Thursday, August 4, 2016

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

In the chapter on ‘The Theory of Ideas’ in his History of Western Philosophy Russel views Plato’s Forms through the looking glass of the last book of the Republic as God’s creations, and he is wrong in doing so. He is particularly wrong when he maintains that ‘according to the metaphysical part of the doctrine, the word “cat” means a certain ideal cat, “the cat”, created by God, and unique (p. 123)’, for Plato in the tenth book of the Republic speaks of God as the maker of the Form of bed (597b), and he introduces the whole discussion by contemplating the Forms of table and of bed – ‘of these two men-made implements’ (ideai ge pou peri tauta ta skeuȇ duo, 596b3) – but he does not speak of God as creator of any animal or any natural object. This clearly indicated to Plato’s followers that the Forms of which he speaks as created by God were not the real Forms, for on Aristotle’s testimony Plato maintained that there are as many Forms as there are natural objects (hoposa physei, Met. 1070a18).

Russell’s mistake raises a serious question: Why did Plato in the last book of the Republic introduce the notion of God as creator of Forms – for that’s what he appears to be doing.

Adam in his Commentary on the Republic appears to have grappled with this problem. At 597b5-6 Socrates says: ‘Here we find three beds: one existing in nature, which is made by God’. On the margin of my Oxford edition of the text I wrote Adam’s note: ‘If God and the Idea of Good are the same, Plato is merely saying in theological language what he formerly said in philosophical, when he derived the ousia of all other Ideas from the Idea of Good (VI 509 B).’

Pace Adam, I don’t think that the God creating the Form of bed in Republic X can be identified with the Idea of Good in Republic VI  509 B: ‘The Good not only infuses the power of being known into all things known (Kai tois gignȏskomenois toinun mȇ monon to gignȏskesthai phanai hupo tou agathou pareinai), but also bestows upon them their being and existence (alla kai to einai te kai tȇn 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 tȇs ousias presbeiai kai dunamei huperechontos).’ (509b6-10, tr. B. Jowett)

I believe that Plato’s assertion that being and existence is bestowed upon the Forms (autois proseinai) from the Good (hup’ ekeinou) should not be viewed in terms of the creation of the Forms by God discussed in Republic X, but rather in terms of the community or association of Forms (koinȏnias allȇlȏn, 254c5), which Plato discusses in the Sophist (see 254a-d) and which he seems to be indicating in Republic V, where he says that each Form is one, but because of the association of the Forms (allȇlȏn koinȏniai) each appears to be many (polla phainesthai hekaston, 476a5-7).

What is here decisive is the way Socrates speaks of God as the creator of the Form of bed in Republic X, where he says that God ‘made one bed in nature and one only (mȇ pleon ȇ mian en tȇi phusei apergasasthai auton klinȇn)’ for ‘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) (597c2-9, tr. Jowett). This cannot be brought into harmony with the Good that bestows being on the Forms in Republic VI.

The question remains: Why did Plato in the last book of the Republic introduce the notion of God as creator of Forms?

I have argued in my first entry on Russell’s chapter on ‘The Theory of Ideas’ (posted on July 23) that in his discussion of Forms in Republic VII Plato’s eyes were repeatedly drawn to the days of Socrates and in particular to Socrates’ death in the hands of the Athenian jury. In view of this it would appear that Plato was afraid that his detractors might view the Forms as ‘introduction of new deities’ – the charge for which Socrates was sentenced to death – and that he conceived the last book of the Republic so as to throw dust in their eyes. But how could one even contemplate this explanation, when 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 the post-Republic dating of the Phaedrus is to be adhered to?

The situation dramatically changes if we view the Phaedrus in accordance with the ancient biographic tradition as Plato’s first dialogue written during Socrates’ life, 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. For on this dating Plato as the author of the Phaedrus was protected by the amnesty announced by the victorious democrats after their defeat of the Thirty. Any intelligent reader 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.

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