Wednesday, September 28, 2016

1 Bertrand Russell on Plato’s Theory of Immortality and Socrates in the Phaedo

Chapter 12 of Russel’s History of Western Philosophy, entitled ‘Plato’s Theory of Immortality’ is devoted to Plato’s Phaedo. Russell opens it with the words: ‘The dialogue called after Phaedo … presents Plato’s ideal of a man who is both wise and good in the highest degree, and who is totally without fear of death.’ He closes it with the words: ‘The Platonic Socrates was a pattern to subsequent philosophers for many ages. What are we to think of him ethically? (I am concerned only with the man as Plato portrays him.) His merits are obvious. He is indifferent to worldly success, so devoid of fear that he remains calm and urbane and humorous to the last moment, caring more for what he believes to be truth than for anything else whatever. He has, however, some very grave defects. He is dishonest and sophistical in argument, and in his private thinking he uses intellect to prove conclusions that are to him agreeable, rather than in disinterested search for knowledge. There is something smug and unctuous about him, which reminds one of a bad type of cleric. His courage in the face of death would have been more remarkable if he had not believed that he was going to enjoy eternal bliss in the company of the gods. Unlike some of his predecessors, he was not scientific in his thinking, but was determined to prove the universe agreeable to his ethical standards. This is treachery to truth, and the worst of philosophic sins. As a man, we may believe him admitted to the communion of saints; but as a philosopher he needs a long residence in a scientific purgatory.’

After reading these lines, I reread the Phaedo; I could not find in it any dishonest and sophistical arguments. I then reread Russell’s chapter; I can’t find in it any attempt on his part to show any argument of Socrates as dishonest. Russell writes: ‘Cebes expresses doubts as to the survival of the soul after death, and urges Socrates to offer arguments. This he proceeds to do, but it must be said that the arguments are very poor (p. 137).’ ‘Very poor arguments’ does not mean ‘dishonest and sophistical’ arguments.

Russell’s Chapter 11 entitled ‘Socrates’ is derived mostly from Plato’s Apology, and it contains no aspersions of dishonesty or sophistic arguments: ‘The Apology gives a clear picture of a man of a certain type: a man very sure of himself, high-minded, indifferent to worldly success, believing that he is guided by a divine voice, and persuaded that clear thinking is the most important requisite for right living (p. 95).’ Russell’s Socrates of Plato’s Apology is a very different man from his Socrates of Plato’s Phaedo. It seems to me that Russell was influenced by John Burnet’s view of the dialogue.

John Burnet writes in the ‘Introduction’ to his edition of the dialogue: ‘Whatever Plato may or may not have done in other dialogues – and I say nothing here about that – I cannot bring myself to believe that he falsified the history of his master’s last hours on earth by using him as a mere mouthpiece for novel doctrines of his own. That would have been an offence against good taste and an outrage on all natural piety; for if Plato did this thing, he must have done it deliberately. There can be no question here of unconscious development; he must have known quite well whether Socrates held these doctrines or not. I confess that I should regard the Phaedo as little better than a heartless mystification if half the things commonly believed about it were true.’ (John Burnet, Plato’s Phaedo, Clarendon Press, Oxford, first printed 1911, twelfth impression 1977, p. XI – XII.)

Burnet viewed the dialogue as follows: ‘The Phaedo professes to be nothing less than a faithful picture of Socrates as Plato conceived him when he wrote it. It professes even more. We are certainly led to believe that it gives us a truthful record of the subjects on which Socrates discoursed on the last day of his life, and of his manner of treating them. No reader who made his first acquaintance with Socrates here could possibly suppose anything else. This, then, is what the Phaedo professes to be; and if only it is this, it is the likeness of a great philosopher in the supreme crisis of his life, drawn by a philosopher who was greater still, and was also one of the most consummate dramatic artists the world has known. It would not be easy to find the match of such a work.’ (p. X-XI)

