguishable) elements (79b.) All four arguments for immortality in the Phaedo rest on this assumption and become untenable once it is questioned.
For Plato, at the metaphysical plane of thinking, alêtheia, psuchê, nous, phronêsis are not distinct but are one and the same thing. Despite all we hear about a soul separate or separable from the body, in the profoundest Socratic-Platonic insight the soul is simply the principle of intelligence, creative intelligence. Critics will tell me I am creating my own Plato, a fictitious Plato: they would be right. Everyone of us has his own Plato. If my Plato looks very different from the Plato of erudition or from the Plato of Arostotle, so much the better. I do not pretend to be a historian or an exegete. The Plato I portray is the Plato that inspires my philosophy.
Platonism is not a philosophical system or a theory, but a vision, a vision that can not and need not be proved or demonstrated but is oracularly proclaimed, a prophecy announced in poetry and myth. The ground of the Platonic vision is that the intelligible is the real, or, as Parmenides had put it, intelligibility and reality are one and the same thing. The vision is not arrived at by reasoning but is itself the ground of philosophical reasoning.
Only dead abstractions call for proof and are amenable to proof. Genuine philosophy creatively brings to birth visions clothed in myths that breathe life into the shadows of the phenomenal world.
D. R. Khashaba
May 4, 2017
Posted to https://philosophia937.wordpress.com and http://khashaba.blogspot.com