Earthpages.ca

Think Free


Leave a comment

Phenomenology – Mystical or mystifying?

Day 302. Phenomenology. David Mulder via Flickr

Phenomenology is one of those words that crops up in undergrad sociology and philosophy courses. Whenever I heard it I felt sort of dumb, like when you hear a big word and don’t know what it means. And I think some people just used it to appear smart.

Academe games…

Edmund Husserl 1910s via Wikipedia

So early on I made a quick fix. Phenomenology is about personal experience. How a person sees it, I told myself, burning that simple definition into memory so I wouldn’t be caught off guard in seminars and the like. (Sometimes those seminars were really nasty).

When I need to force myself to remember something with a little trick, it usually means the concept doesn’t resonate with me.

I know pretty much all of Freud and especially Jung’s concepts by heart because they seem to have more relevance and richness than the simple, slightly mystifying word phenomenology.

But that’s just me. I’m sure many philosophy majors would love that word, which opens many doors for them.

Turns out the term is a bit more complicated and varied than my youthful quick fix would suggest (the top image is only one of many meanings). But that fix did get me through school okay. I never pursued the term much further because, as I say, it just didn’t personally connect.

Philosophers tend to get tangled up in their own concepts. Many seem to lack genuine insight and miss their own blind spots.

That’s how I see it. A huge generalization, it’s true. But overall, I much preferred the depth psychologists and mystics (I say preferred past tense because I’m always moving into new areas).

Edmund Husserl is usually mentioned when the word phenomenology comes up. Husserl wanted to study ‘structures’ of consciousness (whatever that means) and also phenomena that come into consciousness. At least, that’s how I understand it.

The history of the word is fairly interesting. I’ve used Highly highlighter to outline part of a Wikipedia summary. I could have rewritten this, but as I say, it’s not really my direct interest:

So looking at the above it seems that Kant believes there is a unknowable aspect to reality, whereas Hegel believes we can gradually come to know spiritual truth.

The problem with this Wikipedia comparison, as I see it, is that knowing (or not knowing) the “thing-in-itself” aspect of an object (noumena) is not the same as learning about spiritual presences (numinous).¹ The above quote doesn’t recognize the difference. But elsewhere Wikipedia does recognize it:

Numinous is an English adjective, derived in the 17th century from the Latin numen, that is (especially in ancient Roman religion) a “deity or spirit presiding over a thing or space”. Meaning “denoting or relating to a numen”, it describes the power or presence or realisation of a divinity. It is etymologically unrelated to Immanuel Kant’s noumenon, a Greek term referring to an unknowable reality underlying all things [emphasis added].²

Bottom line?

Don’t read anything uncritically. Even the venerable Wikipedia can be misleading if you don’t do a little digging.

PortalPhilosophers

PortalPhilosophers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ A similar distinction can be made, I think, between matter/energy on the one hand, and spirit, on the other hand. Some New Age writers confuse these two ideas, which to me says they don’t know what they’re talking about. Or to put it more nicely, they’re sort of like newborns who have yet to learn how to differentiate among different types of spiritual experience.

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numinous

Related » David Hume, Science

Advertisements


8 Comments

Pelegianism and authoritarian personalities

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle (Wikipedia)

Preamble: Why I’m not too enthusiastic about Christian theology  (skip to main entry, Pelegianism)

Reading over material for this update, I came to feel that Pelegianism is a great example of why I’m not overly enthused about the history of Christian theology and its related squabbles.

While converting to Catholicism in 2001 I asked the leader for our RCIA course, an elderly priest, how certain parts of the Bible came to be included in the Catholic canon.

I could have also asked the related question of how certain dogmas and teachings came into being but I’m pretty sure I only asked about the formation of the Catholic Bible, which differs from other Bibles.

In retrospect, the priest was probably caught off guard. He was a good, educated man who no doubt knew about the various Councils held in early Christianity.¹

Also, the RCIA participants met in the evening. The leader was probably tired after a long day of fulfilling his priestly duties. And maybe he felt he had to answer to the group, not just to me. But still, his answer seemed simplistic at the time.

