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A RETURN TO PLATO

Though Stoicism represented the current of thought in the west, in the east the climate was much different. There the inspiration came from Plato, not Zeno. Frederick Grant explained that much of this inspiration that led the eastern Syncretism came from Plato's Laws. As you may recall from our discussion of Plato, the soul of a person served as the messenger between the world of the forms and the world of the senses. The Laws detailed Plato's most mature thoughts on the subject. Here he explained soul as the principle of activity, change, and motion. In a more abstract sense than in his earlier works, he made soul the bridge between timeless and unchanging being, and change and becoming throughout the universe. The soul creates by contemplating the changeless forms. But its goal of bringing the universe into compliance with the forms is never fully met. Grant quoted Theophrastus who explain Plato's words thus; "Not even God can bring all things to perfection, but only within the limits of possibility." There always remains an irreducible element of imperfections in the universe.

The soul of the individual too makes progress through contemplating on the eternal forms. It finds the truest path through mathematical proportion and harmony. But if we follow this thought, as many scholars have done, we will find ourselves in a different period, that following the end of the third century. And to understand this we must first step away from the Greek world and back into the world of the earliest Christians.

In the year 37 C.E. the Jewish Sanhedrin arrested a man named Peter and several of his followers in Jerusalem. Peter was the leader of a heretical Jewish sect who called themselves travelers of "The Way". These Jews believed that one of their number, Jesus of Nazareth, who had been put to death at the orders of the Sanhedrin had risen from the dead and was in fact the Messiah of God. Peter declared;

You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate. ...You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. ...But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. Repent, then, and return to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you --even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. ...Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from his people.

Since this made the Sanhedrin responsible for the death of the Messiah, this attitude could not be tolerated. Their impulse was to sentence them all to death. However, before doing so, they consulted one of the most highly respected Pharisees of the day, Gamaliel, son of Hillel. This was the answer he gave.

Consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all of his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these man alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.

The Sanhedrin released Peter and his men after a severe flogging. An order to refrain from teaching The Way in the temple was immediately ignored. But this was only the beginning. It was among the Diaspora that the next crisis occurred. These Jews were more Hellenized and did not hold the Temple in Jerusalem in such high esteem. It was in this period too that the earliest Gospels were written and the impact of Greek philosophy on these is important for our study.

The all-important clash between Jewish thought and the thought of these new members of "The Way" involved the route to salvation. For the Jewish people of the time salvation was obtained through strict adherence to Jewish law and custom, to the dictates of the Torah. For these followers of Jesus salvation was directly through the Messiah. Stephen, a leader of the movement of Diaspora Jews was brought before the Sanhedrin. The first of the charges brought against him was that he had proclaimed that Jesus would return and destroy the temple. The second and more damaging was that the coming of the Messiah had abrogated all obligations to adhere to the law. This was unheard of and absolutely unacceptable to the Jewish hierarchy. Stephen was sentenced to death by stoning.

The Platonic approach to salvation is summed up best by this statement from the Laws;

And whenever the soul receives more of good or evil from her own energy and the strong influence of others when she has communion with divine virtue and becomes divine, she is carried into another and better place, which is perfect in holiness; but when she has communion with evil, then she also changes the place of her life.

For Plato this was a reflection of the unification of the soul of man and the world soul. Of particular importance was the critical role of the individual soul in the perfection of the world. As we can see from this excerpt;

Over these, down to the least fraction of them, ministers have been appointed to preside, who have wrought out their perfection with infinitesimal exactitude. And one of these portions of the universe is thine own, unhappy man, which, however little, contribute to the whole, and in order that the life of the whole may be blessed; and that you do not seem to be aware that this and every other creation is for the sake of the whole, and not the whole for the sake of you.

So for Plato, and for the Hellenized world of the first century, the path to salvation is personal, between God and man. But though the soul of man for Plato is a very individual personal element, the Platonic God is an abstraction. We can recognize this Hellenistic individual approach even with the stoics, among whom God was simply nature. In a real sense the new approach to salvation provided by these heretical Jews added an element missing in the Platonic view. That was the concept of a personal God. Even though the Laws makes it quite plain that the Gods care as much for the little man as for the great, nevertheless, they are still abstractions.

Since the ultimate sin of The Way was the rejection of the Jewish law, their persecution became the responsibility of the Pharisees. It was their role in the Jewish community to insure adherence to the Torah. One of these, a particularly zealous Pharisee who had been persecuting members of the new sect in Jerusalem was on his way to Damascus when he underwent a sudden conversion. Klingaman's description is quite vivid.

