But all the blessings of this present life are as nothing when compared with those which await good men after death. 'I should like to hear about them.' Come, then, and I will tell you the story of Er, the son of Armenius, a valiant man. He was supposed to have died in battle, but ten days afterwards his body was found untouched by corruption and sent home for burial. On the twelfth day he was placed on the funeral pyre and there he came to life again, and told what he had seen in the world below. He said that his soul went with a great company to a place, in which there were two chasms near together in the earth beneath, and two corresponding chasms in the heaven above. And there were judges sitting in the intermediate space, bidding the just ascend by the heavenly way on the right hand, having the seal of their judgment set upon them before, while the unjust, having the seal behind, were bidden to descend by the way on the left hand. Him they told to look and listen, as he was to be their messenger to men from the world below. And he beheld and saw the souls departing after judgment at either chasm; some who came from earth, were worn and travel-stained; others, who came from heaven, were clean and bright. They seemed glad to meet and rest awhile in the meadow; here they discoursed with one another of what they had seen in the other world. Those who came from earth wept at the remembrance of their sorrows, but the spirits from above spoke of glorious sights and heavenly bliss. He said that for every evil deed they were punished tenfold—now the journey was of a thousand years' duration, because the life of man was reckoned as a hundred years—and the rewards of virtue were in the same proportion. He added something hardly worth repeating about infants dying almost as soon as they were born. Of parricides and other murderers he had tortures still more terrible to narrate. He was present when one of the spirits asked—Where is Ardiaeus the Great? (This Ardiaeus was a cruel tyrant, who had murdered his father, and his elder brother, a thousand years before.) Another spirit answered, 'He comes not hither, and will never come. And I myself,' he added, 'actually saw this terrible sight. At the entrance of the chasm, as we were about to reascend, Ardiaeus appeared, and some other sinners—most of whom had been tyrants, but not all—and just as they fancied that they were returning to life, the chasm gave a roar, and then wild, fiery-looking men who knew the meaning of the sound, seized him and several others, and bound them hand and foot and threw them down, and dragged them along at the side of the road, lacerating them and carding them like wool, and explaining to the passers-by, that they were going to be cast into hell.' The greatest terror of the pilgrims ascending was lest they should hear the voice, and when there was silence one by one they passed up with joy. To these sufferings there were corresponding delights.
On the eighth day the souls of the pilgrims resumed their journey, and in four days came to a spot whence they looked down upon a line of light, in colour like a rainbow, only brighter and clearer. One day more brought them to the place, and they saw that this was the column of light which binds together the whole universe. The ends of the column were fastened to heaven, and from them hung the distaff of Necessity, on which all the heavenly bodies turned—the hook and spindle were of adamant, and the whorl of a mixed substance. The whorl was in form like a number of boxes fitting into one another with their edges turned upwards, making together a single whorl which was pierced by the spindle. The outermost had the rim broadest, and the inner whorls were smaller and smaller, and had their rims narrower. The largest (the fixed stars) was spangled—the seventh (the sun) was brightest—the eighth (the moon) shone by the light of the seventh—the second and fifth (Saturn and Mercury) were most like one another and yellower than the eighth—the third (Jupiter) had the whitest light—the fourth (Mars) was red—the sixth (Venus) was in whiteness second. The whole had one motion, but while this was revolving in one direction the seven inner circles were moving in the opposite, with various degrees of swiftness and slowness. The spindle turned on the knees of Necessity, and a Siren stood hymning upon each circle, while Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos, the daughters of Necessity, sat on thrones at equal intervals, singing of past, present, and future, responsive to the music of the Sirens; Clotho from time to time guiding the outer circle with a touch of her right hand; Atropos with her left hand touching and guiding the inner circles; Lachesis in turn putting forth her hand from time to time to guide both of them. On their arrival the pilgrims went to Lachesis, and there was an interpreter who arranged them, and taking from her knees lots, and samples of lives, got up into a pulpit and said: 'Mortal souls, hear the words of Lachesis, the daughter of Necessity. A new period of mortal life has begun, and you may choose what divinity you please; the responsibility of choosing is with you—God is blameless.' After speaking thus, he cast the lots among them and each one took up the lot which fell near him. He then placed on the ground before them the samples of lives, many more than the souls present; and there were all sorts of lives, of men and of animals. There were tyrannies ending in misery and exile, and lives of men and women famous for their different qualities; and also mixed lives, made up of wealth and poverty, sickness and health. Here, Glaucon, is the great risk of human life, and therefore the whole of education should be directed to the acquisition of such a knowledge as will teach a man to refuse the evil and choose the good. He should know all the combinations which occur in life—of beauty with poverty or with wealth,—of knowledge with external goods,—and at last choose with reference to the nature of the soul, regarding that only as the better life which makes men better, and leaving the rest. And a man must take with him an iron sense of truth and right into the world below, that there too he may remain undazzled by wealth or the allurements of evil, and be determined to avoid the extremes and choose the mean. For this, as the messenger reported the interpreter to have said, is the true happiness of man; and any one, as he proclaimed, may, if he choose with understanding, have a good lot, even though he come last. 'Let not the first be careless in his choice, nor the last despair.' He spoke; and when he had spoken, he who had drawn the first lot chose a tyranny: he did not see that he was fated to devour his own children—and when he discovered his mistake, he wept and beat his breast, blaming chance and the Gods and anybody rather than himself. He was one of those who had come from heaven, and in his previous life had been a citizen of a well-ordered State, but he had only habit and no philosophy. Like many another, he made a bad choice, because he had no experience of life; whereas those who came from earth and had seen trouble were not in such a hurry to choose. But if a man had followed philosophy while upon earth, and had been moderately fortunate in his lot, he might not only be happy here, but his pilgrimage both from and to this world would be smooth and heavenly. Nothing was more curious than the spectacle of the choice, at once sad and laughable and wonderful; most of the souls only seeking to avoid their own condition in a previous life. He saw the soul of Orpheus changing into a swan because he would not be born of a woman; there was Thamyras becoming a nightingale; musical birds, like the swan, choosing to be men; the twentieth soul, which was that of Ajax, preferring the life of a lion to that of a man, in remembrance of the injustice which was done to him in the judgment of the arms; and Agamemnon, from a like enmity to human nature, passing into an eagle. About the middle was the soul of Atalanta choosing the honours of an athlete, and next to her Epeus taking the nature of a workwoman; among the last was Thersites, who was changing himself into a monkey. Thither, the last of all, came Odysseus, and sought the lot of a private man, which lay neglected and despised, and when he found it he went away rejoicing, and said that if he had been first instead of last, his choice would have been the same. Men, too, were seen passing into animals, and wild and tame animals changing into one another.
When all the souls had chosen they went to Lachesis, who sent with each of them their genius or attendant to fulfil their lot. He first of all brought them under the hand of Clotho, and drew them within the revolution of the spindle impelled by her hand; from her they were carried to Atropos, who made the threads irreversible; whence, without turning round, they passed beneath the throne of Necessity; and when they had all passed, they moved on in scorching heat to the plain of Forgetfulness and rested at evening by the river Unmindful, whose water could not be retained in any vessel; of this they had all to drink a certain quantity—some of them drank more than was required, and he who drank forgot all things. Er himself was prevented from drinking. When they had gone to rest, about the middle of the night there were thunderstorms and earthquakes, and suddenly they were all driven divers ways, shooting like stars to their birth. Concerning his return to the body, he only knew that awaking suddenly in the morning he found himself lying on the pyre.
Thus, Glaucon, the tale has been saved, and will be our salvation, if we believe that the soul is immortal, and hold fast to the heavenly way of Justice and Knowledge. So shall we pass undefiled over the river of Forgetfulness, and be dear to ourselves and to the Gods, and have a crown of reward and happiness both in this world and also in the millennial pilgrimage of the other.
The Tenth Book of the Republic of Plato falls into two divisions: first, resuming an old thread which has been interrupted, Socrates assails the poets, who, now that the nature of the soul has been analyzed, are seen to be very far gone from the truth; and secondly, having shown the reality of the happiness of the just, he demands that appearance shall be restored to him, and then proceeds to prove the immortality of the soul. The argument, as in the Phaedo and Gorgias, is supplemented by the vision of a future life.
