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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Renaissance Platonism had received its imprint from
the Florentine Academy, notably from the translations,
commentaries, and treatises of Ficino. In the seven
teenth century the Florentine tradition was mainly
carried on in England by the so-called Cambridge
Platonists. After the decline of the Cambridge School
of Neo-Platonism, no important philosophical move-
ment or system has arisen which can be unambiguously
named Platonism (or Neo-Platonism). It is true that
all kinds of mysticism, of pantheism or panentheism,
and also of metaphysical idealism have at some time
been thus called. But this does not mean more than
that certain parts or aspects of a philosophical or
quasi-philosophical system betray an impact of Pla-
tonic or Neo-Platonic thoughts on its author whether
or not the latter was aware of it. On the other hand,
since the nineteenth century the designation “Plato-
nists” has often been conferred on scholars who, with-
out a philosophical commitment to the validity of
Plato's philosophy, have tried to elucidate “what Plato
says.” Their case is, however, complex. It is probable
that a considerable number of the most thorough and
important scholarly works on Plato would not have
been completed, unless their authors had been moti-
vated by their belief in the excellence of his philosophy.
Yet others were written by scholars who were antago-
nistic to it, and so it seems sensible to reserve the name
for those who as explorers of Plato indicate their assent
to what they reasonably believe to be essential in his


Leibniz “... was the first European thinker to
emancipate himself inwardly from that conception of
Platonism devised by the Florentine Academy, and to
see Plato again with his own eyes” (E. Cassirer, The
Platonic Renaissance in England,
p. 154). In order to
free Plato from what Ficino had made of him, Leibniz
produced a condensed Latin version of the Phaedo and
the Theatetus though he did not publish it. But if
Leibniz sought an independent understanding of Plato's
thought, he still did not seek it as would a modern
critical historian of philosophy. He was attracted to
Plato's philosophy because he recognized in it his own
ideas and also, perhaps, because Plato helped him to
formulate them. He was, however, puzzled by the form
in which Plato presented his philosophy. “If someone
should bring Plato into a system, he would do a great
service to the human race and one would see that I
am approaching him a little” (Letter to Remond, 2.2
[1715]). One thing which Leibniz admired in Plato was
the pluralism of the theory of ideas; Plato, he says in
the Letter to Hansch, teaches that objectum sapientiae
esse substantias nempe simplices, quae a me Monades
(“the objects of knowledge are the simplest
substances, which I call Monads”). Apparently Leibniz
assimilated Plato to his own thinking as much as Ficino


had assimilated Plato to his Christian Neo-Platonism.
But the greater originality of Leibniz as a thinker made
him also a more independent reader. Although he was
free from prejudice against the Catholic and indeed
the scholastic tradition, he read Plato in a “Protestant”

No important philosopher before F. W. J. Schelling
acquired a knowledge of Plato comparable to that of
Leibniz or felt a similar affinity to him. Still it was
not the discovery of new profundities in Plato by
Schelling but the inauguration of a new method of
interpretation by his contemporary Friedrich Schleier-
macher which gave rise to a new phase of the history
of Platonism. In this history, both Leibniz and Schelling
are powerful figures outside of the mainstream whose
direct influence remained limited.

In the philosophy of the Enlightenment—i.e., the
dominating trend of philosophy in the period between
Leibniz and Schelling—Schleiermacher was mostly
contemptuous of Plato and, when not outright hostile,
treated him condescendingly. Condillac, who in the
spirit of Locke fought against metaphysical constructs
and systems, stated: “His opinions appear to me noth-
ing but delirium,” and counted Plato among those who
“held up the progress of reason” (Oeuvres complètes
de Condillac,
I, 188f.). Voltaire's comments on Plato
vary to some extent, but for the most part he ridicules
him as the inventor of “chimeras,” an expression that
at that time was frequently used to characterize Plato's
thoughts. “Platonic love,” which by philosophers and
poets of the Renaissance was understood in a pro-
foundly mystical sense, was castigated by the enlight-
ened authors of the rococo as the naive enthusiasm
of immature adolescents. In Wieland's Agathon, a
chapter is ironically given the title “Natural History
of a Platonic Love.” In the same novel, the plot of
which is placed in the fourth century B.C., Plato ap-
pears as one of the major characters. He is shown at
the court of Dionysius II as a naive dreamer who
mistakes the flattering reception given him by the
tyrant and his courtiers as an indication that they have
been seriously converted to his abstruse theories. Plato
is compared unfavorably with Aristippus who repre-
sents the refined hedonism of the man of the world,
and, in a later edition, also with Archytas of Tarentum
who preaches a sermon which, surprisingly, contains
a great deal of traditionally Neo-Platonic ideas.

Less hostile but still condescending is the treatment
of Plato by some of those philosophers who tried to
defend the existence of a personal God and the immor-
tality of the soul by common sense rationalism. Moses
Mendelssohn, who occasionally pays high tribute to
Plato as a writer, says at a certain point in the preface
to Mendelssohn's Phaedo, an attempt to adapt the
Platonic dialogue of the same title to the taste of his
century: “In the following I see myself compelled to
abandon my guide. His proofs for the immateriality
of the soul appear, at least to us, so shallow and chi-
merical that they hardly deserve a serious refutation.
Whether this is due to our better philosophical insight
or to our poorer comprehension of the philosophical
language of the ancients I am not able to decide”
(Gesammelte Schriften, ed. G. B. Mendelssohn, Berlin
[1843], II, 69).

But the same age which through its representative
writers treated Plato so severely also witnessed a new
awareness of the phenomenon of history and created
new forms of historical analysis which eventually
cleared the way for a more understanding approach
to Plato also. One of the chief characteristics of the
growth of modern historical consciousness was the
rising interest in the individual phenomenon as against
the exclusive emphasis on unchanging general ideas
and on universal laws. Attempts have been made to
trace the trend of the new individualism back to a
current of Neo-Platonism which survived through the
eighteenth century. The aesthetics of Shaftesbury and
especially his insistence on intuitive understanding was
one of the main sources of this current. Leibniz'
Monadology was another one.

