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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Platonism” does not escape the legacy of all “isms,”
and one of the many good reasons for distrusting the
propriety and alleged value of designating any histori-
cal movement by appending ism to the name of a man
has been that inevitably historical or simply temporal
pressures rapidly distort the aptness of the association.
Thus we feel obliged to add classical prefixes such as
“neo, ortho, proto, pan”; or temporal adjectives such
as “early, late, eighteenth-century, contemporary”; or
perhaps content-designators such as “right-wing, left-
wing, traditional, or radical,” to the ism. There may
be some very good reasons for avoiding the term
“Platonism” entirely. Nevertheless there is some value
in tracing the way the label has been used and indeed
great value in observing how the thought of this man
has influenced the history of Western thought.

Great men not only make great contributions (and
sometimes great mistakes), but always engender a great
variety of responses. Plutarch identified Plato and phi-
losophy in the most complimentary way, while K. R.
Popper has called Plato a totalitarian party-politician
who compromised his integrity with every step he took
(Popper, p. 169). Whitehead, like Emerson, scorned
any supposed revolutionary originality in philosophy
since the fourth century B.C., and called all of Western
thought a series of footnotes to Plato. And Herbert
Spencer, lacking the patience to appreciate Plato as
a philosopher and the judgment to rate him above a
third-rate novelist in literary skills, considered the
reading of Plato a gross waste of time.

A certain arbitrariness is inescapable in deciding
upon an appropriate meaning of Platonism. Part of the
problem is endemic to all studies of ancient writers:
do we really know their doctrines and how they were
misunderstood or altered or profaned by their disci-
ples? In the case of Plato the texts generally agreed
to be as authentic as can be expected following centu-
ries of recopying, translation, burned libraries, and
careless handling, are numerous enough to allay most
fears about the writings, but the questions of inter-
pretation continually arise, as in, for instance, Gilbert
Ryle's strikingly innovative Plato's Progress (Oxford,
1966). Plato, like so many brilliant writers, indeed
displays marked changes in beliefs and doctrines
throughout the productive years of his life. There is,
therefore, as could be expected, a historical line of
influence which attaches itself to the earlier writings
of Plato which is simply inconsistent with movements
which find their genesis in what one must assume to
be clearly a later period in Plato's development.

Philosophers tend to treat Platonism as a theory, or
as a set of doctrines or beliefs. Whether these doctrines
constitute a therapeutic answer to deep human prob-
lems or are in some ways the disease itself has been,
and will always be, one of the most provocative of
academic debates. As one moves away from the philo-
sophical, Platonism becomes more and more a style
of life, not a formal theory, but as Walter Pater argued,


a tendency to think or feel or speak about certain
things in a particular way (Pater, pp. 169ff.). This way
is always some sort of transcendentalism or mysticism,
and Platonism then becomes some kind of witness to
the unseen. The history of Platonism is full of poignant
reminders of this tendency.

Yet it would be misleading to polarize this diversity
into radical bifurcation. The most transcendental
minded Platonists must admit to Plato's deep concern
with the sensible world, while on the other hand the
sets of doctrines which philosophers arrange and call
Platonism, inevitably attribute to Plato absolutes, ulti-
mate entities, and references to the eternal quest.
Typical of such quasi-definitions is the effort of William
Inge to find the core of Platonism in a belief in absolute
and eternal values as the most real things in the uni-
verse and the confidence that we can know these, if
only we put ourselves to the task with a total dedica-
tion of intellect, will, and affection, while holding an
open mind toward scientific discovery and a reverent
attitude toward the beauty and sublimity of the world
as the manifestation of the mind and character of the
creator (Inge, pp. 72ff.). Quite apart from the fact that
this is undoubtedly technically misleading in its refer-
ence to values, as Santayana pointed out in his Plato-
nism and the Spiritual Life
(pp. 3f.), and in its reference
to Plato's open-mindedness to science, which appears
to be simply false, this is the kind of account of Plato-
nism which has always been prevalent and not entirely

