Plato and Platonism (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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[T]he first true and correctly proportioned presentation of Platonism that has been given to the general reader."-Paul Shorey

Through his idiosyncratic presentation of Plato, Pater offers us an account of a peculiarly modern frame of mind. He converts Plato's search for a primordial and transcendent unity into a poetic evocation of a material life that is prized in being lived from moment to moment.

The book is implicitly a manifesto, more ...
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Plato and Platonism (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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[T]he first true and correctly proportioned presentation of Platonism that has been given to the general reader."-Paul Shorey

Through his idiosyncratic presentation of Plato, Pater offers us an account of a peculiarly modern frame of mind. He converts Plato's search for a primordial and transcendent unity into a poetic evocation of a material life that is prized in being lived from moment to moment.

The book is implicitly a manifesto, more authoritative for the way it seems rooted in an "historical" account of the great founder of Western philosophy. It conveys the mental world of fifth-century Greece through a doctrine of experience that is in the process of becoming the emblem of early Modernism.
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When Walter Pater's Plato and Platonism first appeared in 1893, Paul Shorey, the Professor of Greek at the University of Chicago, called it-with whatever reservations-"the first true and correctly proportioned presentation of Platonism that has been given to the general reader." However, the modern reader will be drawn to it for very different reasons. For, through his idiosyncratic presentation of the philosopher of fifth-century Athens whose Socratic dialogues are at the origin of Western thought, Pater offers us an exceptionally suggestive account of a peculiarly modern frame of mind. He converts Plato's search for a primordial and transcendent unity into a poetic evocation of a material life that is prized in being lived from moment to moment; he transforms Socrates' scrupulous piecing out of a language of objective truth-telling into a quest for words that will express the privacy and intensity of the subjective experience that is, for Pater, the only truth in which we can believe. The book is implicitly a manifesto, more authoritative for the way it seems rooted in an "historical" account of the great founder of Western philosophy, for that elevation of private experience that took root in English thought with the Romantic poets and which Pater developed into an aesthetic doctrine of subtle but exceptionally pervasive influence. The work is a tour de force: It conveys the mental world of fifth-century Greece through a doctrine of experience that is in the process of becoming the emblem of early Modernism.

Plato and Platonism was the last of five books that Pater published in his lifetime: He died in 1894, shortly before he turned fifty-five. It was also the only one that issued directly from his professional life; for it originated in a series of lectures that he gave to undergraduates in Oxford, where he was a Fellow of Brasenose College, teaching Classics and the History of Philosophy, from 1864 until his death. He had begun publishing essays on literature and art in periodicals in his late twenties; he had early on gained the faintly scandalous reputation at Oxford of being an "infidel" in religious matters; and by the time that he collected some of his essays in his first book-Studies in the History of the Renaissance-in 1873, he had become moderately well known for his writings and opinions in both Oxford and London, and was friendly with a variety of writers-for example John Addington Symonds and Edmund Gosse; the painter Simeon Solomon and the Eton schoolmaster Oscar Browning. Later his circle included the man of letters Arthur Symons, the playwright Oscar Wilde, the poet Algernon Swinburne, the aesthetician Vernon Lee (Violet Paget), and the novelists Mrs. Humphry Ward and Henry James. For most of the last eight years of his life Pater and his two sisters lived principally in London; he enjoyed something of a London literary life.

Pater's reputation in the 1870s was, however, scandalous for more than unbelief; and the "scandal" was in complex relation with his later influence. His writings were deeply suspect among the orthodox. For his scepticism of the truth of religion seemed to issue in his advancing pure sensation-"impressions"-as a primary good. As he put it in the conclusion to The Renaissance-
Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us,-for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.
This conclusion became notorious: Fundamental beliefs in the stability of the external world and of the principles of morality seemed displaced in such formulations by a solipsistic pleasure that judged success by the intensity with which its moments were registered. When Pater temporarily suppressed it for the second edition of 1877, he did so to placate critics, including colleagues at Oxford, who saw this. There is no doubt that it obstructed his chances of preferment. It would have done so on doctrinal grounds alone; but Pater's potential misleading of young men in matters of moral principle was complicated by its chiming with a rumour of homosexual conduct with an undergraduate that came to a head in the same year. The latter became elided with the manifest interest in male beauty that Pater expressed, for example, in the essay in The Renaissance on Winckelmann, the great eighteenth-century German writer on Greek art; and these transgressive overtones continued in the reception of Pater's work-heightened after his death by the scandal and paranoia which surrounded the doctrines of aestheticism in the aftermath of the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde.

