My annoyance at public intellectuals misunderstanding Plato overcame me and I isolated three common errors for The Idler Magazine, as below.
1. Plato invented secular philosophy.
The first story being told is of a crucial shift in human thought that crystalized in fifth century BC Athens. Before then, in the time of Homer and Hesiod, ancient Greeks had resorted to myths to guide them through the world. Now though, with the pre-Socratic philosophers and Plato in particular, a new generation of Greeks developed the capacity to think about the world without referencing their multiple divinities.
Instead they turned to cool, godless reason. Logic helped them derive arguments about what’s true. No longer need things be believed because deities said so. Instead, humanity began to build knowledge on the basis of proofs.
This is wrong. It’s right that the philosophers deployed new methods to investigate how to live, the nature of the cosmos, the way to rule cities. Those methods included reason and empirical investigation. But it was also a standard assumption amongst the ancients that true knowledge was true because it reflected divine knowledge. Reason and experience are gifts by which we can participate in divine life. Knowing came to be understood as a receptive capacity that reason serves by discerning. Nature came to be experienced as showing itself to us, if we attend to it aright.
Hence Thales, often called the father of philosophy, could exclaim, “All things are full of gods.” This is what his wondrous investigations revealed. For Plato, reason was a tool that could lead to divine insight, but if and only if accompanied by myths, reverent invocations, and the hard work of personal transformation.
This is a very good way of doing philosophy, which after all is the desire for a wisdom that often seems beyond human reach. And it has very little to do with contemporary secular philosophy that often seems stranded on a desert island of soulless logic. Plato might, in fact, help restore it to life.
2. Plato opposed the spirit to the body.
The second story is that Plato held the body to be a prison for the soul that, with luck, the soul could flee at death. This meant that he denigrated the body and idealized the soul. He set up a dualism that we still experience in forms such as sexual prohibitions and women’s oppression.
If the academics read Plato (which sometimes, honestly, I wonder) they would learn that, for example, Socrates tousles the hair of his youthful follower, Phaedo, on his deathbed. Or they’d spot that Socrates did not just advocate philosopher kings in his dialogue the Republic, but philosopher queens. They are very likely to know that Plato the man probably gained his name because it is a pun on the Greek for “broad”, suggesting that before he was a philosopher he had been a wrestler. They will also know that gymnasia were one of Socrates’s and Plato’s favourite haunts. But they don’t take the next step: these are not details from the life of a body-hater.
Plato was actually gripped by something more subtle, more interesting and more valuable. It is the possibility that the body reflects the soul. It’s much as we say that someone’s character becomes, in time, etched into the lines on their face. Plato proposed that the soul is the form of the body; that the soul is the aliveness of the body.
It’s true that he has Socrates wonder whether, after death, the body might come to feel like it has been a prison, such is the liberation that death could bring. But that’s just one of several possibilities he considers, as anyone with curiosity would. He never offers a definitive creed.
So where did the dualism come from? I don’t think it really existed until the seventeenth century, when Descartes proposed his famous cogito, “I think therefore I am.” With this formula, it became possible to imagine a thinking part separate from a bodily part. We now live with that legacy.
But before then, philosophers had assumed human beings were incarnate: ensouled bodies. If you’re against the dualism, which I think is sensible, Plato is a sophisticated ally not enemy number one.
3. Plato argued that goodness trounces God.
The third error that the academics promote is that Plato proved that goodness is more basic than godliness. Or, to put it another way, that the gods have no choice but to be good. This is then developed to suggest that goodness is more important than divinity, which is a short step away from the conclusion that divinity is not important at all. In short, Plato was really a new atheist.
The reference for this line of argument is Plato’s dialogue, the Euthyphro. Again, I would suggest that our academics take a second look. Because if you follow the dialogue through, you see that it is one of Plato’s aporetic works. It ends inconclusively.
If anything definitive can be concluded from Socrates and Euthyphro’s exchange it would be that when human beings claim to know anything for certain about the gods, they are certain to tie themselves in knots. That is a useful reminder for religious and atheistic folk alike. No-one with any seriousness can presume to know what causes gods sleepless nights, least of all feeling trapped into being good because goodness dictates it to them.
Put it like this: to say the gods must be good is a bit like saying that grass must be green. It’s nonsense. Goodness is implicit in divinity much as greenness is implicit in grass. But there’s another more positive insight engaging with the Euthyphro can bring.
We tend to think that goodness is a moral judgment. She is a good child, someone might say. But the ancients treated goodness as a quality or virtue. It’s supremely desirable because it’s integral to our flourishing. Goodness tastes good, really good.
Why might that matter to us? Because it might help us come to feel that goodness is a joy, not an injunction; that it lifts us up, not leaves us guilty and wanting; that it is part of becoming all that we might become. Again, in an age starved of trust and vision – of goodness as a self-evident good – Plato can feed us. We should invoke his spirit and refuse the sticks with which academics routinely beat him.