The discussions of Platonism by the historians of
philosophy of the eighteenth century exemplify the
shift from antiquarian polyhistorism and the emphasis
on external classification to the search for individual
characterization. In the beginning of the century, an
historically important distinction was drawn between
Plato's doctrine and that of the ancient Neo-Platonists,
not in the spirit of Leibniz, but in that of baroque
scholarship; that is to say, the distinction served mainly
certain theological interests and at the same time was
in line with certain antiquarian speculations. Some of
the learned readers of Diogenes Laertius were troubled
by the fact that he “classifies” a single philosopher as
an “eclectric,” viz, Potamon of Alexandria (I, 21). As
the history of philosophy was conceived in terms of
“sects,” one looked for other names which might be
added to the list of eclectics. The church father Clem-
ent appeared to qualify as an Alexandrian who uses
the term “eclectic” himself. But it was especially
Ammonius Saccas, the teacher of Plotinus and Origen,
who was considered likely to have been a member of
the school of Potamon. It was common knowledge that
Plotinus tried to harmonize Plato with Aristotle. What
else was this if not eclecticism? In the Latin translation
of Thomas Stanley's History of Philosophy (Historia
Leipzig, 1711), a section on the eclectic
sect, which discusses a number of pagan as well as of
Christian authors, but which had been absent from the


English original, was added by the translator (G.

By this time the problem had gained additional
significance. In 1700, a posthumous work of the French
protestant preacher N. Souverain (who later became
an Anglican minister) appeared under the title Le
platonisme dévoilé.
Souverain was an antitrinitarian
who maintained that the dogma of the Trinity was
foreign to the teachings of the earliest Christians. He
charged that in later antiquity platonizing theologians,
who had absorbed the teachings of philosophy before
becoming Christians, grafted the senseless doctrine on
the pure and simple faith. Souverain carefully distin-
guishes Plato and the “refined” Platonists for whom
the “holy trinity” is a symbolical expression for God's
chief predicates—i.e., goodness, wisdom, power—from
the “coarse” Platonists who misunderstood the sym-
bolism and interpreted this trinity as one of three
persons. Souverain's distinction between Plato's truth-
ful followers and those Platonists who were in truth
the corrupters of his doctrine was appropriated by
some of his opponents who defended the originality
of the trinitarian doctrine of the Church. As they saw
it, it was by evil design that those corrupters of Plato-
nism presented themselves as the possessors of the
ultimate truth maintaining that their doctrine included
and combined whatever is valid in all philosophies and
religions. This is especially the view of the famous
theologian and church historian, J. L. Mosheim. In his
notes to a German version of Ralph Cudworth's The
True Intellectual System of the Universe
(English ver-
sion 1678), Mosheim shows himself particularly hostile
to Ammonius Saccas whom he considers as a renegade
and archenemy of the Christian Church whose mem-
bers he tried to lure away toward his eclecticism.

The classification of the ancient Neo-Platonists as
eclectics, their distinguishability from genuine Plato-
nists, and their condemnation as rivals and enemies of
the Christian Church are features which were incorpo-
rated in the most erudite and the most influential
eighteenth-century work on the history of philosophy,
Johann Jakob Brucker's Historia critica philosophiae
(Leipzig, 1742-44). Even before he became interested
in the controversy about Souverain's book, Brucker had
published a history of the concept of idea, in which
he had made a distinction between Plato's genuine
theory of ideas and that of the “younger” Platonists,
i.e., not only of the Florentines but also of their ancient
predecessors (Historia philosophica doctrinae de ideis
[Augsburg, 1723]; hereafter referred to as De ideis).
The crucial point is the ontological status of the ideas.
Whereas the later (“younger”) Platonists mostly inter-
preted them as notions within the divine mind, the
author concludes that the best evidence suggests that
Plato considered them as “products” of the divine mind
which had acquired the status of separate substances
(De ideis; 65-69). Two points ought to be emphasized:
first, the “younger” Platonists include both “Middle-
Platonists” (such as Plutarch) and “Neo-Platonists”
(such as Plotinus); second, even the view which Brucker
ascribes to Plato himself is “Neo-Platonic” to the extent
that it considers the ideas as products of the divine
mind. In the Historia critica philosophiae, he even
speaks of an “emanation” of the ideas from the divine
intellect, while still maintaining their separateness
(Historia critica philosophiae, I, 699).

In the latter work, “Platonism” is discussed in four
different chapters. One of them is devoted to the Aca-
demic Sect, i.e., Plato and the members of the Ancient,
Middle, and New Academy; another one with the title
“The Platonists” discusses those authors who today are
sometimes called the “Middle-Platonists”; a third
chapter is called “The Eclectic Sect” and deals with
Potamon and Ammonius Saccas and most of the ancient
Neo-Platonists; a fourth chapter, finally, treats “The
Restorers of the Platonic Philosophy,” i.e., the Italian
Renaissance Platonists.

In Stanley's History of Philosophy (4 vols., 1655-62),
there is a learned discussion about Plato's life, but the
author withholds any personal comment on Plato's
thought and instead inserts in his work a translation
of the Introduction of the so-called Alcinous. Brucker
discusses both Plato's life and his thought and his dis-
cussion abounds with references to Plato's writings as
well as to ancient and modern commentators. But the
reader is disappointed by the absence of a synthesis.
Although the various themes of Plato's thought are
discussed in separate sections and although the author
insists on the paramount importance of the theory of
ideas, he often does not distinguish the essential from
the unessential and does not arrive at a unified picture.
His favorite is Socrates, whose genuine teachings, he
believes, have been better preserved by Xenophon than
by Plato, who has contaminated them with his abstruse
speculations. In his preference for Socrates Brucker is
a spokesman of his century which, in spite of the
increasing number of publications on Plato, can
scarcely be called an age of Platonism but may be
called an age of Socratism.

Because of its wealth of material, Brucker's Historia
became a standard reference work which was
still widely used in the early nineteenth century. Its
reputation may be derived from the fact that various
articles on ancient philosophy in the famous eight-
eenth-century Encyclopédie, including those on éclec-
and platonisme, rely heavily on Brucker's work
for information. There is of course a marked difference
of style; instead of the learned polyhistor, the contrib-


utors to the Encyclopédie are enlightened men of the
world. Diderot, the author of the article on platonisme,
after mentioning the traditional slander (charges of
luxury, sensuality, contentiousness, plagiarism) about
Plato's character by such enemies as Antisthenes and
Aristippus, adds: “But one line of his work is sufficient
to make one forget his faults, if he had any, and the
reproaches of his enemies” (XII, 746).