Much of what has been called Platonism did not
originate with Plato, and, as is true with any man's
thought, much of Plato's thought can be readily traced
to those powerful influences to which he himself
admitted. Recognizing the spurious reputation of Epis-
tle II,
we must at least admit that its author, Plato
or not, expressed the influence of Socrates with a clear,
if exaggerated passion, saying that there never was, nor
ever will be any written work of Plato. All that goes
by that name is that of Socrates, grown handsome and
modernized. Aristotle, whose credentials should make
him a knowledgeable commentator on Plato, saw the
Heraclitean influence on Plato's ideas, the denial of
any stability to the sensible world and the resultant
skepticism about scientific knowledge. He noted too,
in Metaphysics A, the assuming of the Socratic attitude
that one should therefore disregard the sensible world
and seek the universal in the moral sphere. But most
of all, Aristotle sees Plato as a kind of Pythagorean
who not only distinguishes between sense objects and
universals but postulates the existence of objects of
mathematics, both like and unlike each, and takes the
Parmenidean One to be a substance, not a predicate.
It seems clear that philosophers in the periods follow
ing Plato took Platonism to include a doctrine of being
in which the Forms, eternal, immutable, simple, per-
fect, and separate, were the ultimate elements of the
universe conceived as a metaphysical system; a doc-
trine of knowing in which sense data can legitimately
function only in the acquisition of fallible opinion,
whereas the Forms are the only objects of genuine
knowledge; and a doctrine of man in which body and
soul are separate and separable elements, and survival
after death becomes a pious, although reasonable hope.
Plato's consistent concern for the unity of his philoso-
phy, such as his attempt to show how morality is
necessarily related to metaphysical knowledge, was
shared in varying degrees, but always to some extent,
by the Platonists of later periods.

In spite of many philosophers' beliefs in the inde-
pendence of their discipline and their timeless insights,
untouched by the drama of life, philosophical systems
are as much the effects of social and political change
as they are causes. The changes in the political scene,
which had been developing for several generations, had
more bearing on the destiny of Plato's philosophical
influence in the post-Aristotelian era than one might
expect. The ancient ideal declined, not because of any
philosophical attack, but at least in part because the
city-state disappeared and the new imperialism de-
emphasized the Socratic man, demanding new loyalties
and a new kind of piety which made “Know thyself”
irrelevant. All the influences now were alien to the
Greek heritage, and knowing for the sake of knowing
became more of a historical curiosity than a viable
alternative to the pragmatic commitments of the new
schools. Consolation, not speculation, became the goal
of the thinker, and even social and ethical thinking
was increasingly directed toward the practical prob-
lems of living in this hostile world. Nevertheless, death
comes hard, if ever, to philosophies, and while it is
indeed the case that the teachings of Plato were used
during the next five hundred years to support move-
ments and ideals with which he would not have been
at all sympathetic, they were surely not ignored, and
on occasion showed vigorous signs of life.

Of all the schools like Plato's Academy which
flourished in Athens from the death of Aristotle until
their ultimate destruction by Justinian in the sixth
century A.D., the Cynics, those who chose to escape
from an unpleasant world by leaving it alone, represent
best the trend toward and the triumph of the practical.
Finding their heroic inspiration in Diogenes of Sinope
(410-320 B.C.), the Cynics were largely able to circum-
vent the teaching of Plato, and their solution to living
in an evil world was characteristically un-Platonic; to
abolish traditional logic, mathematics, music, and social
restraints, and to produce aretē (ἄπετη) by living like


dogs, as their name suggests and their critics insisted.
There is meager philosophical substance in the Cynics,
and their lean doctrines, hidden or perhaps undog-
matically shared, found their way into Stoicism, there
to become elements of a more substantial philosophy
against which Platonism continually roiled.

One would not be far wrong in simply denying any
positive influence of Plato on Epicureanism. Stoicism,
however, in spite of its early materialism, and a non-
Greek heritage, not only shared a common hero with
Plato, but in its later years, several important doctrines.
However, admiration for Socrates is not enough to
merit the label Platonic, and it must be acknowledged
that the theory of Forms never found a home in
Stoicism. Yet Chrysippus (280-207 B.C.) held to a very
limited theory of survival after death, and it seems clear
that some sort of awareness of the Platonic doctrine
of the soul came into Stoicism with Panaetius (b. 180
B.C.), and especially through his disciple Posidonius (b.
135 B.C.), whose views of the soul, primitive by Plato's
standards, were nevertheless to have an historically
important role in the period which led to Neo-

After the death of Plato in 387 B.C., the Academy
at Athens passed through the hands of Speusippus,
Xenocrates, Polemo, and Crates, taking on successively
more ethical and less speculative concerns. None of
these was any more intent on being radical in his
Platonism than was Aristotle, and several considerably
less. The Academy under Speusippus and Xenocrates,
in spite of its increasing emphasis on morals, shared,
in fact, with Aristotle the same interest in the meta-
physical problems in Plato, and attempted to overcome
the dualism of the intelligible and sensible worlds in
ways not always unlike Aristotle's. The radical change
in the Academy came after the death of Crates and
the influence of his successor Arcesilaus (b. 315 B.C.)
in skeptically reconstructing it into what is known as
the Middle Academy. The Academy remained basically
skeptical for about three hundred years, through vari-
ous regimes.