Why Plato, who was himself a poet, and whose dialogues are poems and dramas, should have been hostile to the poets as a class, and especially to the dramatic poets; why he should not have seen that truth may be embodied in verse as well as in prose, and that there are some indefinable lights and shadows of human life which can only be expressed in poetry—some elements of imagination which always entwine with reason; why he should have supposed epic verse to be inseparably associated with the impurities of the old Hellenic mythology; why he should try Homer and Hesiod by the unfair and prosaic test of utility,—are questions which have always been debated amongst students of Plato. Though unable to give a complete answer to them, we may show—first, that his views arose naturally out of the circumstances of his age; and secondly, we may elicit the truth as well as the error which is contained in them.
He is the enemy of the poets because poetry was declining in his own lifetime, and a theatrocracy, as he says in the Laws, had taken the place of an intellectual aristocracy. Euripides exhibited the last phase of the tragic drama, and in him Plato saw the friend and apologist of tyrants, and the Sophist of tragedy. The old comedy was almost extinct; the new had not yet arisen. Dramatic and lyric poetry, like every other branch of Greek literature, was falling under the power of rhetoric. There was no 'second or third' to Aeschylus and Sophocles in the generation which followed them. Aristophanes, in one of his later comedies (Frogs), speaks of 'thousands of tragedy-making prattlers,' whose attempts at poetry he compares to the chirping of swallows; 'their garrulity went far beyond Euripides,'—'they appeared once upon the stage, and there was an end of them.' To a man of genius who had a real appreciation of the godlike Aeschylus and the noble and gentle Sophocles, though disagreeing with some parts of their 'theology' (Rep.), these 'minor poets' must have been contemptible and intolerable. There is no feeling stronger in the dialogues of Plato than a sense of the decline and decay both in literature and in politics which marked his own age. Nor can he have been expected to look with favour on the licence of Aristophanes, now at the end of his career, who had begun by satirizing Socrates in the Clouds, and in a similar spirit forty years afterwards had satirized the founders of ideal commonwealths in his Eccleziazusae, or Female Parliament (Laws).
There were other reasons for the antagonism of Plato to poetry. The profession of an actor was regarded by him as a degradation of human nature, for 'one man in his life' cannot 'play many parts;' the characters which the actor performs seem to destroy his own character, and to leave nothing which can be truly called himself. Neither can any man live his life and act it. The actor is the slave of his art, not the master of it. Taking this view Plato is more decided in his expulsion of the dramatic than of the epic poets, though he must have known that the Greek tragedians afforded noble lessons and examples of virtue and patriotism, to which nothing in Homer can be compared. But great dramatic or even great rhetorical power is hardly consistent with firmness or strength of mind, and dramatic talent is often incidentally associated with a weak or dissolute character.
In the Tenth Book Plato introduces a new series of objections. First, he says that the poet or painter is an imitator, and in the third degree removed from the truth. His creations are not tested by rule and measure; they are only appearances. In modern times we should say that art is not merely imitation, but rather the expression of the ideal in forms of sense. Even adopting the humble image of Plato, from which his argument derives a colour, we should maintain that the artist may ennoble the bed which he paints by the folds of the drapery, or by the feeling of home which he introduces; and there have been modern painters who have imparted such an ideal interest to a blacksmith's or a carpenter's shop. The eye or mind which feels as well as sees can give dignity and pathos to a ruined mill, or a straw-built shed (Rembrandt), to the hull of a vessel 'going to its last home' (Turner). Still more would this apply to the greatest works of art, which seem to be the visible embodiment of the divine. Had Plato been asked whether the Zeus or Athene of Pheidias was the imitation of an imitation only, would he not have been compelled to admit that something more was to be found in them than in the form of any mortal; and that the rule of proportion to which they conformed was 'higher far than any geometry or arithmetic could express?' (Statesman.)
Again, Plato objects to the imitative arts that they express the emotional rather than the rational part of human nature. He does not admit Aristotle's theory, that tragedy or other serious imitations are a purgation of the passions by pity and fear; to him they appear only to afford the opportunity of indulging them. Yet we must acknowledge that we may sometimes cure disordered emotions by giving expression to them; and that they often gain strength when pent up within our own breast. It is not every indulgence of the feelings which is to be condemned. For there may be a gratification of the higher as well as of the lower—thoughts which are too deep or too sad to be expressed by ourselves, may find an utterance in the words of poets. Every one would acknowledge that there have been times when they were consoled and elevated by beautiful music or by the sublimity of architecture or by the peacefulness of nature. Plato has himself admitted, in the earlier part of the Republic, that the arts might have the effect of harmonizing as well as of enervating the mind; but in the Tenth Book he regards them through a Stoic or Puritan medium. He asks only 'What good have they done?' and is not satisfied with the reply, that 'They have given innocent pleasure to mankind.'
He tells us that he rejoices in the banishment of the poets, since he has found by the analysis of the soul that they are concerned with the inferior faculties. He means to say that the higher faculties have to do with universals, the lower with particulars of sense. The poets are on a level with their own age, but not on a level with Socrates and Plato; and he was well aware that Homer and Hesiod could not be made a rule of life by any process of legitimate interpretation; his ironical use of them is in fact a denial of their authority; he saw, too, that the poets were not critics—as he says in the Apology, 'Any one was a better interpreter of their writings than they were themselves. He himself ceased to be a poet when he became a disciple of Socrates; though, as he tells us of Solon, 'he might have been one of the greatest of them, if he had not been deterred by other pursuits' (Tim.) Thus from many points of view there is an antagonism between Plato and the poets, which was foreshadowed to him in the old quarrel between philosophy and poetry. The poets, as he says in the Protagoras, were the Sophists of their day; and his dislike of the one class is reflected on the other. He regards them both as the enemies of reasoning and abstraction, though in the case of Euripides more with reference to his immoral sentiments about tyrants and the like. For Plato is the prophet who 'came into the world to convince men'—first of the fallibility of sense and opinion, and secondly of the reality of abstract ideas. Whatever strangeness there may be in modern times in opposing philosophy to poetry, which to us seem to have so many elements in common, the strangeness will disappear if we conceive of poetry as allied to sense, and of philosophy as equivalent to thought and abstraction. Unfortunately the very word 'idea,' which to Plato is expressive of the most real of all things, is associated in our minds with an element of subjectiveness and unreality. We may note also how he differs from Aristotle who declares poetry to be truer than history, for the opposite reason, because it is concerned with universals, not like history, with particulars (Poet).
The things which are seen are opposed in Scripture to the things which are unseen—they are equally opposed in Plato to universals and ideas. To him all particulars appear to be floating about in a world of sense; they have a taint of error or even of evil. There is no difficulty in seeing that this is an illusion; for there is no more error or variation in an individual man, horse, bed, etc., than in the class man, horse, bed, etc.; nor is the truth which is displayed in individual instances less certain than that which is conveyed through the medium of ideas. But Plato, who is deeply impressed with the real importance of universals as instruments of thought, attributes to them an essential truth which is imaginary and unreal; for universals may be often false and particulars true. Had he attained to any clear conception of the individual, which is the synthesis of the universal and the particular; or had he been able to distinguish between opinion and sensation, which the ambiguity of the words (Greek) and the like, tended to confuse, he would not have denied truth to the particulars of sense.
But the poets are also the representatives of falsehood and feigning in all departments of life and knowledge, like the sophists and rhetoricians of the Gorgias and Phaedrus; they are the false priests, false prophets, lying spirits, enchanters of the world. There is another count put into the indictment against them by Plato, that they are the friends of the tyrant, and bask in the sunshine of his patronage. Despotism in all ages has had an apparatus of false ideas and false teachers at its service—in the history of Modern Europe as well as of Greece and Rome. For no government of men depends solely upon force; without some corruption of literature and morals—some appeal to the imagination of the masses—some pretence to the favour of heaven—some element of good giving power to evil, tyranny, even for a short time, cannot be maintained. The Greek tyrants were not insensible to the importance of awakening in their cause a Pseudo-Hellenic feeling; they were proud of successes at the Olympic games; they were not devoid of the love of literature and art. Plato is thinking in the first instance of Greek poets who had graced the courts of Dionysius or Archelaus: and the old spirit of freedom is roused within him at their prostitution of the Tragic Muse in the praises of tyranny. But his prophetic eye extends beyond them to the false teachers of other ages who are the creatures of the government under which they live. He compares the corruption of his contemporaries with the idea of a perfect society, and gathers up into one mass of evil the evils and errors of mankind; to him they are personified in the rhetoricians, sophists, poets, rulers who deceive and govern the world.
