As Socrates rounds off his palinode to Eros in the Phaedrus, he reiterates that this effort has been made as an atonement for Lysias’s sacrilege against the god. Socrates implores for the sophist’s salvation, that he may be “converted to philosophy” and “simply devote his life to Love through philosophical discussions” rather than deceive his lovers to “play both sides”[i] .This request reveals three purposes implicit in the dialogue: orientation towards, participation with, and transmission of truth. But this truth, aletheia, is far more than a passive object to be obtained and applied to enact progress. On the contrary, truth connotes an active quality: etymologically consisting of the privative “a” and the word “forgetting,” aletheia signifies a restoration of something lost, an undoing of forgetting, in which the remembering soul is acted upon by the object. Truth then implies some primordial memory, one once consciously experienced, but now forgotten. This memory is both originary and eschatological, fueling existence and impelling its return. Philosophy, then, as the pursuit of truth, is set primarily with the task of remembering.
This association with memory accords Plato a particular interest in history. While he is interested in the causes and effects of human activity on earth, his conception of what motivates these actions is distinctly tied to his metaphysics. In fact, this metaphysical reality should not be considered as a dualistic realm parallel to life on earth, but rather a part of the soul’s cyclical trajectory, the experiences of which influence and are influenced by the experiences on earth. It is in fact a vital part of human history that extends its reach into the actions of souls on earth. Therefore, Plato asserts the metaphysical explanations of the soul must play a role in the larger narrative of human history and refutes the limitation of history to the record of earthly occurrences. He reminds us at the end of the Republic “Don’t you realize that our [soul] is immortal and never dies? How can anything grow big in a short span of time…a complete lifetime, from childhood to old age, is tiny compared with the whole of time…don’t you think that anything immortal should concern itself with the whole of time, rather than with such a short extent?”[ii]. Explicitly refuting Thucydides demand to purify the past, history should not fear dalliances with the field of myth and transrational.
For Plato, human experience of “the whole of time” should be conceived as layers, not unlike the geography found in the analogy of the cave. In fact, not only does freedom from the cave require the rejection of the objects presented to them as reality, it demands a retrospective journey toward what lies behind the direction they face. Such movement is akin to the historical inquiry, as one is looking backward to understand what lies ahead. However, one must go the full distance. For example, while encountering the artifacts carried behind the wall would certainly provide insight into what the people of the cave experience, it will only speak to their shadowy reality. For Plato, it is the integration of the originary memory which transforms the past from lifeless, mutilated data into something capable of inspiring wisdom in its participants. Alone, the past is like a corpse, spent and not to be consulted for life. Though a soul is blessedly tied to corporality, it is not defined by it. True truth requires going beyond to the place of origin outside of the cave.
This analogy further illustrates Plato’s interest in the techne of history, one that was just being born around the time of his life. The Greek term historia signifies the gathering of information. If a resident of the cave were to look back at the artefacts, he would be capable of assessing their details and nuances and synthesizing this information of what lies behind them to give an account of what they experience and perhaps how they should live in this reality. However, the reality of their existence cannot be manifest in these details themselves. Rather, the details can only contribute true knowledge when they are enhanced by the full context of the cave and what lies beyond. Otherwise, they produce no more than shadows. In fact, the soul that is to ascend to the ultimate space of history cannot do it by its own efforts but must be transported by some violent force outside of itself. The true narrative of history, therefore, should not be constructed up from the details ascertained from human observation. Rather, these details must be transformed by the life of the full metaphysical reality of the soul’s narrative.
Finally, since aletheia implies a recovery of something lost, we must consider the role of forgetting in human history. I argue that it is precisely this tragic loss of history that not only begins to quest for philosophy in the first place but allows the transformatory experience of the soul in its encounter with the memory. This experience goes beyond the simple re-education of a soul by indoctrinating it about its past but entails this process of recovering of the past to ontologically transform the soul by regrowing its wings to facilitate its salvation of the soul in the realization of an eschatological return. To summarize, understanding of Plato’s philosophy of history requires consideration of its historical content in what he conceives of as the “whole of time” as well as the end or eschatology of a soul’s activity, and then more technical concerns regarding the function of forgetting, remembering, and the proper transmission of historical information.
