57. Plato – The Greatest Philosopher

Agathon and Philosophers, Plato's Symposium Painting by Anselm Feuerbach
Plato’s Symposium by Anselm Feuerbach, 1869

Plato (428-347 B.C.) is considered by many to be the greatest philosopher who ever lived. He is personally my favorite. I consider myself a Platonist, albeit with some modifications, of course. In this regard, I consider the previous 56 posts as simply a prologue to this post. A.N. Whitehead (1861-1947), an English mathematician and philosopher, said the following:

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”1

What made him so great? The heart of the answer to this question lies in a quote by Proclus, a 5th century Neoplatonist philosopher:

“The most peculiar and firm principle of all the dialogues of Plato, and of the whole theory of that philosopher, is the knowledge of our own nature.”2

The ancients talked about this idea of knowing oneself as a starting point for the knowledge of the universe. According to Proclus, this encapsulates the essence of Plato’s philosophy which is why, no matter how esoteric some of his ideas may seem, he has resonated with people throughout time and across cultures. Plato gives us keen insight into our human nature, thus giving us tools to understand the universe.

Plato’s resume is impressive. He has the claim of being Socrates’ pupil and Aristotle’s teacher. If that isn’t enough, he wrote 35 dialogues in addition to 13 letters comprising a hefty corpus of work indeed. The featured book below of Plato’s complete works contains 459,500 words with a total of 1838 pages. According to scholars, there are no lost works of Plato.

Diogenes Laertius’s Take on the Life of Plato

In order to get a more interesting perspective on Plato’s life and philosophy, I turn to none other than the the third century A.D. Greek historian Diogenes Laertius, who wrote his famous Peri biōn dogmatōn kai apophthegmatōn tōn en philosophia eudokimēsantōn, translated as “Lives, Teachings, and Sayings of Famous Philosophers.”3

Scholars have had a love-hate relationship with this work of Diogenes. On one hand, this is the oldest and most comprehensive work of its kind that deals with the origins of philosophy in ancient Greece. More lives are covered over a longer period of time than any other ancient source.4 The other thing it has going for it, unlike many modern academic works, is that it is very interesting to read and it keeps one’s attention. It if full of lively anecdotes that breathe life into the departed philosophers.

On the other hand, his Lives has engendered much disagreement and even contempt among modern scholars.5 The German classicist Werner Jaeger dismissed him as an “ignoramus” and one critic deemed him “the most ridiculed historian of philosophy of all time.”6 One reason is that he uses secondary sources of other historians and compilers rather than primary sources. In addition to that, some of the secondary citations contain mythical or contradictory content.7 For example, he records four ways in which Pythagoras met his demise and he states matter-of-factly that Plato was descended from the sea god Poseidon.

Having said all of that, I still put my lot in with Diogenes as compared with much of the arid modern scholarship that is out there. Because of this, I will draw my rendition of the life of Plato primarily, but not exclusively, from Diogenes for several reasons. I feel that it is necessary to take this digression in order to understand the proper way to view history as opposed to the methods proposed by modern academia.

Reasons to Use Diogenes’ Portrait of Plato

First of all, from 1200 to 1700, Diogenes was widely read, highly regarded, and very popular.8 Renaissance readers were especially enamored with the book’s abundant biographical legends.9 The 16th century French philosopher Montaigne bemoaned the fact that there was only one Diogenes and wished that there were a dozen such historians.

The dismissing of Diogenes is exclusively a practice of modern academics. If we accept their conclusions, then we must accept their premises that modern knowledge trumps all other knowledge and that the modern academic is wiser than all who have preceded him.

Secondly, I think Nietzsche’s perspective is especially poignant on this matter. He called Diogenes, “the porter who guards the gate leading to the Castle of Ancient Philosophy.”7 He stated this being fully aware of all of the flaws of Diogenes’ Lives vis-à-vis modern scholarship, but he preferred a storyteller over an arid academic. For Nietzsche, someone like Diogenes provided a template by which one should search for wisdom – through studying lives, and not just ideas.