He replied that certain Biblical books “resonated with the people” and others did not, as if a majority community democratically decided what should and should not be included in the Catholic canon.

This may be true on some level, but the final decisions were made by a select few. Even today, many of the clergy are quick to point out that the Church “is not a democracy.” For the most part, unchanging truths are apparently revealed through some ambiguous process I still don’t fully understand.

Does anybody?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not disagreeing with the Church’s basic teachings. But many elaborations, it seems, are questionable and supported through incredibly weak arguments.

A high school student could pick apart some of the arguments upheld by members of the clergy—especially, imo, those concerning why only men may become ordained priests.

But I digress. I’ll pick up on these ideas in the postscript.

A17th century Calvinist print depicting Pelagi...

A 17th century Calvinist print depicting Pelagius. The caption says “Accurst Pelagius, with what false pretence Durst thou excuse man’s foul concupiscence, Or cry down Sin Originall, or that The love of God did man predestinate.” – Wikipedia

Pelegianism

Pelegius was a British monk (circa 354–420 or 440 CE)  who came to be associated with a body of teachings called Pelagianism. Pelagius, himself, came to deny those teachings that had been linked to him.

So what is Pelagianism?

Pelagianism is the heretical Christian view, loosely associated with Pelagius, that salvation is attainable through one’s own efforts, as opposed to redemption through divine assistance.

Pelagius believed that Adam and Eve’s original sin (as related in the Biblical book of Genesis) was a bad example for the rest of us. But Adam and Eve’s sin did not indelibly stamp sin into every human being born after him.

In other words, Pelagius recast the traditional idea of a universal “original sin” into a more specific “first sin” of Eve.

So sin is something we can avoid by making good ethical choices and following up with good ethical actions. This places full responsibility on the individual, and less emphasis on the need for divine aid. God already gave us the “tools” as it were, to avoid sin by giving us free will. So grace, intercession, intervention, and so on, may occur but are not necessary to avoid sin and to make good ethical choices.²

Jesus sets a good example and offers a means for atonement. But for Pelegians, Christ does not die for the original sin that we, so the traditional teaching goes, inherit from Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God.

Pelegius also rejected infant baptism, a topic often raised by non-Catholics in favor of adult baptism. And he saw the popular Catholic idea of “weakness” as a crutch for not trying hard enough to eradicate bad behavior.

Pelagius was disturbed by the immorality he encountered in Rome and saw Christians using human frailty as an excuse for their failure to live a Christian life.3

In the early 5th century St. Augustine condemned Pelagius’ ideas. Pelagius was accused of heresy and acquitted.

But this was only a reprieve. Pelagius was later charged again in 431 CE, condemned as a heretic and excommunicated. Not necessarily executed, he was banished from Jerusalem to Egypt where he disappears from history.

Pelagius’ ideas have returned, however, in literature and film.4 And although most of his writings are lost, the thrust of his arguments remain intact by the writings of his opponents (most likely biased to make Pelagius look as wicked as possible).5

Pelagius, flanked by two ministers of his chur...

Pelagius, flanked by two ministers of his church, from a miniature of the Liber testamentorum. (Wikipedia)

Postscript: Why I dodge dogmatic obsessives (see also, Preamble)

Why don’t I like studying the history of Christian theology, as mentioned in the preamble?

For one, it seems too abstract. Theological writings also can come off arrogant and mean-spirited. Instead of reading about the ideas a group of men have developed – and the victims they historically were willing to persecute to advance those ideas – I much prefer good, honest histories about political intrigue and battles. Something I can sink my teeth into and possibly relate to contemporary news.

My kind of history may relate to religion and theology but it involves the whole picture. Not just religion. Theology by itself sometimes seems like a conceptual game.6

Maybe that’s a little extreme. I can understand why a given Church wants to get it right. But I think the humility factor must take precedence, not the arrogance or authoritarian factors. And it seems that many who boldly proclaim as correct their view of theology are probably authoritarian personalities hiding behind a plethora of unresolved psychological issues. Can they avoid dealing with their psychological issues by focusing on their apparent “certainty” on every issue under the sun?