Then, along the road to Damascus, where the high priest had sent him to persecute more disciples of The Way, all the nervous anxiety and emotional stress that had been smoldering within Paul suddenly burst into an explosion of light behind his eyes that literally blinded him and as he collapsed to the ground he heard a voice he was certain was the resurrected Jesus asking him in Aramaic, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" And in a flash of revelation Paul discerned a way out of the impasse that had tormented him: in the shadow of the crucifixion and the resurrection, the bonds of the law no longer mattered. God had deliberately sacrificed Himself upon the cross to open a new door of redemption for all mankind; and this gift of God's grace, freely given through faith in the risen One, had rendered the law obsolete.

Paul did not ask permission of Peter to begin his missionary work. He went directly to the synagogues where he preached both to the Jews there and to Gentiles who had been attracted there by the Jewish way. In the year 47 Paul journeyed to Antioch where the believers had begun a new splinter group who called themselves Christians, or followers of the Christ. They had built a church of their own separate from the Jewish Synagogues. Out of this grew a split between converted Jews who believed that Jesus' Way was necessarily through Judaism, and the others, primarily gentiles, who claimed that they had no compulsion to either submit to the rule of the temple or be circumcised. Paul took the argument to Jerusalem and put it before Peter and the leaders of the sect. They refused to take any action. From then on Paul proceeded to convert Gentiles to the new religion.

As soon as the new sect, through Peter and Stephen, entered the Hellenized world, it was plain that they had to learn to speak in a new language. Not only with words, but with concepts, ideas. Thus the lure of Platonism lingered in the new churches. But for the first two centuries of our era this allure of Platonistic religions, including Christianity, remained in the background of Western culture. The primary religious forces were the Skeptics and the Stoics. Purely abstract attitudes toward religion, however, are possible only in a culture with sufficient stability to warrant a faith in the nature of their immediate environment. But in the third century things began to change. In the second half the Roman empire was invaded from all sides. From the north came the Franks, Alamanni, Vandals, Goths, and Samaritans. Gothic vikings came from the Black Sea, Persians from the east, Blemmys, Libyans, and Mauritanians from the south. Within the empire order began to disintegrate. Separate provinces organized against one another. Emperors were murdered and usurpers took their place. Economic chaos spread across the empire resulting from the devaluation of the currency leading to wildly fluctuating prices. Standing armies required the requisition of provisions. The state found it necessary to take their taxes in kind since devaluation made tax money unstable.

In periods of insecurity people tend to cling to those principles they hold dearest without regard to their value in the face of the crisis. Cultural change, though the need is greater than ever before, is stubbornly resisted until despite the opposition new ideas begin to show dividends. With the security of Pax Romana falling around them it was only natural that systems which can be identified with success, or at least with the expectation of success, would thus gain adherents while those that tend to be linked with failure, or more likely the expectation of failure, would lose some. At this point the ingredients for spectacular cultural change are in place. That is, a pool of possible belief patterns and extreme cultural strain. The final ingredients in the case of the later third century turned out to be a charismatic individual with a clear plan of action in a position of power. That individual was Diocletion.

The twenty year reign of Diocletion was dominated by his extraordinary will power and his penchant for immediate and direct action. It ended, too, in the same way for after setting up the Tetrarchy system to follow him with four emperors sharing power over the realm, he and his co-emperor in the west, abdicated simultaneously on the imperial twenty year jubilee. During those twenty years the direction of the whole of western culture was set for the next millennium.

"Other-directedness," or "other-worldliness" are just ways of expressing the idea that there is something outside the individual that determines the right order of existence. While the attitude of Stoicism implies that the forces of the world are for the most part out of the control of the individual, nevertheless, within the bounds of nature every person was the ruler of his own fate. The death of even this individualism under Diocletion is abundantly evidenced. The events at the end of the third century brought to prominence in Roman culture a general feeling of other-worldliness, a loss of faith in the nature and the world, and a search for other-worldly powers that lay outside nature but which controlled nature. This formed a climate in which Platonist religions including Christianity flourished.

However, we are not ready to discuss Christianity further yet because there were changes in Roman philosophy toward other-worldliness that brought more strain to the problem of truth and knowledge. That is a return to Plato in a new and somewhat unique way. This was Neo-Platonism and the major writer was Plotinus.

