Posts Tagged ‘plato’
BEFORE Thomas Taylor was Floyer Sydenham.
Sydenham (1710−1787) was the preeminent British translator of Plato in the 18th century, but suffered from obscurity and poverty — even more so than Thomas Taylor, whose own tragic and difficult life was at least compensated for by posthumous fame and influence.
Sydenham was an excellent Greek scholar and devoted himself to the task of translating the works of Plato. Between 1759 and 1780, he translated and published 9 of Plato’s dialogues, including the Banquet (Symposium), Philebus, Meno, and the First and Second Alcibiades; these translations were included in Thomas Taylor’s famous 1804 edition of the Works of Plato — the first English version of Plato’s complete works (properly called the Taylor & Sydenham edition, with contributions by Harry Spens).
Sydenham’s essay, A Synopsis or General View of the Works of Plato (1759), remains valuable and merits modern study.
Despite his skill as a translator (he was better educated and, by most estimates, a more able translator than Taylor), so many of his subscribers defaulted payment or refused his productions that he was sentenced to debtors prison in 1787 and soon died. In consequence of his unfortunate treatment and tragic death, the Royal Literary Fund (1790) was founded for the relief of authors in distress.
Taylor paid posthumous tribute to Sydenham with the following memorial, which he published in 1790, and again, in revised form, in 1805.
A Panegyric on Floyer Sydenham
by Thomas Taylor
HILE vulgar souls the public notice claim,
And dare to stand as candidates for fame;
While Sydenham’s worth in shameful silence lies,
Who liv’d unnotic’d and neglected dies;
My Muse indignant wakes her dormant fire,
And, rous’d by Friendship, boldly strikes the lyre.
Ye liberal few, who in his footsteps tread,
Rise, and assert the honours of the dead;
Genius sublime; who from barbaric night,
Led Wisdom forth, far beaming heav’nly light;
Whose skill great Plato’s elegance commands,
His graces copies and his fire expands.
For this shall future Bards his worth prolong,
Example bright and theme of lib’ral song!
O! hadst thou liv’d in those exalted days,
When Monarchs crown’d Philosophers with bays;
When Alexandria’s god-like sons appear’d,
And Truth restor’d, her head majestic rear’d;
Who rose unveil’d perspicuous to the wise,
Though by the vulgar seen in dark disguise:
Then had thy mind with native worth elate,
Shone through the ruins of a falling state;
And far extended Wisdom’s endless reign,
O’er Rome’s wide-spreading, tottering domain;
Then had thy genius met its just reward,
Awe from the vulgar, and from kings regard;
Then had thy days with plenteous ease been crown’d,
Thy pupils noble, and thy name renown’d;
Thy death lamented through immortal Rome,
And the fair column planted o’er thy tomb.
But doom’d to live where Truth’s refulgent light
Yet scarcely glimmers through Oblivion’s night;
Where genuine Science scarcely lifts her head,
For ages buried with the mighty dead;
Where Wealth, not Virtue, is the road to Fame;
And ancient Wisdom is an empty name;
Where Plato’s sacred page neglected lies,
And words, not things, are studied to be wise.
Here shone thy Wisdom o’er this sea of life,
Rous’d with perpetual storms of grief and strife;
Like some fair lamp whose solitary light,
Streams from a watch-tower through the gloom of night,
And shines secure, though raging waves surround,
Its splendours beaming o’er the dark profound.
Here, while alive, thy genius was alone;
Thy worth neglected, and almost unknown:
Here thy disciples, and thy friends were few;
Nor these all just, magnanimous, and true:
For some whom Heav’n had blest with wealth and pow’r,
Turn’d mean deserters in the needful hour;
While others prais’d thy genius and admir’d,
But ne’er to ease thy wretched state desir’d,
Basely contended Wisdom to receive;
Without a wish its author to relieve.
Such was thy fate, while matters drowsy ties
Held thee an exile from thy native skies.
But now emerg’d from sense, and error’s night,
Thy soul has gain’d its ancient orb of light;
Refulgent shines in Truth’s immortal plain,
And scorns dull body, and her dark domain.
