Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Good in the Republic, the King of All in the Second Letter, and Aristotle's criticism of Plato

Plato’s 2nd Letter, written after his 2nd journey to Sicily, is addressed to Dionysius II, the tyrant of Syracuse. With reference to discussions on philosophy that Plato and Dionysius had held during Plato’s previous visit Plato writes: ‘You say that you have not had a sufficient demonstration of the doctrine concerning the nature of “the First” (peri tês tou prȏtou phuseȏs)… The matter stands thus: Related to the King of All (peri ton pantȏn basilea) are all things (pant’ esti), and for his sake they are (kai ekeinou heneka panta), and of all things fair he is the cause (kai ekeino aition hapantȏn tȏn kalȏn).’ (312 D-E, tr. R. G. Bury). Bury says in his ‘Prefatory Note’ to the Letter: ‘What is here said of “the King of All” is closely parallel to the description of the Idea of Good in Republic 509 B, D, 517 C;  so it is natural to equate the First Principle and the first grade of Being with the Idea of Good.’ (Plato IX, LCL 234, pp. 400-401). Plato’s 2nd Letter makes this identification a virtual certainty, for he slips from talking about the king, who is masculine (peri ton pantȏn basilea), to thinking of the Good, which is neuter (kai ekeino aition hapantȏn tȏn kalȏn). In Republic 509 B Plato says: ‘The good not only infuses the power of being known into all things known (Kai tois gignȏskomenois toinun mê monon to gignȏskesthai phanai hupo tou agathou pareinai), but also bestows upon them their being and existence (alla kai to einai te kai tên ousian hup’ ekeinou autois proseinai), and yet the good is not existence (ouk ousias ontos tou agathou), but lies far beyond it in dignity and power (all’ eti epekeina tês ousias presbeiai kai dunamei huperechontos, tr. B. Jowett).’

There is a profound difference between the passage concerning the Good in the 2nd Letter and the related passages in the Republic. The thought ‘all things are for the sake of the Good’ (kai ekeinou heneka panta) is missing in the Republic. Aristotle says in Metaphysics A. at 988 a 9-11 that Plato ‘has used only two causes, that of the essence and the material cause (for the Forms are the causes of the essence of all other things, and the One is the cause of the essence of the Forms)’ (tr. W. D. Ross). Ross remarks that Aristotle ignores ‘various suggestions of a final cause – the ultimate good or hou charin of Philebus 20 D, 53 E, the object of the creator’s purpose in Timaeus 29 D ff., and in Laws 903 C.’ (Aristotle’s Metaphysics, ‘A revised text with Introduction and Commentary by W. D. Ross’, Oxford University Press 1924, pp. 176-7).

In my entry of October 16, 2014 entitled ‘A note on the 3rd book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics’ I argued that Aristotle wrote the 1st book of the Metaphysics after Plato left Athens for Sicily and before he returned. On this dating of Metaphysics A Ross’ criticism of Aristotle appears to be unjustified, for the Philebus, Timaeus, and Laws are late dialogues, which can be safely dated after Plato returned from his 3rd journey to Sicily. Plato’s attempts to do justice to the final cause in these three dialogues can be viewed as his response to Aristotle’s Metaphysics A, and Plato’s 2nd Letter represents a powerful corroboration of Siebeck’s theory that Plato in the Parmenides responded to Aristotle’s oral criticism of Plato’s theory of Forms in the Academy.

In Metaphysics A Aristotle proposes four original causes of things: 1) the substance or the essence (tên ousian kai to ti ên einai), i.e. the formal cause, 2) the matter or substratum (tên hulên kai to hupokeimenon), i.e. the material cause, 3) the source of the movement (hothen hê archê tês kinêseȏs), i.e. the efficient or moving cause, 4) the purpose and the good (to hou heneka kai t’agathon), that is the final cause, which is opposed (antikeimenên) to the third cause, for it is the end (telos gar) of all generation and movement (geneseȏs kai kinêseȏs pasês) (983a24-32). Aristotle says that ‘it is clear (phaneron) that Plato has used only two causes (duoin aitiain monon kechrêtai), that of the essence (têi te tou ti esti) and the material cause (kai têi kata tên hulên), for the Forms (ta gar eidê) are the causes of the essence (tou ti estin aitia) of all other things (tois allois), and the One is the cause of the essence of the Forms (tois d’ eidesi to hen). (988a7-11, tr. Ross)

W. D. Ross notes: ‘Aristotle ignores various suggestions of an efficient cause in Plato – the self-moving soul of Phaedrus 245C, D, Laws 891-899, the demiurge of Sophist 265 B-D and of Timaeus 28C ff., the aitia tês mixeȏs (‘cause of the mixture’) of Philebus 23d, 26 E- 27 B, and various suggestions of a final cause – the ultimate good or hou charin (‘for the sake of what’) Philebus 20 D, 53 E, the object of the creator’s purpose in Timaeus 29 D ff., and in Laws 903 C. He doubtless thinks Plato’s treatment of these causes inadequate, but that does not justify him in speaking as if Plato had ignored them completely.’ (Ross’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, op. cit. p. 176-7)

Since Ross believes that Plato wrote all books of the Metaphysics after the death of Plato, he cannot but accuse Aristotle of misrepresenting Plato. On the dating that I have proposed – Aristotle wrote Metaphysics A after Plato went to Sicily in 361 BC and before he returned to Athens in 360 BC – the matter appears to be very different. According to the currently accepted dating of Plato’s dialogues, those mentioned by Ross followed his Sicilian adventure, so that Plato’s attempts to do justice to the efficient and the final cause may be viewed as his response to Aristotle’s criticism.

Does this mean that I should recant my dating of the Phaedrus as Plato’s first dialogue? (For my dating of the Phaedrus see The Lost Plato on my website, especially Ch. 2 ‘A critical review of doctrinal arguments for and against the late dating of the Phaedrus’, Ch. 3 ‘Stylometric arguments for and against the late dating of the Phaedrus’, and Ch. 4 ‘The dating of the Phaedrus: Ancient Sources’.) No, it does not, for in Metaphysics Λ Aristotle writes that ‘Plato can’t say (oude Platȏni hoion te legein) that “that which moves itself” (to auto heauto kinoun) is the primary cause (archên einai), which he sometimes views as such (hên oietai eniote), for the soul is later and coeval with heavens (husteron gar kai hama ouranȏi hê psuchê), according to his account (hȏs phêsin)’ (1071b37-1072a3). The expression to auto heauto kinoun is used by Plato in the Phaedrus, where it figures as the definition of the soul (245e7-246a1) and the first principle of motion (kinêseȏs archê to auto hauto kinoun, 245d7). Aristotle’s quoting it clearly indicates that he had the Phaedrus in front of his mind when he wrote the given passage. There is a major difference between the Phaedrus and the Laws. In the Phaedrus Plato defines the soul, ‘that which moves itself’ as a first principle, which cannot come into being (archê de agenêton), for anything that comes to be must come to be from the first principle (ex archês gar anangkê pan to gignomenon gignesthai), whereas the first principle cannot come to be from anything whatsoever (autên de mêd’ ex henos, 245d1). In the Laws Plato emphatically insists that the soul, that is ‘motion that moves itself’, is a created cause, genomenên 895b4, 896b3, c1; the creation of the soul is described in Timaeus 41d. The Phaedran view that the soul is an uncreated first principle of motion must have been discarded by Plato himself as a youthful aberration.

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