Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson
25 May 1803 – 27 April 1882

Plato: New Readings
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
from Representative Men, 1850

The publication, in Mr. Bohn’s “Serial Library,” of the excellent
translations of Plato, which we esteem one of the chief benefits the cheap press has
yielded, gives us an occasion to take hastily a few more notes of the elevation and
bearings of this fixed star; or to add a bulletin, like the journals, of Plato at the
latest dates
.

Modern science, by the extent of its generalization, has learned to indemnify the
student of man for the defects of individuals by tracing growth and ascent in races; and,
by the simple expedient of lighting up the vast background, generates a feeling of
complacency and hope. The human being has the saurian and the plant in his rear. His arts
and sciences, the easy issue of his brain, look glorious when prospectively beheld from
the distant brain of ox, crocodile and fish. It seems as if nature, in regarding the
geologic night behind her, when, in five or six millenniums, she had turned out five or
six men, as Homer, Phidias, Menu and Columbus, was no wise discontented with the result.
These samples attested the virtue of the tree. These were a clear amelioration of
trilobite and saurus, and a good basis for further proceeding. With this artist, time and
space are cheap, and she is insensible to what you say of tedious preparation. She waited
tranquilly the flowing periods of paleontology, for the hour to be struck when man should
arrive. Then periods must pass before the motion of the earth can be suspected; then
before the map of the instincts and the cultivable powers can be drawn. But as of races,
so the succession of individual men is fatal and beautiful, and Plato has the fortune in
the history of mankind to mark an epoch.

Plato’s fame does not stand on a syllogism, or on any masterpieces of the Socratic
reasoning, or on any thesis, as for example the immortality of the soul. He is more than
an expert, or a schoolman, or a geometer, or the prophet of a peculiar message. He
represents the privilege of the intellect, the power, namely, of carrying up every fact to
successive platforms and so disclosing in every fact a germ of expansion. These expansions
are in the essence of thought. The naturalist would never help us to them by any
discoveries of the extent of the universe, but is as poor when cataloguing the resolved
nebula of Orion, as when measuring the angles of an acre. But the Republic of Plato, by
these expansions, may be said to require and so to anticipate the astronomy of Laplace.
The expansions are organic. The mind does not create what it perceives, any more than the
eye creates the rose. In ascribing to Plato the merit of announcing them, we only say,
Here was a more complete man, who could apply to nature the whole scale of the senses, the
understanding and the reason. These expansions or extensions consist in continuing the
spiritual sight where the horizon falls on our natural vision, and by this second sight
discovering the long lines of law which shoot in every direction. Everywhere he stands on
a path which has no end, but runs continuously round the universe. Therefore every word
becomes an exponent of nature. Whatever he looks upon discloses a second sense, and
ulterior senses. His perception of the generation of contraries, of death out of life and
life out of death,- that law by which, in nature, decomposition is recomposition, and
putrefaction and cholera are only signals of a new creation; his discernment of the little
in the large and the large in the small; studying the state in the citizen and the citizen
in the state; and leaving it doubtful whether he exhibited the Republic as an allegory on
the education of the private soul; his beautiful definitions of ideas, of time, of form,
of figure, of the line, sometimes hypothetically given, as his defining of virtue,
courage, justice, temperance; his love of the apologue, and his apologues themselves; the
cave of Trophonius; the ring of Gyges; the charioteer and two horses; the golden, silver,
brass and iron temperaments; Theuth and Thamus; and the visions of Hades and the Fates,-
fables which have imprinted themselves in the human memory like the signs of the zodiac;
his soliform eye and his boniform soul; (*16) his doctrine of
assimilation; his doctrine of reminiscence; his clear vision of the laws of return, or
reaction, which secure instant justice throughout the universe, instanced everywhere, but
specially in the doctrine, “what comes from God to us, returns from us to God,”
and in Socrates’ belief that the laws below are sisters of the laws above.

More striking examples are his moral conclusions. Plato affirms the coincidence of
science and virtue; for vice can never know itself and virtue, but virtue knows both
itself and vice. The eye attested that justice was best, as long as it was profitable;
Plato affirms that it is profitable throughout; that the profit is intrinsic, though the
just conceal his justice from gods and men; that it is better to suffer injustice than to
do it; that the sinner ought to covet punishment; that the lie was more hurtful than
homicide; and that ignorance, or the involuntary lie, was more calamitous than involuntary
homicide; that the soul is unwillingly deprived of true opinions, and that no man sins
willingly; that the order or proceeding of nature was from the mind to the body, and,
though a sound body cannot restore an unsound mind, yet a good soul can, by its virtue,
render the body the best possible. The intelligent have a right over the ignorant, namely,
the right of instructing them. The right punishment of one out of tune is to make him play
in tune; the fine which the good, refusing to govern, ought to pay, is, to be governed by
a worse man; that his guards shall not handle gold and silver, but shall be instructed
that there is gold and silver in their souls, which will make men willing to give them
every thing which they need.

This second sight explains the stress laid on geometry. He saw that the globe of earth
was not more lawful and precise than was the supersensible; that a celestial geometry was
in place there, as a logic of lines and angles here below; that the world was throughout
mathematical; the proportions are constant of oxygen, azote and lime; there is just so
much water and slate and magnesia; not less are the proportions constant of the moral
elements.

