03 November 2005

Plato a 'Spiritual' Writer?

Perusing an old paper copy of A. E. Taylor's Plato, the Man and his Works, I found the following blurb on the back cover:

Professor Taylor, an almost ideal interpreter of Plato, has a mind that is spiritual, supple, and critical; an outlook on humanity which never neglects the findings of psychology and the witness of history; a vision which looks perpetually through philosophy towards realities which philosophy seeks...The book, which in arrangement is a detailed commentary on the whole of the Platonic writings, is therefore in fact far more than this. It will pilot the least experienced traveller through a great region of the spiritual life of man.
--Evelyn Underhill, The Spectator
Taylor's book is undoubtedly a great book of introduction to Plato; and Underhill is undoubtedly correct in saying that Plato is 'spiritual'--or, at least, the tendency of nearly all readers in history has been to receive him in that way.

But then this reflection suggested to me the following argument. What, if anything, is wrong with it?
1. Plato is a 'spiritual' philosopher.
2. Contemporary interpreters do not interpret him as 'spiritual'.
3. Thus, contemporary interpreters of Plato interpret him incorrectly.
By 'contemporary interpreters' I mean analytic, Straussian, and continental. The concern would be that, for all the obvious merits of writings about Plato in our generation, there is something fundamentally wrong in how we construe him. Plato is 'spiritual', and yet we do not read him as 'spiritual'. To wit: it would be absurd to hand a volume of contemporary Platonic studies to anyone as a guide to the 'great region of the spiritual life of man'.

What do you say?


Anonymous said...

What does it mean to say Plato was a ‘spiritual’ philosopher? Does it mean that his corpus of work, from Apology to Laws, was fundamentally inspired by a passionate concern with how we should live our lives? That his work had this dedication and coherence rather than being a series of intellectual games pursued for other purposes?
We might remember that neither Socrates nor Plato were professional philosophers in the modern sense. They did not regard and define themselves as pedagogues for whom success was measured by whether they obtained a better position at a better university at a better salary with a better office, etc etc. I think contemporary professional philosophers of all allegiances are prone to misunderstand why Socrates and Plato did what they did and lived as lived. No offense intended.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Anonymous, I'm not sure what should be meant by 'spiritual'. For the moment, it seems to me an interesting and, I think, correct observation that Plato is in an important sense 'spiritual', but that we do not succeed in reading or explaining him as such.

Here's an example. Frege and Russell are certainly not 'spiritual', but Wittgenstein in contrast is, or intends to be.

But here's one for you: Why would we say that 'contemporary professional philosophers' who study Plato are not, as a whole, 'fundamentally inspired by a passionate concern with how we should live our lives'?

Anonymous said...

"But then this reflection suggested to me the following argument. What, if anything, is wrong with it?
1. Plato is a 'spiritual' philosopher.
2. Contemporary interpreters do not interpret him as 'spiritual'.
3. Thus, contemporary interpreters of Plato interpret him incorrectly."

I think there is something wrong with this argument. [3] says that what contemporary interpreters have to say about Plato is incorrect. Well, they say what they do in answer to questions that they themselves raise. And so one natural way to fill [3] out would be to say that contemporary interpreters answer the questions that they themselves raise about Plato incorrectly. But even supposing this were true, it doesn't seem to me at least to follow from [1] and [2]. For it might be that the questions contemporary interpreters are asking are not questions that would reveal Plato to be "spiritual," at least not when answered correctly.

Anonymous said...

The idea that Plato stands at the beginning of the "great chain of being" got killed off a long time ago, and I happen to think for good reasons. If we look at Socrates own testimony, in the Phaedo, the ideas are a response to failure and a hypothesis, not a doctrine. The Timaeus was the source of the misunderstandings of Plato, but I don't think the (neoplatonic) misunderstandings have much to do with Plato. What is remarkable, though, is that a tradition that had lasted for so long, in so many variations, disappeared so quickly.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Latest anonymous, Are you suggesting that a 'Great Chain of Being' is not correctly attributed to Plato?

If so, what do you say of the 'ascent passages' of the Lysis, Symposium, and Republic? Indeed, if one takes away the notions of participation, and of 'analogues' of higher realities displayed in lower, what really is left of Plato?

The Symposium idea hardly seems a passing fancy, because one finds it also in Aristotle. It looks to be an enduring outlook.

I don't think one needs to look beyond such 'ascent' passages to find what people have wanted to call, for better or worse, the 'spiritual' character of Plato.

But perhaps I'm misunderstanding you?

huetenan said...

This reminds me of the audio course on Plato and Aristotle sold by Barnes and Noble and taught by Aryeh Kosman. He presents Platonic Forms as a way of bringing intelligibility to secular experience and as something lacking in transcendence altogether. I felt rather cheated by his lectures. If that's the Forms are for, why bother? (He was better on Aristotle, for I suppose obvious reasons).

David said...


Part of the joke of the Symposium is that Socrates doesn't fit the example of Diotima's "Great Chain of Being." He's certainly a philosopher but he lacks any desire for beautiful bodies. How can we avoid asking the question of why Plato juxtaposed Diotima's logos with Socrates's behavior?

Anonymous said...

Regarding Plato and "TGCOB," I would note that Parmenides-Symposium-Phaedo form a trilogy dealing with Socrates' education and the ideas. They are the only narrated dialogues not narrated by Socrates, and they deal with the status of the ideas. It looks like the Parmenides serves to dampen Socrates enthusiasm for the ideas after his formulation of the hypothesis of the ideas recounted in Phaedo. As for the Symposium, it is a pair with the Phaedo, day and night, as it were, and birth and death. That accounts, I think, for the differing accounts of the ideas in each. That's how I would begin to try to understand the account of the ideas in Symposium, beginning from the Phaedo and Parmenides and realizing that Socrates puts the account in the mouth of Diotima. Imputing to Plato some theory of transcendence based on Symposium rips the account out of context.