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Platonism – The one and the many

Platonism refers to beliefs and theories based on the metaphysical ideas expressed in Plato‘s dialogues.

These usually include Plato’s division of

  • an ideal realm of the Forms that is unchanging eternal truth

and

  • an ordinary realm of the so-called external world of change

Neoplatonist thinkers like Plotinus argued for the “One” from which all else proceeds, and which is comprehended only through mystical union. This is linked to the term “world soul” or anima mundi which depth psychologists and occultists tend to mention.¹

Platonism takes many different forms. It spans from the early Church Fathers (especially those inclined toward gnosticism like Origen and Clement of Alexandria) to the European Middles Ages² and 17th century theologians (known as the Cambridge Platonists), right into New Age philosophies, academic philosophy and maths.

In contrast to works directly linked to Plato’s ideas, small-p platonism refers to any theory that affirms the existence of abstract concepts, as opposed to nominalism.

Small-p platonists may or may not believe in Plato’s general outlook.

A traveller puts his head under the edge of the firmament in the original (1888) printing of the Flammarion engraving – Wikipedia

It should be noted, however, that the distinction between small-p platonism and large-p Platonism is not universally applied. A bit confusing but, considering the vast and varied influence of Plato, not surprising.

Plato’s ideas have been so incredibly influential that A. N. Whitehead said all of European philosophy is a “footnote to Plato.”³

A modern example of platonism can be found in the notion that mathematical truths have an independent existence, as opposed to being mere products of the human mind. According to this view, “Mathematical truths are…discovered, not invented.”4

¹ Sometimes in arguably muddled, undifferentiated theories about spirituality.

XXI: Azathoth Pleroma

XXI: Azathoth Pleroma: Arenamontanus / Anders Sandberg

² S. G. F. Brandon notes that Platonism in the Middle Ages was temporarily “eclipsed” by the ideas of Aristotle.  See Dictionary of Comparative Religion, New York: Scribner’s, 1970, p. 505.
However, some like the Anglican A. E. Taylor maintain that St. Thomas Aquinas’ work, which adapts Aristotelian arguments to Christianity, is fundamentally based on Platonism. See “Platonism.” Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 1300.
Whether or not Plato’s idea of eternity is on par with Aquinas’ is open to debate. Is an ancient Greek view of eternal truth, beauty and justice equivalent to the Christian understanding of heaven? For that matter, do all Christians agree on what the word heaven means? And what about hell? How would Plato and Aquinas stack up there?

³ For more, see my highlights at LINER http://lnr.li/HTRX8/

4 See https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/platonism-mathematics/

Related » NeoPlatonism, Proclus

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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)


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Plato’s Republic – A far-reaching attempt to understand life and eternity

Allegory_of_the_Cave (Plato)

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (Wikipedia)

The Republic is a political, philosophical and literary work by the ancient Greek Plato. Written in dialog form around 380 BCE, it reads more like a play than a dry treatise on philosophy, maths, political theory or the arts.

Plato writes a fictional discussion among Athenians and foreigners. The outcome of these contrived debates advances Plato’s ideas, as presented by the literary character of Socrates,  Plato’s real-life teacher.

Questions like the nature of justice, virtue, truth and beauty are examined. Also, a contrast is set up between the world of becoming (our visible world) and the world of being (an eternal world that informs our visible world).

This dialectic permeates the entire discussion. Not unlike some of the ancient Chinese sages, Plato’s eye on eternity influences how he understands society, rulers, and the arts.

For Plato, the philosopher-king is the best kind of ruler. So the Republic does not advocate democracy (Greek: strength of the people), even though democracy is an ancient Greek invention, traceable to the 6th century BCE.

Today, many take the idea of democracy as a good in itself. We hardly stop to think if there might be a better way (except for tyrants, communists and non-democratic socialists). But it is conceivable that the majority isn’t always right or best.¹ And that’s how Plato saw it.

