The beginning of the new (fourth) century was dismal. The Peloponnesian Wars had ended in 404 with the surrender of Athens. Sparta had won, but it could not rule Greece without establishing garrisons in many cities and obtaining the help of oligarchies, powerful little groups of local “collaborators.” Athens was prostrate; the Spartan domination was very hard to endure, not only in Attica but everywhere.

In the meanwhile, economic conditions had changed as fast and deeply as the political ones. The farms of Attica had been devastated during the war; the little farmers were the main victims; there appeared a new class of large landowners, manufacturers, bankers. Let us stop a moment to evoke one of these, Pasion, who had been a slave employed by other bankers, but manumitted by them as a reward for his zeal and fidelity. Pasion started a banking business of his own, together with a manufactory for the making of shields, and became the wealthiest man of his time; his benefactions to Athens were rewarded with the freedom of the city. When he died in 370 his freedman Phormion married his widow and took charge of his business and of his sons, Apollodoros and Pasicles. The former of these dissipated a good part of his patrimony. We are pretty well informed about Pasion, his business, and his family because of the law suits in which they were involved and the speeches of Isocrates and Demosthenes. The life of Pasion is very much like that of a self-made millionaire of today, and it throws light upon the capitalism that was growing in Athens while the government of the city and of other parts of Greece was festering.

Another result of the long wars was the existence of a relatively large body of veterans who had lost interest in peaceful arts and could not be easily reassimilated. Many of them became mercenaries, ready to take part in other people’s wars in Egypt, Asia Minor, Persia. We shall come across later a body of them abandoned in the Tigris valley and obliged to fight their way back home under Xenophon’s leadership.

The Spartans accumulated more hatred against them in a shorter time than the Athenians had done before and their supremacy did not last much more than thirty years (404—371). The common hostility was capitalized and organized by the Thebans, led by Epaminondas, the greatest tactician and one of the noblest men of his time, who caused the creation (in 370) of the Arcadian League against Sparta. Epaminondas invaded the Peloponnesos four times, and died in his last victorious battle at Mantineia (in Arcadia) in 362. In spite of her defeat, Sparta refused to accept the conditions of peace and more trouble followed, but Greek independence was almost over and the Greek cities fell now in the orbit of the growing Macedonian power.

This outline is restricted to the main facts, and leaves out the many little wars, the political intrigues, the alliances made and broken, the heroic deeds of courageous men and the crimes of greedy cowards and traitors. The warp and woof of the political life of Greece was so complex that a clear account would require considerable space; one would have to explain the troubles occurring within each city and the endless vicissitudes of their mutual relations. The main point is that the political web was disintegrating and breaking to pieces; the running down had become irremediable and irreversible.

And yet the spiritual life went on, though here too one could detect symptoms of disease. The mysteries, especially those of Eleusis, were flourishing; Orphism became almost a national religion. Foreign gods, imported from Egypt and Asia, were more welcome than ever. In spite of the efforts of Isocrates of Athens (436–338), national unity could not be realized and the Greeks were united only in their superstitions.


The earlier Attic school of sculpture, represented by Pheidias, serene and restrained, was followed by the school of Scopas and Praxiteles, whose works showed more individuality, sensibility, and emotion. The activity of Scopas of Paros lasted at least from 394 to 351 (it covers almost exactly the Platonic age); one of his last works was the frieze of the Mausoleum in Halicarnassos.

Praxiteles of Athens was a generation younger, for he was born c. 390, when Scopas had already completed his decoration of the temple of Tegea (in Arcadia). As far as can be judged from his dated works, he flourished about the middle of the century (356–346). His art was exceedingly gracious. His statue of Aphrodite (in Cnidos), an idealization of Phryne’s ¹⁰⁴⁸ body, became the symbol of perfect beauty. His masterpiece, however, was the Hermes of Olympia. It must suffice to recall these glorious deeds in the briefest manner, and one should remember that the creation of beauty is not incompatible with political chaos.

We may now introduce Plato in those surroundings of confusion, terror, and beauty. We cannot understand him well unless we see him in the midst of them.


Plato was born in Athens in 428; his father, Ariston, and his mother, Perictione, were members of aristocratic families and he was always very conscious of his noble ancestry. He received as good an education as a rich Athenian boy could obtain, and when he was about twenty met Socrates and was one of the latter’s pupils for eight years. At the time of the master’s execution (399), Plato and other disciples took refuge at Megara (about halfway between Athens and Corinth); one of those disciples was Euclid, who founded the school of Megara.¹⁰⁴⁹ Plato did not stay there very long, and during the next dozen years (398–386) he traveled extensively in Greece, Egypt, Italy, Sicily. In 387 he was welcomed in Syracuse by the tyrant Dionysios (c. 430–367), who had pretensions to literary taste and claimed to be a philosopher. During his stay, he became very friendly with Dion of Syracuse and Archytas of Tarentum.¹⁰⁵⁰ On his way back, Plato was captured by pirates, enslaved, and ransomed in Aegina. Soon afterward, in 387–being then a man of forty — he began his teaching at the Academy. But for short absences (two visits to Syracuse, in 367 and 361) Plato spent the rest — the second half — of his life at the Academy. He died in Athens in 347, at the age of eighty-one.

THE ACADEMY (387 B.C. TO A.D. 529)

When Plato completed his Wanderjahre, he felt in him the vocation of teaching, but did not answer the call in the casual manner of Socrates; he realized the need of a school established in a definite place; he did not want to teach in the streets and markets, but on the contrary in a place that was sufficiently distant from the madding crowd and secluded. He chose a piece of land on the Cephissos, some 6 stadia from the Dipylon, the western gate of Athens.¹⁰⁵¹ The land originally belonged to the hero Academos ¹⁰⁵² and the school was therefore called Academia. It is because of that accident, the use made of Academos’ land by Plato, that the word “academy” has been included in almost every language of Europe; the fortune of that word would be a fair subject for a semantic study.¹⁰⁵³

The place was very wisely chosen by Plato, for it had been a kind of sacred place for a long time. Hipparchos, patron of letters (murdered in 514), younger son of Pisistratos of Athens, had walled it in. It was dedicated to Athena and contained a grove of olive trees, the oil from which was given to the victors of the Panathenaian games. At the time of the great Dionysia, the statue of Dionysos Eleutherios was brought to it in great pomp. It included a park, a grove, and an athletic field, and the famous Athenian soldier and statesman Cimon (c. 512—449) had embellished it. Plato used it as a regular meeting place for his disciples, and he owned property in the neighborhood.

We may assume that in his time it already included some buildings, for example, a chapel or museum (a temple to the Muses), perhaps a few chambers for teachers and disciples, and halls for assembly, for lecturing, and for eating together, if only on formal occasions. Considering the climate of Athens, it is possible that much of the teaching took place either in the grove or in a portico, wherein one could be protected from the sun yet enjoy the open air.

We do not know more about the teaching itself than we do about the material organization except as far as can be judged from the writings of Plato, his disciples, and his successors. It is possible that the dialecti method of Socrates was largely used, especially at the beginning, and that there was less lecturing than discussion, somewhat as in the so-called seminar meetings of our own universities. Everything was informal and tentative. The center of attraction was Plato’s own personality; students came to him from far and near, as they had come to Socrates before and to other famous teachers; but for the first time they came to a definite place. Plato was the chief attraction, but they went to the Academy as the students of today go to the university.

The Academy was not a novelty as a school, for there had been schools many centuries before its foundation, not only in Greece but in Babylonia, Egypt, Crete. Indeed, wherever a government exists it is necessary to train clerks for its service; wherever there is a church it is necessary to train priests and acolytes; wherever there are business houses and banks it is necessary to train accountants. The.novelty consisted in the kind of teaching that was provided. Continuing the tradition of the sophists and of Socrates, Plato was not interested in teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic, even less in teaching methods of business. His aim was considerably higher, he wanted to enlighten the students, to give them the love of knowledge and of wisdom, to make philosophers of them and perhaps statesmen; he was teaching not any special knowledge, except perhaps logic and mathematics, but the principles of knowledge, of education, of ethics and politics. The Academy was not a school created by the government for its own administrative needs; it was a higher school of philosophy and politics, independent of the government and more often than not hostile to it. The Academy may be called the first institution for higher learning; it was a private institution.¹⁰⁵⁴

The students of various ages who flocked to it did not come to obtain degrees or certificates that would give them a right to a job; they passed no examination and obtained no credit of any kind, except such as was implicit in the good will of teachers and classmates. That was the best feature of the Academy. The teachers and disciples were disinterested, as disinterested as scholars can be; their ideal was the old Pythagorean one — the search for knowledge is the greatest purification. We shall see presently that Plato did not remain faithful to that ideal, and that political passion led him to betray his master Socrates.


We shall be better able to appreciate Plato’s foundation if we turn aside for a moment from our main subject to outline the history of the Academy. Shortly after Plato’s death in 347, he was succeeded by the son of his sister, Speusippos, who completed the organization of the school. The following successors were Xenocrates of Chalcedon, master or director of the Academy from 339 to 315, Polemon of Athens from 315, Crates of Athens from c. 270. With Crates the Old Academy came to an end. Its fame is due not only to the five masters who have just been named, but also to disciples or assistant teachers such as Philip of Opus, Eudoxos of Cnidos, Heracleides of Pontos, Crantor of Soli (in Cilicia). We shall have much to say later about the first three, and it will suffice now to give a brief account of the last one. Crantor studied under Xenocrates and Polemon and was the first to write commentaries on Plato’s works. Of his own works the most famous was the one on grief, Peri tu penthus, which is lost but fragments of which survive in the Tusculan disputations and in the Consolation which Cicero was moved to write after the loss of his daughter Tullia.¹⁰⁵⁵

After Crates the Academy continued to function but took a different (skeptical) color under the direction of Arcesilaos of Pitane (in Aeolis, c. 315–241), who is sometimes called the founder of the second or Middle Academy. Arcesilaos was followed by Carneades of Cyrene (213–129), who increased the skeptical tendencies, and is called the founder of the Third Academy. Carneades was sent by the Athenians as their ambassador to Rome, where he obtained so much success that Cato the Censor (II—1 B.C.) took fright, denounced him, and caused the Senate to drive him out. A Fourth Academy was created by Philon of Larissa, who leaned toward Stoicism. Finally, a Fifth Academy was begun by Antiochos of Ascalon (d. 68 B.C.), who tried to reconcile the teachings of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoa. This Fifth Academy is generally called the New Academy. Both Philon and Antiochos visited Rome, and Cicero listened to the former in 88 and to the latter ten years later. Thanks to Carneades, Philon, and Antiochos, the various teachings of the Academy reached the Roman world, Cicero (I–1 B.C.) and Varro (I—2 B.C.) being the outstanding interpreters.

