Castiglioni and the Rediscovery of Plato and Neoplatonism

        For a millennium, Plato was known to medieval philosophers only knew the dialogues Meno and Phaedo, and parts of the Parmenides and Timaeus), but the much more ambitious Republic was not widely available even in Greek until the Aldine Press edition of 1513, three years before More's Utopia was published.  Plato's complete works were available only in Greek, and few Europeans knew how to read Greek.  Those who did read Greek used their skills rereading the Greek portions of the Christian gospels.  Plato's pupil, Aristotle, was so famous and his works were so widely read that merely to refer to "the Philosopher" was enough to name him.  People wrote new works they falsely claimed to be written by Aristotle because that would guarantee the works' survival.  Aristotle's categorizing mind, his monographs on vast topics (Politics, Ethics, Poetics), and his insistence upon the supremacy of cool reason, heavily influenced the Medieval "Scholastic" philosophers for centuries.  So in 1516's Utopia, More was, in effect, engaging in a hot controversy with the newly discovered work of one of the classical world's greatest thinkers.  Perhaps this, too, accounts for his astoundingly duplicitous and satiric tone.  Who wants to seem like an earnest but facile dummy when taking on Plato? 

        At first, More's thinking would have influenced only the Renaissance humanists, a Latin literate elite that explored the Roman and Greek classics for clues to the lost wisdom of "the ancients."  However, after the fall of Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, scholars from the Greek-speaking imperial court and universities fled into Europe.  Almost immediately, Renaissance humanists in Italy began translating Plato's dialogues and The Republic into Latin and the vernacular tongues of Europe, and soon Plato's influence began to challenge Aristotle's.  This movement popularizes the debate or "Symposium" as a model for philosophical understanding, implying that truth had many sides and the way to understand it might involve our combined social effort.  Castiglioni's  most obvious influence in presenting the discussion of the ideal courtier as a serial debate would have been Plato's "Symposium," in which a group of Athenians recline on their dining couches and discuss the topic, "What is love?" under Socrates' guidance.  The discussion of the ideal courtier ranges over a great many other topics, but you can see that Bembo's closing oration on the "stair of love" is a tacit allusion, or even an "homage," to Plato's work and his way of teaching.

        Plato's suspicion of the irrational fit nicely with the Church's appropriation of Aristotelian rationalism, but Plato's later students, the "Neoplatonists" like Plotinus and Porphyry, began to embrace the possibility that mere rational knowledge might be just another form of educated ignorance, especially because rational knowledge like Aristotle's depended upon the notoriously imperfect actions of our senses (seeing, especially).  For this position, they even could point to their master, Plato, and his "Allegory of the Cave" from The Republic, in which Socrates argues that our senses blind us and the "true forms" beneath the surface of appearances must be sought elsewhere.  Neoplatonists taught that deeper truths only can be understood by a kind of mystical meditation uniting the Knower and the Known.

        Here's the link to Columbia University's online version of Benjamin Jowett's translation of Plato's Republic, Book VII.  "The Cave" allegory begins the book.  Because Plato is such a big name in philosophy, and the allegory of the cave is such a famous part of his work, the astute student seeking some quick exposure to Platonic thought could do worse than to read a while in this book.  To read in the "Symposium," click here.  For some important portions of Platonic thought affecting early theories of literary interpretation, try Plato, "Ion," [e-text] (click here for "Ion" discussion questions) and Republic excerpts from Books III and X [e-text].  Those links are copied from the syllabus for English 215, where they form part of the introduction to classical theories of literary interpretation.