Two important books, one exceptional: in a class all by itself

Reviews by William W C Scott © 12th June 2023.

'Plato of Athens'

Published by Oxford University Press

This is by Robin Waterfield, an independent scholar and translator who lives in southern Greece. It is a revelation. Socrates, Plato and the many dialogues he wrote about Socrates is an intellectual achievement beyond any other. Newton's Principia Mathematica and Einstein's papers are rightly celebrated as historic advances that changed our understanding of the world. War and Peace, Middlemarch and Barchester Towers are works of literature that will be read and loved as long there are readers to enjoy them.

But, without Socrates, Plato was nothing. Socrates would not have been put to death by the fledgling Athenian democracy (in 399 BCE), an act of barbarism by the ruling 400, in spite of Socrates' brilliant defence of his position. He was accused of offending the gods and corrupting the young. The men who brought the charges were put up to it by superior people who had argued with Socrates in the Agora and been shown up to be ignorant by comparison. Yet Socrates never set himself above other men. He was humble and polite and would ask questions of 'the great man', often a sophist, a professional teacher who would define words like justice, goodness, the meaning of life, the best form of government, how to be a good ruler, have we free will?… only to find that under the polite questioning of this little bearded, old man the analysis (a process known as the elenchus) would lead to the conclusion that the sophist did not know what he was talking about.

Socrates was a relatively poor man, compared to Plato, about forty years older but he taught Plato and anyone else who would listen (in the market place of Athens or anywhere else suitable at the time) and people were captivated. Self-confident men would hear of Socrates and come to argue with him. Socrates knew that the young Athenian democracy had much to learn and understand. He hoped to be able to encourage the production of experts who would know how to govern. What was fundamental in a ruler was goodness, though a definition was not easily found. The same for 'justice': how could it be provided if the meaning was unclear? And what was the aim? Knowledge, but what were the means of acquiring it and using it to advantage? What was knowledge? What was the best form of government? Socrates is probably the originator of most of these ideas, though they were developed further by Plato in his many dialogues. These are a celebration of Socrates by Plato, who accords himself the character of the storyteller, content to be the writer and a very persuasive one who holds the attention of the reader effortlessly. Twenty-six dialogues survive, Socrates being chief mover in them, a fitting tribute to a man Plato would have revered above every other man.

After the death of Socrates, Plato used his wealth to buy a plot of ground (The Academy Park) which became The Academy, the first university in the world. It was a place anyone could enter (anyone, who had studied geometry, at least) and fees were not charged. The main teaching method was conversation. There were lectures at times, some given by Plato himself or Aristotle or another of the scholars who attended. There would have been no salaries: the love of knowledge would be taken to be enough. Yet, if money was needed, it would be found by some student, a relative or Plato himself. And there was expense at times when they all dined together, say, and even drank wine. People would talk in groups or walk the tree-lined paths, discussing, questioning, theorising, ever sceptical, even of beliefs held in common. There were a few other schools run mostly by Sophists for fees that had to be paid. But the Academy was peculiar in ways that are unique. Plato exercised no special authority though he was the nominal leader by virtue of his genius which is obvious even today. Aristotle attended for twenty years without quibble or, as far as we know, any sharp disagreement, though they had different ideas of god and probably preferred one god to the many custom demanded they respect, as Socrates did. Aristotle eventually founded his own university, The Lyceum, close by, and wrote 150 books of investigation mainly, including Politics, of which around 30 survive.

What we see in the above is the pattern set by Plato, based on the life of Socrates, of every department of philosophy in the world of today. Plato's books are the first books on the subject. Every other book of philosophy since then has been derivative in some way, for Plato's dialogues are the first. That is why Alfred North Whitehead, collaborator of Bertrand Russell in their Principia, which attempted to set mathematics on a sure foundation c1910, said that 'The safest general characterisation of the European Philosophy is that it consists of footnotes to Plato.'

