Monday, 28 May 2012

The Philosophy of G Lowes Dickinson

G Lowes Dickinson - Plato and His Dialogues - Pelican - 1947 (Reprint)

I`ve mentioned before that my knowledge of history and philosophy is largely based on old and often second-hand books. This is a case in point.

The book is based on a series of talks given by the author aimed at "men and women who are not and do not mean to be scholars, who have not much time for reading". Sounds good to me !

The author gets off to a strong start, acknowledging that his hero "is in some respects the greaest of revolutionaries, in others the greatest of reactionaries".  He infers that he has some differences with Plato, finding an element of despair in the philosophers` later work "and, even worse, a recourse to intolerance and persecution." He differs sharply with Plato on this issue ("by that road there is no way out") and affirms his own optimism and belief in liberty.

He looks at the time and place that formed Plato`s character, quoting Thucydides ; "The whole Hellenic world was in commotion ; in every city the chiefs of the democracy and of the oligarchy were struggling." Against this background, the young Plato saw his mentor Socrates imprisoned and condemned to death.

After looking at contemporary accounts of the life and character of Socrates he moves on to Plato`s dialogues.

Plato`s works were written in the form of conversations, a little like plays, in which two or more characters attempt to get to grips with the issues of the day. As a tribute to his mentor, Plato always makes Socrates the central character and portrays him as an incisive questioner who exposes inconsistencies in the arguments of others and  makes them question their attitudes and values. 

Disappointingly,the passages Dickinson quotes do not really show us Socrates the opponent of hypocrisy, but often seem to be mere exchanges of courtesies by no means essential to the matter in hand. Terms such as `charming`, `beautiful` and `delightful` are bandied about, but we are no further on with actual questions of philosophy.

Now we move on to a pet hate of mine. Plato`s Republic is the book in which he sets out his vision of an ideal state.  It relates to a form of social organisation that has never existed, almost certainly never will, and which probably wouldn`t be desireable in any case. Many of  Plato`s notions concerning this `ideal` state seem quite ridiculous or unworkable to modern eyes, and there is some debate among scholars  as to his true intentions. It is profoundly anti-democratic, mainly because the one democracy he knew well, his native Athens, was profoundly flawed.

Dickinson then moves on to a later work, The Laws, written by an older and rather more world-weary Plato. At this point, Plato  has effectively turned his back on autocracy and, according to Dickinson, now advocates "a moderate middle class democracy". Dickinson notes that Plato "gives a certain preponderance to the richer classes", but also seeks to avoid too glaring a disparity between rich and poor. Because The Laws is not concerned with an ideal society, but with proposals for a real one, it is open to being reformed or improved in a way that The Republic was not.

Unfortunately, once we get on to detail, Plato`s authoritarian streak runs riot once again. There are stipulations as to who should marry, at what age and a great many other such suggestions, including a proposal for compulsory marriage with a range of penalties for men who remain single !

Dickinson himself was an unapologetic utopian and at times I did question his judgement.

Dickinson explains in his introduction that he has made few amendments to the texts of his original talks, but has expanded on the quotations used. This is glaringly obvious, as his quotations from Plato and indeed other sources are often of inordinate length and could usefully have been trimmed down. Despite this, Plato and his Dialogues is a slender volume.

In my view, this book represents an opportunity missed. While I can see that The Republic and The Laws needed to be discussed, there seems no reason why the author could not have added material on Plato`s other works, and I for one would have favoured a lot more emphasis on dialectic.*

I`ve owned this book for a while and if I`m any judge it had more than one owner before me. I think it may be time for this one to find a new home !

*Dialectic is a method by which two or more peoples seek to establish the truth about a particular matter by means of reasoned argument. It is very different from debate in the formal sense (in which the interested parties arrived with a fixed opinion and the emphasis is on `winning`) or from rhetoric. The phrase `dialectic` is often associated with Marxism, but is not unique to that school of thought, which it predates by many centuries, and indeed some strands of Marxist dialectic are not true dialectic at all.


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