Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Post-Enlightenment Plato, and That Which Cannot Move


The Plato we have we look at differently from the way he was understood in antiquity. For most of the middle ages all that was available to scholars was the first part of the Timaeus. So it is not the case that a way of understanding Plato has been handed down to us, except via the neoplatonists. But the neoplatonist understanding of Plato is deprecated as a way of understanding his work, with the consequence that modern scholars approach Plato virtually naked, with a very modern set of intellectual baggage. This can be a problem.

I wrote in SHB that:

In parallel with the changing scholarly assessment of Egyptian civilisation in the eighteenth century, Greek philosophy itself was undergoing a re-evaluation. This was essentially the first since the renaissance, when Plato was generally understood to be writing about theological matters, rather than purely philosophical questions. Now Plato needed to be co-opted into the life of reason.

Karl Friedrich Herman (1804 1855) wrote what von Wilemovitz-Moellendorff regarded as an important 'Life of Plato.' This life was 'the first to understand the development of Plato's thought.'

Well there you have problem number one: the idea of a development in Plato. So, what Plato was writing about had nothing to do with a background in cultic life, and therefore he could be approached as a writer on all fours with modern philosophers. Modern philosophers, principally after the foundation of the University of Gottingen, do research, and what they do is a secular activity.

Martin Bernal wrote that:

Gottingen can well be considered the embryo of all later, modern, diversified and professional universities. It was established in 1734 by George II, King of England and Elector of Hanover, was well endowed, and as a new foundation was able to escape many of the medieval religious and scholastic constraints that persisted in other universities. With its British connections it was a conduit for Scottish Romanticism as well as for the philosophical and political ideas of Locke and Hume.

Bernal writes about one of the founders of the University of Gottingen, Kristophe August Heumann. He says that: “As a pioneer of the new professionalism Heumann established a scholarly journal, Acta Philosophorum, in the first issue of which, in 1715, he argued that although the Egyptians were cultivated in many studies they were not ‘philosophical’.

This claim – which his contemporaries Montesquieu and Bruckner… did not dare to make – was both striking and daring in the light of the strong ancient association between philosophia and Egypt." Bernal mentions that 'three of the earliest four references to philosophia are associated with Egypt'. Isokrates specifically associated philosophy with Egypt (Bousiris, 28).

Bernal points out that modern scholars have difficulty in accepting this ancient association, and mentions one author, who, writing in 1961, consistently translated 'philosophia' as the civilisation of Egypt' (Black Athena p 216) .

Further, he writes that: “Heumann’s categorical distinction between Egyptian ‘arts and studies’ and the Greek ‘philosophy’ is rather difficult to comprehend, as his definition of the latter was ‘the
research and study of useful truths based on reason.’ Nevertheless its very imprecision made, and makes, the claim that the Greeks were the first ‘philosophers’ almost impossible to refute."

It is in fact not so difficult to comprehend, when Heumann's view is considered in its cultural context. At the time this distinction was made, Newton's mechanical philosophy and mathematics were in the ascendant. A reaction had long since set in across Europe against magic, alchemy, astrology, and other pseudo-sciences of the time. Leibniz, Newton's rival in mathematics, had, toward the end of the seventeenth century begun to distance himself from both people he knew in these fields, and from the kind of language they used to describe and understand ideas and phenomena. He became modern. 1

Egypt, being undoubtedly a place of magic and other unreasonable practices, experienced collateral damage. It could no longer be seen by proponents of reason as a place of philosophy, since philosophy was to be understood as the exercise of human reason, and not something which could co-exist with magic, prophecy, divination, etc. Irrespective of the fact that magic and the other unreasonable practices co-existed with philosophy in Greece.

So there has been a very strong effort by scholars, particularly since the enlightenment, to break with earlier understandings of both the basis of Greek philosophy, and its relationship to other cultures in the ancient world. In the interest of establishing the life of reason.

Hence SHB is, as a work of scholarship, as near anathema as it is possible to imagine, since one of its principal aims is to break up the post-enlightenment consensus about what philosophy is, where it came from, and its cultural context, by showing its roots in a ‘cultus deorum’ - among those who speculated on the nature of Divinity, the Creation, and the nature of Reality itself. In short, among those who sought to answer the question, ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’

I will now turn to the kind of argument Plato used in addressing the nature of reality itself. Some of the most interesting passages are well known, but apparently impenetrable to the modern mind. They come from three dialogues in particular – the Timaeus, the Sophist, and the Republic. Other important information is scattered through other dialogues, but it is possible to understand Plato’s thought on the basis of these three dialogues alone (though reading the Theatetus as well is recommended).

