Plato against Platonism

Osvaldo Cunha Neto                         

The elaboration of “isms” is not something we find only in humanities, not at all. Even in scientific areas one can find a tendency to making generalizations of models that surpass the heterogenic and instable natural order of things. Actually, it is proper of science to built generalizations. In other words, the scientific thought creates “isms” all the time. Imagine a research on Physics in which the researcher aims to study the behavior of a specific crystal submitted to wide a range of temperatures.

Focused in the methodology of following the vibration modes of this crystal in different temperatures, the performer of the experiment will be in a quandary when, in sufficiently high temperature, the researcher realizes that the crystal structure will be configured differently and, strictly speaking, there would be no crystal anymore. Not even the structure and the terminology are no longer what in such research were called ‘crystal’. On the other hand, as strange as it may sounds, those who originally dealt with a crystal are the same that should integrate the specific branch of the mineral studies; we would call it “crystal science” or “crystalism”. More polysemic and “human”, we have been living a long time with an old familiar “ism” called not ‘Christianism’ but ‘Christianity’. In this case also, not much effort will be required to show that all information we have about Jesus Christ does not fit exactly into specific dogma which are propagated in the ‘Christian’ religions. The icon of Christianity would not be fully recognized neither as an ‘Evangelical’, ‘Catholic’, ‘Daimist’ nor ‘Spiritist’. All these, however, having Jesus as originating principle, consider themselves all legitimate ‘Christians’. Regarding the universe of Philosophy or, more precisely, the beginning of Western Philosophy, we know that Platonism is its greatest and most important cornerstone. At this point it is impossible to continue without reflecting on the question posed by Lloyd.
The scholar elaborates a seminal paper that begins by explaining, first, that the criteria for defining a ‘Platonist’ is not consensual; second, even among the known ‘Platonists’ there are substantial disagreements over what constitutes ‘Platonism’. Lloyd’s interest is to show that, regardless the terminology – New Academy, Middle Platonism, Neo-Platonism – there are guiding principles among Plato’s specialists that constitute what would be regarded by him as a ‘Platonism’. In his paper he reconstructs it observing the most important topics the writers of Platonism deal with. Concerning these Platonists, the scholar emphasizes a main interpretation tendency; which he characterizes as “top-down metaphysical approach” (p. 259). Even so, Lloyd is aware of “abyss between what Plato says and what Plato means” and that ‘Platonism’ is something we can extract from Plato’s writings, regardless of his main purposes – something that we have definitively lost. He quotes Ammonius and the idea that, since the beginning, Plato’s writings “must be interpreted” and that “Platonists saw no impediment to drinking from the font of Aristotelian wisdom in order to understand Platonism better” (p. 257 - 259). This explains why it is symptomatic that along all his paper there is no quote of Plato himself about a ‘Platonism’. Aristotle, Sextus Empiricus, Diogenes Laertius and Plotinus have created Platonism, not Plato himself, and this is what Lloyd shows us. These interpretations of Plato aspire, like religious exegeses, to “decode”, “encode” and spread not precisely his heterogeneous opera, but “what Plato meant”. Notwithstanding, why does this “shadowing” attracts so much? To establish a dialogue directly with Plato means to exist in the universe of Philosophy. Plato is the deep “rhizome” from where the “tree” of philosophers has come. However, what leads us to believe that with more than thirty dialogues and several letters, Plato would delegate to posterity his ‘main’ interpretation? If it were so important to be interpreted like an idealist philosopher, why did he not write his own handbook? “I’m certain, that the best statement of the doctrines in writing or in speech would be my own statement” (καίτοι τοσόνδε γε οἶδα, ὅτι γραφέντα ἢ λεχθέντα ὑπ' ἐμοῦ βέλτιστ' ἂν λεχθείη, Letter, 341 d). It is clear that Plato was, literary speaking, in dialogue with ontological theories of Zeno, Parmenides, Heraclitus and other famous thinkers contemporary and prior to Socrates. In some of his dialogues such as Alcibiade I, Republic, Parmenide and Sophist, philosophical conceptions of ‘forms’ appear, and such conceptions are referred by Aristotle in his Metaphysics (I, 987 a). Nevertheless, from this fact can we infer that Plato was ‘idealist’? And that “Academic Skeptics should be cashiered from the ranks of the Platonists”? In dealing with the ‘Platonism’ we must recognize that our first prism, namely Plato and his opera, sometimes assumes outlines not established originally by the author. Just as for the physicists is nothing new that the crystal changes with high temperatures – altering its initial structure – for philosophers it should not be surprising the fact that ‘Platonism’ has its own life and may conflict with specific passages of Plato’s opera. Therefore – as I illustrate below with a kind of “bottom-up approach” – his opera polysemic and open to endless readings and interpretive nuances, proper to the literary criticism universe – an alternative to scientific Aristotelian systematization that, concerning this topic, preferred the top-down approach. Plato, the author who almost does not show himself Referred in only three passages throughout all his opera in Apology, 34 a, 38 b, and Phaedo, 59 b., does not omit, but rather reveals the instability and incipience of the dialogical reflections. “When two go together, one observes before the other” (Protagoras, 348 d, referring to the Iliad, X, 224). Accepting that Plato’s opera proposes in a homogeneous manner what is called ‘idealism’ is, at least, inaccurate. It can be first observed by following the “subliminal” signs present in the construction of knowledge through dialogue (Phaedrus, 277 a) and the praise of the dialogic scrutiny. Even when performed without interlocutors, as