What Plato Advises

During the Labor Day holiday, I read two dialogues of Plato, the “Timaeus” and the “Parmenides.” These are among Plato’s longer and more difficult dialogues — the first about creating the world, and the second about the One.

In the “Timaeus,” we read: “As the ancient proverb well puts it, ‘Only a man of sound mind may know himself and conduct his own affairs.’ This is the reason why it is customary practice to appoint interpreters to render judgment on an inspired divinization.” Such a passage contains the whole reason/revelation issue in a brief form.

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But I might not have thought more about these dialogues had I not received my August 24 edition of L’Osservatore Romano, which carried Pope Benedict XVI’s homilies and addresses at World Youth Day in Madrid.

One lecture was given to young professors from Spanish universities. In his remarks, Benedict, as he often does, cited Plato, this time from the “Parmenides.” As I usually leave marks on passages that I particularly would like to think further about, I wondered if I had underlined the passage that the Holy Father cited. The English version in L’Osservatore Romano translated the pope’s Spanish language address, which the pope, no doubt, originally read in Greek and German.

The brief passage reads: “Seek truth while you are young, for if you do not, it will later escape your grasp.” As I am teaching a class on Plato this semester, I read this passage aloud in class. It is something all 20-year-olds should ponder.

In the class, we then turned to Hackett’s Basic Works of Plato (translated by Mary Gill and Paul Ryan). In context, it is not Socrates who speaks the words that the pope cites, but Parmenides. Socrates is there as a very young man, probably around 20 — the age of the young men with whom an elder Socrates in other dialogues loves to converse, and the age of students in my class. Here, the role of the philosopher is taken by the Eleatic philosopher, perhaps an invention of Plato.

Parmenides notices the abilities of the young Socrates, along with that of another young potential philosopher with the interesting name Aristotle (no relation). Parmenides does not think that the young Socrates is yet properly trained in philosophy. “The impulse you [Socrates] bring to argument is noble and divine, make no mistake about it. But while you are still young, put your back into it and get more training, through something people think useless, what the crowd calls idle talk. Otherwise, the truth will escape you.”

Other translations read basically the same. Francis Cornford’s reads: “Believe me, there is something noble and inspired in your [Socrates’] passion for argument, but you must make an effort and submit yourself while you are still young, to a severer training in what the world calls idle talk and condemns as useless. Otherwise, the truth will escape you.”

Reading three translations of the same passage, I think, enables us to feel the force of why Benedict cited this passage. A theme familiar to readers of Plato is that most people consider philosophy to be “idle talk” or “useless.” Philosophy is indeed “useless” by definition. It is not designed so that we “do” something with it. It, with its truth, is its own reward. This reward is insight into what is ultimately important. We want to know of what is that it is, as Socrates often says in other places.

What is the main point of Parmenides advice to young Socrates? The search for truth is a severe discipline. It is not a sidelight. It requires deep study and training. If we know of this pope’s works, we know that he, as a young man, has also subjected himself to such severe training.

But why would we bother? It is interesting that all three translations come up with the same idea — that we may “grasp the truth,” “lest truth escape us.” The greatest loss we can have is to miss the truth of things. And we will usually miss it, not knowing that we do. We will not think it worth our bother. We will think it mostly “idle talk” and “useless.”

What is my conclusion? “Only a man of sound mind may know himself and conduct his own affairs.” When a German pope cites Plato, citing Parmenides, advising Socrates, before a group of young philosophers in the Escorial Basilica, pay attention — lest truth escapes you. A Parmenides, a Socrates, a Plato, and a pope can still so advise us — in Spanish, English, German, and Greek. This is our freedom.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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