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CHAPTER THREE: STEWART'S PLATO
1. A THEORY OF INTELLECT
In the summer of 1930, after finishing his degree in London,
Lonergan returned to Canada and was assigned to teach at Loyola
College, Montreal. In spite of numerous duties, he was able to
do some reading and among the books he read was a book on Plato
by an Oxford don by the name of J. A. Stewart. It was Plato's
influence, mediated by Stewart's work, that began to move him
away from nominalism. In 1971 Lonergan wrote:
As Fr. Bolland had predicted, my nominalism vanished
when I read J.A.Stewart's Plato's Doctrine of Ideas.
In writing this paper I recalled that I had been
greatly influenced by a book on Plato's ideas by some
Oxford don. I had forgotten his name and the exact
title of the book, so I went down to the library,
patiently worked through the cards listing books on
Plato and, finally, when I got to "S" found my man. I
got the book out of the stacks, took it to my room, and
found it fascinating reading. It contained much that
later I was to work out for myself in a somewhat
different context, but at the time it was a great
release. My nominalism had been in opposition, not to
intelligence or understanding, but to the central role
ascribed to universal concepts. (1)
Certain themes in Stewart's book resonated with what
Lonergan had learned from Newman. The first of these was the
theme of focussing on present personal experience. Stewart felt
that many commentators had missed Plato's point in his theory of
Ideas because they had not asked the basic question: what human
and psychological experience was Plato talking about? They had
tended to make Plato's ideas seem fantastic because they had not
related them to the facts of present human psychology. Only in
this way could the origins of his Plato's theory be discovered.
The cardinal question is not asked: What has present-day psychology to tell us about the variety of
experience which expresses itself in the doctrine of
Ideas? The doctrine is treated as if it were a 'past
event' in the 'history of philosophy' for determining
the true nature of which there is such and such
documentary evidence which, if only marshalled in the
right way, is in itself conclusive. (2)
To the exegetes of Plato Stewart asks:
"But," we ask, "What are the Ideas?" What were Plato
and these other people talking about? Surely about the
right way of expressing some experience which they all
had in common, and we ourselves still have. Tell us in
the language, vernacular or philosophical, of today
what that experience is." (3)
The young Lonergan must have responded to such frankness.
It fits in with Newman's emphasis on discerning the concrete
events of personal consciousness, on concentrating on things and
not just on ideas, on facts instead of notions. Throughout his
life this was a common theme in his life: "What in the world are
we talking about?"
For Stewart Plato was both a scientist and an artist.
Aristotle, however, because of a lack of appreciation for the
aesthetic side of Plato, also seriously underestimated the
scientific side. As a result he handed on to posterity a simple-minded interpretation of Plato's Ideas as "separate things."
The doctrine of Ideas, expressing this double
experience, has accordingly its two sides, the
methodological and the aesthetic. The former side
Aristotle misunderstands, and to the latter is entirely
blind. If the Ideas are "separate things," as
Aristotle maintains, then the doctrine of Ideas can
have no methodological significance; for methodology
must assume that science works with "concepts," which
are not themselves "things" but general points of view
from which things, i.e. sensible things - the only
"separate things" known to science - are regarded. (4)
In some fragments from the Lonergan archives that appear to
be from the early 1930's Lonergan makes reference to Stewart's
book and critiques Aristotle's mis-conception of Plato.
Plato in speaking of the idea as separate or
separable... may very well have been no more than
referring to the idea as such, the abstract idea
separate and distinct and entirely different from the
pure presentation which it informs. The intellectual
place (noetos topos) may be no more than a metaphor for
what we with other metaphors describe as the
intellectual order, the intellectual level, the
intellectual plane. (5)
In these early fragments Lonergan speaks of upholding "the
theory of intellection as an immanent act" as opposed to the
scholastic theory of understanding as "spiritual apprehension."
Here he finds the root of Aristotle's mis-conception of Plato.
