1933: RESPONSES TO PLATO'S REPUBLIC
Since we possess neither any systematic nor any definitive investigations of the influence of fascism on the interpretation of Plato in the German-speaking context, a large part of my work consisted in studying the Plato scholarship of the period through the original sources. Decisive for understanding Gadamer's work is the transformation of the humanist image of Plato that had already taken place during the Weimar Republic. The key features of this transformation can be summed up as follows:
- Classical philology stepped into line with National Socialist thinking, thereby bringing to an end the conflict that had raged in the Weimar Republic concerning the correct interpretation of Plato. Official justification was provided by the work of Werner Jaeger. Whereas classical humanism had paradigmatically interpreted Plato as a poet and a metaphysician and considered him the founder of the doctrine of ideas, an association of philologists and philosophers now sought to propagate an alternative “political reading” of Plato. In the course of this conflict of interpretation new interpretative principles were developed.
- The relative importance of the various texts in the Platonic canon was subjected to a revaluation. Those dialogues, dialogue passages, and elements that are concerned with metaphysics and the theory of ideas—that is, those texts on which the traditional humanistic interpretation of Plato developed by Schleiermacher and neo-Kantianism was based—no longer stood at the center of philological research. Instead, attention was focused on the Republic, the Laws and the Seventh Letter. The epistemo-logical concerns that had informed earlier readings of Plato receded into the background. This shift of emphasis was justified philologically inasmuch as the Seventh Letter, Plato's so-called political biography whose authenticity is still disputed today, was declared to be an authentic textual source.
- Advocates of this “politicized” reading of Plato made appeal to the so-called unwritten doctrine that, according to the Seventh Letter (341 a-e) and other sources, represents the essence of Plato's philosophy. Out of this secret doctrine they then sought to derive new rules for philological inquiry that went beyond what could be defended on the basis of the textual material itself, and one to which they believed they enjoyed access.
In this new interpretation emphasis was no longer placed on the construction of a systematic conceptual system. The hermeneutic key to Plato's writings was provided by his involvement in Attic politics. Plato's supposed biography was interpreted with categories taken from Lebensphilosophie, with great emphasis being laid upon Plato's “decision” to reground the state.
The most noted Plato scholars (in the tradition of Ulrich von Wilam-owitz-Moellendorff) were Werner Jaeger, Julius Stenzel, Paul Friedlander, Heinrich Gompertz, and, from the George circle, Kurt Hildebrandt, Wil-helm Andrae, Kurt Singer, and Edgar Salin. It suited their purposes to depict Plato as a “philosopher of crisis.” Kurt Hildebrandt maintained that “for us Germans” Plato should be “a model of a savior in an age of dissolution and decay.” Plato's Republic, which was itself a response to the crisis of the Attic polls, offered material on the basis of which the crisis of the Weimar Republic could be projected back into antiquity. Plato's dream of restoring Attic aristocracy by reforming it in the form of an authoritarian educational state was elevated to the status of a “spiritual task.”
As can be seen from the example of Jaeger and Hildebrandt, the ground for the subsequent fascization of the interpretation of Plato had already been fully prepared during the period of the Weimar Republic. As the philological associations fell into line with National Socialist ideas this interpretation then became orthodox teaching: “Whereas our predecessors saw Plato as a Neo-Kantian system builder and the initiator of a highly revered philosophical tradition, for our generation he has become the founder of the state and the giver of laws.”