Socrates and Plato - Session 20 (21 September 2001)

Now what follows is not exposition but comment. I told you the difference between exposition and comment or criticism. An exposition is simply to state what is contended accurately, comment is to make a judgement on what is said, comment is a judgement on what is said. Now these judgements are normally of two kinds, of three kinds. Judgements are of three kinds. A judgement can say this is true or false or it is good or bad or it is beautiful or ugly. All judgements, you look at the whole world ultimately you’ll find there are only three kinds of judgements in the world. When you make a comment, the comment will be only of three kinds; either it is true or false, good or bad or beautiful or ugly. All other statements are only combinations of these three or shades of these three, you can say this is partly true, partly false or you can say it is so, so, when you say it is so, so what does it mean? It is partly good, partly bad, partly true, partly false, partly beautiful; partly ugly so you say it is so, so. Now what follows is a comment in this paragraph we are pointing out that what Plato has said is not absolutely satisfying there is some limitation.

Now a good judgement is one in which you not only make a comment and a judgement you also give reasons for your judgement. If I say it is true or false, I should say why it is true, if I say it is false I should say why it is false. If I say it is good you should say why it is good, if I say why it is bad I should say why it is bad. Similarly if you say it is beautiful you should say why it is beautiful, why it is not beautiful that’s called a bit comment, it is also called a learned comment, a comment which you have made after learning, after studying, a studied comment, a comment after study, you don’t really make a comment just like that. So now we make a few comments, just see these comments. Obliviously one feels here the limitation s of Plato’s theory, you know Plato is such a great philosopher that these small children making a comment that there are limitations in Plato’s theory is to speak tall things with our small mouths so we must be very humble while making statements about Plato he is a very, very great philosopher.

So if we say there are limitations we state this with great modesty, we should not tell that now we have gone beyond Plato we can see from above Plato and we can say: Oh! He is like this, it’s not in that sense we should not criticise such great philosophers in that sense. It is our fortune that after Plato two thousand and more years have passed therefore there have arisen so many other philosophers who have thought over Plato and we are inheritors of all these therefore we have learnt from so many others and now we come back although small in our age we have the privilege of being the children of so many other philosophers and therefore we have some kind of a possibility of commenting. Normally a good education is one in which you should be allowed to comment only when you can make a better philosophy than the philosophy you are criticising. You should be yourself greater than Plato to be able to criticise Plato. So when you make these comments do not say that we are greater than Plato and therefore making comments, some other great people have also made comments, we have learnt from them and we are now able to reproduce them to some extent and we also can think in that way because of the light thrown by so many others therefore we are making these comments. So as good students of philosophy when you make a comment on Plato or on Aristotle or any great philosophers we should be very modest. So in that spirit I am now speaking. Obviously one feels here the limitations of Plato’s theory. A self–existent which is non–existent is self-contradiction this is the first statement.

A self–existent which is non–existent is self-contradiction. Now has Plato said that there is something self–existent is non–existent, if you read the previous sentence you’ll find one sentence there read again, “The original stuff of the particulars is self–existent and uncreated but this self–existent is non–existent”. This is how Plato says. The universals are of course permanent and self–existent but particulars themselves are not self–existent but the stuff of which particulars are made, that stuff according to Plato is self–existent but non–existent. It’s a new kind of statement actually, he conceives of a existent which is non–existent, something that is not there but attains some kind of existence because of imprint of universal on it but in itself it must be something which is not there, it’s a very strange statement and that is why we say it is obvious—a self–existent which is non–existent is self-contradiction; that which is self–contradictory is normally not true. That which is self–contradictory is normally not true. I am riding not riding, if I make a statement: I am riding not riding, you are making a nonsensical statement, doesn’t make any sense. When a statement is made and makes no sense it is only called a noise, you are making a noise but it has no meaning, a meaningless noise—abracadabra, this is also a word, its only noise it makes no meaning, abracadabra. So you can say a self–contradiction is abracadabra, what does it mean, a noise which has no meaning. So you can say a self–existent which is non–existent is self–contradiction. A is both b and not b is a self–contradiction therefore not true. A is a, therefore not self–contradictory but if a, is a and not a at the same time, like I am riding, not riding at the same time is an impossibility therefore I say it is not true.

Now a thinker like Plato surely must have thought it is not an easy thing surely even a child can show, what are you talking; self–existent which is non–existent that it is a self–contradiction obviously but a man like Plato has said it in spite of the fact that he knew this law very well—Law of contradiction that if there is something self–contradictory it is only senseless. Why was Plato led to say something of this kind? The mistake that you are pointing out surely he must have known much better than you and I. That is so obvious but still he is obliged to make this kind of statement, therefore don’t merely dismiss by saying therefore Plato is wrong. You can say there is self–contradiction, something that is not understandable something that is wrong to our understanding but at the same time in the corner of your mind you must know that if Plato has made this kind of statement there must be a strong reason for him to do so, so keep this idea behind while we go forward. SO first criticism is a self–existent which is non–existent is self–contradiction. It is inconceivable and therefore something that cannot be.

