Plato's Open Philosophy

Plato's Open Philosophy

In the past two weeks, I have been slowly reading Dominic O’Meara’s Cosmology and Politics in Plato’s Later Works (Cambridge University Press, 2017), and while the whole work and its main focus is of great interest (currently I am working on a review of the whole book), the book’s Preface is well worth discussing and dwelling on in its own right.

Let me first preface the Preface with a consideration. If one is permitted to speak generally: in doing philosophy, one scrutinizes the premises that become the foundation of demonstrative knowledge of the cosmos and all its parts, or that become the very things to determine and inquire about—what, for Aristotle, would be dialectic. In Plato, this method of reflecting on the world simultaneously leads one to reflect on oneself and how one functions well—or badly—within the structure of the whole. Yet proceeding with certainty and clarity in this latter case, or in going from premises to their conclusions in demonstration, depends on how well or poorly those premises stand in the first place—and however well or poorly the subject grasps those premises, and/or the principles underlying them.

And yet here lies the rub: one can lay out the peripheries of a framework that comes close to describing (or simply does describe) reality sufficiently; yet one—or one’s colleagues, say in a school—may realize difficulties, some perhaps tangential, some perhaps fatal indeed, that cast the framework into doubt, whether in its parts or as a whole. And yet, however tangential or fatal, this indeed seems the purpose of a philosophical school in the first place: developing and adapting principles and premises, or sometimes replacing certain principles and premises if needed. (Indeed, we have seen Conor Stark masterfully lay this out in our last post, on Gerson’s thought-provocative thesis of Aristotle as perpetuating the same, essential principles of Plato and other Platonists.) Still, the nature of difficulties as a common factor in any philosophical endeavor might lead some to doubt the very nature of inquiry, either dogmatically (i.e. the conclusion, there is no certain knowledge) or in the manner of a Pyrrhonian, like Sextus Empiricus (i.e. there is no conclusion—one suspends judgment whether there is or is not certain knowledge). And yet, even for these two kinds of Skeptics, one still engages in the activity of inquiry—either to deny inquiry or to deny, at the least, inquiry’s conclusion and judgment: one does not abandon the activity and life of reflection, regardless the perils and difficulties. All the more in the life and development of different philosophical schools, one finds constant engagement, dialogue, transformation, and so on: one may even be tempted to describe all philosophy as this constant engagement and dialogue in refining and better approximating that framework with reality.

It is with this context in mind that Dominic O’Meara presents a unique and significantly insightful reading of Plato and the dialogues which directly parallels this general consideration above, where Plato in this regard is a helpful guide in this conception of philosophy as an open-ended activity without closed delimitation. In beginning his book’s Preface, O’Meara quotes Olympiodorus commenting on the mystery of how Plato admits of a multitude of interpretations, none of which exhaust any (or all) others:

Having been loved by many and helped many, Plato, when he was dying, saw himself in a dream as a swan, moving from tree to tree, thus giving much trouble to the hunters. Simmias the Socratic interpreted the dream in this way: Plato [could not] be caught by those who came after him and wished to interpret him. For interpreters who try to capture the thoughts of the ancients are like hunters. But Plato cannot be caught, for one can understand him in a physical, ethical or theological way, in short in very many ways, just like Homer. For the souls of both [Homer and Plato], it is said, contain all harmonies. So it is possible to understand them in all sorts of ways.

In Alc. II, 155–165 (trans. O’Meara)

As O’Meara reminds us, the swan was a symbol of the god, Apollo, and the philosophers were often associated with the symbol of the swan. Thus in this context, Plato’s interpreters are the hunters of the swan, “Plato” (in a context—O’Meara mentions in a footnote—where swans were hunted and eaten in antiquity; how telling), who are ultimately unsuccessfully in capturing the swan: “there will be many interpretations of Plato’s writings, and none will be final”. The natural question, of course is, “why?” O’Meara refines this question thus: “What is it in Plato’s writings that creates the need to interpret them, and to interpret them in ever-renewed ways? What is it, in this work, a work which belongs to the past, which allows it to carry with itself its future?”

O’Meara proposes three “paths” to address this conundrum: between the different temporalities of Plato/the dialogues/the readers; the complexity of the character of Socrates; and “Plato’s Open Philosophy”. His first path, with temporalities, is to indicate how Plato writes the dialogues, between the original times of the events and the time when he writes—whether 16 years later (e.g. Phaedo: dramatic date, 399 BC; date of composition, ca. 383 BC) to 70 years later (e.g. Timaeus: dramatic date, late 430s BC; date of composition, 360s BC). Hence, Plato writes about past events (Time-1) in his current context (Time-2) for readers who are reading it immediately in his context or after—i.e. in the future (Time-3):

The present time of the reader – the reader’s cultural milieu, experience, interests – becomes part of the system of relations and affects it correspondingly. Since the present time is the future of the past [scil. the events of the dialogue], and since the present time of the reader is the present of any future, Plato has integrated the future into the texture of his work. And since the present time of potential readers is multiple and open, so is the text in its interpretations open. In their very past, Plato’s works provoke our present, as his readers, and the variety of our presents gives a corresponding variety of interpretations. … Plato’s writings, by including the future reader as an (albeit silent) interlocutor and participant in philosophical enquiry, are uniquely effective in provoking the reader to philosophize, at any time.