From the House of T. Siminius Stephanus, Pompeii

Plato’s Academy – Roman mosaic from Pompeii, 1st century BCE (Wikipedia)

Just as a doctor is specially trained to heal citizens, for Plato an enlightened ruler is uniquely endowed to govern subjects. But not everyone is able to recognize the best ruler. And for Plato the vast majority of citizens are ill-suited to the task of selecting one.

The Republic groups society into four classes of gold, silver, bronze and iron. Individuals (ideally) fulfill the duties that nature has allotted to their social class.

This is reminiscent of the Indian caste system, although Hinduism traditionally legitimizes social inequality through myth and spirituality, not so much through nature.

via Vimeo

via Vimeo

Christianity too speaks of different members of one spiritual body, each having his or her own role: Hands, feet, head, heart, etc.²

On a deeper level, The Republic also presents Plato’s popular ‘cave analogy.’ This illustrates his views about a link between worldly change and eternity. The cave analogy goes as follows:

Prisoners in a cave have been there since birth. Bound to a chair, they face a wall with a fire some distance behind them. Their captors come and go, always walking between the fire and the prisoners’ backs. So the captors and the stuff they transport are always seen by the prisoners as shadows on the cave wall. The prisoners cannot see anything else so assume the shadows are reality.

If a prisoner were dragged up the slope leading to the cave entrance, his or her eyes would be temporarily blinded by the sunlight. Once their eyes adjusted, however, the free prisoner would see a far greater reality than the world of shadows.

Supposing the prisoner were to reenter the cave, they again would be temporarily blinded, this time by a lack of light. When their eyes readjusted to the darkness, the shadows would reappear. But the prisoner now knows these are mere shadows and not reality, as he or she had previously believed. And he or she would probably feel sorry for those who did not know the difference

A Renaissance manuscript Latin translation of ...

A Renaissance manuscript Latin translation of The Republic (Wikipedia)

In this analogy, the shadows represent the ever-changing world of daily life. The world above the cave entrance represents an eternal, unchanging reality that Plato calls the realm of the Forms. For Plato, only the Forms are real because our mundane world is subject to change and lacks permanence.

Toward the end of The Republic, “The Myth of Er” outlines Plato’s belief in reincarnation and the immortality of the soul.

Many see The Republic as a landmark in literature, education, philosophy, politics and theology. Influential throughout Europe in the Middles Ages, it continues to inspire in the modern age.

For me, this was one of the first ‘mind-blowing’ books that I encountered in my youth. And even though I’ve moved beyond it in my own thinking, I will always respect Plato because he provided a model, however embryonic, to help make sense of my early spiritual experiences.4

¹ Consider how the vast majority of scientists – at least, those who have received funding – maintain that climate change is bad for the planet. But what if, say, an asteroid hits which causes a deep freeze, and that extra ½º of temperature saves humanity from extinction? Far-fetched, to be sure. But like Plato’s scenario, a hypothetical example where the majority would not be correct.

² Funny how this photo has a white hand on top. A little bit racist? The Christian notion of “one body” can also be used by sexists to suggest that women and men have definite, different roles.

³ This is my retelling, partly based on philosophy lectures given by Dr. Robert Carter at Trent University. See original text: http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/allegory.html

4 A sampling of some of the topics covered in this diverse work:

pl1

(studyplace.org)

Related » Archetype, Archetypal Image, Aristotle, AtlantisSri Aurobindo, Blessed Isles, Boethius, Church Fathers, Dionysius the Areopagite, Gorgias, Meno, Neoplatonism, Plotinus, Proclus, Socrates, Skepticism, Solon, Sophists, Timeus, Universalism


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Charles Hartshorne – Does God Grow With Experience?

Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) – Image via Wikipedia

Charles Hartshorne  (1897-2000) was an American theologian who developed Alfred North Whitehead‘s idea of an organic, interactive process into a version of Process Theology.

Wikipedia traces his views to the ancient Greek Heraclitus, who emphasized change with his famous line, “you cannot step into the same river twice.” Heraclitus also believed that religious signs could be received through the oracle at Delphi. But Hartshorne’s theological system arguably adds a bit more to the picture than mere change and signs (we don’t know what Heraclitus fully believed in because only fragments of his work survive).