The skeptics in the Academy were not all con-
sciously hostile toward Plato. More often than not they
felt that they could find in the questioning of Socrates
ample justification for their own hesitancy about
making cognitive assertions, for Socrates certainly per-
petrated some doubts about knowing. Plato's own
ironic skepticism has always been a lively topic for
philosophers and should not be dismissed without con-
sideration. Why, it is sometimes asked, did Plato write
the Protagoras if not to show a degree of skepticism
as a reasonable, if not indeed inescapable commitment?
Hans Wolff, for instance, has raised the questions of
both epistemological and moral skepticism in his Plato:
Der Kampf ums Sein. Skeptics found a dogmatic
source, however, in Pyrrho (365-275 B.C.) who, while
agreeing with Plato on the cognitive unreliability of
sense perception, went far beyond him in flatly denying
that this is rationally corrigible, and, while not
absolutely denying the existence of absolute truth, at
least denied that any human mind could ever know
it. Pyrrho was a relatively unsophisticated skeptic but
many of his views, and especially those of his disciple
Timon (ca. 320-ca. 230), were so similar to those inside
the Academy that by the first century B.C. “Academic”
and “Pyrrhonic” skepticism were indistinguishable.

Timon, and probably Pyrrho also, were trained in
Megaric dialectic, an outgrowth of early Socratism, and
the suspension of judgment so dear to skeptics can
without great effort be found in the Platonic Socrates,
if one is selective enough. Arcesilaus, in spite of his
excellent training in mathematics and the humanities
and his sharp critical mind, turned out to be little
better than a sophist in his influence on students in
the Academy, and was memorialized for his vigorous
attacks on the Stoics rather than for any constructive
thought. It was Carneades (213-129), moving into
leadership in the Academy after it had experienced
a long period of intellectual aridity, who paired the
critical skills of a philosophical in-fighter with some
original work on probability and the relationships be-
tween impressions and actions so much ignored by
other skeptics. His position is in another respect more
compatible with the recognizable Plato. Carneades'
pragmatic skepticism differed from that of other skep-
tics who simply shrugged at life. He allowed events
to determine actions so that the wise man would not
always withhold judgment nor resist opinions, but
would and should permit opinion to be directive of
action even in the absence of certain knowledge. Sextus
Empiricus, whose skepticism emerged during the sec-
ond century A.D. and was more tightly reasoned, and
of whose thought we know much more, understood
these necessities better than the contemporaries of
Carneades. Skeptics, he observed, recognize a differ-
ence between one's life as a man and as a philosopher.
If a skeptic attempted to act only upon his professed
philosophy, for example, he could not act at all.

The skeptical thread spun out of the Academy is
found, upon further examination, in the fabric of all
post-Aristotelian philosophies. Unless the eternal Forms
exist, Plato insisted, knowledge is impossible. To be-
lieve Plato and to be a skeptic called only for denying
the existence of the Forms. Platonism, nevertheless, as
an irresistible idée-force, is easily recognizable when
its formal structures appear in medieval theology, its
humanism in the Renaissance, and its metaphysical and
epistemological doctrines in later idealism.


The Platonic intrusion into medieval thought, both
Christian and non-Christian, was through Plotinus'
brand of Platonism, which, in turn, owed something
to a recurrent revival of Pythagoreanism. As a religious
fraternity, Pythagoreanism had retained adherents long
after its decline as a school of philosophy. The cults
and the mysteries associated with the school had even
rebounded into great popularity by the first century
B.C. and, as is often the case, the practice revived
interest in the theory. This time, however, elements
of Plato as well as of Aristotle and other writers had
a share in the influencing of the dogma. The meta-
physics of the revived Pythagoreanism contained four
principles, three of which were very similar to the later
Neo-Platonic ontological trinity; the One, the Logos,
and the World-Soul. The fourth, Matter, was radically
different from the first three, and the system was quite
compatible with Plato's dualism of appearance and
reality, and assimilable into the Platonic theory of
knowledge. Because the visible space-time world is a
copy of intelligible reality, the Platonic strictures on
knowing hold. The doctrine of the separable, immortal
human soul in Neo-Pythagoreanism is also quite like
the hierarchical psychology of Plato, if one ignores
Plato's beliefs about reincarnation.