Among other examples he discusses, O’Meara points out the case of the Timaeus, the events of which take place 70 years prior to Plato’s writing: in turn, the story that the character, Timaeus, tells is already so far back that the Athenians have forgotten it entirely (quoting Tim. 21d, 23b):

Only the Egyptians, thanks to their ancient records, kept its memory and could tell it to Solon, the source of Critias’ story. The story is about the heroic deeds of a good city, similar to the utopia of Plato’s Republic. Through the story, the utopia is projected back into a distant past, beyond the limits of the history that Athenians knew. And this very distant past is itself introduced by a speech, given by the figure Timaeus, about the beginning of the world. We leave here the realm of human history, Athenian or even Egyptian, and find the birth of cosmic order, which no human could have witnessed, a cosmic order which would inspire the long-forgotten ancient Athenians, victors of Atlantis, to create a good state and live a good and virtuous life. In this mythical past, the real Athenians of the present (T 2), whose more recent history rather resembles that of Atlantis and its destruction, could imagine another Athens, a good city, as a promise in a hypothetical, distant future.

Through this projection of multiple time scopes, between the past that Plato writes about, in turn about an earlier past all the way to the beginning of the world, indicates a way for the Athenians of Plato’s time (the “future”) to imagine a possible, better “Athens”—and in turn, “we, today, even further removed from the mythical past than Socrates’ and Plato’s contemporaries, can also try to imagine what it would be like for human society to live in harmony with the world and with nature.”

This leads into O’Meara’s second “path”, on Socrates’ complexity, where we see diverging characterizations of Socrates as a character. For instance, while one may see Socrates’ development throughout the dialogues as anticipating the founding and work of the Academy, in the transition between Time-1 and Time-2, O’Meara also points out the tension between Plato’s Socrates and the Socrates of later readers (Time-3), like that of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and of Plato’s readers today. While this leads us to question who the true, historical Socrates was versus the “Socrates” of Plato, O’Meara implies that this is intentional, with Socrates as a figure of the past announcing the future. O’Meara highlights two aspects this “symptomatic doubt”: (1) Socrates is portrayed in places (e.g. Apology) as a hero—yet how could he have existed? “Is this figure not rather an appeal to us in the imperfection of our present, a call for a better future?”; and (2) in other places, Socrates appears to be a complex, problematic figure—e.g. apparently cheating in arguing with others, or claiming he knows “nothing” when he also clearly seems to know something in the varying positions he advances. As O’Meara concludes: “Under both aspects, Socrates is a part of the past, conjured up by Plato as a figure of a possible future to our present. Socrates is Plato become a swan!”

Finally O’Meara’s third “path” is Plato’s method of philosophizing as open-ended: seen, for example, in the way that Plato often only provides a sketch or provisional outline, as one sees in the varying arguments for immortality in the Phaedo, or the outlines of what one should seek in a properly-named “cause”—or, as in Republic VI, in Plato’s definition of “dialectic” as the highest kind of knowledge, Plato “leaves the sketch he gives of it very incomplete, imprecise, seemingly vague, so much so that we have great difficulty if we try to find out exactly how dialectic works.” As he ultimately concludes: “I think this lack of precision, this vagueness in Plato, is not proof that Plato is an imprecise and confused thinker. The vagueness is an openness to the future, to what could be a perfect method permitting the systematic, unified and complete organization of knowledge. Plato’s vagueness is the vagueness of our future, of our expectations in regard to scientific method.” In application to Plato’s framework for the Forms, O’Meara concludes his Preface, rounding out the three “paths” to address the multitude of interpretations of Plato, by affirming:

I believe one can say that Plato’s Forms or Ideas point us on to the possibility of a knowledge of the functional laws allowing every and any complex entity, be it a soul, a city-state or the world, to function harmoniously, efficiently, in a way beneficial to all of its parts and to the whole. In a political system this means knowledge of the laws allowing a society to live in peace for the good of each and every part of the society, without exploitation of one part of society by another part, a society where the causes of evil and of war are reduced to a minimum. This, I propose, is what Plato’s swan sings to us.

One can see here O’Meara applying his framework of Plato’s “open philosophy” to the city as it can be realized—while affirming the contingent nature of the future and its specific material circumstances which imply variation in the instantiation of the universal, constant Form or Idea. Generalizing from this, O’Meara seems to describe well the open-ended nature of Plato’s dialogues, and how the principles they set forth are ones to be developed, critiqued, and refined in time—and, more specifically, they are meant for the future readers in their specific, concrete circumstances, in their own interpretation, critiquing, receiving, and so on. Hence, O’Meara’s reading also helps provide us with a template for how philosophy may be understood and done, as we see it paradigmatically set forth in Plato.


Header image credit: Medieval manuscript of Calcidius' Latin translation of Plato's Timaeus

Jonathan Greig
Jonathan Greig

Jonathan is a postdoctoral researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, Austria.

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