Saturday, 7 June 2014

The problem with being a Platonist


I recently blogged that a high proportion of creative geniuses are 'Platonists', in a broad meaning of the word that locates real-reality, and ultimate, truth, beauty and virtue elsewhere - in a realm that is timeless, changeless ad eternal.

But there is a big problem with being a Platonist, with having this world-view - among the adversities of human life.

The Platonic mind-set has been normal for intellectual Christians for much of the history of the religion, and indeed canonical since around the time of Augustine of Hippo.

And contrary to modern prejudice, Platonism - which is the ultimate in other-worldly philosophies - has been associated with great and extraordinary courage, resilience and devotion in this world, under condition of extreme adversity: think of Boethius writing Consolation of Philosophy (one of the most important books of the past 2000 years) under threat of horrific torture-to-death; or the history of the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople - its unflagging devoutness, its centuries-long resistance to wave after wave of invasion.

Platonism is a formidable philosophy!

But THE problem with Platonism is that by locating all supreme value in another world, it does render mortal life in this world a tragedy - a place intrinsically of time, change, corruption, decay, death - something we would want to be over as soon as possible so we could get on with the business of eternal changeless reality.

For the Christian Platonist (and this is probably most Christians, throughout history) the questions is why bother with mortal life? What is the point of it? Do we really need it?

Why can we not go to Heaven, go directly to Heaven - do not pass GO, do not collect 200 pounds.


And the answer entails sin, our intrinsic sinfulness, the sinfulness of the world, attachment to the world, the prevalence of purposive evil which tends to corrupt us.

To the Platonist, mortal life is in its essence a fight-against sin - with the emphasis on 'fight'; sin in ourselves, in our condition, and among the powers and principalities of Satan.

Heaven is indeed better than mortal life in every possible way - except that we have been dragged-down by sin and look-up at Platonic Heaven, yearning for it, but unworthy of it.


The glories of Christian Platonism come from the attempt - which is known to be impossible and futile - to create reminders and glimpses of Heaven on Earth - by long and complex and beautiful liturgy, by ascetic practices, by constant prayer, by religious art. The greatest success can be seen in Byzantium - where at times and for some people, most of life was lived inside a liturgical framework. Monasticism was the supreme ideal - and life for everyone partook of monasticism - but this was a monasticism that attempted to create the joys of Heaven in terms of hierarchy, colour, music, dignity and spendour, ritual, music, rhetoric... a total and immersive environment.

And also life was tragic, because all this did not create Heaven - merely glimpses and reminders. It was partial, distorted, corrupted, unsatisfying, doomed.

My own (layman's) encapsulation of Christian Platonism at its highest is to be in the midst of liturgy, surrounded by beautiful architecture and hundreds of worshippers, bathed in music, looking upwards and suspended in a simulacrum of eternity - and yet wishing for this mortal life to be over and done: wishing for Heaven with all my heart.


So my ultimate rejection of full-on Platonism is simply this: that by putting time and mortality, the narrative of our earthly lives, into a context of timeless and perfect eternity, it renders mortal life into nothing more than a trial to be endured.

Mortal earthly life becomes ultimately negative; at best a successful resistance against sin.

And I find this to be intolerable. Deep in my heart, I find that I know that mortal life is more than this, has an intrinsic reason and a positive purpose: that mortality is necessary for something good.

Platonism has it that this earthly life is, at bottom, and primarily, a tragic fight against bad things; whereas I perceive that mortality is required for some vital Good things. 


Platonism has it that mortal life is necessarily a Tragedy, the story of the bringing-down of one person (against the world) and ending with the death of a hero who has ultimately-failed; but I am convinced that mortal life is ultimately a Comedy: intrinsically about human relationships, and consummated by marriage and family - a Comedy more-or-less full of tragic elements...

But mortal life is intended to be - and often in actuality is - a ringing (albeit incomplete) success.

For many people, much of the time, if we could but know it; mortal life has had a happy ending - even before the happiness of Heaven to come.

And the reason it has a happy ending is that (for many or most people) mortal life has been able to achieve at least some of what it set-out to achieve - and which would not (could not) have been achieved without mortal life.