Now we argue. As I said, every comment should be given a reason. If you have a good comment you should have a good reason. So now we are giving some kind of further reason. If it is really non–existent what is it that partakes of the ideas, if it really non–existent, then what is it that partakes of the ideas; not the particulars because the particulars are the results. When this matter which he says does not exist and yet exists that is now presented to the universal ideas, universal ideas are printed then only particulars are produced. So this stuff cannot be particulars, it is not universals because universals are really being they are not existent, non–existent, they are permanent, they are real. So what is it that really partakes of these ideas and can the non–existent ever attain to being? Plato says that this matter, the stuff on which universals are imprinted is a non–being which attains to being when universals imprint themselves on the stuff. So our question is can non–existent ever attain the state of being, that which is not can it ever be? There is a very famous sentence in Indian philosophy, it is stated in the Bhagavad Gita, it is worth stating that statement and keep in your mind. In Sanskrit it is ‘nasato vidhate bhavo na bhavo vidhayte satha’. Now you don’t know Sanskrit. I will not press upon it, I’ll only explain the translation of it. It says of non–existence there can be no existence, of non–existence there can be no existence. Of existence there can be no non–existence, of existence there can be no non–existence. So according to the ‘Gita’ that which is non–existent can never attain to existence that which really exists, can never cease to be that which exists, exists. It cannot then afterwards perish, existence cannot become non–existence, non–existence cannot become existence. But here Plato says matter is non–existent but when ideas imprint themselves on it then matter attains some kind of being. So our question is can the non–existent ever attain to being. Plato would say perhaps that it cannot and it does not and therefore he says it is neither being, nor non–being. He has made two statements—matter is neither being nor non–being or it is being, non–being and there is a difference between the two statements. Matter is neither being nor non–being or matter is being, non–being. His ultimate conclusion is that it is not the object of knowledge because knowledge can be only of that which is, that which is always there, which is permanent, which can be conceived.

So that Matter which is neither being nor non–being or that which is being, non–being is not the object of knowledge at the most it is the object of opinion therefore he calls it, it is a mere appearance. But even if it is an appearance if one argues but even if it is an appearance it must be in some sense be; even to appear it must manifest, must be before you and if it is. It must be related to the ideas and by that relation would form a unity of total existence of Reality. Now this last sentence is a difficult sentence. We shall repeat. And if it is it must be related to the ideas. Why should it be so? If it is it must be related to the ideas. Why should it be so? Reason is that only ideas are therefore if anything is, it must be connected with ideas. If it is connected with the ideas then ideas and that which is connected with the ideas must form one consistent Reality, it cannot be thrown out and said Oh! It is not there at all, oh! Somehow it is there but it is not there. This kind of a statement leaves us in a kind of great dissatisfaction. Even if it is there even as an appearance it is there as an appearance and as an appearance you must find out its relationship with that which is real. What is the relationship? This is the argument that you’ll come across in the history of philosophy again and again and again, these are only three or four sentences but these sentences are going to be repeated by many philosophers. There is something here which is to be grasped. There is something which is not all that we can think of. We shall come back to this later on at present you only leave this matter in your mind that Plato’s Theory however great it may be there are difficulties about this theory and the one difficulty that we have pointed out is that Plato is obliged to say something that seems self–contradictory namely non–existent somehow exists or non–existence somehow comes into being. This statement needs a greater understanding. There is something here which is not easy to grasp. We leave it at present because as I said in the study of history of philosophy this statement will come several times again and again. So we'll have ample chance of discussing this matter in many other contexts. One of the best ways of reflection is to have different contexts in which the same thing is conceived.

You take the same subject in one context you try to understand then you leave it then you take another context and the same thing again comes back to you and you think again of it and a new light is shed, take again a third context in which the same problem comes up and again you study it and a new light is shed on it that is how good philosophers do not dismiss anything saying: Oh! It is rubbish. Every good philosopher is a wise man, that is to say he feels even a mad man speaking something has meaning, even a child doing something insignificant has a significance.

