On reading Plato…

Everyone already knows Alfred North Whitehead’s over-cited remark about all of European philosophy being but a series of footnotes to Plato. If you’ve somehow forgotten its near exact wording, just follow Plato’s upward pointing finger to the top of this blog for a reminder.

Why near exact? I left out the descriptor “European…” that comes before “…philosophical tradition,” because, well, I’m American, and in many ways, so was Whitehead’s philosophy. In terms of philosophical style, Whitehead’s was not just another European footnote being tacked on the end of Plato’s corpus. His Platonism is reformed, having its origin in a New World. Whitehead’s views on Plato’s contributions to the philosophical tradition are a pithy summation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1850 essay on Plato. For Emerson, Plato’s corpus was “The Bible of the learned for twenty-two hundred years.” He goes on:

This citizen of a town in Greece is no villager nor patriot. An Englishman reads and says, “how English!” a German- “how Teutonic!” an Italian- “how Roman and how Greek!” As they say that Helen of Argos had that universal beauty that every body felt related to her, so Plato seems to a reader in New England an American genius. His broad humanity transcends all sectional lines.

Emerson then writes of the nature of philosophical influence:

Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests and mines and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.

And then about the tension within Plato’s soul between philosophy and poetry:

A philosopher must be more than a philosopher. Plato is clothed with the powers of a poet, stands upon the highest place of the poet, and (though I doubt he wanted the decisive gift of lyric expression), mainly is not a poet because he chose to use the poetic gift to an ulterior purpose.

Here, Emerson follows Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) in denying the Absolute to the philosopher in order to grant it to the artist (or rather, to the philosopher-poet). Emerson himself is best described as an essayist, though through the medium of the stylistic essay, he is able to quicken the spirit of philosophy in his readers as well as any in the tradition.

Plato was also a stylist. He wrote dialogues, always leaving the doctrines for his characters. His meaning is never on the surface, even when it comes from the face of Socrates. Plato himself tells us in a letter to Dion that “no man of intelligence will venture to express his philosophical views in language…,” by which he means both spoken and written language. “[Setting] down [one's views] in written characters” is especially denounced. Written words lay in their paper graves, still, silent. The reader’s questions and disputations receive no reply. Dialogue is impossible. Plato, of course, was a prolific writer. Were he alive today, might he be a blogger? These letters are publishable to every corner of earth in a near instant at the click of a button. They can be commented on and replied to by others just as easily. Dialogue becomes possible. But alas, the curved earth cannot be flattened onto a map, or a screen.

The Good/True/Beautiful (they are all one), for Plato, is more than a name or a definition, more than an image or even a knowledgable soul, though these, like the light of the sun, may eventually lead you back to the source. But the Ideal Reality of the One and All, Plato’s fifth thing, cannot be known with written formulas. There is no cheat sheet that can help you on a philosophy test. Esoteric philosophers always tell inside jokes: you had to be there to get it. “I gave the teaching,” says Plato, “on that one occasion and never again.”

On the testimony of Aristotle, Plotinus, and Proclus, we know that Plato’s secret unwritten teaching had something to do with the way, according to Iain Hamilton Grant, that “ideas themselves were composed of matter, hyle, or in other words of an indefinite multiplicity, duas aoristos, which has as its elements the great and the small, and as its form, unity, to hen” (Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, p. 56n8). If this is indeed the secret teaching, then how strangely inverted is the traditional European reading of Plato!

Emerson writes of the generative tension between the One and Many:

The mind is urged to ask for one cause of many effects; then for the cause of that; and again the cause, diving still into the profound: self-assured that it shall arrive at an absolute and sufficient one,- a one that shall be all. “In the midst of the sun is the light, in the midst of the light is truth, and in the midst of truth is the imperishable being,” say the Vedas. All philosophy, of East and West, has the same centripetence. Urged by an opposite necessity, the mind returns from the one to that which is not one, but other or many; from cause to effect; and affirms the necessary existence of variety, the self-existence of both, as each is involved in the other. These strictly-blended elements it is the problem of thought to separate and to reconcile. Their existence is mutually contradictory and exclusive; and each so fast slides into the other that we can never say what is one, and what it is not. The Proteus is as nimble in the highest as in the lowest grounds; when we contemplate the one, the true, the good,- as in the surfaces and extremities of matter.

Reading Plato is an infinite interpretive activity. So is reading Whitehead. Perhaps infinite interpretability is the mark of a philosopher-poet. Richard E. Jones here offers a reading of Plato and of Whitehead, qualifying their allegiance, perhaps only because his reading of Plato is superficial. But Jones’ discussion of Plato’s notion of the Receptacle is rather insightful. In Whitehead, this notion is only slightly reshaped to become the ultimate category of his own metaphysical scheme: Creativity. In Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead writes of Plato’s Receptacle that:

at the present moment, physical science is nearer to it than at any period since
Plato’s death. The space-time of modern mathematical physics, conceived in
abstraction from the particular mathematical formulae which applies to the
happenings in it, is almost exactly Plato’s Receptacle (192-193).

The Receptacle is closely connected, for Plato, to both place (topos) and space (chora). It is also nearly identified by both Plato and Whitehead with the World-Soul. It is the living matrix within which the universe experience itself as a diversifying unity. It is a difficult concept to grasp. The difficulty is made plainly evident in Jones’ discussion, towards the end of his essay (p. 12-13), on Whitehead’s attempt to envision the concrescence of the divine by way of an integration of its primordial and consequent natures:

The general tone [of the last chapter of Process and Reality, "God and the World"] becomes more poetical than analytical and, despite the many
differences between these two philosophers, often reflects the similar instances in Plato where the metaphorical and poetic serve to engage one’s imagination in an aesthetic rather than elucidatory manner.

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6 thoughts on “On reading Plato…

  1. Pingback: Philosophy and the City « Footnotes 2 Plato

  2. Pingback: Whiteheadian thoughts on the thingliness of ideas (responses to Archive Fire and Knowledge Ecology) « Footnotes 2 Plato

  3. Pingback: Why Philosophy Matters | The Written Blit

  4. Pingback: Plato: Decisions « Rubber Tyres –> Smooth Rides

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