Plato’s Forerunners – Notes from Whitehead’s Lectures – 1934



complited by

James Haughton Woods

Harvard Professor of the Philosophical Systems of India

Study Questions

I. The Greek World

To understand Plato it is necessary, as far as we can, to interpret him in his own terms, not in our own. This means that we must first place ourselves imaginatively in his background.

The Greek world was a more intimate world than ours. What we call a city is largely a geographical affair, but for the Greeks the emphasis was on clan relationships and inheritance rather than on geography. The city was based on the permanence of the family; deified ancestors and living citizens formed one close-knit community. And the universe was conceived similarly in terms of family life. The whole world is a corporation, a city. The gods are not only patrons and protectors, but fellow-citizens as well. They belong to the same order, they act in the same drama. They last longer than men, but they are not essentially immortal. They are neither omnipotent nor omniscient. They have each their own domain of power and knowledge, their own limited field of activity, in accord with the principle of a division of labor. There is no idea of a single ruler or creator. Out of the common background emerge both men and gods, expressions of the one being.

Religion was much more objective for the orthodox Greek than it is for us, concerned not with an inner struggle but with the portrayal of the contending forces of nature. He was not introspective. He had no word for conscience or for personality. He had no sharp contrasts of body and soul, mind and matter, persons and things. All existence is alive, and has not been broken into categories which then have to be re-introduced to each other. There is no fear of physical pleasure, no distrust of beauty. In fact ‘’beautiful” and ‘”good” are almost indistinguishable, since the essence of both is measure or proportion, a quantitative and external rather than a qualitative ideal, consisting in the avoidance of excess or defect. (This emerges later in Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean.) The good man. is he who knows his own limits and keeps within them, playing his allotted role, not encroaching on his neighbor or on the gods. This is his , or excellence (sometimes mistranslated virtue). Whoever loses this sense of proportion and gets “off side” soon founders. The evil way, when a man is not sure where he is going , a “mental aberration” rather than “sin.” The discernment of limits is an affair of intelligence, hence the root of evil is ignorance. Thus arises Socrates’ dictum, “Virtue is knowledge.” You must discover what you are and what the universe allows you, if you would be a good man.

Physical laws are like moral laws, and there is cosmic as well as social order, the balance, and rhythm of interacting natural forces. The air, the earth, the sea, the blue sky seemed more alive than man himself; the Greeks called them gods. The Greeks were an agricultural people, not nomads; they observed the seasons, and were aware of the long sequences of nature; they expressed their ideas in sun myths rather than in animal fables. Like all of us, they saw things in accord with their value, in group-relations; these universals are the Olympian gods# who are symbols rather than portraits. These gods manifest the Greek sense of form, a kind of incipient geometry. They are the guardians of order, and at the same time they embody the satisfaction of human desires. They are perfected human beings, living lives similar to man’s life and with identical moral standards, but released from struggle and from suffering. Like man, they have their limits and they assign limits. This is justice, and to transgress it is – insolence and defiance of nature. The gods display only a remote interest in human individuals, out they are the protectors of human institutions and civilization. They also safeguard the order of the universe, keeping things in their places and seeing to it that the world does not cave in. They are images of perfection, types of permanence and clarity, “representatives of all that is definite, clear-cut, serene, lasting.

The worship of the Olympian gods was the “established church”, maintained by rulers, patricians, intellectuals, and by all who insisted on the prevailing order and wished no change. But underneath the serene sense of order characteristic of the Olympian view there is a dark counter-current, the protest of the less fortunate …

to be continued…..(Beezone)

Alfred North Whitehead’s handwritten class notes – Harvard Archives (Beezone).


Beezone in the archives