But it is these doctrines that matter: those that underlie what we understand as Modernism. Denis Donoghue, taking up Pater's insistence on the intensity of experience, says, "he is modern because he accepts this criterion: it constitutes his entire thought." The rebuttal of conventional religious notions and the exploration, by contrast, of the intimate registers of private experience, as the means of disclosing, in the natural and human fabric of the world, a sense of our inhabiting, is of the essence of Pater's writings. And if we recognise this preoccupation still as our own, it is because we also recognise what he declared in 1866 in his essay on Coleridge:
To the modern spirit nothing is, or can be rightly known, except relatively and under conditions. . . . It is the truth of these relations that experience gives us, not the truth of eternal outlines ascertained once for all, but a world of fine gradations and subtly linked conditions, shifting intricately as we ourselves change.

Now this may well seem an unpromising basis from which to embark on an account of Plato. The discovery of "the truth of eternal outlines" was his mastering impulse; for Plato a "Oneness" that lies behind the accidentals of experience and both elucidates them and transforms their variety into something exemplary of itself is the end that brings into coherence the fissile outgoings of individuals. And to the idea of "The One" Pater shows himself unremittingly hostile-"that strange passion for nonentity to which the Greek was so oddly liable," "arid," "uninteresting," "sterile." How can a writer of Pater's stamp annexe a world of thought so seemingly uncongenial, in the interests of a position so heterodox? It was a disjunction that was taken up forcefully by a number of his critics on both sides of the Atlantic. The answer is complex, and stems, on the one hand, from Pater's philosophical view of writing about the past; and on the other from an ambiguity about writing and doctrine, which is an aspect of his character as a writer, and which is mirrored in his view both of the relation between the character of the Socratic dialogues that constituted Plato's works and the end to which those dialogues were presumed to tend, and of the tension between two styles of Greek thought that he believed this relation embodied.

In his treatment of Plato, Pater claimed to be using the historic method of criticism-put simply, to locate his thought in its proper context: hence his eloquent evocation of Plato's three great predecessors-Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Pythagoras; and of the ethos of Athens (the "Ionian") as against that of Sparta (the "Dorian"). The spirit of this historical method Pater found in Hegel, who was translated into English in the 1850s, and whom he first read in the 1860s. It allowed him to think of certain permanent themes in Greek thought being played anew in different generations and under different guises; and it acted also as an enabling metaphor through which a statement of one kind may be imagined as rolling up in itself all the contrary tendencies from which it stems and which it both includes and transcends. This lies behind Pater's conveying how "the vesture of a past which is … not ours, but of the race" shapes and gives meaning to our actions beyond our conscious understanding, and his sense that the process of the Platonic Dialogues allows us, by a final impression, to seize the whole "as if by a single imaginative act." Such language tells us that Pater is also extending that process into the present: He wishes to give the force of "a single imaginative act" to his presentation of a Plato whose love for "The One" can be translated into a passionate engagement with the passing moment. And he hints also at an underlying Darwinian metaphor, through which the successive manifestations of the same genetic impulses, at once overtaken and confirmed, can be read in the current representative. Such metaphoric underpinnings allow Pater, for example, to begin his account of Plato with t doctrine of perpetual motion of Heraclitus (with which he is clearly in profound imaginative sympathy); to counter it by the absolute Oneness of Parmenides and transform it in the musical order of Pythagoras; yet to retain its deepest intuitions as the final picture takes shape.

