[Letter of John James Taylor to Francis William Newman.]
December 26th, 1849
Your knowledge of Plato is far more extensive and accurate than mine; and were mine equal to yours, I dare say that on many points I should come over to your opinion. When I last wrote, I was fresh from the reading of the second book of the Republic, and had been so charmed with it, that recollecting the opinion I had once heard you express, I could not help, after my usual impulsive manner, throwing out all the feelings which had been so vividly left on my mind. I look at ancient literature in a way different from some people. To take any old philosopher for one's guide in matters of opinion, and to attempt, as I am told the Germans do, to make a school of Plato or Aristotle, in this marvellous, onward looking nineteenth century, seems to me the height of antiquarian pedantry. On the other hand, nothing is to me so interesting as the history of thought, and the recognition even in its elementary developments of those grand and permanent outlines of identity which stretch through the ages — to see how in poetry and speculation the same aspirations are manifested, the same questions occur, and similar solutions are attempted, in the most widely separated periods of human culture. A certain common type sees to characterise the movements of the mind in every age, on all those subjects which have their root in reflexion and consciousness, and are not dependent on induction and inference from outward facts. So much of the sharpness and efficiency of our knowledge results from contrast, that one of the chief advantages of the study of the dead languages, I have ever felt to arise from the opportunity of comparing modes of thought and states of feeling as they exist in our days, with the forms in which they are presented to us by the wisdom and poetry of former times. A thoughtful mind which has quick sympathies with humanity, may greatly enrich its psychological stores from studies of this description. It strikes me, the earliest thinks of a high order are inclined to throw out vast generalisations which anticipate to a certain degree the type of the future action of thought, and broach an infinity of problems which they leave it to future ages to solve. The more I read of Plato, the more I am surprised at the number of seminal questions which he seems to start on all subjects, — morals, government, art, political economy. The absolute soundness of his solutions is quite another matter. We must remember his age, and not judge him from our standard. His function was that of an awakener of future mind. Undue and slavish reverence has injured his rightful influence. But he cannot be blamed for that. His works, so far as my limited knowledge reaches, seem to me to abound in pregnant suggestions.