No gloomy clouds those happy realms assail;
And the calm aether knows no stormy gale;
No vain pretenders there, no faithless friends;
No selfish motives, no ignoble ends.
O! may some spark of Truth’s celestial fire,
My breast, like thine, with sacred warmth inspire.
Teach me like thee, with vigour unconfin’d,
To soar from body to the realms of mind;
To scorn like thee, wealth’s despicable race,
The vain—the sordid—impudent, and base.
Source: Thomas Taylor, Miscellanies, in Prose and Verse, London: C. Whittingham, 1805 (pp. 37−40).
These verses first appeared in the General Advertiser in 1787, and were thence copied into “most of the evening papers.” Taylor made some minor alterations when he republished them in 1805.
Demetriou, Kyriakos N. Asking for Plato’s Forgiveness. Floyer Sydenham: A Platonic Visionary of 18th-century Britain. Quaderni di Storia, vol. 78, 2013, pp. 55-86.
Sydenham, Floyer. A Synopsis or General View of the Works of Plato. London, 1759.
Taylor, Thomas; Sydenham, Floyer. The Works of Plato, 5 vols. With Harry Spens (trans.). London: T. Taylor, 1804.
Uebersax, John. Harry Spens and the First English Translation of Plato’s Republic. Online article. https://satyagraha.wordpress.com/2015/01/13/harry-spens/ . Last updated: January 13, 2016.
OME time after his death, one of Plotinus’ pupils, Amelius, consulted the oracle at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi concerning the fate of his master’s soul. Porphyry (to whom we owe the transmission of the Enneads), recorded the oracular response in On the Life of Plotinus 22. Shown below is the prose translation of Stephen MacKenna, Thomas Taylor’s poetic version, and the Greek text. A followup post relates Porphyry’s analysis of the oracle and supplies some psychological observations.
Stephen MacKenna Translation
Source: Stephen MacKenna (‘Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus‘, The Enneads, vol. 1, London, 1917; Section 22 = pp. 22–23)
22. … Apollo was consulted by Amelius, who desired to learn where Plotinus’ soul had gone. And Apollo, who uttered of Socrates that great praise, ‘Of all men, Socrates the wisest’–you shall hear what a full and lofty oracle Apollo rendered upon Plotinus.
I raise an undying song, to the memory of a gentle friend,
a hymn of praise woven to the honey-sweet tones of my lyre
under the touch of the golden plectrum.
The Muses, too, I call to lift the voice with me
in strains of many-toned exultation,
in passion ranging over all the modes of song:
even as of old they raised the famous chant to the glory of Aeacides
in the immortal ardours of the Homeric line.
Come, then, Sacred Chorus,
let us intone with one great sound the utmost of all song,
I Phoebus, Bathychaites, singing in the midst.
Celestial! Man at first but now nearing the diviner ranks!
the bonds of human necessity are loosed for you
and, strong of heart, you beat your eager way
from out the roaring tumult of the fleshly life
to the shores of that wave-washed coast 
free from the thronging of the guilty,
thence to take the grateful path of the sinless soul:
where glows the splendour of God,
where Right is throned in the stainless place,
far from the wrong that mocks at law.
Oft-times as you strove to rise above
the bitter waves of this blood-drenched life,
above the sickening whirl, toiling
in the mid-most of the rushing flood
and the unimaginable turmoil,
oft-times, from the Ever-Blessed,
there was shown to you the Term still close at hand:
Oft-times, when your mind thrust out awry
and was like to be rapt down unsanctioned paths,
the Immortals themselves prevented, guiding you
on the straightgoing way to the celestial spheres,
pouring down before you a dense shaft of light
that your eyes might see from amid the mournful gloom.
Sleep never closed those eyes:
high above the heavy murk of the mist you held them;
tossed in the welter, you still had vision;
still you saw sights many and fair
not granted to all that labour in wisdom’s quest.