Russell could not accept Burnet’s positive view of the Phaedo, but he appears to have been deeply influenced by his negative view of it, if seen on the basis of the currently accepted view about it. Let me quote what I wrote about it in the ‘Introduction to the Lost Plato’: ‘One thing is certain; if modern scholars are right in their claim that Plato conceived of the Forms only after Socrates’ death, then the whole picture of Socrates’ last hours has been profoundly distorted by Plato in the Phaedo. At the beginning of the last century John Burnet, perhaps the greatest British Platonic scholar of all time, vehemently protested against such a view of the dialogue … but his view of Plato and Socrates was rejected. A whole section of the Sixth International Congress of Philosophy, held in 1927 in New York, was devoted to the condemnation of his views. The section began with a brief introductory preamble: ‘’The first paper in Division D, Section i, was to have been read by John Burnet (Edinburgh), but sudden illness made Professor Burnet’s presence at the Congress impossible. In Professor Burnet’s absence, W. D. Ross (Oxford) spoke briefly, summarizing Professor Burnet’s views on the Socratic and Platonic elements in the doctrine of Plato’s dialogues.’’ What followed was a chorus of contempt in which the great Platonic scholars of those days joined forces under the chairmanship of G. S. Brett (Toronto) and P. E. More (Princeton): R. C. Lodge (Manitoba), Leon Robin (Sorbonne), Paul Shorey (Chicago), W. A. Heidel (Wesleyan). The printed Proceedings do not give W. D. Ross’ summary of Burnet’s views.’

I can testify to the validity of Burnet’s words: ‘We are certainly led to believe that it gives us a truthful record of the subjects on which Socrates discoursed on the last day of his life, and of his manner of treating them. No reader who made his first acquaintance with Socrates here could possibly suppose anything else.’ For that’s how I read the Phaedo in Czechoslovakia in the early 1970’s, and all my reading of Plato since then has strengthened that initial impression.

If I were to view the dialogue with Russell and other Platonic scholars as Plato’s presentation of his new doctrines, doctrines alien to the historical Socrates, I would have no difficulty in finding in the dialogue arguments which would be devious.

After an account of his early interest in ‘natural science’ (peri phuseȏs historian) that purported to ‘know the causes of everything (eidenai tas aitias hekastou), why a thing comes to being (dia ti gignetai hekaston), why it perishes (kai dia ti apollutai), why it exists (kai dia ti esti, 96a8-10),’ Socrates proceeded to outline the new line of enquiry, which he had adopted after his disappointment with natural science: ‘Well, here is what I mean (All’ hȏde legȏ); it is nothing new (ouden kainon, 100b1), but what I have constantly spoken of both in the talk we have been having and at other times too (all’ haper aei te allote kai en tȏi parelȇluthoti logȏi ouden pepaumai legȏn). I am going to attempt a formal account of the sort of cause that I have been concerned with (erchomai dȇ epicheirȏn soi epideixasthai tȇs aitias to eidos ho pepragmateumai), and I shall go back to my well-worn theme (kai eimi palin ep’ ekeina ta poluthrulȇta) and make it my starting-point (kai archomai ap’ ekeinȏn); that is, I shall assume the existence of a beautiful that is in and by itself (hupothemenos einai ti kalon auto kath’ hauto), and a good (kai agathon), and a great (kai mega), and so on with the rest of them (kai t’alla panta); and if you grant me them (ha ei moi didȏs te) and admit their existence (kai sunchȏreis einai tauta), I hope (elpizȏ) they will make it possible for me to discover and expound to you the cause of the soul’s immortality (soi ek toutȏn tȇn aitian epideixein kai aneurȇsein hȏs athanaton psychȇ).’ (100b1-9, tr. R. Hackforth)

If Plato propounded the theory of Forms for the first time in the Phaedo, this sentence would be a pure mystification, as Burnet points out. What would be the point of such mystification, I cannot conceive. Did Plato [of Platonic scholars] think that his new theory would be more readily accepted if it were presented as an old theory? A theory that allowed Socrates to face calmly his death? – I should like to hear any plausible explanation of Phaedo 100b1-9 from any Platonic scholar and put it on my blog as a Comment.

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