While Plutarch remains the best known writer of
the revived Pythagoreanism in the Neo-Platonic school,
largely because of the writings of his which have come
down to us, perhaps the most interesting of the cluster
was Numenius (fl. A.D. 175), whom we know only from
secondary sources. He apparently worked out a system
very much like that of Plotinus. Numenius used sources
prior to Plato to create a structure in which the highest
reality appears very much like the Unmoved Mover
of Aristotle, too impersonal and distant to be concerned
with the world, but delegating creation to a second
being (the Demiurge of Plato's Timaeus), the middle
person in the metaphysical trinity. Moses and Jesus
became teachers of importance and the inclusion of
Mosaic and Christian concepts sets a different direction
for philosophy.

The meeting of the thinking of Moses and Plato
found its highest realization in Philo Judaeus (ca. 20
B.C.-A.D. 50), an orthodox believer who had assimilated
much of Platonism and also some Neo-Pythagorean
beliefs; his contributions were largely in theology,
where his method of allegorical interpretation of the
scriptures on the one hand and sympathetic handling
of Plato on the other, had great influence on the medi-
eval period.

The impact of Plato on early Christian philosophy
was surely through Plotinus (205-70), whose meta-
physical triad sounds so much like the Christian trinity,
of which Plotinus seems to know very little, that the
great task of admirers of Saint Augustine turned out
to be the defense of Augustine against the charge of
being a follower of Plotinus. The concept of emanation,
explaining how the parts of the trinity can be related,
and the analogy of the light proceeding from the sun,
are graphically Platonic and were not ignored by later
Christian writers in attempting to conceive how the
Son could proceed from the Father. In addition,
Plotinus' spiritualism, his antipathy to materialism, the
place of illumination in his epistemology, and his
mysticism are reminiscent of earlier Platonism.

Augustine is the fountainhead of Platonism in the
Christian Middle Ages and surely the Platonism of
which he speaks is Neo-Platonism. In the books of the
Platonists, he writes in Confessions, he read passages
paralleling the openings of John's gospel, “In the be-
ginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God
and the Logos was God,” but he failed to find the
crucial Christian doctrine of incarnation: “The Logos
was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Platonism pro-
vides a truncated theology because it fails to include
the Christ-event, although it is quite compatible with
the incarnation and can be accommodated to a theo-
logical system. Indeed, Augustinians were tireless in
looking in Plato for hints that he was a proto-Christian,
and finding enough evidence to satisfy, such as turning
to the first three words of the Timaeus “One, two, three
...” to find clear indication that Plato knew about
the trinity. In fact the writings of many of the early
Church Fathers are filled with bizarre references to
parts of sentences in Plato as anticipations of Christian
doctrine. Yet not all the parallels and symbolisms are
continued, and the ethics, politics, and psychology of
the early medieval period and even of the Byzantine
period reflect without question a familiarity and re-
spect for Platonic texts as they were made available.
Medieval mysticism and the monastic movement
leaned heavily on Plato's disparagement, if not
renunciation, of this world. Nevertheless the un-
Platonic elements in primitive Christianity were ap-
parent to Augustine; the populism of Christianity and
the aristocracy of Platonism are as different as emotiv-
ism and intellectualism, open and closed societies, fire
and ice.

There is, of course, a singular justification for the
identification of Neo-Platonism and the thinking of
Plato during the first part of the Middle Ages. Some of
the Platonic writings were safely closeted in Moorish
libraries, translated into Latin by Western scholars
even before the conquest of Constantinople by the
Turks in 1453. Little of Plato except Timaeus, Phaedo,
and Meno was extant in Latin during a crucial period of
intellectual development in which Greek and Arabic
were simply not studied. It is easy, therefore, to see


how the influence of the Timaeus as an isolated
Platonic text could be so powerful in the early scholas-
tic period, both in theology and in the broader cultural
areas which were so forcefully molded by the cathedral
schools in France, for instance.