But now that you have cast the screen aside,
quitted the tomb that held your lofty soul,
you enter at once the heavenly consort:
where fragrant breezes play,
where all is unison and winning tenderness and guileless joy,
and the place is lavish of the nectar-streams the unfailing Gods bestow,
with the blandishments of the Loves,
and delicious airs, and tranquil sky:
where Minos and Rhadamanthus dwell,
great brethren of the golden race of mighty Zeus;
where dwell the just Aeacus,
and Plato, consecrated power,
and stately Pythagoras
and all else that form the Choir of Immortal Love,
that share their parentage with the most blessed spirits,
there where the heart is ever lifted in joyous festival.
O Blessed One,
you have fought your many fights;
now, crowned with unfading life,
your days are with the Ever-Holy.
let us stay our song and the subtle windings of our dance;
thus much I could but tell, to my golden lyre,
of Plotinus, the hallowed soul.
1. Armstrong (p. 66, n1) notes: “The oracle is full of Homeric tags: here we have a reminiscence of Odyssey 5, 399,” and “this whole passage seems to be based on an allegorical interpretation of Odysseus’s swim ashore after the wreck of his raft.” Cf. Enneads 1.6.8 for Odysseus’ voyages as an allegory of the soul’s journey. Source: Armstrong, Arthur Hilary (tr.). Plotinus. The Enneads, in 7 vols., (Loeb Classical Library), vol. 1, Cambridge, Mass., 1966 .
Thomas Taylor translation
Source: Thomas Taylor, Select Works of Plotinus. London, 1817; repr. 1895 (G. R. S. Mead, ed.), pp. lxvi–lxvii.
To strains immortal full of heav’nly fire,
My harp I tune well strung with vocal wire ;
Dear to divinity a friend I praise,
Who claims those notes a God alone can raise.
For him a God in verse mellifluous sings,
And heats with golden rod the warbling strings.
Be present Muses, and with general voice
And all the powers of harmony rejoice ;
Let all the measures of your art be try’d
In rapt’rous sounds, as when Achilles dy’d.
When Homer’s melody the band inspir’d,
And god-like furies every bosom fir’d.
And lo ! the sacred choir of Muses join,
And in one general hymn their notes combine.
I Phoebus in the midst, to whom belong
The sacred pow’rs of verse, begin the song.
Genius sublime! once bound in mortal ties,
A daemon now and more than mortals wise.
Freed from those members that with deadly weight
And stormy whirl enchain’d thy soul of late;
O’er Life’s rough ocean thou hast gain’d that shore,
Where storms molest and change impairs no more;
And struggling thro’ its deeps with vig’rous mind,
Pass’d the dark stream, and left base souls behind.
Plac’d where no darkness ever can obscure,
Where nothing enters sensual and impure ;
Where shines eternal God’s unclouded ray,
And gilds the realms of intellectual day.
Oft merg’d in matter, by strong leaps you try’d
To bound aloft, and cast its folds aside ;
To shun the bitter stream of sanguine life,
Its whirls of sorrow, and its storm of strife.
While in the middle of its boist’rous waves
Thy soul robust, the deep’s deaf tumult braves;
Oft beaming from the Gods thy piercing sight
Beheld in paths oblique a sacred light:
Whence rapt from sense with energy divine,
Before thine eyes immortal splendours shine;
Whose plenteous rays in darkness most profound,
Thy steps directed and ilium in ‘d round.
Nor was the vision like the dreams of sleep,
But seen while vigilant you brave the deep;
While from your eyes you shake the gloom of night,
The glorious prospects burst upon your sight;
Prospects beheld but rarely by the wise,
Tho’ men divine and fav’rites of the skies.
But now set free from the lethargic folds,
By which th’ indignant soul dark matter holds;
The natal bonds deserted, now you soar,
And rank with daemon forms a man no more.
In that blest realm where love and friendship reign,
And pleasures ever dwell unmixt with pain;
Where streams ambrosial in immortal course
Irriguous flow, from deity their source.
No dark’ning clouds those happy skies assail,
And the calm aether knows no stormy gale.
