Page images


To the Dialogues of Platoand The Politics of Aristotle"


HERE are some living lovers of the Latin tongue who

hold that the Roman Empire existed only that the

language of Cicero might be born. Such enthusiasts are growing fewer as the ideas of the Renaissance dwindle before the rise of modern experimentalism. But the admirers of Greek prose, which was also adored of the Renaissance, are increasing rather than decreasing and, while they are not so fanatical as the elder Latinists, they hold that, if Athens had done no more for the world than give academic shelter to Plato, the city of the violet crown would have fulfilled her mission. Leaving out the question of the Attic delights of Plato's style, one will find enough reason for this belief-which is not extreme-in Benjamin Jowett's translation of the "Republic" and the “ Dialogues ” of Plato, four of which are here presented. Of their value Dr. Jowett gives, in his introductions to them, sufficient appreciation. The dialogues offered are “The Apology of Socrates;” “Crito;" “ Phædo, or the Immortality of the Soul;” and “ Protagoras." These have been chosen because they are essentially Platonic-because they represent, at its best, the manner of Plato, and are among the most characteristic, stimulating, and interesting of his dialogues. How modern they are ! exclaims the reader, who has known them only through paraphrases, and who begins to realize that Socrates and Plato and Aristotle are links which join our time of fuller light to the very Alpha of things—to the Ancient of days.

We have deduced and experimented, and we force physics and mechanics, controlled by the analytical mind, further and further into the unseen mystery of nature; we are more and more conquerors of matter; but, when we attack the problems of the mind, when we touch the things of metaphysics, we cross hands over a gulf of more than two thousand years, with Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, and find the questions of the intellect the same, and the answers similar. The Catholic Church, the most psychological of all organizations, has adopted Aristotle, for he was the master of St. Thomas Aquinas, philosophically, as Vergil was the master of Dante, poetically. The philosophy of St. Thomas is based on that of Aristotle, who was the pupil of Plato, and the philosophy of Aristotle, purged, illuminated, refined—as each of the great three refined on one anotheris the philosophy of Dante.

Who of the moderns has escaped these three? Montaigne, or Bacon, or Kant, or Hegel, or Schopenhauer, or Rosmini? Not one! Who has gone beyond them? Not one! When Emerson is not Platonic, he is not philosophical. And the same questions of the intellect which helped to make Hamlet doubt are those which arise, over and over again, in the dialogues of Plato, and which are only answered since reason and divine revelation have become a synthesis. Kant and Berkeley, who came strangely near to the all-negation of Pyrrho, are saved by Socrates and Plato. And Fichte and Hegel and Schopenhauer are combated by them, as Socrates combated Democritus, Epicurus, and Pyrrho. Kant, overwhelmed by the splendor of nature and the awful sense of human responsibility, can only find relief in the ideality of all things. Plato does better than this. Pyrrho, who, too, was idealist, and who doubted the existence of the concrete thing, nevertheless shyed before the concrete chariot wheels in the streets—and still his pupils believed in him; and Kant and Berkeley have still pupils who believe in their doubt!

But, after all, comparisons in favor of the great three, who taught one another, and who were like luminous clouds, not fully illuminated, but giving light, may lead one too far. It is true, however, that to the receptive mind, there can be few greater pleasures than that of noting the effect of the great Athenians on modern thought. In fact, it may be almost said that all modern philosophy is but an elaboration, a development, a criticism, of the essence and the methods of these three men.

