Page images
PDF
EPUB

ARTICLE XXII.

Plato's Argument for Immortality.

In the writings of Plato we have the confluence of the two great minds, Socrates and Plato ; and as two rivers, becoming a single stream, can be seen in their after-flow only in their union, so the famous dialogues must be looked at as the joint creation of these two most eminent Greeks. Socrates is made the central figure in the setting of every picture. It is he who incites and leads on the debate with one or another group of his friends, while Plato appears to have been only as one who gave ear to what was said and then went away to his pen to make report of the conversation. In case of the Phædo, at least, Plato is referred to as absent on account of illness, and we are left to infer that his report of that famous colloquy is but the report of a report. Of this, however, there may be some doubt, since the Phædo purports to be a dialogue that transpired in prison on the last day of Socrates' life, as he was waiting the fatal cup of poison. It must have been no ordinary illness that could have kept Plato thus from the place and from sharing in the interest that must have invested the last words of his great teacher and friend. The concealment of himself under the guise of absence may have been one of the arts of the narrator.

Those writers who have been curious in the matter, and have sought to trace parallels between Socrates and Jesus, have had an easy task, so far as these two points are concerned, that neither is known to have written anything himself, and that both had a most faithful elucidation of their doctrines. The one had his Plato, and the other his John, each bearing toward his great teacher a loving heart and those needed gifts of sensibility and insight that make the reliable reporter of deeper and finer truths and sentiments. Alike were Plato and John poets and mystics, and interpreters who left upon all they touched the impress of their own genius. But as in the fourth Gospel we have more of Jesus because we have NEW SERIES. VOL. XVIII

25

something of John, so in the celebrated Dialogues we have more of Socrates, hecause we have so much of Plato. In each case the duality melted into the greater unity. If Socrates supplied subjects, and led on the debates as only he knew how to do, Plato gave to them at once his ample appreciation, and the advantages of his great dramatic instinct, and the rich colorings of his rhetoric. Hence in our study of what we have entitled the Platonic Argument for Immortality, we may feel quite sure we are listening to two concurrent voices, neither of which can be deemed a mere echo of the other.

It has been already stated that the Phædo is the dialogue that came from the prison-cell where Socrates and his friends were holding a last interview. Among the group in attendance were such eminent persons as Euclid, Antisthenes, Crito, Simmias and Cebes, all of whom seem to have been at once awed and fascinated by the calmness and cheer of their distinguished chief. Having assembled to pour out upon him in that final hour the sweet libations of their sympathy, he appears to them to stand in less need of compassion than any one in the company. Save that a strange light of triumph seems to rest on his brow, and a new note of vigor to steal into his voice, he stands before them as they had seen him amid gathering groups at the street-corners, or when waiting in some more select circle for the clue to a debate. As they directly rally him on this singular bearing, it gives him an early opportunity to open out the secrets of his soul, and to reveal the joyous nature of his hopes, and the grounds on which they rest. And with few interruptions the dialogue holds steadily to this double theme, and is pronounced by Grote to be "among the most affirmative and expository in the Platonic list.” It would indeed have been a violation of the proprieties of dramatic art, or rather of the laws of human nature, to have permitted into this conversation purported to have taken place, as no doubt it did in substance, in the very presence of death, and at the parting of old friends, and in face of the solemn mystery of the unpenetrated future, those leisurely wanderings of the debate and dialectical diversions that are so marked a part of most of the dialogues. There was no time to waste in chasing mental butterflies; no curions tangle of ideas could fittingly be sported with ; no ambitious skills might come onto this sacred arena in idle rivalry; all the lines of thought must converge in steady and serious deference to the situation. Hence the Phædo summarizes the Platonic argument for immortality, and casts onto a single canvas, as it were, the picture of the after-life. Beyond this formal debate, then, we scarcely need pass in the treatment of our theme, save as we may desire to gather scattered hints to magnify the general argument.

The Platonic faith in the cheering doctrine of immortality never wavers ; no shade appears to steal over its brightness. If an objection is interposed, and words are set forth to stir up doubt, the pen of Plato makes it appear that Socrates goes about meeting the onset as calmly and confidently as a great general meets the skirmishes of a weaker enemy. And yet it must be confessed that we do not find in the several points of the argument anything, or much of anything, to justify, at least to modern thought, this enviable degree of assurance. It is certain that the more cogent and convincing reasons now set forth by natural theology in proof of the soul's immortality do not find a place in the celebrated dialogues. For the most part the resort is to dialectical subtleties and figments of the imagination ; and the modern reader, bearing the more real arguments in his mind, is often put to an actual pain to see how the Platonic discussion leaves them one side, and centres on some fancy that has long since been exploded, and that could hardly have seemed substantial to a reflecting mind in any age.