Pater's critics frequently adverted to the distinctiveness of his prose style: Richard Le Gallienne is typical in alluding to "the gracious union of the austere and the sensuous, so characteristic." They recognised a power of expression, a capacity to persuade, sometimes at odds with the doctrine that it seems to defend, sometimes too beguilingly interwoven with it. The "austere" and the "sensuous" make their appearance in Plato and Platonism as the Spartan, Dorian, "highland," "centripetal" ethos, "a severe simplification everywhere"; as against the Athenian, Ionian, "littoral," "centrifugal"-"throwing itself forth in endless play of undirected imagination." Pater sees Sparta behind the austerity of the ideal state of Plato's Republic, and its admirable but ruthless absoluteness in the "Eleatic" philosophy of Parmenides; to Athens he gives all love of life, of colour, of variety. These disjunctions feel like the moments of an interior dialogue, as they may well have been for Pater himself. Gerald Monsman thinks of Plato and Platonism as an "impersonal" work, resorted to-unsuccessfully-to escape the notoriety that the aesthetic movement of the 1890s was giving him. Thus the conflict between Dorian and Ionian in himself might be imagined as potentially issuing in a more conventional allegiance-one more austere, less "effeminate." Something of this dilemma is conveyed by Pater in his account of the character of Socrates, and in the tension between the intense attachment to physical experience of the dialogues as they unfold, and the end-"the abstract, the impalpable, the unseen"-towards which they strive.

This treating of the Platonic Dialogues as dramatic fictions, fraught with the tensions of common experience, is partly how Pater converts Plato and Socrates into the syntax of his own self-reflexive philosophic understanding. When one reads that Socrates argues "everywhere, with what is like a physical passion for what is, what is true," it is easy to see a reflection of Pater himself. The way in which the idea of physical passion touches the deliberate ambiguity of is and true is characteristic: Socrates becomes a fiction of strenuousness and diffidence, irony and hesitancy, the vividness of whose evocation reflects the intensity of Pater's attachment to the detail of transient experience; to the "elusive," the "contingent." So he prizes the superior interest of the search over its end: "the survival of query will be still the salt of truth"; and, most explicitly, "the philosopher of Being, or, of the verb, 'To be,' is after all afraid of saying 'It is.'"

This sense of indeterminacy, of a process that combined the humility of not knowing and the capacity to explore the entire gamut of human experience, leads Pater to call the Platonic Dialogue an "essay," a form which, at another point-invoking Montaigne-he says "does but commence the modern world." That is, he incorporates Plato into that same movement between doubt and invisible foundations that for him characterised the present. It is a short distance from this re-description to bringing the quandaries of the modern self to the centre of the process:
to make men interested in themselves, as being the very ground of all reality for them. . .that was the essential function of the Socratic method: to flash light into the house within, its many chambers, its memories and associations. . . .
The sentence echoes distantly the conclusion of The Renaissance; and also takes up obliquely the self-reflections and projections of his novel Marius the Epicurean (1885), of Imaginary Portraits (1887), and his essay-autobiographical in feeling, if not in fact-"The Child in the House" (1878). The Socratic method is converted into a form of inwardness; the dialogue is that of the self discovering its true imaginative sources.

It is by this means that the paradox from which this discussion began-that of a writer to whom "The One" was so uncongenial-changes into a different paradox:
[Plato's] aptitude for things visible, with the gift of words, empowers him to express, as if for the eyes, what except to the eye of the mind is strictly invisible.
"As if for the eyes": the pleasures of sight render the infinite finite; they render the abstract corporeal. The love of corporeal beauty, so central, earlier, to the doctrines of The Renaissance, transforms in Plato and Platonism the spiritual beauty of Plato's system into sensuous apperception: The love of the invisible is itself depicted as sensuous-
filling that 'hollow land' with delightful colour and form, as if now at last the mind were veritably dealing with living people there, living people who play upon us through the affinities, the repulsion and attraction of persons towards one another, all the magnetism, as we call it, of actual human friendship or love: -There, is the formula of Plato's genius, the essential condition of the specially Platonic temper, of Platonism.
But by that means the visible material world is also reinstated as an object of joyful recognition, the means by which the "is" becomes the "true." In rendering Plato's power of visualisation, Pater also recovers him as an aesthete, the lover of the real world in which he is immersed. It is a remarkable transformation: Pater translates unity into diversity; flight to the eternal from phenomena into their vivid recuperation; he brings the population of the Dialogues into continuity with the characters of Homer, of Shakespeare, even of Thackeray. Pater's romance of the visible world turns Plato into a novelist. His insistence on the visible world of the Greeks takes up earlier themes and, by way of a powerfully romantic evocation of the manly austerities of Lacedaemon (Sparta), brings the frigid clarities of Plato's Republic into connection with the way a "seemly externality" might influence the "whole man"-as in a Cistercian abbey, or an Oxford College. Pater's ethics of the visible necessarily bring morality and aesthetics together.