During the siege of Athens by Sulla (in 86 B.C.) the latter, needing timber, cut down the trees of the Academy. It has been claimed that the Academy was then moved inside the town and remained there until the end, but if that were true, its town location would be known and no such location has ever been mentioned. Hence, we must assume that in spite of the damage caused by Sulla’s soldiery the Academy remained where it was. Its further history is very obscure, however, until the fifth century, when it was given a new fame as a center of neo-Platonic teaching, chiefly under Proclos (V–2). The last seven directors of the Academy were Plutarchos of Athens, or Plutarchos the Great, who died very old in 431, Syrianos of Alexandria (V–1), who died in 450, Domninos of Larissa (V–2), Proclos, who died in 485, Marinos of Sichem (V–2), Isidoros of Miletos, one of the architects of Hagia Sophia c. 532, and Damascios of Damascus (VI–1), director from c. 510 to 529, when the Academy was closed by Justinian as a school of pagan and perverse learning.

Justinian closed the Academy but he did not kill the teachers, and some of these escaped to the court of the king of Persia, Chosroes (N sh rw n the Just, ruled 531–579), probably in Jund sh p r, Kh zist n, where the king established a famous medical school. This is exceedingly important, for the exiles, philosophers and physicians, brought with them the seeds of Greek science and wisdom that were to develop a few centuries later under Muslim patronage. Justinian closed a door, Chosroes opened another, and thus science continued its march from Athens to Baghdad.

Among the philosophers welcomed by Chosroes, the most prominent were Simplicios of Cilicia (VI–1) and Priscianos of Lydia (VI–1), who might be said to represent the Academy in exile, the Athenian academy of Persia!

It is significant that out of the nine academicians just named, the last seven directors and the two exiles, only two were Greeks of Greece (Plutarchos and Domninos); the seven others were Egyptian or Asiatics.¹⁰⁵⁶

The Academy had lasted many centuries. At the time when Justinian closed its doors it might have celebrated its 916th anniversary. Whether that would have been completely justified, I do not know, for we have no proof that there was no solution of continuity in that long existence. Institutions are not like single men, whose age at any time of their life can be obtained by subtraction of their date of birth from the current date; they can die and disappear for many years, or many centuries, and then reappear again. Moreover, the Academy changed considerably in the course of centuries; it is only the Old Academy that may be considered as Plato’s Academy, and it lasted a century and a half or less. To this one might reply that every institution is bound to change with the vicissitudes of time and that the longer it lives the more it must be expected to change. Bearing these remarks in mind, we may put it this way: the Academy of Athens, the Academy founded by Plato, lasted more than nine centuries.


The temptation to narrate the vicissitudes of the Academy could not be resisted, though it took us far out of our immediate subject. It is a history of the Hellenic impregnation of the East which began with Alexander, a generation later than Plato, continued with ups and downs for a thousand years, and reached a new climax when Justinian closed the Academy. Justinian’s purpose was to defend Christianity against paganism, but the chief result of his decision was to nourish and strengthen the Eastern peoples who would become under Islamic guidance the main challengers of Christian culture.

This history becomes even more startling when one takes into account, as one should, its counterpart, the Orientalization of Greece. The origin and development of Greek culture was stimulated by Oriental influences; Greek wisdom was nursed in an Oriental cradle and throughout its growth it was excited over and over again by the examples of barbarian friends or enemies. The reader has already been prepared for this in the previous chapters dealing with pre-Hellenic civilization, or with the Oriental sources of Pythagoras and Democritos. It is clear that Plato was also submitted to Oriental influences, but in his case those influences were liminal rather than continuous; moreover, it is not possible to separate his immediate borrowings from those that he made unwittingly through the intermediacy of Pythagoras, Archytas, Democritos, or his own disciples, Eudoxos and Philip of Opus.

Though Plato was not as friendly to the barbarians as Herodotos was, he was more friendly than his disciple Aristotle. He had explored Egypt, visited her wonderful monuments, and obtained some knowledge of her science and religion, rites and manners. He realized that the Egyptian civilization was considerably older than that of Greece. This is neatly expressed in Timaios,¹⁰⁵⁷ in the form of a talk between Solon ¹⁰⁵⁸ and an Egyptian priest who was exceedingly old. Said the priest of Sais, “O Solon, Solon, you Greeks are always children: there is not such a thing as an old Greek.” On hearing this Solon asked, “What mean you by this saying?” And the priest replied, “You are young in soul, every one of you. For therein you possess not a single belief that is ancient and derived from old tradition, nor yet one science that is hoary with age.” The old priest treated his illustrious Greek visitor in about the same way as American visitors have often been treated by their European hosts; he then kindly explained the beautiful features of Egyptian society, its division into castes, and so forth. Solon marveled, and Plato marveled even more.

He had no immediate experience of Mesopotamia, but he referred to the laws of the Assyrians (the empire of Ninos). His astral mysticism was very probably of Chaldean provenience. As to Persia, the traditional enemy of his people, every educated Greek knew something about her. Stimulated by Democritos and Eudoxos, Plato knew much more than most; he had read the accounts of Ctesias and Herodotos and perhaps of other historians and their revelations of the Achae-menidian empire pleased him very much. Persian autocracy and order seemed to him far superior to Athenian democracy and chaos. The myth of Er the Pamphylian in the Republic¹⁰⁵⁹ is of Chaldeo-Iranian origin.

The myth of the Earthborn is called in the text¹⁰⁶⁰ a sort of Phoenician tale (Phoinicicon ti), and it might well be, like the Cadmos tradition and various others.

The dualistic ideas latent in the last dialogues of Plato may also have been derived from the Iranian religion, though we must admit that the derivation was indirect and tenuous. Zoroaster is named but once in Plato’s writings.¹⁰⁶¹

According to ancient tradition, when Plato was very old he received the visit of a Chaldean guest, but became feverish, and a Thracian flutist was invited to play in order to soothe him. He died soon afterward. Others would have it that many Magians were present at the time of the master’s death. Realizing that he had died on a day sacred to Apollo and had lived nine times nine years, they concluded that Plato must have been a hero (a superhuman being) and they made a sacrifice to his memory.

There are many analogies between Platonic philosophy on the one hand and S mkhya and Vedanta philosophy on the other, but there is no proof that Plato was ever submitted to Hindu influences.

See Richard Reitzenstein and H. H. Schaeder, Studien zum antiken Synkretismus aus Iran und Griechenland (355 pp.; Studien der Bibliothek Warburg 7; Leipzig, 1926); Joseph Bidez and Franz Cumont, Les mages hellénisés (2 vols.; Paris: Les belles lettres, 1938) [Isis 31, 458–462 (1939–40)]; J. Bidez, Eos ou Platon et l’Orient (256 pp.; Brussels: Hayez, 1945) [Isis 37, 185 (1947)]; Simone Pétrement, Le dualisme chez Platon, les Gnostiques et les Manichéens (354 pp.; Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1947); Franz Cumont, Lux perpetua (558 pp.; Paris: Geuthner, 1949) [Isis 41, 371 (1950)].


We have no intention of describing the details of Plato’s philosophy, but we must discuss the theory of Ideas, which is the core of it and dominates Plato’s thought on every subject.

The objects that we see with our own eyes are only appearances, like the shadows in the cave.¹⁰⁶³ If there is any truth, there must be things that really exist. These things are the “Ideas” or “Forms.” ¹⁰⁶⁴ To each kind of being or object there corresponds an Idea, which is as it were its womb and its cause. For example, we see “horses” all of which are different and imperfect; however good they may seem to be, they are bound to weaken and sooner or later to pass away. The Idea of the horse, however, or let us call it the “ideal horse,” is perfect and eternal. The ideal horse cannot be seen or touched, but while the horses of sense are as ephemeral and nonexistent as shadows, it truly exists; it is the archetype of all possible horses, born or unborn.

This theory enables one to classify all the objects in their reality, instead of having to consider only their evanescent appearances. It helps us to understand the law of change and decay, which seems to be universal, and it gives us new principles of thought and conduct. The sensible world is submitted to corruption and death, but the Ideas, being immaterial, are incorruptible and ageless; the world of Ideas is real and permanent. The Idea is not only the essential reality of a thing, it is also its definition and its name; hence, we are given at one and the same time the tools of knowledge and its valid elements. The Ideas are not fancies, but beings, living and eternal; they are Forms, patterns, wombs, standards; at the same time they are like magical names.

The Ideas lend themselves easily to classification and hierarchy. The supreme Idea is the Idea of Good, which comes very close to God.

We may have opinions concerning the material objects, but real knowledge can be built only upon the basis of the immaterial Ideas. The aim of science is thus to investigate, understand, and know those Ideas. The real philosopher is the man whose soul can grasp them beyond the fleeting and deceiving appearances, and he derives his greatest reward from the contemplation of the purest and highest Ideas. Let us listen to the wise woman of Mantineia, Diotima:

Such a life as this, my dear Socrates, spent in the contemplation of the beautiful, is the life for men to live; which if you chance ever to experience, you will esteem far beyond gold and rich garments, and even those lovely persons ¹⁰⁶⁵ whom you and many others now gaze on with astonishment, and are prepared neither to eat nor drink so that you may behold and live for ever with these objects of your love! What then shall we imagine to be the aspect of the supreme beauty itself, simple, pure, uncontaminated with the intermixture of human flesh and colors, and all the other idle and unreal shapes attendant on mortality; the divine, the original, the supreme, the monoeidic beautiful itself? What must be the life of him who dwells with and gazes on that which it becomes us all to seek? Think you not that to him alone is accorded the prerogative of bringing forth, not images and shadows of virtue, for he is in contact not with a shadow but with reality; with virtue itself, in the production and nourishment of which he becomes dear to the Gods, and if such a privilege is conceded to any human being, himself immortal.¹⁰⁶⁶

If a man has a real knowledge of virtue, that is, if he truly sees the Idea of virtue, he is virtuous, for nobody having attained such pure knowledge can do wrong readily.¹⁰⁶⁷

One of the most beautiful dialogues, the Phaidon, has already been referred to, for we borrowed from it Plato’s moving account of Socrates’ death (see pp. 266–270). The purpose of that dialogue is to show that the philosopher is happy to die. The Idea of the soul implies its immortality. The discussion leads to the conclusion that the Ideas are the sole causes of all things and the sole objects of knowledge. The theory of Ideas helps to prove the immortality of the soul, and vice versa.