I’m now going to quote from the chapter in SHB on Plato’s theory of Being:

The Timaeus contains a famous passage which discusses the manner in which the forms are conjoined with body:

...it is not possible that two things alone should be conjoined without a third; for there must needs be some intermediary bond to connect the two. And the fairest of bonds is that which most perfectly unites into one both itself and the things which it binds together; and to effect this in the fairest manner is the natural property of proportion. 2

The context of this passage is an attempt to explain water and air as intermediary between fire and earth, but what Plato is giving us is more general: a theory of participation which has been the root of the western tradition in art and architecture ever since:

For whenever the middle term of any three numbers, cubic or square, is such that as the first term is to it, so is it to the last term - and again, conversely, as the last term is to the middle, so is the middle to the first.

- then the middle term becomes in turn the first and the last, while the first and last become in turn middle terms, and the necessary consequence will be that all the terms are interchangeable, and being interchangeable they all form a unity. 3

Why is it a necessary consequence that all the terms are interchangeable? Each of the terms bears a relation to the others, a proportionate similitude, and each can become first, middle and last terms in an extended sequence, but they are not the same as each other. They are conjoined with one another, but in sequence. They bear likeness to each other in the proper sequential order but not otherwise. It depends on the arrangement. Given the proper arrangement, one may pass through the sequence and establish degrees of similitude between all the different terms. But they are still not the same. They participate in each other, but their proportionate similitude is not identity, and that is essentially what Plato is claiming here.

I think that there is no doubt that this is what Plato means, and it is up to us to explain it. Clearly it underpins the description of the activity of the philosopher in the Republic, where it is said that the process of argument:

...treats assumptions not as principles, but as assumptions in the true sense, that is, as starting points and steps in the ascent to something which involves no assumption and is the first principle of everything; when it has grasped that principle it can again descend, by keeping to the consequences that follow from it, to a conclusion. The whole procedure involves nothing in the sensible world but moves solely through forms to forms, and finishes with forms. 4

What Plato is arguing is that, by systematic dialectical enquiry, we can rise from the realms of likelihood and opinion, where we encounter only similitudes, to the realm in which certain knowledge is possible. This is to be achieved by passing through the similitudes, on account of their similitude, to their ultimate origin, the Form of the Good.

End of the section from SHB. When Plato speaks of ‘something which involves no assumption and is the first principle of everything’, he is speaking of the root of creation, as well as an intellectual apprehension of Reality itself. Plato sees a parallel between the acquisition of knowledge of what lies behind the world of appearance, and the inverse process by which that world of appearance is created, though he speaks only of an intellectual descent: ‘when it (the mind) has grasped that principle it can again descend, by keeping to the consequences that follow from it, to a conclusion. The whole procedure involves nothing in the sensible world but moves solely through forms to forms, and finishes with forms.’

Another section from SHB, which explores the attempt to define what Reality itself is in the Sophist:

… the ideas, formerly aloof from the world of sensibles and incapable of interaction turn out to be entities capable of participation in each other. And thus, like objects apprehended by opinion, are compounded both of Being and Not-being.

At 244c the Eleatic stranger asks whether the Real is "the same thing as that to which you give the name one? Are you applying two names to the same thing...?" And continues: "it is surely absurd for him Parmenides to admit the existence of two names, when he has laid down that there is no more than one thing..." Thus in attempting to define the One Parmenides cannot state it at all "without recognising three real things." 5

At 244d the Stranger questions the notion of the reality as wholeness: is "whole" other than the one real thing or identical with it? For

... if it is a whole - as indeed Parmenides says 6 "Every way like the mass of a well-rounded sphere, evenly balanced from the midst in every direction; for there must not be something more nor something less here than there" - If the Real is like that, it has a middle and extremities, and consequently it must have parts, must it not? 7

The Stranger observes that if a thing is divided into parts it may have the property of unity in terms of an aggregate of its parts, "being a sum or whole". However, "the thing which has these properties cannot be just Unity itself... Unity in the true sense and rightly defined must be altogether without parts." 8

Thus, how are we to define the Real - is it one and whole? The property of unity is not unity itself, and alternatively, if the Real is not a whole by virtue of having this property of unity, while at the same time Wholeness itself is real, it follows that the Real falls short of itself... and further... all things will be more than one since Reality on the one side and Wholeness on the other have now each a distinct nature. 9

