Introduction to the Philosophy and Writings of Plato by Thomas Taylor - HTML preview

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"Philosophy," says Hierocles, "is the purification and perfection of human

life. It is the purification, indeed, from material irrationality, and the

mortal body; but the perfection, in consequence of being the resumption of

our proper felicity, and a reascent to the divine likeness. To effect these

two is the province of Virtue and Truth; the former exterminating the

immoderation of the passions; and the latter introducing the divine form to

those who are naturally adapted to its reception."

Of philosophy thus defined, which may be compared to a luminous pyramid,

terminating in Deity, and having for its basis the rational soul of man

and its spontaneous unperverted conceptions,--of this philosophy, August,

magnificent, and divine, Plato may be justly called the primary leader

and hierophant, through whom, like the mystic light in the inmost

recesses of some sacred temple, it first shone forth with occult and

venerable splendour.[1] It may indeed be truly said of the whole of this

philosophy, that it is the greatest good which man can participate: for

if it purifies us from the defilements of the passions and assimilates us

to Divinity, it confers on us the proper felicity of our nature. Hence it

is easy to collect its pre-eminence to all other philosophies; to show

that where they oppose it, they are erroneous; that so far as they

contain any thing scientific they are allied to it; and that at best they

are but rivulets derived from this vast ocean of truth.


[1] In the mysteries a light of this kind shone forth from the adytum of

the temple in which they were exhibited.


To evince that the philosophy of Plato possesses this preeminence; that

its dignity and sublimity are unrivaled; that it is the parent of all

that ennobles man; and, that it is founded on principles, which neither

time can obliterate, nor sophistry subvert, is the principal design of

this Introduction.

To effect this design, I shall in the first place present the reader with

the outlines of the principal dogmas of Plato's philosophy. The undertaking

is indeed no less novel than arduous, since the author of it has to tread

in paths which have been untrodden for upwards of a thousand years, and

to bring to light truths which for that extended period have been

concealed in Greek. Let not the reader, therefore, be surprised at the

solitariness of the paths through which I shall attempt to conduct him,

or at the novelty of the objects which will present themselves in the

journey: for perhaps he may fortunately recollect that he has traveled

the same road before, that the scenes were once familiar to him, and that

the country through which he is passing is his native land. At, least, if

his sight should be dim, and his memory oblivious, (for the objects which

he will meet with can only be seen by the most piercing eyes,) and his

absence from them has been lamentably long, let him implore the power

of wisdom,

From mortal mists to purify his eyes, That God and man he may distinctly see.

Let us also, imploring the assistance of the same illuminating power, begin

the solitary journey.

Of all the dogmas of Plato, that concerning the first principle of things

as far transcends in sublimity the doctrine of other philosophers of a

different sect, on this subject, as this supreme cause of all transcends

other causes. For, according to Plato, the highest God, whom in the

Republic he calls the good, and in the Parmenides the one, is not only

above soul and intellect, but is even superior to being itself. Hence,

since every thing which can in any respect be known, or of which any

thing can be asserted, must be connected with the universality of things,

but the first cause is above all things, it is very properly said by

Plato to be perfectly ineffable. The first hypothesis therefore of his,

Parmenides, in which all things are denied of this immense principle,

concludes as follows: "The one therefore is in no respect. So it seems.

Hence it is not in such a manner as to be one, for thus it would be

being, and participate of essence; but as it appears, the one neither is

one, nor is, if it be proper to believe in reasoning of this kind. It

appears so. But can any thing either belong to, or be affirmed of that,

which is not? How can it? Neither therefore does any name belong to it,

nor discourse, nor any science, nor sense, nor opinion.

It does not

appear that there can. Hence it can neither be named, nor spoken of, nor

conceived by opinion, nor be known, nor perceived by any being. So it

seems." And here it must be observed that this conclusion respecting the

highest principle of things, that he is perfectly ineffable and

inconceivable, is the result of a most scientific series of negations, in

which not only all sensible and intellectual beings are denied of him,

but even natures the most transcendently allied to him, his first and

most divine progeny. For that which so eminently distinguishes the

philosophy of Plato from others is this, that every part of it is stamped

with the character of science. The vulgar indeed proclaim the Deity to be

ineffable; but as they have no scientific knowledge that he is so, this

is nothing more than a confused and indistinct perception of the most

sublime of all truths, like that of a thing seen between sleeping and

waking, like Phaeacia to Ulysses when sailing to his native land,

That lay before him indistinct and vast, Like a broad shield amid the watr'y waste.