Under Plotinus the Neo-Platonists expressed Plato's idealistic world using two fundamental triads. The first was the trinity of divine principles, the absolute, spirit, and soul, and second was the trinity of man, or spirit, soul, and body. This is not the only place where Pythagorean numerology played a part in Plotinus thought. Explaining the second triad, he said that body corresponds to the world as perceived by the senses, the soul to the world as interpreted by the mind as a spatial and temporal order. Man's spirit, through intuition, is in contact with the spiritual world. The organs of perception are the bodily senses, discursive thought, and spiritual perception or intuitive knowledge. It is only by this last that we are in contact with reality. Spirit and the spiritual world do not exist separately. Spirit is the self-consciousness of the spiritual world, and the spiritual world is the self-actualization of the spirit.

In this abstract view of the universe the absolute was the ineffable source of all that is. Plato's creator, and Parmenides' one all rolled into one perfect source. It was this absolute entity who created everything that is through "emanations" from the infinite. When they spoke of the world soul, they meant the essence and order of the world as it is. Thus it was only through the power of intuition that the soul of the individual could experience the world soul because intuition is the source of all knowledge. But man is in touch with intuition only through his spiritual self and the world spirit is simply the self-consciousness of the individual of the actuality of the spiritual world. In other words, the spiritual world actualizes itself through the individual through the individual spirit. But the soul of the individual is a property of the individual and in contact with the world soul through intuition.

It is not possible that the soul could be corporeal. In answer to the Atomists he said that life could not be generated by an aggregation of lifeless particles and intelligence could not be produced without under-standing. While every body is compounded of matter and form, the soul is uncompounded. It can be neither the body nor matter. In a reflection of Aristotelian influences, he said that matter can not give itself form. Without soul it would have no existence. The importance of this Aristotelian influence during a period when Aristotle's works were lost to the world cannot be over-emphasized.

The soul being perfect, its defects and hindrances are due only to presence of matter, in this case body. It obscures the light of the absolute which shines on the soul. It is that part of nature which resists form. It is without qualities, with a total absence of good. Its absolute poverty makes it the principle of evil. The last words of Plotinus help us to understand the meaning of the role of matter of obscuring the spiritual world. Speaking on his death bed to his physician and friend, he said, "I was waiting for you, before that which is divine in me departs to unite itself with the divine in the universe."

This is a return to the concept of truth from reasoning. Above Plato's world of the forms was the absolute, the one. Below that lay the world-soul, and completing the trinity, the human soul.

Speaking of Plato, Plotinus discussed how he derived his concept of the human soul. He does this with a reference to the concept of the cave as described in Plato's Republic. There Plato has us imagine a cave filled with people who are chained to chairs. They are unable to turn their heads or bodies and thus forced to look straight ahead. Before them is a screen and behind them, outside the mouth of the cave, a fire. Between the mouth of the cave and the fire ordinary people go about their normal activities, parading back and forth carrying objects, some women in the tradition of the ancient Greeks carrying things on their heads. In the cave the people see these as shadows on the screen before them. Because they have not witnessed the reality outside the cave they believe the shadow on the wall to be real. One of their number somehow breaks free of the chains and walks out of the cave. At first he is blinded by the light of the fire but moments later he is confronted with reality. He then turned back into the cave and attempted to explain to his former friends that he has discovered reality and proceeds to explain it to them. They, of course do not believe him, they revile him. The point that Plato was making is that this is the basic problem of the Philosopher. He must explain to people of the world who are convinced the shadow world of their senses is reality when it is no more than shadows on the wall. In this excerpt Plotinus calls upon this image to explain Plato's concept of the soul.

Everywhere, no doubt, he expresses contempt for all that is of sense, blames the commerce of the soul with body as an enchainment, an entombment, and upholds as a great truth the saying to the mysteries that the soul is here a prisoner. In the cavern of Plato and in the cave of Empedocles, I discern this universe, where the breaking of the fetters and the ascent from the depths are figures of the wayfaring towards the intellectual realm.

This drive of the soul from entrapment in the body to the world of the pure forms and unification with the supreme later he called the flight of the alone to the alone. Neo-Platonism is a complex philosophy worthy of study on its own. What is important for us to see now is that it represents the Roman return to the idealist concepts of Plato and the concept of truth through reasoning. But there is still something missing. Plotinus' supreme, his one, is a purely intellectual concept.