Published Humanitas Volume XXIX, Nos. 1 and 2, 2016
Plato is philosophy, and philosophy, Plato.
Emerson, Plato; or The Philosopher


But it is the fault of our rhetoric that we cannot strongly
state one fact without seeming to belie some other.
Emerson, History


For Emerson, Plato is the quintessential philosopher. I will argue that, to the extent that Emerson wanted his essays to have philosophical depth, he considered his work to be an extension of the work found in Plato’s dialogues. Thus, in his relationship to the towering figure of Plato we can discern his understanding of the relation between his literary and philosophical endeavors. When we read his comments on Plato, we find crystallized what philosophical work Emerson intended his essays to accomplish. Hence, the reader must be attentive not simply to the explicit content of his essays, but also the dialectic form of the essays. As we know from the Phaedrus, and from the dialogical nature of his writings, for Plato the techne of rhetoric is not merely stating factual propositions, but more importantly consists in knowing and guiding the souls of one’s listeners. The same is certainly true of Emerson’s own work.


I will argue that the dialogical character of Plato’s works and the obscurity and tension in much of Emerson’s writings arise from a recognition of the fluid and dialectical character of living, human thought. Emerson sought to draw the reader into participation in his thinking through the superfluity and excess of meaning present in his essays—an excess that philosophical commentators on the essays have found maddening, and even the sign of an inferior mind. I will argue that Emerson uses language ambiguously in much the way Plato constructed his dialogues in order to demand that the reader take an active role in the process of thought. For Emerson,truly great philosophy has this “literary” quality of semantic excess which makes demands of the reader—rather than simply and clearly stating a position to be memorized…

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