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A RELIGIOUS AND THEOLOGICAL MONTHLY.
Vol. XV.- APRIL, 1891.- No. LXXXVIII.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PLATO.
Most men, most great men, are the natural and inevitable product of their antecedents and surroundings. They can be accounted for, and we feel that when we know little of their biography we lose a valuable portion of history. But in our spiritual astronomy the greatest men are what comets used to be, entirely exceptional and abnormal. Who can account for Homer, in the dim twilight of civilization, his conceptions of life, manners, , and usages showing an almost savage condition of society, yet his epics the cynosure of the ages? Who can account for Shakespeare ? Least of all those who have sought out the vestiges of him in his birthplace, seen the squalidness of his native home, and thence tracked bis errant footsteps which can have led him into the purlieus of liberal culture only when his transcendent genius had won his citizenship there. Who can account for Raphael ? The very term pre-Raphaelite denotes not preparation, but contrast, and his tutor's pictures explain nothing in him except faults in his earlier that disappear in his later works. The few greatest men that make epochs in their several departments, the fixed stars that have no secular parallax, but hold their unchanged place in midheaven while other luminaries shine for a time, and then grow pale and vanish, have in mind and soul no earthly parents or kindred. What is called their biography teaches us very little about them, and sometimes, as in the case of Shakespeare, is so utterly incommensurate with the man himself as to suggest doubts of the genuineness of his works. We there
Copyright, 1891, by HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & Co.
fore need regret the meagreness of our knowledge about Plato less than if he were less of a man.
But it may be asked, Does not Socrates account for Plato? Not by any means. On the other hand, it is to a very great degree Plato that accounts for Socrates. Socrates was, indeed, a great man in his way, and had Xenophon alone transmitted his memory, it would have been for the veneration of all time. Yet there is no reason for supposing that he transcended Xenophon's report and portrait of him; while Plato's Socrates is not only much more than Xenophon’s, but in many respects of a different type.
I may illustrate what seems to me the difference between Socrates and Plato, by the analogy of physical science. In this, observation must precede theory. Facts must be known before they can be classed under the laws that govern them, and the observer, however keen and profound his vision, holds a lower place intellectually than the theorist — perhaps incapable of accurate observation — who marshals facts in their due order and their mutual relations. Equally in moral and spiritual truth fact must precede theory. There are in this department two orders of mind. There are the practically wise men, who discern intuitively what ought to be believed and done, and who might at first thought seem worth more to the world than the philosophers, yet are really on a lower plane; and then there are those who can so reason up to these truths, and so reason from them, as to extend and elevate them from modes of human thought and action into eternal laws and principles. Highest among the ancients in the former class was Socrates ; in the latter, unsurpassed in all time, was Plato.
In comparing the two we need to take into account the forces that really shape and govern human life and character. Socrates was a moral teacher, who made as few mistakes as a pre-Christian or non-Christian moralist ever made, and who succeeded in a marvelous degree in obtaining the consent of those who heard him to his views of right and duty. I do not, however, find that he produced any extensive moral reformation. Alcibiades was, perhaps, as much under his influence as any one; but he was not made permanently better.
A clear knowledge of the right is of very small ethical value. In our time every well-educated youth knows the right as well as any sage or saint; yet how many there are who recognize it only by consciously violating it! What is needed more than knowledge is motive force, enabling power, that which can coerce the will; and that this power must come from above is no less a philosophical verity than a truth of religious experience. It is not what men fully know, but what they can know only in part, yet can press on ever into the fuller knowledge of it, — that which excites aspiration and longing, – that which one sees, yet, to borrow St. Paul's metaphor, sees but dimly, as if reflected from a metallic mirror, — it is this region of supersensual truth, with its penumbra of mystery, that attracts generous souls into its sphere, that lifts them above greed and lust, that makes them spurn the earthy elements of life and character, that gives them to breathe in its own purer, healthier atmosphere, and at the same time imparts tension and vigor to the extensor muscles of the active powers, is a tonic to the will, and gives law to word and deed. This is the office of philosophy, implied in its very name, — not knowledge or wisdorn, but the love of wisdom, denoting not the self-conceit of the finder, but the humility of the earnest seeker.
In this service Plato had predecessors, — some, like Pythagoras, who left a long line of living light behind them. But their influence was nearly spent when Plato appeared, while his lasts till now. Clement of Alexandria and other Christian fathers reckoned him, along with the Hebrew prophets, among the precursors of the Divine Teacher, of whom none would have been more ready than Plato to say, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” In the Alexandrian school of the infant church, in the revival of learning, and in later times, among the profoundest thinkers of their respective epochs, “ Christian Platonist” has been almost the only title in which the word Christian has not lost dignity and worth by association with any term qualifying it or qualified by it.
Plato's philosophy, like whatever else can claim to be called philosophy, has the unknown for its realm, — a realm which grows with knowledge; for the broader the regions of the known, the more extensive are their confines, where thought can range, imagination soar, and theory find unbounded scope. Pre-Christian philosophy called on its disciples to remain ever in the empyrean, — to look down with contempt on the varying fortunes, the paltry aims, the mean ambitions, the brief pleasures of human life; and scorn of sublunary things was the source and sum of the virtues. Christianity is philosophy, not above life, but in life, — not despising, but transfiguring things earthly, finding in them types, foreshadowings, foreshinings, prophecies of the realm transcending experience