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.



Thursday said...

This is something I've posted elsewhere, but it seems relevant.

It seems to me that, as we believe in the incarnation, Christians in particular really need a sophisticated theology of matter and how it relates to spirit/soul/mind. There seems to be four basic positions:

1. Aristotelian – Both the material and the mental/spiritual really exist and are inextricably linked to each other. They are not the same thing, but there is no absolutely clear boundary between the two.
2. Cartesian – Both the material and the mental/spiritual exist, but they are entirely separate kinds of things which can still be linked up in some inexplicable way in a person.
3. Idealist – There’s really nothing except the mental/spiritual and matter is an illusion.
4. Materialist – There is really nothing except the material, considered as meaningless “stuff.” Often the reality of the mental/spiritual is outright denied.

There are, of course, some variations on these. For example, Plato somewhat anticipates Descartes in separating the material and mental/spiritual, and in denigrating the material, though he does not view the cosmos as composed of a bunch of completely meaningless stuff. But, in any event, I think the four above are the most basic, most coherent positions.

Notice that 2-4 all implicitly deny any real meaning to matter. For the Idealist, matter doesn’t really exist, while for the Materialist it exists but is inherently meaningless. The Cartesian definitely affirms the existence of both mental life and matter, but again denies the inherent meaning of the latter.

Now other monotheistic faiths may (or may not) be able to better get away with some other position, but I think that anything like 2-4 cause huge problems for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation:

A. The Idealist position makes the incarnation pointless. Matter doesn’t even really exist. Or at best, if God and man are different kinds of minds and the incarnation is God becoming a man kind of mind, it still makes the crucifixion and resurrection into illusions.

B. The Materialist incarnation simply dumps God into a hunk of meaningless bits. What’s the point in that?

C. The Cartesian affirms that a person is made up of both matter and soul. But again what's the point of the incarnation if the soul is the really important thing? I suppose one could see the incarnation and the crucifixion as God coming down to understand and identify with the sufferings of the soul, chained as it is to matter. This “feel our pain” view of Christianity has a certain kind of appeal. But it seems to me this makes utter nonsense of the bodily resurrection. Isn’t it better for the soul to be liberated from an attachment to matter? Isn't that attachment painful at worst and meaningless at best? A second problem is that it conflicts with how the incarnation has traditionally been viewed: the Word became flesh; it wasn't just chained to flesh.

People have different preferences among all these positions. The Dawkins and Dennett crowd like materialism, the New Agers go in for idealism, lots of people are implicit Cartesians, and most switch between all three in an utterly unprincipled way.

Thursday said...

A little bit of clarification. Mind and meaning can exist apart from matter, particularly with God himself, but also in the human soul. But the reverse would not be true. Matter is always infused with mind and meaning. Indeed it is always absolutely dependent on them.

An interesting thing is that the early church fathers were often hampered by their Platonist metaphysics. Even great saints like Gregory of Nyssa often radically deprecated the material, including the human body, saying for example that the entirely genderless soul was the really important thing, and that our sexed bodies were the result of the fall. The division into sexes divides the body of Christ and separates us from God. He even went so far as to say that having children was only feeding the grave. Virginity was much preferable. He couldn't come right out and say the body was evil, but it was still pretty low in status. Perhaps this is why some Eastern Orthodox spirituality (not all) has a bit of a New Age-y feel to it. Apophatic theology would seem to have considerable dangers, absent a robust doctrine of natural and special revelation to complement it.

I'd also point out that some of the more sophisticated feminist and gay affirming theologians, like Sarah Coakley, have tried to revive this Platonist theology. I'm not sure they'll really succeed, as it would appear, again, to cause massive problems for the doctrine of the incarnation, but it's not like they can't claim some extremely illustrious illustrious forebears. Nyssa is, of course, one of the revered Cappadocian fathers.

I would agree that our common human nature is more important than our being male or female, but we do have either a male or female nature as well, and that is not something to be regretted. And the Platonists were trying to address some genuine problems: how can things of slightly different nature can participate in the same virtues, like holiness, or, if our highest purpose is union with God, how can sex and children fit into that, since they often take away time and energy from pursuing that union?

There are more healthy strains in Nyssa's theology of the body, and his Trinitarian formulations still have authority, but there is no denying that his theology is often rather problematic. And that is true too of Eastern Orthodoxy to the extent that it follows him.

Thursday said...

Augustine struggled with the Platonic heritage. For example, he affirmed that body and soul were both necessary to make up a person, despite the fact that Platonism tends to make them separate. All the more remarkable that he did so in the face of his metaphysics. Of course, Thomism found a way to better way to explain the fundamental unity of persons.

Thursday said...

Platonism has extreme problems with the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Th - Good comments.

I think Platonism has a gravitational pull, or is a strange attractor or something - because it keeps recurring in many guises - among intellectuals at any rate - and always leads to the same kind of problems (as described above).

As a pragmatist pluralist, I also am a materialist in the sense that I believe that everything that IS is material - including God, the soul, angels etc. Just some kind of material which we neither know nor understand - but there is some 'stuff' there. (This was Joseph Smith's view).

So I think we have a reality which is material, linear, sequential - in some respects just like modern 'science' says - but it is all alive (in different ways).

This accomplishes the task of explaining why everything hangs together and is significant - and makes it easy to explain mortal life, the incarnation and some other key problems of Platonism; but of course it has other metaphysical problems.

However, these other problems caused by pluralist common sense materialism don't bother me - so that's okay!

Adam G. said...

this is pretty good on both the attractions and the dangers.

Anonymous said...

I recall a philosophy professor attempting to differentiate between Platonism and neo-Platonism or dualism.

I agree with Bruce's criticism of dualism, which roughly agrees with Nietzsche's. Dualism of that nature reduces this world and makes it seem like a stain.

Then again, a post-materialist monism seems to me to more accurately reflect what Plato was going on about.

My personal feeling is that if you see beauty in this world, that extends to the cosmos and its design, thus atheism is ludicrous.

On a philosophical level, atheism is no different than insisting that only what we touch is real, neglecting to consider time and most importantly... information.

Anonymous said...

This thing- love, because all these things are just love- exists in another world, but the world is here, conterminous with ours, all around us if we will only see it.

God *could* have made a world of only love and beauty, but that would be like the Teletubbies. God wants a world where love, kindness, compassion, empathy are incredibly valuable.