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Topic #D36

Plato, Republic 509d-534e


30 November 2001
Scribe: Evelyn Kam


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



Professor Hutchinson began by making two post-scripts about his Wednesday lecture.  First, he informed us that Aristotle, in the Invitation to Philosophy takes up the issue of the festival of knowledge.  Aristotle claims that it is crazy to spend money for the Olympic games or see men dressed as women or other people when we can simply lay back and observe on a clear night the magnificent display of the festival of knowledge that the gods provide for free. 


Secondly, he stated that the theme of sex and writing were prominent in the Phaedrus and are in fact metaphors for each other.  These are both activities that Plato engaged in.  Plato was a brilliant philosopher and a successful writer.  Hence, the Phaedrus is a testament to the fact that Plato supported the idea that a philosopher's desires rests with the people he teaches and is not forbidden to love them as well.  So we see Plato making room for the possibility of a philosophical writer and of a philosophical lover, both of which were stances rejected by Socrates. 


In the Republic’s analogy of the sun, the sun is representative of the Good.  Like the sun, the Good is mysterious and staggers us into respect and even religious admiration.  The Good is the source of knowledge and the reality of things that are.  If goodness is the application of knowledge then all explanations must involve the concept of goodness.  Plato rejects Anaxagoras' mechanical explanations.  However, Plato fails to meet his own criteria in the Phaedo.  His explanation of things according to his theory of forms lacks a correlation with the concept of goodness.  In it, he defines the beautiful as sharing in the form of Beauty.  Thus, he provides only safe answers and demonstrates the fact that it is not much of a theory. 


In the Timaeus, we are finally given the first surviving example of a post-Socratic cosmology.  In it, an explanation is offered of why it is better that the world is thus and not otherwise.  Therefore, Plato is finally able to satisfy his own requirements by involving the concept of the good and not simply rendering physical explanations.  Then a student asked if this was not simply Anaxagoras' thesis.  According to the student, Anaxagoras' claim is the same as Plato’s in the Timaeus because he states that the world is created to exist in this particular way and so it is best.  Professor Hutchinson answered that although he is not exactly sure, he believes that in Anaxagoras' thesis, the explanation given is not necessarily based on the concept of the Good.  The professor explained that Plato was never remarkable for his originality.  However, he was remarkable for the creative ways he recycles and revives other people’s concepts and ideas.  Furthermore, Plato is able to motivate his readers to take the content seriously and to develop the ideas further. 


The idea of Good and the sun is followed by the concept of the divided line.  We are to imagine varying degrees of clarity—the intelligible and the perceptible.  The perceptible are sometimes seen in terms of reflections or images.  Similarly, the intelligible is sometimes thought of directly and sometimes through images.  This directly links to the theme in the Phaedo that is the method of hypothesis.  However, this method is not always practical.  One cannot simply sit back and write down one’s vision of reality.  Instead, philosophy borrows the successful methods of other subjects and re-applies them to theories in philosophy.  Plato did exactly the same thing since he was very impressed with constructive geometry.  Plato believed that Pythagorean mathematical sciences leads to knowledge of heaven and an appreciation of the divine as well as to the philosophical skill to see truth when it is in front of us.  This puts us in the position to do dialectic, which is a philosophical method that Plato taught and perfected.  Professor Hutchinson then quoted from the reading:


This, then, is the kind of thing that, on the one hand, I said is intelligible, and, on the other, is such that the soul is forced to use hypotheses in the investigation of it, not travelling up to a first principle, since it cannot reach beyond its hypotheses but using as images those very things of which images were made in the section below, and which, by comparison to their images, were thought to be clear and to be valued as such. 

I understand that you mean what happens in geometry and related sciences. 

Then also understand that, by the other subsection of the intelligible, I mean that which reason itself grasps by the power of dialectic.  It does not consider these hypotheses as first principles but truly as hypotheses—but as stepping stones to take off from, enabling it to reach the unhypothetical first principle of everything.  Having grasped this principle, it reverses itself and, keeping hold of what follows from it, comes down to a conclusion without making use of anything visible at all, but only of forms themselves, moving on from forms to forms, and ending in forms.  (Republic VI, 511a-b)


The passage is clearly a background for Plato’s Parmenides.  In this dialogue, Parmenides and Zeno criticize the theory of forms with an impenetrable thicket of hypotheses.  Professor Hutchinson notes that although he has never done so, many other scholars have worked through these hypotheses.  It is in fact an enormous exercise, but one that enlarges the analytical brain and advances one’s power to get behind a theory to the truth.  By reading this passage, Professor Hutchinson hoped to set up the readings of Parmenides and Timaeus for next week.


