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A non-fiction by Elbert Hubbard


Title:     Plato
Author: Elbert Hubbard [More Titles by Hubbard]

How well I remember the aged poet Sophocles, when in answer to the question, "How does love suit with age, Sophocles--are you still the man you were?"

"Peace," he replied; "most gladly have I escaped that, and I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master."

That saying of his has often come into my mind since, and seems to me still as good as at the time when I heard him. For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, you have escaped from the control not of one master only, but of many. And of these regrets, as well as of the complaint about relations, Socrates, the cause is to be sought, not in men's ages, but in their characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but he who is of an opposite disposition will find youth and age equally a burden.

---The Republic

A thinking man is one of the most recent productions evolved from Nature's laboratory. The first man of brains to express himself about the world in an honest, simple and natural way, just as if nothing had been said about it before, was Socrates.

Twenty-four centuries have passed since Socrates was put to death on the charge of speaking disrespectfully of the gods and polluting the minds of the youths of Athens. During ten of these centuries that have passed since then, the race lost the capacity to think, through the successful combination of the priest and the soldier. These men blocked human evolution. The penalty for making slaves is that you become one.

To suppress humanity is to suppress yourself.

The race is one. So the priests and the soldiers who in the Third Century had a modicum of worth themselves, sank and were submerged in the general slough of superstition and ignorance. It was a panic that continued for a thousand years, all through the endeavor of faulty men to make people good by force. At all times, up to within our own decade, frank expression on religious, economic and social topics has been fraught with great peril. Even yet any man who hopes for popularity as a writer, orator, merchant or politician, would do well to conceal studiously his inmost beliefs. On such simple themes as the taxation of real estate, regardless of the business of the owner, and a payment of a like wage for a like service without consideration of sex, the statesman who has the temerity to speak out will be quickly relegated to private life. Successful merchants depending on a local constituency find it expedient to cater to popular superstitions by heading subscription-lists for the support of things in which they do not believe. No avowed independent thinker would be tolerated as chief ruler of any of the so-called civilized countries.

The fact, however, that the penalty for frank expression is limited now to social and commercial ostracism is very hopeful--a few years ago it meant the scaffold.

We have been heirs to a leaden legacy of fear that has well-nigh banished joy and made of life a long nightmare.

In very truth, the race has been insane.

Hallucinations, fallacies, fears, have gnawed at our hearts, and men have fought men with deadly frenzy. The people who interfered, trying to save us, we have killed. Truly did we say, "There is no health in us," which repetition did not tend to mend the malady.

We are now getting convalescent. We are hobbling out into the sunshine on crutches. We have discharged most of our old advisers, heaved the dulling and deadly bottles out of the windows, and are intent on studying and understanding our own case. Our motto is twenty-four centuries old--it is simply this: KNOW THYSELF.

* * * * *

Socrates was a street preacher, with a beautiful indifference as to whether people liked him or not. To most Athenians he was the town fool. Athens was a little city (only about one hundred fifty thousand), and everybody knew Socrates. The popular plays caricatured him; the topical songs misquoted him; the funny artists on the street-corners who modeled things in clay, while you waited, made figures of him.

Everybody knew Socrates--I guess so!

Plato, the handsome youth of nineteen, wearing a purple robe, which marked him as one of the nobility, paused to listen to this uncouth man who gave everything and wanted nothing.

Ye gods! But it is no wonder they caricatured him--he was a temptation too great to resist.

Plato smiled--he never laughed, being too well-bred for that. Then he sighed, and moved a little nearer in.

"Individuals are nothing. The State is all. To offend the State is to die. The State is an organization and we are members of it. The State is only as rich as its poorest citizen. We are all given a little sample of divinity to study, model and marvel at. To understand the State you must KNOW THYSELF."

Plato lingered until the little crowd had dispersed, and when the old man with the goggle-eyes and full-moon face went shuffling slowly down the street, he approached and asked him a question.