Plato’s historical paradigm can be observed in the microcosm of the individual soul but also in the macrocosm of the world soul i.e., the wider arch of human experience throughout extended ages. As the cycle of history is analogous in both metrics, I am therefore attempting a rather “platonic” method of examination by aiming to understand one through the other. This will be conducted in two papers, the first dealing with the individual microcosm and the second expanding into the macrocosm of the world soul. This is the opposite of Plato’s protocol in the Republic, yet I would defend the initial investigation of the microcosm for its benefit of displaying the general themes of the historical cycle in a more intimate and immediate array. The first paper will utilize Phaedrus and the Republic to illuminate the whole history of the individual soul, its eschatology, the causal relationship between each cyclical stage on the next, and finally the proper techne of history to instill true remembrance and facilitate salvation. The second paper will expand these themes to the experience of humanity over time. Examining a larger variety of Platonic dialogues and incorporating the thought of Eric Voegelin and Nicholas Berdyaev, this paper will consider the place of humanity within the order of cosmic cycles as well as the methods and challenges of conserving the memory of this cosmic history between generations. Overall, this effort has in mind the historical profession. While Plato’s philosophy of history would initially seem to invalidate historical inquiry, I hold that his paradigmatic vision for history in his metaphysics can contribute to the discussions over the role of theory in history and provides an opportunity for historians to consciously infuse the past with a spiritual purpose transcending the facts themselves.
Much of the content of Plato’s primordial history of the soul is found in Phaedrus. Its inclusion here is particularly striking when contrasted with an exclamation from Phaedrus later in the dialogue. When presenting the myth of writing’s origins in Egypt, Phaedrus bemoans Socrates’s frequent reliance on myth and stories: “you’re very good at making up stories from Egypt or wherever else you want!”[iii]. The fact that Socrates often distances his own experience from the source of his stories marks the uniqueness of his description of the soul’s origin in his palinode to love. Instead of being simply a “likely story”[iv] this tale is told “for love of a memory” and a “longing for the past”, connotating it as a legitimate historical experience[v]. Though we know that to a certain extent this tale falls into the category of myth since the image of the tripartite soul as a chariot is used to transcend the impossibility of depicting the soul’s exact form, this remains a rare occurrence in which Socrates is willing to confess and approach a story without any form of covering.
The soul’s origin is depicted as present at a heavenly banquet in which it is lifted by its wings to be nourished by “the right food”, the fare of the god’s themselves[vi]. “Now a god’s mind is nourished by intelligence and pure knowledge, as is the mind of any soul that is concerned to take in what is appropriate to it, and so it is delighted at last to be seeing what is real and watching what is true, feeding on all this and feeling wonderful…it has a view of knowledge—…the knowledge of what really is”[vii]. Such a radiant banquet is located beyond the heavens and is only visible from the top ridge from which a soul can peer outside its circular motions. Souls that view this beauty stand in the chorus of a particular god and together celebrate this most blessed, spectacular, and ultimate vision. Each spectator is “wholly perfect and free of all the troubles that awaited us in the time to come, [gazing] in rapture at the sacred revealed objects that were perfect, and simple, and unshakeable, and blissful”[viii]. After the feast, the soul “sinks back inside heaven and goes home”[ix]. Participation of some level in this feast is the prerequisite origin of all souls inhabiting human bodies “since a human being must understand speech in terms of general forms, proceeding to bring many perceptions together in a reasoned utility”[x].