I wouldn’t call obsessive dogmatics “losers” because everyone has a role to play in the grand scheme of things. And we’re all imperfect people, after all. But I wouldn’t spend time having a coffee with them, either. Personalities like that can be toxic. And as a spiritually sensitive person, they can make me squirm, maybe even give me a headache.

So I keep a respectful distance. Fortunately, people so different from myself tend to not want to associate with me either. So it usually works out. There are always a few needy or disturbed exceptions. People who just do not take a broad hint. They tend to be more difficult. But again, one can’t waste time with them.

There’s too much love in the world to spend time with regimented haters. We can pray for them. But getting too close only fans the flames of their authoritarian anger.

¹ In fairness, if someone asked me out of the blue, I’d probably refer them to Wikipedia or the online Catholic Encyclopedia.

² I’m not sure if I agree with this. I tend to think that God educates us as to why we are sinning. That is, what we once thought was AOK becomes clearly sinful from the higher perspective of grace. So we can’t necessarily choose correctly from the get-go. We have to be educated by God about making the right choice. To make things more complicated, this probably varies from person to person. God’s expectations may be sometimes be personal and not always universal. That’s why we should really only judge ourselves and not others.

³ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pelagius

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pelagius#Pelagius_in_literature_and_film

5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pelagius#Writings

Some histories of Christianity, of course, do include political elements and all the Church’s warts. But others gloss over the scheming and iniquity. See, respectively, Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (gritty) vs. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (glossy).

 Ozubulu Killings: Governor Wike condoles with Anambra people (vanguardngr.com)

 Attack On Ndigbo In the North Is An Attack On All Christians, Say Arewa Christians (sundiatapost.com)

 How to save Iraqi Christians (foxnews.com)

 Take me higher! Psychedelic church of cannabis opens in the USA, in pictures (telegraph.co.uk)

 The Queen’s former chaplain threatens Church of England split over LGBT reforms (pinknews.co.uk)

 Four Rappers Traveled to Israel to Find a Culture ‘Dramatically Different’ From the Negative Narrative They’ve Heard (ijr.com)

 ‘Disloyal, outrageous and unacceptable’: The Vatican really doesn’t want Belgian Catholics to perform euthanasia (nationalpost.com)

 Richest royals: This is how much money Europe’s royal families get from their taxpayers (businessinsider.com)

 Worcester board clears way for demolition of historic church (bostonherald.com)

 Only Christians can own cottages at this idyllic Michigan resort (mlive.com)


4 Comments

Panpsychism – The Future Calls?

Toaster is in lurve

Toaster is in lurve: Cle0patra “Toaster has a new friend – Ice, they’ve been inseparable since she arrived” via Flickr

Panpsychism is the belief that all things possess consciousness. Some extend this belief to say that the type of consciousness matches the complexity of a thing’s organization.

The idea goes back to ancient times and has appeared around the globe. But it was rejected by a Church that adhered to a speculative, Aristotelian view of matter and which made a sharp distinction between organic and inorganic substances.¹

The Church’s teaching that human beings, alone, have souls complicated things, especially during times when disagreeing with or merely peeving powerful religious authoritarians could lead to ruin—that is, loss of property, torture and death.

After the Church, the philosophy of logical positivism helped to further squash panpsychism in the mid-20th century.

But it never went away.

Interest in panpsychism reemerged in academic philosophy, the New Age, science fiction and quantum physics. Also, it never really left Eastern religions, especially within Korean, Japanese and Chinese beliefs.

Image via Google Images CC

Today, with the rise of robotics, computing and artificial intelligence, a whole new vista of debate has opened up.

A contemporary panpsychist might say that an electrical circuit or machine generates a quality of consciousness in keeping with the degree of that object’s organizational complexity.

Also, the way a thing is organized could affect its consciousness. Not just the degree.

Sound nuts?

Well, let’s remember that human consciousness is demonstrably affected by our bodies and especially the electrochemical pulses coursing through the brain, nervous system and organs. So maybe the panpsychic view is not too far-fetched.

