The purpose of this essay is to encourage an expanded
study of the works of Plato from an artistic point of view and in so doing to
bask in the glow of his creativity, wisdom, and knowledge. Students may,
thereby, discover that philosophy professors are not expressing their personal
opinions but are teaching and examining fundamental ideas originated, over two
millennia past, by Plato and others before him and recorded in his dialogues.
Such ideas are a repository of the perennial issues, philosophical and social, with
which philosophy is concerned. That is not to say that there are not serious
questions to be raised about some of these concepts. Nevertheless, it is true
that many of the thoughts expressed by philosophers, since Plato, have their
origins in his works. And though it is important to be concerned with the truth-value of the ideas, Plato deserves to be recognized and appreciated, also, as an
Plato, to use a weak analogy, applied the method of "trial and error," prodding and questioning. He has Socrates questioning Simmias about the senses as related to the attainment of knowledge.
What again shall we say of the actual acquirement of knowledge? -- is the body, if invited to share in the enquiry, a hinderer or a helper? I mean to say, have sight and hearing any truth in them? Are they not, as the poets are always telling us, inaccurate and indistinct, what is to be said of the other senses? -- for you will allow that they are the best of them? (Phaedo, 65)
In essence, the final result of this technique was to
present differences of opinions and ideas while at the same time offering his
philosophical convictions. It is no easy task to distinguish the former from the
latter. In total, however, one should come away from a study of Plato not with
final answers but with a continued wonder and some doubt as to what extent
clarity and knowledge was achieved and above all else an exhilarating sense of
the beauty and artistry and poetic depth of his use of the dialectical technique
which he acquired under the tutelage of Socrates with the admonishment that
"the unexamined life is not worth living."
My former teacher, of Philosophy of Art, Professor Irwin Edman, at Columbia University, described the works of Plato not as:
a set of formulas, but the whole repertory of human idealism and aspiration. He remains not the teacher of a system, but the dramatist of the soul, of the soul eternally asking itself questions about the mystery of itself and its world, eternally piercing beyond the mists of time to the clearer sunlight of eternity.
Such poetic language does justice to Plato as an
artist and to the aesthetic character of his dialogues. His legacy is the wonder
and excitement that great art stimulates in us and is a supreme contribution to
Plato, imbued his art with reason characterized by his epoch, his culture, and, of course, his convictions. Always, however, even though he spoke of the existence of absolutes, he was aware of the non-absoluteness of his ideas, despite the fact that he had no doubt of the truth of his teachings. This is amply demonstrated by his use of the dialectical method throughout his dialogues.
I do not consider myself a Platonist and certainly not a metaphysician even though I accept many of this great philosopher's ideas especially those related to the use of language and meanings we attribute to words wherein he portrays Socrates as the greatest nitpicker of all time. But I am very much, in spirit, a believer in his thesis that beauty and justice, as hazy as those terms may be, are inseparable as compared with what passes for "in-the-eyes-of-the-beholder beauty and art" in their various evolutionary stages.
Having said that, though I have grave reservations about the ontology of Plato's universals to which he was led by way of abstract reasoning, they are, aesthetically, a source of great interest and value. Though in the cautionary caveat of the eminent scientist, Stephen Jay Gould, "We still carry the historical baggage of a Platonic heritage that seeks sharp essences and definite boundaries," we must heed John Dewey's admonishment that ideas function as instruments for instilling wonder and the sense of "beauty" that resides in reason.
The absence of final answers is a necessary condition in the pursuit of truth and knowledge. And even though Plato often referred to absolutes, his artistic method forecloses any possibility of arriving at them. Plato was, after all, a master in the advancement of abstract ideas seated in his conviction that universals exist despite his admission of difficulty in making a credible relationship between his universals and particulars.
Though much of Plato's works is metaphysical, his method in the pursuit of "knowledge" and "The Good Life" are aesthetic, not mystical, goals.
When I refer to his method and attitude, I am not speaking of his philosophy of art in the general sense of the word, even though this may be evident in some of his dialogues. Rather, I am concerned with his applied artistic method of reasoning which is abundantly evident in all his works including the so-called non-dramatic dialogues.