The two conceptions that there are entities intermediary between the Ideas (or Forms) and things and that Ideas are numbers, which are ascribed to Plato in Aristotle’s Metaphysics,¹⁰⁶⁸ are not found in his dialogues, yet the ascription may be correct, for we may assume that Plato’s teaching, which Aristotle had received from his own lips, is not completely represented by his writings. Every great teacher teaches much more than he can possibly write down.

The theory of Ideas is the source of logical realism and of the problem of universals, which, being formulated by Boetius (VI–1) and again more explicitly by St. Anselm (XI–2) (universalia ante rem), dominated medieval thought. The opposite theory, nominalism (universalia post rem), was explained by St. Anselm’s contemporary, Roscelin of Compiègne (XI–2), but did not make much headway until its revival by William of Occam (XIV–1).¹⁰⁶⁹ The Platonic point of view allured poets and metaphysicians, who fancied that it made divine knowledge possible; unfortunately, it made the more earthbound scientific knowledge impossible. The Platonic method of leading from the general to the particular, from the abstract to the concrete, is intuitive, swift, and sterile. It is sterile because it is unworkable, or, to use our modern terminology, it is not “operational”: ¹⁰⁷⁰ abstract good is no good and one cannot ride an ideal horse. The opposite method (nominalism, the via moderna), leading from known particulars to abstract notions of increasing generality, is slow but fruitful; it prepared very gradually the way for modern science. In spite of the incredible fertility and power of science, Platonism is not dead and will never die, for there will always be impatient metaphysicians wanting universal and immediate answers to their queries, and there will always be (let us hope) poets electing dreams instead of realities.

Strangely enough, those metaphysicians and poets are often called “realists.” It is perhaps a little less ambiguous to call them idealists.¹⁰⁷¹ Yet this is a cause of new misunderstandings, for there are plenty of simple-minded people who believe that idealists have the monopoly of ideals. “Idealists” prefer ideals to realities, and try to explain the latter in terms of the former. In that sense, Plato was their archetype. Men of science have ideals of their own, but they do not subordinate them to realities; their ideals grow out of the realities and are limits of them which man can hope to approach asymptotically. We cannot give people credit for their passive and uncontrollable ideals but only for their active thoughts and tangible deeds. Gratuitous ideals can lead only to hypocrisy, cynicism, and skepticism.

The analogies between Platonic philosophy and various forms of Hindu wisdom are numerous and obvious, but it does not follow that definite borrowings were made from either side by the other. It will suffice to remember the indefinite contact that had existed for centuries between Greece and the East, and the unity of the human mind. Given certain premises, such as the illusions of the visible world and the greater reality of an invisible one, men are bound to draw similar conclusions.



In this summary we enumerate only a few general editions of all of the works, or of most of them.

The first printed edition was the Latin translation by Marsiglio Ficino (folio; Florence, 1483–84). The Greek princeps edited by A. P. Manutius and M. Musurus was printed by the Aldine press thirty years later (Venice, 1513) (Fig. 80). A Greek-Latin edition, with the new Latin version by J. Serranus, was printed by Henricus Stephanus (Henri Estienne) (3 3 vols., folio; Paris, 1578) (Fig. 81). This edition is very important because its pagination has been repeated in every scientific edition. The best way to refer to a Platonic passage is to quote the title of the work and the Stephanus volume and page (the title being given, the volume number is superfluous).

The best Greek edition is the one by John Burnet (5 vols. in 6; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899–1906).

The first French translation was by André Dacier (1651–1722), Les oeuvres de Platon (2 vols.; Paris, 1699). A Greek-French edition is being published by the Association Guillaume Budé (Paris, 1920 ff.).

The first English translation was made from the French version of Dacier (2 vols.; 128 (1948)].

London, 1701). The first English translation from the Greek was by Floyer Sydenham and Thomas Taylor (quarto, 5 vols.; London, 1804). The most famous English translation is the one by Benjamin Jowett (1817–1893), Master of Balliol (4 vols.; Oxford, 1871; 5 vols.; 1875; etc.). There are Greek-English editions in the Loeb Classical Library (1914 ff.).

See also Friedrich Ast, Lexicon platon-icum (3 vols.; Leipzig, 1835-1838; anastatic reprint, Berlin, 1908). There is an English index in vol. 5 of Jowett’s translation. Ast’s very full glossary and Jowett’s index refer to the Stephanus page numbers and hence can be used with any edition of Plato that quotes these numbers.


The list of works varies because the genuineness of some is doubted. It includes the Apology of Socrates, plus twenty-five to twenty-eight dialogues, and thirteen letters (letter seven is probably genuine).

There are apocryphal works but (this is very remarkable) no lost ones. This implies early and continuous appreciation of Platonic writings.

Endless controversies have been and will be devoted to the chronology of Plato’s writings, but there is a general agreement grosso modo on the following basis.

1. The Socratic dialogues — Euthyphron, Charmides, Laches, Lysis, Criton — as well as the Apology were’ Plato’s first writings, when he was completely under Socrates’ influence and tried to reproduce faithfully the latter’s thought.

2. Second group. Educational dialogues. Dialogues criticizing sophistry: Protagoras, Euthydemos, Gorgias, Phaidros; Menon, Symposium; The Republic; Phaidon, Cratylos.

3. Third group. Parmenides, Philebos, Theaitetos, Sophist, Statesman.

4. Final group (old age). Timaios. Laws (this was his last as well as his longest work).

This list is not complete but is sufficient for a rough chronology. It would be wiser perhaps to simplify it even more and say that Plato wrote the Socratic dialogues at the beginning of his career, Timaios and Laws at the end, and the rest in the middle.

It is remarkable that all the works except the Apology and the dubious letters are in the form of dialogues, which we remember as the Platonic form par excellence. It enables the writer to illustrate various sides of a question, and even to suspend his own judgment, or at least to hide it from the reader. Thus, we are given inconclusive dialogues, like Protagoras.

Socrates is one of the dramatis personae in all the dialogues, except Laws; in Parmenides, Sophist, Statesman, Timaios he appears, but only in a subordinate capacity. In the early “Socratic” dialogues, he is the chief speaker, and we feel more confident that we are listening to the real Socrates. In later dialogues we are invited to listen to what the commentators have been pleased to call a “Platonizing” or “idealized” Socrates, but what seems to be more often a debased and degraded one.

The dialogues are sometimes interrupted by myths, such as the myth of Atlantis at the beginning of the Timaios, that of Er at the end of the Republic, and that in the Statesman, and more often by statements which are so long that they read like lectures, and that the other speakers are almost forgotten. The dialogic form enables us to see the argument from many angles, we are permitted to turn around it, as it were, but this is often more illusory than real. Many dialogues, especially the political ones, are as dogmatic as it is possible to be, and the objections of various interlocutors seem to be introduced only in order to illuminate the same dogmas from another side. Another disadvantage of that form is that it is a cause of repetition and prolixity, and jeopardizes the unity of the subject.

Fig. 80. A page of the Greek princeps of Plato’s works (Venice, 1513), edited by Aldo Manuzio (Aldo il Vecchio, 1449–1515) and by the Cretan Marco Musurus (1470–1517). This page is the beginning of the Timaios (17A to 19B). Compare with Fig. 60. [From the copy in the Harvard College Library.]

Fig. 81. Title page of the Greek-Latin edition of Plato published by Henri Estienne (3 vols., folio; Paris, 1578). The pagination of that edition is repeated in every scientific edition, and the best way of referring to a Platonic text is to quote the Stephanus page. [From the copy in the Harvard College Library.]

Plato’s style is the perfection of Attic prose of the golden age, when the Greek language was still pure. It is easy, yet elegant, sometimes humorous, sometimes poetic, rich in metaphors, very flexible, and full of surprises. In spite of the dryness of many of the arguments, Plato often manages to astonish his reader and to charm him. This is especially true if one is privileged to read him in the original Greek, and to read with sufficient fluency.

It must be confessed that many words written in praise of Plato’s charm are disingenuous, because they were written by people whose knowledge of Greek was utterly insufficient. In order to appreciate the literary merit of any text, the subtleties of the author’s thought and tongue, one must know his language exceedingly well. One must know the dictionary and the grammar so deeply that one does not think of them any more, but only of the living flow, the rhythm, the images, the intriguing associations between the ideas and their wording. The admiration of Plato’s style by incompetent people is a curious form of snobbishness; and one should never underestimate the strength of that weakness; it has helped to nourish the love of Greek ideals and to keep alive teachers of Greek.


As far as we can judge from his writings, Plato’s teaching in the Academy must have been very largely devoted to political questions, or let us say to politics and ethics, two subjects that were (and will always be) very intimately connected. The good citizen, not to mention the good statesman, must be a good man to begin with. Only three of Plato’s works deal chiefly with politics, but their total length is considerable. His political ideals were explained by him in his middle age in the Republic; later some ideas were made more precise in the Statesman, and at the end of his life he wrote the largest of his books, the Laws.¹⁰⁷³ The Laws was a practical adaptation of his political dreams to human weakness. It included a great wealth of material regulating every aspect of public and private life, and as such had a great influence upon Hellenistic and Roman legislation. Many codes of law had been drafted and enacted before Plato’s, but one could hardly speak of legal philosophy before his time, and therefore he may be called the founder of jurisprudence.