This man Socrates was no fool--the populace was wrong--he was a man so natural and free from cant that he appeared to the triflers and pretenders like a pretender, and they asked, "Is he sincere?"

What Plato was by birth, breeding and inheritance, Socrates was by nature--a noble man.

Up to this time the ambition of Plato had been for place and power--to make the right impression on the people in order to gain political preferment. He had been educated in the school of the Sophists, and his principal studies were poetry, rhetoric and deportment.

And now straightway he destroyed the manuscript of his poems, for in their writing he had suddenly discovered that he had not written what he inwardly believed was true, but simply that which he thought was proper and nice to say. In other words, his literature had been a form of pretense.

Daily thereafter, where went Socrates there went Plato. Side by side they sat on the curb--Socrates talking, questioning the bystanders, accosting the passers-by; Plato talking little, but listening much.

Socrates was short, stout and miles around. Plato was tall, athletic and broad-shouldered. In fact, the word, "plato," or "platon," means broad, and it was given him as a nickname by his comrades. His correct name was Aristocles, but "Plato" suited him better, since it symbols that he was not only broad of shoulder, but likewise in mind. He was not only noble by birth, but noble in appearance.

Emerson calls him the universal man. He absorbed all the science, all the art, all the philosophy of his day. He was handsome, kindly, graceful, gracious, generous, and lived and died a bachelor. He never collided with either poverty or matrimony.

* * * * *

Plato was twenty-eight years old when Socrates died. For eight years they had been together daily. After the death of Socrates, Plato lived for forty-six years, just to keep alive the name and fame of the great philosopher.

Socrates comes to us through Plato. Various other contemporaries mention Socrates and quote him, some to his disadvantage, but it was left for Plato to give us the heart of his philosophy, and limn his character for all time in unforgetable outline.

Plato is called the "Pride of Greece." His contribution to the wealth of the world consists in the fact that he taught the joys of the intellect--the supreme satisfaction that comes through thinking. This is the pure Platonic philosophy: to find our gratifications in exalted thought and not in bodily indulgence. Plato's theory that five years should be given in early manhood to abstract thought, abstaining from all practical affairs, so as to acquire a love for learning, has been grafted upon a theological stalk and comes down to our present time. It has, however, now been discarded by the world's best thinkers as a fallacy. The unit of man's life is the day, not the month or year, much less a period of five years. Each day we must exercise the mind, just as each day we must exercise the body. We can not store up health and draw upon it at will over long-deferred periods. The account must be kept active. To keep physical energy we must expend physical energy every day. The opinion of Herbert Spencer that thought is a physical function--a vibration set up in a certain area of brain-cells--is an idea never preached by Plato. The brain, being an organ, must be used, not merely in one part for five years to the exclusion of all other parts, but all parts should be used daily. To this end the practical things of life should daily engage our attention, no less than the contemplation of beauty as manifest in music, poetry, art or dialectics. The thought that every day we should look upon a beautiful picture, read a beautiful poem, or listen for a little while to beautiful music, is highly scientific, for this contemplation and appreciation of harmony is a physical exercise as well as a spiritual one, and through it we grow, develop, evolve.

That we could not devote five years of our time to purely esthetic exercises, to the exclusion of practical things, without very great risk, is now well known. And when I refer to practical affairs, I mean the effort which Nature demands we should put forth to get a living. Every man should live like a poor man, regardless of the fact that he may have money. Nature knows nothing of bank-balances. In order to have an appetite for dinner, you must first earn your dinner. If you would sleep at night, you must first pay for sweet sleep by physical labor.

* * * * *

Plato was born on the Island of AEgina, where his father owned an estate. His mother was a direct descendant of Solon, and his father, not to be outdone, traced to Codrus.

The father of Socrates was a stonecutter and his mother a midwife, so very naturally the son had a beautiful contempt for pedigree. Socrates once said to Plato, "Anybody can trace to Codrus--by paying enough to the man who makes the family-tree." This seems to show that genealogy was a matter of business then as now, and that nothing is new under the sun. Yet with all his contempt for heredity, we find Socrates often expressing pride in the fact that he was a "native son," whereas Plato, Aspasia, the mother of Themistocles, and various other fairly good people, were Athenian importations.