In the following examples, notice the poetic use of language, even a subtle sense of rhythm, as Socrates reasons his way through an argument by use of metaphors and the dialectical method.
Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region, and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason. [My italics.] (Republic, Book III, 401)
Reiterating his thesis that artists are imitators, Plato has Socrates speaking to Glaucon:
But will the imitator have either? Will he know from use whether or no his drawing is correct or beautiful? or will he have right opinion from being compelled to associate with another who knows and gives him instructions about what he should draw? [Glaucon replies, "Neither."] Then he will no more have true opinion than he will have knowledge about the goodness or badness of his imitations? [Glauon replies, "I suppose not."] (Republic, Book X, 602)
Pursuing his method of examining an issue in different dialogues with different "cast" members, Plato has a stranger speaking to Theaetetus:
in works either of sculpture or of painting, which are of any magnitude, there is a certain degree of deception; for if artists were to give the true proportions of their fair works, the upper part, which is farther off, would appear to be out of proportion in comparison with the lower, which is nearer; and so they give up the truth in their images and make only the proportions which appear to be beautiful, disregarding the real ones. [Theaetetus replies, "Quite true."] (Sophist, 236)
To add a note of clarity to Plato's method, Greece produced great painters and sculptors; throughout his works, however, only passingly does he mention them:
Pheidias, who created such noble works, or any ten other statuaries (Meno, 91); Zeuxippus, the painter, (Protagoras, 318); Zeuxis, another painter. (Gorgias, 453)
Some gleam of his attitude toward art can be surmised
in that he makes no mention of their masterpieces. Moreover he offers no study
or analysis of art as we conceive it today other than to speak of it as
Art, for Plato, is not to be judged by standard rules of criticism, but, rather, by a subtle influence of "purity," "simplicity," "grace," " harmony," and "beauty," which, he is convinced, pervades all things, animate and inanimate.
Plato would impose these conditions on all the creative arts. He dislikes the "illusions" and the false proportions of "painting and sculpture." These techniques are but imitations. They are "images of the images of the real" and painters, poets, sculptors and all such artists are imitators of reality. (Sophist, 235)
The imitator or maker of the image knows nothing of true existence; he knows appearances only. (Republic, Book X, 601)
And the tragic poet is an imitator, and therefore, like all other imitators, he is thrice removed . . . from the truth. (Republic, 597)
Art, in other words is the exercise of grace and
beauty, etc., enabling true ideals to be instilled in the mind, such as,
for instance, reasoning ability.
A true artist, therefore, is one who is inspired by love of the good and this is all he should imitate. Plato (i.e., Socrates), in this sense, is only second removed from the real in showing us the good life. (Republic, 401)
Hence, Plato's artistic method and attitude embody training and education as required elements in preparation for living the good life. He uses the Phaedrus as the vehicle for expressing this belief. The process that he develops in his dialogues, is that which is to be followed in pursuing the art of rhetoric; and it cannot be followed unless one is primarily interested in perfecting one's soul.
before it inhabited a human form. The conclusion Plato draws is that one cannot be a rhetorician without being a philosopher pursuing knowledge for its own sake.
For a man must have intelligence of universals, and be able to proceed from the many particulars of sense to one conception of reason; -- this is the recollection of those things which our soul once saw (Phaedrus, 249)
Justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger. (Republic, 338)
Socrates refutes him in a three-fold manner, 1) dialectically, 2) dramatically, leaving him shorn of speech and power, a picture of dejection and rejection. Thrasymachus, weakly accepts Socrates' argument even though Socrates readily admits,
and 3), Plato, needing minds capable of understanding the subject matter, replaces Thrasymachus with Glaucon and Adeimantus.