In order to understand Plato’s meditations one must bear in mind the political circumstances in the midst of which his mind had grown. He was a child of the Peloponnesian War; he had witnessed not only the utter defeat of Athens but also the downfall of democracy; during the most sensitive years of his adolescence he had seen crimes perpetrated first by mobs, then by aristocrats; he was twenty-four when the Thirty Tyrants were functioning (404–403), whose exactions were such that the worst deeds of the democrats were condoned and forgiven. After that, things went from bad to worse. In 399 his teacher Socrates was condemned to death and Plato was obliged to leave the city. Plato was a man of substance, connected with some of the oligarchs; the political chaos was very painful to him, the condemnation of his friends and of his revered teacher impossible to bear. The Athens of his day was not pleasant to contemplate; Sparta and Crete in the distance seemed better. When he was writing the Republic, he was already disillusioned and was escaping from reality into utopian dreams. Political despair was his motive power. We know well enough from our own experience how strong that power can be; political passions are often so intense and so bitter that they can fill a man’s heart with anguish and hatred and drive him to the commission of outrageous deeds. Plato observed evil and chaos around him, and he himself suffered all the pains of hopelessness and frustration. Matters became worse and worse, and we may assume that the Academy, which could be attended only by men of leisure, was a cradle of discontent. The author of the Laws was a disgruntled old man, full of political rancor, fearing and hating the crowd and above all their demagogues; his prejudices had crystallized and he had become an old doctrinaire, unable to see anything but the reflections of his own personality and to hear anything but the echoes of his own thoughts. The worst of it is that he, a noble Athenian, admired the very Spartans who had defeated and humiliated his fatherland. Plato was witnessing a social revolution (even as we are) and he could not bear it at all. His main concern was: how could one stop it?

It is especially hard for us to understand his admiration of Sparta, for we are able to compare Athens with Sparta from such a distance that our judgment is naturally impartial and objective, and if we ask ourselves what each of them has given to the world, the answer is peremptory. Our debt to Athens is immense, our debt to Sparta negligible. This was not as obvious to Plato’s contemporaries as it is to us. In the first place, they were suffering the evils of war and chaos, military defeat and misgovernment; we do not have to bear that terrible burden, and we can concentrate our minds upon the literary and scientific legacy of Athens and the spiritual ineptitude of Sparta. This great Athenian praising the virtues of Sparta reminds us of the disgruntled Americans (not great men in any sense) who carried their hatred of their own government so far that they were ready to admire the Fascists and the Nazis.¹⁰⁷⁴ The puzzle remains, for Plato was a philosopher and they were not, yet political passion may make fools of the best men.

The madness of a philosopher, however, is likely to take a special philosophic color. We have seen that Plato’s conception of the universe was dominated by the theory of Ideas: the changing visible world is only a poor copy of the unchanging invisible one. That scheme extended itself most naturally to the political events, which illustrated the process of decay and corruption more shockingly than all others. Athenian politics was a mess of stinking fermentation. Plato invented a political utopia and took refuge in it. His Republic, as the utopia was called,¹⁰⁷⁵ was supposed to describe an ideal city, a city that would be perfect by definition and changeless. The heavenly city would escape the law of increasing corruption and increasing corruptibility. How could Plato devise such a heavenly city, one wonders, and make the invisible, visible and tangible? How could he flatter himself that the city born in his own brain would be identical with the divine city, and that it could ever be accepted without criticism, as a pattern of final perfection?

At any rate, in his own mind, change and corruption were equated. The same might be said of every conservative, but in the case of Plato the equation was proved by his theory of Ideas. Such a metaphysical proof was conclusive, was it not? What is more remarkable, Plato seems to have believed that it would be possible to establish a perfect, ideal, state, that such a state would be viable and might continue to exist, and that political change might be arrested. He might just as well have tried to arrest the rotation of the heavenly spheres.

Let us consider his utopia more closely. The Republic that Plato has created to serve as an ideal pattern is small, as small as or smaller than Athens. How could it isolate itself from the rest of the world, so as to escape the contagion of their wickedness?

The inhabitants are divided into three classes: the rulers, the soldiers or guardians, and the rest. The rest was at least 80 percent of the population; it is not clear to me whether it included the slaves or not.¹⁰⁷⁶ The three classes are natural, not artificial; they are compared in the Republic with the three souls animating man’s body — reason, spirit, and appetite; ¹⁰⁷⁷ the rulers are the “reason” of the state, the lower classes have nothing but gross appetites. It would perhaps be more correct to say that the citizens of Plato’s Republic were divided into only two classes — the rulers and their auxiliaries, on the one hand, and the ruled on the other. Indeed, the differences between the first two classes are not great and can be bridged without difficulty; for example, as the auxiliaries grow older, less fit for military labor and more fit for reflection, they may rise to the top; between the rulers and the masses, however, there is an unbridgeable abyss. They are separated not by a temporary difference of class or function, but by a permanent difference of race or caste. (The comparison of Platonic classification with Hindu castes is substantially correct, but it is not necessary to assume that Plato was aware of their existence.)¹⁰⁷⁸

In the Statesman, the rulers of the state are likened to shepherds of men. That comparison and similar ones occur many times in Plato: the rulers are shepherds, the guardians are the dogs, the masses are the herd. The art of ruling men is not essentially different from that of managing and breeding cattle.

The rulers might properly claim: ‘L’Etat c’est nous.” They are the state, indeed, and therefore their class as a body cannot be controlled except by itself. Out of its own wisdom it knows what is best for the other people, that is, for the great majority of the population.

In order to insure the self-control of that hereditary oligarchy and its undivided devotion to the state (that is, to itself), it must be protected against disrupting and corrupting influences, the main ones of which are financial and sexual greed. Therefore, the elite of the Republic is obliged to accept communism, and its communism covers not only property but wives and children. This does not imply debauchery or promiscuity, but no man can claim a woman as his own; all upper-class citizens are brethren; the children are common children, their family is the state.

In a golden age when so many wonderful things were created not only by architects and sculptors but also by artisans, these artisans had no standing in Plato’s eyes. The laborers of any kind are members of the herd; they are by definition low-minded brutes who want to fill their bellies; they have no ideals, only desires.

It is strange that Plato realized the disintegrating nature of human passions, such as the love of money or the love of family, but that he did not realize that other passions might be equally dangerous. One of the fundamental human passions is the love of power; love of money is only an aspect of it; men love money only because of the power that money gives them. Plato was very much afraid of property, chiefly in the form of money, gold and silver, but if money were demonetized, if it lost its power of purchase, would men lose their greed? Of course not; their greed would adapt itself to the new circumstances. The greed of power could not be eradicated. Even when the elite was definitely master of the masses, there could still be (and there certainly were) conflicts of power between themselves. Plato must have witnessed many illustrations of the statement often ascribed to Lord Acton: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”; yet there is no evidence that he ever drew that conclusion.

Plato’s rejection of property and family for the sake of fortifying the elite has been compared with the poverty and chastity that are enforced upon the Catholic clergy and monastic orders. That comparison is fallacious in many respects. It may be true that clerical asceticism is not only a matter of discipline and self-control, but also a means of separation from the laity and of a more complete control of it. The purpose, however, is purely religious and fraternal; it is not, or should not be, mixed with any velleity of political and economic control. The clergy and monks are not rulers of the state but its servants.

It is necessary to insist that Plato’s integral communism concerned only the upper classes; the lower classes did not need any superior morality and therefore might indulge their appetites as much as they pleased, provided they kept quiet and obedient, and had good opinions.¹⁰⁷⁹

Plato’s communism cannot be understood except as an aristocratic reaction against the growing capitalism of his time. It was hard for the old aristocrats to be challenged and supplanted by the nouveaux riches, who were as often as not people of low manners and low caste, even slaves.¹⁰⁸⁰ It is very hard for any elite to feel itself pushed out by a new one. If money could break the natural distinction between gentle people and the others, well, money must go. It is much more difficult to understand Plato’s communism of women and children, that is, his virtual destruction of the family spirit of the “best” people. The Republic is the work of a disgruntled fanatic, yet it is hard to believe that he could carry his fanaticism and heartlessness to that extreme. Plato was never married, but he had a mother and father, and a family of his own. Did his parents mistreat him, one cannot help wondering? The fanaticism of a good man has generally a definite cause. Plato’s communism of property could be explained in terms of his disillusionment and of his disgust with financial excesses; his communism of women and children could not be explained in the same way. I cannot explain it at all except in terms of sexual aberration.

Is there any generous man who has not suffered deep in his heart from the curse of money and wished that he could eradicate it? Is there any generous man who has not been comforted in his anguish by the love of family? How could a man destroy at the same time the greatest evil of life and its greatest blessing? Yet Plato did it, or at least he tried to do it.


It was all very well to outline an ideal republic, but a self-respecting philosopher and dialectician had to prove that such a republic could really exist and continue. Where would one find an elite worthy of such an exalted position and one that would not abuse it? Inasmuch as the elite was very small (say one fifth of the population or even less), it could not retain its enormous privileges unless it was strong enough to defend them against the overwhelming majority of the people.

The elite was a natural elite, it existed, all that was needed was to strengthen and unite it. Plato was the earliest eugenist.¹⁰⁸¹ One should begin with a good stock and breed men as one breeds cattle. The leading aristocratic families provided a blooded stock. Again one can but wonder at Plato’s naïveté. However high the correlation between good birth and good character may be, we can never be sure that a man of good birth is ipso facto a good man. Plato himself could easily have named many aristocrats who were utterly unreliable and contemptible.

But let us assume that we had a good stock to begin with; the eugenic problem would be to keep it as pure as possible. The best families would create as many children as the state needed, no more. The good birth of those children would not suffice, however; they would have to be very carefully and strictly educated. Plato was so convinced of the formative value of education that a great part of the Republic is devoted to it: the Republic is very largely a treatise on political education, an education meant exclusively for the ruling class.

