CAT 12. Engraved by George Cooke. Plato. In Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 4. London: Vernor, Hood, & Sharpe, 1812. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.
Plato (427?-347 B.C.), Greek philosopher. From entry in HG 4: “[T]he flattery of his countrymen has described him as the son of Apollo—and invented the fable that a swarm of bees lighted on his cradle, and deposited their honey on his lips—as a presage of his future eloquence. . . . Plato was, during eight years, the assiduous disciple of Socrates; but . . . he did not confine himself to the lessons of his great master. . . . During the trial of Socrates, he never for a moment deserted him: he solicited the judges, he undertook his apology, and offered the whole of his fortune as the price of his friend’s liberty. After the death of his master . . . his thirst for knowledge and information induced him to visit every country in which he could trace the progress of the human mind. . . . When the prejudice against the School of Socrates had subsided in Athens, Plato appeared there as a teacher of philosophy. . . . The existence of a Supreme Being, the nature of the soul, and the formation of the universe—these were the subjects which signalized his controversial powers, and which he intended to explain. Firmly attached to his system of cosmology, he considered the laws of the physical world, the operations of the human intellect, the first principles of every moral and political rule, as its necessary consequence. Thus the philosophy of Plato, considered as a whole, is only, strictly speaking, a romance; but it is the work of a man of genius, of a virtuous and elevated mind, duly apprised of the existence of a first cause, and desirous of catching a spark of his immortal Creator.” Cicero said: “if Jupiter himself had been willing to adopt the language of mankind, he would have spoken as Plato wrote” (n.p.).
Melville internalized Plato in writing the Babbalanjan dialogs in Mardi—though parts remained undigested, as Melville’s narrator acknowledges in Pierre (NN P 283-84). Moby-Dick includes allusions to the “sunken-eyed young Platonist” on the mast-head and to the sperm whale’s head as “a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.” When Tashtego falls into the sperm whale’s severed head, Ishmael compares him with those who “have likewise fallen into Plato’s honey head, and sweetly perished there” (NN MD 158, 335, 344).
In his lecture on “Statues in Rome” Melville subjects an ancient bust of Plato’s own head to some loving jest:
Engaged in the deep researches of philosophy as he was, we certainly should expect no fastidiousness in his appearance, neither a carefully adjusted toga nor pomatumed hair. Yet such is the fact, for the long flowing locks of that aristocratic transcendentalist were as carefully parted as a modern belle’s and his beard would have graced a Venetian exquisite. If this bust were true, he might have composed his works as if meditating on the destinies of the world under the hand of a hair-dresser or a modern valet-de-chambre. (NN PTO 401)
This passage drew upon busts of Plato that Melville had seen in Naples and Rome earlier in 1857, but its “aristocratic transcendentalist” is equally “fastidious” in Melville’s engraved bust from the Historic Gallery.
The “divine Plato” from Mardi (NN M 367) remained a touchstone for the poetry of Clarel much later in Melville’s life, as seen in this elaboration upon the “genial heart” and “brain austere” of Rolfe, who
Was no scholastic partisan Or euphonist of Academe, But supplemented Plato's theme With dædal life in boats and tents, A messmate of the elements; And yet, more bronzed in face than mind, Sensitive still and frankly kind— (NN C 1.31.17-23)