The return to this divine banquet is further identified as the ultimate end for each soul in its subsequent journeys, as this alone provides the soul’s most proper nourishment and blessed state in the celebration in the presence of this vision. Part of a soul’s return entails the emulation of the god in whose chorus it served during the banquet. The soul must attain a sort of theosis, becoming itself like a god whose life it is to feast upon the truth, in order to achieve the ascent. The first reason for this is the primary instrument of a soul’s ascent: the wings. Of all the soul’s organs, these are the “most akin to the divine”[xi], being the means of transportation throughout the universe in the manner of a god and also relying on the same nourishment of the gods for their sustenance. Once these are lost, generally due to a lack of proper nourishment, the soul falls to earth and must begin the process of regrowing these wings to enable its restoration to a god-like state. This is facilitated both in the heavens and in the body through emulation of that god: “One that follows a god most closely, making itself most like that god raises the head of its charioteer up to the place outside and is carried around in the circular motion with the others”[xii]. It is the closeness with the god which enables the “sight of any true thing” and ensures the safety of the soul throughout its cycles. Further, if in the body that soul “spends his life honoring the god in whose chorus he danced and emulates that god in every way he can” he will remain “undefiled in his first life down here” ensuring the souls progress in the next cycle to return to its originary state. This is affirmed in the Myth of Er where Socrates mentions that “the gods never neglect anyone who is prepared to devote himself to becoming moral and… assimilating himself to God as much as is humanly possible”[xiii]. Though the necessity to appropriate god-like qualities implies a sort of theosis as a definite part of a soul’s eschatology, it is unclear to what extent this is expected and if it is possible to achieve this status permanently and transcend the cycle. Regardless, this aspect necessitates both relationship with the god and participation with its qualities, both themes to which we will return.
Now that the originary and eschatological experience of the soul in the divine feast have been established, we must consider how these memories become lost. What is the forgetting that must be undone to attain aletheia? The cause is twofold, stemming from the weakness of a particular soul precipitating his fall and insufficient vision during the banquet as well as an actual consumption of forgetfulness itself. Let’s begin with the state of the soul at the banquet. Though this divine banquet is open to anyone “who is able and wishes to…follow along, since jealousy has no place in the gods’ chorus,” the banquet is located above a “steep climb” in “the high tier at the rim of heaven”[xiv]. The gods, with their well-ordered chariots, can simply ascend to these heights, but most souls lag behind on weak wings or unruly chariots. The result is a disparity of vision: those closest to the gods enjoy a full view “carried around in the circular motion,” while others “distracted by the horses…have a view of Reality, just barely.” Others, in their struggle to manage their chariot “rise at one time and fall at another,” seeing “some real things” and missing others. Finally are those souls which eagerly strain but are “unable to rise” remaining on the surface, “trampling and striking one another as each tries to get ahead…after so much trouble, they all leave without having seen reality, uninitiated.” These, left without any conception of reality, are forced to “depend on what they think is nourishment— their own opinions”[xv]. This will inevitably lead to a burden of “forgetfulness and wrongdoing”[xvi]. Thus, we have the hierarchy of all those souls inhabiting human bodies: they have seen enough of reality to have earned human forms but not enough to have kept their wings, meaning they have taken on to a certain level this forgetful burden. Even among the souls in human bodies there is a disparity, as is clearly expressed in the rankings of souls in Phaedrus 248 d-e wherein the philosopher is foremost and the tyranny the least.
Here, we are presented with a seemingly insurmountable paradox: a person’s ability to progress in the growing its wings and ordering of its chariot in life is dependent upon its view of Reality at the divine banquet. However, a soul’s ability to ascend to this view is determined by the strength of its wings and the discipline of its chariot formed during one’s life. This brings us to the cycle of incarnation and the “cosmic checking point”: “No soul returns to the place from which it came for ten thousand years, since its wings will not grow before then”[xvii]. Aside from those souls on the fast track of return through philosophy to be considered later, most souls after completing their first life “come to judgement” and are either assigned to “places of punishment beneath the earth and pay the full penalty for their injustice,” or “are lifted up by justice to a place in heaven where they live in the manner the life they led in human form has earned them”[xviii]. This cosmic checking point seems to be the same place as the one described by Er in sections 614 and 615 of the Republic. It is in the Myth of Er that this topic is elaborated upon, suggesting that the souls then have an opportunity to continue their progress in new lives within the ten-thousand-year cycle.
