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The Truth about Gods and Men

  • F. E. Sparshott (a1)

Extract

In his discussion of Plato's treatment of education in Republic II–III, Mr. Crombie writes that the Platonic Socrates “assumes that we tend to become like the characters in the books which we admire; and this,” he adds, “will never do.” He attributes this alleged assumption to a “simple-minded psychology”, but it is not clear what he thinks the psychology is. His words suggest that we are supposed to become like all of the characters in any book we admire, but since these characters are certain to be unlike each other this cannot be what he means. Again, it is odd that it should be admiration of a book that moves us to become like the characters in it, rather than the fact that it has excited or moved us. The notion one would have expected Crombie to attribute to Plato is rather that we tend to become like characters we admire in books that move us; and perhaps this is what he means. Even so, there is something odd in the notion of admiring a character in a book, since such a character is not a real person. What is really meant must be, I think, that books that move us in certain ways tend to arouse in us admiration for character traits of the kinds typified by the characters sympathetically or powerfully portrayed in those books, and that this admiration then leads us to assume those traits ourselves.

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1 Crombie, I. R., An Examination of Plato's Doctrines (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), II, 91.

2 Adam, J. W. H. Atkins, Bröcker, Collingwood, Cornford, Cross and Woozley, Friedlander, Gauss, Greene, Grote, Grube (bis), Levinson, Murphy and Shorey either obliterate the contrast between gods and men altogether or else fail to see that different principles are involved. Richard Lewis Nettleship, Philosophical Lectures and Remains (London: Macmillan, 1897), II, 83–99, states correctly that rules governing discourse about gods relate to providence and those about heroes relate to ideals, and implies but does not clearly state that rules for discourse about men deal with the consequences of actions.

3 If the demand is paradoxical, why make it? Perhaps because the values governing discourse can hardly be other than beauty and truth, and we explicitly prescind from questions about beauty (cf. 387a).

4 This seems to be the implication of Phaedo 64c-67b. But the point is of little consequence. One may rely alternatively on the doctrine already enunciated in the Republic (335b-c), that a man is injured only by what makes him a worse person. Being lied to about an event may anger or distress me, but the lies that make me a worse person will be those that cause or encourage me to act wrongly by misleading me on a matter of moral or causal principle.

5 This is a hard position to maintain if one thinks of God as an omnipotent creator. But Greek gods, not being creators, are not omnipotent (pace Plato, Laws 90Id), hence can be absolved from responsibility for whatever one disapproves of.

6 Cf. Gauss, Hermann, Handkommentar zu den Dialogen Platons (Bern: Herbert Lang, 1958), II, ii, 142–7, for an admirable presentation of the underlying theological argument.

The Truth about Gods and Men

  • F. E. Sparshott (a1)

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