Additional critiques of panpsychism maintain that it is doubtful machines have souls, which many say is an essential component to life.

This might seem like the most compelling critique.

But can we be certain that God does not instill certain machines with souls… if not now, perhaps in the future?

St. Jerome produced a 4th-century Latin edition of the Bible, known as the Vulgate, that became the Catholic Church’s official translation – Wikipedia

Also, as our human bodies are increasingly transformed by science and technology even before conception – with in vitro fertilization – where do we draw the line between mankind and machine?

Traditional theology classes would probably not ponder these kinds of questions in a mature way.

It seems they are more geared toward generating revenue, defining intellectual boundaries and inculcating organizational obedience within a financially free clergy.²

But the questions raised by panpsychism are not going away. And soon they will have to be taken seriously.

Our future might depend on it.

¹ (a) This agrees with “Aristotle’s distinction between the mineral kingdom and the animal and vegetative kingdoms.” https://books.google.ca/books?id=KGaghraz8AUC&pg=PA526&lpg=PA526&dq=Aristotle%E2%80%99s+distinction+between+the+mineral+kingdom+and+the+animal+and+vegetative+kingdoms&source=bl&ots=o6Uhhd0oLB&sig=agRCj_3qQwuEsfs99EywODtzNac&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwirkcut4r7UAhVK44MKHQLxBaYQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=Aristotle%E2%80%99s%20distinction%20between%20the%20mineral%20kingdom%20and%20the%20animal%20and%20vegetative%20kingdoms&f=false

(b) “There is no clear or universally agreed-upon distinction between organic and inorganic compounds.” See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inorganic_compound

² From the perspective of depth psychology, emotionally challenged individuals often want something to cling on to. It might be hoards of money, status, or just something old and familiar. I say “financially free” because clergy who fit the bill are not burdened with financial concerns. How many working people around the world can claim that?

Related » Artificial Intelligence (AI), Strong AI Thesis, Leibniz, Spinoza


1 Comment

Panentheism – The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Karl Christian Friedrich Krause, Lithography p...

Karl Christian Friedrich Krause, Lithography published in: Die reine d.i. allgemeine Lebenlehre und Philosophie der Geschichte, Göttingen 1843 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Panentheism is a religious studies term coined in 1828 by the German philosopher Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781–1832).

Today, it belongs within the umbrella term, pantheism. However, Krause’s concept is more specific.

Panentheism refers to the belief in an eternal God grounded in but also greater than creation. Put simply, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Krause is an interesting character. Largely overlooked by Western philosophy, his predominantly mystical thought was overshadowed by Schelling,¹ Fichte, and Kant, who were his professors. He was also passed over by academe, like a lot of bright people with a bit too much insight and individuality.²

His view of society reminds me of Émile Durkheim’s but with an added mystical flair. For Krause, the universe is an organic whole. And the more that individuals and groups fall into line with that whole, the better society functions.

Krause endeavoured to reconcile the ideas of a God known by faith or conscience and the world as known to sense. God, intuitively known by conscience, is not a personality (which implies limitations), but an all-inclusive essence (Wesen), which contains the universe within itself. This system he called panentheism, a combination of monotheism and pantheism.

Ideal society results from the widening of the organic operation of this principle from the individual man to small groups of men, and finally to mankind as a whole.³

Schelling

Schelling 1775 – 1854 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Variations of this view are found in Taoism and Hinduism, as well as the works of Spinoza and Hegel. But we should be wary of oversimplifying. Important differences are sometimes glossed over by educators, religious authors and New Age enthusiasts.

That may sell sugar coated self-help books and fool gullible students. But it’s far from the truth.4

¹ Schelling is considered by some to have coined the term unconscious and his saying, “Nature is visible Spirit; Spirit is invisible Nature” would make a perfect inspirational quote for social media.