Supremely blest thy lofty soul abides,
Where Minos and his brother judge presides;
Just AEacus and Plato the divine,
And fair Pythag’ras there exalted shine;
With other souls who form the general choir
Of love immortal, and of pure desire ;
And who one common station are assign’d,
With genii of the most exalted kind.
Thrice happy thou! who, life’s long labours past,
With holy daemons dost reside at last;
From body loosen’d and from cares at rest,
Thy life most stable, and divine thy feast.
Now ev’ry Muse who for Plotinus sings,
Here cease with me to tune the vocal strings;
For thus my golden harp, with art divine,
Has told—Plotinus! endless bliss is thine.
This is from the French/Greek online edition of the Enneads at the Ancient Greek and Latin website of Philippe Remacle et al. The source is possibly Creuzer (1835) or Kirchoff (1856).Line numbers have been added and a couple of vowels changed to conform to the Loeb edition (Armstrong, 1966).
Ὁ γὰρ δὴ Ἀπόλλων ἐρομένου τοῦ Ἀμελίου,
ποῦ ἡ Πλωτίνου ψυχὴ κεχώρηκεν, ὁ τοσοῦτον
εἰπὼν περὶ Σωκράτους·
Ἀνδρῶν ἁπάντων Σωκράτης σοφώτατος,
ἐπάκουσον, ὅσα καὶ οἷα περὶ Πλωτίνου ἐθέσπισεν·
Ἄμβροτα φορμίζειν ἀναβάλλομαι ὕμνον ἀοιδῆς
ἀμφ᾽ ἀγανοῖο φίλοιο μελιχροτάτοισιν ὑφαίνων
φωναῖς εὐφήμου κιθάρης χρυσέῳ ὑπὸ πλήκτρῳ.
Κλῄζω καὶ Μούσας ξυνὴν ὄπα γηρύσασθαι
παμφώνοις ἰαχαῖσι παναρμονίαισί τ᾽ ἐρωαῖς,
οἷον ἐπ᾽ Αἰακίδῃ στῆσαι χορὸν ἐκλήιχθεν
ἀθανάτων μανίαισιν Ὁμηρείαισί τ᾽ ἀοιδαῖς.
Ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε Μουσάων ἱερὸς χορός, ἀπύσωμεν
εἰς ἓν ἐπιπνείοντες ἀοιδῆς τέρματα πάσης·
ὕμμι καὶ ἐν μέσσαισιν ἐγὼ Φοῖβος βαθυχαίτης·
δαῖμον, ἄνερ τὸ πάροιθεν, ἀτὰρ νῦν δαίμονος αἴσῃ
θειοτέρῃ πελάων, ὅτ᾽ ἐλύσαο δεσμὸν ἀνάγκης
ἀνδρομέης, ῥεθέων δὲ πολυφλοίσβοιο κυδοιμοῦ
ῥωσάμενος πραπίδεσσιν ἐς ᾐόνα νηχύτου ἀκτῆς
νήχε᾽ ἐπειγόμενος δήμου ἄπο νόσφιν ἀλιτρῶν
στηρίξαι καθαρῆς ψυχῆς εὐκαμπέα οἴμην,
ἧχι θεοῖο σέλας περιλάμπεται, ἧχι θέμιστες
ἐν καθαρῷ ἀπάτερθεν ἀλιτροσύνης ἀθεμίστου.
Καὶ τότε μὲν σκαίροντι πικρὸν κῦμ᾽ ἐξυπαλύξαι
αἱμοβότου βιότοιο καὶ ἀσηρῶν εἰλίγγων
ἐν μεσάτοισι κλύδωνος ἀνωίστου τε κυδοιμοῦ
πολλάκις ἐκ μακάρων φάνθη σκοπὸς ἐγγύθι ναίων.