Socrates belonged to the leisure class and had plenty of time for extended conversazione, so just how much seriousness we should mix in his dialogues is still a problem. Each palate has to season to suit. Also, we can never know how much is Socrates and how much essence of Plato. Socrates wrote nothing, and Plato ascribes all of his wisdom to his master. Whether this was simple prudence or magnanimity is still a question.

The death of Socrates must have been a severe blow to Plato. He at once left Athens. It was his first intention never to return. He traveled through the cities of Greece, Southern Italy and down to Egypt, and everywhere was treated with royal courtesies.

After many solicitations from Dionysius, Tyrant of Syracuse, he went to visit that worthy, who had a case of philosophic and literary scabies. Dionysius prided himself on being a Beneficent Autocrat, with a literary and artistic attachment. He ruled his people, educated them, cared for them, disciplined them.

Some people call this slavery; others term it applied socialism. Dionysius wanted Syracuse to be the philosophic center of the world, and to this end Plato was importuned to make Syracuse his home and dispense his specialty--truth.

This he consented to do.

It was all very much like the arrangement between Maecenas and Horace, or Voltaire and Frederick the Great. The patron is a man who patronizes--he wants something, and the particular thing that Dionysius wanted was to have Plato hold a colored light upon the performances of His Altruistic, Beneficent, Royal Jackanapes. But Plato was a simple, honest and direct man: he had caught the habit from Socrates.

Charles Ferguson says that the simple life does not consist in living in the woods and wearing overalls and sandals, but in getting the cant out of one's cosmos and eliminating the hypocrisy from one's soul.

Plato lived the simple life. When he spoke he stated what he thought. He discussed exploitation, war, taxation, and the Divine Right of Kings. Kings are very unfortunate--they are shut off and shielded from truth on every side. They get their facts at second hand and are lied to all day long. Consequently they become in time incapable of digesting truth. A court, being an artificial fabric, requires constant bracing. Next to capital, nothing is so timid as a king. Heine says that kings have to draw their nightcaps on over their crowns when they go to bed, in order to keep them from being stolen, and that they are subject to insomnia.

Walt Whitman, with nothing to lose--not even a reputation or a hat--was much more kingly walking bareheaded past the White House than Nicholas of Russia or Alfonso of Spain can ever possibly be.

Dionysius thought that he wanted a philosophic court, but all he wanted was to make folks think he had a philosophic court. Plato supplied him the genuine article, and very naturally Plato was soon invited to vacate.

After he had gone, Dionysius, fearful that Plato would give him a bad reputation in Athens--somewhat after the manner and habit of the "escaped nun"--sent a fast-rowing galley after him. Plato was arrested and sold into slavery on his own isle of AEgina.

This all sounds very tragic, but the real fact is it was a sort of comedy of errors--as a king's doings are when viewed from a safe and convenient distance. De Wolf Hopper's kings are the real thing. Dionysius claimed that Plato owed him money, and so he got out a body-attachment, and sold the philosopher to the highest bidder.

This was a perfectly legal proceeding, being simply peonage, a thing which exists in some parts of the United States today. I state the fact without prejudice, merely to show how hard custom dies.

Plato was too big a man conveniently either to secrete or kill. Certain people in Athens plagiarized Doctor Johnson who, on hearing that Goldsmith had debts of several thousand pounds, in admiration exclaimed, "Was ever poet so trusted before!" Other good friends ascertained the amount of the claim and paid it, just as Colonel H. H. Rogers graciously cleared up the liabilities of Mark Twain, after the author of "Huckleberry Finn" had landed his business craft on a sandbar.

And so Plato went free, arriving back in Athens, aged forty, a wiser and a better man than when he left.