In 1874, Nietzsche wrote the following about Diogenes as he dismissed modern scholarship as uninteresting:

“I for one prefer to read Diogenes Laertius. The only critique of philosophy that is possible and that proves anything, namely trying to see whether one can live in accordance with it, has never been taught at universities; all that has ever been taught is a critique of words by means of other words.”11

– Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, “Schopenhauer as Educator,” #8

Critique of Modern Scholarship

I share Nietzsche’s critique of modern scholarship and its approach to philosophy before diving in to the life of Plato. In modern academics, the almost exclusive approach of focusing on ideas at the expense of historical and biographical context presents a truncated and often abstract view of philosophical ideas. And when it does seek to discuss those things, its herculean efforts to maintain almost-perfect historical precision fosters such a hypercritical approach that it is difficult not to doubt everything.

This skepticism undercuts any desire we may have of ever actually learning from these formidable thinkers since we are overly focused on learning about them. We objectify them to the point where we lose any human connection with them. We dissect greats like Plato under a microscope instead of having a conversation with them.

My contention is that we really can’t fully apprehend Plato’s philosophy unless we have a deep and rich understanding of the man and the times in which he lived. Otherwise, we are left with a caricature of the philosopher and a dry, abstract portrayal of his ideas. For this reason, I would rather sacrifice some historical accuracy and precision about Plato’s life in order to paradoxically better understand his philosophy.

My wife and I were recently invited to a dinner that was a reenactment of the last night on the Titanic. We were all to dress up in period costume, and we were given identities of actual passengers and told that we would have character actors seated at our table. I approached this not really knowing what to expect; after all, I had read much on the factual account of the sinking of the Titanic — dates, times, circumstances, etc.

The actors at our table were portraying a French couple returning to Haiti after the husband had finished an engineering project in France. After conversing with them, and after they showed us pictures of their “children,” the gravity of the sinking of the Titanic started to wash over me (pardon the pun). These were real people with real lives, hopes, and dreams, and soon they would be drowned in the sea. Even though that reenactment was far from factually perfect, by understanding the people and events on a personal and experiential level, I gained a new and qualitatively different type knowledge of that tragedy.

The Real Plato

For the reasons mentioned above, I will present Plato as the ancients understood him and as Diogenes presented his life. Of course, I know that Plato was not a descendent of the god Apollo as Diogenes states, but I will present this as “factual” in order that we can better understand the man and his ideas. I want to see Plato as the ancients saw him.

In other words, let’s think like the ancient Greeks and assume that he really was descended from Apollo. This myth signifies something real about Plato and opens up a whole new area of inquiry. It prompts us to ask ourselves things like Why did the ancients believe this and why is it important? How does it contribute to understanding Plato’s philosophy? How much of Plato’s philosophy was motivated by belief in the supernatural? These are only some of the questions prompted by such anecdotal biographical details.

Modern scholars virtually ignore such mythological facts, but I think that we do this to our detriment. It is essential that we take a proper view and approach to history that modern academia does not provide. If we approach Plato with modernist thinking, we will never truly understand him or his ideas. If we are truly to understand Plato, we must peel away the layers of rationalistic thinking. After we do that, we certainly can disagree with Plato on various points. But let’s make certain that we disagree with the Plato of the ancient world and not the modernistic caricature that we have constructed. Our generation is notorious for judging historical figures of the past without ever truly trying to understand them, so I’m partial to Diogenes’ account of the life of Plato as we seek to understand Plato’s philosophy, despite acknowledging that parts of it are indeed inaccurate.

So like my wife and I on the Titanic, I would ask you to suspend your preconceived ideas. Lay aside your modernistic presuppositions, engage your imagination, and step back into history with me to meet the man and the legend.

An ancient Greek marketplace as we might have expected it to appear during the life of Plato.

