Plato’s Hidden Doctrine?

Esotericism seems to have been a common practice among ancient and even modern writers up until recently, when it has been disavowed. Plato, of course, is obviously esoteric. So also is Jesus. There is a public-facing story (the exoteric) and an inward-facing doctrine (the esoteric) for the initiates. Jesus himself declares that he is teaching in parables so that the many will not understand (a fact ignored by many modern church leaders).

But, back to Plato. He is certainly esoteric. He never appears in the dialogues, except in Phaedo, but only by his absence due to sickness. He never speaks in his own voice. “But Socrates speaks for Plato!” Does he? Socrates is himself esoteric, in that he doesn’t teach his own doctrine (see Thrasymachus’ complaint in Republic I) and Plato’s imitation of Socates’ speech in dialogues is therefore doubly esoteric. What doctrine are you to take from these works?

Take the Meno, which I have been studying. Can virtue be taught? Or does it come to be by nature? Socrates dismisses the view that it comes by nature, because then there would be people who could recognize virtuous natures. Thus, it must be taught! But where are the teachers? Which is it?

Many readers are confused and pissed off at this point. But perhaps you should understand that you aren’t supposed to get it. In the seventh letter, Plato argues that whatever philosophic activity is, it happens in the soul, individual by individual, and can’t really be taught. Philosophy is somewhat like virtue in the dialogue.

Return to the action: can virtue arise by nature? Perhaps, but we aren’t skilled in recognizing it when it does. Mabye we are like apprentice dog-breeders, who don’t yet know what it is to be of a virtuous nature. Can virtue be taught? Perhaps so, but the supposed teachers mentioned aren’t virtuous? But even if it could be taught, wouldn’t the teaching require students? If there aren’t students of the right nature, the teacing can’t proceed. It is possible that virtue arises both by nature and by teaching, right?

Or perhaps it is, as Meno says, “somewhat not like these other cases.” Perhaps virtue, being an act of humans who are rational and somehow akin to the forms, is a characteristic of freedom, not bound by nature or teaching, and therefore a quite different thing. The dog-breeder can have such success because dogs don’t have to choose to be dogs. Humans have to choose to be what they are! In such choosing, might we find virtue?

Which is the definitive meaning of Plato? I don’t know, but I think, as Socrates says, “we will be more manly and less lazy if we are confident that the truth can be found.” We’re supposed to dig into the texts and wrestle with them. Well, at least the philosophical initiates are supposed to.

(all quotes are from memory. Don’t check my work!)

One thought on “Plato’s Hidden Doctrine?”

  1. Nicely structured thought piece.
    In my limited understanding of Stoicism I believe it proposes that human beings, as part of a rational universe, are born to be virtuous. To be otherwise would be irrational. The fact that we act in a non-virtuous manner is the result of outside influences via desires and misperceptions. Wouldn’t this argue that each individual has virtue present in the soul and that it need only be developed and protected, primarily through the study of philosophy?

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