In the second half of the eighteenth century several
histories of philosophy were published, mostly in Ger-
many, which more or less successfully tried to substi-
tute a continuous narration and individual charac-
terization for Brucker's formless accumulation of
material and for the traditional attribution of philo-
sophical ideas to “sects.” At the same time there ap-
peared, in several countries, translations of single and
groups of dialogues, synopses of the whole work, e.g.,
Floyer Sydenham, Synopsis or General View of the
Works of Plato
(London, 1759) and of the individual
dialogues, e.g., D. Tiedemann, Argumenta dialogorum
(Zweibrücken, 1786), and a great number of
articles and monographs on Plato's thought and his art
of writing.

An event which exercised a long-lasting influence
on Platonism and the Platonic studies was the appear-
ance of Kant's critical philosophy. Several of the his-
tories of philosophy of the later eighteenth century
include theoretical discussions on the purpose and
meaning of the history of philosophy. Other essays on
the same subject were published independently. Al-
though the topic had been debated earlier, the most
important of these discussions originated under the
impact of the revolution in philosophical thinking
brought about by Kant.

Kant himself refers to Plato on various occasions,
but it is doubtful whether he was directly acquainted
with Plato's writings. Even so it is of great historical
importance that in a famous passage of the Kritik der
Reinen Vernunft
(B 370-75) he links his own with
Plato's philosophy and defends him, as Rousseau had
done previously, against the indictment that Plato's
ideas and his “republic” are chimeras. Earlier in the
same work Kant had blamed Plato because he “left
the world of the senses... and ventured out beyond
it on the wings of the ideas, in the empty space of
pure understanding” (B 9, trans. N. K. Smith). In the
later passage he suggests a way how to understand “the
sublime philosopher” more profoundly. He admits that
in so doing, he may have assumed the right of the
interpreter to understand Plato better than Plato had
understood himself, and today it seems obvious that
Kant, in what we call an unhistorical manner, assimi-
lated Plato to his own thinking. Still, in claiming that
a philosopher is to be understood in terms of the truth
toward which he was striving, Kant consciously ac-
knowledged what has been the attitude of many phi-
losophers toward their predecessors since ancient
times. Schleiermacher, in the general introduction of
his translation of Plato, attacks such a claim as Kant's
because it shows too little concern for what Plato
actually said; he thus missed the true significance of
Kant's words.

By linking his own “theory of ideas” to Plato's, Kant
occasioned a long series of attempts to find parallels
between Plato's and Kant's philosophy. This was done
under such different auspices as Schopenhauer's pes-
simism and the methodological formalism of the
Marburg school. In Kant's lifetime, the most impressive
attempt of an assimilation of Plato to Kant was fur-
nished by one of Kant's earliest followers, W. G. Tenne-
mann in his four-volume work, System der platonischen
(Leipzig, 1792-95). In a later work, Tenne-
mann gave an interesting account of his view about
the task of a historian of philosophy. In the intro-
ductory volume to his System, he discusses such topics
as Plato's life, the significance and purpose of his phi-
losophy, the dialogue form, the genuineness of the
single works, their chronology as an instrument to
follow Plato's intellectual development, the tradition
about an esoteric Platonic philosophy, etc. All this is
done with circumspection but remains entirely sepa-
rated from his subsequent analysis of Plato's philo-
sophical system. In this analysis, Tennemann dissects
Plato's thought without any regard for the way in
which it presents itself in the dialogues. Convinced of
the absolute validity of the Kantian philosophy, he is
mainly interested in showing that Plato was on the path
which would have led him to Kant's conclusions but
that he deviated from it before reaching the goal.
Because Plato assumed that things in themselves can
be known, he seems to Tennemann to have confused
that which can be conceived in thought with that
which can be known as an object.

For a long time, “Platonism” remained affected by
Kant, but the turning point in the history of Platonism
was not the monograph on Plato by the Kantian Tenne-
mann, but the translation and exegesis of Plato by
Schleiermacher, in whom the Kantian philosophy
worked only as one among several formative influences.


Since antiquity Plato had been praised as a master
stylist, the criteria for literary excellence having been
derived from ancient rhetoric. When in the second half
of the eighteenth century, partly through the influence
of Shaftesbury and of Rousseau, new aesthetical criteria
gained acceptance, Plato as a writer was also appreci-


ated in a new manner. He could now appear as one
of the great geniuses of all time whose charm lies in
the unaffected immediacy with which they are able
to portray general human situations. Homer and
Shakespeare were read in the same spirit. J. J. Winckel-
mann (1717-68) felt that Plato shared with Xenophon
the distinction of each displaying in his writings the
same kind of humanity which inspired the great Greek
sculptors. There are scattered remarks of Herder which
attest to his profound admiration for Plato's creative
power. Goethe was occupied with the study of Plato's
writings at various periods of his life. At the time when
he completed his theory of color (Farbenlehre) by the
history of its predecessors, he had arrived at the con-
ception of a common foundation of our intellectual
culture formed by the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and
the Bible. Such an estimate of Plato's significance can
hardly be excelled, but it implies that he who expressed
it cannot properly be called a Platonist. This conclusion
is supported by the observation that Goethe seems
never to have been absorbed by the study of Plato as
thoroughly as he was at times by that of Spinoza or

The situation was quite different for the early Ger-
man romanticists. In some of them an exact acquaint-
ance with the Platonic dialogues caused a sustained
enthusiasm for the genius who had composed them.
Leading these post-Kantian romantic philosophers was
Friedrich Schlegel who, as none of his contemporaries,
was able to appraise in an original manner the unique
character of the great works of literature and of ancient
Greek literature in particular. It was Friedrich Schlegel
who suggested to Schleiermacher the plan of a transla-
tion of the entire work of Plato into German. At first
both friends intended to undertake the work in com-
mon and it was only Schlegel's incessant delays that
eventually led Schleiermacher to carry on the plan
alone though without ever completing it.