A further objection which Plato makes to poetry and the imitative arts is that they excite the emotions. Here the modern reader will be disposed to introduce a distinction which appears to have escaped him. For the emotions are neither bad nor good in themselves, and are not most likely to be controlled by the attempt to eradicate them, but by the moderate indulgence of them. And the vocation of art is to present thought in the form of feeling, to enlist the feelings on the side of reason, to inspire even for a moment courage or resignation; perhaps to suggest a sense of infinity and eternity in a way which mere language is incapable of attaining. True, the same power which in the purer age of art embodies gods and heroes only, may be made to express the voluptuous image of a Corinthian courtezan. But this only shows that art, like other outward things, may be turned to good and also to evil, and is not more closely connected with the higher than with the lower part of the soul. All imitative art is subject to certain limitations, and therefore necessarily partakes of the nature of a compromise. Something of ideal truth is sacrificed for the sake of the representation, and something in the exactness of the representation is sacrificed to the ideal. Still, works of art have a permanent element; they idealize and detain the passing thought, and are the intermediates between sense and ideas.
In the present stage of the human mind, poetry and other forms of fiction may certainly be regarded as a good. But we can also imagine the existence of an age in which a severer conception of truth has either banished or transformed them. At any rate we must admit that they hold a different place at different periods of the world's history. In the infancy of mankind, poetry, with the exception of proverbs, is the whole of literature, and the only instrument of intellectual culture; in modern times she is the shadow or echo of her former self, and appears to have a precarious existence. Milton in his day doubted whether an epic poem was any longer possible. At the same time we must remember, that what Plato would have called the charms of poetry have been partly transferred to prose; he himself (Statesman) admits rhetoric to be the handmaiden of Politics, and proposes to find in the strain of law (Laws) a substitute for the old poets. Among ourselves the creative power seems often to be growing weaker, and scientific fact to be more engrossing and overpowering to the mind than formerly. The illusion of the feelings commonly called love, has hitherto been the inspiring influence of modern poetry and romance, and has exercised a humanizing if not a strengthening influence on the world. But may not the stimulus which love has given to fancy be some day exhausted? The modern English novel which is the most popular of all forms of reading is not more than a century or two old: will the tale of love a hundred years hence, after so many thousand variations of the same theme, be still received with unabated interest?
Art cannot claim to be on a level with philosophy or religion, and may often corrupt them. It is possible to conceive a mental state in which all artistic representations are regarded as a false and imperfect expression, either of the religious ideal or of the philosophical ideal. The fairest forms may be revolting in certain moods of mind, as is proved by the fact that the Mahometans, and many sects of Christians, have renounced the use of pictures and images. The beginning of a great religion, whether Christian or Gentile, has not been 'wood or stone,' but a spirit moving in the hearts of men. The disciples have met in a large upper room or in 'holes and caves of the earth'; in the second or third generation, they have had mosques, temples, churches, monasteries. And the revival or reform of religions, like the first revelation of them, has come from within and has generally disregarded external ceremonies and accompaniments.
But poetry and art may also be the expression of the highest truth and the purest sentiment. Plato himself seems to waver between two opposite views—when, as in the third Book, he insists that youth should be brought up amid wholesome imagery; and again in Book X, when he banishes the poets from his Republic. Admitting that the arts, which some of us almost deify, have fallen short of their higher aim, we must admit on the other hand that to banish imagination wholly would be suicidal as well as impossible. For nature too is a form of art; and a breath of the fresh air or a single glance at the varying landscape would in an instant revive and reillumine the extinguished spark of poetry in the human breast. In the lower stages of civilization imagination more than reason distinguishes man from the animals; and to banish art would be to banish thought, to banish language, to banish the expression of all truth. No religion is wholly devoid of external forms; even the Mahometan who renounces the use of pictures and images has a temple in which he worships the Most High, as solemn and beautiful as any Greek or Christian building. Feeling too and thought are not really opposed; for he who thinks must feel before he can execute. And the highest thoughts, when they become familiarized to us, are always tending to pass into the form of feeling.
Plato does not seriously intend to expel poets from life and society. But he feels strongly the unreality of their writings; he is protesting against the degeneracy of poetry in his own day as we might protest against the want of serious purpose in modern fiction, against the unseemliness or extravagance of some of our poets or novelists, against the time-serving of preachers or public writers, against the regardlessness of truth which to the eye of the philosopher seems to characterize the greater part of the world. For we too have reason to complain that our poets and novelists 'paint inferior truth' and 'are concerned with the inferior part of the soul'; that the readers of them become what they read and are injuriously affected by them. And we look in vain for that healthy atmosphere of which Plato speaks,—'the beauty which meets the sense like a breeze and imperceptibly draws the soul, even in childhood, into harmony with the beauty of reason.'
For there might be a poetry which would be the hymn of divine perfection, the harmony of goodness and truth among men: a strain which should renew the youth of the world, and bring back the ages in which the poet was man's only teacher and best friend,—which would find materials in the living present as well as in the romance of the past, and might subdue to the fairest forms of speech and verse the intractable materials of modern civilisation,—which might elicit the simple principles, or, as Plato would have called them, the essential forms, of truth and justice out of the variety of opinion and the complexity of modern society,—which would preserve all the good of each generation and leave the bad unsung,—which should be based not on vain longings or faint imaginings, but on a clear insight into the nature of man. Then the tale of love might begin again in poetry or prose, two in one, united in the pursuit of knowledge, or the service of God and man; and feelings of love might still be the incentive to great thoughts and heroic deeds as in the days of Dante or Petrarch; and many types of manly and womanly beauty might appear among us, rising above the ordinary level of humanity, and many lives which were like poems (Laws), be not only written, but lived by us. A few such strains have been heard among men in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, whom Plato quotes, not, as Homer is quoted by him, in irony, but with deep and serious approval,—in the poetry of Milton and Wordsworth, and in passages of other English poets,—first and above all in the Hebrew prophets and psalmists. Shakespeare has taught us how great men should speak and act; he has drawn characters of a wonderful purity and depth; he has ennobled the human mind, but, like Homer (Rep.), he 'has left no way of life.' The next greatest poet of modern times, Goethe, is concerned with 'a lower degree of truth'; he paints the world as a stage on which 'all the men and women are merely players'; he cultivates life as an art, but he furnishes no ideals of truth and action. The poet may rebel against any attempt to set limits to his fancy; and he may argue truly that moralizing in verse is not poetry. Possibly, like Mephistopheles in Faust, he may retaliate on his adversaries. But the philosopher will still be justified in asking, 'How may the heavenly gift of poesy be devoted to the good of mankind?'
Returning to Plato, we may observe that a similar mixture of truth and error appears in other parts of the argument. He is aware of the absurdity of mankind framing their whole lives according to Homer; just as in the Phaedrus he intimates the absurdity of interpreting mythology upon rational principles; both these were the modern tendencies of his own age, which he deservedly ridicules. On the other hand, his argument that Homer, if he had been able to teach mankind anything worth knowing, would not have been allowed by them to go about begging as a rhapsodist, is both false and contrary to the spirit of Plato (Rep.). It may be compared with those other paradoxes of the Gorgias, that 'No statesman was ever unjustly put to death by the city of which he was the head'; and that 'No Sophist was ever defrauded by his pupils' (Gorg.)...
The argument for immortality seems to rest on the absolute dualism of soul and body. Admitting the existence of the soul, we know of no force which is able to put an end to her. Vice is her own proper evil; and if she cannot be destroyed by that, she cannot be destroyed by any other. Yet Plato has acknowledged that the soul may be so overgrown by the incrustations of earth as to lose her original form; and in the Timaeus he recognizes more strongly than in the Republic the influence which the body has over the mind, denying even the voluntariness of human actions, on the ground that they proceed from physical states (Tim.). In the Republic, as elsewhere, he wavers between the original soul which has to be restored, and the character which is developed by training and education...
