I’ve looked at the Wikipedia entry on Plato’s Republic. In the section on ‘Scholarly views’ Bertrand Russell with his History of Western Philosophy has a prominent place. This prompts me to discuss more thoroughly Russell’s view of Plato’s theory.
Russell writes: ‘According to the metaphysical part of the doctrine, the word “cat” means a certain ideal cat, “the cat”, created by God, and unique. Particular cats partake of the nature of the cat, but more or less imperfectly; it is only owing to this imperfection that there can be many of them. The cat is real; particular cats are only apparent.’ (B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge Classics 2004, p. 123)
In making this assertion, Russell is wrong. There is no place in Plato where he might speak of God as a creator of ‘the cat’, i.e. the Idea or Form of a cat or any other animal or natural object or substance like a tree, fire, or water. How did it happen to Russell that he misinterpreted Plato so badly?
Russell goes on: ‘In the last book of the Republic, as a preliminary to a condemnation of painters, there is a very clear exposition of the doctrine of ideas or forms. Here Plato explains that, whenever a number of individuals have a common name, they have also a common ‘idea’ or ‘form’. For instance, though there are many beds, there is only one ‘idea’ or ‘form’ of a bed. Just as a reflection of a bed in a mirror is only apparent and not ‘real’, so the various particular beds are unreal, being only copies of the ‘idea’, which is the one real bed, and is made by God.’ (p. 123)
This is a brilliant exposition of the opening part of the 10th book of the Republic. Russell erred in viewing Plato’s theory of Forms through the looking glass of this introductory section of the 10th book. What facilitated this mistake, was his viewing the 10th book through the looking glass of Plato’s exposition of the theory of Forms in Republic V-VII. We shall see how it happened if we simply follow his exposition.
Russell: ‘Of this one bed, made by God, there can be knowledge, but in respect of the many beds made by carpenters there can be only opinion’ [Russell’s italics] (p. 123).
There is no such statement in the 10th book of the Republic. Here Russell projects into the 10th book Plato’s view of the Forms introduced in the 5th book.
Socrates: ‘Those who gaze on many beautiful things (Tous ara polla kala theȏmenous), and who yet neither see absolute beauty (auto de to kalon mȇ horȏntas), nor can follow any guide who points the way thither (mȇd’ allȏi ep’ auto agonti dunamenous hepesthai); who see instances of justice (kai polla dikaia), but not absolute justice (auto de to dikaion mȇ), and the like (kai panta houtȏ), such persons may be said in all their pronouncements to have opinion but not knowledge (doxazein phȇsomen hapanta, gignȏskein de hȏn doxazousin ouden) .’ – Glaucon: ‘That is certain (Anankȇ).’ – Socrates: ‘But those who in everything look to the absolute and eternal and immutable (Ti de au tous auta hekasta theȏmenous kai aei kata t’auta hȏsautȏs echonta) may be said to know (ar’ ou gignȏskein), and not to have opinion only (all’ ou doxazein)?’ – Glaucon: ‘Neither can that be denied (Anankȇ kai touto).’ (479e1-9, tr. B. Jowett)
Here I must take issue with Jowett’s yet, which I have underlined. It has no counterpart in the original. Plato speaks simply of those ‘who neither see absolute beauty, nor can follow any guide who points the way thither’. For this distinction between knowledge and opinion substantiates the distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers announced earlier: ‘We must (Anankaion) explain (diorisasthai) whom we mean when we say that philosophers are to rule the State (tous philosophous tinas legontes tolmȏmen phanai dein archein); having brought them to light (hina diadȇlȏn genomenȏn), our defence will be (dunȇtai tis amunesthai) that there are some natures who ought to study philosophy and to be leaders in the State (endeiknumenos hoti tois men prosȇkei phusei haptesthai te philosophias hȇgemoneuein t’ en polei); and others who are not born to be philosophers (tois d’ allois mȇte haptesthai), and are meant to be followers rather than leaders (akolouthein te tȏi hȇgoumenȏi).’ (474b4-c3, tr. Jowett)
Jowett’s ‘explain’ stands for Plato’s diorisasthai, which means ‘draw a boundary through’, ‘delimit’, ‘separate’; Jowett’s ‘others who are not born to be philosophers’ stands for Plato’s tois d’ allois mȇte haptesthai, which means: ‘the others must not even touch philosophy’. I pointed to similar bowdlerizing of Plato’s Republic by Jowett (and Russell) in ‘1 Bertrand Russell on “The Theory of Ideas” and Plato’s Republic’ posted on July 23.