* * * * *

Nothing absolves a reputation like silence and absence, or what the village editors call "the grim reaper." To live is always more or less of an offense, especially if you have thoughts and express them. Athens exists, in degree, because she killed Socrates, just as Jerusalem is unforgetable for a similar reason. The South did not realize that Lincoln was her best friend until the assassin's bullet had found his brain. Many good men in Chicago did not cease to revile their chiefest citizen, until the ears of Altgeld were stopped and his hands stiffened by death. The lips of the dead are eloquent.

Plato's ten years of absence had given him prestige. He was honored because he had been the near and dear friend of Socrates, a great and good man who was killed through mistake.

Most murders and killings of men, judicial and otherwise, are matters of misunderstandings.

Plato had been driven out of Syracuse for the very reasons that Socrates had been killed at Athens. And now behold, when Dionysius saw how Athens was honoring Plato, he discovered that it was all a mistake of his bookkeeper, so he wrote to Plato to come back and all would be forgiven.

* * * * *

Those who set out to live the Ideal Life have a hard trail to travel. The road to Jericho is a rocky one--especially if we are a little in doubt as to whether it really is the road to Jericho or not. Perhaps if we ever find the man who lives the Ideal Life he will be quite unaware of it, so occupied will he be in his work--so forgetful of self.

Time had taught Plato diplomacy. He now saw that to teach people who did not want to be taught was an error in judgment for which one might forfeit his head.

Socrates was the first Democrat: he stood for the demos--the people. Plato would have done the same, but he saw that the business was extra hazardous, to use the phrase of our insurance friends. He who works for the people will be destroyed by the people. Hemlock is such a rare and precious commodity that few can afford it; the cross is a privilege so costly that few care to pay the price.

The genius is a man who first states truths; and all truths are unpleasant on their first presentation. That which is uncommon is offensive. "Who ever heard anything like that before?" ask the literary and philosophic hill tribes in fierce indignation. Says James Russell Lowell, "I blab unpleasant truths, you see, that none may need to state them after me."

Plato was a teacher by nature: this was his business, his pastime, and the only thing in life that gave him joy. But he dropped back to the good old ways of making truth esoteric as did the priests of Egypt, instead of exoteric as did Socrates. He founded his college in the grove of his old friend Academus, a mile out of Athens on the road to Eleusis. In honor of Academus the school was called "The Academy." It was secluded, safe, beautiful for situation. In time Plato bought a tract of land adjoining that of Academus, and this was set apart as the permanent school. All the teaching was done out of doors, master and pupils seated on the marble benches, by the fountain-side, or strolling through the grounds, rich with shrubs and flowers and enlivened by the song of birds. The climate of Athens was about like that of Southern California, where the sun shines three hundred days in the year.

Plato emphasized the value of the spoken word over the written, a thing he could well afford to do, since he was a remarkably good writer. This for the same reason that the only man who can afford to go ragged is the man with a goodly bank-balance. The shibboleth of the modern schools of oratory is, "We grow through expression." And Plato was the man who first said it. Plato's teaching was all in the form of the "quiz," because he believed that truth was not a thing to be acquired from another--it is self-discovery.

Indeed, we can imagine it was very delightful--this walking, strolling, lying on the grass, or seated in semicircles, indulging in endless talk, easy banter, with now and then a formal essay read to start the vibrations.

Here it was that Aristotle came from his wild home in the mountains of Macedonia, to remain for twenty years and to evolve into a rival of the master.

We can well imagine how Aristotle, the mountain-climber and horseman, at times grew heartily tired of the faultily faultless garden with its high wall and graveled walks and delicate shrubbery, and shouted aloud in protest, "The whole world of mountain, valley and plain should be our Academy, not this pent-up Utica that contracts our powers."

Then followed an argument as to the relative value of talking about things or doing them, or Poetry versus Science.

Poetry, philosophy and religion are very old themes, and they were old even in Plato's day; but natural science came in with Aristotle. And science is only the classification of the common knowledge of the common people. It was Aristotle who named things, not Adam. He contended that the classification and naming of plants, rocks and animals was quite as important as to classify ideas about human happiness and make guesses at the state of the soul after death.