Hartshorne upholds the idea that God has a separate existence but is also present in the world. To me this is explained by the already existing ideas of transcendence and immanence (not imminence). Wikipedia explains Hartshorne’s view:

One of the technical terms Hartshorne used is pan-en-theism, originally coined by Karl Christian Friedrich Krause in 1828. Panentheism (all is in God) must be differentiated from Classical pantheism (all is God). In Hartshorne’s theology God is not identical with the world, but God is also not completely independent from the world. God has his self-identity that transcends the earth, but the world is also contained within God. A rough analogy is the relationship between a mother and a fetus. The mother has her own identity and is different from the unborn, yet is intimately connected to the unborn. The unborn is within the womb and attached to the mother via the umbilical cord.¹

However, Hartshorne took on classical theologians by taking a more Jungian approach to God. For both Jung and Hartshorne, God is not omniscient but learns as s/he goes along. Unlike classical definitions of God’s perfection, Hartshorne believes that being perfect does not entail knowing everything. Rather, it means knowing and feeling more through experience.

God is capable of surpassing himself by growing and changing in his knowledge and feeling for the world.²

Myself, I think this is a flawed view, one born of a lack of intellectual humility. It’s fine to try to understand God and the workings of God. But whenever a human being makes some kind of definitive statement about knowing God, that’s where I draw the line.

However, if someone says they believe that God has certain qualities and behaves in such a way, I can take them far more seriously. In my view, everything comes down to belief in one way or another. But not everyone appreciates this idea. The human mind is easily hoodwinked into confusing belief with knowledge.

The statue of Plato in front of the Academy of Athens

The distinction between belief and knowledge goes back to another ancient Greek, Plato. Plato, however, held a different view than mine. He believed that knowledge (as justified true belief – episteme)³ was superior to:

  • an opinion that seems to be or may be true but is accepted on the basis of a weak argument (dogma)
  • popular belief (doxa)

By way of contrast, I maintain that for a rational, reflective mind, everything comes down to belief—true, false or partly true belief. We may say we have reason to believe but, as human beings, we can never really know. We have to believe.4

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Hartshorne

² Ibid.

³ This type of knowledge is differentiated from knowledge of a craft (techne). And some scholars rightly ask, what does full “justification” for episteme require? See a good discussion here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/knowledge-analysis/

4 To defend this view I’d probably have to go into a lengthy philosophical argument, and this entry is not the place for that. However, if anyone wishes to further discuss in the comments area, I will try to outline my position (providing I felt that the discussion was positive enough to justify the time and energy spent on it). I say this because I tried to explain my position once at the David Bowie site with a bookish “intellectual” hooked on a particular philosopher and found that I was just wasting my time and energy. As with most unproductive internet debates, we don’t always carefully read or reply to things we don’t understand, perhaps cannot understand, or consciously or subconsciously do not wish or believe it necessary to understand. And some apparently just want to win an argument rather than learn and grow from it. I’m not saying I’m immune to this pretty common situation. But I don’t waste time and energy if I see myself falling into it.


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Socrates

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. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Socrates (470-399 BCE) was Plato and Xenophon’s Athenian teacher of philosophy who, while never writing a word, left an indelible stamp on the history of ideas.

The ancient Greek poet Aristophanes in The Clouds lampooned Socrates’ simple appearance and ascetic lifestyle. Despite this, Socrates for the most part was a well-liked character.

Socrates rejected the traditional Greek gods in favor of his daimon—apparently a kind of presence or inner voice that never told him what to do but always what not to do.

He made his impact, in part, by wandering the streets of ancient Athens, freely engaging in public discussions. An exemplar of the moral life, Socrates was particularly interested in ethical questions such as, What is virtueWhat are the correct means to pursue virtue?

His method involved logic and cross-examination, often aimed at those who regarded themselves as wise. Although he didn’t write anything, his “Socratic method” is illustrated in the dialogues of Plato. Several other ancient writers also wrote dialogues based on Socrates’ teachings, but the works of Plato best survived the ravages of time. Indeed, Socrates’ ideas and presence touched many ancient thinkers via dialogues they wrote with Socrates as protagonist.