In short, an unscientific perception of the ineffable nature of the

Divinity resembles that of a man, who on surveying the heavens, should

assert of the altitude of its highest part, that it surpasses that of

the loftiest tree, and is therefore immeasurable. But to see this

scientifically, is like a survey of this highest part of the heavens by

the astronomer; for he by knowing the height of the media between us and

it, knows also scientifically that it transcends in altitude not only the

loftiest tree; but the summits of air and aether, the moon, and even the

sun itself.

Let us therefore investigate what is the ascent to the ineffably, and

after what manner it is accomplished, according to Plato, from the last

of things, following the profound and most inquisitive Damascius as our

leader in this arduous investigation. Let our discourse also be common

to other principles, and to things proceeding from them to that which is

last, and let us, beginning from that which is perfectly effable and

known to sense, ascend too the ineffable, and establish in silence, as in

a port, the parturitions of truth concerning it. Let us then assume the

following axiom, in which as in a secure vehicle we may safely pass from

hence thither. I say, therefore, that the unindigent is naturally prior

to the indigent. For that which is in want of another is naturally

adapted from necessity to be subservient to that of which it is indigent.

But if they are mutually in want of each other, each being indigent of

the other in a different respect, neither of them will be the principle.

For the unindigent is most adapted to that which is truly the principle.

And if it is in want of any thing, according to this it will not be the

principle. It is however necessary that the principles should be this

very thing, the principle alone. The unindigent therefore pertains to

this, nor must it by any means be acknowledged that there is any thing

prior to it. This however, would be acknowledged if it had any connection

with the indigent.

Let us then consider body, (that is, a triply extended substance,) endued

with quality; for this is the first thing effable by us, and is, sensible.

Is this then the principle of things? But it is two things, body, and

quality which is in body as a subject. Which of these therefore is by

nature prior? For both are indigent of their proper parts; and that also

which is in a subject is indigent of the subject. Shall we say then that

body itself is the principle of the first essence? But this is impossible.

For, in the first place, the principle will not receive any thing from that

which is posterior to itself. But body, we say is the recipient of quality.

Hence quality, and a subsistence in conjunction with it, are not derived

from body, since quality is present with body as something different. And,

in the second place, body is every way, divisible; its several parts are

indigent of each other, and the whole is indigent of all the parts. As it

is indigent, therefore, and receives its completion from things which are

indigent, it will not be entirely unindigent.

Further still, if it is not one but united, it will require, as Plato

says, the connecting one. It is likewise something common and formless,

being as it were a certain matter. It requires, therefore, ornament and

the possession of form, that it may not be merely body, but a body with a

certain particular quality; as for instance, a fiery, or earthly, body,

and, in short, body adorned and invested with a particular quality. Hence

the things which accede to it, finish and adorn it. Is then that which

accedes the principle? But this is impossible. For it does not abide in

itself, nor does it subsist alone, but is in a subject of which also it

is indigent. If, however, some one should assert that body is not a

subject, but one of the elements in each, as for instance, animal in

horses and man, thus also each will be indigent of the other, viz. this

subject, and that which is in the subject; or rather the common element,

animal, and the peculiarities, as the rational and irrational, will be

indigent. For elements are always, indigent of each other, and that which

is composed from elements is indigent of the elements.

In short, this

sensible nature, and which is so manifest to us, is neither body, for

this does not of itself move the senses, nor quality; for this does not

possess an interval commensurate with sense. Hence, that which is the

object of sight, is neither body nor color; but colored body, or color

corporalized, is that which is motive of the sight. And universally, that

which its sensible, which is body with a particular quality, is motive of

sense. From hence it is evident that the thing which excites the sense is

something incorporeal. For if it was body, it would not yet be the object

of sense. Body therefore requires that which is incorporeal, and that

which is incorporeal, body. For an incorporeal nature, is not of itself

sensible. It is, however, different from body, because these two possess

prerogatives different from each other, and neither of these subsists

prior to the other; but being elements of one sensible thing, they are

present with each other; the one imparting interval to that which is void

of interval, but the other introducing to that which is formless,

sensible variety invested with form. In the third place, neither are both

these together the principles; since they are not unindigent. For they

stand in need of their proper elements, and of that which conducts them

to the generation of one form. For body cannot effect this, since it is

of itself impotent; nor quality, since it is not able to subsist separate

from the body in which it is, or together with which it has its being.

The composite therefore either produces itself, which is impossible, for

it does not converge to itself, but the whole of it is multifariously

dispersed, or it is not produced by itself, and there is some other

principle prior to it.

