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Plato, New

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So, let me see if I can write about something not so self absorbed this morning.  Not that it hasn’t been a long week-end and a long morning, because it has.  But.

What I’ve been reading the last few days is a book by Bruce Thornton called Greek Ways:  How the Greeks Created Western Civilization. Thornton is a classics professor at one of the state colleges in California.  I cannot, at the moment, remember which one.  He publishes essays on Victor Davis Hanson’s website, as well as other places.  Like Hanson, he’s an advocate of universal liberal education starting with a knowledge of Greek history and culture. 

The book is an interesting one in a number of ways.  For one thing, it’s an usual focus.  Thornton takes a number of particular issues which modern academics use to denigrate Greek culture and first explains the reality of them and then makes a case for why the Greeks should be applauded for their approach to these things, rather than castigated for them.

Well, okay, mostly he does that.  In the chapter on Greek homosexuality, he’s more concerned to explain exactly how it operated and therefore debunk popular ideas of a Greek gay paradise.

So far, I’ve read chapters on homosexuality, the status of women, slavery, and (I’m just at the beginning) war.

And I’ll probably talk about some of those and what this book says about them at some point, but right now, what’s got to me is a sort of side issue. 

A lot of us here (myself included) tend to talk about the differences between Plato and Aristotle as if they resided primarily in two places:  their understanding of politics, and their concern (or lack of it) for empirically-based observation and experiment in what we would now call the “sciences.”

The scare quotes are not because I think science doesn’t exist.  It’s because, to Aristotle and Plato, chemistry and biology and physics were all branches of philosophy, and the word “science” attached to any rational inquiry.  So ethics was a “science” in just the same way chemistry was, and both were also “philosophy.”  By the Middle Ages, theology would be called “the queen of the sciences,” and they meant the word.

But the problem with all this is this–for the Greeks, and the Romans, and the early fathers of the Christian Church, what was important about Plato was not his politics or his plan for a utopia.

In fact, Medieval thinkers didn’t have much use for either.  Plato lived in a democracy and posited an oligarchic totalitarian state.  Medieval thinkers widely assumed that the political organization ordained by God was monarchy, since the relationship between God and the human race was itself a form of monarchy. 

That impulse to monarchy is evident in the imagery that all Christians were taught to apply to Christ and his salvific mission.  He was “king of kings” and “lord of lords.”  He was not prime minister.

This radical difference in political approach and temperament is obvious in Augustine (see Civitas Dei), and for a long time it made me very confused when people would call Augustine a “neoPlatonist.”

No he isn’t, I’d think–he’s got nothing in common with Plato’s ideas about human society at all.  For one thing, Augustine would never have put up with a philosopher king.  No matter how attractive idea in the abstract, he knew too much about philosophers and too much about kings.  And he was especially convinced of the inability of men and women to perfect, on their own, a fallen human nature. 

Near the beginning of Thornton’s book, however, during a description of the nature and purpose of sexuality in classical Greek society, it suddenly hit me:  what made Augustine and most of the other Church fathers neoPlatonists was not their politics, but their epistemology.  They are neoPlatonists because of the way they define reality and the way they believe we perceive reality.

Think for a minute about the Platonic ideals, and the men watching shadows on the walls of the cave.

Men, Plato said, see only the shadows of the real world, which does not consist of the accidents and corruption all around us, but of ideal forms existing in eternity without decay or change.

Men, St. Paul said, as long as they live on this earth, see only “through a glass darkly.”  Reality is what lives with God in eternity.  Our bodies will rise with our souls on the last day, but they will be glorified bodies, not the weak, aging, decaying ones we have now. 

What Plato seems to have posited mostly as a metaphor, the early Christian Church seems to have accepted as fact.  What we see, what we live with, is temporary, fleeting and not-quite-real.  What awaits us in eternity is the real reality. 

Now we struggle against delusion and confusion, prey to animal appetites and to the ravages of change.  Then we will be as we always are, unchanging, eternal, and true to ourselves. 

To pass from this earth into Heaven–or even Hell–is to pass from Plato’s cave into Plato’s world of ideal forms, and there’s no metaphor going on whatsoever.

I’m getting that feeling again that I’m going around and aroung in circles, but the whole thing makes perfect sense, and is perfectly clear, in my own head.

Classical civilization passed into Christian civilization as a matter of evolution, not of conquest, because there was in Christian ideas so much that corresponded to classical ones. 

Some of the early Church fathers looked at classical Greece and Rome only in terms of the practices and customs of the age, and rejected them both.  I forgot who it was who demanded to know “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem.”

In the end, though, the Church fathers whose influence really built the Church (and the civilization) we know knew exactly what Athens had to do with Jerusalem, and worked very hard to maintain the connection through centuries of wars, conquests, barbarian sacks, Islamic expansionism, and all the rest of it.

And, of course, eventually preserving both the good and the bad of the political thought, both the impetus to democracy and the impetus to totalitarianism.

But I find it interesting to contemplate the core idea of neoPlatonism, the idea that the life we live here is a “temporary home” (thank you, Carrie Underwood) whose reality will only be realized in eternity.

I don’t know how you could prove that–or disprove it–at all.

And I don’t know what the implications would be of holding such an idea, what it would do to the way you behaved.

But I think I’ll go have some tea and fight with nurses.

Written by janeh

August 9th, 2010 at 9:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Plato, New'

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  1. I find it a very consoling idea when things are really screwed up. This too will pass. Reality and truth are on the other side; I’ve got to expect things to go badly in the here and now, and all that can be expected of me is that I do the best I can to deal with them. Perfection is not a possible goal, not this side of the grave.

    I don’t think that view of reality is possible to prove or disprove, though.

    A strictly materialist view of reality is quite easy to prove, but of course you have to start with what you will prove – that there is nothing that cannot be sensed in some way.


    9 Aug 10 at 10:37 am

  2. This makes sense–and it does indeed put the church fathers and Plato in one camp with Aristotle (and Ayn Rand) in another. As for whether it has, if you will, “policy implications”–maybe. It does seem to have some potential for treating “Truth” as something different than honest speech or “Freedom” as something distinct from the right to do as one pleases, and we’ve all seen that done.

    But the alternative has its own trap. Without an abstract notion of truth or freedom, it’s possible to so focus on contradictions and imperfections of real-life instances as to deny the existence of the things themselves–and we’ve seen that, too. And deriving moral behavior from observed examples has nightmarish potential.

    I’m not a big Phil Dick fan, but there’s a point in THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE at which a character who has had a completely relativist morality–more a matter of customs–has an epiphany. “Evil is real, like concrete.” The problem is that evil–or truth, or freedom–are real, but are NOT like concrete. They are as real as, but they are not real in the same way.

    And no, I have no idea where that leaves one philosophically.

    Cheryl, I think you’re close. You can’t prove anything by starting with the conclusion as a postulate. Chesterton wrote that when someone tells of seeing a ghost, and his story is dismissed because there is no such thing as a ghost, it is the skeptic who has let doctrine supercede evidence.


    9 Aug 10 at 4:31 pm

  3. I’ve been trying to think of something clever to say about moral relativism and the nature of evil but I can’t get past the news about the Talibab shooting 10 doctors plus this news item



    9 Aug 10 at 9:35 pm

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