² I’m coming to think that, with a few notable exceptions, the brightest people in the humanities do something better than teach at a university. The more dull-witted stay behind, churning out their conventional, politically correct or trendy tracts mostly designed to get funding and ensure financial security. Nothing wrong with that. But nothing spectacular either.

³ https://www.diigo.com/user/earthpages This is a link to highlighting (notes) I made. I thought it would be a good idea to link to this so additional info that didn’t make this article could be seen. My Diigo page also has the original source.

4 Unless one adheres to the ‘truth’ of selling no matter what b.s. you’re spinning.

Related » Panenhenism, Pantheism, Polytheism

 Sociology’s Stagnation (3quarksdaily.com)


Leave a comment

Willard Quine – My unapologetic simplification

Willard Quine (1908-2000) was an influential American mathematician and philosopher who rejected Kant’s analytic-synthetic distinction¹ and advocated a form of holism.

English: The OWNER of this passport picture of...

Passport picture of Willard Van Orman Quine (Photo: Wikipedia)

Quine argues that empiricism contains “two dogmas.” One dogma is the distinction made between intellectual constructs and facts.

The second dogma is reductionism—that is, the belief that naming and meaning are the same.

Quine’s thought has been variously championed and critiqued. It seems that whatever way we look at the issues Quine addresses, we encounter the same problem. Language (and arguably all symbols, to include numbers) has conceptual and descriptive limits. It can never be entirely precise nor complete.²

The relationship between symbols and reality is an age old debate with no definitive answer. The discussion can go along ‘horizontal,’ conceptual lines or veer off into deeper, ‘vertical’ lines (as with Carl Jung‘s view of the archetypal image).

The discussion can also exist in a kind of matrix. That is, one could argue – as I do – that all words carry a potential numinous power. Numinosity isn’t something restricted to religious or mythological symbols.

In sociology, Quine’s thought appears in discussions about reification and also about the relation between scientific truth claims on the one hand, and ideology, the profit motive and social power on the other hand.

Healthcare Costs by Images Money via Flickr

Admittedly this is the briefest of brief sketches about Quine. When it comes to Western philosophy, it seems everyone has their own take on what these complicated thinkers are trying to say.³ My interest in Quine is mostly in trying to get people to think critically about scientific truth claims.

Science is becoming a new kind or medieval-style religion. The initial assumptions, selectivity, biases, interpretations and extrapolations built in to science are so glossed over or taken for granted that the average person tends to see science as “truth” and doesn’t even want to discuss any further.

In other words, science has a pretty firm grip on the minds and actions of many people. Too see this in action, we don’t have to look any further than some of the facile placards in the recent “March for Science.”

Making a religion out of science is misguided, authoritarian and dangerous. I think humanity can do better. So that’s how I justify simplifying Quine. I’m taking a poststructural approach. Something that I think everyone does. Although not everyone might be aware of it (or admit it, if they are).

Image by Becker1999 via Flickr

Need I say more?

¹ Kant devised a distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions. Analytic propositions are said to contain the predicate in the subject. Synthetic propositions do not contain the predicate in the subject. An example of an analytic proposition is, “All squares have four sides.” An example of a synthetic proposition is, “All men are athletic.”

² Along these lines the ancient Greek, Heraclitus, once wrote said that we cannot step into the same river twice. So what is a “river?”

³ Not to imply that Eastern philosophy is necessarily simpler or less open to interpretation. Just look at some of the Buddhist logic schools, for instance.

Related » Science, scientism


Leave a comment

Ramanuja – Hindu sage likened to St. Thomas Aquinas

English: sage Ramanujacharya's statue

Ramanujacharya’s statue – Wikipedia

Ramanuja (1017-1137 CE) was a leading Hindu philosopher born in the Brahmin caste. Legend has it that he learned the Vedas when he was a baby, only eight days old.¹

Ramanuja was influential to the Bhakti movement, which favors devotion over dry, conceptual philosophy.