The vision of another world is ascribed to Er, the son of Armenius, who is said by Clement of Alexandria to have been Zoroaster. The tale has certainly an oriental character, and may be compared with the pilgrimages of the soul in the Zend Avesta (Haug, Avesta). But no trace of acquaintance with Zoroaster is found elsewhere in Plato's writings, and there is no reason for giving him the name of Er the Pamphylian. The philosophy of Heracleitus cannot be shown to be borrowed from Zoroaster, and still less the myths of Plato.
The local arrangement of the vision is less distinct than that of the Phaedrus and Phaedo. Astronomy is mingled with symbolism and mythology; the great sphere of heaven is represented under the symbol of a cylinder or box, containing the seven orbits of the planets and the fixed stars; this is suspended from an axis or spindle which turns on the knees of Necessity; the revolutions of the seven orbits contained in the cylinder are guided by the fates, and their harmonious motion produces the music of the spheres. Through the innermost or eighth of these, which is the moon, is passed the spindle; but it is doubtful whether this is the continuation of the column of light, from which the pilgrims contemplate the heavens; the words of Plato imply that they are connected, but not the same. The column itself is clearly not of adamant. The spindle (which is of adamant) is fastened to the ends of the chains which extend to the middle of the column of light—this column is said to hold together the heaven; but whether it hangs from the spindle, or is at right angles to it, is not explained. The cylinder containing the orbits of the stars is almost as much a symbol as the figure of Necessity turning the spindle;—for the outermost rim is the sphere of the fixed stars, and nothing is said about the intervals of space which divide the paths of the stars in the heavens. The description is both a picture and an orrery, and therefore is necessarily inconsistent with itself. The column of light is not the Milky Way—which is neither straight, nor like a rainbow—but the imaginary axis of the earth. This is compared to the rainbow in respect not of form but of colour, and not to the undergirders of a trireme, but to the straight rope running from prow to stern in which the undergirders meet.
The orrery or picture of the heavens given in the Republic differs in its mode of representation from the circles of the same and of the other in the Timaeus. In both the fixed stars are distinguished from the planets, and they move in orbits without them, although in an opposite direction: in the Republic as in the Timaeus they are all moving round the axis of the world. But we are not certain that in the former they are moving round the earth. No distinct mention is made in the Republic of the circles of the same and other; although both in the Timaeus and in the Republic the motion of the fixed stars is supposed to coincide with the motion of the whole. The relative thickness of the rims is perhaps designed to express the relative distances of the planets. Plato probably intended to represent the earth, from which Er and his companions are viewing the heavens, as stationary in place; but whether or not herself revolving, unless this is implied in the revolution of the axis, is uncertain (Timaeus). The spectator may be supposed to look at the heavenly bodies, either from above or below. The earth is a sort of earth and heaven in one, like the heaven of the Phaedrus, on the back of which the spectator goes out to take a peep at the stars and is borne round in the revolution. There is no distinction between the equator and the ecliptic. But Plato is no doubt led to imagine that the planets have an opposite motion to that of the fixed stars, in order to account for their appearances in the heavens. In the description of the meadow, and the retribution of the good and evil after death, there are traces of Homer.
The description of the axis as a spindle, and of the heavenly bodies as forming a whole, partly arises out of the attempt to connect the motions of the heavenly bodies with the mythological image of the web, or weaving of the Fates. The giving of the lots, the weaving of them, and the making of them irreversible, which are ascribed to the three Fates—Lachesis, Clotho, Atropos, are obviously derived from their names. The element of chance in human life is indicated by the order of the lots. But chance, however adverse, may be overcome by the wisdom of man, if he knows how to choose aright; there is a worse enemy to man than chance; this enemy is himself. He who was moderately fortunate in the number of the lot—even the very last comer—might have a good life if he chose with wisdom. And as Plato does not like to make an assertion which is unproven, he more than confirms this statement a few sentences afterwards by the example of Odysseus, who chose last. But the virtue which is founded on habit is not sufficient to enable a man to choose; he must add to virtue knowledge, if he is to act rightly when placed in new circumstances. The routine of good actions and good habits is an inferior sort of goodness; and, as Coleridge says, 'Common sense is intolerable which is not based on metaphysics,' so Plato would have said, 'Habit is worthless which is not based upon philosophy.'
The freedom of the will to refuse the evil and to choose the good is distinctly asserted. 'Virtue is free, and as a man honours or dishonours her he will have more or less of her.' The life of man is 'rounded' by necessity; there are circumstances prior to birth which affect him (Pol.). But within the walls of necessity there is an open space in which he is his own master, and can study for himself the effects which the variously compounded gifts of nature or fortune have upon the soul, and act accordingly. All men cannot have the first choice in everything. But the lot of all men is good enough, if they choose wisely and will live diligently.
The verisimilitude which is given to the pilgrimage of a thousand years, by the intimation that Ardiaeus had lived a thousand years before; the coincidence of Er coming to life on the twelfth day after he was supposed to have been dead with the seven days which the pilgrims passed in the meadow, and the four days during which they journeyed to the column of light; the precision with which the soul is mentioned who chose the twentieth lot; the passing remarks that there was no definite character among the souls, and that the souls which had chosen ill blamed any one rather than themselves; or that some of the souls drank more than was necessary of the waters of Forgetfulness, while Er himself was hindered from drinking; the desire of Odysseus to rest at last, unlike the conception of him in Dante and Tennyson; the feigned ignorance of how Er returned to the body, when the other souls went shooting like stars to their birth,—add greatly to the probability of the narrative. They are such touches of nature as the art of Defoe might have introduced when he wished to win credibility for marvels and apparitions.
There still remain to be considered some points which have been intentionally reserved to the end: (1) the Janus-like character of the Republic, which presents two faces—one an Hellenic state, the other a kingdom of philosophers. Connected with the latter of the two aspects are (2) the paradoxes of the Republic, as they have been termed by Morgenstern: (a) the community of property; (b) of families; (c) the rule of philosophers; (d) the analogy of the individual and the State, which, like some other analogies in the Republic, is carried too far. We may then proceed to consider (3) the subject of education as conceived by Plato, bringing together in a general view the education of youth and the education of after-life; (4) we may note further some essential differences between ancient and modern politics which are suggested by the Republic; (5) we may compare the Politicus and the Laws; (6) we may observe the influence exercised by Plato on his imitators; and (7) take occasion to consider the nature and value of political, and (8) of religious ideals.
1. Plato expressly says that he is intending to found an Hellenic State (Book V). Many of his regulations are characteristically Spartan; such as the prohibition of gold and silver, the common meals of the men, the military training of the youth, the gymnastic exercises of the women. The life of Sparta was the life of a camp (Laws), enforced even more rigidly in time of peace than in war; the citizens of Sparta, like Plato's, were forbidden to trade—they were to be soldiers and not shopkeepers. Nowhere else in Greece was the individual so completely subjected to the State; the time when he was to marry, the education of his children, the clothes which he was to wear, the food which he was to eat, were all prescribed by law. Some of the best enactments in the Republic, such as the reverence to be paid to parents and elders, and some of the worst, such as the exposure of deformed children, are borrowed from the practice of Sparta. The encouragement of friendships between men and youths, or of men with one another, as affording incentives to bravery, is also Spartan; in Sparta too a nearer approach was made than in any other Greek State to equality of the sexes, and to community of property; and while there was probably less of licentiousness in the sense of immorality, the tie of marriage was regarded more lightly than in the rest of Greece. The 'suprema lex' was the preservation of the family, and the interest of the State. The coarse strength of a military government was not favourable to purity and refinement; and the excessive strictness of some regulations seems to have produced a reaction. Of all Hellenes the Spartans were most accessible to bribery; several of the greatest of them might be described in the words of Plato as having a 'fierce secret longing after gold and silver.' Though not in the strict sense communists, the principle of communism was maintained among them in their division of lands, in their common meals, in their slaves, and in the free use of one another's goods. Marriage was a public institution: and the women were educated by the State, and sang and danced in public with the men.