The future rulers must be at the same time strong and gentle, and this double aim must always be kept in mind. The two corresponding parts of education are gymnastics and music. The former includes all the physical exercises that help to make vigorous men and good warriors; the latter means not simply music as we understand it but the bonae litterae, the humanities in general.¹⁰⁸² Music was for the soul what gymnastics was for the body. It was excessively regulated. There was to be no jazz in the Republic, but only music in certain definite moods that would induce vigor and virtue. The same applies to belles-lettres and poetry; only certain poems would be accepted, and Homer himself, “the educator of Hellas,” would be banished from the city.¹⁰⁸³ The Greek classics would be given to the youths only after censorship and adaptation to the needs of good communists. Indeed, poetry, art, and music must be subordinated to political needs. Almost the whole of Greek literature would have been driven out or mutilated by the “divine” Plato! He would have forbidden the very things (except mathematics) that we have in mind when we speak of the glory of Greece. In that respect he was about on the same level as those great literary and artistic critics, Thomas Bowdler and Adolf Hitler.

Though deeply immersed in politics, Plato gave but little thought to economics. Business and trade would be left to the lower classes. How would the upper classes live? Well, they would be landowners and slaveowners, and would not the lower classes work for them? It was hardly worth while to worry about such base matters. Aristotle remarks, however,¹⁰⁸⁴ that 5000 warriors¹⁰⁸⁵ of the Laws “will require a territory as large as Babylon . . . if so many persons are to be supported in idleness together with their women and attendants... In framing an ideal,” concluded Aristotle, “we may assume what we wish but should avoid impossibilities.”

How could Plato imagine for a moment the practical possibility of such a state as is described in the Republic (or even the more moderate one of the Laws), and if it could ever have been established, how could it have been preserved? We shall come back to the question of leadership presently, but we may remark at once that if the first rulers of that crazy commonwealth were sufficiently wise and capable of keeping it going, how could one be sure of the wisdom of their successors? One may object that the Republic was a utopia, a dreamland, yet we must expect the dreams of a philosopher to have some sort of consistency and logic. Plato’s idea was one of stability and changelessness, yet the Republic conceived by him was essentially unstable.

We may pause a moment here and ask ourselves where he got his inspiration. The primary sources were his hatred of Athenian politics and his approval of the Dorian institutions of Crete and Sparta. His idealization of the latter was as unfair and as ardent as his hostility to the former. It is not the case that his knowledge of politics had remained exclusively theoretical. During his travels and the vicissitudes of his political life, he had observed innumerable variations between the perfect city, which did not exist except in his brain, and the real cities of the world. He had classified the latter into six groups: absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, chaos, and tyranny. These forms might succeed each other, and then perhaps the whole cycle might begin again. This was a remarkable sociologic investigation, because of which Plato might be called the first sociologist as well as the first student of constitutional history. In the Laws¹⁰⁸⁶ he gives us a history of the decline and fall of Persia that is the first analysis of its kind. Moreover, he had obtained plenty of experimental knowledge when he had been Dionysios’ adviser, but one must admit that his meddling with Syracusan politics had been unfortunate for all concerned.

Plato did not lack political experience — far from it — but he was too much of a doctrinaire to profit from it. His political rancor was too bitter and his dreams were too strong to be influenced by changing and ephemeral realities.

The fundamental dogma of Platonic politics is the absolute supremacy of the state. Only the state can be perfect and self-sufficient; individuals are only imperfect, incomplete copies of it. Only the state can be changeless and enduring; individuals pass away in quick succession. Hence, the individual must be submitted and if necessary sacrificed to the state; that is good communist and totalitarian doctrine.

But how could the state be perfect unless created by God himself? Imperfect as it must be when created by Plato, how could it be brought nearer to perfection if no criticism and no change were ever allowed?

The main weakness of the totalitarian (as compared with the democratic) state is the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of obtaining independent, sincere criticism. We may excuse Plato for not having realized that as clearly and strongly as we realize it today.¹⁰⁸⁷Let us pay homage in passing to St. Thomas Aquinas (XIII–2) who was the first, in his commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, to assert vigorously the subordination of every group to its members, and of every government to its dependents. Plato is the more excusable when we remember the totalitarian evils that were perpetrated even after the time of St. Thomas, and never on so large a stage, nor in so cruel a manner (a “scientific” manner), as in our own day.


Plato saw clearly that it was not enough to have a ruling class; that class must have a chief, an absolute leader. Without a leader it could not subsist. The next problem then is: Who shall be the leader? The conclusion he had reached was that the philosophers should become kings or the kings philosophers, or else “there can be no cessation of troubles for our states nor, I fancy, for the human race either.” ¹⁰⁸⁸ Had Plato learned nothing in Syracuse? And how could he imagine the possibility of such a conjunction? What philosopher, except perhaps Plato, would ever wish to become a king? And how could a king extricate himself sufficiently from his innate passions and his daily worries to become a philosopher? The simultaneous existence of such different vocations in a single person would be nothing short of a miracle.

He thought that the problem could be solved by designing institutions for the education of future leaders. Much of the Republic is devoted to that, and the result was a radical corruption of the theory and practice of education.

At any rate, once the leader is chosen he should be obeyed implicitly even in the smallest matter.

Now for expeditions of war much consideration and many laws are required; the great principle of all is that no one of either sex should be without a commander; nor should the mind of any one be accustomed to do anything, either in jest or earnest, of his own motion, but in war and in peace he should look to and follow his leader, even in the least things being under his guidance; for example, he should stand or move, or exercise, or wash, or take his meals, or get up in the night to keep guard and deliver messages when he is bidden; and in the hour of danger he should not pursue and not retreat except by order of his superior; and in a word, not teach the soul or accustom her to know or understand how to do anything apart from others.¹⁰⁸⁹

Absolute leaders are in constant danger of violent suppression, and they cannot brook independence and originality in their immediate entourage. They are surrounded by hypocrites and flatterers, men of a mediocre and cowardly nature. Where will their successors be found? That is an insoluble riddle. The best practical solution is to trust heredity and determine the succession by an organic law of the state, as was done for the absolute monarchs by divine right, but even that is an awful gamble.

There is no safe way of selecting a ruler, and in practice the ruler, if not hereditary, has always selected himself, seized the power, and cowed the opposition by the charm of his personality and the implacability of his defense.

One of the best parts of Popper’s excellent book¹⁰⁹⁰ is the one wherein he shows that by expressing the problem of politics in the form of that ominous question, “Who shall rule the state?” Plato has created a lasting confusion in political philosophy. The intelligent creative question is rather, “How can we organize political institutions so that bad and incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?”

Here again, as always, one must fall back on education, for the best institutions do not suffice. They must be manned, and the good men who are needed can be produced only by appropriate training. The purpose of education is no longer the perverse Platonic purpose of creating leaders but the honest one of creating good men. In the course of time the best of these men, or rather the fittest for statesmanship, will or may become rulers, but even so their power must be restricted by constitutional checks.


Plato’s mathematics will be discussed in the next chapter, but this discussion may be anticipated by a few remarks concerning his mathematization of political thought. The mathematicians of today who deal with political problems approach them from the statistical or the economic side, but that could not have been Plato’s approach, for he had no inkling of statistics, and no interest whatsoever in economic matters. It does not seem to have ever occurred to him that economic factors might influence private and public life, and yet he cannot have overlooked the troubles caused in families or nations by financial difficulties; when such troubles arise they are too obvious and too strident to be ignored. Did he never have to meet financial obligations, I wonder, either his own or those of other people to him? Were these obligations meaningless to him?

His approach was not arithmetic (in our sense) but geometric. The secret of the universe (cosmos) is order and measure. Plato extended that conception to everything domestic and political and he did it without moderation. Everything in the perfect city must be regulated; no change is foreseen, therefore there is no opportunity, no choice, no fancy. The city will function like a machine. Some chapters of Laws regulate private life with so much detail and so little restraint that they are to the modern mind repulsive and obscene.

Plato sometimes argues with words as if they were geometric symbols; in that respect he may be considered the earliest ancestor of the symbolic (or mathematical) logicians of today.


Considering the mathematical pattern of the Republic, it is clear that there is little room for freedom. Freedom is the negation of virtue. Each man must know his station and stay there. He must know his duty and do it. He cannot choose his station and duty. The ruler himself has no freedom; though nobody can control him, he is self-controlled. Each man must mind his own business. Social conformity is carried to the limit.

In the Laws¹⁰⁹¹ young people are forbidden to criticize the city regulations. An old man may do this, but only when no youth is present.

Education is dominated by censorship. The citizens, young and old, must be given no opportunity to read anything that is not approved by the state, to listen to unorthodox sayings, or to hear improper music.

When Waldo Frank visited Moscow, he talked with a young mechanician and explained to him “that in the New York papers every morning one might find every possible shade of judgment on all possible subjects.”¹⁰⁹² “I don’t see the use of it,” answered the young man. “Every problem has a right answer. It seems to me the press would be serving the people a lot better if they found each day the right opinion on each important subject and printed only that. What is the sense in printing a lot of different points of view, when only one can be right?” This would have pleased Plato, and if one had asked him which is the right point of view, he would have said without hesitation, “The point of view of the state.”

Happily, Plato was not a dictator, except in his own dreams, and if he had been one his dictatorship would have been tempered by technical inefficiency. What the French call bourrage de crâne has been made very easy whenever modern governments have managed to control the press, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, television, but it was not so easy in ancient times. Plato’s censorship would have been of necessity very incomplete and the nets of his inquisitors full of holes.

The destruction of freedom implies unavoidably the destruction of truth. If it becomes the ruler’s duty to provide citizens only with wholesome ideas, the ideas must be sieved and graded. When the people are told only a part of the news, the lying is on, but Plato did not stop there. “Opportune falsehoods” and noble lies ¹⁰⁹³ may be necessary to deceive not only the people, but the elite itself. There is no doubt about it, the dictator must lie, or his assistants must lie for him (which amounts to the same thing). How could Plato reconcile that conclusion with the theory of the philosopher-king? For the philosopher is a man who loves the truth and if the king must lie, even if it be only occasionally, how will the philosopher in him take it? The search for the truth and the exercise of absolute power are utterly incompatible.