By a strange coincidence, the first volume of
Schleiermacher's German version of Plato appeared in
the same year as the first complete English translation
of Plato which was, with the exception of some of the
shorter dialogues, the work of Thomas Taylor (1804).
Comparing the two works is like looking at two differ-
ent cultural eras. Both translators added to their trans-
lations general and special introductions.

Thomas Taylor, frequently called “the Platonist,”
revived the Neo-Platonic tradition in England in an
original manner, adding to it an element of the phil-
hellenism of the late eighteenth century. Platonism for
him implied polytheism which he defended against the
Christianity of the churches. His authorities were not
the Cambridge Platonists but the ancient Neo-Plato-
nists many of whose writings he translated in addition
to those of Plato and Aristotle. Proclus seems to have
been his favorite.

Taylor translated Plato in a harsh and undifferen-
tiated style. The translation is accompanied by intro-
ductions and notes which for the most part call the
reader's attention to the meaning ascribed to Plato's
words by the Neo-Platonists. Taylor's writings were
mostly ignored by nineteenth-century scholars, but
both the English romantic poets and the American
transcendentalist philosophers became acquainted with
Plato mainly through Taylor's translation and his
Neo-Platonic exegesis. Of Schleiermacher's problem
Taylor was not aware.

Schleiermacher seeks to determine the distinctive
character of Plato's philosophy as it appears in his
work, and, second, how it is possible for us to under-
stand it. In answer to the first problem he finds Plato's
philosophy to be that of a philosopher-artist. The sec-
ond problem is solved by Schleiermacher's principle
that one must not separate Plato's philosophy from its
literary form but must comprehend and appreciate
their indissoluble unity. Plato's was neither a systematic
nor a fragmentary philosophy but a dialogical one.
Schleiermacher is certain that there must have existed
some kind of a system in Plato's mind and that it is
even possible to reconstruct that system to a certain
extent. But the first task, and this is the one which
Schleiermacher himself takes up, is to understand the
dialogical order of his writings. Schleiermacher delib-
erately omits from his introduction everything which
does not directly lead to the study of the texts. Unlike
his predecessors, he does not narrate Plato's life or the
history of pre-Platonic philosophy. In probing such
questions as the relative chronology of the Platonic
dialogues, the exclusion of spurious works from the
corpus of the genuine dialogues, the existence of an
esoteric doctrine, he tries to derive the criteria solely
from the analysis of each of the dialogues studied singly
and from their various interpretations. No one had
analyzed the writings of a philosopher in this manner

Schleiermacher was primarily a theologian and per-
haps only secondarily a philosopher. On textual prob-
lems he was given assistance by the philologist Ludwig
Friedrich Heindorf. Yet Schleiermacher's approach
toward “understanding” became a milestone in the
development of hermeneutics as well as philology.
Schleiermacher's one-time student August Boeckh, who
himself made important contributions to the inter-
pretation of Plato, defined the aim of philology as the
understanding or the recognition of that which had
once been known (Die Erkenntnis des Erkannten). In
the same context he stated: “As philologists we ought
not to philosophize like Plato but understand Plato's


writings and this not only as works of art but also with
respect to their content.... The philologist must be
able to understand a work on the philosophy of nature
like Plato's Timaeus as much as Aesop's Fables or a
Greek tragedy” (Encyklopädie und Methodologie der
philologischen Wissenschaft,
Leipzig [1877], p. 13).

The more Schleiermacher's thinking matured, the
more he emphasized the necessity of rigorous philo-
logical criticism. At the same time he became more
and more assured of the preeminence of the Platonic
philosophy. In certain periods of Schleiermacher's life
Spinoza, Kant, and Schelling had impressed him almost
as much as Plato, but in the end he believed that Plato
came nearer to the truth than any other philosopher.
This emphasis on Plato's excellence, sometimes coupled
with a certain opposition to modern philosophy, was
shared by several of Schleiermacher's friends and stu-
dents. With certain important exceptions, it became
the typical attitude of scholars who played a leading
role in the progress of Platonic research. In spite of
the omission of this point from Boeckh's charac-
terization of the ideal interpreter, it seems unlikely that
the philological research on Plato in the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries would have produced so many
outstanding works, if the philological masters had not
been inspired by a predilection, whether acknowledged
or unconscious, for the Philosopher Artist.

In a sense, the predilection of a nineteenth-century
interpreter is, of course, more subjective than the ad-
miration of the Neo-Platonic dogmatist. The danger
inherent in the modern attitude was clearly seen by
Hegel. He probably had Schleiermacher in mind when
he declared: “Thus the Platonic, Aristotelian, etc. phi-
losophy, [indeed] all philosophies have always lived
and still live today by their principles; but philosophy
has no longer the form and is no longer at the same
stage at which the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy
was” (Werke, Berlin [1833], XIII, 60). When nowadays
philosophy is urged to return to the standpoint of the
Platonic philosophy in order to escape “the complica-
tions of subsequent ages,” this does not bring back the
initial situation. It is as if people want to return to
a primitive society (cf. XIII, 61f.).

Boeckh's definition of the purpose of philology as
the reproduction of knowledge that had once been
known does not reveal how such a reproduction is
possible. It would be naive to assume that an exact
repetition of former acts of thinking could ever take
place. All reproduction of previous knowledge is nec-
essarily the production of new knowledge and is, in
some manner, related to the thinking of the present
age. Hegel's willfulness in applying his insight to the
construction of the history of philosophy and of Pla-
tonism in particular sometimes obscures what is valid
in it. However an adequate analysis of the relation of
Platonism to contemporary thought must not ignore
the truth of Hegel's principle.

In the absence of a positive justification of Platonism
in the period of methodically refined Platonic research,
the polemics of modern anti-Platonists has sometimes
exercised a wholesome influence, however crude the
polemics may appear. This is especially true for the
critique of Plato's political philosophy.

Among several of the authors whose political philos-
ophy influenced the thinking and eventually the prac-
tice of the men who made the French Revolution, J. J.
Rousseau and Gabriel Bonnet de Mably were great
admirers of Plato. To Rousseau, Plato appeared to
belong to the same class of lawgivers as the Spartan
King Lycurgus, for whom the well-being of the state
consisted in the virtue of his citizens. The abbé Mably,
who in dialogues between members of the ruling classes
praised the excellence of communism, repeatedly re-
ferred to Plato as a chief authority on the subject.
There can be no doubt that such revolutionary leaders
as Robespierre and Saint Just assimilated to their own
thinking certain parts of Plato's political thoughts that
they found in Rousseau and in Mably.

