Some of the most exciting moments in one’s education are when one finds oneself circling round, reading primary texts one has been hearing or reading about for quite a long time, but that one could never have understood without the tools one has gained since. Pater, Plato and Platonism:
The treatise, as the proper instrument of dogma—the Ethics of Aristotle, the Ethics of Spinoza—begins with a truth, or with a clear conviction of truth, in the axiom or definition, which it does but propose further to explain and apply.—The treatise, as the instrument of a dogmatic philosophy begins with an axiom or definition: the essay or dialogue, on the other hand, as the instrument of dialectic, does not necessarily so much as conclude in one; like that long dialogue with oneself, that dialectic process, which may be co-extensive with life. It does in truth little more than clear the ground, as we say, or the atmosphere, or the mental tablet, that one may have a fair chance of knowing, or seeing, perhaps: it does but put one into a duly receptive attitude towards such possible truth, discovery, or revelation, as may one day occupy the ground, the tablet,—shed itself on the purified air; it does not provide a proposition, nor a system of propositions, but forms a temper.
What Plato presents to his readers is, then, again, a paradox, or a reconciliation of opposed tendencies: on one side, the largest possible demand for infallible certainty in knowledge (it was he fixed that ideal of absolute truth, to which, vainly perhaps, the human mind, as such, aspires) yet, on the other side, the utmost possible inexactness, or contingency, in the method by which actually he proposes to attain it. It has been said that the humour of Socrates, of which the famous Socratic irony—the pretence to have a bad memory, to dislike or distrust long and formal discourse, to have taught nothing, to be but a mid-wife in relation to other people’s thoughts—was an element, is more than a mere personal trait; that it was welcome as affording a means of escape from the full responsibilities of his teaching. It belonged, in truth, to the tentative character of dialectic, of question and answer as the method of discovery, of teaching and learning, to the position, in a word, of the philosophic essayist.
If Platonism from age ot age has meant, for some, ontology, a doctrine of “being,” or the nearest attainable approach to our substitution for that; for others, Platonism has been in fact only another name for scepticism, in a recognisable philosophic tradition. Thus, in the Middle Age, it qualifies in the Sic et Non the confident scholasticism of Abelard. It is like the very trick and impress of the Platonic Socrates himself again, in those endless conversations of Montaigne—that typical sceptic of the age of the Renaissance—conversations with himself, with the living, with the dead through their writings, which his Essays do but reflect. Typical Platonist or sceptic, he is therefore also the typical essayist. And the sceptical philosopher of Bordeaux does but commence the modern world, which, side by side with its metaphysical reassertions, from Descartes to Hegel, side by side also with a constant accumulation of the sort of certainty which is afforded by empirical science, has had assuredly, to check wholesomely the pretensions of one and of the other alike, its doubts.—”Their name is legion,” says a modern writer. Reverent and irreverent, reasonable and unreasonable, manly and unmanly, morbid and healthy, guilty and honest, wilful, inevitable—they have been called, indifferently, in an age which thirsts for intellectual security, but cannot make up its mind. Que sais-je? it cries, in the words of Montaigne; but in the spirit also of the Platonic Socrates, with whom such dubitation had been nothing less than a religious duty or service.
Sanguine about any form of absolute knowledge, of eternal, or indefectible, or immutable truth, with our modern temperament as it is, we shall hardly become, even under the direction of Plato, and by the reading of the Platonic Dialogues. But if we are little likely to realise in his school, the promise of “ontological” science, of a “doctrine of Being,” or any increase in our consciousness of metaphysical security, are likely, rather, to acquire there that other sort of Platonism, a habit, namely, of tentative thinking and suspended judgment, if we are not likely to enjoy the vision of his “eternal and immutable ideas,” Plato may yet promote in us what we call “ideals”—the aspiration towards a more perfect Justice, a more perfect beauty, physical and intellectual, a more perfect condition of human affairs, than any one has ever yet seen; that κόσμος in which things are only as they are thought by a perfect mind, to which experience is constantly approximating us, but which it does not provide. There they stand, the two great landmarks of the intellectual or spiritual life as Plato conceived it: the ideal, the world of “ideas,” “the great perhaps,” for which it is his merit so effectively to have opened room in the mental scheme, to be known by us, if at all, through our affinities of nature with it, which, however, in our dealings with ourselves and others we may assume to be objective or real:—and then, over against our imperfect realisation of that ideal, in ourselves, in nature and history, amid the personal caprices (it might almost seem) of its discovery of itself to us, as the appropriate attitude on our part, the dialectical spirit, which to the last will have its diffidence and reserve, its scruples and second thoughts. Such condition of suspended judgment indeed, in its more genial development and under felicitous culture, is but the expectation, the receptivity, of the faithful scholar, determined not to foreclose what is still a question—the “philosophic temper,” in short, for which a survival of query will be still the salt of truth, even in the most absolutely ascertained knowledge.