we see in the Gorgias, 505 and, when Callicles refuses to continue dialogue with Socrates, but not only. As I will show next, at different times of Plato’s opera, the “enemy speech” appears forcefully, invalidating even the so-called ‘Platonism’. And such apparition does not come only from ideologically opposing character (such as sophists), but also from the “ontological patriarch”, Parmenides. Who, in the eponymous dialogue, shows to the young character Socrates as the mature writer Plato discuss and doubts even about the validity of ideas theory, 134 b., in addition to his own “guide” Socrates. In the Protagoras, for instance, aiming at impelling the sophist to a contradiction. Showing that the ‘bravery’ also implies ‘knowledge’, Socrates ends up arguing that the ‘pleasure’ and the ‘good’ are the same (351 c). His argument is not an ‘idealistic’ one, and it does not advocate that these entities exist ‘themselves’. With the scrutiny of Protagoras[ref]Who hesitates to accept the correspondence between the ‘pleasure’ and the ‘good’, the ‘unpleasantness’ and ‘evil’ (ἡδέως ζῆν ἀγαθόν, τὸ δ' ἀηδῶς κακόν), Socrates argues that the issue lies in discerning “of evils, the lesser” (355 e), and that Protagoras and other sophists are suitable for such teaching (357 e). Pleasant, unpleasant, good and bad (ἡδεῖ τε καὶ ἀνιαρῷ καὶ ἀγαθῷ καὶ κακῷ) amount to many names but, in Socrates’ opinion, form only two categories (355 b). Like this argument, which seems more ‘Sophistic’ than ‘Platonist’, in the Hippias Minor we also see Socrates defending a strange thesis. Despite protests from his interlocutorHippias, another sophist, Socrates maintains the opinion that ‘those who make mistakes voluntarily are better than those who make mistakes involuntarily’ (372 d). The character Socrates claims that he also disagrees with the conclusion he had just arrived, but on the other hand, it is imperative to submit to the ‘argument’ (λόγου, 376 c). The strangeness is caused because the character Socrates is solely based on formal rhetorical principles but not ‘moral’ and ‘ideal’ ones. In the Theaetetus, dialogue in which Plato allegedly suppresses the Protagoras’ theory of the sensations, we actually see the sophist “returning from the dead”. The sophist was no longer alive at the occasions described in dialogue, defending his theory and contradicting Socrates. It is curious that the two positions are delivered by Socrates, as he pronounces both the attack against Protagoras as well as the defense of the sophist. Once more it is the sophist – only in spirit – who calls the Socrates’ attention adverting him that he would not surrender himself into discursive contention but, instead, practice dialectical examination, with real argument (167 e). Protagoras ends his “moral lesson” impelling Socrates to examine the relationship between feelings and knowledge not as the majority does, that is, without conceptual strictness (168 c). Also from a passage of the Republic, dialogue which is supposed to crown the Plato’s “philosophical maturity”, we can witness Socrates playing a role that does not fit exactly into the idealist and Platonist model. Explaining that no form of government is appropriate to the nature of the philosopher (497 b), Socrates regards as worth of merit the philosopher’s attitude of worrying only about his own interests (496 d). Returning to the conception of justice that had already been outlined in the book IV. Not in reference to outward actions, but the actions that take place in his intimate, 443 d. Plato implied that the philosopher actually ends up being negligent with the justice of the city. What to say then, of Socrates’ conduct before Charmides? After this passage, how can we deal with so-called ‘Platonic love’? “Then, ah then, my noble friend, I saw inside his cloak and caught fire, and could posses myself no longer” (τότε δή, ὦ γεννάδα, εἶδόν τε τὰ ἐντὸς τοῦ ἱματίου καὶ ἐφλεγόμην καὶ οὐκέτ' ἐν ἐμαυτοῦ ἦν, Charmides, 155d). Perpetually subject of debate, when we handle not with ‘Platonism’, but with Plato as an author, his greatest genius lies rather on the divergence than on a linear idealism and dogmatism. Finally, I conclude with a very ‘Platonic’ Idea that we can extract not only from the following quotation, but also from all his dialectical opera: “These, then, are questions which we have to consider with the aid of our elders, since we ourselves are still rather young to unravel so great a matter” (ταῦτα οὖν σκοπώμεθα καὶ μετὰ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων ἡμῶν· ἡμεῖς γὰρ ἔτι νέοι ὥστε τοσοῦτον πρᾶγμα διελέσθαι, Protagoras, 314 b).


ARISTOTLE Metaphysics. Translation of W. D. Ross. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. London, 1952.

CUNHA NETO, O. Protagoras and the Platonic doxography about the most eminent sophist: study and translation. Unicamp, Iel, Campinas, 2012.

LLOYD, P. G. What is Platonism? Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol 43, number 3, July, 2005. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

PLATO Charmide. Alciabiades I. Translation of W. R. M. Lamb. The Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press. London, 1927.

Epistles. Translation of R. G. Bury. The Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press. London, 1999.

Gorgias. Translation of W. R. M. Lamb. The Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press. London, 1996.

Parmenides. Greater Hippias. Translation of Harold North Fowler. The Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press. London, 1926.

Protagoras. Translation of W. R. M. Lamb. The Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press. London, 1999.

Republic. Translation of Paul Shorey. The Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press. London, 1994.

Theaetetus and Sophist. Translation of Harold North Fowler. The Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press. London, 1996.

Published 18.7.2016

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1 Comment

  1. Чувствуя себя последовательным материалистом и осознавая преимущества своего незатейливого дилетантизма берусь изобличить любое философическое соображение Платона в безосновательности( в координатах моего субъективного рационализьма)…

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