Yesterday, in my Duke University "Learning in Retirement" course on Plato's REPUBLIC, I reached what may fairly be called the pivotal passage in the entire work -- the famous discussion of The Divided Line. For those of you who have not re-read THE REPUBLIC lately [I do not even want to contemplate the possibility that someone visiting this blog has never read THE REPUBLIC at all!], this is the relatively brief passage in Book VI in which Socrates, after having defended the startling proposition that philosophers must become kings [or kings philosophers] if there is to be any hope of reforming Athens and establishing a just society, responds to the demands of Glaucon and Adeimantus that he say something substantive about the knowledge of the Form of the Good that is the capstone of the education of the philosophical rulers. In Socrates' response, the divided line is an explanatory device designed to aid the listeners in understanding the complex relationships among mere imagining or perception, our beliefs about physical objects, our mathematical knowledge, and the intellectual intuition [noesis] of The Form of the Good.
Re-reading the passage in preparation for lecturing on it, I was struck very powerfully by two thoughts. The first was how completely, and deliberately, unsatisfactory it is. Everything in the previous pages, which by this point number more than two hundred, has led up to this moment. Eagerly, with the very greatest anticipation, we wait to learn the nature of the highest Form, and yet when the moment comes, Socrates tells us that he will not reveal this final mystery to us. As you can imagine, this places a considerable burden on the unhappy lecturer who is trying to hold the interest and satisfy the curiosity of his students. I did my best. I made a joke of it, I confessed at the very beginning of the ninety minute lecture that this class would be profoundly unsatisfying, I said a good deal about mysticism and intellectual intuition and the notion that one must prepare oneself physically, intellectually, and spiritually for the revelation. I admitted that I myself had never been vouchsafed entry to the mystery of mysteries. But there is no getting around the fact that it is all a very big letdown. My students, I am happy to say, were gentle.
The second thought was that almost everything that has been central to philosophy for two and a half millennia comes right out of that little passage -- all the big questions of epistemology and metaphysics, the entire vast intellectual effort by the Church fathers to wed the secular Greek philosophical tradition with the revealed texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition, all the debates in political philosophy about who should rule and what the right way is to order a society -- all of it can be unfolded out of that half dozen pages. I have always known, of course, how important the writings of Plato and Aristotle are to the Western philosophical tradition. How could I not be aware of that after more sixty years of philosophical study, reflection, and writing? But I think the fact had never been brought home to me quite so forcefully.
Plato was a class act.