“Socrates: I walked down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon the son of Ariston to make my prayers to the goddess.”
Well, I’ve finished History of the Peloponnesian War (except for my final post), yet I’m afraid I’m going to continue on the same track with The Republic and put a number of my readers to sleep. But I am enjoying this history project ….. as we’ve meandered through Herodotus, then Thucydides, and now Plato, you do see changes and developments within the Greek culture and worldview that can’t be ignored. And since our civilization, to a certain extent, grew out of it, I believe it’s valuable to learn something about that development. I anticipate that Plato will be more interesting, but possibly more frustrating. It doesn’t seem like it was only the ancients who wanted to strangle Socrates …..
Plato was born is the year 428/7 BC and his childhood and early youth were overshadowed with the Peloponnesian War, giving rise to a fundamental questioning of the best way to live. As Thucydides observed in his history that “in peace and prosperity both states and individuals are actuated by higher motives, because they do not fall under the dominion of imperious necessities; but war, which takes away the comfortable provision of daily life, is a hard master, and tends to assimilate men’s characters to their conditions,” and thus Plato saw political life as a type of war for power, money or prestige.
Upon Pericles’s death at the beginning of the war, there ended the reign of a philosopher king, a man whom grew in wisdom through his conversations with the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaxagoras, and therefore was able to employ both political intelligence and enlightened prudence to his governing of the state. With his demise, a great chasm began to appear between politics and philosophy. “To Plato, this drifting apart of the men of thought and the men of action was a disastrous calamity, indeed the root of the social evils of his time.” (Cornford p. xxiv) Instead of two separate avenues, each should be united in the other to allow man his full expression.
By mid-life Plato opened his Academy, basing his conversational instruction on his mentor, Socrates, whom he’d studied under since his early twenties. Plato sought an answer to the problem that if knowledge was a means to power, and power to wealth, then society was doomed to a materialistic cycle that left men blind to not only the consequences of their actions, but led them to mistake the path to true happiness: “which every soul pursues as the end of all her actions, dimly divining its existence, but perplexed and unable to grasp its nature with the same clearness and assurance as in dealing with other things, and so missing whatever value those other things might have.” (5a95 E, p. 216). With his astute insight, Plato presents a problem that is ubiquitous, a universal dilemma.
The translator, Conford, suggests that in reading Plato, ask yourself why you agree or disagree with Plato’s utopian design, and in response, suggest an alternative. In this way, through time, you can experience an abstract participation in Plato’s Academy and perhaps determine, as Socrates implied, that it’s just as important to discover what you don’t know, as what you do.
|Arcadian Ruins (c. 1720)
Giovanni Paolo Panini