05 Dec Plato seemed to have little sympathy for the merely personal. We become more worthy the more we bend our minds to the impersonal. (REBECA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN)
This literary ploy of Plato’s makes it difficult to distill out of the dialogues what is historically true of Socrates, the man who wandered barefoot through the Athenian agora in a not terribly clean chitōn and persistently asked questions whose points were difficult to grasp, creating a crowd of onlookers around him as he went about thwarting every proffered answer, a busker of dialectics, a philosophical urban guerrilla. Plato is not the only Athenian who wrote Socratic dialogues following Socrates’ execution. But he is the only writer of Socratic dialogues who is a philosophical genius. Plato’s attitude toward “his” Socrates doesn’t remain static over the course of his long life, any more than his ever self-critical philosophical positions remain static. Tracing the shifts in his attitude toward the philosopher whose death turned him to philosophy is perhaps a way of trying to bring the remote figure of Plato closer to us as a person.
It’s hard, not to say presumptuous, to approach Plato as a person. No philosopher more discourages such an approach. Plato seemed to have little sympathy for the merely personal. We become more worthy the more we bend our minds to the impersonal. We become better as we take in the universe, thinking more about the largeness that it is and less about the smallness that is us. Plato often betrays a horror of human nature, seeing it as more beastly than godlike. Human nature is an ethical and political problem to be solved, and only the universe is adequate to the enormous task.
Plato’s bleak despair regarding “our race” might have grown more pronounced in his old age, but I suspect Plato took a dim view of humanity even when he was younger. Socrates’ fate at the hands of the democracy—his death sentence, like the guilty verdict, was the result of popular vote—might have had as much to do with his dim view of humanity as it did with his turning to philosophy in the first place. Whereas Socrates might laugh out loud at the vulgar jokes of the comic writers, even when he was made the butt of them, Plato’s more characteristic reaction toward the riotous and ridiculous aspects of human nature was, I suspect, a shudder. His love for Socrates helped him to repress the shudder. Socrates was, for him, a means of reconciling himself to human life, deformed as it is by ugly contradictions. Socrates, so very human—as Plato takes pains to show us—himself embodied these contradictions. Because there had been such a man as Socrates, Plato could convince himself that human life was worth caring about. But I suspect that for him it did take convincing.
By writing as he did, Plato created a morass of interpretive confusion. But he also created philosophy as a living monument to Socrates. The word “philosophy” has love written into it. It translates as love of wisdom. Love of wisdom is an impersonal sort of love. So it bears mentioning that a very personal love—Plato’s love for Socrates—was working itself out in the man who created philosophy as we know it.
All of this adds an element of paradox to the style in which Plato wrote, especially given what Plato will say about philosophical love replacing personal love (the source for our degraded notion of “Platonic love”). But even this tension is put to philosophical use. Plato worries about so many dangers tripping us up in our thinking, and one of these dangers is that our thinking might become too reflexive and comfortable with itself. He aims to keep our thinking from becoming thoughtless, and to that end he is never averse to the destabilizing effects of paradox.
His relevance derives overwhelmingly from the questions he asked and from his insistence that they cannot be easily dispensed with in the ways that people often think. One of the peculiar features of philosophical questions is how eager people are to offer solutions that miss the point of the questions. Sometimes these failed solutions are scientific, and sometimes they are religious, and sometimes they are based on what is called plain common sense. Plato composed some of the most definitive rebuttals of uncomprehending answers to philosophical questions that have ever been made, and one can (and I do) fit these smoothly into conversations he has with neuroscientists and software engineers, not to speak of a bumptious cable news anchor. But I rarely give him the answers, and this I think is true to the man. The thing about Plato is that he rarely presented himself as giving us the final answers. What he insisted upon was the recalcitrance of the questions in the face of shallow attempts to make them go away.
Plato at the Googleplex