If one tries to think of the spiritual apprehension as
separate, one gets the ridiculous Aristotelian
interpretation of Plato as holding "universalia a parte
rei." The very argument Aristotle was against [in]
Plato is used in one of Plato's dialogues by Parmenides
against "young" Socrates. I.e., Socrates got over that
notion in his youth. Cf. Plato's Theory of Ideas by
Stewart gives an interpretation of Plato's ideas in terms of
Explained on these lines, the eidei, so far as
methodology is concerned, are points of view from which
the man of science regards his data. They are the
right points of view, and, as such, have the
"permanence" of phenomena; but only so in the sense
that they are the "explanations" as distinguished from
the "phenomena explained." They are not "separate
things"...If we dismiss from our minds the prejudice
raised by Aristotle's criticism, we find nothing in the
Dialogues of Plato to countenance the view that the
Ideas, so far as they have methodological significance,
are "known" as statically existent: they are "known"
only as dynamically existent - only as performing their
function of making sensibilia intelligible. It is as
true of Kant's categories that without sense they are
empty. The Ideas, so far as their methodological
significance is concerned, are nothing more than
concepts-in-use - the instruments by employing which
human understanding performs its work of interpreting
the world - this sensible world, not another world
For Lonergan, at last, this was an account of concepts that
related them to the dynamisms of the human mind. They are
"points of view" from which the sensible world is interpreted.
They structure human questioning in its dynamic search for an
understanding of this world. According to Stewart, Plato
maintains this view of the function of the Ideas, or Forms,
throughout the whole series of his dialogues, but especially in
his earliest dialogues. There his object is to find the Forms of
the moral virtues, that is, to explain the moral virtues by
exhibiting each in its special context. Each Form, such as
justice, temperance, etc., is assigned its special place and use
in the social system, the system of the "Good." Sense,
imagination and desultory thinking, expressing themselves in
Rhetoric, present the virtues separately, taking no account of
the system in which they inhere. On the other hand, there is
the process of "remembering," anamnesis, that enables a person to
arrive at the natures of things.
Anamnesis, described as aitias logismos, connected
thinking, stirred by dialectic, works out the special
context of each virtue and the relations of that
context to other contexts viewed as parts, along with
it, of the whole system. "Context grasped,"
"scientific point of view taken," "eidos discovered" -
these are equivalent expressions. The eidos is not an
impression of sense passively received; it is a product
of the mind's activity, an instrument constructed by
the mind whereby it "makes nature," "moulds
environment," so as to serve the purposes of human
In the early dialogues Socrates is a figure who keeps asking
questions and seeking the definitions of things. "What is
justice?' "What is virtue?" Socrates' dialectical method
inevitably brings his listeners to moments of confusion and
perplexity, and to sometimes admitting that they do not know what
they thought they knew. The Platonic Socrates does not succeed
at arriving at a fully systematic viewpoint, but his point is to
enlighten people about what they do not know. (9) Gradually, there
emerges Plato's doctrine of Ideas:
the concept in question is no longer made to depend
precariously on the few particulars observed, but is
determined, shaped all round as it were, by the system
which includes it: in the light of that system we come
to see it for what it is, and are finally convinced
that it "cannot be otherwise': it has become
independent of the few particulars the observation of
which first suggested it. (10)
Plato's early dialogue, the Meno, which Lonergan later
refers to on several occasions, includes the doctrine or myth of
anamnesis: the doctrine that true knowledge is not received from
without, but rather recollected from within. In the dialogue
Socrates illustrates this doctrine to Meno by calling over a
slave-boy and asking him the answer to a geometrical question,
how to double a four-foot square. The boy at first thinks he
knows the answer, that is, by doubling the sides of the square or
by adding one foot to the sides. But both solutions are shown to
be false, and finally confused, the boy admits that he does not
know what he thought was "obvious." Then gradually, under the
guidance of Socrates' questioning and by diagramming the diagonal
of the four-foot square and constructing a square on that basis,
the slave-boy "recollects" the answer. Through such questioning
one moves beyond the knowledge of particulars (doxa or opinion)
to scientific knowledge (episteme) which gives the "Idea," the
causal context. Lonergan succinctly summarizes this contextual
background needed to define.