Let it then be supposed to be that which is called nature, being a

principle of motion and rest, in that which is moved and at rest,

essentially and not according to accident. For this is something more

simple, and is fabricative of composite forms. If, however, it is in the

things fabricated, and does not subsist separate from nor prior to them,

but stands in need of them for its being, it will not be unindigent;

though its possesses something transcendent with respect to them, viz.

the power of fashioning and fabricating them. For it has its being

together with them, and has in them an inseparable subsistence; so

that, when they are it is, and is not when they are not, and this in

consequence of perfectly verging to them, and not being able to sustain

that which is appropriate. For the power of increasing, nourishing, and

generating similars, and the one prior to these three, viz. nature, is

not wholly incorporeal, but is nearly a certain quality of body, from

which it alone differs, in that it imparts to the composite to be

inwardly moved and at rest. For the quality of that which is sensible

imparts that which is apparent in matter, and that which falls on sense.

But body imparts interval every way extended; and nature, an inwardly

proceeding natural energy, whether according to place only, or according

to nourishing, increasing, and generating things similar. Nature,

however, is inseparable from a subject, and is indigent, so that it will

not be in short the principle, since it is indigent of that which is

subordinate. For it will not be wonderful, if being a certain principle,

it is indigent of the principle above it; but it would be wonderful if it

were indigent of things posterior to itself, and of which it is supposed

to be the principle.

By the like arguments we may show that the principle cannot be irrational

soul, whether sensitive, or orectic. For if it appears that it has

something separate, together with impulsive and Gnostic enemies, yet at

the same time it is bound in body, and has something inseparable from it;

since it is notable to convert itself to itself, but its enemy is mingled

with its subject. For it is evident that its essence is something of this

kind; since if it were liberated and in itself free, it would also evince

a certain independent enemy, and would not always be converted to body;

but sometimes it would be converted to itself; or though it were always

converted to body, yet it would judge and explore itself. The energies,

therefore, of the multitude of mankind, (though they are conversant with

externals,) yet, at the same time they exhibit that which is separate

about them. For they consult how they should engage in them, and observe

that deliberation is necessary, in order to effect or be passive to

apparent good, or to decline something of the contrary.

But the impulses

of other animals are uniform and spontaneous, are moved together with the

sensible organs, and require the senses alone that they may obtain from

sensibles the pleasurable, and avoid the painful. If, therefore, the body

communicates in pleasure and pain, and is affected in a certain respect

by them, it is evident that the psychical energies, (i.e. energies

belonging to the soul) are exerted, mingled with bodies, and are not

purely psychical, but are also corporeal; for perception is of the

animated body, or of the soul corporalized, though in such perception the

psychical idiom predominates over the corporeal; just as in bodies, the

corporeal idiom has dominion according to interval and subsistence. As

the irrational soul, therefore, has its being in something different from

itself, so far it is indigent of the subordinate: but a thing of this

kind will not be the principle.

Prior them to this essence, we see a certain form separate from a

subject, and converted to itself, such as is the rational nature. Our

soul, therefore, presides over its proper energies and corrects itself.

This, however, would not be the case, unless it was converted to itself;

and it would not be converted, to itself unless it had a separate

essence. It is not therefore indigent of the subordinate. Shall we then

say that it is the most perfect principle? But, it does not at once exert

all its energies, but is always indigent of the greater part. The

principle, however, wishes to have nothing indigent: but the rational

nature is an essence in want of its own energies. Some one, however, may

say that it is an eternal essence, and has never-failing essential

energies, always concurring with its essence, according to the self-moved

and ever vital, and that it is therefore unindigent; but the principle is

perfectly unindigent. Soul therefore, and which exerts mutable energies,

will not be the most proper principle. Hence it is necessary that there

should be something prior to this, which is in every respect immutable,

according to nature, life, and knowledge, and according to all powers and

enemies, such as we assert an eternal and immutable essence to be, and

such as is much honoured intellect, to which Aristotle having ascended,

thought he had discovered the first principle. For what can be wanting to

that which perfectly comprehends in itself its own plenitudes (oleromata),

and of which neither addition nor ablation changes any thing belonging to

it? Or is not this also, one and many, whole and parts, containing in

itself, things first, middle, and last? The subordinate plenitudes also

stand in need of the more excellent, and the more excellent of the

subordinate, and the whole of the parts. For the things related are

indigent of each other, and what are first of what are last, through the

same cause; for it is not of itself that which is first.

