Apr 12, 2011

Enjoyment of the Highest Good in Plato: Personal or Not?

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Last week, after giving a guest lecture about Plato, Persons, and the Highest Good (video available here), and then narrating a portion of the lecture and the larger project of Plato interpretation it stems from in a blog entry, I promised a follow-up post making the not-immediately-evident case that for Plato, enjoyment of the highest good does indeed involve personality or personhood, and not merely by virtue of the fact that the soul of the person is what enjoys the Form of the Good (or the Beautiful) in a sort of eternal communion and contemplation.  I have been making the stronger claim that the ascent to the highest good and the enjoyment of it contain necessarily personal aspects or moments, and that these are  essential to that condition. Plato's own texts bear this out, as it turns out (fortunately for my interpretation, no?)

Having several other promised follow-ups to earlier blog entries still pending, I've learned my lesson: 'faut forger le fer. . .  -- get (to) it while it's hot!  -- so I'm writing out, setting down, freezing in letters this exegesis of Platonic texts and passages, at the head of a week jam-packed -- with end-of-semester student panics and scamblings, equally last minute readying on the part of faculty to become familiar with a Quality Enhancement Plan I had some small part in authoring (before our SACS accreditation team arrives next week), preparing for my first presentation on my first published book. . . the list could go on -- before it becomes yet another projected then deferred composition.

Before we travel down into the Platonic texts, into depictions of the afterlife, or the life before available through reminiscence, verbal representations of the ascent to the Forms and to the Good, I must make one clarificatory remark: I am not in any way claiming that the Form of the Good is in Plato's view is itself something imbued with any aspect of personality. In fact, his texts clearly suggest otherwise.  It is true that later broadly Platonic thought will explicitly depict the highest good as fundamentally personal, for Christians, Jews, and Muslims will understand it as God.  But, that is a later development, and I am sticking with Plato's own writings on this matter.  For in those texts, the enjoyment of the Good is carried out as a person in community with others.

Prospects After Death:  The Apology

Let's start with a text which doesn't mention the Forms or the Form of the Good at all, but does contain some interesting speculation about a good afterlife:  the Apology. Socrates consoles himself and those Athenian jury members who voted on his side -- after a rather weak argument about why the "big sleep" might not be so bad -- with a different set of considerations.
But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead are, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this? If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, he is delivered from the professors of justice in this world, and finds the true judges who are said to give judgment there, Minos and Rhadamanthus and Aeacus and Triptolemus, and other sons of God who were righteous in their own life, that pilgrimage will be worth making. What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer?  Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again. I, too, shall have a wonderful interest in a place where I can converse with Palamedes, and Ajax the son of Telamon, and other heroes of old, who have suffered death through an unjust judgment; and there will be no small pleasure, as I think, in comparing my own sufferings with theirs.
Notice two things.  First, there is no effacement of personality.  The wonderful state after death is one in which one gets to confer with the judges and poets and heroes of times past, as individuals.  Second, this is almost anti-Homeric, for when Odysseus voyages to Hades, all he has converse with are shades, whom he has to feed with sacrificed blood before they can effectively speak.  Entering this Platonic afterlife, the pilgrim arrives at a better place, is judged by those who do so rightly and fully, discusses with all those great craftsmen who worked in song and stories, words and passions, even laws and regimes -- those who, at least if Protagoras is right in that dialogue named after him, were among the first sophists or possibly philosophers.  Socrates continues:
Above all, I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too! What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions!  For in that world they do not put a man to death for this; certainly not. For besides being happier in that world than in this, they will be immortal, if what is said is true
Notice in this passage an important shift in what is being depicted.  In the life after death, the philosopher gets to continue philosophy, practicing dialectic upon the other dead, aiming at sifting out what truths really do hold, who is wise and who is not.  The end of life is the beginning or rather the intensification and purification of inquiry into the good and the true, the beautiful and the wise.  The Forms, as I mentioned just earlier, are nowhere mentioned here.  In fact, none of the higher rungs on the ladder by which in the Symposium the ardent and initiated lover ascends to the Form of the Good are referenced.  But, what will this infinitely delightful conversation alight upon -- besides the subjects of the persons, the souls of those departed there?  Would it not very quickly encompass within its interlocutional ambit those higher realities which make souls good and beautiful, laws and institutions which form the persons (and why not also personal friendships, for these have their shapes, their analogies to regimes as well?), knowledges, virtues, Forms, those things in which the soul participates and likewise becomes better in the process?

Yes, here we are drawing out by questioning something that remains only implicit in the Apology picture of the afterlife.  The story is the same for another dialogue which is much more explicit about the judgement -- of naked souls stripped of bodies, revealed in their beauty or ugliness, their justice or wickedness -- that awaits, one which separates the dead into two bodies bound upon different paths for separate fates:  the punishments of Tartarus for the bad, and the Isle of the Blessed for the good.  Again, we have to ask what might seem an impertinent, even silly question:  so, what are those blessed dead doing and talking about all that time?  History past?  The ceaselessly balmy weather? The joy and intensity of their eternally developing friendship, conversation, conviviality?

What of other Platonic texts?  There are after all, some which do discuss not only the ontological and epistemological priority of the Forms, but also what we might call their axiological priority -- their priority in terms of value, as both the sources of the goodness, the beauty, the justice of what participated in them, as the just soul does in justice; but, also their priority in terms of desirability, enjoyability, worthiness to pursue and prefer to other goods.  For, after all, it could be the case that while the Forms are the originals that make mutable, more or less adequate copies we experience good, true, just, and the like, our best condition would be one in which we don't occupy ourselves with them, but just rely on them, working in the background, keeping everything together.  That's decidedly not the Platonic position.