The second loss of memory is depicted as the actual consumption of forgetfulness, the Waters of Lethe. We see this depicted in the Myth of Er at the end of what I’ve been calling the cosmic checking point. As each soul approaches for reincarnation, they face the three Fates. Lachesis, the Fate of the Past and Lady of Necessity, holds the tokens bearing their next lives and admonishes them that the form of their life will depend on how perfectly they chose to emulate the good. It is in this role that her title “Lady of Necessity” is tied to the workings of history, identifying the prime cause in human action as the individual soul itself. The progressive existence of each soul is continuously determined by the consequences of its previous actions, making it eternally tied to historical continuity. “Goodness makes its own rulers: each of you will be good to the extent that you value it. The responsibility lies with the chooser, not with God” [xix]. The correctness of this choice depends on how well the soul has assimilated the memory of truth into itself: “He has to be in a position to think of a life which leads his mind towards a state of increasing immorality as worse and consider one which leads int he opposite direction as better. There is no other factor he’ll regard as important: we’ve already seen that this is the cardinal decision anyone has to make, whether he does so during his lifetime or after he’s died. But the time he reaches Hades, then, this belief must be absolutely inassailable in him”[xx]. The test of the assimilation of the divine memory is made as the souls approach the River Lethe (forgetfulness)[xxi]. As the soul drinks, all knowledge is wiped away, meaning the only things the soul will carry with it are those which have been fully assimilated into the innate being of the soul itself. The soul must have participated with this memory, allowing it to write to some extent on the soul itself. This occurrence highlights for us the purpose of forgetfulness. It is the separation from history that necessitates its recovery and participation with the originary memory through the transformational experience of philosophy.
This brings us to an interesting corollary. Though Plato’s insistence that the philosopher holds the key to primordial memory will be discussed later on, it is important here to note that he maintains philosophy as in fact the only method by which the power of this history can be realized. In the Myth of Er, Socrates mentions the possibility of a community which avoids the decadent effects of doxa and maintains its actions aligned with an external pattern of Being. However, this is done because of habituation and not genuine philosophy. Though this would gain them a better route at the cosmic checking point, these souls will have failed to strengthen their chariots for the ascent and most likely fall with less of a vision of Reality thus worsening their status in the next cycle. The soul must be united with this reality through the process of philosophy: “once he has drawn near to this authentic reality and united with it…then he has knowledge; then he lives a life which is true to himself; then he is nourished”[xxii]. Only this person, who “practices philosophy with integrity” is capable of being happy on this earth and ensured “travel from here to there and back again on the smooth roads of the heavens”[xxiii].
It is therefore the state of the soul which enables it to practice philosophy and progress toward its end. The state of the soul is determined by its memory of its originary experience which has been compromised by various causes. Progress then is determined by the ability to both retain this memory and uncover it, bringing us to consider the techne of history. What then is the best method to conserve and transmit historical knowledge? Here, we recall the two forms of knowledge, historia and aletheia, mentioned earlier. Again, it is helpful to bear in mind the cave analogy while making this distinction. Historia involves a rational gathering of knowledge through inquiry. This denotes the static accumulation of objectified knowledge that lies outside of the realm of the active and alive, aligning it with the artefacts and their shadows in the cave. Aletheia, alternatively, is the life-giving knowledge associated with the dazzling world outside and paradigmatic for all activity within the cave. Though aletheia can presumably function without historia in the dialectic, the latter runs the risk of sophistry if it is consulted alone. In this light, Plato’s famous polemic against poetry and mythology in the Republic should not be considered a battle of mythology/poetry vs. philosophy, but specific types of poetry/mythology which lack aletheia vs a dialectic empowered by truth.