Russell goes on: ‘The philosopher, as such, will be interested only in the one ideal bed, not in the many beds found in the sensible world. He will have a certain indifference to ordinary mundane affairs: “how can he who has magnificence of mind and is the spectator of all time and all existence, think much of human life?” (p. 123)
Speaking of the one ideal bed in contrast to many sensible beds, Russell appears to be in Book X, but in fact he jumped into Book VI. Socrates: ‘Then how can he who has magnificence of mind (Hȇi oun huparchei dianoiai megaloprepeia) and is the spectator of all time (kai theȏria pantos men chronou) and all existence (pasȇs de ousias), think human life to be a great thing (hoion te oiei toutȏi mega ti dokein einai ton anthrȏpinon bion)?’ (486a8-10, tr. Jowett)
Having thus constructed his view of Plato’s theory of Forms by viewing Books V-VII through the looking glass of Book X, and Book X through the looking glass of Books V-VII, Russell subjects his theoretical construct to criticism.
Russell: ‘For Parmenides there is only the One; for Plato, there are many ideas. There are not only beauty, truth, and goodness, but, as we saw, there is the heavenly bed, created by God; there is a heavenly man, a heavenly dog, a heavenly cat, and so on through a whole Noah’s ark. All this however, seems, in the Republic, to have been not adequately thought out. A Platonic idea or form is not a thought, though it may be the object of a thought. It is difficult to see how God can have created it, since its being is timeless, and he could not have decided to create a bed unless his thought, when he decided, had had for its object that very Platonic bed which we are told he brought into existence. What is timeless must be uncreated.’ (p. 129-130)
Let me confront Russell’s view of Plato’s Forms with Plato’s view of the Forms in the Phaedrus, Republic VI, and Timaeus. In the Phaedran Palinode Plato’s Socrates depicts the region of true being, that is of the Forms, as follows:
‘The region above the heavens (Ton de huperouranion topon) has never yet been celebrated as it deserves by any earthly poet, nor will it ever be (oute tis humnȇse pȏ tȏn tȇide poiȇtȇs oute pote humnȇsei kat’ axian). But it is like this (echei de hȏde) – for one must be bold enough to say what is true (tolmȇteon gar oun to ge alȇthes eipein), especially when speaking about truth (allȏs te kai peri alȇtheias legonta). This region is occupied by being which really is, which is without colour or shape, intangible, observable by the steersman of the sole alone, by intellect, and to which the class of true knowledge relates (hȇ gar achrȏmatos te kai aschȇmatistos kai anaphȇs ousia ontȏs ousa, psuchȇs kubernȇtȇi monȏi theatȇ nȏi, peri hȇn to tȇs alȇthous epistȇmȇs genos, touton echei ton topon). Thus because the mind of a god (hat’ oun theou dianoia) is nourished by insight and knowledge unmixed (nȏi te kai epistȇmȇi akȇratȏi trephomenȇ), and so too that of every soul (kai hapasȇs psuchȇs) which is concerned (hosȇi an melȇi) to receive what is appropriate to it (to prosȇkon dexasthai), it is glad at last to see what is and is nourished and made happy by gazing on what is true (idousa dia chronou to on agapai te kai theȏrousa t’alȇthȇ trephetai te kai eupathei), until the revolution brings it around in a circle to the same point (heȏs an kuklȏi hȇ periphora eis t’auton perienenkȇi). In its circuit (en de tȇi periodȏi) it catches sight of justice itself (kathorai men autȇn dikaiosunȇn), of self-control (kathorai de sȏphrosunȇn), of knowledge (kathorai de epistȇmȇn) – not that knowledge to which coming into being attaches (ouch’ hȇi genesis prosestin), or that which seems to be different in each different one of the things that we now say are (oud’ hȇ estin pou hetera en heterȏi ousa hȏn hȇmeis nun ontȏn kaloumen), but that which is in what really is and which is really knowledge (alla tȇn en tȏi ho estin on ontȏs epistȇmȇn ousan).’ (247c3-e2, tr. C. J. Rowe)
To view this passage through the looking glass of the 10th book of the Republic means distorting it beyond recognition.