Πολλάκι σεῖο νόοιο βολὰς λοξῇσιν ἀταρποῖς
ἱεμένας φορέεσθαι ἐρωῇσι σφετέρῃσιν
ὀρθοπόρους ἀνὰ κύκλα καὶ ἄμβροτον οἶμον ἄειραν
ἀθάνατοι θαμινὴν φαέων ἀκτῖνα πορόντες
ὄσσοισιν δέρκεσθαι ἀπαὶ σκοτίης λυγαίης.
Οὐδέ σε παμπήδην βλεφάρων ἔχε νήδυμος ὕπνος·
ἀλλ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἀπὸ βλεφάρων πετάσας κληῖδα βαρεῖαν
ἀχλύος ἐν δίνῃσι φορεύμενος ἔδρακες ὄσσοις
πολλά τε καὶ χαρίεντα, τά κεν ῥέα οὔτις ἴδοιτο
ἀνθρώπων, ὅσσοι σοφίης μαιήτορες ἔπλευν.
Νῦν δ᾽ ὅτε δὴ σκῆνος μὲν ἐλύσαο, σῆμα δ᾽ ἔλειψας
ψυχῆς δαιμονίης, μεθ᾽ ὁμήγυριν ἔρχεαι ἤδη
δαιμονίην ἐρατοῖσιν ἀναπνείουσαν ἀήταις,
ἔνθ᾽ ἔνι μὲν φιλότης, ἔνι δ᾽ ἵμερος ἁβρὸς ἰδέσθαι,
εὐφροσύνης πλείων καθαρῆς, πληρούμενος αἰὲν
ἀμβροσίων ὀχετῶν θεόθεν ὅθεν ἐστὶν ἐρώτων
πείσματα, καὶ γλυκερὴ πνοιὴ καὶ νήνεμος αἰθήρ,
χρυσείης γενεῆς μεγάλου Διὸς ἧχι νέμονται
Μίνως καὶ Ῥαδάμανθυς ἀδελφεοί, ἧχι δίκαιος
Αἰακός, ἧχι Πλάτων, ἱερὴ ἴς, ἧχί τε καλὸς
Πυθαγόρης ὅσσοι τε χορὸν στήριξαν ἔρωτος
ἀθανάτου, ὅσσοι γενεὴν ξυνὴν ἐλάχοντο
δαίμοσιν ὀλβίστοις, ὅθι τοι κέαρ ἐν θαλίῃσιν
αἰὲν ἐυφροσύνῃσιν τ᾽ ἰαίνεται. Ἆ μάκαρ, ὅσσους
ὀτλήσας ἀριθμούς ἀέθλων μετὰ δαίμονας ἁγνοὺς
πωλέεαι ζαμενῇσι κορυσσάμενος ζωῇσι.
Στήσωμεν μολπήν τε χοροῦ τ᾽ εὐδίνεα κύκλον
Πλωτίνου, Μοῦσαι, πολυγηθέος· αὐτὰρ ἐμεῖο
χρυσείη κιθάρη τόσσον φράσεν εὐαίωνι.
Question: I have heard that Platonism ought to be approached as a ‘therapy of the soul’, or literally as psychotherapy? Can you explain this?
Answer: Yes. A central premise of Plato’s writings is that human beings customarily operate at a ‘fallen’ level of mental functioning. Platonism aims to correct this problem.
To avoid getting too mired in the modern medical model, we could alternatively think of this fallen state not as a disease, but as immaturity. Seen this way, Platonism’s purpose is to assist human beings in developing their full, natural capacity as intellectual, moral, and spiritual beings.
Q: What are the characteristics of this ‘fallen’ state of mental functioning?
Anxiety and worry, negative thinking, distraction, unhappiness, to name a few. The list is almost endless. A simpler way of looking at things is by analogy to attention deficit disorder (ADD): our habitual condition of mind is, relative to our ideal or intended state, what ADD is relative to our habitual state. That is, many of the same cognitive abilities that are impaired in ADD are also impaired in our ordinary fallen state — to a lesser, but still to a very serious degree.
Another analogy is to intoxication. If one can achieve the higher level of mental function Platonism aims for, one’s ordinary state of mind may seem as one of comparative drunkenness.