This distinction frames Plato’s invective on writing in Phaedrus. Socrates presents the issue by retelling a story “he heard the ancients said” in which Theuth, the ibis divinity, presented his arts to the Egyptian king Thamus. Included in these arts was writing which he claimed would “make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory.” He goes on to describe the art as a “potion for memory and wisdom”[xxiv]. Thamus, however, invalidates Theuth’s claims for writing, stating that its effects will in fact be the opposite of their intention: “It will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it. They will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside completely on their own”[xxv]. While writing can certainly be considered a potion for “reminding” it can only provide “the appearance of wisdom, but not its reality”[xxvi]. The tool is in fact counterproductive as it leads students to have “neglected their memory” and have to rely on foreign impressions from the outside rather than embodying wisdom themselves. This will cause them to be worldly and quite “difficult to get along with”[xxvii].
That this story is set in Egypt is notable for our purposes in considering history. For Plato, the Egyptians were a people deeply embedded and conscious of their own history as well as those around them. This is made particularly evident in Timaeus in which Solon’s conception of Athenian history is expanded by the story of the Atlanteans[xxviii]. The idea that the Egyptians could preserve their historical consciousness while still being wary of writing attests to the need for a participatory and transformational encounter with the truth of the past. This type of knowledge values stasis over humanly developed progress. Alternatively, the approach of the sophist is to synthesize facts as a shortcut to truth. This can be seen in Lysias’s speech against madness or Thrasymachus’s defense of immorality, both of which misconceive the good as humanly advanced progress via artificial construction of the good. Yet, while both attempts may be successful in the short term to generate the shadow of the good in worldly accumulation, they ultimately fall into hubris causing the detriment of themselves and those around them. This issue of writing and any other technical efforts to promote the good through external human arts introduces a theme that will be central to the second paper: the pharmikon of human advancement. On the level of the individual, the development of the arts and society as a whole carries the potential to transmit and preserve knowledge of the good. However, the storage of truth in external and passive objects runs the risk of creating superficial wisdom in its adherents and not eliciting the transformational power of Reality. This barrier between the external objects and the Truth becomes thicker as societies become more sophisticated. As Socrates noted, earlier peoples were “naive” enough to believe oracles from trees, while the “wiser” contemporary generation is much more skeptical[xxix]. The truths of the past are vital to the present, but their storage in external arts runs the risk of mistaking them for Reality itself. Historians, then, must tread cautiously.
The point to note here is that all preservation of history, or the memory of the truth experienced by all souls, is dependent on the state of the individual soul and how it interacts with those souls with which it comes into contact. This Plato describes as the “writing on the soul” which comes through dialectic. The key to dialectic is relational, not only in how the speaker himself has participated with and been transformed by the memory, but also his understanding of the individual with whom he is conversing. The truth is not relative, but it is individual and therefore requires the discretion of the speaker to discern the manner to best communicate it to the interlocutor. As Kathryn Morgan notes, Plato would immediately dismiss the idea that a fifth-century Greek history could be a possession for all of time[xxx]. It is not the point of history to amass a database of supposedly objective knowledge in subjective human experience, which is a dubious endeavor to begin with, but to transmit memory in a way that can reach and transform individuals, leading them to communion with their own memory of Reality itself and achieve the freedom to become who they genuinely are. The state of the individual soul is the only guarantee to historical continuity, making stasis, rather than progress, the goal of human history. But this will be considered more deeply in the next paper.
