The Toronto school and 3 Plato books

Decades ahead of Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato in 1963, three other Plato books were published by scholars with close Toronto ties.  On the one hand, this gives evidence of a long-standing concern with Plato in the area. On the other, it is one more instance of Whitehead’s observation that the “European philosophical tradition” — and not only its philosophical tradition — “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”.

E.J. Urwick (1867-1945) came to Toronto in 1924, where he would head the Department of Political Economy and mentor his successor in that position, Harold Innis. In 1920, still in England, he had published The Message of Plato, a Re-Interpretation of the Republic. There was, of course, close study of Plato in Toronto’s great classics department, as touched upon below. But Urwick’s attention to him in specific reference to classical Sanskrit thought, and in the context of Urwick’s academic areas of political economy and social work, introduced a cross-disciplinary concern with Plato that would find later expression in the work both of Innis and of Havelock. In a letter to Innis, a year before his death, Urwick described his concern as follows:

The whole trend today is to exalt the rationalist scientific approach and to discard the philosophical. I am not thinking only of the worship of the physical and mechanical sciences, but rather of the attempt to make ethics, philosophy, sociology,  etc., conform in method and language to the physical sciences — with disastrous results. Specialization runs mad, and when it does so, never leads to understanding. Its natural result is strife and violent dogmatism. (Urwick letter to Innis, April 24, 1944, cited in innis, Political Economy in the Modern State, 1946, 144)

George Grube (1899–1982) was a year ahead of Eric Havelock studying classics at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He came to Toronto in 1928, another year ahead of Havelock, and remained there for the remainder of his career, retiring in 1970. His frequently republished study, Plato’s Thought, was first issued in 1935.  Through his work on Plato, on Aristotle, on Greek drama, and particularly through his many translations of Plato, Grube was one of the outstanding educators in his time of the classics and particularly of Plato. Grube and Havelock were particularly close, not only as old friends from Emmanuel Cambridge, but also as fellow outspoken socialist activists. In the Festschrift celebrating Grube’s 70th birthday, Havelock contributed ‘Dikaiosune: An Essay in Greek Intellectual History (In Tribute to George Grube, the Distinguished Author of Plato’s Thought)’.

Alban Winspear (1899-1973) grew up near Calgary and became a Rhodes Scholar in classics from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario (160 miles east of Toronto). After a short stint back at Queens, he taught at the University of Wisconsin (one of his grad students was Norman O. Brown) from 1930 until the second world war. Although his tenure included the year McLuhan was a teaching assistant at UW (1936-1937), there is no indication that the two met. Since they would certainly have done so as fellow western Canadians trained in England, Winspear may have been on sabbatical that year. His The Genesis of Plato’s Thought was published in 1940 and reviewed by Havelock in The Canadian Forum in 1941.1 Like Havelock’s later Plato study, Winspear’s book focused on the changes in Greek society leading up to Plato and to the classical era.  As Havelock reported:

A classical professor of Wisconsin, an ex-Rhodes scholar of Queen’s University, has now written a book on “The Genesis of Plato’s Thought”, which marks a new departure in Platonic scholarship, and perhaps the beginning of a new tradition in Platonic interpretation. (…) Conforming to the demands of a historical interpretation, the author very properly devotes well over half his work to establishing Plato’s context in the unfolding process of Greek society, a process conditioned by economic forces and determined by deep underlying class conflicts. In the prehistoric stage, according to his account, Greece enjoyed the loose yet homogeneous structure of the tribe, a roughly communal society. The literature, art and philosophy of Greece as we know them are the products of those epochs in which this tribal order decayed and gave way to new forms. Social change was accomplished in two main stages: first, by the establishment of private property in land, accompanied by the rise of a land-owning oligarchy oppressing the majority as serfs, and already committed to the use of slave labor (…) But secondly, the agrarian economy was in turn invaded by the commercial exchange economy, governed by production for the market, and crystallizing in Athens in that combination of imperialism and democracy under the great Pericles which we think of as the golden age of Greece. These stages of economic change and class conflict were mirrored in Greek thought and philosophy.

Havelock’s review looks forward to Preface to Plato both positively and negatively. On the positive side Winspear’s book had virtues which Havelock would attempt to match:

This account of Plato and his times has one great merit: it is synoptic, and at the same time dynamic. Greek history is presented not as a series of events but as an organic process in which Plato’s philosophy appears not as an isolated creation, but as part of a pattern of Greek behavior. 

Preface to Plato would attempt to specify that pattern.

Negatively, the work had defects which Havelock would work to avoid:

Yet precisely because the circulation of this book is likely to reach beyond the horizons of classical departments, the lay reader needs to be warned of certain flaws and cracks in Winspear’s structure which are not superficial, but affect the foundations. I am not thinking of particular inaccuracies of fact or of evidence, of which there are enough to whet the appetite of the professional scholar long schooled in the art of not seeing the wood for the trees. Nor am I thinking of objections to this work which will be based on a refusal to accept its premises, the economic interpretation of history and the materialist dialectic. If the book fails to command major respect as an interpretation of Plato, it is because the author has not lived up to his own premises with sufficient ardor and patience.

Havelock paid particular attention to Winspear’s explication of Platonic metaphysics:  

[Plato’s] so-called ‘Theory of Forms’ is justly expounded as a necessary contribution to the methodology of the sciences, both physical and social, without which they could not advance beyond the stage of barren empiricism. These concluding pages, which the hostile reviewer is least likely to read, are the best in the book.

He recognized in Winspear a laudable but failed attempt, following Plato’s own potentially more promising one, to bring together strict empiricism with theory. Havelock concludes his review with the remarkable claim that Plato “was, after all, a materialist; he wanted order at all costs“.2

In Empire and Communications (originally 1950), Innis referenced Winspear’s book (p 56, n4 in the 1972 version edited by Mary Quayle Innis) as the sort of “Marxian interpretation” that “has received its expected reward”.  It is probable that he was alerted to it by Havelock’s review in Canadian Forum.

What is distinctive of the Toronto school in the persons of Innis, Havelock and McLuhan is the attempt to turn decidedly against “specialization”, but without losing specification and particular relevance. So far, it must be said, this attempt on the part of the Toronto school has not been seen to have succeeded (any more than Havelock saw Winspear as succeeding).

Specialization has certainly not proved a bulwark against nihilism and may be seen as one of the progenitors of it.  The great question is whether specialization may be exceeded rigorously. And the central matter implicated in this open question is whether a general theory of the humanities and social sciences is possible which not only is not contradicted by the “materialist” facts but is able to further specify them.


  1. The Riddle of Plato’s Politics’, Canadian Forum, April 1941, 15-19
  2. Havelock’s characterization of Plato as “a materialist” who ” wanted order at all costs” relates to his own position in 1941.  At a time when his friends on the left like George Grube were pacifists and against Canadian participation in the war, Havelock, whose brother had died in WW1, was an interventionist. He was, then, a materialist determined to achieve proper order “at all costs” — just like Plato.