But rather than list the problems of our ordinary state, which are only too evident and familiar, it is better to examine the nature of the healed, ‘saved’, or ‘redeemed’ state.
Q: What are qualities of this healed or ‘saved’ mental condition?
In answering this question we are helped considerably by the writings of humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow noted that many people have, either through meditation or other spiritual practices, or else sometimes spontaneously in connection with love, nature, or art, certain heightened experiences. Sometimes these are very brief and intense (peak experiences), and sometimes less intense but of longer duration (plateau experiences). For details, interested readers may consult Maslow’s works (especially Maslow, 1968; 1971). It suffices here to note that peak and plateau experiences are associated with increased sensory and mental clarity, aesthetic appreciation, bliss, insight, and absence of disturbing thoughts or emotions. Maslow summarized this condition by calling it one of Being, as contrasted with our usual condition of becoming. [Note: Few people realize that these terms are explicit references to Platonism, the source of the Being–becoming distinction.]
While peak and plateau experiences are of limited duration, Maslow also noted that over time a person may become more adept at bringing them about. As they become a more common feature in one’s life a general positive transformation of personality may occur.
Maslow, however, operating in the scientific-positivistic climate of the 1950’s and 1960’s, did not sufficiently emphasize the moral or spiritual aspects of the Being state.
Q: Can you elaborate on the moral aspects?
Yes, and this is very important. There is an unfortunate tendency today to confuse morality with moralism. The latter is a rigid frame of mind which seeks to conform all behavior to fixed rules, largely proscriptive (“thou shalt not…”). This legalistic approach does little to develop ones innate moral sense. Rather, it is often yet another manifestation of the fallen condition of the mind.
Morality is something different, something positive. It affirms that human beings are designed to be moral; and that moral actions and virtue come naturally and instinctively, and are essential to ones happiness, well-being, and integrity of personality.
Platonism sees an integral connection between intellectual and moral life. Moral development comes from intellectual or illuminative insights into ones own nature. Platonism seeks to cultivate the life of ones higher mind, the source of these intellectual and moral insights. This has two components, the purgative and the illuminative. The purgative part of Platonism seeks to correct our habitual forms of negative thought and emotions, which impair our ability to consult our higher mind. The illuminative part is concerned with actually accessing the higher mind.
Q: And the spiritual aspect?
The spiritual aspect of Platonism is what some writers call the unitive life. It is, of course, something understood by experience, not description. However certain leading principles of this state can be noted.
In general, we could describe this state as a form of humility, in which the ego no longer seeks to be ruler of ones psyche, but rather is content in the role of helper to something greater than itself. Now as to what this other entity is, opinions vary. The traditional view, of course, is that it is God. Some, however, such as Jungian psychologists, understand this other as a higher self or Self. To some extent this distinction doesn’t matter — provided that the ego has sufficient respect for this ‘other’ that it relates to it as something holy and sacred. The proper relationship of the ego to this entity, whatever it is, is one of piety and trust.
In this way a person is no longer constrained by the limitations of egoistic over-control, and the various forms of mischief the ego can create. One is more creative and spontaneous, and, in a word, more happy. Various names given to this condition are self-actualization, self-realization, and individuation.
Another way of seeing things is that Platonism is a form of yoga. Etymologically, the word yoga is related to the word yoke. It refers to establishing an ongoing connection or yoke between the ego and this higher ‘thing’ which is God or a higher Self. Note that the word religion has the same meaning of re-connection, as the stem ligio means to connect or bind, and is related to the word ligament.
So we see that, despite certain differences, Platonism, yoga, and traditional religion all aim to restore a kind of natural state or harmony of soul in which the ego finds its proper role. All of these traditions express a kind of instinctive knowledge human beings have that their ordinary state, where the ego is out of control, is unnatural, but can be corrected.
Q: What then is the relationship between Platonism and religion?
Platonism overlaps with that part of traditional religion concerned with Wisdom. Wisdom is an important part of religion, but it is not the only part.