In the Republic V-VII, the philosopher-ruler is in the centre of attention. What makes him a ruler by nature, whether he becomes a ruler in reality or no, is his ability to see the Forms, i.e. to see the truth, being that truly is, exempt from any change and coming-to-be, as it is described in the Phaedran Palinode. Socrates says in the 6th book: ‘Let us suppose it agreed that philosophical minds (Touto men dȇ tȏn philosophȏn phuseȏn peri hȏmologȇsthȏ hȇmin) love any form of science (hoti mathȇmatos aei erȏsin) which may give them a glimpse (ho an autois dȇloi) of an eternal reality not disturbed by generation and decay (ekeinȇs tȇs ousias aei ousȇs kai mȇ planȏmenȇs hupo geneseȏs kai phthoras).’ (485a10-b3, tr. Jowett)
Concerning the Timaeus I may refer to passage 27d5-28b2, which I quoted in ‘Bertrand Russell “Theory of Ideas”, Plato’s Republic and his Timaeus’ posted on August 1. To this passage I may add the following: ‘If (ei men) mind (nous) and (kai) true opinion (doxa alȇthȇs) are two distinct classes (eston duo genȇ), then I say that there certainly are these self-existent ideas unperceived by sense (pantapasin einai kath’ hauta tauta, anaisthȇta huph’ hȇmȏn eidȇ), and apprehended only by the mind (nooumena monon) … But we must affirm them to be distinct (duo dȇ lekteon einai), for they have a distinct origin (dioti chȏris gegonaton) and are of a different nature (anomoiȏs te echeton); the one is implanted in us by instruction (to men gar autȏn dia didachȇs), the other by persuasion (to d’ hupo peithous hȇmin engignetai) … every man may be said to share in true opinion (kai tou men panta andra metechein phateon), but mind is the attribute of the gods (nou de theous) and of very few men (anthrȏpȏn de genos brachu ti). Wherefore also we must acknowledge (toutȏn de houtȏs echontȏn homologȇteon) that one kind of being is the form which is always the same (hen men einai to kata t’auta eidos echon), uncreated (agennȇton) and (kai) indestructible (anȏlethron), never receiving anything into itself from without (oute eis heauto eisdechomenon allo allothen) nor itself going to any other (oute auto eis allo poi ion), but invisible (aoraton de) and imperceptible by any sense (kai allȏs anaisthȇton), and of which contemplation is granted to intelligence only (touto ho dȇ noȇsis eilȇchen episkopein). (Pl. Tim. 51d3-52a4, tr. Jowett)
Contrast with these passages the passage in Republic X, in which god creates the idea of bed: ‘Here we find three beds (trittai tines klinai hautai gignontai): one existing in nature (mia men hȇ en tȇi phusei ousa), which is made by the God … another (mian de ge) is the work of the carpenter (hȇn ho tektȏn) … the work of the painter is a third (mia de hȇn ho zȏgraphos) … God (ho men dȇ theos), whether from choice or from necessity (eite ouk ebouleto, eite tis anankȇ epȇn) made one bed in nature and one only; two or more such beds neither ever have been nor ever will be made by God (mȇ pleon ȇ mian en tȇi phusei apergasasthai auton klinȇn, houtȏs epoiȇsen mian monon autȇn ekeinȇn ho estin klinȇ; duo de toiautai ȇ pleious oute ephuteuthȇsan hupo tou theou oute mȇ phuȏsin) … Because even if He had made but two (hoti ei duo monas poiȇseien), a third would still appear behind them (palin an mia anaphaneiȇ) of which they again both possessed the form (hȇs ekeinai an au amphoterai to eidos echoien), and that would be the real bed and not the two others (kai eiȇ an ho estin klinȇ ekeinȇ all’ ouch hai duo) … God knew this, I suppose (Tauta dȇ oimai eidȏs ho theos), and He desired to be the real maker of a real bed (boulomenos einai ontȏs klinȇs poiȇtȇs ontȏs ousȇs), not a kind of maker of a kind of bed (alla mȇ klinȇs tinos mȇde klinopoios tis), and therefore he created a bed which is essentially and by nature one only (mian phusei autȇn epoiȇsen).’ (597b5-d3, tr. Jowett)
In my preceding post I asked: Why did Plato in the last book of the Republic introduce the notion of God as creator of Forms? I answered that he did so to protect the Republic from an accusation of introducing new deities, the accusation for which Socrates was sentenced to death. In the Phaedrus Plato’s Socrates proclaims that ‘God has his divinity by virtue of being with the Forms’ (pros hoisper theos ȏn theios estin, 249c6)’. If anything, this clearly sounds like introducing the Forms as a new deity. If we view the Phaedrus as a dialogue written prior to the death of Polemarchus in the hands of the Thirty tyrants, as I have argued in The Lost Plato on my website, Plato as the author of the Phaedrus was protected by the amnesty announced by the victorious democrats after their defeat of the Thirty. Any reader with a little bit of intelligence – such as Isocrates and his followers, sharply criticised in the 6th book of the Republic for their pandering to the appetites of hoi polloi – could see that the Forms discussed in Republic V-VII are the Forms introduced in the Phaedrus. Plato therefore had to devise a new protection; this he did by presenting god as the creator of forms in the last book of the Republic.