Many traditions were preserved at Sparta of the severity with which the magistrates had maintained the primitive rule of music and poetry; as in the Republic of Plato, the new-fangled poet was to be expelled. Hymns to the Gods, which are the only kind of music admitted into the ideal State, were the only kind which was permitted at Sparta. The Spartans, though an unpoetical race, were nevertheless lovers of poetry; they had been stirred by the Elegiac strains of Tyrtaeus, they had crowded around Hippias to hear his recitals of Homer; but in this they resembled the citizens of the timocratic rather than of the ideal State. The council of elder men also corresponds to the Spartan gerousia; and the freedom with which they are permitted to judge about matters of detail agrees with what we are told of that institution. Once more, the military rule of not spoiling the dead or offering arms at the temples; the moderation in the pursuit of enemies; the importance attached to the physical well-being of the citizens; the use of warfare for the sake of defence rather than of aggression—are features probably suggested by the spirit and practice of Sparta.
To the Spartan type the ideal State reverts in the first decline; and the character of the individual timocrat is borrowed from the Spartan citizen. The love of Lacedaemon not only affected Plato and Xenophon, but was shared by many undistinguished Athenians; there they seemed to find a principle which was wanting in their own democracy. The (Greek) of the Spartans attracted them, that is to say, not the goodness of their laws, but the spirit of order and loyalty which prevailed. Fascinated by the idea, citizens of Athens would imitate the Lacedaemonians in their dress and manners; they were known to the contemporaries of Plato as 'the persons who had their ears bruised,' like the Roundheads of the Commonwealth. The love of another church or country when seen at a distance only, the longing for an imaginary simplicity in civilized times, the fond desire of a past which never has been, or of a future which never will be,—these are aspirations of the human mind which are often felt among ourselves. Such feelings meet with a response in the Republic of Plato.
But there are other features of the Platonic Republic, as, for example, the literary and philosophical education, and the grace and beauty of life, which are the reverse of Spartan. Plato wishes to give his citizens a taste of Athenian freedom as well as of Lacedaemonian discipline. His individual genius is purely Athenian, although in theory he is a lover of Sparta; and he is something more than either—he has also a true Hellenic feeling. He is desirous of humanizing the wars of Hellenes against one another; he acknowledges that the Delphian God is the grand hereditary interpreter of all Hellas. The spirit of harmony and the Dorian mode are to prevail, and the whole State is to have an external beauty which is the reflex of the harmony within. But he has not yet found out the truth which he afterwards enunciated in the Laws—that he was a better legislator who made men to be of one mind, than he who trained them for war. The citizens, as in other Hellenic States, democratic as well as aristocratic, are really an upper class; for, although no mention is made of slaves, the lower classes are allowed to fade away into the distance, and are represented in the individual by the passions. Plato has no idea either of a social State in which all classes are harmonized, or of a federation of Hellas or the world in which different nations or States have a place. His city is equipped for war rather than for peace, and this would seem to be justified by the ordinary condition of Hellenic States. The myth of the earth-born men is an embodiment of the orthodox tradition of Hellas, and the allusion to the four ages of the world is also sanctioned by the authority of Hesiod and the poets. Thus we see that the Republic is partly founded on the ideal of the old Greek polis, partly on the actual circumstances of Hellas in that age. Plato, like the old painters, retains the traditional form, and like them he has also a vision of a city in the clouds.
There is yet another thread which is interwoven in the texture of the work; for the Republic is not only a Dorian State, but a Pythagorean league. The 'way of life' which was connected with the name of Pythagoras, like the Catholic monastic orders, showed the power which the mind of an individual might exercise over his contemporaries, and may have naturally suggested to Plato the possibility of reviving such 'mediaeval institutions.' The Pythagoreans, like Plato, enforced a rule of life and a moral and intellectual training. The influence ascribed to music, which to us seems exaggerated, is also a Pythagorean feature; it is not to be regarded as representing the real influence of music in the Greek world. More nearly than any other government of Hellas, the Pythagorean league of three hundred was an aristocracy of virtue. For once in the history of mankind the philosophy of order or (Greek), expressing and consequently enlisting on its side the combined endeavours of the better part of the people, obtained the management of public affairs and held possession of it for a considerable time (until about B.C. 500). Probably only in States prepared by Dorian institutions would such a league have been possible. The rulers, like Plato's (Greek), were required to submit to a severe training in order to prepare the way for the education of the other members of the community. Long after the dissolution of the Order, eminent Pythagoreans, such as Archytas of Tarentum, retained their political influence over the cities of Magna Graecia. There was much here that was suggestive to the kindred spirit of Plato, who had doubtless meditated deeply on the 'way of life of Pythagoras' (Rep.) and his followers. Slight traces of Pythagoreanism are to be found in the mystical number of the State, in the number which expresses the interval between the king and the tyrant, in the doctrine of transmigration, in the music of the spheres, as well as in the great though secondary importance ascribed to mathematics in education.
But as in his philosophy, so also in the form of his State, he goes far beyond the old Pythagoreans. He attempts a task really impossible, which is to unite the past of Greek history with the future of philosophy, analogous to that other impossibility, which has often been the dream of Christendom, the attempt to unite the past history of Europe with the kingdom of Christ. Nothing actually existing in the world at all resembles Plato's ideal State; nor does he himself imagine that such a State is possible. This he repeats again and again; e.g. in the Republic, or in the Laws where, casting a glance back on the Republic, he admits that the perfect state of communism and philosophy was impossible in his own age, though still to be retained as a pattern. The same doubt is implied in the earnestness with which he argues in the Republic that ideals are none the worse because they cannot be realized in fact, and in the chorus of laughter, which like a breaking wave will, as he anticipates, greet the mention of his proposals; though like other writers of fiction, he uses all his art to give reality to his inventions. When asked how the ideal polity can come into being, he answers ironically, 'When one son of a king becomes a philosopher'; he designates the fiction of the earth-born men as 'a noble lie'; and when the structure is finally complete, he fairly tells you that his Republic is a vision only, which in some sense may have reality, but not in the vulgar one of a reign of philosophers upon earth. It has been said that Plato flies as well as walks, but this falls short of the truth; for he flies and walks at the same time, and is in the air and on firm ground in successive instants.
Niebuhr has asked a trifling question, which may be briefly noticed in this place—Was Plato a good citizen? If by this is meant, Was he loyal to Athenian institutions?—he can hardly be said to be the friend of democracy: but neither is he the friend of any other existing form of government; all of them he regarded as 'states of faction' (Laws); none attained to his ideal of a voluntary rule over voluntary subjects, which seems indeed more nearly to describe democracy than any other; and the worst of them is tyranny. The truth is, that the question has hardly any meaning when applied to a great philosopher whose writings are not meant for a particular age and country, but for all time and all mankind. The decline of Athenian politics was probably the motive which led Plato to frame an ideal State, and the Republic may be regarded as reflecting the departing glory of Hellas. As well might we complain of St. Augustine, whose great work 'The City of God' originated in a similar motive, for not being loyal to the Roman Empire. Even a nearer parallel might be afforded by the first Christians, who cannot fairly be charged with being bad citizens because, though 'subject to the higher powers,' they were looking forward to a city which is in heaven.
2. The idea of the perfect State is full of paradox when judged of according to the ordinary notions of mankind. The paradoxes of one age have been said to become the commonplaces of the next; but the paradoxes of Plato are at least as paradoxical to us as they were to his contemporaries. The modern world has either sneered at them as absurd, or denounced them as unnatural and immoral; men have been pleased to find in Aristotle's criticisms of them the anticipation of their own good sense. The wealthy and cultivated classes have disliked and also dreaded them; they have pointed with satisfaction to the failure of efforts to realize them in practice. Yet since they are the thoughts of one of the greatest of human intelligences, and of one who had done most to elevate morality and religion, they seem to deserve a better treatment at our hands. We may have to address the public, as Plato does poetry, and assure them that we mean no harm to existing institutions. There are serious errors which have a side of truth and which therefore may fairly demand a careful consideration: there are truths mixed with error of which we may indeed say, 'The half is better than the whole.' Yet 'the half' may be an important contribution to the study of human nature.
(a) The first paradox is the community of goods, which is mentioned slightly at the end of the third Book, and seemingly, as Aristotle observes, is confined to the guardians; at least no mention is made of the other classes. But the omission is not of any real significance, and probably arises out of the plan of the work, which prevents the writer from entering into details.