Definitions haven't got a precise meaning unless you
have a fundamental set of terms and relations with the
terms fixing the relations and the relations fixing the
terms and the whole lot verified. Then you can have
definitions that mean something. Any deductivist
system has to have that to start. (11)
This, of course, is an explanation of Stewart's Plato that
Lonergan gave many years later after reading the book. As he
summarized his debt, through Stewart, to Plato.
From Stewart I learnt that Plato was a methodologist,
that his ideas were what the scientist seeks to
discover, that the scientific or philosophic process
towards discovery was one of question and answer. (12)
To be a methodologist is to know how to question. It was
Plato that taught Lonergan that every question, when properly
formulated, implies the shadowy anticipation of its answer.
Otherwise, we would never recognize an answer as the answer. We
would never be able to say, "That's it! That's what I've been
looking for!" Without the prior question the slave-boy in the
Meno would never have seen the answer in the properly aligned
I believed in intelligence and I thought concepts were
overrated. When I found in Stewart's Plato's Doctrine
of Ideas that an idea, for Plato, was like Descartes'
equation for the circle, I was home. You get the
equation of the circle just by understanding. (13)
Concepts then are rooted in "grasping the intelligible in
the sensible," as Lonergan would later put it. Stewart found
this in Plato:
The unity of the Idea...consists in its being a single
point of view from which the phenomena are regarded, a
single point of view taken of that which otherwise is
undetermined... Understanding this, we find it easy to
dispose of the difficulty about the unity of the Idea
being broken up among the particulars: "the Idea of the
circle as defined by its equation in the general form,
is not itself properly speaking a curve." (14)
Lonergan was indebted to Stewart for a sense of the
"heuristic" character of human understanding: the dynamism of the
intellectual search for the unknown. (15) In between the concepts,
on the one hand, and the sensible data on the other, there is the
pre-conceptual dynamism of questioning and understanding.
Aristotle and Thomas held that you abstracted from
phantasm the eidos, the species, the idea. And my
first clue into the idea was when I was reading a book
by an Oxford don by the name of J. A. Stewart who in
1905 had written on Plato's myths and in 1909 on
Plato's doctrine of ideas. And he explained the
doctrine of ideas by contending that for Plato an idea
was something like the Cartesian formula for a circle,
i.e. (x2+y2) = r2 and that exemplified an act of
understanding to me, and the idea was getting what's in
behind the formula for the circle. So you have
something in between the concept and the datum or
phantasm. And that is the sort of thing that you can't
hold and be a naive realist... (16)
In the fragments that seem to be from an early essay that
Lonergan wrote about this time there are several references to
Plato. In these fragments the young Lonergan is aiming at
articulating "the theory of intellect" that he later claimed he
got from Plato.
Plato's expression of the ultimate identity of
intelligence and reality is in the myth of recollection
(anamnesis). Socrates is using his heuristic method
upon a slave, who first tends merely to guess but under
the pressure of Socrates' questions elicits the acts of
understanding necessary for grasping the geometical
theorem under discussion. The procedure here...is
simply a recognition of the fact that understanding is
an immanent act, that the teacher cannot understand in
public, so to speak, that the best way to get the
pupils to understand is by asking them leading
questions. The point is not that the slave knew
geometry in a prenatal state (for which no evidence is
given) but that the slave was able to understand
geometry, i.e. to know what was presented, what could
not be presented. Strip the imagery off Plato's myth
of anamnesis and we are left with an assertion of the
ultimate identity of intelligence and reality. (17)
Absent from Stewart's book is any sense of nominalism and
empiricist phenomenalism. Concepts are rooted in understanding
which is itself the release to human questioning. Such concepts,
as they develop with the development of human understanding,
structure questioning which is itself heuristic: the mind's
dynamic anticipation of understanding the natures of things.
We might add that Stewart sees the second dimension of
Plato's Ideas, the more contemplative dimension, as not strictly
scientific, but as giving rise to art and religion.
For that experience the "idea" is not a "point of view"
taken by the mind in "discourse," but a "real presence"
confronting "contemplation"...The "eternal Idea" is
revealed in some welcome, some familiar or beautiful,
object of sense - literally in the object of sense: not
as another object which the object of sense
"resembles," but as that very object of sense itself
transfigured, become a wonder. It is not a skylark
that Shelley hears and sees, but the Skylark. (18)
Here again a theme is sounded that can be found in
Lonergan's early writings: grasping an intelligibility in a
singular sensible or imaginative example.