Apparently Ramanuja hoped to visit another prominent Hindu philosopher, Yamunacharya, but the latter died before they could compare notes.²

Ramanuja sees the Vedas as authoritative. If you believe in one part, you have to believe in all of the Veda. In other words, he is a religious fundamentalist who accepts the social stratification and misogyny spelled out and reinforced by the Veda.³

Believing that Vishnu is supreme, as a Vaishnavite (follower of Vishnu)  Ramanuja challenges the views of Sankara and the Saivites (followers of Siva). Wikipedia suggests that their respective positions on the soul in relation to ultimate reality are the same.

Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita school and Shankara’s Advaita school are both nondualism Vedanta schools,[19][46] both are premised on the assumption that all souls can hope for and achieve the state of blissful liberation; in contrast, Madhvacharya believed that some souls are eternally doomed and damned.4

Contrary to what Wikipedia says, Ramanuja develops a form of monism that differs from Shankara’s. Ramanuja’s system of Visistadvaita is widely recognized as qualified monism. Specifically, Ramanuja challenges Sankara’s claim that only the Brahman is real and individuality is illusory (maya). For Ramanuja, the Brahman is real and beyond pain and suffering. However, individual souls (jivas) emerging from and ultimately resting within the Brahman are also real.

English: Statue of Adi Shankara at his Samadhi...

Statue of Adi Shankara at his Samadhi Mandir in Kedarnath, India. Photo taken by Priyanath – Wikipedia

For Ramanuja the Brahman is beyond the law of karma but the individual soul (jiva) is not and must answer to the wheel of rebirth. Accordingly, the jiva experiences the pleasure and pain of earthly life. And liberation from samsara, the round of rebirth due to karma, is gained through individual effort as well as from the grace of Vishnu.

Ultimately, the individual soul rests within but does not become absorbed by the Brahman or, for that matter, simply disappear.

As a consequence of his religious and philosophical innovations, Ramanuja was persecuted by a rival Hindu who happened to be a Saivite ruler.

The prominent Indologist Wendy Doniger calls Ramanuja “probably the single most influential thinker of devotional Hinduism.”5

Others have likened Ramanuja to the 13th-century Christian thinker, St. Thomas Aquinas. These two thinkers may appear similar on an abstract, intellectual level but any similarity after that becomes problematic. First of all, the alleged truths of Christ and the Veda at many points are incompatible.

Second, from my perspective the religious experiences respectively offered by Hinduism and Christianity (Catholicism specifically) differ.6

Instead of yielding to the pressure of political correctness and glossing over perceived differences, it is far more fruitful to talk about religion and religious experience as we really see and feel it.

Otherwise, sugar-coated religious dialog and ostentatious conferences are a huge waste of time and money. They may help to connect a circle of established or trending pundits. But backslapping, mutual admiration, fancy hotels and superficial proclamations will never replace any kind of true understanding.

STATIONTOSTATION lp album cover by David Bowie – Wikipedia

¹ This seems pretty far fetched. It reminds me of stories about Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, emerging from the womb playing air piano with his baby fingers.

² If both were so spiritually achieved, you’d think that earthly death wouldn’t matter and they could communicate directly, soul to soul.

³ For those claiming that the Vedas do not advocate caste, I urge you to look at the Vedic creation myth.

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramanuja

5 Ibid.

6 Perhaps only those who cannot discern a difference in numinosity between these two paths would believe they are phenomenologically equivalent. Some may see this as a biased or backward statement but if a person, like myself, experiences real differences among different religious paths, another’s inexperience, insensitivity or preference for political correctness will not change that fact. This issue has recently appeared in relation to some Catholics’ view of yoga.

 Indian wildlife protection act (enagar.com)


2 Comments

Plato – One of the most esteemed thinkers of all time

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) via Wikipedia

Plato (427-347 BCE) was a Greek philosopher born into an aristocratic Athenian family. Over the centuries he has come to be regarded as one of the most influential philosophers of all time, especially within Western philosophy.