Aristotle censures the community of property much in the spirit of modern political economy, as tending to repress industry, and as doing away with the spirit of benevolence. Modern writers almost refuse to consider the subject, which is supposed to have been long ago settled by the common opinion of mankind. But it must be remembered that the sacredness of property is a notion far more fixed in modern than in ancient times. The world has grown older, and is therefore more conservative. Primitive society offered many examples of land held in common, either by a tribe or by a township, and such may probably have been the original form of landed tenure. Ancient legislators had invented various modes of dividing and preserving the divisions of land among the citizens; according to Aristotle there were nations who held the land in common and divided the produce, and there were others who divided the land and stored the produce in common. The evils of debt and the inequality of property were far greater in ancient than in modern times, and the accidents to which property was subject from war, or revolution, or taxation, or other legislative interference, were also greater. All these circumstances gave property a less fixed and sacred character. The early Christians are believed to have held their property in common, and the principle is sanctioned by the words of Christ himself, and has been maintained as a counsel of perfection in almost all ages of the Church. Nor have there been wanting instances of modern enthusiasts who have made a religion of communism; in every age of religious excitement notions like Wycliffe's 'inheritance of grace' have tended to prevail. A like spirit, but fiercer and more violent, has appeared in politics. 'The preparation of the Gospel of peace' soon becomes the red flag of Republicanism.
We can hardly judge what effect Plato's views would have upon his own contemporaries; they would perhaps have seemed to them only an exaggeration of the Spartan commonwealth. Even modern writers would acknowledge that the right of private property is based on expediency, and may be interfered with in a variety of ways for the public good. Any other mode of vesting property which was found to be more advantageous, would in time acquire the same basis of right; 'the most useful,' in Plato's words, 'would be the most sacred.' The lawyers and ecclesiastics of former ages would have spoken of property as a sacred institution. But they only meant by such language to oppose the greatest amount of resistance to any invasion of the rights of individuals and of the Church.
When we consider the question, without any fear of immediate application to practice, in the spirit of Plato's Republic, are we quite sure that the received notions of property are the best? Is the distribution of wealth which is customary in civilized countries the most favourable that can be conceived for the education and development of the mass of mankind? Can 'the spectator of all time and all existence' be quite convinced that one or two thousand years hence, great changes will not have taken place in the rights of property, or even that the very notion of property, beyond what is necessary for personal maintenance, may not have disappeared? This was a distinction familiar to Aristotle, though likely to be laughed at among ourselves. Such a change would not be greater than some other changes through which the world has passed in the transition from ancient to modern society, for example, the emancipation of the serfs in Russia, or the abolition of slavery in America and the West Indies; and not so great as the difference which separates the Eastern village community from the Western world. To accomplish such a revolution in the course of a few centuries, would imply a rate of progress not more rapid than has actually taken place during the last fifty or sixty years. The kingdom of Japan underwent more change in five or six years than Europe in five or six hundred. Many opinions and beliefs which have been cherished among ourselves quite as strongly as the sacredness of property have passed away; and the most untenable propositions respecting the right of bequests or entail have been maintained with as much fervour as the most moderate. Some one will be heard to ask whether a state of society can be final in which the interests of thousands are perilled on the life or character of a single person. And many will indulge the hope that our present condition may, after all, be only transitional, and may conduct to a higher, in which property, besides ministering to the enjoyment of the few, may also furnish the means of the highest culture to all, and will be a greater benefit to the public generally, and also more under the control of public authority. There may come a time when the saying, 'Have I not a right to do what I will with my own?' will appear to be a barbarous relic of individualism;—when the possession of a part may be a greater blessing to each and all than the possession of the whole is now to any one.
Such reflections appear visionary to the eye of the practical statesman, but they are within the range of possibility to the philosopher. He can imagine that in some distant age or clime, and through the influence of some individual, the notion of common property may or might have sunk as deep into the heart of a race, and have become as fixed to them, as private property is to ourselves. He knows that this latter institution is not more than four or five thousand years old: may not the end revert to the beginning? In our own age even Utopias affect the spirit of legislation, and an abstract idea may exercise a great influence on practical politics.
The objections that would be generally urged against Plato's community of property, are the old ones of Aristotle, that motives for exertion would be taken away, and that disputes would arise when each was dependent upon all. Every man would produce as little and consume as much as he liked. The experience of civilized nations has hitherto been adverse to Socialism. The effort is too great for human nature; men try to live in common, but the personal feeling is always breaking in. On the other hand it may be doubted whether our present notions of property are not conventional, for they differ in different countries and in different states of society. We boast of an individualism which is not freedom, but rather an artificial result of the industrial state of modern Europe. The individual is nominally free, but he is also powerless in a world bound hand and foot in the chains of economic necessity. Even if we cannot expect the mass of mankind to become disinterested, at any rate we observe in them a power of organization which fifty years ago would never have been suspected. The same forces which have revolutionized the political system of Europe, may effect a similar change in the social and industrial relations of mankind. And if we suppose the influence of some good as well as neutral motives working in the community, there will be no absurdity in expecting that the mass of mankind having power, and becoming enlightened about the higher possibilities of human life, when they learn how much more is attainable for all than is at present the possession of a favoured few, may pursue the common interest with an intelligence and persistency which mankind have hitherto never seen.
Now that the world has once been set in motion, and is no longer held fast under the tyranny of custom and ignorance; now that criticism has pierced the veil of tradition and the past no longer overpowers the present,—the progress of civilization may be expected to be far greater and swifter than heretofore. Even at our present rate of speed the point at which we may arrive in two or three generations is beyond the power of imagination to foresee. There are forces in the world which work, not in an arithmetical, but in a geometrical ratio of increase. Education, to use the expression of Plato, moves like a wheel with an ever-multiplying rapidity. Nor can we say how great may be its influence, when it becomes universal,—when it has been inherited by many generations,—when it is freed from the trammels of superstition and rightly adapted to the wants and capacities of different classes of men and women. Neither do we know how much more the co-operation of minds or of hands may be capable of accomplishing, whether in labour or in study. The resources of the natural sciences are not half-developed as yet; the soil of the earth, instead of growing more barren, may become many times more fertile than hitherto; the uses of machinery far greater, and also more minute than at present. New secrets of physiology may be revealed, deeply affecting human nature in its innermost recesses. The standard of health may be raised and the lives of men prolonged by sanitary and medical knowledge. There may be peace, there may be leisure, there may be innocent refreshments of many kinds. The ever-increasing power of locomotion may join the extremes of earth. There may be mysterious workings of the human mind, such as occur only at great crises of history. The East and the West may meet together, and all nations may contribute their thoughts and their experience to the common stock of humanity. Many other elements enter into a speculation of this kind. But it is better to make an end of them. For such reflections appear to the majority far-fetched, and to men of science, commonplace.
(b) Neither to the mind of Plato nor of Aristotle did the doctrine of community of property present at all the same difficulty, or appear to be the same violation of the common Hellenic sentiment, as the community of wives and children. This paradox he prefaces by another proposal, that the occupations of men and women shall be the same, and that to this end they shall have a common training and education. Male and female animals have the same pursuits—why not also the two sexes of man?
But have we not here fallen into a contradiction? for we were saying that different natures should have different pursuits. How then can men and women have the same? And is not the proposal inconsistent with our notion of the division of labour?—These objections are no sooner raised than answered; for, according to Plato, there is no organic difference between men and women, but only the accidental one that men beget and women bear children. Following the analogy of the other animals, he contends that all natural gifts are scattered about indifferently among both sexes, though there may be a superiority of degree on the part of the men. The objection on the score of decency to their taking part in the same gymnastic exercises, is met by Plato's assertion that the existing feeling is a matter of habit.