The same is true for the first communist conspirator,
F. N. Babeuf. This fact was clearly realized only when
the liberal bourgeoisie, after the revolutions of 1830
and of 1848, saw that its power was even more threat-
ened by revolution and communism than it had for-
merly been threatened by the aristocracy. At this mo-
ment there came into existence a violent anti-Platonic
literature which made Plato appear as the true prede-
cessor of the detestable Rousseau. The political passions
gave occasion to venomous attacks on Plato's character
but also to new scholarly analyses of Plato's political
views which caused some erstwhile Platonists to modify
their former enthusiasm. The attitude of the French
political opponents of Plato after the revolution of
1848 appears now like an anticipation of the charges
that Plato was the intellectual ancestor of modern
totalitarianism, i.e., of communism or of fascism and
national socialism. Although the charges are as far
apart as the political objectives of the revolution of
1848 and those of the twentieth-century revolutions,
the open hatred of Platonism and the willful handling
of the instruments of critical scholarship have in both
cases caused some Platonic scholars to reappraise Pla-
tonism's possible meaningfulness. In an analogous way,
Nietzsche's attack on Plato as the predecessor of
Christian transcendentalism eventually served to give
new vigor and new depth to the interest in Plato and
Platonism, at least in Germany.

Among Schleiermacher's immediate successors, a
sudden flourishing of Platonic research obscured the


problem of the justification of Platonism in the modern
age that was posed by Hegel. In the course of a few
decades, there appeared an astonishing number of
editions, commentaries, monographs, and comprehen-
sive works which in a short time made most of Schleier-
macher's conclusions appear obsolete. His chronology
of the dialogues, his rejection of the tradition about
an esoteric Platonism, and his neglect of the pre-
Socratic philosophy were criticized and often with
valid arguments. The most consistent attack on
Schleiermacher's position was contained in C. F. Her-
mann's Geschichte und System der platonischen Philo-
(Heidelberg, 1839). To be sure, the author
emphatically affirms his indebtedness and that of his
contemporaries to Schleiermacher's innovations in the
study of Plato. But at the same time Hermann criti-
cized Schleiermacher's reliance on the concept of the
Philosopher Artist for the solution of a large number
of problems. In particular, Hermann attacked the view
that in the composition of the single dialogues Plato
followed a preconceived plan for his entire written
work. Hermann himself tried to show that about half
of the dialogues are documents of the various stages
of Plato's intellectual development which culminated
in the conception of a philosophical system that is
represented in the other half, i.e., in the truly doctrinal
works. More than a century of Platonic research since
the appearance of Hermann's book has shown that
Plato's philosophical development is one of those con-
troversial issues which has never been settled to every-
one's satisfaction. Other such issues are the problem
of the reputed esoteric philosophy and the genuineness
of the Platonic letters. The methodological difficulty
of these controversies consists in the almost inextricable
mixture of purely linguistic and historical problems
with those philosophical problems which Boeckh,
without a sufficient analysis, assigned to the domain
of philology.

Significant for the development of Platonic research
is the position of the author of one of the most learned
and most judicious works of the nineteenth century on
the Platonic philosophy, Eduard Zeller. Zeller had been
a Hegelian, but in his monumental Die Philosophie der
which includes his account of Plato's thought,
he emphatically criticized Hegel's a priori construction
of the course of history and unreservedly accepted the
standards of the historical school of Schleiermacher and
his followers.

The achievements of German philosophy and phi-
lology at the beginning of the nineteenth century occa-
sioned new departures in the intellectual history of
other countries also, and it is significant that Platonism
played an important role in this process. To be sure,
the conflict between philosophical constructivism and
philological-historical criticism received, outside of
Germany, little attention. What impressed foreign
readers of German literature and visitors to Germany
was rather the existence of a vigorous spiritual move-
ment which seemed to penetrate all spheres of the
intellectual life. By a curious coincidence, the begin-
nings of a direct influence of this movement on the
philosophical and philological studies in France and
in England are connected with the personalities of two
distinguished visitors to Germany, Victor Cousin and
Benjamin Jowett, both of whom, in the wake of their
journeys, adopted the idea of creating new translations
of Plato's works and both of whom were going to play
important roles in the development of Platonism and
Platonic studies in their countries. Between each of
their visits there was a lapse of two decades.

Victor Cousin visited Germany several times in the
1820's and was cordially received by Goethe, Schelling,
Hegel, Creuzer, Brandis, and many others. Both Schel-
ling and Hegel were impressed by the young French-
man who wanted to become acquainted with the new
German philosophy. Creuzer advised him to edit some
unpublished writings of Proclus. From Brandis he re-
ceived the suggestion that he should translate the entire
written work of Plato into French, taking Schleier-
macher's translation as a model. Cousin followed both
suggestions. Instead of a general introduction to the
French edition of Plato, he planned to write a mono-
graph on Plato's philosophy. This he never did, but
he composed individual introductions to most of the
dialogues and also a few independent essays on Platonic
themes which were the first French studies on Plato
that were conceived in the spirit of the new century.
Also as a teacher and as an educational organizer,
Cousin caused several of his students to undertake
further research on Plato and other Greek philosophers.
Cousin's own philosophical ideas found expression in
a system which he called “eclecticism.” In metaphysics,
his eclecticism combines ideas about the philosophy
of history with a spiritualism which has a Neo-Platonic
and more exactly an Augustinian flavor. Although
Cousin was hardly the most profound French philoso-
pher of his age, eclecticism became the dominant
philosophy at French universities during the years of
the reign of Louis-Philippe and of the Second Empire
and, what is here of particular interest, to a large extent
determined the direction of Platonic studies in France.
In agreement with the teachings of this eclecticism,
it was almost considered a dogma that Plato's “ideas”
were the thoughts of God and had no independent

When Benjamin Jowett visited Germany in 1844 and
again in 1845, many of the famous men whom Cousin
had met were dead. He still met Schelling, but more


important was his contact with several Hegelians, es-
pecially J. J. Erdmann. He also visited some of the
outstanding philologists of the period such as Karl
Lachmann. The parallel to the fate of Cousin is appar-
ent in that one of the consequences of Jowett's journey
was an intensified study of Plato which eventually
caused him to create a new English translation of Plato
in the spirit of Schleiermacher, which appeared in
1871. Jowett's situation, of course, differed from Cous-
in's in that there already existed the translation by
Thomas Taylor. Yet the inspiration of Taylor's Pla-
tonism was so different from that of modern Platonic
scholarship that, after it had done its mission among
the romanticists, its influence in England remained
limited to the devotees of ancient mysteries who rep-
resent a sometimes profound, sometimes shallow
undercurrent beneath the rationalistic mainstream of
the Victorian and prewar period.