Lonergan later noted:
My apprehension, at that time, was not that precise.
It was something vaguer that made me devote my free
time to reading Plato's early dialogues. (19)
2. A CRITIQUE OF CULTURE
Lonergan never felt that Plato had all the answers.
Nevertheless, he thought Plato was the perfect introduction to
philosophy, to questioning our human questioning.
My idea of Plato is that he is the perfect introduction
to philosophy. I don't think he has the answers but
certainly he can build up interest and start one into
serious questions. (20)
From some of his early writings we can surmise that during
the early 30's Lonergan read Plato's Meno, the Sophists, the
Gorgias and The Republic. (21) As he said years later, "In the
early thirties I began to delight in Plato, especially the early
dialogues." (22) What will become evident in Lonergan's unpublished
writings from the mid-thirties is that Plato gave Lonergan the
sense of the normativeness of intelligence in its own right, a
normativeness that in Plato becomes the means of cultural
In those writings Lonergan states that in Plato philosophy
emerged with the assertion of its social significance:
"Towns and cities will not be happy till philosophers
are kings" is the central position of Plato's Republic,
and the Republic is the centre of the dialogues. To
Plato, Pericles, the idol of Athenian aspirations, was
an idiot; he built docks and brought the fruits of all
lands to Athens...but he neglected the one thing
necessary, the true happiness of the citizens. For did
not the dialectic reveal that no man without self-contradiction could deny that suffering injustice was
better than doing injustice, that pain was compatible
with happiness, that shame, the interior contradiction,
the lie in the soul of a man to himself, was
incompatible with happiness. (23)
What was evident to Plato was that a higher control was
needed in the governance of society and that higher control was
virtue, and that virtue was to be known by human intelligence in
its fullest exercise.
The achievement of Platonism lay in its power of
criticism. The search for a definition of virtue in
the earlier dialogues establishes that virtue is a
certain something, the emergence of a new light upon
experience. This discovery of the idea, of
intelligible forms, gave not only dialectic but also
the means of social criticism. For it enabled man to
express not by symbol but by concept the divine. (24)
In the last years of his life Lonergan would point again to
Plato as he recommended the commentaries of Eric Voegelin. For
Voegelin, Plato's parable of the cave describes a person being
forced against his or her will out of the shadows into the light.
It reveals opposite principles at work in human life:
On the one hand, opinion may lead through reason
(logos) to the best (ariston), and its power is called
self-restraint (sophrosyne); on the other hand, desire
may drag us (helkein) towards pleasures and its rule is
called excess (hybris). Or as Voegelin illustrates the
matter, a young man may be drawn to philosophy but by
social pressure be diverted to a life of pleasure or to
success in politics. But if he follows the second
pull, the meaning of his life is not settled for him.
The first pull remains and is still experienced as part
of his living. Following the second pull does not
transform his being into a question-free fact, but into
a questionable course. He will sense that the life he
leads is not his "own and true life." (25)
Speaking of Voegelin's interpretation of Plato, Lonergan
I had always been given the impression that Plato's
dialogues were concerned with the pure intellect until
I read Dr. Voegelin and learned that they were
concerned with social decline, the break-up of the
Greek city-states. It was human reasonableness trying
to deal with an objective social, political mess. (26)
The quotes we gave above from Lonergan's early writings
shows that he had indeed considered this side of Plato in his
With the reading of Stewart and Plato something major was
going on in Lonergan. He later spoke of it as "a great release."
Nevertheless, even though in later years Lonergan attributed to
Stewart and Plato his break with nominalism, in a letter he wrote
to his provincial in 1935 he claimed that after reading Plato his
nominalism was still intact.
I got interested in Plato during regency and came to
understand him; this left my nominalism quite intact but
gave a theory of intellect as well. (27)
In other words, there would seem to have been an inner
conflict in Lonergan at this time: that is, a growing and more
factual awareness of the dynamics of human consciousness along with
an underlying philosophical position - nominalism? - in conflict
with that developing understanding. (28)
After reading Plato it was only natural that Lonergan would go
on to reading the most famous of Christian Platonists, St.