                  Professor Hutchinson then proceeded to a discussion of the curriculum section of Book VII in the Republic.  He began by paraphrasing a passage beginning at 526d.  In it, rulers are said to require war-like discipline, physical training, knowledge of distances and perspectives as well as relative and absolute measurements.  Thus, what is stressed is not the application of geometry but a pure or unapplied geometry.  The professor then read the discussion of music and harmonics, both classic studies of the Pythagoreans:


                        Do you mean the prelude, or what?  Or don’t you know that all these subjects are merely preludes to the song itself that must also be learned?  Surely you don’t think that people who are clever in these matters are dialecticians.

                        No, by god, I don’t.  Although I have met a few exceptions (…)

Then isn’t this at last, Glaucon, the song that dialectic sings?  It is intelligible, but it is imitated by the power of sight.  We said that sight tries at last to look at the animals themselves, the stars themselves, and, in the end, at the sun itself.  In the same way, whenever someone tries through argument and apart from all sense perceptions to find the being itself of each thing and doesn’t give up until he grasps the good itself with understanding itself, he reaches the end of the intelligible, just as the other reaches the end of the visible.


And what about this journey?  Don’t you call it dialectic?

I do.  (Republic Book VII, 531d-532b)


The professor then paraphrased the allusion to the allegory of the cave that immediately follows this passage.  The discussion reveals that dialectic is a method of abstract philosophical inquiry based on mathematics or what one may call a conceptual mathematics.  It is a preparation to see truths beyond physical conceptions.  This is the promise that Plato sketches for his students.  In other words, if one is an indiscriminate lover of knowledge, one is eligible to be his student and will hence learn the skill to uncover truth.  Professor Hutchinson then stated that many position papers from the week discussed the idea that a lover of knowledge must necessarily love knowledge indiscriminately.  In fact, many students were unconvinced by this idea and believed that there is room for being a true but selective lover of knowledge.   


                 The lecture then moved to the discussion of the analogy of the cave (Republic, Book VII).  The analogy has two themes: the higher realm and the lower realm.  A philosopher would rather remain in philosophy, the higher realm of understanding, rather than accept a position of power in politics.  Philosophers are said to know the reality of things while ordinary people are chained to perceptions of things.  However, it is not always pleasant to be relieved from one’s illusions.  A quoted position paper outlined this very idea.  The student goes on to say that collective people cannot handle the truth.  They are deceived by the subjective truth and it may just be a good thing for them.  People are not capable of being completely rational and function happily in their lives at the same time.  How should one plan for a future if logically thinking, human life is arbitrary and any horrible accident can occur at any moment?  In other words, it is simply too painful to live in this type of truth so people tend to avoid it.  Otherwise, one would be in a constant state of depression and fear, no progress would be made in society since the future cannot be planned and no emotional bonds would be made because relationships are simply too risky. 


                  Professor Hutchinson felt that although this is a compelling argument against the analogy of the cave, a few rebuttals are in order.  First, Plato would acknowledge that much of the objection is true.  He would admit that there are in fact mechanisms of self-deceit and coping.  It is true that life is made more comfortable by certain lies and tactics of self-illusion and self-deception.  For example, our memories are selective and retain the good more than the bad, since it is easier to remember than the bad.  Looking back, the professor said that he too strongly recalls the positive things especially through such filtering methods.  Secondly, Plato would not be satisfied by the argument that since we would be uncomfortable, we should entirely abandon the project of truth seeking.  By venturing out of the cave, the philosopher is able to be in touch with something of a different order—something divine.  Professor Hutchinson then read from Book II of Cicero’s The Nature of the Gods where the philosopher quotes from Aristotle’s lost work On Philosophy.  The passage reveals that the understanding of a higher realm of celestial knowledge is in fact a religious experience and so it is not really relevant if we are not comfortable with it; it is a higher duty.  Third, even if we don’t accept the religious presuppositions of the view shared by Plato and Aristotle, we need not fall into despair; a stance opposite to that in the student’s position paper is occupied by the Epicureans, who stressed how brief and insignificant our lives are, and yet, contrary to the student’s position paper, they claimed that we must focus on this fact because it is liberating.  If we accept the fact that we will die, we will see our life as a gift to be enjoyed and appreciated.