Ancient History & Civilisation

III. PLATO

1. The Teacher

Even Plato was moved by the Cynic ideal. In the second book of the Republic59 he describes with relish and sympathy a communistic and naturalistic Utopia. He rejects it, and goes on to portray a “second-best” state; but when he comes to picture his philosopher-kings we find the Cynic dream—of men without property and without wives, dedicated to plain living and high philosophy—capturing the citadel of the finest imagination in Greek history. Plato’s plan for a communistic aristocracy was the brilliant endeavor of a rich conservative to reconcile his scorn of democracy with the radical idealism of his time.

He came of a family so ancient that on his mother’s side his pedigree went back to Solon, and on his father’s side to the early kings of Athens, even to Poseidon, god of the sea.60 His mother was the sister of Charmides and the niece of Critias, so that opposition to democracy was almost in his blood. Named Aristocles—“best and renowned”—the youth distinguished himself in almost every field: he excelled in the study of music, mathematics, rhetoric, and poetry; he charmed the women, and doubtless the men, with his good looks; he wrestled at the Isthmian games, and was nicknamed Platon, or broad, because of his robust frame; he fought in three battles, and won a prize for bravery.61 He wrote epigrams, amorous verses, and a tragic tetralogy; he was hesitating between poetry and politics as a career when, at the age of twenty, he succumbed to the fascination of Socrates. He must have known him before, since the great gadfly had long been a friend of his uncle Charmides; but now he could understand Socrates’ teaching, and enjoy the sight of the old man tossing ideas, like an acrobat, into the air, and impaling them on the prongs of his questioning. He burned his poems, forgot Euripides, athletics, and women, and followed the master as if under an hypnotic spell. Perhaps he took notes every day, feeling with an artist’s sensitivity the dramatic possibilities of this grotesque and lovable Silenus.

Then, when Plato was twenty-three, came the tory revolution of 404, led by his own relatives; the tense days of the oligarchic terror, and the brave defiance of the Thirty by Socrates; the death of Critias and Charmides, the restoration of the democracy, the trial and death of Socrates: all the world seemed to collapse about the once carefree youth, and he fled from Athens as if it were a haunted city. He found some comfort at Megara in the home of Eucleides, and then at Cyrene, perhaps with Aristippus; thence he appears to have gone to Egypt and studied the mathematical and historical lore of the priests.62 About 395 he was back in Athens, and a year later fought for the city at Corinth. About 387 he set forth again, studied the Pythagorean philosophy with Archytas at Taras and with Timaeus at Locri, passed over to Sicily to see Mt. Etna, formed a friendship with Dion of Syracuse, was introduced to Dionysius I, was sold into slavery, and was back safe in Athens in 386. With the three thousand drachmas raised to reimburse his ransomer, and which Anniceris refused, Plato’s friends now bought for him a suburban recreation grove named from its local god Academus;62a and there Plato founded the university that was destined to be the intellectual center of Greece for nine hundred years.*

The Academy was technically a religious fraternity, or thiasos, dedicated to the worship of the Muses. The students paid no fees, but as they came for the most part from upper-class families their parents could be expected to make substantial donations to the institution; rich men, says Suidas, “from time to time bequeathed in their wills, to the members of the school, the means of living a life of philosophic leisure.”63 Dionysius II was reported to have given Plato eighty talents ($480,000)64—which might explain the philosopher’s patience with the King. The comic poets of the time satirized the students as affected in their manners and overnice in their dress—with elegant caps and canes, and a short cloak or academic gown;65 so old are the manners of Eton, and the black robes of scholarship. Women were admitted to the student body, for Plato remained to this extent a radical, that he was an ardent feminist. The chief studies were mathematics and philosophy. Over the portal was a warning inscription—medeis ageometretos eisito—“Let no one without geometry enter here”; perhaps a considerable measure of mathematics formed a requirement for admission. Most of the mathematical advances of the fourth century were made by men who had studied in the Academy. The mathematical course included arithmetic (theory of number), advanced geometry, “spheric” (astronomy), “music” (probably including literature and history), law, and philosophy.66 Moral and political philosophy came last, if Plato followed the advice which—half justifying Anytus and Meletus—he puts into the mouth of Socrates:

Socr. You know that there are certain principles about justice and good which were taught us in childhood; and under their parental authority we have been brought up, obeying and honoring them.

Glaucon. That is true.

Socr. And there are also opposite maxims and habits of pleasure which flatter and attract our soul, but they do not influence those who have any sense of right, and who continue to honor the maxims of their fathers and obey them.

Gl. True.

Socr. Now, when a man is in this state, and the questioning spirit asks what is fair and honorable, and he answers as the law directs, and then arguments come and refute the word of the legislator, and he is driven into believing that nothing is fair any more than foul, or just and good any more than the opposite, and the same of all his time-honored notions, do you think that he will still honor and obey them?

Gl. That is impossible.

Socr. And when he ceases to think them honorable and natural as heretofore, and he fails to discover the true, can he be expected to pursue any life other than that which flatters his desires?

Gl. He cannot.

Socr. And from being an observer of the law he is converted into a lawless person?

Gl. Unquestionably. . . .

Socr. Therefore every care must be taken in introducing our thirty-year-old citizens to dialectic. . . . They must not be allowed to taste the dear delight too early; that is one thing specially to be avoided; for young men, as you may have observed, when they first get the taste in their mouths, argue for amusement, and are always contradicting and refuting others in imitation of those who refute them; they are like puppy-dogs, who delight to tear and pull at all who come near them.

Gl. Yes, that is their great delight.

Socr. And when they have made many conquests and received defeats at the hands of many, they violently and speedily get into a way of not believing anything that they believed before, and hence . . . philosophy has a bad name with the rest of the world.

Gl. That is very true.

Socr. But when a man begins to get older, he will no longer be guilty of that sort of insanity; he will follow the example of the reasoner who is seeking for truth, and not of the eristic who is contradicting for the sake of amusement; and the greater consideration of his character will increase and not diminish the honor of the pursuit.67

Plato and his aides taught by lecturing, by dialogue, and by setting problems to the students. One problem was to find “the uniform and ordered movements by the assumption of which the apparent motions of the planets can be accounted for”;68 possibly Eudoxus and Heracleides derived some stimulus from these tasks. The lectures were technical, and sometimes disappointed those who had hoped for practical gain; but pupils like Aristotle, Demosthenes, Lycurgus, Hypereides, and Xenocrates were deeply influenced by them, and in many cases published the notes they had taken. Antiphanes said humorously that just as, in a far northern city, words froze into ice as they were spoken, and were heard in the summer when they thawed, so the words spoken by Plato to his students in their youth were finally understood by them only in their old age.69

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