Augustine. "I read St. Augustine's earlier works during the summer
before theology and found him to be psychologically exact." (29) It
was through reading Augustine that Lonergan's definitive break with
nominalism took place and from Augustine that he then made his way
to the intellectualism of Aristotle and Aquinas.
1. Second Collection, 264-265.
2. J.A.Stewart, Plato's Doctrine of Ideas (Oxford: 1909) 1.
3. Ibid., 2.
4. Ibid., 3.
5. Fragments of what may be the lost essay on assent from the
early 1930's: Lonergan's page number 13. Archives of the Lonergan
Research Center, Toronto.
7. Stewart, 3.
8. Ibid., 6-7.
9. Caring About Meaning: 24: "Socrates introduced definitions,
and people who ask for definitions usually are crazy."
10. Stewart, Plato's Doctrine of Ideas, 18.
11. Caring About Meaning, 24.
12. Second Collection, 264.
13. Caring About Meaning, 44.
14. Stewart, Plato's Doctrine of Ideas, 93. On the circle cf. 57
and 74; also 95: "It is only on the basis of Mathematically exact
determination of x by the appropriate A that empirical science is
15. "The reality of the intelligible A is constituted by the fact
that it performs its function of making the x of the sensible
world intelligible in the formula x is A." Ibid., 85.
16. Transcript by Nicholas Graham of discussion from Lonergan
Workshop, Boston College, June 19, 1979. Available at Lonergan
Research Institute. Toronto.
17. Fragments what may be the lost essay on assent: Lonergan's
page number 9. Archives of the Lonergan Research Center, Toronto.
18. Ibid., 11.
19. Second Collection, 264.
20. Caring About Meaning, 49.
21. Some years later, while a student in Rome in 1935, Lonergan
wrote to his provincial that, among the few books he owned, there
were four dialogues of Plato. There are also references to these
early Platonic dialogues in his notes from the middle 1930's on
the philosophy of history. Nevertheless, he did not at the time
continue to read Plato. As he said: "I had other fish to fry."
Caring About Meaning, 48.
22. Second Collection, 38.
23. Unpublished Philosophy of History notes, available at the
Lonergan Research Institute, Toronto. Quoted with permission.
25. Third Collection, 190. Lonergan refers to Voegelin's "The
Gospel and Culture," in Jesus and Man's Hope, ed. by Donald G.
Miller and Dikran Y. Hadidian, Vol. II (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh
Theological Seminary, 1971), 59-101. Cf. Caring About Meaning,
22-23, on Voegelin: "He is a moral man, and he certainly presents
conscience, using Plato to do it -- in The Laws, the puppeteer.
The pull of the golden cord doesn't force you; you have to agree,
make the decision. But the jerk of the steel chain, that's what
upsets you. The viewpoint is Ignatius and it is the whole
ascetic tradition of the discernment of spirits."
26. Quoted in The Question as Commitment: A Symposium, ed. E.
Cahn and C. Going (Montreal: The Thomas More Institute, 1977)
27. Letter to Provincial, January 22, 1935.
28. Newman speaks of such a conflict between his reason and his
imagination regarding the Catholic church. His Apologia is a
good example of the ongoing conflict between developing reason
and an underlying imaginative vision. "Simultaneously with
Milner I read Newton On the Prophecies, and in consequence became
most firmly convinced that the Pope was the Antichrist predicted
by St. Paul, and St. John. My imagination was stained by the
effects of this doctrine up to the year 1843; it had been
eliminated from my reason and judgment at an earlier date; but
the thought remained upon me as a sort of false conscience.
Hence came that conflict of mind, which so many have felt besides
myself; - leading some men to make a compromise between the two
ideas, so inconsistent with each other, driving others to beat
out the one idea or other from their minds, - and ending in my
own case, after many years of intellectual unrest, in the gradual
decay and extinction of one of them , - I do not say in its
violent death, for why should I have not murdered it sooner, if I
murdered it at all." Apologia pro vita sua, 7.
29. January 22, 1935 letter to Provincial.