But we have this source of comfort in view of the matter, that the weaker and poorer the argument that sustains faith, or that seems to do so, the greater is the evidence that laith is a reality. For it shows that it has its own secret reasons that are adequate, reasons that are quite aside from, and independent of, reasoning, a logic that puts to shame the logicians. It shows that some better witness is borne in on the

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

soul, and that it needs not so much the clatter of debate to carry its conviction as to sit still amid some lofty silence, and feel its spiritual relations. Especially is this true of a soul so luminous with a divine light, and so sensitive to every touch of the hidden Spirit as was that of Socrates or Plato. Thus does Tennyson reveal to us that he had found this deeper ground of belief:

" If e'er, when faith had fallen asleep,

I heard a voice, ‘Believe no more,'
And heard an ever-breaking shore
That tumblea in the Godless deep;
A warmth within the breast would melt

The freezing reason's colder part,

And, like a man in wrath, the heart

Stood up and answered, “I have felt.'” It is thus that we all rest our trust and hope on some subjective and native evidence, some divine whisper that is heard amid the Babel of tongues, some resting of the foot on a firm and steady base beneath the surface drift and confusion. Even as Galileo saw that the world moved while he was saying that it did not, so is there a belief of the unbelievers. In the atheistic sky some spiritual light trails its radiance over life's better hours, as Mr. Tyndall has so feelingly confessed, some flying hope lures toward an undiscovered country. So great a blessing as faith seems to have been wisely rescued from the contingency of a debate and the custody of philosophers and priests, and kept sacred for child and peasant, and the sick one whose mind is too weary to toil with an argument, and for the common humanity. It is a Russian proverb that “God saves the moon from the wolves.” In spite of the nightly baying of these voracious creatures at the silver orb, it still hangs beautifully in the sky and continues to shine on the paths of men, and to cast its mystic glow on mountain and vale. So the candle of faith is kept burning in the soul in the midst of the assaults of darkness. While the argument may be weak, and will fall, like a rotten fabric, at the touch, still may faith be strong.

But another view of the Socratic and Platonic reserve in setting the more obvious segments in the great circle of evidences or intimations of immortality is admissible, and, since

[ocr errors]

these great thinkers could not have been ignorant of the whole scope of the argument of natural theology, it may be deemed highly probable. Their one favorite argument may have appeared to them all that the case required, and hence they were content to dismiss the collateral reasons with casual hints or utter silence. As the judge, before whom the lawyer came with thirteen reasons why his client was absent, the first one being that he was dead, ordered the twelve remaining points to be omitted, so may these famous Greeks have abridged their plea in deference to the sufficiency of their first point as it appeared to their own minds, and since it carried conviction to others.

And this point must be sought in connection with the Platonic doctrine of Ideas. In his definition of Ideas Plato felt beyond a misgiving he had discovered the true nature of the soul, and the fact of its eternal existence alike in the past and in the future. Differing in their interpretations of this celebrated doctrine, his many commentators may be regarded as pretty well agreed that it assigns to Ideas substantial forms and self-existence, that it regards them as monads and efficient causes, first causes, and therefore uncreated and imperishable. In the Platonic sense these Ideas are not modes of mind, and thus dependent, but they are absolute entities, and the archetypes of all true thinking. Before all created things they were, and beyond all created things, the created being the temporal, they will still subsist. Susceptible of taint and abasement in the midst of the creation, still they cannot be destroyed, but will await the process of purification, which may be begun in this world by the practice of philosophy and virtue, and carried on in the next by a further culture and the discipline of the gods.

Among the Ideas or Self-Existences, in the Platonic sense, must be included a great host, but the most conspicuous of them are the Self-Beautiful, the Self-Just, the Self-Great, the Self-Living,— each Idea seeking to descend into phenomena of its own kind, the Absolute Beauty into the relative or derived beautiful, the Self-Just into the modifications of justice

« PreviousContinue »