During the fifteenth century a number of seemingly
unrelated events brought about a dramatic revival of
Platonism in Europe. The threatening power of the
Turks, after their capture of Constantinople, the in-
creasing commerce between European and Eastern
cities, and the dominance of the Medici vision made
Florence the center of a revived Platonism which
extended its influence throughout Europe. It was
Cosimo de' Medici who became so taken with what
he could learn of Plato that he chose Marsilio Ficino,
the brilliant son of a Medici physician, to be educated
and directed to do the primary work of translating the
dialogues, as well as being the commentator of the
revival of Platonism, and finally to bring into one
systematic whole Platonic studies and the Christian
faith. To be sure, there was some success on the last
point, but the signal achievement of the Medici revival
was to influence literature and the arts for centuries.

Ficino's influence upon religious thought was to
bring about a non-hierophantic, subtle Platonizing of
ethical Christianity rather than a Christianizing of
Plato as others had attempted, and sometimes partially
achieved. Plato could be used to support numerous
detached theological beliefs, and where Plato's conclu-
sions were alien to Ficino's view of the faith, he was
not reluctant to suggest that the Greek was capable
of error. Still some of the bizarre accoutrements of
speculative religion—witchcraft, demonology, astrol-
ogy—could be tolerated by this kind of Platonism, and,
along with more sophisticated formulations, can be
seen in its fruits in continental Europe and Great
Britain in the succeeding centuries.

The liberal religious tradition of the last several
hundred years is rooted in this Platonizing of theology,
although it would be mistaken to call all, or even most
subsequent religious liberals Platonists. The liberal
Christians at Cambridge in the seventeenth century,
who as a group have come to be known as the
“Cambridge Platonists,” represent (in spite of their
loose handling of classical sources) this selective
Platonizing of ethical Christianity. Like Plato, they saw
their times as badly in need of intellectual therapy,
with materialism again the dominant illness (Hobbes
now being the pathogenic agent). Unlike Plato, they
tended toward a dullness of style, and when forceful,
tended to be more eloquent in rhetoric than brilliant
in philosophy. Like Plato, they leaned to a somewhat
mystical theology, holding that wherever one finds
beauty, harmony, love, wisdom, one has found God.
Contrary to orthodoxy, they maintained that sin had
not extinguished any “natural light,” but that the spirit
of man, “the candle of the Lord,” still shines in all
men, leading to the truth which nobler men, like Plato,
see with great clarity.

Of the half-dozen or so primary figures who made
up the group, Ralph Cudworth (1617-88) was the most
philosophical, the most erudite, and the most re-
spected. Along with Benjamin Whichcote, John Smith,
Henry More, and other minor members of the school,
Cudworth's Platonism was dominantly Neo-Platonic.
Nevertheless his attacks on sensations, as an inadequate
basis of knowledge, his idealistic interpretation of
moral notions, and his ontology were main-line

Philosophically Platonism spent itself in the seven-
teenth century and never really revived as a movement,
not because the influence of Plato failed or because
the power of his ideas waned. On the contrary, the
relevance of Plato to the great systematic philosophies
of the nineteenth century is apparent in even the most
superficial reading. Nevertheless one cannot call the
idealistic edifices of Hegel, Bradley, Royce, or the
numerous minor idealisms of the past two hundred
years Platonisms, for they bear only in part the Greek
hallmark. Their heritage is largely Germanic, and while
various interesting parallels exist, it would be simply
false to attribute all idealistic metaphysics to Plato.
Post-eighteenth-century idealisms have all been hy-
brids. Furthermore, while the presence of Platonic
elements in the philosophies, for instance, of the
empirical philosophers, such as Locke's concept of
philosophical method, or the plethora of references to
Plato in the later writings of Berkeley, has led admirers
of Plato to see all serious thought to be merely foot-
noting, it is clear that finding Plato in a man's thought
is not to find Platonism. Platonism is systematically
iconic, and not universal, even though Plato might
conceivably be everyman.

Florentine Platonism is much more important to
letters than to religion or philosophy, however. The
quaint legends of the Platonic Academy at Florence,
the burning of incense before the bust of Plato, the
Symposium-like banquets, the revival of pagan feasts,
embellish every account of the Italian Renaissance,
and, while of little significance conceptually or with
regard to the degree of their truth, they do convey
something of the spirit of the times which was to thrust
a kind of Platonism into the arts in Europe for centu-
ries to come.

