William Temple on Plato’s Vision of the Ideas

To us the Ideal Theory is myth, as it was to Plato in the later period.  Prof. Burnet wrote recently of the myths–“They have their roots in something older than philosophy, and possessing a vitality which is denied to philosophical systems.”  And just before he had pointed out that Aristotle, who begins with accepted facts and ends in myth, has always been a pillar of orthodoxy, while “most heresies come from Plato” because he insists on scientific treatment of ultimate questions.  This is no doubt true; but this distinction is rooted in another.  Here, as in all departments of human activity, the ultimate fact is temperament.  Aristotle was bound to produce a philosophy which would be a basis for orthodoxy, for, colossal as was his intellect–perhaps the greatest in history, –he was by temperament a churchwarden; and Plato was bound to be the philosophic father of many heretics because he was by temperament a Titan.  There is an inspiration in the spectacle of the old philosopher tearing in shreds his proudly built philosophy and beginning it all afresh.  But among his actual works what I have called “the old Ideal Theory,” which he himself rightly discarded, is worth more to mankind than the method of division elaborated in the Sophist and the Politicus…[This] may be of great scientific value, but [it imparts] no impulse.  The Ideal Theory, as held by Plato in his middle period, may be myth; but it is the outcome and expression of something more valuable than any specific doctrine, however true–of intellectual courage that refuses to allow any sphere to be set beyond the reach of knowledge, of mystic vision in which all that is mean and sordid disappears, and the temperamental fire without which no great achievement is possible in action or art.  —Mind 1908 (Vol 17 No 68)

2 responses

    • Looks interesting. Who can resist the last line of the blurb? “…and comes full circle with a reading of Phaedo in which Socrates’ growing rigidity as the hemlock takes hold is an erotic pun.”

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