Besides, the one

here is indigent of the many, because it has its subsistence in the many.

Or it may be said, that this one is collective of the many, and this not

by itself, but in conjunction with them. Hence there is much of the

indigent in this principle. For since intellect generates in itself its

proper plenitudes from which the whole at once receives its completion,

it will be itself indigent of itself, not only that which is generated of

that which generates, but also that which generates, of that which is

generated, in order to the whole completion of that which wholly generates

itself. Further still, intellect understands and is understood, is

intellective of and intelligible to itself, and both these. Hence the

intellectual is indigent of the intelligible, as of its proper object of

desire; and the intelligible is in want of the intellectual, because it

wishes to be the intelligible of it. Both also are indigent of either,

since the possession is always accompanied with indigence, in the same

manner as the world is always present with matter. Hence a certain

indigence is naturally coessentiallized with intellect, so that it cannot

be the most proper principle. Shall we, therefore, in the next place,

direct our attention to the most simple of beings, which Plato calls the

one being, [Greek: en on]? For as there is no separation there throughout

the Whole, nor any multitude, or order, or duplicity, or conversion to

itself, what indigence will there appear to me, in the perfectly united?

And especially what indigence will there be of that which is subordinate?

Hence the great Parmenides ascended to this most safe principle, as that

which is most unindigent. Is it not, however, here necessary to attend to

the conception of Plato, that the united is not the one itself, but that

which is passive[2] to it? And this being the case, it is evident that it

ranks after the one; for it is supposed to be the united and not the one

itself. If also being is composed from the elements bound and infinity,

as appears from the Philebus of Plato, where he calls it that which is

mixt, it will be indigent of its elements. Besides, if the conception of

being is different from that of being united, and that which is a whole

is both united and being, these will be indigent of each other, and the

whole which is called one being is indigent of the two.

And though the

one in this is better than being, yet this is indigent of being, in order

to the subsistence of one being. But if being here supervenes the one, as

it were, form in that which is mixt and united, just as the idiom of man

in that which is collectively rational-mortal-animal, thus also the one

will be indigent of being. If, however, to speak more properly, the one

is two-fold; this being the cause of the mixture, and subsisting prior to

being, but that conferring rectitude, on being,--if this be the case,

neither will the indigent perfectly desert this nature.

After all these,

it may be said that the one will be perfectly unindigent. For neither is

it indigent of that which is posterior to itself for its subsistence,

since the truly one is by itself separated from all things; nor is it

indigent of that which is inferior or more excellent in itself; for there

is nothing in it besides itself; nor is it in want of itself. But it is

one, because neither has it any duplicity with respect to itself. For not

even the relation of itself to itself must be asserted of the truly one;

since it is perfectly simple. This, therefore, is the most unindigent of

all things. Hence this is the principle and the cause of all; and this is

at once the first of all things. If these qualities, however, are present

with it, it will not be the one. Or may we not say that all things

subsist in the one according to the one? And that both these subsist in

it, and such other things as we predicate of it, as, for instance, the

most simple, the most excellent, the most powerful, the preserver of all

things, and the good itself? If these things, however, are thus true of

the one, it will thus also be indigent of things posterior to itself,

according to those very things which we add to it. For the principle is,

and is said to be the principle of things proceeding from it, and the

cause is the cause of things caused, and the first is the first of things

arranged, posterior to it.[3]


[2] See the Sophista of Plato, where this is asserted.

[3] For a thing cannot be said to be a principle or cause without the

subsistence of the things of which it is the principle or cause. Hence,

so far as it is a principle or cause, it will be indigent of the

subsistence of these.


Further still, the simple subsists according to a transcendency of other

things, the most powerful according to power with relation to the subjects

of it; and the good, the desirable, and the preserving, are so called with

reference to things benefitted, preserved, and desiring.

And if it should

be said to be all things according to the preassumption of all things in

itself, it will indeed be said to be so according to the one alone, and

will at the same time be the one cause of all things prior to all, and will

be thus, and no other according to the one. So far, therefore, as it is the

one alone, it will be unindigent; but so far as unindigent, it will be the

first principle, and stable root of all principles. So far, however, as it

is the principle and the first cause of all things, and is pre-established

as the object of desire to all things, so far it appears to be in a certain

respect indigent of the things to which it is related.

It has therefore, if

it be lawful so to speak, an ultimate vestige of indigence, just as on the

contrary matter has an ultimate echo of the unindigent, or a most obscure

and debile impression of the one. And language indeed appears to be here

subverted. For so far as it is the one, it is also unindigent, since the