If writing and other attempts through techne to preserve memory fall short, what then is the proper way to interact with our historical memory? Though champion of the rational dialectic, Plato propounds the superiority of the transrational, otherwise known as madness (mania), to fully access the divine. In fact, the denigration of madness in favor of the cold, calculating reason underlying Lysias’s speech as well as Socrates’s first speech, that impels Socrates to begin his second speech with a restoration of madness’s primacy. To demonstrate this, Socrates’s argument relies on historical precedence: “The people who designed our language in the old days never thought of madness as something to be ashamed of or worthy of blame; otherwise, they would not have used the word ‘manic’ for the finest experts of all…thereby weaving insanity into prophecy…as a gift of the god”[xxxi]. Madness described by Socrates entails the subject being possessed by the divine itself. Referring to Plato’s eschatology discussed earlier, this participation and embodying of the divine is not only beneficial but necessary for the process of theosis. Furthering the argument, Socrates contrasts prophecy with its “clear-headed” and “self-controlled” sister science, augury, which combines reasoning and the accumulation of knowledge (historia) to conclude the future solely from human reasoning[xxxii]. Thus, the superiority of prophecy is self-evident: “To the extent, then, that prophecy, mantic, is more perfect and more admirable than sign-based prediction, in both name and achievement, madness from a god is finer than self-control of human origin, according to the testimony of the ancient language givers”[xxxiii]. Socrates then goes on to describe four kinds of madness, the final and finest of which is love, which for our purposes is more clearly described as possession by the god Eros. The catalyst for this possession is beauty which elicits the memory of the true beauty experienced in the heavens and leads the rememberer to be possessed by god: “when he sees a godlike face of bodily form that has captured Beauty well, first he shudders and a fear comes over him like those he felt at the earlier time; then he gazes at him with the reverence due a god”[xxxiv]. Naturally, those most inclined to such an experience would be the philosophers “since [their] memory always keeps [them] as close as possible to those realities by being close to which the gods are divine”[xxxv]. This experience begins the process of wing regeneration as the image of beauty reminds them “of what they saw up there” causing the “stream of beauty that pours into him through his eyes warms him up and waters the growth of his wings.”[xxxvi]. This experience not only fills the soul with longing for the memory of that beauty but creates in it a radical desire for wisdom.
To tie this point back to our earlier discussion, the fact that the philosophical soul is only now desiring wisdom demonstrates that it is not wise yet. This proves further that it is the condition of particular souls which have been transformed in the past to be able to partake in this mystery. As George Boys-Stones notes “there is no progress in the debates of men who think they are wise already, the truly wise are in search of what they do not have…philosophy is what happens when a man who would be wise teams up with eros”[xxxvii]. It is difficult, if not impossible, to recreate this state of commemoration through interaction with superficial knowledge. This would seem problematic to those who would wish to spread this knowledge for the benefit of their fellow man. But Plato does not despair though possession by Eros is what causes the remembering of the divine past in the lover, it is innately dialectic. Eros necessitates the forgetting of one’s self in honor of the other. This self-forgetting of the lover is so notorious and self-denigrating as to lead the sophists to denounce it as insanity and detrimental to both the lover and the beloved. However, it is this quality which transforms the lover into a sort of priest, one experiencing the divine himself and capable of ministering that recovered, sacred memory to his interlocutor. The lover then will work to recreate his own state of transformation in the object of his affection, the beloved, presenting him with the opportunity to develop his own memory. Further, this dialectical transmission identifies love as a driving force in historical development.
One way in which this is manifested is the lover’s effort to aid the beloved in emulating the god in whose chorus he sung during the divine banquet. Socrates states that lovers will be attracted to those who latently bear the qualities of their god and will thus “build him up and adore him as an image to honor and worship” by pouring “into the soul of the one they love…to help him take on as much of their own god’s qualities as possible”[xxxviii]. Similarly, this process of teaching the beloved will further promote the memory of the lover even if he has not begun to progress in this already. The yearning for the beloved equips him to “track down their god’s true nature…because of their driving need to gaze at the god, and as they are in touch with the god by memory, they are inspired by him and adopt his customs and practices, so far as a human being can share in a god’s life”[xxxix]. This stimulates a becoming for both the lover and beloved, leading them into their ultimate end. However, though this becoming implies assimilation into the god, diversity and individuality is still maintained in keeping with the diversity of gods: “Those who followed Zeus, for example, choose someone to love who is a Zeus himself in the nobility of his soul. So, they make sure he has a talent for philosophy and the guidance of others, and once they have found him and are in love with him they do everything to develop that talent”[xl]. Socrates goes onto explain that the qualities of the individual will be different depending on the god whom they served in heaven, thus celebrating the possibility of diversity and individuality.