As Popper remarks,

Socrates had only one worthy successor, his old friend Antisthenes, the last of the Great Generation. Plato, his most gifted disciple, was soon to prove the least faithful. He betrayed Socrates, just as his uncles had done. These, besides betraying Socrates, had also tried to implicate him in their terrorist acts, but they did not succeed, since he resisted. Plato tried to implicate Socrates in his grandiose attempt to construct the theory of the arrested society; and he had no difficulty in succeeding for Socrates was dead.

I know of course that this judgment will seem outrageously harsh, even to those who are critical of Plato. But if we look upon the Apology and the Crito as Socrates’ last will, and if we compare these testaments of his old age with Plato’s testament, the Laws,then it is difficult to judge otherwise. Socrates had been condemned, but his death was not intended by the initiators of the trial. Plato’s Laws remedy this lack of intention. Coolly and carefully they elaborate the theory of inquisition. Free thought, criticism of political institutions, teaching new ideas to the young, attempts to introduce new religious practices or even opinions, are all pronounced capital crimes. In Plato’s state, Socrates would never have been given the opportunity of defending himself publicly; he would have been handed over to the secret Nocturnal Council for the “treatment,” and finally for the punishment, of his diseased soul.¹⁰⁹⁴

Starting from the concept of transcendental truth as represented by the eternal Ideas, Plato has gradually fallen to the level of propaganda, inquisition, and beneficent lying. At first view, there would seem to be an abyss between absolute truth and definite lying, but Plato bridged it without seeming to realize his disingenuousness. Compare his aberration with the views of men of science: we do our best to approach the truth by successive approximations; we do not claim to have the truth, but we are reaching for it and coming gradually closer to it; we do not start with the whole truth, but we obtain more and more of it. This is impossible without freedom. Truth is not, as Plato thought, an ideal from which we have fallen off; it is an ideal toward which we are steadily progressing. Truth is a goal and a limit, and so is pure democracy.


In his ideal state, Plato “instituted a religion considerably different from the current religion, and proposed to compel all the citizens to believe in his gods on pain of death or imprisonment. All freedom of discussion was excluded under the cast-iron system which he conceived. But the point of interest in his attitude is that he did not care much whether a religion was true, but only whether it was morally useful; he was prepared to promote morality by edifying fables; and he condemned the popular mythology not because it was false, but because it did not make for righteousness.”¹⁰⁹⁵


Plato’s ideal of frozen perfection and his communism entailed a hatred not only of freedom but of individualism in all its forms. His attack against individualism is strangely tortuous and disingenuous. To put it as briefly as possible, one may oppose individualism to collectivism and egoism to altruism.¹⁰⁹⁶ Plato’s jugglery (which, let us hope, was inconscient) consists in equating the first and the last terms of each pair (individualism with egoism, collectivism with altruism); one may then conclude that individualism is incompatible wth altruism. Q.E.D. A man must be a communist or else he is a selfish brute! The whole trend of political progress from St. Thomas on to our own day has been, on the contrary, to combine individualism (freedom of conscience) with altruism.

Not only did Plato reject individualism but he had no respect for personality. This was made clear in the passage from the Laws quoted above,¹⁰⁹⁷ and in many others. Let me quote one more, taken from the same book:

The first and highest form of the state and of the government and of the law is that in which there prevails most widely the ancient saying, that “Friends have all things in common.” Whether there is anywhere now, or will ever be, this communion of women and children and of property, in which the private and individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasions, and whatever laws there are unite the city to the utmost, — whether all this is possible or not, I say that no man, acting upon any other principle, will ever constitute a state which will be truer or better or more exalted in virtue.¹⁰⁹⁸

It is paradoxical that the writer who hated individualism was canonized as a master of humanism, and some enthusiasts went so far as to consider him a kind of proto-Christian. Plato’s subordination of the individual to the state was so complete that his philosophy became almost inhuman. And yet his self-delusion was so deep that he gave to the Republic the alternative title of Justice, and a good part of the book is devoted to the discussion of abstract justice.

What is justice? That which is in the interest of the state. The city is just when the castes are determined and invariable and everybody remains in his proper place, when the principle of class rule and class privilege is meekly accepted by all the people. The well-ordered and unchangeable city is the symbol of eternal justice. Plato’s definition of justice was chosen to strengthen his totalitarian conceptions, while the popular and common-sense idea of justice was exactly the opposite; hence we continue to turn in the same circle.

There are occasionally feelings of humanity in Plato’s writings, especially in the early Socratic dialogues, for example, in Corgias when he argues that it is better to suffer injustice than to perpetuate it, but he never grasped the idea of humanity as transcending that of the crystallized city of his dreams. Let humanity be sacrificed to that city or else the latter would degenerate and fall.

He could not understand that justice should never be divorced from love. Love without justice is erratic and dangerous, but justice without love is inhuman. Abstract justice is dangerously near to injustice.

We cannot blame Plato for being un-Christian, but he deserves blame for having sacrificed to his political dogmatism the generous ideals of Pericles, Democritos, Socrates, and of Gorgias’ disciples Alcidamas, Lycophron, and Antisthenes.¹⁰⁹⁹ It is because of that wanton sacrifice that I entitled this section “The great betrayal.” It was a betrayal not only of Athenian democracy but also of the master who had been his first guide and whom he had loved. Inded, many of the arguments against democracy were put in the mouth of Socrates; Plato made his old master say the very opposite of what he had taught. Was Plato’s power of self-illusion so deep that he could no longer distinguish between the real Socrates and the Socrates created by his own fancy? ¹¹⁰⁰

Can there be a deeper betrayal than that? Plato did not deny his master; what he actually did was considerably worse; in his later works he presented a caricature of him, a monstrous deformation. Let us repeat that Socrates was a democrat, an individualist, an equalitarian. Plato gradually became the opposite of all this; Socrates’ main purpose was to teach self-criticism, and he was always ready to recognize his ignorance; Plato, on the contrary, was the master who knew, the philosopher-king who must be obeyed implicitly, the creator of a Republic that is perfect by definition and therefore cannot change without disgrace.

There is another kind of betrayal, however, for which Plato is not responsible and which comes closer to the one described by the French author, Julien Benda (1867— ), in his Trahison des clercs.¹¹⁰¹ The clerks who betrayed us, I would say, are the many commentators who explained Plato’s political thought but gave us an entirely false picture of it, because they glossed over his totalitarianism and his views on the communism of property, women, and children.

I cannot do better once more than to quote Popper’s words:

What a monument of human smallness is this idea of the philosopher king. How far removed it is from the simple humaneness wisdom, but that he should know what matters most: that we are all frail human beings. What a distance from this world of irony and truthfulness and reason, to Plato’s kingdom of the sage, whose magical powers raise him high above ordinary men; but not high enough to forego the use of lies, nor to neglect the sorry game of all shamans, the sale of taboos — of breeding taboos — for power over his fellow-men.¹¹⁰²


The scientific ideas of Plato will be analyzed later, but it is proper to speak now of the book that most scholars think of as his main scientific book. This is the Timaios, dealing not with science in the restricted sense but with cosmology, that is, the study of the universe in its fullness, order, and beauty. Science, as we understand it, concerns itself with limited objects, and it owes its success and immense fertility to its deliberate and severe restraint. Cosmology is the opposite: it deals with the whole universe, and therefore, irrespective of the amount of scientific ingredients which he may include in his survey, the cosmologist is to be judged as a metaphysician rather than as a man of science.

This is especially true of the Timaios, which many commentators have considered for thousands of years as the climax of Platonic wisdom, but which modern men of science can only regard as a monument of unwisdom and recklessness.¹¹⁰³

Toward the end of his life, say during the last two decades, Plato began the writing of a trilogy — Timaios, Critias, and Hermocrates. He finished the Timaios, but interrupted Critias abruptly (in the middle of a sentence) and did not even begin the third piece. The whole was to be a story of the world, from prehistoric times to the dawn of the future. The two last parts were political, and as his notes accumulated he probably realized that the original frame was too narrow. He then abandoned it and started the composition of the Laws, his last and longest work. It is clear that if one begins to legislate for the future, and wants to do it with sufficient detail, the composition must increase enormously, far beyond the scope of the original dialogues.

The Timaios is so called after the main speaker, Timaios of Locris, who cannot be identified with any actual person, and who was perhaps a poetic creation.¹¹⁰⁴ It is the cosmologic basis of the trilogy. The argument may be divided into three parts (the numbers in parentheses indicate their relative lengths) : (i) Introduction (8) including the myth of Atlantis as told by Solon, the wisest of the Seven Wise Men; ¹¹⁰⁵ (ii) cosmology proper (42), the making of the soul of the world, theory of the elements, theory of matter and of sense objects; (iii) physiology, normal and pathologic (23), the making of man’s soul and body. The second part is the main one, much longer than the two others combined. It discusses the essence of physics, being and becoming, model and copy (the visible world is only a likeness of the real world); the creation, the body of the world and its soul, the cooperation of reason and necessity; and so on. A fuller analysis would take considerable space and would only serve to sidetrack the reader.

The ideal city described in the Republic is supposed to have really existed in the remote past, in prehistoric Athens. The purpose of Timaios, however, is to link the ideal Republic with the organization of the whole universe; the Republic is only the political aspect of the universe; human morality is only a reflection of cosmic intelligence.

The world artificer (d miurgos) is not a creator but, like the nus of Anaxagoras, an ordinator. Let us call him the divine reason; the ordered world is divine itself to the extent of its reasonableness. The distinction between matter and mind is not quite clear, for both can be expressed in terms of the universal intelligence. There is another form of dualism in the Timaios, however, the distinction between the greater world (macrocosmos) and the smaller one (microcosmos). That distinction had already been made by Democritos (p. 251), but Plato developed it considerably.

The universe is like a single living body, the rationality of which is evidenced by the regularity of astral motions. The soul of the universe is comparable to the soul of man; both are divine and immortal.

The planets and stars are the most sublime representations of the Ideas; one might call them gods. Astronomy is the basic knowledge for wisdom, health, and happiness. The divine mathematics represented by the movements of the stars can be traced also in music and in the theory of numbers. When men die, their souls return to their native stars.¹¹⁰⁶

The astrologic nonsense that has done so much harm in the Western world and is still poisoning weak-minded people today was derived from the Timaios, and Plato’s astrology was itself an offshoot of the Babylonian one. In justice to Plato it must be added that his own astrology remained serene and spiritual and did not degenerate into petty fortunetelling. To his contemplative mind the planets are like perfect clocks which reveal the march of time, the rhythms of the universal soul.