That Plato should have emancipated himself from the ideas of his own country and from the example of the East, shows a wonderful independence of mind. He is conscious that women are half the human race, in some respects the more important half (Laws); and for the sake both of men and women he desires to raise the woman to a higher level of existence. He brings, not sentiment, but philosophy to bear upon a question which both in ancient and modern times has been chiefly regarded in the light of custom or feeling. The Greeks had noble conceptions of womanhood in the goddesses Athene and Artemis, and in the heroines Antigone and Andromache. But these ideals had no counterpart in actual life. The Athenian woman was in no way the equal of her husband; she was not the entertainer of his guests or the mistress of his house, but only his housekeeper and the mother of his children. She took no part in military or political matters; nor is there any instance in the later ages of Greece of a woman becoming famous in literature. 'Hers is the greatest glory who has the least renown among men,' is the historian's conception of feminine excellence. A very different ideal of womanhood is held up by Plato to the world; she is to be the companion of the man, and to share with him in the toils of war and in the cares of government. She is to be similarly trained both in bodily and mental exercises. She is to lose as far as possible the incidents of maternity and the characteristics of the female sex.
The modern antagonist of the equality of the sexes would argue that the differences between men and women are not confined to the single point urged by Plato; that sensibility, gentleness, grace, are the qualities of women, while energy, strength, higher intelligence, are to be looked for in men. And the criticism is just: the differences affect the whole nature, and are not, as Plato supposes, confined to a single point. But neither can we say how far these differences are due to education and the opinions of mankind, or physically inherited from the habits and opinions of former generations. Women have been always taught, not exactly that they are slaves, but that they are in an inferior position, which is also supposed to have compensating advantages; and to this position they have conformed. It is also true that the physical form may easily change in the course of generations through the mode of life; and the weakness or delicacy, which was once a matter of opinion, may become a physical fact. The characteristics of sex vary greatly in different countries and ranks of society, and at different ages in the same individuals. Plato may have been right in denying that there was any ultimate difference in the sexes of man other than that which exists in animals, because all other differences may be conceived to disappear in other states of society, or under different circumstances of life and training.
The first wave having been passed, we proceed to the second—community of wives and children. 'Is it possible? Is it desirable?' For as Glaucon intimates, and as we far more strongly insist, 'Great doubts may be entertained about both these points.' Any free discussion of the question is impossible, and mankind are perhaps right in not allowing the ultimate bases of social life to be examined. Few of us can safely enquire into the things which nature hides, any more than we can dissect our own bodies. Still, the manner in which Plato arrived at his conclusions should be considered. For here, as Mr. Grote has remarked, is a wonderful thing, that one of the wisest and best of men should have entertained ideas of morality which are wholly at variance with our own. And if we would do Plato justice, we must examine carefully the character of his proposals. First, we may observe that the relations of the sexes supposed by him are the reverse of licentious: he seems rather to aim at an impossible strictness. Secondly, he conceives the family to be the natural enemy of the state; and he entertains the serious hope that an universal brotherhood may take the place of private interests—an aspiration which, although not justified by experience, has possessed many noble minds. On the other hand, there is no sentiment or imagination in the connections which men and women are supposed by him to form; human beings return to the level of the animals, neither exalting to heaven, nor yet abusing the natural instincts. All that world of poetry and fancy which the passion of love has called forth in modern literature and romance would have been banished by Plato. The arrangements of marriage in the Republic are directed to one object—the improvement of the race. In successive generations a great development both of bodily and mental qualities might be possible. The analogy of animals tends to show that mankind can within certain limits receive a change of nature. And as in animals we should commonly choose the best for breeding, and destroy the others, so there must be a selection made of the human beings whose lives are worthy to be preserved.
We start back horrified from this Platonic ideal, in the belief, first, that the higher feelings of humanity are far too strong to be crushed out; secondly, that if the plan could be carried into execution we should be poorly recompensed by improvements in the breed for the loss of the best things in life. The greatest regard for the weakest and meanest of human beings—the infant, the criminal, the insane, the idiot, truly seems to us one of the noblest results of Christianity. We have learned, though as yet imperfectly, that the individual man has an endless value in the sight of God, and that we honour Him when we honour the darkened and disfigured image of Him (Laws). This is the lesson which Christ taught in a parable when He said, 'Their angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven.' Such lessons are only partially realized in any age; they were foreign to the age of Plato, as they have very different degrees of strength in different countries or ages of the Christian world. To the Greek the family was a religious and customary institution binding the members together by a tie inferior in strength to that of friendship, and having a less solemn and sacred sound than that of country. The relationship which existed on the lower level of custom, Plato imagined that he was raising to the higher level of nature and reason; while from the modern and Christian point of view we regard him as sanctioning murder and destroying the first principles of morality.
The great error in these and similar speculations is that the difference between man and the animals is forgotten in them. The human being is regarded with the eye of a dog- or bird-fancier, or at best of a slave-owner; the higher or human qualities are left out. The breeder of animals aims chiefly at size or speed or strength; in a few cases at courage or temper; most often the fitness of the animal for food is the great desideratum. But mankind are not bred to be eaten, nor yet for their superiority in fighting or in running or in drawing carts. Neither does the improvement of the human race consist merely in the increase of the bones and flesh, but in the growth and enlightenment of the mind. Hence there must be 'a marriage of true minds' as well as of bodies, of imagination and reason as well as of lusts and instincts. Men and women without feeling or imagination are justly called brutes; yet Plato takes away these qualities and puts nothing in their place, not even the desire of a noble offspring, since parents are not to know their own children. The most important transaction of social life, he who is the idealist philosopher converts into the most brutal. For the pair are to have no relation to one another, except at the hymeneal festival; their children are not theirs, but the state's; nor is any tie of affection to unite them. Yet here the analogy of the animals might have saved Plato from a gigantic error, if he had 'not lost sight of his own illustration.' For the 'nobler sort of birds and beasts' nourish and protect their offspring and are faithful to one another.
An eminent physiologist thinks it worth while 'to try and place life on a physical basis.' But should not life rest on the moral rather than upon the physical? The higher comes first, then the lower, first the human and rational, afterwards the animal. Yet they are not absolutely divided; and in times of sickness or moments of self-indulgence they seem to be only different aspects of a common human nature which includes them both. Neither is the moral the limit of the physical, but the expansion and enlargement of it,—the highest form which the physical is capable of receiving. As Plato would say, the body does not take care of the body, and still less of the mind, but the mind takes care of both. In all human action not that which is common to man and the animals is the characteristic element, but that which distinguishes him from them. Even if we admit the physical basis, and resolve all virtue into health of body 'la facon que notre sang circule,' still on merely physical grounds we must come back to ideas. Mind and reason and duty and conscience, under these or other names, are always reappearing. There cannot be health of body without health of mind; nor health of mind without the sense of duty and the love of truth (Charm).
That the greatest of ancient philosophers should in his regulations about marriage have fallen into the error of separating body and mind, does indeed appear surprising. Yet the wonder is not so much that Plato should have entertained ideas of morality which to our own age are revolting, but that he should have contradicted himself to an extent which is hardly credible, falling in an instant from the heaven of idealism into the crudest animalism. Rejoicing in the newly found gift of reflection, he appears to have thought out a subject about which he had better have followed the enlightened feeling of his own age. The general sentiment of Hellas was opposed to his monstrous fancy. The old poets, and in later time the tragedians, showed no want of respect for the family, on which much of their religion was based. But the example of Sparta, and perhaps in some degree the tendency to defy public opinion, seems to have misled him. He will make one family out of all the families of the state. He will select the finest specimens of men and women and breed from these only.
Yet because the illusion is always returning (for the animal part of human nature will from time to time assert itself in the disguise of philosophy as well as of poetry), and also because any departure from established morality, even where this is not intended, is apt to be unsettling, it may be worth while to draw out a little more at length the objections to the Platonic marriage. In the first place, history shows that wherever polygamy has been largely allowed the race has deteriorated. One man to one woman is the law of God and nature. Nearly all the civilized peoples of the world at some period before the age of written records, have become monogamists; and the step when once taken has never been retraced. The exceptions occurring among Brahmins or Mahometans or the ancient Persians, are of that sort which may be said to prove the rule. The connexions formed between superior and inferior races hardly ever produce a noble offspring, because they are licentious; and because the children in such cases usually despise the mother and are neglected by the father who is ashamed of them. Barbarous nations when they are introduced by Europeans to vice die out; polygamist peoples either import and adopt children from other countries, or dwindle in numbers, or both. Dynasties and aristocracies which have disregarded the laws of nature have decreased in numbers and degenerated in stature; 'mariages de convenance' leave their enfeebling stamp on the offspring of them (King Lear). The marriage of near relations, or the marrying in and in of the same family tends constantly to weakness or idiocy in the children, sometimes assuming the form as they grow older of passionate licentiousness. The common prostitute rarely has any offspring. By such unmistakable evidence is the authority of morality asserted in the relations of the sexes: and so many more elements enter into this 'mystery' than are dreamed of by Plato and some other philosophers.