The introductions to Schleiermacher's translations
had already been translated into English in 1836, two
years after Schleiermacher's death. Jowett, like Cousin,
added his own introductions to his translations. These
introductions reveal that Jowett was not only a Pla-
tonic scholar but also a devoted Platonist. But Jowett's
Platonism is a Hegelian Platonism. This does not mean
that he accepted Hegel's interpretation of Plato but
that he set out with the conviction that there is a basic
harmony in the philosophies of the two thinkers. In
contrast to the theistic Neo-Platonism (which in a
modified version had survived in Cousin's eclecticism),
Jowett and his English disciples understood Platonism
as a form of pantheism. This position implies that they
denied the existence of a separation (chorismos) of the
ideas from the perceptual world. Modern English Pla-
tonic scholarship was started almost simultaneously by
Jowett and by the historian George Grote, who was
a utilitarian and who, in his magisterial work on Plato,
tried to separate the dialectical critic Plato (whom he
admired) from the dogmatic metaphysician (whom he
rejected). Modern English Platonism is more con-
spicuously represented by the Jowett tradition. In its
union with Hegelianism it helped to create the intel-
lectual climate which produced the idealistic philo-
sophies of T. H. Green, F. H. Bradley, and B. Bosan-

American Platonic scholarship in the modern sense
was founded and most successfully represented by Paul
Shorey who, as a youth, had studied in Germany. Yet
when his Latin dissertation on the theory of ideas
appeared in Munich in 1884, a different kind of Amer-
ican Platonism was just about to expire. Among the
New England transcendentalists, Thomas Taylor's
Neo-Platonic translations had been eagerly studied
together with his “Plato.” Emerson's Plato essay in
Representative Men is indebted to this tradition, even
though it is full of original observations. Bronson Alcott
tried to use Platonism, as it was transmitted through
Taylor, as the philosophical basis of his educational
reform program. After the middle of the century the
New England Platonism spread to the Middle West.
An Akademe and several Plato Clubs were founded.
The culminating achievement of the “Platonism in the
West” was the publication of the periodical The Pla-
(St. Louis, Mo., 1881-87); one of the first issues
included a “Life of Thomas Taylor the Platonist” by
its editor Thomas T. Johnson. He and his friends con-
sidered Platonism as an antidote to the materialism of
the age and acted both as allies and rivals of the St.
Louis Hegelians. Of the existence of an Hegelian Pla-
tonism in England they seem not to have been aware.

Hegelian Platonism had its counterpart in Kantian
Platonism. What Tennemann had attempted while
Kant was still alive was repeated a century later with
considerably more sophistication by the Marburg
school. After Hermann Cohen had pointed the way,
Natorp's Platos Ideenlehre (1903) almost became a
classic, as it combined mastery of the philological art
with philosophical depth. Still to those who withstood
the fascination of the masterful presentation, Natorp's
“Plato” was bound to appear as a distortion. This did
not prevent a brilliant French scholar (J. Moreau) from
making another attempt at proving the basic identity
of Platonism and Kantianism, about thirty years after

One could multiply the enumeration of claims of
reviving Platonism on the basis of its homogeneity with
various ancient and modern philosophies, theologies,
theories of education, or less conceptualized Weltan-
Walter Pater suggested that there is equal
justification for defining Platonism as a metaphysical
doctrine and as an unsystematic approach to the solu-
tion of philosophical problems. More recently, Alfred
North Whitehead maintained that “the safest general
characterization of the European philosophical tradi-
tion is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”
(Process and Reality, reprint [1955], p. 63). Yet however
much he emphasized his own indebtedness to Plato,
in his borrowings from Plato's thinking he was quite
eclectic and unconcerned about the original context.
Like Whitehead, Husserl, Nicolai Hartmann, and
Santayana were sometimes classified as Platonists, be-
cause they insisted in their teachings on the role of
essences or “ideal beings.” Hartmann was a Platonic
scholar in his own right and always showed a profound
admiration for Plato, even though in his ultimate phi-
losophy he wanted to overcome the anthropocentric
teleology of the Platonic tradition. In a less radical
manner, Santayana excluded moral values from the


realm of essences. As he considered the mixing of
morals with metaphysics as a main feature of Pla-
tonism, his attitude toward Plato was ambivalent.

On the opposite side, Paul Elmer More and the Dean
of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, R. W. Inge, gave
new expression to the conviction of the basic harmony
of Platonism and Christianity. Inge's Platonism has a
Neo-Platonic flavor, but in contrast to the disciples of
Thomas Taylor, he studied the sources, and especially
Plotinus, with the tools of modern philological schol-
arship. Plotinus rather than Plato also attracted, and
to some extent influenced, the thinking of Henri Berg-
son. At about the same time, Léon Robin renewed the
Neo-Platonic interpretation of Plato's thought on the
basis of thorough philological investigations. But his
conclusions have remained controversial.

Still, in spite of all controversies, Platonic scholars
have been able to show that certain forms of alleged
Platonism are related to assumptions about the mean-
ings of Plato's words which are demonstratively false.
But they have not been able to provide an inter-
pretation of Plato's words which would be generally
conceded to offer a safe basis for a new definition of
Platonism. Moreover certain scholarly interpretations
have been attacked by recent philosophers on the basis
that, from the point of view of philosophical analysis,
they are meaningless and therefore cannot be imputed
to a thinker of Plato's rank. For example, I. M. Crombie
tries to save Plato by denying the possibility that he
should have questioned the reality of the physical
world or assumed the existence of transcendent arch-

It might seem to follow that “Platonism” is one of
those terms which, due to the refinements of historical
criticism and to its abstention from metaphysical com-
mitments, have lost their usefulness as concepts with
a clearly defined and generally accepted meaning.
Being a Platonist might mean nothing more than that
somebody basically accepts as true what he believes
or others believe to have been Plato's teaching.