On account of the number of planets these rhythms are very complex, but given a certain grouping of them, after a certain interval of time the same grouping will recur. That interval is the Great Year,¹¹⁰⁷ measured by the perfect number (36,000 years, 760,000 years?).

The poetic analogy between the little world and the big world (microcosm and macrocosm), between our body and the universal body, can be carried very far.¹¹⁰⁸ It guided Plato’s thought and, largely because of him, dominated the minds of many medieval thinkers, and even of such a “modern” man as Leonardo da Vinci. The particular aspect of that analogy which interested Plato most was of course this one: the perfect city of his dreams is an image of the divine city. Timaios is a cosmologic justification of the Republic.

The cosmos is made up of four elements: earth, water, air, fire, of which the second and third are mean proportionals between the first and the last.¹¹⁰⁹ These elements are solid bodies, however, can be resolved into geometric parts, and are related to four regular solids.¹¹¹⁰

Plato met Philistion of Locroi (see p. 334) in Syracuse and may have been influenced by him, or he might have been influenced if he had been less impervious to experimental science. Philistion was not simply a theorist, following Empedocles; he was a distinguished anatomist, who had made dissections and even vivisections. He considered the heart as the main regulator of life, and his observations of the living heart were very keen. He discovered that the ventricles die before the auricles (we know indeed that the right auricle is the last part of the heart to die, ultimum moriens) and that the sigmoid (or semilunar) valve of the pulmonary artery is weaker than the sigmoid valve of the aorta (quite so, for the pressure in the pulmonary circulation is but one-third of the pressure in the systemic circulation). Philistion’s observations are astounding, for they imply a certain ameunt of experimentation, but our ascription of them to him is based on the assumption that he was the author of the Hippocratic treatise on the heart.¹¹¹¹

The circulation of food and blood in the body is like the circulation of water in the earth ¹¹¹² or “like that movement of all things in the universe which carries each thing toward its own kind.”¹¹¹³

Plato recognized three groups of diseases. The first group was caused by alterations of the four elements; the second by the corruption of humors derived from those elements; the third by pneuma, phlegm, and bile.¹¹¹⁴ Now, the third group suggests comparison with the tridosa in yurveda.The ideas of Plato and of the Hindu physicians being equally vague, such a comparison leads nowhere.¹¹¹⁵

The lost island, Atlantis,¹¹¹⁶ which was somewhere west of Gibraltar, has caused considerable speculation of a peculiarly irrational kind. For example, when the hypsometry of the Atlantic Ocean was better known and geologists began to formulate the hypothesis of lost islands or continents on a solid basis of observations, it was suggested that Plato had anticipated their discovery! Many geologists have wasted their time in trying to give some appearance of reality to Plato’s dream.

Such aberrations have been carried to the limit by a Polish logician, Wincenty Lutoslawski, in his remarkable book on the Origin and growth of Plato’s logic.¹¹¹⁷ Lutoslawski found in Plato’s writings anticipations of spermatozoa ¹¹¹⁸ and of the true constitution of water, three atoms, two of one gas, and one of another.¹¹¹⁹ Risum teneatis? This shows to what extent the cult of Plato can go. For if Plato could have anticipated Leeuwenhoek and Lavoisier without instruments he would have been not a man of science but a magician or wonderworker. Lutoslawski reminds me of the people who read scientific anticipations in the Bible or the Qur’ n; at any rate, there is more logic in their efforts than in his, for if those sacred books were directly inspired by God, well, God knows the future. To make the same claim for Plato without asserting his divinity involves fundamental contradictions.

If one of our own contemporaries, a well-trained and distinguished philosopher like Lutoslawski, is able to read such things in Timaios, we should not be surprised by the fantastic interpretations of ancient and medieval scholars. Thanks to the prodigious fame of the divine Plato, hisTimaios was taken not as a poetical fancy, but as a kind of cosmologic gospel. Its very obscurity allured many people; it may have been partly deliberate, but it was largely due to the confusion existing in Plato’s own thoughts; it is the kind of obscurity that one calls oracular and that weak-minded people take for a proof of divinity and certainty. The skeptical philosopher and poet Timon of Phlius¹¹²⁰ coined a new verb, timaiographein, to mean writing in the oracular style of Timaios, to vaticinate. Julian the Apostate (IV–2) opposed the Timaios to Genesis, and Proclos (V–2), one of the last directors of the Academy, would have liked to destroy all the books except Timaios and the Chaldean Oracles.¹¹²¹

The influence of Timaios upon later times was enormous and essentially evil. A large portion of Timaios had been translated into Latin by Chalcidius (IV–1), and that translation remained for over eight centuries the only Platonic text known to the Latin West.¹¹²²Yet the fame of Plato had reached them, and thus the Latin Timaios became a kind of Platonic evangel which many scholars were ready to interpret literally.¹¹²³ The scientific perversities of Timaios were mistaken for scientific truth. I cannot mention any other work whose influence was more mischievous, except perhaps the Revelation of St. John the Divine. The apocalypse, however, was accepted as a religious book, the Timaios as a scientific one; errors and superstitions are never more dangerous than when they are offered to us under the cloak of science.


We read in Laws¹¹²⁴ that “among men all things depend upon three wants and desires, of which the end is virtue, if they are rightly led by them, or the opposite if wrongly.” These three desires are hunger and thirst, which begin at birth, and sexual lust, which sets in later. In Timaios¹¹²⁵ Plato states that “since human nature is two-fold, the superior sex is that which hereafter should be designated man.”

At the very end of the same book he introduced a fantastic theory of sex. His embryology appears in a kind of appendix and sex itself as a kind of afterthought of creation, a disturbing factor:

Wherefore in men the nature of the genital organs is disobedient and self-willed, like a creature that is deaf to reason, and it attempts to dominate all because of its frenzied lusts. And in women again, owing to the same causes, whenever the matrix or womb, as it is called, — which is an indwelling creature desirous of childbearing, — remains without fruit long beyond the due season, it is vexed and takes it ill; and by straying all ways through the body and blocking up the passages of the breath and preventing respiration it casts the body into the uttermost distress, and causes, moreover, all kinds of maladies; until the desire and love of the two sexes unite them.¹¹²⁶

In another part of the same work, after having referred to the sexual passions he says,

And if they shall master these they will live justly, but if they are mastered, unjustly. And he that has lived his appointed time well shall return again to his abode in his native star, and shall gain a life that is blessed and congenial; but whoso has failed therein shall be changed into woman’s nature at the second birth; and if, in that shape, he still refraineth not from wickedness he shall be changed every time, according to the nature of his wickedness, into some bestial form after the similitude of his own nature; nor in his changings shall he cease from woes until he yields himself to the revolution of the Same and Similar that is within him, and dominating by force of reason that burdensome mass which afterwards adhered to him of fire and water and earth and air, a mass tumultuous and irrational, returns again to the semblance of his first and best state.¹¹²⁷

In the speech of Diotima in Symposium, it is explained that sexual desire is the lowest form of our passion for immortality. Plato realized the need of marriage and the begetting of children. In the perfect Republic the sexual relations of the best people would be reserved for certain solemn occasions, and regulated according to demographic needs. Plato does not seem to have realized that married love involved a peculiarly intimate relation between two persons, required much kindness and sweetness from both of them, and if fortunate brought great rewards. He thought of short marriages somewhat in the mood of a stockbreeder. It does not seem to have occurred to him that marriage is not simply a matter of sexual convenience and eugenics, but is a relation between persons, a communion of hearts; that for the development of rich personalities and harmonious couples it is the long marriages that count, the longer the better; and that happy and enduring unions are the greatest blessings of life.

How is it that the idealist Plato did not think of such matters? The reason is simply that whenever he idealized sexual desires — and he did so frequently, whenever he thought of a struggle between the spirit and the flesh, whenever he took a romantic view of love, his background was not heterosexual but homosexual. “Platonic love” has for us two meanings; the first is an urge to union with the beautiful and contemplation of the ideal (as expressed by Diotima), the second is a spiritual friendship without sexual desire. When we think of Platonic love in the second sense, we think of spiritual friendship between a man and a woman; Plato, however, thought of a spiritual friendship between a man and a boy. Platonic love for him was the sublimation of pederasty; true love is called in Symposium ¹¹²⁸ the right method of boy loving (to orth s paiderastein).

Plato was not necessarily a pederast in the physical sense, but he was almost certainly homosexual. He never married, and though he speaks occasionally of sexual relations between men and women he does so without emotion; his tender feelings were reserved for homosexual relations. He was somewhat of a woman hater. That is revealed to us many times in his writings. Compare, for example, Xenophon’s gentle account of Xanthippe in the Memorabilia¹¹²⁹ with Plato’s brutal one in Phaidon. Xenophon spoke like a paterfamilias, Plato described the scene like the misogynist he was.¹¹³⁰ How could one believe that Plato, gentle and gracious as he could be in other respects, would have sacrificed women and the sanctity of marriage as he did in the Republic? It was relatively easy, however, for a homosexual to accept the community of wives and children.

In fairness to Plato it must be added that in his last work, the Laws, pederasty was condemned.¹¹³¹ It may be argued also in his defense that the practice of pederasty was fairly common in Athens and even more so in the countries that he admired so much, Crete and Lacedaimon. According to him, the story of Zeus and Ganymedes,¹¹³² which was the divine exemplar of pederasty, had been invented in Crete. It is probable that pederasty was more common in Athens among the aristocrats, the idle rich, and the sophisticated than among the simpler people, and in any case, heterosexuality must have been the rule, not the exception, otherwise the race would have perished. The Greeks honored marriage and wanted children even as we do, and perhaps even more, because male descendants were needed to continue the domestic cult and to perform religious rites when their father died. The atmosphere of Plato’s writings is homosexual, but the same is not true of other Greek writers of his time, such as Xenophon. We must assume that the average normal man in Greece, as in our own day, was inclined to love women and to beget children.