The second way in which the memory of the beloved is developed is through “back love”. As the beloved grows closer to the lover, the beauty of the beloved so fills the lover to overflowing which the beloved sees his own beauty as in a mirror. Though to a lesser degree, this beauty also “sets him aflutter” and begins to grow his own wings. Love begins to grow in the beloved as well, training his soul to look aloft and remember its origin. This knowledge is especially communicated through the physical manifestation of this love, including its more carnal activities. Such passionate activity, considered the domain of the appetitive or “bad” horse in the soul, typically is the greatest stumbling block to the remembrance of Reality and often receives negative treatment in Plato’s commentary. However, in two souls which are oriented toward the divine, these carnal, passionate interactions in which the so-called “bad” horse can reign free facilitate the soul’s ascent to the divine. This can be particularly true in the case of the beloved, who perhaps has not yet trained his soul to be sensitive to the memory to the extent the lover has. In this way, the passionate affair is instructive for the younger soul’s development and is thus, in very particular cases, considered a valid method of dialectic and “writing upon the soul”. Such an interpretation, substantiated by its graphic representation in section 256 of Phaedrus, is an important corollary to what seems to be Plato’s general aversion to the activities of the body and carnal pleasures, such as his characterization of incarnation as being “locked in it like an oyster in its shell”[xli]. It further validates the existence of the “bad” horse in the chariot of the soul, making it a vital force in the soul’s eschatology.
Its usage, however, must be tempered by the proper orientation to maintain the soul’s proper equilibrium. This is in clear relation to Socrates’s teaching on education in the Republic where he insists that true education is about reorienting the soul to the divine: “If you can imagine an eye that can turn from darkness to brightness only if the body as a whole turns, then our organ of understanding is like that. Its orientation has to be accompanied by turning the mind as a whole away from the world of becoming, until it becomes capable of bearing the sight of being and reality at its most bright”[xlii]. For a soul that has already experienced Reality in its truest form, conceiving of the mind as a blank slate to be filled by external knowledge is incorrect, redundant, and detrimental to the only possibility for the soul’s progress. And what progress is produced! “After death, when they have grown wings and become weightless, they have won the first of three rounds in these, the true Olympic Contests. There is no greater good than this the either human self-control or divine madness can offer a man”[xliii].
This description of love and as its results highlight the insufficiencies of Lysias’s insistence on the primacy of a cool-headed pursuit of pleasure in intimate relationships. For these souls, whether from lack of sufficient vision at the banquet or the bad luck of being “twisted by bad company into lives of injustice” the conception of the good forgets “the sacred objects they had seen before”[xliv]. It is therefore burdened by forgetfulness and doxa, limiting the good to the advancement of the self within the confines of the cave. The soul is then weighed down and deformed through indulgence “in the pleasures which men say bring happiness”[xlv]. Similarly, their attempt to maintain a status of cool self-control is immediately invalidated as they allow to break its equilibrium and give free reign to the appetitive horse. This is described by Socrates as “a lower way of life, with ambition in place of philosophy”[xlvi]. Unlike the souls who have loved philosophically and earned the reward in heaven, the sophist’s love, by limiting the good to the interests of the cave, will have received its reward in full by the end of the affair. Not only will this activity not contribute to the progress of its own soul or that of its beloved, but it will also actually contribute to the detriment of the other souls it encounters. Books VIII and IX of the Republic demonstrate to us the successive degeneration which results from allowing the soul to become unbalanced, usually in favor of the appetitive horse. This further demonstrates to us the role of the individual soul as the prime factor in historic development on earth. However, blame cannot be placed be fully placed on the appetitive horse. Indeed, Lysias and his followers would balk at the suggestion that they were slaves to their desires. Imbalance can also be found when one is guided by pure reason. Socrates describes this type of dialectic as “diluted by human self-control” which can only produce “cheap, human dividends” and a nine-thousand-year exile beneath the earth[xlvii]. Though doxa can become quite sophisticated in its interpretation of the cave, it will only ever produce shadows and render conclusions divorced from Reality in an ever-compounding decadence of cause and effect throughout the course of both personal and generational history.