so have I gone from one subject to another without having discovered what I sought at first, the nature of Justice; (Republic, 354)
He said -- If, for example, there were any who had been the cause of many deaths, or had betrayed or enslaved cites or armies, or been guilty of any other evil behaviour, for each and all of their offences they received punishment ten times over, and the rewards of beneficence and justice and holiness were in the same proportion. (Republic, 614)
Likewise, Plato supplements the divided line between the intelligible world and knowledge and the visual world and opinion, through the "allegory of the cave." He has Socrates saying to Glaucon, referring to the chained prisoners,
To them -- the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images. (Republic, Book X, 514)
In the Phaedrus, we find the
charioteer with his two steeds symbolizing the soul, its nature, and its
pre-natal visions. It is often Plato's technique to follow up a myth with an
argument. As in the case of the Phaedrus, the immortality of the soul, in the
myth, later finds itself presented in the ideas planted for those who follow
It is a clever device of Plato's to treat the same subject matter in different dialogues through different minds and personalities. In this way, he achieves a multitude of points of view showing that the same subject matters can give rise to many different problems.
By giving these two different treatments of love of the beautiful, Plato contributes immensely to the causes that will induce others to follow the life of reason. In the Phaedrus, for instance, Plato shows that he wants his words to be instruments for the stimulation of thought. He is the artist at work utilizing his artistic attitude -- which surely insures his immortality.
Plato never for a moment lets his dialogues or his characters, i.e., ideas, take command of him as occasionally occurs in literary works. No matter where the path of his deliberate digression may lead, he makes them converge on the central point, whether it be the definition of a word, justice, virtue, knowledge, etc., the sympathetic portrayal of a prominent personage and his views, or the final vision, the good, of an artistic experience. This is exemplified in Book IX of the Republic. After having run the gamut of the tri-part soul, the divided line, the primitive state, the modern state, etc., Plato shows us one of the conclusions he has been striving for, i.e., the attempt to arrive at who is the happier, the just or the unjust man.
Of extreme importance is the fact that in all his dialogues, Plato's emphasis is an exhortation to live the good life, and it turns out, for him, that the absolute good is knowledge of the good which itself is an artistic experience or vision, not mystical as often suggested. But such a vision is impossible; Plato hastens to make clear, unless his program of education is rigidly adhered to. And, it is in his program of education that Plato's artistic attitude toward living and experience is embodied; for the good life is a human achievement just as good human beings are works of art. But the Philosopher kings are the sole individuals capable of knowing the good. Hence, they must be constantly aware of it ever ready to
. . . stamp upon the plastic matter of human nature in public and private, the patterns they see there.
For, as Socrates says to Adeimantus, appealing to the poetry of metaphysics, even
God, if he be good, is not the author of all things, as the many assert, but he is the cause of a few things only, and not most things that occur to men. For few are the goods of human life, and many are the evils, and the good is to be attributed to God alone; of the evils the causes are to be sought elsewhere, and not in him. (Republic, II, 379)
It is interesting to note that even Plato's non-dramatic
dialogues embody much of his artistic attitude, though in respect of their form,
the dialogue may be superficial. However in his dialogue, Laws, Plato
seems to have "awakened" to the "reality" of the "world
By the time Plato wrote this dialogue, Laws, he was a much older and experienced man. He'd seen much more of the world. He saw that there wasn't much chance of changing it into his Republic, utopia. Hence, the next thing was to control it.
Plato's Laws, loses much of the artistic flavor manifested so intensely in his other works. In it, man's inhibitions and failings are now to be treated as real and alterable factors in any State to be formed. The good is the laws of the State; these laws are divine and embody reason. They are the best possible laws, and the task of the legislator, is to persuade the people to obey the laws. The means of persuasion constitute an educative art, such as employment of praise or blame, or fear of disgrace in pursuit of pleasure. Education still plays a vitally important role in the artistic achievement, i.e., the good life.
It is through the development and control of various aspects of life that the best possible way to cope with man's "failings" is that they first be discovered.
Education is the method by which this is to be accomplished. Thus, in the Laws, the legislator persuades the citizens by controlling their emotions through education as opposed to the Republic in which the emotions of the citizens were not so stimulated.
At any rate, even in Laws, Plato is still exhorting the good life that is, still for him, the greatest artistic endeavor. For the good man, who obeys the laws best, is the greatest artistic achievement.