Victor Nuovo: Why Read Plato?
Editor’s note: This is the 15th in a series of essays or reflections about the Republic, a book written two and a half millennia ago by the great philosopher Plato.
After I had completed the 14th essay, which was supposed to be the last, I was gently reminded by a friend that I had failed to make good on my promise to explain why someone like me, who is not a Platonist and whose settled opinions about the nature of things are decidedly anti-Plato, should nevertheless find deep satisfaction and fulfillment in reading his works and writing about them.
To begin with, I believe that Plato is worth reading because he was right about some very important things: among them, that true justice should do no harm and, hence, that punishment must be restorative, not retributive; that differences of gender identity or sexual preference make no political or moral difference; that civil society has a duty to provide for gainful and useful employment to all its citizens and the material means to subsist and to flourish; that excess wealth should be equitably redistributed; that the rule of law must be grounded in virtue; that education from prenatal care through higher education is a responsibility of the state; that the primary task of philosophy is to connect being with value, and that a philosopher who does not give proper attention to moral, economic and political things is at best an idle technician. All this is agreeable to me.
However, I also think that Plato was seriously mistaken in supposing that the only way to account for the existence of well-formed natural things, moral and aesthetic values, of beauty, truth and moral goodness, is by postulating a transcendent realm of ideas, eternal archetypes of things, infused with goodness and intelligibility that flow eternally from the Good itself. As a philosophical naturalist, I hold that nature is all there is, and that nature is rather a bottom-up than a top-down affair; like rain, everything must rise up before it can descend. The settled things we discover in nature are neither pre-formed nor intelligently designed; rather they are the products of long sequences of trial and error, success and failure, of evolution.
Nature itself is a grand experiment; its laws are not principles forever fixed; they are more like covenants, conventions, convenient arrangements that allow for shorter and longer durations among things. For all I know, this is the way it has always been and always will be, although nature’s products: earth, the solar system, galaxies, and whatever worlds there may be beyond this one, will not last.
Yet out of all this arise values, intelligence and sublime sentiments. For this reason, the great Roman philosophical poet Lucretius, whose De Rerum Natura, or, On the Nature of Things, is a classic of philosophical naturalism, characterized nature as a caring mother in whom every kind of living thing is conceived, for whom “earth puts forth sweet flowers,” “the ocean laughs,” and whom “the birds of the air proclaim.” Here, mother love and joy in living are represented as grand moments in the emergence of life. They are constant themes in Lucretius’ poem. This looks like excellence from the ground up.
So why read Plato? Why not just start with Lucretius? In the first place, because no other philosopher has done a better job than Plato bringing to mind in all their resplendence the values of existence: the beauty of well-formed things, like flowers, the human figure, and even more, moral virtue and the luminosity of intelligence. Whatever one’s stance on the nature of things, these are things to be clarified, refined and treasured, because all that makes life worth living is contained in them.
In an earlier essay, I mentioned that Greek philosophy had two beginnings. Two centuries before Socrates, early Greek philosophers, the Pre-Socratics, enquired about the origin of everything, and in the process, they invented the idea of nature as an original generating power, rooted in primordial matter that creates all things for no purpose, but merely out of the limitless abundance of its creativity.
The greatest of the Pre-Socratics was Democritus of Abdera, a contemporary of Socrates, who was one of the founders of atomism. He taught that the universe consists of a plurality of worlds that come into existence and pass away, products of the random play of atoms. The only eternal things are atoms themselves, which are forever moving in infinite space. Out of this process, the abundance of life, including human life with all of its values, arises. Lucretius borrowed his doctrine from him.
Plato never mentions Democritus, who wrote a great deal, but whose writings survive only in fragments. However, scholars have detected allusions to Democritus in Plato’s writings. And this leads to the plausible conjecture that in writing his works, Plato was engaged in a momentous philosophical controversy with Democritus, perhaps one of the most important events in the history of human thought, a contest between Platonism and Naturalism.
This, I think, is a very promising context in which to read Plato. It is reported that Democritus was also an accomplished writer, and that the quality of his philosophical writings rivaled Plato’s. Alas, they are lost. But we have Lucretius’ great poem to guide us. Incidentally, it was Lucretius’ work that provided the philosophical basis for the great scientific revolution of the 17th century, and with this a revival of curiosity about Democritus.
The ancient controversy between Platonists and naturalists revived and is still with us. Indeed it is within us. For, although philosophical reflection may originate spontaneously in the mind as pure curiosity, this desire to know and understand must be fed and nourished by reading and interpreting the thoughts of others. And so it goes.
In this great contest, Plato’s method was to contend that such sublime things as beauty, intelligence and goodness could not be the products of mere nature. Nor did the Gods produce them. The only explanation that seemed to fit was that they always were, and their difference from natural things was evident in unchanging and uncertain character of material things. They were to be discovered and acquired by the ascent of the mind through dialectic. Since they always were, there was no need to explain them; better to rely on them to explain the existence of everything else, except for those things we don’t like: things that grow imperfectly, things that decay, malicious and repugnant things, evil to the core, which according to Plato have no real cause and so don’t really exist, which is perplexing, because it’s hard to deny that they exist.
This leads to another theme that I failed to address, the origin of good and evil. The controversy between Platonism and naturalism turns on this theme. I will try to explain it in the next essay.