Nevertheless, Platonism complements and may enhance ones experience as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. Many of the greatest Christian thinkers throughout the centuries were also Platonists — for example St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas in the West, and St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus Confessor in the East. Traditionally, Greek philosophy has been called the handmaid of theology, and this is an apt description of Platonism.
Q: Is Platonism for everybody?
Each person is a unique individual, with their own preferred ‘yoga’. For some a yoga of the heart (e.g., charity and service) is best; for others a yoga of Wisdom such as Platonism is more suitable. In general Platonism will appeal most to people who already have a strong intellectual inclination. It is my observation that in modern times people are overall becoming more intellectual, so that Platonism may have broader appeal today than in earlier centuries.
Q: Very well. How does one go about learning Platonism?
First you should know that most of what is written about Platonism, especially in modern times, is of dubious value. Modern philosophers, generally speaking, no longer understand philosophy as a form of psychotherapy, but see it only as an arena for abstract speculation, controversy, and other forms of self-aggrandizement.
For this and other reasons, there is no substitute for reading Plato’s own works. This is made easier by the fact that Plato was great literary genius as well as a philosopher. Once you get accustomed to them, Plato’s dialogues are very easy and enjoyable to read.
I would recommend starting with one or two of Plato’s early dialogues, such as Charmides or Lysis. These make for pleasant reading and, while they are not his greatest works, help one get a ‘feel’ for Plato.
Eventually one will want to work up to his more significant works: Phaedrus, Symposium, Phaedo, and of course what is perhaps his greatest, The Republic.
After reading one or two of his dialogues, you might want to read some of the myths which Plato placed in several of his works. This may help give you an appreciation of Plato’s mystical and intuitive side, which complements the more analytical style found in his prose.
Not all translations of Plato’s works are of equal value. While some modern translations are excellent, others are not. I generally find older translations, especially those of Benjamin Jowett, and those the Loeb Classical Library, more than satisfactory. The Jowett translations, all in the public domain, can be readily be found online. Many of the Loeb editions are also in the public domain and can be found at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu.
I have also provided short explanations of certain key terms found in Plato’s works which may assist you.
Cushman, Robert Earl. Therapeia: Plato’s Conception of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Westport, CT, 1976.
Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. New York: Van Nostrand, 1968.
Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971.
MOST anyone who’s taken a course in the history of Western philosophy has run across the famous ontological argument proof for God’s existence associated with St. Anselm of Canterbury. Actually several versions of the ontological argument have appeared over the centuries, the simplest one being:
- By definition, God is a with every perfection.
- Existence is a perfection.
- Hence God exists.
One of the most interesting things about these arguments is that they have attracted so much attention despite the fact that they are basically unconvincing.
Please don’t mistake my intentions. Of course I believe in God; I only mean that these arguments, analyzed at the logical level, aren’t very good, and everyone knows that. The strange thing is that, despite this, the ontological argument has been ceremoniously taught to philosophy students for at least a millenium. It’s as if to say, “We don’t really have a good logical proof for God’s existence, but rather than abandon the project let’s practice with a second-rate one.”
Curiously, all this overlooks the fact that we do potentially have at our disposal a much better philosophical proof of God’s existence. To call it a proof in the sense of a logical proof might be technically incorrect — it’s really more of a demonstration. [Note 1] Nevertheless, regardless of how we classify it, its evidential value for supporting a belief in God is, I believe, substantially stronger than that of the ontological argument. This experiential argument comes from Plato’s dialogues, most notably, the central books of the Republic and Diotima’s speeches in the Symposium. It is illustrated as follows:
- Consider some beautiful thing — say an incredibly beautiful sunset, the kind that totally absorbs you in a profound sense of beauty, awe, and wonder..
- Now, instead of pausing in that experience alone — which is our usual tendency — elevate your thoughts still higher and consider that this is not the only beautiful thing. There are many other experiences equally or more beautiful as this one.
- Then consider that there must be something in common amongst all these experiences — in exactly the same way that there is something in common for all triangles, all horses, or all trees. That is, each of these things has some defining principle or principles, some essence.