By centering philosophy upon memory, Plato defines philosophy as an innately historical phenomenon. However, he problematizes the activity of history by locating the realm of true history within the souls of individuals. This would initially appear to invalidate the efforts of historians to produce a detailed chronicle of human activity, as such knowledge can never replicate the participatory encounter with aletheia. But what Plato provides the modern historian answers one of its greatest contemporary debates: theory. By identifying his metaphysic as the archetypal memory which informs and motivates all human action, Plato answers most of the questions modern historians attempt to fill with theory. The primary difference is that Plato’s historical philosophy is informed from the top down, allowing his metaphysics to explain and arrange the infinite details of human action as stemming from the primordial memory of the individual soul. The modern historian, on the other hand, attempts to arrive at this overarching explanation through synthesis of these details. In Plato’s diagnostic, such reliance on dead knowledge will always fall short in filling the soul’s desire for communion with being. Plato’s call to the historian would not be to abandon the details. It is these intricacies and nuances which create beauty, as Plato acknowledges in his praise of democracy as the most beautiful and diverse form of government. Rather, it would be to allow these details to be empowered through the life of a metaphysical source. Only this will allow history to fully do its job: connecting us to the past to empower us into the future. It is this point that I hope to explore more deeply in the second part of this project.
[i] Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Harvey Yunis (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 257b
[ii] Plato, Republic, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford University Press, 2008), 608c-d
[iii] Plato, Phaedrus, 275b
[iv] Plato, Plato: Timaeus and Critias, trans. A. E. Taylor (Routledge, 2014), 29d
[v] Plato, Phaedrus, 250d
[vi] Ibid, 248c
[vii] Ibid, 247d
[viii] Ibid, 250c
[ix] Ibid, 247e
[x] Ibid, 249b-c
[xi] Ibid, 246d
[xii] Ibid, 248a
[xiii] Plato, Republic, 613a
[xiv] Plato, Phaedrus, 247a-b
[xv] Ibid, 248b
[xvi] Ibid, 248c
[xvii] Ibid, 248e
[xviii] Ibid, 249a
[xix] Plato, Republic, 617d
[xxi] Ibid, 621a-b
[xxii] Ibid, 490b
[xxiii] Ibid, 619d
[xxiv] Plato, Phaedrus, 274e
[xxv] Ibid, 275a
[xxvii] Ibid, 275b
[xxviii] Plato, Timaeus, 22-25
[xxix] Plato, Phaedrus, 275c
[xxx] Morgan, Kathryn A. “Plato and the Stability of History.” Greek Notions of the Past in the Archaic and Classical Eras History without Historians, by John Marincola, (Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2013), 250.
[xxxi] Plato, Phaedrus, 244b-c
[xxxii] Ibid, 244d
[xxxiv] Ibid, 251a
[xxxv] Ibid, 249c
[xxxvi] Ibid, 251b
[xxxvii] G. R. Boys-Stones, “Hesiod and Plato’s History of Philosophy.” Plato and Hesiod, (Oxford Scholarship Online, 2009), 45.
[xxxviii] Plato, Phaedrus, 253a
[xxxix] Ibid, 253a
[xl] Ibid, 252e
[xli] Ibid, 250c
[xlii] Plato, Republic, 518c
[xliii] Plato, Phaedrus, 256d
[xliv] Ibid, 250
[xlv] Plato, Republic, 612a
[xlvi] Plato, Phaedrus, 256c
[xlvii] Ibid, 256e
The is the first of the second part with part two available here.