It is in this conjunction that Pater concludes Plato and Platonism. He has expounded Plato's doctrines in such a way as to relocate them in a mental framework that feels in emotional continuity with his own; but he then, following the template of Lacedaemon, redescribes and to an extent rhapsodises the ideal state of The Republic so that its rigidities become expressive of "willing subjects" who can forget themselves to become so "under wholesome rule." Pater's final chapter, on Plato's Aesthetics, creates a surprising amalgam: Drawing on the end of perfection in itself proposed in The Republic, he claims that Plato anticipates "the modern notion that art as such has no end but its own perfection,-'art for art's sake.'" He sees in music the principle of all philosophy ("the whole business of philosophy only as it were the correct editing of [music]") as he has earlier (in his essay in The Renaissance, "The School of Giorgione") seen in it the principle of all art. The art that issues from the exposition "solicits a certain effort from the reader or spectator, who is promised a great expressiveness on the part of the writer, the artist, if he for his part will bring with him a great attentiveness." But if that also reminds us of a modern, if not Modernist, criterion, the expressiveness is the reverse of Pater's own: collected, laconic, monastic. The apparent gesture of conformity is not, however, what it seems: even as he advocates temperance and asceticism, "the diamond finely cut," we find he extols "Lenten or monastic colours" for their bringing up in contrast "the scarlet flower, the lighted candle, the cloth of gold": We are returned to the more intense and atmosphere of his virtually contemporaneous sub-erotic mediaeval romance of "Apollo in Picardy."

In taking note of that qualification, one returns unavoidably to Pater's writing-to something that was recognised by his contemporaries to have a distinctive life, and a unique personal expressiveness, whatever the subject. When Pater, describing Plato's treatment of the death of Socrates, speaks of "details which make character a sensible fact," he is adumbrating the working of his own language, through which his inward dispositions are recreated in the form of his subjects, enacted, demonstrated, in order to engage the feelings and thoughts of his reader: in which-to adopt the terms of his preface to The Renaissance-the object is made present through one's knowing "one's own impression as it really is." This view of language is a modernist one: It sees words as transformative, their connections as creating and sustaining the world of the imagination. When Pater says of Plato that "he gave names to invisible acts, processes, creations, of the abstract mind, as masterly, as efficiently, as Adam himself" he obliquely attributes that same creative faculty to himself. And in looking at what Pater makes of Plato in Plato and Platonism, one recognises that the transformation is performed above all through his style. It is something that Proust, who read, admired, and was influenced by Pater's work, clearly understood: how the writer, if he wishes to begin to tell the truth, must enclose his matter-as Pater does-"within the necessary armature of a beautiful style."

Martin Golding is Fellow and Director of Studies in English at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge, where he teaches English literature and the history of moral and political thought. He is also in practice as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, and is an art critic.
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  • Posted April 13, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Plato and Victorian England

    A must reading for anyone interested in Plato. However, Pater's lectures on Plato say as much about Victorian England as they do about ancient Greece. Our perspective has changed in the century since Pater and we see Plato in a different light.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 28, 2012

    A wonderful review. Many thanks!

    A wonderful review. Many thanks!

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    Posted June 3, 2011

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    Posted July 18, 2012

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