The Real cannot come to be if wholeness does not exist, for "whenever a thing comes into being, at that moment it has come to be as a whole; accordingly, if you do not reckon unity or wholeness amongst real things, you have no right to speak of either Being or coming into being as having any existence." 10 The Eleatic stranger (probably representing Plato himself) concludes by observing that "countless other difficulties, each involved in measureless perplexity, will arise, if you say that the Real is either two things or only one." 11

In the Timaeus the fully knowable is defined as the eternal and the unchanging, i.e., that which fully "is". However the discussion at Sophist 248-249d seems to jettison this definition. The Eleatic stranger observes that the Idealists (the "Friends of Forms," 248a) distinguish between "Becoming" and "Real being": the definition of the former involving the sensible world, and the latter communing via the soul through reflection. And whereas Real being is defined as unchanging, Becoming is subject to change (the word used is koinonein: "to be in touch with". The same word is used of our communion or participation with both change and the changeless).

The Eleatic stranger recalls an earlier proposition that the "sufficient mark of real things is the presence in a thing of the power of being acted upon or of acting in relation to however insignificant a thing." 12 The Friends of Forms do not accept this argument and reply that: "a power of acting and being acted upon belongs to Becoming, but neither of these powers is compatible with Real being." 13

Thus apparently is distinguished the material world subject to causal relations from the world of Forms and those objects which participate in them, clearly by acausal means; the division would seem to be absolute.

The Friends of Forms acknowledge that the soul knows, and that Real being is known, it is agreed; and then the stranger asks if it is agreed that

knowing or being known is an action, or is it experiencing an effect, or both? Or is one of them experiencing an effect, the other an action? Or does neither of them come under either of these heads at all? 14

It can of course be neither action or effect, as the text makes clear, 15 if the Friends of Forms are to avoid contradicting their earlier remarks, for: if knowing is to be acting upon something, it
follows that what is known must be acted on by it; and so, on this showing, Reality when it is being known by the act of knowledge must, in so far as it is known, be changed owing to being so acted upon; and that, we say, cannot happen to the changeless. 16

Cornford's translation of the remainder of 248e is unsatisfactory, since it obscures one of the most interesting allusions in Plato. It may be translated thus:

Before God - that we might be easily persuaded that truly motion, life, soul and wisdom are not completely real - neither life itself nor thought, but revered and sacred, it has no mind, if it put on existence unmoved. 17

The allusion, semnon kai hagion, is, as Campbell noted in his edition of the Sophist, to the statues of the gods. This phrase might be written off as of no great moment, but I think it unwise to do so. Reality has been spoken of as revered and sacred, using a phrase of specific application to the images of the gods. We catch here (I think) a glimpse of the true scope of this argument and its consequences: it concerns the logic underpinning the patterns of understanding among the Greeks. 18

End of this section of SHB. The absurdity of the argument concerning the gods (that they cannot move) in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (discussed elsewhere) is now perfectly clear. What is being discussed in the Sophist is the nature of a Reality which completely transcends the world of appearance, and so can be considered to be the root from which the physical creation emerged. This reality is the telos; the Ur-Reality. Its nature, properties and attributes have been established by logical argument. The result however is paradoxical. It must remain one to be itself (elsewhere Plato ‘conjectures’ that the world of appearance is a copy of the Ur-Reality. That too cannot be the case, without compromising the nature of the Ur-Reality). It cannot move because it is the undifferentiated all. But without movement there is no mind. Without movement there is no life.

Yet there is thought and life. So at the least, the created world enshrines a paradox.






1 This phenomenon is discussed in Leibniz, Mysticism and Religion, ed. by Allison P. Coudert, et al, Kluwer, 1998.
2 Tim 31b-c
3 Tim 31c-32a
4 Rep. 511b-c
5 Cornford, F.M. Plato's Theory of Knowledge, p221.
6 Frag. 8.43
7 244d-e
8 245a
9 245c
10 245d
11 245e
12 Soph.248c.
13 Soph. 248c
14 248d
15 There is a minor textual problem concerning the identity of the speaker at this point in the dialogue which does not affect the sense of the argument - see L. Campbell, Sophistes, p128
16 248e.
17 Soph. 248e-249a. Lewis Campbell comments, in addition to noting the allusion to the statues of the gods, that there is a striking passage in the Laws (967 a-e) ‘where it is said that the deepest study of astronomy, instead of encouraging the notion of a blind necessity, leads directly to the supposition of a celestial mind or minds.’ Sophistes and Politicus, Oxford, 1867, p129. Reprinted by the Arno Press, New York, 1973.
18 We are not generally accustomed to imagine that belief is something for which sound arguments can be supplied, though christian religious history provides numerous examples of the use of philosophy to support the foundation of these.

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