There is, however, something paradoxical in such
a position. A common feature in many, though perhaps
not in all, uses of the term “Platonism” is that Pla-
tonism is opposed to relativism. But then the relativistic
view that all doctrinal definitions of Platonism are
subjective is un-Platonic itself. It is sometimes assumed
that one of the basic philosophical issues of our time
is the contrast between a relativistic historicism and
the view that there are transhistorical, i.e., permanent
ethically relevant ontological structures, and the anti-
relativistic and anti-historistic view is sometimes iden-
tified with Platonism. No doubt, such an identification
of Platonism with an absolutism that is opposite to
historical subjectivism lacks that precision which has
been the goal of most Platonic scholars. Indeed, it
qualifies as Platonists many philosophers who tradi-
tionally have been listed among Plato's opponents.
Even so it provides the broadest basis for a doctrinal
definition of Platonism which is significant in the pres-
ent situation.

This is not the place to discuss the metaphysical and
methodological reasons why the aspiration for a defin-
ite interpretation of a phenomenon like the Platonic
philosophy cannot be fulfilled, whatever may have
been its importance as a stimulus for Platonic research.
Neither is it possible here to argue the case of Pla-
tonism as against historicism. It must be sufficient to
designate the two central facts which dominate the
continuing discussion on the significance of Platonism
in our time, i.e., first, the complex and often confusing
situation of Platonic research, and, second, the philo-
sophical debate on the existence of permanent ethically
relevant ontological structures.


A brief note may be added on Platonism in literature.
Renaissance Platonism had added a metaphysical di-
mension to love poetry. In the eighteenth century,
Platonic love became an ambiguous phrase, as it was
both praised and ridiculed (Wieland). In a different
manner Platonism was revived by preromantic and
romantic poets and aestheticians. In Germany the
writings of the Earl of Shaftesbury, the Platonizing
herald of enthusiasm, exercised a profound influence.
Among English romantic poets, the Neo-Platonism of
Thomas Taylor, sometimes reinforced by Berkeley's
Siris, played a similar role. William Blake's poetry is
full of Neo-Platonic symbolism much of which seems
to have been derived from Taylor's writings. Neo-
Platonic ideas still appeared in Blake's poems when,
after 1803, he denounced the mathematical spirit of
Plato and of all Hellenic thought.

Blake was the first romantic poet who claimed for
the poet the role which Plato had assigned to the
philosopher. “True poets and philosophers were
prophets, who were able to 'describe what they saw
in Vision as real and existing men, whom they saw with
their imaginative and immortal organs'.” (Cf. George
M. Harper, The Neoplatonism of William Blake [1961],
p. 99; the last part of the sentence is a quotation from
Blake's A Descriptive Catalogue.) Coleridge announced
“the transcendental deduction of Imagination,” and
with it the principles of production and genial criticism
in the fine arts from a “Dynamic Philosophy” which
he believed to be “no other than the system of Pythag-
oras and Plato revived and purified from impure mix-
tures” (Biographia Literaria, London and New York
[1947], p. 129). The transcendental poetry of Coleridge


and of Wordsworth may be called Platonistic in the
vague sense of a tendency toward spiritualism accom-
panied by occasional reminiscences of Platonic dicta
and images.

Doubtless the most ardent admirer of Plato among
the romantic writers was Shelley. After he had become
acquainted with Plato through Taylor's translation, he
began to study Greek and to read Plato in the original
language, and soon made his own translation of his
favorite dialogues. There are several aspects of
Shelley's Platonism. Here it must suffice to mention
that Plato led him to recognize the misunderstandings
of his early “materialism.” However even as a Platonist
Shelley tried to combine the wisdom of Aristophanes
(in the Symposium) with that of Diotima. Although
he was striving toward “intellectual beauty,” he was
drawn with equal force toward his human other half
that appeared to him as the embodiment of the idea
of beauty.

In his poem “Intimations of Immortality from Rec-
ollections of Early Childhood” and in the explanatory
note which he added to it, Wordsworth had suggested
an ingenuous interpretation of the Platonic theory of
reminiscence. Compared with Wordsworth's lines the
allusions to Platonic thought in the Méditations
(1820) of Lamartine appear conventional.
This is equally true for Lamartine's poem “Immor-
” which indulges in sentimental rhetoric
(“Laissez-moi mon erreur: j'aime, il faut que j'espère”),
and for the later “Philosophie” in which the poet for-
mally abdicates to Plato and transcendental speculation
in favor of an Epicurean Carpe diem. It is scarcely
surprising that the impressionable poet changed his
opinion again when, one year after writing “Philos-
” he read the Phaedo together with an enthusi-
astic friend (1822) and subsequently composed La Mort
de Socrate,
a long poem which transposes the Phaedo
into a romantic showpiece. Having failed as a politi-
cian, Lamartine, toward the end of his life, turned into
one of Plato's vilifiers, but this scarcely belongs to the
history of literature.

The cult of beauty, which in Shelley, Keats, and also
Hölderlin was based on the belief in the oneness of
divine and human nature and in the correspondence
of art and metaphysics, changed its meaning when this
belief was weakened. When Schopenhauer explained
the Platonic idea as the object of art, he announced
the new attitude. In a world in which the faith in an
ultimate harmony was vanishing, beauty, mainly un-
derstood as the perfection of works of art, became the
refuge and consolation of disenchanted romanticists.
The new aestheticism was elaborated by the French
Parnassians and symbolists, and was subsequently
spread by poets and critics to many countries (e.g.,
Walter Pater).

Although Mallarmé never acknowledged his in-
debtedness to Plato, critics have often claimed that
there is an affinity between his aesthetics and Plato's.
There is a famous sentence in his Divagations in which
the symbolistic creed seems to be condensed and which
sounds like the proclamation of a theory of ideas
through the mouth of a poet. But this “theory of ideas”
is solely aesthetic. (Cf. C. M. Bowra, The Heritage of
London [1943], p. 5.) The romantic substi-
tution of the poet for the Platonic philosopher seems
to have been followed by the symbolistic substitution
of the separate and exclusive beauty of objects of the
poetic vision, called idées, for the unrestricted beauty
of the Platonic ideas.