This eldest Goethe, hating varnish and falsehood, delighted in revealing the real at
the base of the accidental; in discovering connection, continuity and representation
everywhere, hating insulation; and appears like the god of wealth among the cabins of
vagabonds, opening power and capability in everything he touches. Ethical science was new
and vacant when Plato could write thus:- “Of all whose arguments are left to the men
of the present time, no one has ever yet condemned injustice, or praised justice,
otherwise than as respects the repute, honors and emoluments arising therefrom; while, as
respects either of them in itself, and subsisting by its own power in the soul of the
possessor, and concealed both from gods and men, no one has yet sufficiently investigated,
either in poetry or prose writings,- how, namely, that injustice is the greatest of all
the evils that the soul has within it, and justice the greatest good.”

His definition of ideas, as what is simple, permanent, uniform and self-existent,
forever discriminating them from the notions of the understanding, marks an era in the
world. He was born to behold the self-evolving power of spirit, endless, generator of new
ends; a power which is the key at once to the centrality and the evanescence of things.
Plato is so centred that he can well spare all his dogmas. Thus the fact of knowledge and
ideas reveals to him the fact of eternity; and the doctrine of reminiscence he offers as
the most probable particular explication. Call that fanciful,- it matters not: the
connection between our knowledge and the abyss of being is still real, and the explication
must be not less magnificent.

He has indicated every eminent point in speculation. He wrote on the scale of the mind
itself, so that all things have symmetry in his tablet. He put in all the past, without
weariness, and descended into detail with a courage like that he witnessed in nature. One
would say that his forerunners had mapped out each a farm or a district or an island, in
intellectual geography, but that Plato first drew the sphere. He domesticates the soul in
nature: man is the microcosm. All the circles of the visible heaven represent as many
circles in the rational soul. There is no lawless particle, and there is nothing casual in
the action of the human mind. The names of things, too, are fatal, following the nature of
things. All the gods of the Pantheon are, by their names, significant of a profound sense.
The gods are the ideas. Pan is speech, or manifestation; Saturn, the contemplative; Jove,
the regal soul; and Mars, passion. Venus is proportion; Calliope, the soul of the world;
Aglaia, intellectual illustration.

These thoughts, in sparkles of light, had appeared often to pious and to poetic souls;
but this well-bred, all-knowing Greek geometer comes with command, gathers them all up
into rank and gradation, the Euclid of holiness, and marries the two parts of nature.
Before all men, he saw the intellectual values of the moral sentiment. He describes his
own ideal, when he paints, in Timaeus, a god leading things from disorder into order. He
kindled a fire so truly in the centre that we see the sphere illuminated, and can
distinguish poles, equator and lines of latitude, every arc and node: a theory so
averaged, so modulated, that you would say the winds of ages had swept through this
rhythmic structure, and not that it was the brief extempore blotting of one short-lived
scribe. Hence it has happened that a very well-marked class of souls, namely those who
delight in giving a spiritual, that is, an ethico-intellectual expression to every truth,
by exhibiting an ulterior end which is yet legitimate to it,- are said to Platonize. Thus,
Michael Angelo is a Platonist in his sonnets: Shakespeare is a Platonist when he writes,-

“Nature is made better by no mean,
But nature makes that mean,”

or,-

          “He, that can endure
To follow with allegiance a fallen lord,
Does conquer him that did his master conquer,
And earns a place in the story.”

Hamlet is a pure Platonist, and ’tis the magnitude only of Shakespeare’s proper genius
that hinders him from being classed as the most eminent of this school. Swedenborg,
throughout his prose poem of “Conjugal Love,” is a Platonist.

His subtlety commended him to men of thought. The secret of his popular success is the
moral aim which endeared him to mankind. “Intellect,” he said, “is king of
heaven and of earth”; but in Plato, intellect is always moral. His writings have also
the sempiternal youth of poetry. For their arguments, most of them, might have been
couched in sonnets: and poetry has never soared higher than in the Timaeus and the
Phaedrus. As the poet, too, he is only contemplative. He did not, like Pythagoras, break
himself with an institution. All his painting in the Republic must be esteemed mythical,
with intent to bring out, sometimes in violent colors, his thought. You cannot institute,
without peril of charlatanism.

It was a high scheme, his absolute privilege for the best (which, to make emphatic, he
expressed by community of women), as the premium which he would set on grandeur. There
shall be exempts of two kinds: first, those who by demerit have put themselves below
protection,- outlaws; and secondly, those who by eminence of nature and desert are out of
the reach of your rewards. Let such be free of the city and above the law. We confide them
to themselves; let them do with us as they will. Let none presume to measure the
irregularities of Michael Angelo and Socrates by village scales.

In his eighth book of the Republic, he throws a little mathematical dust in our eyes. I
am sorry to see him, after such noble superiorities, permitting the lie to governors.
Plato plays Providence a little with the baser sort, as people allow themselves with their
dogs and cats.

[Notes from the Centenary Edition of Emerson’s Complete Works, edited by his son,
Edward Waldo Emerson:]

*(16) …his soliform eye and his boniform soul: Dr. Holmes says,
“These two quaint adjectives are from the mint of Cudworth.”

* * *