A Visitor from Croton

Xenon was in town on business. He was a young man from a wealthy family in Southern Italy who decided to expand his business ventures to Athens. He was there to meet a potential business partner named Damien. This was his first visit to Athens and much of what he encountered was to be expected from all that he had heard. Since he was a man of business, he was drawn to the hustle and bustle of trading at the Agora, the marketplace and civic center of Greece. The majestic Acropolis that overlooked the city provided a sense of safety and security while adding to the gravitas of the city.

Xenon noted something unusual that day. A feeling of somberness or seriousness seemed to permeate the activity and energy of the marketplace. There was some strange activity going on as well. As he was pondering this, a deep, booming voice suddenly broke into his consciousness.

“Friend, are you Xenon from Croton?

“Why…yes! Damien? How did you recognize me?

“Your clothing gives you away as being one from Magna Graecia. Plus, your wealthy, youthful appearance informed me that you were the one I was looking for,” replied Damien with a robust, gregarious laugh. Damien was a larger man with dark, curly hair and sparkling brown eyes. He had a warm charismatic presence about him. Xenon, on the other hand, was thin, with straight black hair and a curved nose. He had a more pensive and reserved personality.

“Come this way,” Damien said as he pressed on Xenon’s shoulder, guiding him in a particular direction. Just then, a small child who had broken away from his mother collided with Xenon’s legs, startling Xenon. Without missing a beat, Damien immediately picked up the small child and brought him back to his mother, but not before he threw him up in the air and caught the laughing child with his hands.

The two men walked away from the center of the Agora toward Damien’s house, talking as if they had know each other for years. In addition to having a common cultural heritage, they shared a love of business.

As they walked, Xenon saw some people crying and asked, “Is everything alright? I sensed the minute I entered Athens that something was wrong.”

“The philosopher Plato died last night,” Damien responded abruptly, his face suddenly turning serious.

“Oh, that’s a terrible. I’m sorry to hear that, for Plato’s reputation as a great philosopher and a virtuous man has even reached Southern Italy, but beyond that, I know very little about him. How did he die?

“Come, my friend,” Damien responded, his face relaxing a bit as a slight smile appeared. “First we will have your feet washed and get you settled in the guest room. After that, when we dine together, I will tell you all about Plato.”

The Death of Plato

During dinner, in addition to getting to know one another, the two men discussed potential business ventures. There were other men around the table, friends and associates of Damien, but the center of attention revolved around the two men.

At last arrived the figs, cheese, and olives drizzled with honey, signifying the end of the meal. The suspense was building for Xenon because it seemed that he wanted to talk about Plato more than anything else. The Greeks were by nature very philosophically minded, and it was not uncommon to sit around after dinner and talk philosophy in Plato’s time.

When Xenon thought the time was right, he finished off the last bit of his wine and asked, “So…tell me about Plato, this great philosopher of yours.”

After a small awkward pause, Damien simply answered, “Well, what do you want to know?”

“Whatever you can tell me. It is not every day that I can learn about such a great man from someone who has firsthand knowledge of him.”

“Alright,” Damien responded. “The evening is young. Let’s begin at the beginning. You see, Plato—”

“Pardon me for interrupting, but you did not tell me how he died. It is easier for me to understand the beginning and middle if I know the end first. What I am getting at is that I hope that he did not go the way of Socrates, unjustly accused by the State. You see, the gods would not tolerate Athens putting another just man to death.”

“This is why I enjoy talking with young men, because you are so black and white in your thinking. I used to think the same, but now I realize that the gods can be judicious, but it seems that more often than not, they are capricious. Many who should face misfortune at their hands do not, and vice versa. But that is a topic for another time.”

“I see,” said Xenon, accepting his admonishment from the older man.

“Anyway, you wish to know about Plato’s death,” Damien continued. “Just yesterday he was at a wedding feast enjoying the entertainment and engaging in philosophical discourse with various wedding guests. After that, he went home and died peacefully in his sleep.”

“Apparently from too much wine I would imagine! His older constitution could not handle such revelries.”

