Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Book Review: "Platonism" by Paul Elmer More

Paul Elmer More is an obscure early 20th century writer who, among other things, has written a trilogy of books on Plato and his followers. A few years ago, I read More's Hellenistic Philosophies (the third book in the trilogy) in preparation for a class I was teaching on Alexander the Great. Frankly, it was excellent. Clear, concise, comprehensive, and a good deal cheaper than the standard work on the subject by Long- even if only because it is only available as a cheap reprint. As a result, I've picked up the first two books in More's trilogy on Plato, Platonism and The Religion of Plato (to be read/reviewed later). So far, the first and the last have been excellent, and I suspect The Religion of Plato will measure up as well.

In Platonism, More sets out to discuss the basics of Plato's writings, while touching briefly on some of the major difficulties of their interpretation. The chapter divisions themselves are worthy of note, and provide the basic issues More engages:

  1. The Three Socratic Theses
  2. The Socratic Quest
  3. The Platonic Quest
  4. The Socratic Paradox: the Dualism of Plato
  5. Psychology
  6. The Doctrine of Ideas
  7. Science and Cosmogony
  8. Metaphysics
  9. Conclusion
(In an appendix, More gives a short summary of each dialogue, and outlines a proposed reading plan. This outline is pretty useful, so I've pasted it below.)

In the course of these chapters, More provides an extended discussion of several major and minor dialogues, including: Protagoras, Gorgias, The Republic, The Laws, The Statesman (Politicus), Thaetetus, Crito, Timaeus, Parmenides, Cratylus, and The Sophist. He also compares and contrasts Plato to both other philosophers (Mill, Rousseau, Kant, and Edwards all make appearances) and to later "Platonists" (Plotinus was the one I'd heard of, along with a bunch of 19th century names I didn't know). 

More begins his discussion by outlining the "three Socratic theses," namely:
  • Intellectual skepticism: this does not mean "absolute suspension of judgment." Such absolutes are impossible- reason must have some role in life, and connections have to exist between us and the world (4-5). Otherwise, we are animals and doing nothing more than appealing to the "brute nature" in all of us (4-6). "Skepticism" in this sense is examining experience all the way to its conclusion. That is, Plato is challenging both reason and the senses through the function of the will. This is the groundwork of philosophy and morality alike, since it involves looking through the senses and trying to find the world behind all of physical reality. This, in turn, is directly tied to the second theses:
  • Spiritual affirmation and assurance: Doubt of our own reason and senses leads to the conclusion that there is a higher and more certain spiritual reality underlying existence. Socrates' trial is proof of this, as More notes:

    "Socrates was not contradicting himself [when he] avowed that his only wisdom was to know his own ignorance, yet declared himself ready to face death with this downright affirmation: 'to do wrong and to disobey our superior, whether human or divine, this I do know to be an evil and shameful thing.' He had an invincible assurance of this spiritual fact for the very reason that his scepticism went deep enough to include those current judgments and those immediate values of sensation which to the Pyrrho [i.e. the "pure" skeptic] were the only certain guides through the perplexities of life." (7)

    Skepticism and spiritual affirmation are the negative and positive aspects of the "same intuitive truth." (8)
  • The identity of virtue and knowledge: this is the (in?)famous conclusion of Socrates that knowledge=virtue. Consequently, people only sin through ignorance. (We must, More argues, leave some room here for paradox, and remember that Socrates stands on the line between mysticism and rationalism, and so ends up being neither a mystic nor a rationalist- which in turns leaves a big mess for his students to sort out.) The problem in Socrates' day is that people had bought into the Sophists' arguments that "man is the measure of all things," which means that ethics was being both shaped by opinion rather than reality and simultaneously cut off from any kind of teleology. Socrates sought to restore true virtue by tying it directly to the true reality that lies in back of all fleeting human opinion, and in doing so provided transcendent goals for ethics. 
The rest of the book is a topical walk with More through the dialogues of Plato exploring these three theses. And contrasting Plato's conclusions and claims with those of other great philosophers. I confess I'm not enough of a Plato scholar to judge how accurate More's interpretation of Plato is. I am, however, enough of a reader to judge More's prose to be excellent and his arguments coherent. The last chapter includes a discussion of whether Plato's ideas have done more good or evil in the world that is especially interesting. 

Overall, this is an excellent book that really should be brought back into print at some point. I intend to crib much from it the next time I teach on Plato.

More's "Suggested order of reading"

According to that bastion of postmodern wisdom, the list of works assumed to be authentically Plato's has changed since More's day, nonetheless I suspect this is a useful order to follow through the dialogues. 

Below is the Amazon link to a good reprint; Platonism is also available as a free Google ebook, for those with the techno-wherewithall to access it.

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