Of course he got himself beautifully misunderstood, because he was advocating something which had never been advocated before. In this lay his virtue, that he outran human sympathy, even the sympathy of the great Plato.

Yet for a while the unfolding genius of this young barbarian was a great joy to Plato, as the earnest, eager intellect of an ambitious pupil always is to his teacher. Plato was great in speculation; Aristotle was great in observation. Well has it been said that it was Aristotle who discovered the world. And Aristotle in his old age said, "My attempts to classify the objects of Nature all came through Plato's teaching me first how to classify ideas." And forty years before this Plato had said, "It was Socrates who taught me this game of the correlation and classification of thoughts."

* * * * *

The writings of Plato consist of thirty-five dialogues, and one essay which is not cast in the dramatic form--"The Apology." These dialogues vary in length from twenty pages, of, say, four hundred words each, to three hundred pages. In addition to these books are many quotations from Plato and references to him by contemporary writers. Plato's work is as impersonal as that of Shakespeare. All human ideas, shades of belief, emotions and desires pass through the colander of his mind. He allows everybody to have his say.

What Plato himself thought can only be inferred, and this each reader does for himself. We construct our man Plato in our own image. A critic's highest conception of Plato's philosophy is the highest conception of the critic's own. We, however, are reasonably safe in assuming that Plato's own ideas were put into the mouth of Socrates, for the one intent of Plato's life was to redeem Socrates from the charges that had been made against him. The characters Shakespeare loved are the ones that represent the master, not the hated and handmade rogues.

Plato's position in life was that of a spectator rather than that of an actor. He stood and saw the procession pass by, and as it passed, commented on it. He charged his pupils no tuition and accepted no fees, claiming that to sell one's influence or ideas was immoral.

It will be remembered that Byron held a similar position at the beginning of his literary career, and declared i' faith, he "would not prostitute his genius for hire." He gave his poems to the world. Later, when his income was pinched, he began to make bargains with Barabbas and became an artist in per centum, collecting close, refusing to rhyme without collateral.

Byron's humanity is not seriously disputed. Plato also was human. He had a fixed income and so knew the worthlessness of riches. He issued no tariff, but the goodly honorarium left mysteriously on a marble bench by a rich pupil he accepted, and for it gave thanks to the gods. He said many great things, but he never said this: "I would have every man poor that he might know the value of money."

"The Republic" is the best known and best read of any of Plato's dialogues. It outlines an ideal form of government where everybody would be healthy, happy and prosperous. It has served as inspiration to Sir Thomas More, Erasmus, Jean Jacques Rousseau, William Morris, Edward Bellamy, Brigham Young, John Humphrey Noyes and Eugene Debs. The sub-division of labor, by setting apart certain persons to do certain things--for instance, to care for the children--has made its appeal to Upton Sinclair, who jumped from his Utopian woodshed into a rubber-plant and bounced off into oblivion.

Plato's plan was intended to relieve marriage from the danger of becoming a form of slavery. The rulers, teachers and artists especially were to be free, and the State was to assume all responsibilities. The reason is plain: he wanted them to reproduce themselves. But whether genius is an acquirement or a natural endowment he touches on but lightly. Also, he seemingly did not realize "that no hovel is safe from it."

If all marriage-laws were done away with, Plato thought that the men and women who were mated would still be true to each other, and that the less the police interfered in love-relations, the better.

In one respect at least, Plato was certainly right: he advocated the equality of the sexes, and declared that no woman should be owned by a man nor forced into a mode of life, either by economic exigency or marriage, that was repulsive to her. Also, that her right to bear children or not should be strictly her own affair, and to dictate to a mother as to who should father her children tended to the production of a slavish race.

The eugenics of "The Republic" were tried for thirty years by the Oneida Community with really good results, but one generation of communal marriages was proved to be the limit, a thing Plato now knows from his heights in Elysium, but which he in his bachelor dreams on earth did not realize.