This is a remarkable statement which I have known for half a century but I see that its real import is not what I imagined when I taught philosophy to sixth formers at George Watson's College, Edinburgh. My own mentor was Richard Hamilton who after a first in English at Edinburgh attended Magdalen College, Oxford, at which, I feel certain, he would have been reading philosophy (perhaps at the feet of C.S. Lewis who was a fellow there and a philosopher), for it was a passion and that was the time for him to absorb it. I was fortunate to meet Richard as a tutor and friend and I was greatly influenced by him. But, I now think, that Richard had not plumbed the depths of meaning of Whitehead's insight, even though we were both greatly enamoured of Plato's dialogues, especially Republic, the natural place for any student of philosophy to begin.

Robin Waterfield's book on Plato has made the difference, for he has read, studied closely and translated most of the surviving dialogues of Plato. That is where his understanding of the assumptions, and processes that underlay The Academy have come from. The actions of the fifty or so scholars and students at The Academy, the free, flowing, polite, discussions, conversation being the heart of The Academy, without any oppressive, over-riding authority, are unique. There would be no examinations of course. There will not be another philosophy department like that anywhere in the world. And that a mind like Aristotle's could disagree with Plato for twenty years before he went off to start his own school, shows how free was every mind there present to decide for itself what was true. It is quite extraordinary that a man, Plato, in the 4th century BCE could set up a university like that which has been the model for every philosopher ever since; and that all the others through the ages have fallen short of Plato's ideals, and could be far better if they reverted to what The Academy was originally, making, for example, conversation and not lectures the main item of importance. Even then, two thousand five hundred years ago, they realised that lectures can be misunderstood, confusing (if the speaker is not an intellectual star), can be slept through, or even of no interest. But conversation is different. It is necessary to engage and the questions and answers develop the very soul of the student or the conversing scholar. What the philosopher or the student of philosophy seeks is the meaning of what it is to be a good person, a better person than one is. That is the key to educating a politician, a man fit to rule a people. How very far away we are today, at this moment in our grasp of that ambition, when we have in Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, the two most selfish people on the planet, desperate to rule their countries but without a scrap of the intellect, insight, decency or understanding of their fellow men, to be of any value whatever. Both are serial liars who cannot be expected to be anything else. That is a better measure today of what Plato has given us and that there is so much to overcome even yet. The education of our guardians ought to have been for every one of these two thousand five hundred years, the prime concern of all humanity. Alas, we see that two and a half thousand years of human progress has not advanced beyond Trump and Johnson. How awful! These should have been educated by Plato, and his multitude of successors, out of any possible consideration as rulers. Of course they are sustained by people utterly ignorant of philosophy. That is the reason.

Why did Richard not get this? Why did he not see that Plato's dialogues are the source of all the questions and their answers that intelligent minds are full of? Because it was eighty years ago and he left Magdalen College after a year or so. He would not have read all the dialogues in that time. I have only read half or less myself. Scholarship has advanced in the years since. The Dialogues have been read, absorbed and studied by far more people by now. Robin Waterfield is one of them.

Notice that Plato did very actively try to perform a good noble action on behalf of other people than Athenians. His fame as a scholar, thinker and philosopher was considerable in the Mediterranean, so Robin believes. Thus he was invited by Dionysius II, Ruler of Syracuse, the grandest city state at that time, to visit and teach him some philosophy, this new 'knowledge' that everyone was talking about and was being promoted at The Academy. Because Dionysius was a tyrant, this was especially attractive to Plato. One of his students was Dion, a nephew of the Tyrant and this helped. Plato would have paid his own passage to Syracuse, taking whatever routes were available in the 4th century BCE. The effort failed, though Plato returned to Syracuse on two other occasions for lengthy periods (a trireme sent for him on one occasion). The Tyrant was completely without scruple, went so far as to steal all Dion's money, property and valuables, leaving him destitute. That was the key to what Plato all his life was interested in achieving: the development of very good men capable of ruling. Dion did overcome this for a time and become the next king after Dionysius. But he was murdered by two Syracusans, who probably preferred the Tyranny to the democracy Plato tried to advance because the adjustment to this new thinking was too much for them to accommodate.

