I am quoting here, with a little paraphrasing, from Plato’s Phaedo. I am confident that it is well out of copyright, being about 2,500 years old (although I should attribute the translation I am using, which is Oxford World’s Classics, Trans. David Gallop). To set the scene: these are the reported words of Socrates as he awaits his execution, as reported later by Phaedo, who was there. Written by Plato, who was not there (as he has Phaedo say). Make of that literary set-up what you will. Certainly Plato doesn’t intend to feed you a simple ‘how things are’ argument, but rather wants you to exercise your brain a little.
In case you are wondering, Cebes, to whom Socrates is talking, was a Pythagorean friend of Socrates, a member of his inner circle, who came from Thebes; probably a young man at the time (Socrates was executed by drinking hemlock in 399 BC) so this conversation dates from that time.
When I was young, Cebes, I was remarkably keen on the kind of wisdom known as natural science; it seemed to me splendid to know the reasons for each thing, why each thing comes to be, why it perishes, and why it exists...
Some might say that the reason Socrates is sitting here is that my body consists of bones and sinews...so that when the bones are turned in their sockets, the sinews by stretching and tensing enable me somehow to bend my limbs at this moment, and that’s the reason why I’m sitting here bent in this way...
Yet neglecting to mention the true reason: that Athenians judged it better to condemn me, and therefore I in my turn have judged it better to sit here, and thought it more just to stay behind and submit to such penalty as they may ordain.
Because, I dare swear, these sinews and bones would long since have been off in Megara or Boeotia, impelled by their judgement of what was best, had I not thought it more just and honourable not to escape and run away, but to submit to what the city might impose.
But to call such things ‘reasons’ is quite absurd. It would be quite true to say that without possessing such things as bones and sinews, and whatever else I possess, I shouldn’t be able to do what I judged best; but to call those things the reasons for my actions, rather than my choice of what is best, and that too though I act with intelligence, would be a thoroughly loose way of talking.
Fancy being unable to distinguish two different things: the reason proper, and that without which the reason could never be a reason!
...if anyone gives me as the reason why a given thing is beautiful either its having a blooming colour, or its shape, or something else like that, I dismiss those other things...but in a plain, artless, and possibly simple-minded way, I hold this close to myself: nothing else makes it beautiful except that beautiful itself, whether by its presence or communion or whatever the manner and nature of the relation may be; as I don’t go so far as to affirm that, but only that it is by the beautiful that all beautiful things are beautiful.
Similarly it’s by largeness that large things are large, and larger things larger, and by smallness that smaller things are smaller...
Then you wouldn’t accept someone saying that one person was larger than another by a head...you’d protest that for your part you’d only say that everything larger than something else is larger by nothing but largeness, and largeness is the reason for its being larger...you’d be afraid of meeting the following contradiction: if you say that someone is larger or smaller by a head, then, first, the larger will be larger and smaller smaller by the same thing; and secondly, the head, by which the larger person is larger, is itself a small thing; and it’s surely monstrous that anyone should be large by something small...
It seems to me that not only is largeness itself never willing to be large and small at the same time, but also that the largeness in us never admits the small, nor is it willing to be overtopped. Rather, one of two things must happen: either it must retreat and get out of the way, when its opposite, the small advances towards it; or else, upon that opposite’s advance, it must perish.
Now consider this further point, and see if you agree with it. Is there something you call hot, and again cold? [Cebes: There is.] Do you mean the same as snow and fire? [Cebes: No, most certainly not.] Rather the hot is something different from fire, and the cold is something different from snow? [Cebes: Yes.] But this I think you will agree: what is snow will never, on the lines of what we were saying earlier, admit the hot and still be what it was, namely snow, and also hot; but at the advance of the hot, it will either get out of the way or perish. [Cebes: Certainly.]
...apparently it is not only the opposites we spoke of that don’t admit each other. This is also true of all things which, although not opposites to each other, always have the opposites....Thus we shall say, shan’t we, that ‘three’ will sooner perish, will undergo anything else whatever, sooner than abide coming to be ‘even’ while remaining three?...Moreover, ‘twoness’ isn’t opposite to ‘threeness’...then not only do the forms that are opposites not abide each other’s attack; but there are, in addition, certain other things that don’t abide the opposites’ attack.
To define these things:...’threeness’, while not opposite to ‘the even’, nevertheless doesn’t admit it, since it always brings up its opposite, just as ‘twoness’ brings up the opposite of ‘the odd’, and the fire brings up the opposite of the cold, and so on in a great many other cases...
From what’s now being said I see a different kind of safety beyond the answer I gave initially, the old safe one. Thus, if you were to ask me what it is, by whose presence in a body, that body will be hot, I shan’t give you the old, safe, ignorant answer, that it’s heat, but a subtler answer now available, that it’s fire. And again, if you ask what it is, by whose presence in a body, that body will ail, I shan’t say it’s illness, but fever. And again, if asked what it is, by whose presence in a number, that number will be odd, I shan’t say oddness, but oneness, and so on.
Answer then...by whose presence in a body, that body will be living. [Cebes: Soul.]..Then soul, whatever it occupies, always comes to that ting bringing life? [Cebes: Yes indeed.] And is there an opposite to life...? [Cebes: There is – death.] Now the soul will absolutely never admit the opposite of what brings it up, as has been agreed earlier? [Cebes: Most emphatically.]
...what do we call whatever doesn’t admit death? [Cebes: Immortal.] But soul doesn’t admit death? [Cebes: No.] Then soul is immortal. [Cebes: It’s immortal.]
Convinced? Consider that Plato is discussing here what causes things to be beautiful, hot or cold, odd or even, large or small. And he is also convinced that opposites cannot cause opposites. As Commentator David Sedley has said:
Plato’s formal causes have received a largely bad press. If you want to know what makes a sunset beautiful, it may seem quite unhelpful to be told ‘because of the beautiful’. Can these formal causes be other than vacuous? They can. There is an enormous value in knowing that the sunset is beautiful because of the beautiful and not because of, say, its colour. Only when you know the genuine cause do you know what you have to investigate. If you want to know what makes sunsets beautiful, don’t be sidetracked into investigating the nature of colours. Investigate what the beautiful is – in other words, seek to establish the essence of the beautiful by means of a definition.
This is one of the earliest introductions by Plato of what he called ‘the Forms’, one of the most mightily influential explanations of ‘how things are’ that has ever been formulated. Expect to hear more of ‘the Forms’.
|Head of Sokrates, British Museum|
Plato’s Phaedo Edition used: Oxford World’s Classics, Trans. David Gallop 96ff
David Sedley ‘Platonic Causes’, Phronesis XLIII/2 (1998)