The Highest Good in Other Dialogues

Which have been the most important, the most influential, the most thought through and commented upon of Plato's dialogues?  I'm not asking, in posing this, which dialogues we introduce largely uninterested undergraduates to in Intro classes, nor which ones have garnered the most commentary in the over-specialized, publication-hungry, originality-seeking last century?  Rather:  Which have been most central in the Platonic tradition, from the Academy, through the ages, and down to those who read him out of love or desire these days?  For at least the top three, that is easily answered:  The Republic, the Phaedo, and the Symposium.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the Forms, and the purgative, purificatory, initiatory, educative, ascetic, and erotic ascent to these intrinsically delectable objects, figure centrally in all three. 

I'm not going to fully recount here the processes by which the philosopher's soul is readied for the spectacle of the Forms and the highest good, because the goal is to make the case that the condition of enjoying the highest good possible for human beings, according to Plato himself involves persons who retain their personalities and exist in  relationship with each other, while basking in the gentle, eternal light.

Let's start with the Phaedo, where Socrates tells us why the philosopher ought to welcome death, the freeing of the soul from the body:

Many a man has been willing to go to the world below in the hope of seeing there an earthly love, or wife, or son, and conversing with them. And will he who is a true lover of wisdom, and is persuaded in like manner that only in the world below he can worthily enjoy her, still repine at death ? Will he not depart with joy ? Surely he will, my friend, if he be a true philosopher. For he will have a firm conviction that there only, and nowhere else, he can find wisdom in her purity.
The contrast in this passage does give the impression that while the ordinary person expects fully personal existence in the afterlife, the philosopher hopes for something more singular, less personal, doesn't it?  Later,  he allegorically reinterprets one form of Greek religion:
I conceive that the founders of the mysteries had a real meaning and were not mere triflers when they intimated in a figure long ago that . . . . he who arrives there after initiation and purification will dwell with the gods. . . . [F]ew are the mystics,” — meaning, as I interpret the words, the true philosophers. In the number of whom I have been seeking, according to my ability, to find a place during my whole life . . . . I believe that I shall find other masters and friends who are as good in the world below.
Now, again we see a contrast with the thoughts of non-philosophers who seek a purifiedly personal highest state, to "dwell with the gods," against philosophers who seem to know better.  But, will Socrates dwell alone?  By his own words, clearly not.  He aims and strives to find his place in the company of the philosophers, and he expects to share the afterlife with them.  It seems that the image the Apology and the Gorgias presented is actually confirmed by the Phaedo.

What about the Republic?  There, the apprehension of the Forms and the From of the Good is not worked out in terms of a life after this one, but forcibly interjected into the present life.  Instead of preparing for it by practicing philosophy on one's own or with some friends, or by following out lures up a ladder of love, it becomes institutionalized -- for one class of society, the guardians who will rule once ready -- as a process of education.  Education can of course be individualized -- though in such cases it still involves ongoing relationship with the educator, the guide, the teacher.  The only pedagogue or erotourgos who could possibly lead an unshackled student step by step into the Forms and beyond them to the Form of the Good, however, would be a person who has already at the very least glimpsed them in only for a moment that has branded them anew and eternally upon the eyes of their soul -- an educator with whom the budding philosopher would inevitably come to share converse, joy, friendship, communion when brought face to face with reality itself -- what Plato tells us is: "an inconceivable beauty. . .  if it is the source of knowledge and of truth, and yet surpasses them in beauty."

Of course, in this life, in Plato's ideal arrangement of matters, the reward for the philosophers, those "who are capable of apprehending that which is eternal and unchanging," those who do have a "vivid pattern in their souls," who are "ever enamored of the kind of knowledge which reveals to them something of that essence which is eternal" -- their reward is that they are required to run the state, not for their own benefit, but for that of the other social classes.  But, how does Plato depict this life?  Are they solitary workaholics, assuaged only by private rapturous off-hours absorption in contemplation of the Forms?  Or do they share a common life of the mind, an extended set of relationships?

What does Plato say in the Symposium itself? At the very peak, where we expect the human person to rest at the apex, he reveals that dynamism was never lacking in the eternal or for those who partake of it.
Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God. . .
This picture is confirmed by Plato's other great dialogue on love (and also on rhetoric), the Phaedrus, where the love or friendship between philosophers is not something merely ancillary to enjoyment of the highest good, but essential to it.  It is not as an isolated individual there, but as half of a couple that "shall walk together in a life of shining bliss."  Indeed, within the circling rounds of the heavens, from which the gods and mortal souls not only glimpse but get to contemplate, to feast upon the Forms -- the very self of justice, of temperance, of knowledge, among others --  and upon the true being beyond the heavens, the soul finds company and places itself in the company of the gods and of good human souls.

During an admitted digression in another dialogue, the Theatetus -- with the youth of that name, who, by the way is described as, like Socrates, possessing of an attractive, promising soul in a decidedly unlovely body, sharing even the same snub nose -- Socrates places himself within a "philosophical chorus," who preoccupy themselves with subjects such as:

justice and injustice in themselves, what each is, and how they differ from one another and from anything else. . . .the meaning of kingship and the whole question of human happiness and misery, what their nature is, and how humanity can gain one and escape the other.
Unlike the worldly, the philosopher does have insight into "the true life of happiness for gods and men", not least because he or she is already living it out to some degree in the very pursuit of it.  And here, tale not entirely finished, I must end, for work and the day calls.