If this is right, is there any possibility of viewing the introductory passages of Republic X other than in the light of Republic III?
Socrates: ‘Again, truth should be highly valued (Alla mȇn kai alȇtheian ge peri pollou poiȇteon); if we were right in saying (ei gar orthȏs elegomen arti) that falsehood is useless to the gods (kai tȏi onti theoisi men achrȇston pseudos), and useful only as a medicine to the men (anthrȏpois de chrȇsimon hȏs en pharmakou eidei), then the use of such medicines should be restricted to the physicians (dȇlon hoti to ge toiouton iatrois doteon); private individuals have no business with them (idiȏtais de ouch’ hapteon) … Then if anyone at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the State should be the persons (Tois archousin dȇ tȇs poleȏs, eiper tisin allois, prosȇkei pseudesthai); and they, in their dealings either with enemies or with their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good (ȇ polemiȏn ȇ politȏn heneka ep’ ȏpheliai tȇs poleȏs).’ (389b2-9, tr. Jowett)
Plato’s philosopher is a ruler by nature irrespective of whether he is given an opportunity to rule in a State, or not, as Plato makes abundantly clear in books V-VII, and again in book IX, which ends with the discussion on the nature and the way of life of a true philosopher.
Socrates: ‘He will look (All’ apoblepȏn ge) at the city which is within him (pros tȇn en hautȏi politeian), and take heed (kai phulattȏn) that no disorder occur in it (mȇ ti parakinȇi hautou tȏn ekei), such as might arise either from affluence (dia plȇthos ousias) or from want (ȇ di’ oligotȇta); and upon this principle he will regulate (houtȏs kubernȏn) his property and gain or spend according to his means (prosthȇsei kai analȏsei tȇs ousias kath’ hoson t’ an hoios t’ ȇi).’ – Glaucon: ‘Very true (Komidȇi men oun).’ – Socrates: ‘And, for the same reason, he will gladly accept and enjoy such honours as he deems likely to make him a better man (Alla mȇn kai timas ge, eis t’auton apoblepȏn, tȏn men methexei kai geusetai hekȏn, has an hȇgȇtai ameinȏ hauton poiȇsein); but those, whether private or public, which are likely to disorder his life, he will avoid (has d’ an lusein tȇn huparchousan hexin, pheuxetai idiai kai dȇmosiai)?’ – Glaucon: ‘Then, if that is his motive, he will not be a statesman (Ouk ara ta ge politika ethelȇsei prattein, eanper totou kȇdȇtai).’ – Socrates: ‘By the dog of Egypt (nȇ ton kuna), he will! in the city which is his own he certainly will (en ge tȇi heautou polei kai mala), though in the land of his birth perhaps not (ou mentoi isȏs en ge tȇi patridi), unless he have a divine call (ean mȇ theia tis sumbȇi tuchȇ).’ – Glaucon: ‘I understand (Manthanȏ); you mean that he will be a ruler in the city of which we are the founders (en hȇi nun diȇlthomen oikizontes polei legeis), and which exists in idea only (tȇi en logois keimenȇi); for I do not believe that there is such an one anywhere on earth (epei gȇs ge oudamou oimai autȇn einai)?’ – Socrates: ‘But perhaps it is laid up as a pattern in heaven (All’ en ouranȏi isȏs paradeigma anakeitai), which he who desires may behold (tȏi boulomenȏi horan), and beholding (kai horȏnti), may set his own house in order (heauton katoikizein – In a note, Jowett offers an alternative translation of these words: ‘take up his abode there’). But whether such a city exists or ever will exist in fact, is no matter (diapherei de ouden eite pou estin eite estai); for he will live after the manner of that city (ta gar tautȇs monȇs an praxeien), having nothing to do with any other (allȇs de oudemias).’ (591e1-592b5, tr. Jowett)
Viewing the opening passages of Republic X, which are alien to Plato’s thought, in the light of these passages from Republic III and IX is plausible, for Plato had to protect the Republic not only for his own sake but for the sake of his disciples in the Academy as well.