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I. Socrates and Plato

The manner of his life, and still more the manner of his death, have made Socrates an outstanding figure in the history of European thought and morals. That his doctrine has not till recently been adequately understood is due to the fact that he wrote nothing and that his views, fully and clearly as they are expounded in Plato's dialogues, have been taken to be Plato's own. Owing especially to the work of the late Professor John Burnet during his occupancy (1892 to 1926) of the chair of Greek in the University of St. Andrews, it is now possible for us not only to recognise the Greek philosophers as the founders of modern science, but to distinguish and appreciate the contributions of Socrates and Plato to science and general culture.

The supreme importance of Plato is not diminished by the recognition, which his own dialogues enable us to make, of the extent of his indebtedness to Socrates. The marking off of the earlier dialogues as thoroughly Socratic permits of a more careful scrutiny of the later dialogues in which the doctrines of Socrates are either criticised or not referred to at all. It is from these, and most of all from the Laws, that, according to Burnet, Plato's position and influence are to be truly estimated. In his posthumously published work, Platonism (originally delivered as lectures in the University of California in 1926), Burnet actually claims for Plato a decisive influence on Roman law. “It is not, in my opinion, too much to say that what we call Roman Law is not so much Roman as Hellenistic, and that it has its origin in the Laws of Plato.”

The explanation of this apparently extravagant claim is simple. The Academy, which Plato founded, was not only an institute for scientific research but a school for training rulers and legislators, and it sent out such legislators to a considerable number of Greek states, both during and after Plato's time. Their influence would naturally be in accordance with Plato's ideas of sound politics, and the fact that he spent his last years in drawing up the legislative scheme which is set forth in the Laws, shows that he wished the work to be carried on on the same lines. When, at a later date, these Hellenic states came under Roman domination, it was found that the original civic law of Rome was inapplicable to them, and the adaptable Romans solved the difficulty by developing a new system which embodied much of the Academic legislation of the conquered states. It was this system which spread throughout the Empire,


  ― 204 ―
while the older Roman law was confined to Rome itself and “became of less and less importance as time went on”. This, Burnet contends, is the explanation of the extraordinary similarities between Plato's dialogue and what we now call Roman Law.

The educational proposals of the Laws are particularly important, as Burnet had previously pointed out in his Greek Philosophy from Thales to Plato, for the estimation of Plato's originality and influence. Burnet lays special emphasis on the scheme of higher education elaborated in the dialogue. “We may easily miss the significance of Plato's proposals as to the education of boys and girls from the age of ten onwards. We must remember that in his day there were no regular schools for young people of that age. They were taken to one teacher for music-lessons and to another to be taught Homer, and there was no idea of coordinating all these things in a single building under a single direction with a regular staff of teachers. By founding the Academy Plato had invented the university, and now he has invented the secondary school. In consequence we find such schools everywhere in the Hellenistic period, and the Romans adopted it with other things. That is the origin of the medieval grammar school and of all that has come out of it since.”

This recognition of the practical genius of Plato was not possible to those who regarded the Republic as the fine flower of Platonism, and neglected the later dialogues. It may indeed be said that it was at no time a reasonable view that Plato, in order to defend the memory of his master, Socrates, should have written dialogues attributing to him views that he never held. There would have been no reverence or even decent feeling about that. But it was only after the dialogues had been fairly definitely dated that Burnet could satisfactorily show, first, that all the dialogues up to the Republic expound a common philosophy, secondly, that, if this is not the philosophy of Socrates, we know next to nothing about his views, since all the alternative versions depend upon material arbitrarily selected from Plato's account, and, finally, that the later dialogues in which, with one explicable exception, Socrates plays no prominent part, expound a different philosophy, which is led up to by criticism of the Socratic.

The difference is equally marked in the sphere of education and politics, and in the Timaeus we have a definite reference to the shortcomings of Socrates in this regard. The point is, as Burnet puts it, that Socrates “could paint the picture of an ideal state but could not make the figures move. He is made to confess that he could not, for instance, represent his state as engaged in the struggle for existence with other states; to do that men are required who by nature and training have a gift for practical politics as well as for philosophy.” In a word, Socrates was deficient in the historical sense. He imagined, as the earlier dialogues show, that all social and political problems can be solved on purely ethical grounds, by direct reference to what is good. Plato, on the other hand, saw the impossibility of making progress by the application of an unreal standard of perfection, and the necessity


  ― 205 ―
of working with existing political forces. The life and teaching of Socrates showed him, as nothing else could, the opportunism of both the leading Athenian parties and the consequent political bankruptcy of Athens. But he did not despair of the political development of other Greek states, and though his efforts were unsuccessful at the time, they were not, as we have seen, without a considerable later influence.

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