In his division of labor each was to do the thing he was best fitted to do, and which he liked to do. It was assumed that each person had a gift, and that to use this gift all that was necessary was to give him an opportunity. That very modern cry of "equality of opportunity" harks back to Plato.

The monastic impulse was a very old thing, even in the time of Plato. The monastic impulse is simply cutting for sanctuary when the pressure of society gets intense--a getting rid of the world by running away from it. This usually occurs when the novitiate has exhausted his capacity for sin, and so tries saintship in the hope of getting a new thrill.

Plato had been much impressed by the experiments of Pythagoras, who had actually done the thing of which Plato only talked. Plato now picked the weak points in the Pythagorean philosophy and sought, in imagination, to construct a fabric that would stand the test of time.

However, all Utopias, like all monasteries and penitentiaries, are made up of picked people. The Oneida Community was not composed of average individuals, but of people who were selected with great care, and only admitted after severe tests. And great as was Plato, he could not outline an ideal plan of life except for an ideal people.

To remain in the world of work and share the burdens of all--to ask for nothing which other people can not have on like terms--not to consider yourself peculiar, unique and therefore immune and exempt--is now the ideal of the best minds. We have small faith in monasticism or monotheism, but we do have great faith in monism. We believe in the Solidarity of the Race. We must all progress together. Whether Pythagoras, John Humphrey Noyes and Brigham Young were ahead of the world or behind it is really not to the point--the many would not tolerate them. So their idealism was diluted with danger until it became as somber, sober and slaty-gray as the average existence, and fades as well as shrinks in the wash.

A private good is no more possible for a community than it is for an individual. We help ourselves only as we advance the race--we are happy only as we minister to the whole. The race is one, and this is monism.

And here Socrates and Plato seemingly separate, for Socrates in his life wanted nothing, not even joy, and Plato's desire was for peace and happiness. Yet the ideal of justice in Plato's philosophy is very exalted.

No writer in that flowering time of beauty and reason which we call "The Age of Pericles" exerted so profound an influence as Plato. All the philosophers that follow him were largely inspired by him. Those who berated him most were, very naturally, the ones he had most benefited. Teach a boy to write, and the probabilities are that his first essay, when he has cut loose from his teacher's apron-strings and starts a brownie bibliomag, will be in denunciation of the man who taught him to push the pen and wield the Faber.

Xenophon was more indebted, intellectually, to Plato than to any other living man, yet he speaks scathingly of his master. Plutarch, Cicero, Iamblichus, Pliny, Horace and all the other Roman writers read Plato religiously. The Christian Fathers kept his work alive, and passed it on to Dante, Petrarch and the early writers of the Renaissance, so all of their thought is well flavored with essence of Plato. Well does Addison put into the mouth of Cato those well-known words:

It must be so--Plato, thou reasonest well!--
Else whence this pleasing hope, this fond desire,
This longing after immortality?
Or whence this secret dread, and inward horror,
Of falling into nought? Why shrinks the soul
Back on herself, and startles at destruction?
'T is the divinity that stirs within us;
'T is heaven itself, that points out an hereafter,
And intimates eternity to man.

All of that English group of writers in Addison's day knew their Plato, exactly as did Cato and the other great Romans of near two thousand years before. From Plato you can prove that there is a life after this for each individual soul, as Francis of Assisi proved, or you can take your Plato, as did Hume, and show that man lives only in his influence, his individual life returning to the mass and becoming a part of all the great pulsing existence that ebbs and flows through plant and tree and flower and flying bird. And today we turn to Plato and find the corroboration of our thought that to live now and here, up to our highest and best, is the acme of wisdom. We prepare to live by living. If there is another world we better be getting ready for it. If heaven is an Ideal Republic it is founded on unselfishness, truth, reciprocity, equanimity and co-operation, and only those will be at home there who have practised these virtues here. Man was made for mutual service. This way lies Elysium.

Plato was a teacher of teachers, and like every other great teacher who has ever lived, his soul goes marching on, for to teach is to influence, and influence never dies. Hail, Plato!

[The end]
Elbert Hubbard's Writings: Plato