Socrates, born B.C. 468, was the master of the two others, Plato and Aristotle. He was a reformer pure and simple, and he arose at a time when doubt and sensuality, as represented by the teachings of Pyrrho and the distorted dicta of Epicurus, had corrupted the Athenian mind and heart. The Sophists, too, juggled with words, and the people had come to delight in verbal pyrotechnics and to care nothing for truth. He was the son of Sophroniscus, a sculptor. Diogenes tells us that, having zealously attended the lectures of Anaxagoras and Archelaus, he was observed by a rich Athenian, who gave him the means of pursuing his studies in philosophy. This entrancing study did not prevent him from entering the army and doing his duty as a citizen. He was not a dreamer, though the hidden demon, on whose direction he depended, dwelt within him. He served as a soldier in the campaign of Potidæa, at Delium, when he saved his pupil, Xenophon, and at Amphipolis. And yet he lived in a world of beautiful dreams. Plato, his disciple, represents the idealistic side of his nature; Aristotle and Xenophon, no less his acolytes, the practical side. The splendid Alcibiades was not easily moulded. His inner voice warned him not to interfere in politics, though he desired, above all things, to elevate his countrymen morally and socially. He seems to have yielded to popular superstition whenever he did not clash with the great objective truths on which the base of his moral teaching rested. Nevertheless, B.C. 399, when he was seventy years of age, he was accused of not believing in the national deities and of corrupting youth. He was neutral in politics, and when he had interfered, three times in his life, it had been for the unpopular side. He had loved the younger Pericles and admired Critias and Alcibiades; he was aristocratic in his tendencies. Besides, we are told, on good authority, that Socrates had endeavored to lure the son of the rich Anytus from leather-selling to philosophy. Again, Socrates was scornful and satirical; no guilty man escaped his sarcasm and irony. And his power of eloquent indignation was so great that even the victims of it forgot his fat body, his two full eyes, his careless dress, and thought for the moment that he was an avenging god. Truth and morality were real things; so he thought, and, when by a small majority, he was condemned to die, he would not violate law, which was sacred. He might have bought himself off by a fine, he might have bribed the factions, he might have escaped by the help of his friends. He was forced to wait thirty days until the sacred trireme came from Delphos. “In this interval,” Dr. Browne says, in his “ History of Greek Classical Literature "-a book which ought to be revived—“we are indebted for that conversation on the immortality of the soul, which Plato has embodied in his ‘Phædo,' and although Plato was not himself present, it is so Socratic that there can be little doubt that it was faithfully reported by those who were with him at his last moments.” He drank the hemlock, not for love of death, but for love of the law. Socrates was not a conscious teacher of systematic philosophy, he was a moral teacher, with a set of principles. The perfect intellect was the Omega of life. Knowledge, to him, was the first of all things in the way to the supreme good—which was truth. He believed in an omnipotent supreme being, the first cause, and that the rational in man was a part of this Governing Being. In the after life, all would be well with the noble soul, he believed. To be like this Supreme Being, we must cultivate our intellect at the expense of the lower qualities. Virtue was science; perfect knowledge was perfect virtue; therefore ignorance was the only sin, and that an involuntary sin. The entirely wise man -the possessor of perfect science—could not sin.

Although it seems difficult to formulate exactly the principles of Socrates, and to discover their central point, the fact that Plato's system is set in one key makes it easier to analyze Platonism. The human soul is of the same spirit as the Supreme Being; it neither begins nor ends; the soul knew itself and still remembers some of its knowledge. The splendor of another world is reflected upon it. Plato systematized previous theories; Aristotle followed his example. It was reserved for St. Thomas Aquinas to meet sophisms, with fuller knowledge than Socrates, and to make a summa of the best that had preceded him. The philosophical movement is not of one time; it goes on, widening, classifying, perfecting itself from epoch to epoch.

Aristocles (born B.C. 429), called Plato from the breadth of his shoulders, offers a striking example of this. Having gathered the best that had preceded him, he made a great leap forward by developing his own theory above the ruins of old

His methods are improved upon those of Socrates. He meets Protagoras with the assertion that all knowledge is not the result of materialistic contact-or, in other words, of sensation. And he opposed himself to the Eleatic assertion that no knowledge can be obtained through the senses. He held that man was composed of body and soul, intimately related. The apprehension of the intellect is pure and immutable; the apprehension of the senses non-essential, changeable. The body is an impediment to truth. When the soul is free from the body, it may, unblinded, see truth. All that exists, exists only so far as it participates in the absolute and unchangeable Divine Idea, of which the soul is part. God and the highest good are the same; the highest idea is good. He believes in the living soul and in the Deity who pervades the universe. He has been called a Pantheist as not having the fixed idea of a personal intelligence. But a careful reading of the four dialogues collected here will, I fancy, show that he was much more than a believer in an abstract, pervasive, eternal principle. The soul of the world permeates the world, and from it come other souls, to be supported by it. Plato is a firm believer in the immortality of the soul. In the most poetical of the dialogues, “ Phædo,” we find this philosopher, who would have, in an ideal republic, driven poets into the wilderness, crowned with flowers, invalidating his arguments by an ascent into the myths of the singers. He held, with Pythagoras, the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, so fascinating in all ages to the imagination, and from this followed the theory of the reminiscences of the half-awakened soul, which Wordsworth calls the "trailing clouds of glory.” According to Plato man may choose the good, and this the philosopher, free and unconstrained, will do—for God is not fate. Plato was a soldier, like Socrates. Unlike Socrates, to whose influence he acknowledged that he owed all, he founded a school.

Aristotle (born B.C. 384), his most distinguished pupil, was not an Athenian. His father was court physician to Amyntas II, King of Macedon; he was not of noble descent, as was Plato, who claimed King Codrus and Solon among his ancestors. His father, a learned man, directed his tastes. At the age of seventeen he was left alone in the world, but his inherited fortune enabled him to pursue his studies. At Athens, he deserved the praise of Plato, who called him “the mind of the school.” He did not hesitate to argue with his preceptor. He loved Plato; but between Plato and truth, he chose truth. It is said that, on a day when Aristotle was the only pupil present

« PreviousContinue »