It was necessary to clarify these matters, though they have no immediate bearing on the history of science, because we should be able to appreciate Plato’s personality and to measure the hypocrisy of his commentators. Most of them have preferred to draw a veil over Plato’s homosexuality, as they did over his integral communism. English translators found it easy to disguise homosexual references, for an adjective like “beloved” may refer to a woman as well as to a man, while the Greeks used a masculine participle leaving no room for ambiguity. The translators may try to justify their prudishness by the need of reverence for youth. It would be better, however, to avoid a text than to misinterpret it deliberately; there is no excuse for lies, and the lies used to illustrate a false idealism are of all lies the worst ones.

See David Moore Robinson and Edward James Fluck, Study of the Greek love names including a discussion of paederasty (210 pp.; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1937); Warner Fite, The Platonic legend (New York: Scribner, 1934). Hans Kelsen, “Platonic love,” The American Imago 3, 110 pp. (Boston, 1942).


Plato was a poet and a metaphysician, a craftsman who used wonderfully well a literary instrument of almost unbelievable exquisiteness, the Greek prose of the golden age. His scientific activities will be discussed in the next chapter, but we may remark here that he was not a man of science; he was a cosmologist, a metaphysician, a seer. The history of Platonism is the history of a long series of ambiguities, misunderstandings, prevarications.

Our own discussion of his political and sexual fancies might seem out of place in a book devoted to the history of science; yet the subterfuges and evasions of commentators concerning his aberrations deserve to arrest our attention. There is nothing comparable to it in world literature, except perhaps the general blindness to some obscene verses of the Old Testament. It seemed as if the divine Plato could do no wrong, and one could not suspect him without becoming oneself an object of suspicion and a stumbling block. The story of Averroism is also a sequence of misunderstandings, but of a very different kind. While Plato was generally praised to the skies, and his faults hidden or glossed over, Ibn Rushd was painted blacker than he was. The two cases had this in common, however, that the judgment of scholars was governed and colored by the popular verdict. That verdict was generally in favor of Plato, while Averroes was condemned; or, to put it more clearly, it had become a matter of good breeding and good usage to pay homage to Plato, while if one spoke at all of Averroes, it was to blame him. A gentleman was naturally a Platonist, while every Averroist was somewhat of a radical and troublemaker.

Such uncritical praise implied hypocrisy and falseness. One cannot extol a man for his divine wisdom, and yet condone his nonsense; that is not honest.

The matter is not so bad as it looks if one bears in mind that the Platonic legend is largely due to literary prejudice. The language of Plato was so beautiful and so difficult to understand that the contents were overlooked, beauty was mistaken for justice, and obscurity for depth. Plato ended by occupying in Greek culture a place almost as high as Homer, and like the latter he dominated Greek education.

This was the supreme misunderstanding. He was not interested in individuality or personality, and hence we cannot call him a true humanist, and yet the humanists of Byzantion and of Florence considered him their master. They were so sure of that and so anxious to protect their faith that they always refused to read in his writings the obvious proofs of his lack of humanism.

Plato had a right to his own opinions, and we should not blame him for having expressed them, but the commentators who glossed over everything that was objectionable in his thoughts deserve to be castigated. Their attitude is very puzzling. That schoolmasters entrusted with the education of the future rulers of their country should be pleased with Plato’s aristocratic assumptions, and even with his totalitarian methods, we can understand; but how could they be blind to his ideas on communism and catamiting, to his lack of respect and tenderness for women, and other things that were completely at variance with their own predilections? How could Plato get away with murder? ¹¹³³

Plato was a great poet and had glimpses of wisdom, but he was not always a safe guide, and in many cases he was very unsafe and would have led us to the abyss. Happily, the men who praised him so much did not follow him. It would have been best, perhaps, to deal with him as he did with Homer — to crown him with flowers and drive him out of the city. No, that would not do at all; we should not imitate his worst manners. He should be allowed to remain and to have his say. Let him stay and let us see him and show him to others as he was — sometimes great, and sometimes not.

Theologians and philosophers may gloss over his aberrations, but for men of science that is the unpardonable sin. A paideia based on lies is bad, and the better it looks on the surface the more seductive it is, and the more pernicious.

The cult of Plato being part and parcel of Western humanities, it required considerable courage to criticize him. One of the first to do so was Charles Crawford, in his dissertation on the Phaido (London, 1773); Crawford was a young rebel of Queen’s in Cambridge and his book is marred by petulance and verbosity (Fig. 82). We must pay tribute to George Grote (1794–1871), who wrote a large work on Plato and the other companions of Sokrates,¹¹³⁴ intended as a sequel and supplement to his History of Greece;Grote admired Plato but was not afraid of criticizing him.

More recent books revealing Plato as he was, by quoting his own words, have already been mentioned, the most important being those of Fite (1934), Farrington (1940) and Popper (1945).

Warner Fite (1867— ) was professor of ethics in Princeton University. In a long letter which he did me the honor of writing to me (dated Hopewell, N. J., 1 July 1944) he gave me an outline of the criticism to which his book The Platonic legend had been subjected. Some of the critics condemned the book for maligning Plato, others for saying irreverently what everyone knew to be true (but what no one, except Grote, had said in print). At the end of his letter he observed: “If I were rewriting the Legend I should try to make some changes in the emphasis. After all the ‘animus’ was not so much directed against Plato as against his interpreters. And after chapter viii, but especially in ix to xi, I was rather more interested in developing the picture of a scientific theorist than in negative criticism. But at seventy-seven and nine years emeritus, I have to leave it as it stands.”

The same remark applies to this chapter, the purpose of which was to destroy the false image of Plato that many generations of adulators have created. Amicus quidem Plato sed magis amica veritas.¹¹³⁵

Fig. 82. A curiosity of English literature. The first attack on Platonic philosophy, by Charles Crawford, 1773. [From the copy in the Harvard College Library.]


Until the middle of the twelfth century the learned people of the West knew only the Timaios out of all the books of Plato, and therefore Plato to them was simply or chiefly the author of the Timaios. It is worth while to retrace briefly the tradition of that fateful book.

The Timaios had been also one of the first books to attract the attention of commentators. The first Platonic commentary was devoted to it by Crantor of Soli (Cilicia, fl. c. 300 B.C.), and extracts from it have been preserved by Plutarch and Proclos. Other Greek commentaries on theTimaios were composed by Posidonios of Apamea (I—1 B.C.), Adrastos of Aphrodisias (Caria, II—1) Galen (II—2),¹¹³⁶ Proclos of Byzantion (V–2), and the latter’s pupil, Asclepiodotos of Alexandria (V–2). The Neoplatonic philosophers were acquainted with it. So much for the Greek tradition.

The Latin one began with Chalcidius (IV–1), who translated the Timaios into Latin down to the middle of 53 c. The next Platonic dialogues to be Latinized were Menon and Phaidon, and that was not done until c. 1156. The main events in that tradition are represented by the names of John Scot Erigena (IX—2), William of Conches (XII–1), Bernard Silvester (XII–1), Albert the Great (XIII–2), William of Moerbeke (XIII–2) and St. Thomas Aquinas (XIII–2). I find nothing in the fourteenth century except that the dialogue composed by Jean Bonnet (XIV—1) of Paris, Les secrets aux philosophes, is probably a reflection of the Timaios; the two interlocutors are called Placides and Timeo. I dealt with it in the part of my Introduction devoted to the first half of the fourteenth century, but it may have been written at the end of the thirteenth; it is certainly prior to 1304. The Latin tradition of the Timaios is not always easy to disentangle from Neoplatonic traditions.

The Arabic tradition overlaps the Latin, even as the Latin overlapped the Greek. It begins with Ya y ibn Batriq (IX–1) who translated the Timaios into Arabic; another translation is said to have been made by unain ibn Is q (IX–2); the translation (whichever it was) was corrected by Ya y ibn ‘Ali (X—1).

The ascription of a translation to unain ibn Is q may be due to a misunderstanding. unain did translate into Syriac, and also partly into Arabic, Galen’s commentary on the medical section of the Timaios. unain’s Arabic translation was completed by his nephew Hubaish ibn al- asan (IX—2).¹¹³⁷ This translation was probably the source of another error committed by al-Mas‘ d (X–1) in his Kit b al-tanb h, where he ascribed to Plato a medical Timaios distinct from the Timaios itself. We may safely assume that that medical Timaios is simply the medical part of the Timaios, which had been distinguished and separated from the rest in Galen’s commentary translated by unain.¹¹³⁸

Irrespective of the Arabic translation of the Timaios,¹¹³⁹ the essence of it was known to Arabic philosophers through the Theology of Aristotle (V–2) and other Neoplatonic writings. That tradition was rather confused, the views of Plato being mixed with those of Plotinos and others.

unain ibn Is q wrote a treatise entitled “That which ought to be read before Plato’s works.”¹¹⁴⁰ This title suggests the one used by Theon of Smyrna (II–1), but Theon’s introduction to Plato was restricted to mathematics.

Brief as it is, this outline is sufficient to illustrate the vicissitudes of Platonic traditions before the printing of the Greek and Latin editions.

The study of the other Platonic works would lead to similar conclusions. For example, the Republic was commented upon in Greek by Proclos (V—2); it was translated into Arabic by unain ibn Is q (IX–2) and commented upon in that language by Ibn Rushd (XII–2) and in Hebrew by Samuel ben Judah of Marseille (XIV–1) and by Joseph Kaspi (XIV–1). The Greek text was Latinized by Manuel Chrysoloras (XIV–2), and Gemistos Plethon (c. 1356–1450) must have spoken of it when he explained to the Florentine scholars the difference between Plato and Aristotle.

The medieval tradition of Plato (in Greek, Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew) is extremely complex, and each work introduces a few novelties and new names.

Plato’s prestige had grown by leaps and bounds, first during the Byzantine renaissance of the ninth and tenth centuries, then under the patronage of the School of Chartres (XI, XII–1), finally under that of the Platonic Academy of Florence. The prestige of the Timaios grew in proportion, and many scholars were deceived into accepting the fantasies of that book as gospel truths. That delusion hindered the progress of science; and the Timaios has remained to this day a source of obscurity and superstition.

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