“There you go again,” laughed Damien as he passed some figs to Xenon. “One must take time to investigate before eliciting such a verdict. But again, this is a sign of youth. In actuality, Plato frowned on drunkenness and said that the cure for drunk people was to look at themselves in the mirror to visibly behold what wretches they were. The only exception he made for drinking to excess was at the feasts of the gods, for he reasoned that they were the ones who gave us wine.

“Plato lived his philosophy,” Damien continued. “He was a man of virtue and discipline. For example, even with sleep he was well disciplined, stating that ‘No one who is sleeping is good for anything.’11He once admonished a man for playing dice. When the man said that he was playing for an insignificant amount, Plato said, ‘Yes, but the habit itself is not insignificant.’

“Plato believed that a life not guided by temperance is a life of dissipation. It is the reason a person of many talents ends up amounting to nothing. This is the reason Plato accomplished much during his life, because he was very disciplined. He would never flog his slave when he was enraged for fear that he would get carried away. He once told one of his slaves, ‘I would have flogged you for this if I had not been so enraged.’12 Another time, as he was sitting on a horse, he suddenly dismounted, saying that he did not want to be corrupted by horse-pride.13

“Well, that is the life and death of Plato in a nutshell,” Damien concluded. It looked like he was tired and desired to retire for the evening.

“Wait,” retorted Xenon, “I feel as though you are just getting started. If I may so impose, please go on. I am fascinated and am learning much. I always thought that what made a philosopher great was mainly his ideas. Now I am seeing that what made Plato great was that his ideas manifested in a life of virtue.”

“You are correct,” replied Damien. “By the end of his life, Plato realized that there was a unity between the microcosm of human existence and the macrocosm of the universe. He taught us that we are a part of the fabric of the cosmos so that if we patterned our lives on order and harmony of the universe, then we would find true happiness or eudaimonia. Arete or excellence is the means to obtain that happiness. It is just another name for virtue. The virtuous life then is a life patterned after and in harmony with the principles of the cosmos. That is why he talked about Forms, saying that the Forms were—”

“Wait a minute,” Xenon abruptly interrupted, the wine loosening his inhibitions. “You said ‘he taught us.’ So you were one of his students, I gather. I could tell that there was more to your knowledge of Plato than just knowing about his life. And that explains your hesitancy in talking about him. So you are a philosopher, too.”

“I now see that you have a wisdom way beyond your years,” Damien said as a small smile attempted to counter his sad eyes. “I am certainly grieving the loss of my beloved teacher. It is with a heavy heart that I talk about him with you.” He let out a deep sigh, and his countenance seemed to brighten a bit as he quipped, “In addition, I did not want to be overcome by ‘Plato-pride!'”

With that, Xenon and all the other dinner guests let out a hearty laugh, breaking the tension in the room.

The Birth of Plato

Damien motioned for the servant to bring more figs and honey to the table as he stated, “I can give you details about the life of Plato as few others can since I have been friends with him and a student of his almost from the beginning. I left the Academy two years ago, after my father died, in order to take over the family business. I also have aspirations to go into politics and use the many years of philosophy teachings that I received at Plato’s Academy.

“Plato was indeed a great man and you will see this tomorrow for the entire city of Athens will be present at his funeral procession. He will be accorded honors by none other than King Philip.15 He will then be buried in the Academy that he founded and taught in for most of his life.

“And that really takes us back to the beginning,” continued Damien. All eyes were focused on him; his face flickered in the light of the vegetable oil lamps adjacent to the tables as the servants quietly cleared the table. The cool room lit by oil lamps was a needed respite from the bright, hot Athenian day.

Damien continued, “Plato is and always has been an Athenian, born in Athens on the seventh day of the month of Thargelion during the eighty-eighth Olympiad. And since this is the 108th Olympiad, this makes Plato 81 years old at his death.16 The most important thing about this is that Plato was born on the exact same day as Apollo, and if that weren’t enough, Plato’s father Ariston was a direct descendent of Apollo.” After mentioning this, Damien paused for effect. He could tell that Xenon was deeply thinking. He waited a few more seconds, increasing the suspense in the room.