Recent enquirers have indeed arrived at the conclusion that among primitive tribes there existed a community of wives as of property, and that the captive taken by the spear was the only wife or slave whom any man was permitted to call his own. The partial existence of such customs among some of the lower races of man, and the survival of peculiar ceremonies in the marriages of some civilized nations, are thought to furnish a proof of similar institutions having been once universal. There can be no question that the study of anthropology has considerably changed our views respecting the first appearance of man upon the earth. We know more about the aborigines of the world than formerly, but our increasing knowledge shows above all things how little we know. With all the helps which written monuments afford, we do but faintly realize the condition of man two thousand or three thousand years ago. Of what his condition was when removed to a distance 200,000 or 300,000 years, when the majority of mankind were lower and nearer the animals than any tribe now existing upon the earth, we cannot even entertain conjecture. Plato (Laws) and Aristotle (Metaph.) may have been more right than we imagine in supposing that some forms of civilisation were discovered and lost several times over. If we cannot argue that all barbarism is a degraded civilization, neither can we set any limits to the depth of degradation to which the human race may sink through war, disease, or isolation. And if we are to draw inferences about the origin of marriage from the practice of barbarous nations, we should also consider the remoter analogy of the animals. Many birds and animals, especially the carnivorous, have only one mate, and the love and care of offspring which seems to be natural is inconsistent with the primitive theory of marriage. If we go back to an imaginary state in which men were almost animals and the companions of them, we have as much right to argue from what is animal to what is human as from the barbarous to the civilized man. The record of animal life on the globe is fragmentary,—the connecting links are wanting and cannot be supplied; the record of social life is still more fragmentary and precarious. Even if we admit that our first ancestors had no such institution as marriage, still the stages by which men passed from outer barbarism to the comparative civilization of China, Assyria, and Greece, or even of the ancient Germans, are wholly unknown to us.
Such speculations are apt to be unsettling, because they seem to show that an institution which was thought to be a revelation from heaven, is only the growth of history and experience. We ask what is the origin of marriage, and we are told that like the right of property, after many wars and contests, it has gradually arisen out of the selfishness of barbarians. We stand face to face with human nature in its primitive nakedness. We are compelled to accept, not the highest, but the lowest account of the origin of human society. But on the other hand we may truly say that every step in human progress has been in the same direction, and that in the course of ages the idea of marriage and of the family has been more and more defined and consecrated. The civilized East is immeasurably in advance of any savage tribes; the Greeks and Romans have improved upon the East; the Christian nations have been stricter in their views of the marriage relation than any of the ancients. In this as in so many other things, instead of looking back with regret to the past, we should look forward with hope to the future. We must consecrate that which we believe to be the most holy, and that 'which is the most holy will be the most useful.' There is more reason for maintaining the sacredness of the marriage tie, when we see the benefit of it, than when we only felt a vague religious horror about the violation of it. But in all times of transition, when established beliefs are being undermined, there is a danger that in the passage from the old to the new we may insensibly let go the moral principle, finding an excuse for listening to the voice of passion in the uncertainty of knowledge, or the fluctuations of opinion. And there are many persons in our own day who, enlightened by the study of anthropology, and fascinated by what is new and strange, some using the language of fear, others of hope, are inclined to believe that a time will come when through the self-assertion of women, or the rebellious spirit of children, by the analysis of human relations, or by the force of outward circumstances, the ties of family life may be broken or greatly relaxed. They point to societies in America and elsewhere which tend to show that the destruction of the family need not necessarily involve the overthrow of all morality. Wherever we may think of such speculations, we can hardly deny that they have been more rife in this generation than in any other; and whither they are tending, who can predict?
To the doubts and queries raised by these 'social reformers' respecting the relation of the sexes and the moral nature of man, there is a sufficient answer, if any is needed. The difference about them and us is really one of fact. They are speaking of man as they wish or fancy him to be, but we are speaking of him as he is. They isolate the animal part of his nature; we regard him as a creature having many sides, or aspects, moving between good and evil, striving to rise above himself and to become 'a little lower than the angels.' We also, to use a Platonic formula, are not ignorant of the dissatisfactions and incompatibilities of family life, of the meannesses of trade, of the flatteries of one class of society by another, of the impediments which the family throws in the way of lofty aims and aspirations. But we are conscious that there are evils and dangers in the background greater still, which are not appreciated, because they are either concealed or suppressed. What a condition of man would that be, in which human passions were controlled by no authority, divine or human, in which there was no shame or decency, no higher affection overcoming or sanctifying the natural instincts, but simply a rule of health! Is it for this that we are asked to throw away the civilization which is the growth of ages?
For strength and health are not the only qualities to be desired; there are the more important considerations of mind and character and soul. We know how human nature may be degraded; we do not know how by artificial means any improvement in the breed can be effected. The problem is a complex one, for if we go back only four steps (and these at least enter into the composition of a child), there are commonly thirty progenitors to be taken into account. Many curious facts, rarely admitting of proof, are told us respecting the inheritance of disease or character from a remote ancestor. We can trace the physical resemblances of parents and children in the same family—
'Sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferebat';
but scarcely less often the differences which distinguish children both from their parents and from one another. We are told of similar mental peculiarities running in families, and again of a tendency, as in the animals, to revert to a common or original stock. But we have a difficulty in distinguishing what is a true inheritance of genius or other qualities, and what is mere imitation or the result of similar circumstances. Great men and great women have rarely had great fathers and mothers. Nothing that we know of in the circumstances of their birth or lineage will explain their appearance. Of the English poets of the last and two preceding centuries scarcely a descendant remains,—none have ever been distinguished. So deeply has nature hidden her secret, and so ridiculous is the fancy which has been entertained by some that we might in time by suitable marriage arrangements or, as Plato would have said, 'by an ingenious system of lots,' produce a Shakespeare or a Milton. Even supposing that we could breed men having the tenacity of bulldogs, or, like the Spartans, 'lacking the wit to run away in battle,' would the world be any the better? Many of the noblest specimens of the human race have been among the weakest physically. Tyrtaeus or Aesop, or our own Newton, would have been exposed at Sparta; and some of the fairest and strongest men and women have been among the wickedest and worst. Not by the Platonic device of uniting the strong and fair with the strong and fair, regardless of sentiment and morality, nor yet by his other device of combining dissimilar natures (Statesman), have mankind gradually passed from the brutality and licentiousness of primitive marriage to marriage Christian and civilized.
Few persons would deny that we bring into the world an inheritance of mental and physical qualities derived first from our parents, or through them from some remoter ancestor, secondly from our race, thirdly from the general condition of mankind into which we are born. Nothing is commoner than the remark, that 'So and so is like his father or his uncle'; and an aged person may not unfrequently note a resemblance in a youth to a long-forgotten ancestor, observing that 'Nature sometimes skips a generation.' It may be true also, that if we knew more about our ancestors, these similarities would be even more striking to us. Admitting the facts which are thus described in a popular way, we may however remark that there is no method of difference by which they can be defined or estimated, and that they constitute only a small part of each individual. The doctrine of heredity may seem to take out of our hands the conduct of our own lives, but it is the idea, not the fact, which is really terrible to us. For what we have received from our ancestors is only a fraction of what we are, or may become. The knowledge that drunkenness or insanity has been prevalent in a family may be the best safeguard against their recurrence in a future generation. The parent will be most awake to the vices or diseases in his child of which he is most sensible within himself. The whole of life may be directed to their prevention or cure. The traces of consumption may become fainter, or be wholly effaced: the inherent tendency to vice or crime may be eradicated. And so heredity, from being a curse, may become a blessing. We acknowledge that in the matter of our birth, as in our nature generally, there are previous circumstances which affect us. But upon this platform of circumstances or within this wall of necessity, we have still the power of creating a life for ourselves by the informing energy of the human will.