Monday, August 1, 2016

Bertrand Russell on ‘The Theory of Ideas’, Plato’s Republic and his Timaeus

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)

Does this mean that according to Russell Plato viewed the Forms as God’s creation? It does, for he goes on: ‘In the last book of the Republic 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 also have a common “idea” or “form”. For instance, though there are many beds, there is only one “idea” of “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. 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.’ (ibid.)

Later on in the chapter Russell subjects ‘Plato’s theory’ to criticism: ‘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)

Does Plato deserve Russell’s criticism? Let us see the passage in Republic X on the basis of which he interprets Plato’s theory of Forms.

Socrates: ‘Well then (Oukoun), 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, as I think that we may say (hȇn phaimen an, hȏs egȏimai, theon ergasasthai) – for no one else can be the maker (ȇ tin’ allon)?’ – Glaucon: ‘No one (Oudena), I think (oimai).’ – Socrates: ‘There is another (Mian de ge) which is the work of the carpenter (hȇn ho tektȏn)?’ – Glaucon: ‘Yes (Nai).’ – Socrates: ‘And the work of the painter is a third (Mia de hȇn ho zȏgraphos. ȇ gar)? – Glaucon: ‘Yes (Estȏ).’ – Socrates: ‘Beds, then, are of three kinds, and there are three artists who superintend them: God, the maker of the bed, and the painter (Zȏgraphos dȇ, klinopoios, theos, treis houtoi epistatai trisin eidesi klinȏn)?’ – Glaucon: ‘Yes, there are three of them (Nai treis).’ – Socrates: ‘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)’ – Glaucon: ‘Why is that (Pȏs dȇ)?’ – Socrates: ‘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).’ – Glaucon: ‘Very true (Orthȏs).’ – Socrates: ‘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. B. Jowett)

What kind of creation by God can Plato be speaking of when he maintains that God created only one idea of bed, ‘because even if He had made but two, a third would still appear behind them of which they again both possessed the form and that would be the real bed and not the two others’? Since even in Plato’s days there may have been some among the readers of the Republic who took the ‘creation of the Forms’ in the 10th book as the view held by Plato, Aristotle says in the 10th book of his Metaphysics that ‘Plato was not far wrong (ou kakȏs Platȏn ephȇ) when he said that there are as many Forms as there are kinds of natural objects (hoti eidȇ estin hoposa phusei), if there are Forms (eiper estin eidȇ) distinct from the things of this earth (alla toutȏn hoion pur, sarx, kephalȇ).’ (1070a18-19, tr. W. D. Ross) Furthermore, in the 1st book of the Metaphysics, in which Aristotle speaks still as one of the disciples of Plato, he says that ‘we say that there are no Forms of such things as a house or a ring’ (hoion oikia kai daktulios, hȏn ou phamen eidȇ einai), i.e. of men made things (991b6-7).

On the margin of my text I wrote down Proclus’ remark from his Commentary on the Timaeus, which I translate: ‘For an artisan does not produce according to the Forms what he produces (ou gar kata tinas ideas ho technitȇs poiei ha poiei), even though this is what Socrates appears to be saying in the Republic (ei kai dokei touto legein ho en Politeiai Sȏkratȇs), but what he says there he says as an example (all’ ekei men ta eirȇmena paradeigmatos eirȇtai charin), but not about the Forms as such’ (kai ou peri autȏn tȏn ideȏn, in Tim. 104 F – [it could be 204 F, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish 1 and 2 in my handwriting]).

In the Timaeus Plato says: ‘First then, in my judgment, we must make a distinction and ask (prȏton diaireteon tade), What is that which always is (ti to on aei) and has no becoming (genesin de ouk echon); and what is that which is always becoming (kai ti to gignomenon men aiei) and never is (on de oudepote)? That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason (to men dȇ noȇsei meta logou perilȇpton) is always in the same state (aei kata tauta on); but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason (to d’ au doxȇi met’ aisthȇseȏs alogou doxaston), is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is (gignomenon kai apollumenon, ontȏs de oudepote on). Now everything that becomes or is created (pan de au to gignomenon) must of necessity be created by some cause (hup’ aitiou tinos ex anankȇs gignesthai), for without a cause nothing can be created (panti gar adynaton chȏris aitiou genesin schein). The work of the creator, whenever he looks to the unchangeable and fashions the form and nature of his work after an unchangeable pattern (hotou men oun an ho dȇmiourgos pros to kata t’auta echon blepȏn aei, toioutȏi tini proschrȏmenos paradeigmati, tȇn idean kai dunamin autou apergazetai), must necessarily be made fair and perfect (kalon ex anankȇs houtȏs apoteleisthai pan); but when he looks to the created only (hou d‘ an eis gegonos), and uses a created pattern (gennȇtȏi paradeigmati proschrȏmenos), it is not fair or perfect (ou kalon).’ (27d5-28b2, tr. B. Jowett)

Plato goes on to enquire whether (poteron) ‘the whole world or cosmos’ (ho dȇ pas ouranos ȇ kosmos, 28b2-3) ‘was always in existence (ȇn aei) and without beginning (geneseȏs archȇn echȏn oudemian), or created (ȇ gegonen), and had it a beginning (ap’ archȇs tinos arxamenos, 28b6-7)?’ He answers: ‘Created (gegonen), being visible and tangible and having a body (horatos gar haptos te estin kai sȏma echon), and therefore sensible (panta de toiauta aisthȇta); and all sensible things (ta d’ aisthȇta) are apprehended by opinion and sense (doxȇi perilȇpta met’ aisthȇseȏs) and are in a process of creation and created (gignomena kai gennȇta ephanȇ, 28b7-c2).’ Then he says that we must find the creator and father of the universe (ton men oun poiȇtȇn kai patera tou pantos heurein, 28c4) and ask whether (poteron) in the act of creation he looked at ‘the pattern of the unchangeable (pros to kata t’auta kai hȏsautȏs echon), or of that which is created (ȇ pros to gegonos, 29a1-2)’. He answers that ‘everyone will see (panti dȇ saphes) that he must have looked at the eternal (hoti pros to aїdion); for the world is the fairest of creations (ho men gar kallistos tȏn gegonotȏn), and he is the best of causes (ho d’ aristos tȏn aitiȏn). And having been created in this way (houtȏ dȇ gegenȇmenos), the world has been framed in the likeness of that which is apprehended by reason and mind and is unchangeable (pros to logȏi kai phronȇsei perilȇpton kai kata t’auta echon dedȇmiourgȇtai).’ (29a5-b1, tr. B. Jowett)

This reads like Plato’s answer to those readers of the Republic who understood the 10th book as Russell did. Plato helped his readers by conceiving the Timaeus dramatically as a sequence to the Republic. Socrates: ‘The chief theme of my yesterday’s discourse was the State – how constituted and of what citizens composed it would seem likely to be most perfect (chthes pou tȏn hup emou rȇthentȏn logȏn peri politeias ȇn to kephalaion hoia te kai ex hoiȏn andrȏn aristȇ katephainet’ an moi genesthai, Timaeus 17c1-3, tr. Jowett).

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