Xenon’s face was screwed up as if in consternation over some troublesome thought. He finally said, “I thought that the Athenians were descended from Athena. Why is Plato unique in that regard?”

“You are exactly right, my friend,” replied Damien. If Plato were indeed descended from Athena, then he would have just been a typical Athenian. The problem is that Athena was both a goddess of wisdom and a goddess characterized by deception, craftiness, and scheming.17 This is why we Athenians value cunning and deception and why it is ingrained within our political system.18 And what good is a wise person if that person is also deceitful? How can you trust anything he says?

“The first light on this matter was revealed by Plato’s teacher Socrates who, although an Athenian, was given the light for truth through Apollo via his Oracle at Delphi. He exposed Athens’ treachery with the light of this truth which is why they put him to death. He also enlightened his preeminent pupil Plato, who was most suited to carry this torch since he was a descendent of Apollo in whom, as the poet Hesiod mused, there is no ‘shadow of darkness.'”

Damien thought for a second and, looking to his left, said, “Antimachus, since you are our resident poet, could you recite some Hesiod for us to help clarify the matter at hand?”

“Certainly,” Antimachus replied, his countenance brightening. For dramatic effect, he got up from his place and stood in the center of the room. He then recited the following in dramatic fashion as only a seasoned poet could:

“O Phoebus Apollo, from your throne of truth, from your dwelling place at the heart of the world (Oracle at Delphi), You speak to men.

By Zeus’s decree, no lie comes there, no shadow to darken the word of truth. Zeus sealed by an everlasting right

Apollo’s honour, that all may trust with unshaken faith when he speaks.”19

– Hesiod, c. 700 B.C.

After Antimachus sat down, Damien continued, “So you see we have Plato who cannot speak anything but the truth because of his descent from Apollo, and this is just his father’s side. His mother, Perictione, was descended from the great Athenian law-giver Solon six generations ago.20, 21 And Solon himself was descended from the sea god Poseidon. So on his mother’s side, he was descended from Poseidon through Solon. Having Solon in his pedigree gave Plato that astute thinking that lends itself to ethics, law, and politics. So with Plato, we see a mystical side rooted in ancient oracles, etc., and also a very practical side that lends itself to building societies that function well.

“The most remarkable thing about Plato was the miraculous circumstances surrounding his birth.” All eyes were riveted on Damien as he continued. “Even though Ariston and Perictione were married, Perictione remained a virgin. Ariston repeatedly attempted to force himself upon her, but she rebuffed his advances. He finally stopped trying and saw a vision of Apollo, after which he willingly abstained from conjugal relations until Plato was born.”22

“Amazing,” replied Xenon. “Plato was really a remarkable man, chosen by and descended from the gods in order to shed the light of truth into the world. It is evident from the circumstances surrounding his birth.”

“Yes, that is true,” Damien replied, very pleased with Xenon’s perspicuous thinking. “And on that note, we should end since tomorrow is a big day.”

The men talked for a little while longer, but it was apparent from the yawns and stretches that the hour was late. Finally, Xenon stood up and thanked his host for an evening of wonderful hospitality and enlightenment. They all agreed to meet again the next evening to continue this enlightening discussion of the life of Plato. (To be continued….)

 “The love of the gods belongs to anyone who has given to true virtue and nourished it, and if any human being could become immortal, it would be he.”

– Plato, Symposium, 212a 6-7

Why do we ignore the religious aspect of ancient philosophers and just focus on their philosophy? Please comment below and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!

Deo Gratias

Featured Book

From Amazon: “Outstanding translations by leading contemporary scholars–many commissioned especially for this volume–are presented here in the first single edition to include the entire surviving corpus of works attributed to Plato in antiquity. In his introductory essay, John Cooper explains the presentation of these works, discusses questions concerning the chronology of their composition, comments on the dialogue form in which Plato wrote, and offers guidance on approaching the reading and study of Plato’s works.”

