Emerson on Plato: literary philosophy, dialectic, and the temporality of thought.

Author:Bailey, Jesse
Position:Critical essay

Plato is philosophy, and philosophy, Plato. Emerson, Plato; or The Philosopher

But it is the fault of our rhetoric that we cannot strongly state one fact without seeming to belie some other. Emerson, History

For Emerson, Plato is the quintessential philosopher. I will argue that, to the extent that Emerson wanted his essays to have philosophical depth, he considered his work to be an extension of the work found in Plato's dialogues. Thus, in his relationship to the towering figure of Plato we can discern his understanding of the relation between his literary and philosophical endeavors. When we read his comments on Plato, we find crystallized what philosophical work Emerson intended his essays to accomplish. Hence, the reader must be attentive not simply to the explicit content of his essays, but also the dialectic form of the essays. As we know from the Phaedrus, and from the dialogical nature of his writings, for Plato the techne of rhetoric is not merely stating factual propositions, but more importantly consists in knowing and guiding the souls of one's listeners. The same is certainly true of Emerson's own work.

I will argue that the dialogical character of Plato's works and the obscurity and tension in much of Emerson's writings arise from a recognition of the fluid and dialectical character of living, human thought. Emerson sought to draw the reader into participation in his thinking through the superfluity and excess of meaning present in his essays--an excess that philosophical commentators on the essays have found maddening, and even the sign of an inferior mind. I will argue that Emerson uses language ambiguously in much the way Plato constructed his dialogues in order to demand that the reader take an active role in the process of thought. For Emerson, truly great philosophy has this "literary" quality of semantic excess which makes demands of the reader--rather than simply and clearly stating a position to be memorized. (1) Further, I will argue that the dialectical structure of their writings was necessary for these two thinkers to speak to diverse audiences at many different levels of sophistication and philosophical development. Their literary style thus reflects their under standing of the temporality of the philosophical life. These two thinkers composed these great works of literary philosophy not in order to establish abstract doctrines or systems of thought; rather, they wrote in order to invigorate the soul to strive toward truth and virtue.

I also have a secondary purpose in writing this paper: Emerson mentions Plato very frequently in his works. It seems to be the case that, for many readers, the invocation of Plato's name signals a movement to the transcendental, to "The Forms" and the eternal and unchanging. In this paper, I will argue that, for Emerson, Plato was a far more complicated figure than is captured in this reading.

Despite these frequent references to Plato, both in his published works and throughout his journals, I will be focusing very narrowly on his essay on Plato in Representative Men, because it is here that Emerson's relation to the complicated nature of the figure of Plato is most clear.


Emerson begins his hyperbolic praise of Plato by emphasizing the totality of Plato's works; he treats them as all encompassing, saying that the value of all books lies in the pages of the dialogues. He calls Plato the "exhausting generalizer" and implies that the history of thought since is merely footnotes to Plato, since "it is fair to credit the broadest generalizer with all the particulars deducible from his thesis" (289, emphasis added). (2) My first task, then, is to clarify the nature of the "totality" which Emerson found in Plato, what constitutes this act of generalization, and what Emerson sees as the work of "deducing" the particulars from his "thesis." These words do not have the ordinary, mathematical meaning in Emerson's use. Rather, I will show that Emerson makes much of the fact that Plato presented us not simply with a set of arguments or theories, but rather with the life and character of Socrates. Plato and Emerson are more concerned with the character, comportment, and mode of life of the philosopher, not simply what theories she might subscribe to at any given time. It is the quality of life that is the proper ground on which to stand--as the proper, literally, hypo-thesis, of the philosopher. Emerson seeks, through his style of writing, to remind us of the danger of keeping our work as philosophers and theorists sterilized of our concerns as living, politically involved human beings.

Emerson makes this charge very clear to us: if we are to be readers of Plato, we must ourselves be philosophers. We will come to see that the very act of reading Plato or Emerson is the act of engaging in philosophical thinking, but this charge goes even beyond this; Emerson speaks of the life of Plato as accessible only in his works. He says, wonderfully, "Great geniuses have the shortest biographies. Their cousins can tell you nothing about them." Emerson tells us of these geniuses that if we "would know their tastes and complexions, the most admiring of their readers most resembles them" (290-291). This is, again, a seemingly off-hand comment, but it speaks volumes. If we are to be among the "most admiring" of Plato's readers, or of Emerson's, we must live as they do, share their "tastes and complexions," and model in our own lives the life of the genius.

As we approach the rarified discussion of the "intellectual" aspects of Emerson's take on Plato, we must keep in mind the goal of this thinking that makes Plato, even without extensive biography, the "representative of philosophy." That is, we must keep in mind that the balance of thinking Emerson calls for leads to a balanced life. We will see that the reader of whom Emerson says in the essay History, "What Plato has thought, he may think" (113) is a reader who embraces the examined life, dedicates himself (with moderation) to the education of the polis as he and his teacher did, and not merely one who writes esoteric books on Plato's "doctrine."

Returning to the question at hand, and the "generality" that Emerson praises in Plato, Emerson claims that Plato's works have a "perpetual modernness," the ability to speak to people of all eras. Emerson explains this by saying that Plato "was not misled by anything short-lived or local, but abode by real and abiding traits" (291, emphasis added). He immediately follows this comment by himself posing the question of "How Plato came thus to be Europe, and philosophy," indicating that the question of Plato's "abiding" influence is a result of his connecting to himself "abiding" traits; this might seem a rather common answer, but with Emerson, unlike many (other) religiously minded thinkers, this does not stand as an answer, but as the opening of a question. The "abiding"--not simply the eternal--aspects of existence are not the close of a question. We are not to presume what this word "abiding" means, but to find in Plato the opening of the question of that which abides. The doubling of the verb "to abide" further indicates that this question of the "abiding traits" is precisely, as we indicated above, a question of where we live, or where we have always lived, or, where we should always strive to live. To put it clearly: We must be careful not to too readily consider the "religious" connotations of this term definitive. This is not to say that such a reading can be discounted; rather, we must note that the semantic excess, so characteristic of Emerson's work, is certainly present here. (3)

Immediately after posing this question of Plato's abiding influence, Emerson presents us with an odd paragraph. He makes a reference to the necessity of character in the one who abides in the abiding: he says it could not happen without a certain "soundness," a "sincere and catholic" character, which is "able to honor, at the same time, the ideal, or law of the mind, and fate, or the order of nature" (292). I will simply note this double character here; the meaning of this duality, the relation between it and the general unity of Plato's vision, and that the practical effects of this "at the same time" are central to my argument and will be fleshed-out below.

Emerson then begins a strange and lengthy example as a further introduction to the essence of Plato's genius. He speaks of a symmetry between the development of a nation and that of an individual. In both, he tells us, there is a movement, a teleological progress of development from "blind force" to "accuracy, to skill, to truth"...

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