In spite of the scholarliness of some of the followers
of Ficino, such as Pico della Mirandola, Renaissance
Platonism flourished not so much as an academic en-
deavor as an alchemistic efficacy, a way of thinking


and living which brought the powers of love, inspira-
tion, and creativity to transform the mundane into the
sublime. Indeed, the impact of the literary Platonists,
such as Dante, had a more powerful effect upon
European thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries than any of the philosophical Platonists.

Platonism dominated literary history during the
Renaissance and romantic periods because Plato's is
perhaps the most poetic of all philosophies. Platonism
cannot be simply a collection of correct and well-
argued doctrines and still remain true to its heritage.
Poetry and philosophy converge in the Dialogues, and
most often philosophy finds its rival in sophism or
rhetoric, rather than in poetry. To be sure, Meletus,
the frustrated tragic poet, angered by Socrates' vicious
criticism of the poets, played a major role in his prose-
cution, but Plato's attack on the poets was a pragmatic
move. He knew the political and intellectual dangers
of poetry from the inside. Only a poet-philosopher
could have written the Dialogues. In them he continu-
ally distinguishes between natural knowledge and
truth. He insists in the Phaedrus that trees and fields
cannot teach him anything, but men can, for truth has
an inward character foreign to sensation. And men
teach not by writing books or by making speeches, but
by becoming vitally involved in dialogue, in human
relationships. All else is sophistry or soliloquy.

The most vital and intimate of human relationships
is love, and the exploration of the Platonic significance
of love is one of the dominant themes of literary
romanticism. Plato's fanciful identification of eros and
pteros in the Phaedrus did not escape the attention of
later writers who caught the Platonic vision of the
necessity of love in genuine human communication.
Words which communicate, Homer taught us, must
have wings, and, if communication is a human trait,
then the erotic attachment is the crucial human rela-
tionship. Friendship, Byron once noted, is love without
its wings. Thus literary Platonism leans heavily upon
Plato's often mystical concept of love.

Yet, as Plato developed his notion of eros, it became
clear that love was not a simple relationship, and the
dualistic principle which overarches all of Plato applies
here as well. Heavenly love and heavenly beauty stand
apart from and above earthly love and earthly beauty,
just as the Forms are apart from and above things,
although in some curious and relevant way related to
them. These two fundamentals of Platonism, the role
of eros and the metaphysical dualism of heavenly vs.
earthly forms, dominated late Renaissance and post-
Renaissance letters.

Commercial and military adventures brought the
works of the Italians into France, especially during the
reign of Francis I, whose powerful sister, Marguerite
of Navarre, it is said, never allowed the works of
Castiglione, Ficino, and Dante to be out of her reach.
After the death of Francis I, in 1547, Catherine de'
Medici became Queen of France, the Pléiade was born,
with its sometimes variant Platonic interpretation, e.g.,
in the poetry of Ronsard and Du Bellay, and the
Florentine influence spread more dominantly over
France throughout the reigns as kings of Catherine's
three sons. Often during these years the Platonic yields
to a simple humanistic orientation. The Platonism of
Rabelais or Montaigne, from a technical perspective,
would have to be quite corrupt. Champier's transla-
tions of Ficino's efforts were less in the spirit of Plato
than in the spirit of the Middle Ages. And to add to
the confusion, the generosity of Ficino toward the
bizarre and the occult reaped its consequences in the
warren of astrology, cabbalism, and hermeticism which
became the home of French Platonism during the

Platonism in English literature before the Renais-
sance was medieval, indirect, all from secondary
sources, and therefore often unrecognizable, as for
instance the curious and sometimes absurd references
to Plato in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. This very early
English Platonism undoubtedly arrived by way of the
cathedral schools of France, particularly Chartres.
During the Renaissance in England, the Platonism of
Linacre, Colet, Grocyn, Ascham, and More was no
more than a copy of Italian and French Renaissance
Platonism. Spenser too leaned heavily on Ficino and
Pico for the Platonic elements of his thought and was
perhaps the first major figure in English literature to
settle on love and beauty rather than on theology or
politics as the major emphases of Platonism. The early
indications of Platonism as a philosophical or ethical
system in the Faerie Queene soon appear of minuscule
importance alongside the constant and powerful treat-
ments of the inner vision, the Symposium-like pilgrim-
age of the soul to true love and beauty which leaves
sense far behind.

