The notion of godlikeness in Plato – University of Copenhagen

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The notion of godlikeness in Plato

"The project is an independent post.doc project carried out by Kristian Larsen. The project is supported financially by the Danish Council for Independent Research and the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen."

In antiquity, it was generally accepted that according to Plato, the goal (telos) of man was to become as like God as possible. Indeed, Platonists identified this determination as Plato's view of the goal of philosophy as such, a fact which reflects the ancient's view of philosophy as a "way of life", rather than as an academic discipline. Accordingly, Plato's philosophy was understood as an exhortation to a specific way of living culminating in man's assimilation to God. 
Although this understanding is well-supported by Plato's writings, it has largely been ignored by modern scholars - in fact, the ideal of godlikeness was until recently almost completely absent from contemporary interpretations of Plato. The last decade has witnessed a growing interest in this ideal, resulting in important books and articles on it, but still the subject can hardly be said to play a central role in our understanding of Plato. Moreover, the work done hitherto on the notion of godlikeness may be said to have two limitations.

Firstly, most of the work that deals with godlikeness in Plato's dialogues has summarized the different passages in Plato's dialogues dealing with the theme in order to give an overall picture of how Plato conceives of it. Such a procedure is understandable, but risks oversimplifying the notion. For it is introduced in different contexts and apparently for different purposes, and this may lead one to suspect that if the notion is central to Plato, it is central in a manner which cannot necessarily be summarized under one philosophical topic.

Secondly, a good deal of the work treating this notion is centred as much on the Platonic tradition just as on Plato, an approach which may again give us a limited picture. This tradition interprets the ideal of godlikeness as Plato's determination of the telos of man and most often understands this exclusively as an ethical ideal. It thus rests on the conviction that ethics is a distinct philosophical discipline. This is a Hellenistic rather than Platonic conviction which is ultimately founded on Aristotle's division of philosophy into disciplines and on his distinction between practical and theoretical reason (cf. Met. 1025b, EN. 1139a5 ff). Neither of these are to be found in Plato and it is doubtful whether he would have accepted them. The tendency to follow the Platonists' understanding of the notion of godlikeness as an ethical thesis may thus be misleading. This does not mean that the Platonists cannot be used when investigating the notion of godlikeness in Plato, only that one should use them with caution.

In contrast to the existing literature on the subject, the project will focus on a select number of Platonic dialogues where the notion is found, rather than on the Platonic corpus as such, and pay explicit attention to dramatic and doctrinal differences between them. Through this analysis it will aim at showing that the notion is indeed central to Plato but that its significance is not limited to the field of ethics. The notion, the project will argue, is an essential aspect of Plato's general understanding of man and as such it has an impact on his view of knowledge, metaphysics, and politics, as well as of ethics. At the same time the project will argue that the notion is ambiguous and that there is a tension with what may be termed the Socratic strand in Plato's thought, a strand which emphasizes man's limits and ignorance.

That the Platonists were right in seeing this notion as central to Plato is hard to deny if one considers the number of passages in which it is invoked (e.g. Theaetetus 176a-c, Timaeus 89ea-90d, Republic 500b-d and 613a-b, Laws 716b-d, Phaedrus 252c-d, Phaedo 78b-82c, Symposium 211d- 212a). It may thus seem surprising that so many contemporary scholars have not taken it into account when interpreting Plato. One reason for this may be that this ideal seems foreign to us. In modern times there is a tendency to focus on the finitude and fallibility of man, and the notion of an assimilation to God may look like a mystical ideal which has little relevance for understanding "the human condition". This may explain why many contemporary interpreters have tried to ignore this notion in their understanding of Plato, focusing instead on the open-ended character of Socratic enquiry, and why those who have paid it attention often see it as an aspect of Plato's metaphysical inclination that made him blind to the sphere of human praxis.

Nevertheless, it is precisely with the latter, praxis, that Plato connects the ideal: the assimilation to the divine is claimed to be the basis for virtue as well as for a well-ordered political community. Even if the ideal seems to express what we might call a metaphysical aspiration, Plato indicates that it is directly relevant to ethical and political questions. The project will take this fact as its point of departure, investigating how Plato conceives of the relation between this ideal and the ethico-political dimension and asking what this tells us about the ideal.