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Plato and Platonism by Walter Pater

Plato and Platonism

by Walter Pater

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In this his last work published before his death in 1894, Pater applies his considerable talents as critic and writer to a discussion of how one can derive great aesthetic pleasure from reading Plato. Plato and Platonism was composed as a series of ten lectures (which may account for Pater’s fondness for commas) in long, meandering sentences, but if you are reading by candlelight in an overstuffed burgundy velvet wingback chair with fraying seams surrounded by dusty stacks of old books, then Pater’s prose goes down like a jigger of vintage single malt.

To enjoy and appreciate Plato, Pater writes, we have to understand his intent by acknowledging the antecedents to his thought and recognizing the association between the method and the content of his work. Pater situates Plato in the evolutionary flow of Greek thought, drawing inspiration from Heraclitus (the paradox of constant extinction and renewal), Parmenides (austere and abstract, by way of the dualism of Xenophanes), and Pythagoras ('the essential laws of measure' in time and space: Timaeus!). The distinctive genius of Plato, everyone should know by now, was in the development of the dialogue form, the hybrid poem-essay that illustrates the idea of which it speaks. The dialectic as a literary artform promotes the very process by which we reason, writes Pater, and cultivates 'the philosophic temper’: diffident, reserved, receptive to discovery and revelation, ‘determined not to foreclose what is still a question.’ The method models the dialogue of the mind with itself.

Plato and Platonism is the kind of commentary that is both enlightening and influential in its own right. Pater anticipates by thirty years Whitehead’s point about Plato as “an inexhaustible mine of suggestion” (Process and Reality, 1929) and recognizes in Plato the kind of ‘imaginative reason’ that fostered the cosmological theories of the 20th c. The same mind opened the way to both ontology and skepticism (two contradictory forms of Platonism, notes Pater) and saw in the cosmos both machine and music. Pater’s enthusiasm for Plato’s enthusiasm is what makes this book such a pleasure to read. Pater’s Plato is an artist, ‘a seer with the sensuous love of the unseen.’

The very words of Plato, then, challenge us straightway to larger and finer apprehension of the processes of our own minds; are themselves a discovery in the sphere of mind. It was he made us freemen of those solitary places, so trying yet so attractive, so remote and high, they seem, yet are naturally so close to us: he peopled them with intelligible forms. Nay more! By his peculiar gift of verbal articulation he divined the mere hollow spaces which a knowledge, then merely potential, and an experience still to come, would one day occupy. And so, those who cannot admit his actual speculative results, precisely his report on the invisible theoretic world, have been to the point sometimes, in their objection, that by sheer effectiveness of abstract language, he gave an elusive air of reality or substance to the mere nonentities of metaphysic hypothesis—of a mind trying to feed itself on its own emptiness.

[I read one of the inexpensive e-text print-on-demand editions of Plato and Platonism. There were words missing here and there, curious transliterations, and sloppily appended chapter notes—all minor distractions in the light of Pater’s achievement.] ( )
  HectorSwell | Nov 20, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0760765472, Paperback)

a presentation of Platonism

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:22 -0400)

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