You know there is a short story of St Augustine. I don’t know if you have heard the name St Augustine, one of the great philosophers of Christianity. He was extremely connected, concerned with the practice of self–control. He was trying to control his senses and there was a period of his life when his senses were masters and he was not able to control his senses and he was very concerned about it. At a very critical moment when he was really striving to control his senses in his room there was a small child playing with something and the child happened to play with a book and the child opened a page and said: ‘Take, take’, he said to St Augustine and he took it and he read it and there was a message of such a great value that while reading that message he could control his senses. Now you see the child did not know something which was so precious to St Augustine, therefore a good philosopher is one who does not merely dismiss something saying: Finished! Like a carrom board, you strike a piece and then you throw it, then finish it. Philosophy is not a carrom board, it’s a different kind of a board, and every piece has a meaning in it. You don’t strike out, in a carrom board you strike out the pieces; in philosophy you put all the pieces together in a meaningful manner that is the play of philosophy. Although many people try to study philosophy like a carrom board, it is a wrong way of studying philosophy. In philosophy there has been a great tendency of affirmation and negation, it’s a method of doubt. I say one thing, you say the opposite—finished. I argue against you, you are out, it's not a cricket match. In Philosophy you take every piece carefully and see where this piece fits into the whole, it may seem absurd here, it may have no meaning here but a good philosopher does not therefore say: Finished, I don’t want it, deny it. It is easy to deny anything, very difficult to find its true place, the totality, place it in the totality.

Why do we study philosophy? We study philosophy precisely for this reason. It is not to make you combatants and wrestlers in which you defeat your opponent as Buddha said: A true debate is one in which everyone wins. A true debate is one in which everyone wins. So a philosophical debate should be of such a nature that everyone wins in it, nobody is defeated. You find out where you are right, where I am right and put all the things into totality. So we shall come back to this point where Plato is saying something which is at present not very satisfactory and as I told you we have no justification, we have no authority to criticise Plato. Even these statements we have made only because our forefathers, many of our forefathers have thought about it and they have come to some kind of comments and we are only mouth–piecing their comments. You have no right to criticise anybody unless you do better than whom you criticise, what authority do you have? You are not better than Plato; you can do philosophy better than Plato? No, not you and me but you are able to comment on Plato because many others who are equal to Plato or approximating Plato, they made many comments which we have heard and therefore we have the advantage which Plato did not have. We have the advantage so we are able to make some comments. In any case children always have a greater advantage than their fathers and mothers because they have the advantage of the experiences of their fathers or mothers, so therefore they have chance of become better. So it is true that you will be better philosopher than Plato but after some time. Once you have done lot of philosophy, when you have played the game quite often then you are able to piece everything together in its proper place and then you’ll be a good philosopher and you’ll be able to say what should I say wisely. To say something is easy but to say wisely is difficult and to say something wisely only when you have been able to piece together different aspects in their proper place and that is called justice, you have defined justice. Justice is that which places everything in its proper place. Philosopher is just because he puts everything in its proper place.

Now in the next paragraph which I’ll not read because the time is over but I’ll just tell you the next paragraph there is a statement from a dialogue which is called ‘Parmenides’. Now this word’ Parmenides’, you have heard already. You remember I told you about Parmenides in one of the very early lectures I‘ve spoken of Parmenides. Now in one of the dialogues of Plato, Parmenides is a character, he has come to an assembly where Socrates is a younger man and Parmenides is a very big man by that time because Socrates came much later than Parmenides. So in that dialogue Parmenides is a very big man, in age and in wisdom and Socrates is a young philosopher and Socrates is speaking of his Theory of Ideas and in this dialogue Socrates himself criticises his own philosophy, Plato that means that Plato is self–critical. It is a beautiful dialogue because Plato himself knew the difficulties of his philosophy. He made his statements and of his philosophy but he knew that there are difficulties in his philosophy; it is called self–criticism. This is a great merit, anybody taking his theory and saying: Look I am making this theory, there are difficulties in my own theory that is the greatness of Plato. He wrote a dialogue specially to point out difficulties in his own philosophy. So in the next paragraph you’ll find several arguments which Plato himself makes against his own theory, his own philosophy. It makes our task also easier because when he himself has been able to criticise his own philosophy at least we are able to sing a song along with him when we want to make a comment on him. So our commentary on Plato becomes easier because he himself has made a commentary, every good philosopher should be able to point out the defects of his own philosophy.

Wherever there is a defect we should be able to see here is the defect, you should not say because it is my philosophy I must present it to the people so it is all correct, No, you should have repeated understanding of your own philosophy, every time you find out a defect in it, you correct that defect, again you repeat it, again you expound your philosophy again you find out where is the difficulty. A good philosopher should be able to state his philosophy seven times at least and seven times he should be able to criticise it then you can be more confident and say now my philosophy seems to be at least presentable, I can now put it before the people. Alright, so next time when I come we shall study Parmenides and his against himself, against Plato. Thank you.