Ancient History & Civilisation

2. The Artist

Plato himself professed never to have written any technical treatises,70 and Aristotle refers to the teaching in the Academy as Plato’s “unwritten doctrine.”71 How far this differed from the teaching of the Dialogues we do not know.* Probably these were undertaken originally as a recreation, and in a half-humorous vein.72 It is one of the playful ironies of history that the philosophical works most reverenced and studied in European and American universities today were composed in an attempt to make philosophy intelligible to the layman by binding it up with a human personality. It was not the first time that philosophical dialogues had been written; Zeno of Elea and several others had used this method,73 and Simon of Athens, a leather cutter, had published, in dialogue, a report of the Socratic conversations held in his shop.74 It was in Plato a literary, not an historical, form; he did not pretend to give accurate accounts of conversations held thirty or fifty years before, nor even to keep his references consistent. Gorgias, as well as Socrates, was astounded to hear the words that the young dramatist-philosopher had put into his mouth.75 The Dialogues were written independently of one another, and perhaps at long intervals; we must not be shocked by slips of memory, much less by changes of view. There is no design unifying the whole, except as the continuing search of a visibly developing mind for a truth which it never finds.

The Dialogues are cleverly and yet poorly constructed. They vivify the drama of ideas, and build up a coherent and affectionate portrait of Socrates; but they seldom achieve unity or continuity, they often wander from subject to subject, and they are frequently cast into a clumsily indirect mood by being presented as narrative reports, by one man, of other men’s conversations. Socrates tells us that he has “a wretched memory,”77 and then recites to a friend, verbatim, fifty-four pages of a discussion which he had carried on in his youth with Protagoras. Most of the Dialogues are weakened by the absence of vigorous interlocutors capable of saying to Socrates something other than “yes” or its equivalent. But these faults are lost in the clear brilliance of the language, the humor of situation, expression, and idea, the living world of varied characters humanly realized, and the frequent opening of windows into a profound and noble mind. We may judge the value that the ancients unconsciously put upon these Dialogues when we consider that they are the most complete product that has come down to us from any Greek author. Their form entitles them to as high a place in the annals of literature as their content has given them in the history of thought.

The earlier Dialogues are excellent examples of the youthful “eristic” condemned in the passage quoted a while back, but they are redeemed by the charming pictures they give of Athenian youth. The Symposium is the masterpiece of its genre, and the best introduction to Plato; its dramaticmise en scene (“Imagine,” says Agathon to his servants, “that you are our hosts, and that I and the company are your guests”78), its living picture of Aristophanes, “hiccoughing because he had eaten too much,” its lively episode of the drunken and scandalous Alcibiades, above all, its subtle combination of merciless realism in the portrayal of Socrates with the loftiest idealism in his conception of love—these qualities make the Symposium one of the peaks in the history of prose. ThePhaedo is more subdued, and more beautiful; here the main argument, however weak, is honest, and gives its opponents a fair chance; the style flows more smoothly over a scene whose noble calm overcomes its tragedy, making the death of Socrates come as quietly as the turn of a river out of sight around a bend. Part of the dialogue of the Phaedrus takes place on the banks of the Ilissus, while Socrates and his pupil are cooling their feet in the stream. Greatest of all dialogues, of course, is the Republic, being the fullest exposition of Plato’s philosophy, and in its earlier parts a dramatic conflict of personalities and ideas. The Parmenides is the worst specimen of empty logic-chopping in all literature, and the bravest example in the history of philosophy of a thinker irrefutably refuting his own most beloved doctrine—the theory of Ideas. Then, in the later Dialogues, the artistry of Plato wanes, Socrates fades from the picture, metaphysics loses its poetry, politics its youthful ideals; until, in the Laws, the weary inheritor of all the culture of many-sided Athens surrenders to the lure of Sparta, and gives up freedom, and poetry, and art, and philosophy itself.

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