These were numerous and popular enough for Aristotle to classify them in the Poetics… But apart from the works of Plato (1), only a few fragments survive of the dialogues of Antisthenes, Aeschines (2) of Sphettus, and Phaedon of Elis, and nothing of the dialogues of Aristippus (1), Cebes of Thebes, and many others. In addition to Plato, most of our own information about Socrates comes from Aristophanes (1) and Xenophon (1), both of whom also knew him personally, and from Aristotle, who did not.¹

The "obscene" medieval depiction of ...

The “obscene” medieval depiction of Socrates and Plato. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plato’s Socratic method is often said to cut to the marrow of uncritically accepted beliefs held by bearers of mere opinion and belief. As to the adequacy of the Socratic method, this remains open to debate.

Socrates was sentenced to death for charges of atheism and corrupting the youth (for apparently teaching them subversive ideas). He was offered a way out by Crito but chose to obey the laws of the state, finding more meaning in his death than he would from an escape attempt.

Tim Peters summarizes Socrates’ explanation, as outlined in Plato’s Crito:

Although they may execute me, the really important thing in life is not to live, but to live well.²

Gregory Aldrete comments that Socrates probably could have escaped, as the death sentence for notables in ancient Athens wasn’t always intended to be carried through. Along with this and the provocative manner in which Socrates chose to defend himself, Aldrete feels that Socrates’ death is really a suicide.³

If Socrates were alive today, where corruption is more openly talked about, would he have made the same choice? One can only wonder. Perhaps he would have adhered to his own ideals instead of those of the imperfect reality around him; or perhaps his vision of justice would have incorporated the imperfect realities of the world.

Impossible for us to say. But to some, Socrates’ surrender to the authority of the ancient Athenians may seem somewhat naïve, possibly self-destructive; to others, it was noble.

Related » Clairaudience, Meno, Republic, Skepticism, Sophists

¹ See “Socrates” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford University Press 1996, 2000.

² See entire summary: http://isc.temple.edu/ihfaculty/IH51/classroomtechniques/CritoPeters2.htm (dead link, searching for equivalent)

³ See http://www.thegreatcourses.com/sets/set-history-of-the-ancient-world-a-global-perspective-big-history-the-big-bang-life-on-earth-and-the-rise-of-humanity.html


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Sophists

 

Early Athenian Coin, an "owl"

Early Athenian Coin, an “owl” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Sophists were independent Greek public speakers of the 5th century BCE, teaching for a fee about politics, philosophy and rhetoric.

Protagoras is usually regarded as the first with Gorgias being another prominent sophist. Wikipedia also lists Prodicus, Hippias, Thrasymachus, Lycophron, Callicles, Antiphon, and Cratylus.

Plato portrays them in his dialogues as foils for the sober, sound argumentation of Socrates.

In the most general sense sophists are usually depicted as denying the existence of ultimate reality and morality in favor of worldly pleasures derived from the senses.

Likewise, they’re often said to reject the Greek gods and advocate the perfection of humanity.

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In actual fact, there is no single school of Sophist thought. Plato’s response to the leading Sophists is as complex as their various positions.

Generally slighted by Plato, the sophists were quick and intelligent, contributing to knowledge about linguistics, drama and a prototypical form of applied sociology. And they were instrumental in helping young men to “better” themselves in terms of learning how to win arguments—a skill set essential to upward mobility and entrance into political life not only in ancient Greece but also for men and women today.¹

¹ See, for instance, the excellent introductory discussion about ancient Greek philosophy in this DVD set: http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/history-of-the-ancient-world-a-global-perspective.html

On the Web:

  • Video touching on some of the topics that the ancient Greeks debated, topics that continued through the Middle Ages, right up to contemporary debates.

Related Posts » Jean A. Baudrillard


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Timeus

Timeus is a work by Plato written in 360 BCE in which reference is made to Atlantis.