It is not difficult to learn, often from their own
testimonies, which English literary figures had read
their Plato and which had not, nor is it difficult, from
their writings, to determine which had read it well.
Coleridge, for instance, clearly in the camp of those
who knew the texts, had incredible difficulty distin-
guishing Plato from the Neo-Platonists. Philosophically
as well as poetically his Platonism was a muddied
stream. Another student of Plato, Matthew Arnold, on
the other hand, unlike his literary colleagues, rejects
the emphasis on love, rarely mentioning the Sympo-
or Phaedrus, and can only be significantly Platonic
in his religious and ethical views and in his rejection
of materialism. Wordsworth was not an avid reader


of Plato (if he read him at all), nor of the Neo-
Platonists, and the Platonism often ascribed to him is
totally unhistorical, indeed, not Platonism at all. True,
his references to immortality remind one that Plato
was also concerned with that issue, but the romanticism
of Wordsworth is alien to the tone and substance of
Plato's ideas.

From whichever direction one chooses to consider
him, temperament, interest, commitment, doctrine,
effort, Shelley is the primary literary Platonist in the
English language. From his earliest allusions to the
dualism of sense and thought and the doctrine of the
soul in Queen Mab to the polarity of time and the
ideal in Adonais and Hellas, and Mont Blanc, the moral
and metaphysical doctrines of Prometheus Unbound,
and the pervasive aura of eros, Shelley demonstrates
his infatuation with Platonism. His translation of the
Dialogues, hasty and enthusiastic (his translation of the
Symposium seems to have been motivated largely by
his hope of converting Mary Shelley), are more impor-
tant to students of Shelley than of Plato, but indicate
something of the passion of the poet for the Greek.
The imagery and symbolism of the Dialogues is re-
called in the poetry in a completely unabashed way
and the total effort of the creative life of Shelley is
paradigmatic of Plato's poetic inspiration and passion.

So it would seem, in the light of the preceding
reflections on Platonism, that the polarity between
philosophy and poetry has persisted. But is it really
between the philosopher and the poet? Perhaps it is
found rather in man as he seeks to learn about his world
and to know himself. Plato and his ism are not, nor
is man, all of one piece. Platonism is metaphysics, but
there is also what Lovejoy called “metaphysical
pathos,” the feeling aspect of or sensibility in philoso-
phy which Plato so clearly saw. The susceptibility to
different kinds of metaphysical pathos is determinative
of the future of an ism and, as Lovejoy argued, the
task of discovering these susceptibilities and showing
their role in shaping a system or giving an idea cur-
rency is part of the task of the historian of ideas.


John Burnet, Platonism (Berkeley, 1928). Frederick
William Bussell, The School of Plato (London, 1896). Ernst
Cassirer, The Platonic Renaissance in England, trans. F. C. A.
Koelln and James P. Pettegrove (1932; Edinburgh, 1953).
William Ralph Inge, The Platonic Tradition in English Reli-
gious Thought
(New York, 1926). Raymond Klibansky, The
Continuity of the Platonic Tradition During the Middle Ages

(London, 1939). Paul Oskar Kristeller, The Philosophy of
Marsilio Ficino
(New York, 1943). Arthur O. Lovejoy, The
Great Chain of Being: A Study in the History of an Idea

(Cambridge, Mass., 1933). Philip Merlan, From Platonism
to NeoPlatonism
(The Hague, 1953). Paul Elmer More,
Platonism (Princeton, 1917). Joseph Moreau, Le Sens du
(Paris, 1967). John Henry Muirhead, The Platonic
Tradition in Anglo-Saxon Philosophy
(London, 1931). Walter
Pater, Plato and Platonism (London, 1893). George San-
tayana, Platonism and the Spiritual Life (New York and
London, 1927). Paul Shorey, Platonism, Ancient and Modern
(Berkeley, 1938). Alfred Edward Taylor, Platonism and Its
(Boston, 1924). Hans Wolff, Plato: Der Kampf ums
(Berkeley, 1957). Harry A. Wolfson, Philo: Foundations
of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

(Cambridge, Mass., 1962).


[See also Dualism; Love; Myth in Antiquity; Neo-Platonism;
Pythagorean...; Renaissance Humanism;
Skepticism; Stoicism.]