As Robin says (pxxiii) 'Plato launched philosophical investigation' and it has hardly advanced in two and a half thousand years. But its effect on what there is now is immense. That is an astounding achievement. And it will not stop here. Nothing else in human affairs has had such power for good


'Super-Infinite: The transformations of John Donne'

Published by Faber

This is by Katherine Rundell, a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, where she works in Renaissance Literature and (presumably) practises night climbing and tightrope walking, as well as writing children's books translated into 30 languages, winning many awards. She argues with success that Donne is a better love poet than Shakespeare and describes the many transformations in his extraordinary life which began in 1572 in Bread Street in sight of St Paul's and his future job there as Dean. His mother was the great-niece of Sir Thomas More, Lord High Chancellor of England, beheaded by Henry VIII for his opposition to the Boleyn marriage. So the Donne family were Catholics in a Protestant realm. An uncle of his mother's, Thomas Heywood, was arrested for being a Catholic priest and executed as the family looked on. The sufferings of this family and Donne himself in his foreign adventures reveal a manner of life we can scarcely believe: life then was a continuous series of sufferings.

In 1584, Donne entered Hart Hall, Oxford where he would rise at four in the morning to work [p34] beginning with Aristotle's Politics, then Roman Law, dinner at 11 a.m. then some Cicero, then civil law, 'which I read aloud to commit them to memory' then after supper 'walking up and down exercising in dialectical questions.' Latin, he had learned at home, Greek he taught himself much later. After three years at Oxford, Donne probably went to Cambridge, because [p41] there was a chance that he might be forced to swear the Oath of Supremacy, any who refused being held hostage under 'good schoolmasters' (until they recanted).

Donne fell in love with Anne More, daughter of Sir George More, who had been sent to live at York House and 'learn the ways of the city and court.' Knowing her father would not approve, they married without approval and when discovered, Donne was thrown into the Fleet Prison for a year while it was investigated. They had twelve children in sixteen years of marriage, half of whom died young. Much of that time he spent writing verses to friends while asking them for money to feed them until he was appointed chaplain and then Dean of St Paul's by King James VI in 1621. By then, he was ordained in the Anglican Church and an honorary doctor of divinity of Cambridge. [p221]. With his stipend as Dean, Donne was able to purchase a painting by Titian: transported into the society of the rich, by the promotion.

'The power of John Donne's words nearly killed a man. It was the late spring of 1623, on the morning of Ascension Day, and Donne had finally secured for himself celebrity, fortune and a captive audience. He had been appointed the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral two years before: he was fifty-one, slim and amply bearded, and his preaching was famous across the whole of London. His congregation—merchants, aristocrats, actors in elaborate ruffs, the whole of the city—came to his sermons carrying paper and ink, wrote down his finest passages and took them home to dissect and relish, pontificate and argue over. He often wept in the pulpit, in joy and in sorrow, and his audience would weep with him. His words, they said, could 'charm the soul'.

'That morning he was not preaching in his own church, but fifteen minutes' easy walk across London at Lincoln's Inn, where a new chapel was being consecrated. Word went out: wherever he was, people came flocking, often in their thousands, to hear him speak. That morning, too many people flocked. 'There was a great concourse of noblemen and gentlemen', and in among 'the extreme press and thronging, as they pushed closer to hear his words, men in the crowd were shoved to the ground and trampled. 'Two or three were endangered, and taken up dead for the time.'

That was the opening of this interesting book. A preacher so spellbinding that men could be killed just trying to hear his words. What a fine way to begin. It is sensational.

© William Scott, BA,BSc,MEd,FIMA,FSAScot