In contrast to his “master” Mallarmé, Paul Valéry
paid homage to Plato by composing “Platonic” dia-
logues in which the names of the speakers are those
of Socrates and his friends (Eupalinos ou l'architecte
and L'âme et la danse, 1923). But although he does
not oppose the artistic imagination to the analytical
activity of the intellect, his Platonism does not tran-
scend aestheticism, as the intellectual process itself is
assimilated by him to creativity and is not recognized
as the discovery of an eternal order.

At first sight the Platonism of Stefan George, who
had also been one of Mallarmé's “disciples,” seems to
be more comprehensive than Valéry's. Yet it may be
asked, whether in the final analysis he did not also
substitute creativity (in George's case, the creative will)
for the recognition of eternal truth. In Friedrich Gun-
dolf's George, which was written while the author
enjoyed the poet's confidence, it is stated: “Plato's work
is probably the only literary work which George com-
prehends through a brotherly spirit and not only as
myth” (F. Gundolf, George, Berlin [1920], p. 52). In
his love for a youth whom he called Maximin, George
believed to have found the meaning of the Platonic
eros, which he and his friends defended against the
bourgeois notion of “Platonic love.” In the same vein
George assumed that the true spirit of Platonic paideia
was akin to his own endeavor to bring about a renais-
sance of hellenism by the training of an elite imbued
with the ideal of kalokagathia. As most of George's
later poetry is related to his belief in his pedagogic
mission, it may be counted as an original form of
Platonistic literature.

George's Platonism was directly derived from Plato.
He took no interest in Neo-Platonism, even though he
was attracted by the “cosmic” symbolism of ancient
myth. W. B. Yeats, the Irish bard of English symbolistic
poetry felt a similar attraction but was led, mainly
through the study of the poetry of Blake, to connect
the symbolic wisdom of the myths with the Neo-
Platonic tradition. He became an enthusiastic reader
of the writings of Thomas Taylor and took a deep


interest in the first complete English translation of
Plotinus by S. Mackenna. Although it is difficult to
disentangle the threads from which Yeats' poems were
woven, it seems certain that Neo-Platonic Platonism
is one of them. (Cf. Kathleen Raine, Defending Ancient
London [1967], pp. 66-87.)

The examples indicate that one can identify various
kinds of Platonism in twentieth-century literature, but
that there is none which can claim to be representative
of the age. There are numerous other works in recent
literature which may be called Platonistic for one
reason or another, but none has emerged which could
be called so in a truly significant manner.


The first volume of W. B. Tennemann's System der pla-
tonischen Philosophie
(Leipzig, 1792-95) includes a critical
bibliography. Heinrich von Stein, Sieben Bücher zur Ge-
schichte des Platonismus
(Göttingen, 1862-75) pays atten-
tion to Platonism as well as to Platonic research. Platonism
in literature is stressed by Paul Shorey, Platonism, ancient
and modern, Sather Lectures,
Vol. XIV (Berkeley, 1938).

For surveys of Platonic research, see H. Cherniss, “Plato
(1950-1957),” Lustrum, 4 (1959), and 5 (1960); A. Diès,
Autour de Platon (Paris, 1927); Victor Goldschmidt, Pla-
tonisme et la pensée moderne
(Aubier, 1970); E. Hoffmann,
“Der gegenwärtige Stand der Platoforschung,” appendix to
E. Zeller, Die Philosophie der Griechen, 5th ed. (Leipzig,
1922), Part II, Vol. 1, 1051-1105; Charles Huit, La vie et
les oeuvres de Platon,
Vol. II (Paris, 1893); H. Leisegang,
Die Platondeutung der Gegenwart (Karlsruhe, 1929); E. M.
Manasse, “Bücher über Platon,” I and II, Philosophische
Sonderheft I (1957) and Sonderheft II (1961);
K. Oehler, “Der entmythologisierte Platon,” Zeitschrift für
philosophische Forschung,
19 (1965), 393-420.

Special aspects of Platonism are stressed in Paul R.
Anderson, Platonism in the Midwest (New York and London,
1963); F. J. Brecht, Platon und der George-Kreis (Leipzig,
1929); G. Gentile, Le origini della filosofia contemporanea
in Italia,
2nd ed., Vol. I, “I Platonici” (Rome, 1925); W. D.
Geoghegan, Platonism in Recent Religious Thought (New
York, 1959); George Mills Harper, The Neoplatonism of
William Blake
(Chapel Hill, 1961); R. W. Inge, The Platonic
Tradition in English Religious Thought
(New York and
London, 1926); J. N. Mohanty, Nicolai Hartmann and Alfred
North Whitehead: A Study in Recent Platonism
1957); R. M. Mossé-Bastide, bergson et Plotin (Paris, 1956);
J. M. G. Muirhead, The Platonic Tradition in Anglo-Saxon
(London and New York, 1931); James No-
topoulos, The Platonism of Shelley (Durham, N. C., 1949);
Thomas Taylor the Platonist: Selected Writings, eds. Kathleen
Raine and George Mills Harper (Princeton, 1969).

For general background, see E. Cassirer, The Platonic
Renaissance in England,
trans. F. C. N. Koelln and James
P. Pettegrove (Austin, 1953); idem, The Philosophy of the
trans. F. C. N. Koelln and James P. Pette-
grove (Princeton, 1951); W. Dilthey, Das Leben Schleier-
(Berlin, 1870); idem, “Friedrich Daniel Schleier
macher,” Gesammelte Schriften, 12 vols. (Berlin and Leipzig,
1921), IV, 354-402; H. G. Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode,
2nd ed. (Tübingen, 1965); F. Meinecke, Die Entstehung des
(Munich and Berlin, 1936); Ernst Simon, Ranke
und Hegel
(Munich, 1928).


[See also Enlightenment; Hegelian...; Ideology of Soviet
Communism; Love; Neo-Platonism; Platonism; Romanticism
in Post-Kantian Philosophy;