- Consider further that a defining essence has, at least in theory, some existence outside of its instantiation in actual examples. Hence we may conceive of the abstract “Form” of a triangle, which would exist even if somehow we were able to remove all physical triangles from the world. If so, we may also suppose that there is some Form of Beauty, which is the principle that all beautiful things have in common; and that this may potentially exist independently of all beautiful things.
- Moreover, Beauty is not the only good. There are also such noble things as Truth, Virtue, Excellence, and Justice — which we also unhesitatingly consider good, which delight or assure us, and which can bring us very deep levels of satisfaction.
- And, just as with Beauty, we may suppose that there is some essence or Form for each of these other things: a Form of Truth, a Form of Virtue, of Excellence, of Justice, and so on.
- And finally, we may contemplate the possibility of some principle or essence which all these different Forms of good things have in common. This, too, would be a Form — the Form of Goodness.
- God is defined as that being than which nothing can be more Good. Therefore God is the Form of Goodness.
For me, this comes very close to being a fully logically persuasive argument for God’s existence. But — perhaps more importantly — it can also be approached as a contemplative or spiritual exercise. That is, as Plato himself presents this line of thought, one is not so much trying to logically convince oneself, as to elicit, by performing this exercise, an elevation of the mind to an awakening or remembrance (anamnesis) of an innate, intuitive understanding of God. We might call this an experiential proof, or an anagogical proof.
It is, of course, up to each one individually to investigate this method and to determine how well it works; but I will add another thing. Not only does this demonstration supply evidence of God’s existence, it may also promote the development of a sincere gratitude for and love of God. As one contemplates the nature of Goodness, that is, as one begins to become more conscious of the principle that, if there are good things, there must be a Form of Goodness, one also becomes amazed at the very idea that there is such a thing as Goodness. And also that we, as human beings, seem particularly attuned to crave, seek, and experience Goodness. It is quite remarkable that we have this word and this concept, ‘good’, such that we may apply it a huge variety of things and experiences.
The counter-argument of the reductionist will not do here: he or she might say, “What we consider good merely derives from sensory, practical, and survival considerations; it’s all explained by Darwinism: we desire and prefer certain things because they are advantageous.” But that does not explain, among other things, why some of the things we consider most good – say a heroic sacrifice of some noble person – is not materially advantageous.
If, then, we accept that there is something deep and fundamental in our nature such that we seek goodness (which is to say, in effect, that we are moral beings) and also that there is some Author and Source of Goodness, and, further, that it is our destiny as immortal souls to enjoy an eternity of ever greater Beauty and Goodness, then naturally our gratitude to this Supreme Being is spontaneously aroused.
Therefore Plato’s ‘proof’ of God’s existence as the Form of the Good is not only logically appealing, but effective at the level of emotion and devotion as well.
Finally, there are definite connections between Plato’s wish to prove the existence of God, and the many proofs he supplies throughout the dialogues for the immortality of the human soul. A new article (with some of the leading ideas raised here developed more clearly) considers that topic.[Note 2]
1. The word ‘proof’ means to try or verify something. Not all proofs are logical. Ones proves a gold coin by biting it. Making evident to ones senses, whether physical or intellectual, that something is real is a valid form of proof. The point of this article is to suggest that in theology one should not automatically equate proof with deductive syllogisms.
2. Since originally making this post I’ve discovered a few related references. Most relevant is: Daniel A. Dombrowski, A Platonic Philosophy of Religion: A Process Perspective, SUNY Press, 2005. Chapter 5 (‘Arguments for the Existence of God’) suggests that a precursor to St. Anselm’s ontological argument can be found in Books 6 and 7 of Plato’s Republic. There are some similarities between Dombrowski’s discussion and the present one, such as an emphasis on the Form of the Good, but also major differences. The main difference is that whereas Dombrowski uses the Form of the Good and the principle of directly intuited knowledge (noesis) to construct a deductive logical proof for God’s existence, I believe Plato employs these principles to present an experiential proof.