Footnotes and Endnotes:

  1. Plato, Lapham’s Quarterly
  2. Taylor, Thomas, First Alcibiades, A Dialogue on the Nature of Man, p. 3, Translated from the Greek by Floyer Sydenham and Thomas Taylor, first published 1804, copywrite 2016 by John W. Fergus, Kshetra Books
  3. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Diogenes Laërtius”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 16 Jun. 2017, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Diogenes-Laertius.
  4. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, translated by Pamela Mensch and edited by James Miller, p. vii, Oxford University Press, 2018
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., vii, xv
  7. Ibid., ix
  8. Ibid., xv
  9. Ibid., vii
  10. Ibid.
  11. Laws VII, 807e-808c as quoted from Ibid. p. 111
  12. Although this may seem revulsive to our modern years, my intent is to portray how things really were verses painting some sanitized version based on contemporary sensibilities. I am sure that future generations will see our blind spots that we are unaware of.
  13. “Horse-pride” or hypotupphia means just what it says, the pride or self-regard that comes with being mounted on a horse. This is excerpted from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, p. 111. This would be analogous today to the self-importance that we would feel in driving a BMW or “beemer” around town, the difference being that whereas Plato sought to avoid such thoughts and feelings, modern advertising promotes and fosters such sentiments. If fact, this is what drives their business. Perhaps this is one of our blind spots? Imagine trading in your BMW for a used Honda Civic so that you would not be corrupted by “car-pride.”
  14. Frede, Dorothea, “Plato’s Ethics: An Overview”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  15. Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, cf. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, p. 112
  16. Ibid, p. 98
  17. Clark, Tabitha Ms. (2013) “The Wisdom of Athena,” Oglethorpe Journal of Undergraduate Research: Vol. 1 : Iss. 1 , Article 4.
  18. Hesk, John, Democracy and Deception in Classical Athens, Cambridge University Press; 1st edition (November 2, 2006); Hesk states the following on page 22, “Despite comparative approaches which suggests that deception was a crucial strategy in Athens’ ‘surveillance culture and the undeniable value which ancient Greeks place on ‘cunning intelligence’ as a category of thought, the democratic and civic culture of Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries, develops powerful representations of deceptive communication as inimical to its very existence.”
  19. This imagery was not lost on the New Testament writers as they sought to present Christ to the pagan world in ways that they could understand while at the same time correcting their false pagan beliefs. Compare the following verses with Hesiod’s poem: 1 John 1:5 – “This is the message that we have heard from Him (Jesus) and proclaim to you that God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all”; James 1:17 – “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows”; and John 8:12 – “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
  20. Solon, c. 630 – c. 560, is credited with laying the foundations of democracy in Athens.
  21. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, p. 98
  22. Virgin and miraculous conception stories permeated Greece and the rest of the ancient world signifying that someone who had a special purpose needed direct lineage from a god or else they would be weakened with human corruption. This could be why Jesus’ enemies spread rumors about Him being illegitimate. They denied the virgin birth, not because they were biased against miracles because of rationalistic presuppositions, but because they wanted to deny Him the privilege of having a special status with God.

Bibliography:

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, translated by Pamela Mensch and edited by James Miller, Oxford University Press, 2018

Hesk, John, Democracy and Deception in Classical Athens, Cambridge University Press; 1st edition (November 2, 2006)

Plato, Plato Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper and D.S. Hutchison,  Hackett Publishing Co. (May 1, 1997)

Rigoglioso, Marguerite Mary, The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece, Palgrave Macmillan; 2009th edition (March 28, 2011)

Taylor, Thomas, First Alcibiades, A Dialogue on the Nature of Man, p. 3, Translated from the Greek by Floyer Sydenham and Thomas Taylor, first published 1804, copywrite 2016 by John W. Fergus, Kshetra Books

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