Plato’s quick wit and eagerness to learn was evident at an early age. He most likely was instructed on a wide variety of topics, to include grammar, music, natural science, geography and gymnastics. And as an aristocrat, Plato would have been taught by the most respected teachers of the day. According to the Roman writer, Apuleus:

Speusippus praised Plato’s quickness of mind and modesty as a boy, and the “first fruits of his youth infused with hard work and love of study.” ¹

All this bore fruit. Few philosophers are seen as his equal, with the exception of, perhaps, Immanuel Kant, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Plato’s contemporary Aristotle, whom Plato taught.²

Plato has an interesting take on knowledge. Essentially, he believes in reincarnation. Plato suggests that all knowledge rests in the soul before birth. The trauma of being born makes us forget what we knew. So learning is just “remembering” what we once knew on a higher, transcendental plane.

Freud via Wikipedia

Some might liken Plato’s view of knowledge to Freud‘s idea of the unconscious, but I don’t think Freud, the materialist atheist, would have agreed. More correctly, Plato’s theory of knowledge leads to the notion of the Forms.

For Plato, the Forms are perfect, unchanging and eternal. They are the true reality that everything else on Earth approximates. Not unlike Buddhism, everything in our changing world is viewed as secondary and impermanent.

But any similarities with Buddhism end there. For Plato, gaining knowledge of the eternal Forms means we become aware of the soul’s eternal nature. So for Plato, the philosophical life is a “preparation for death,” a death where we continue onward as individual souls.

Buddhists, on the other hand, try to eradicate individuality. For them, individuality, even an individual soul, is illusory. And to believe in any kind of individuality – be it the ego or the soul – hampers one’s spiritual development (which for Buddhists is a kind of unpacking and disposal of psychological contents).

Plato’s most influential teacher of philosophy is Socrates. Socrates never writes anything but roams the streets philosophizing with just about anyone who will listen. At Athens, Soctrates is eventually sentenced to death on charges of “atheism” and “corrupting the youth.”

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos via Wikipedia

Socrates’ supporters probably had an escape plan for him. And many would have turned a blind eye had he fled in the night. This kind of thing was almost half expected with exceptional cases in ancient Athens.

But Socrates chooses to drink poisonous hemlock rather than flee and, in his eyes, live dishonorably. From this, some contemporary thinkers say that Socrates’ death is a kind of suicide.³

So impressed by Socrates, Plato makes him the protagonist in most of his philosophical works, which are written as dialogues. In Plato’s dialogues, the character Socrates debates with others about many of the big questions.

Plato sometimes is regarded as hostile to poetry, while his student Aristotle is seen as sympathetic to the poetic imagination. But this isn’t entirely right. Plato admires divinely inspired poetry, in contrast to poems crafted by mere technique.

Aristotle writes prose commentaries on the importance of the artistic process, along with rules for creative artists. Plato, perhaps believing he is eternally justified in doing so, writes not prosaically but with a poetic flourish.

Plato condemns or severely restricts the use of poetry in education, yet he uses poetry extensively in his own works, citing verses with approval, imitating poetic style and imagery, or subjecting poems to critical study.4

Plato’s distinction between inspired verse and poetry based on technique seems a bit clunky. Aristotle begins to collapse the distinction by arguing that well crafted poetry can be cathartic. In other words, Aristotle recognizes that good poetry taps into something deeper than the world of the senses.

Saint Monica (331 – 387), also known as Monica of Hippo, was an early Christian saint and the mother of Saint Augustine of Hippo. Colored engraving from Diodore Rahoult, Italy 1886.

After the Christian church takes hold of the European imagination, St. Augustine of Hippo recasts aspects of Plato’s work to support Christian belief. St. Augustine’s tremendous influence on Christian theology isn’t really challenged until medieval theologians obtain translations of Aristotle made by Muslim scholars.

Today, Plato’s influence has fallen out of favor in the Catholic Church and the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, who borrows from and respectfully calls Aristotle “The Philosopher,” is taught in various theological contexts.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plato

² No brief summary can account for all of Plato’s beliefs and ideas. Some that have captured my imagination are mentioned here.

³ See G. S. Aldrete http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/history-of-the-ancient-world-a-global-perspective.html

4 Paul Woodruff, “Plato’s Use of Poetry” in Oxford Art Online (Plato)