This time, Plato’s gaze is directed outwardly,
expressing the firm resolve to refashion the world.
(Continued from part 2.)
Plato is a spiritual writer. Perhaps that, more than his philosophy, explains his lasting role in history. He had a profound influence on world religion, and in a certain sense could be called the father of religious thought. At the very least, one could call him the first religious thinker — the priests of Leviticus don’t quite fit that description.
Religious feeling begins at the moment when one suddenly perceives the intrinsic inferiority and incompleteness of one’s existence. Anyone who has ever experienced this feeling, if only for a short time, will surely identify with Plato: every page of Plato’s work, beginning with the “Apology,” is suffused with the deep conviction that physical reality is fatally flawed, nothing more than a shadow of the world of ideas, the truly real world that can never be adequately grasped by human understanding. After some thought, however, one suddenly realizes that these flaws of physical reality are only a reflection of the flaws of one’s own individuality. It is this realization that gives such a clear tragic cast to Plato’s work, and turns the world of ideas into a religious concept — the object of the defective human soul’s desperate yearning for an existence that would finally be worthy of the name. Plato often uses openly religious language:
Socrates’ final words in the “Apology”
In a certain sense, every follower of every religion is a Platonist, one who has chosen to place the world of ideas (as interpreted by one’s religion) above physical reality. But, in order to take on such significance, this concept has to be filled with some sort of content, and, unfortunately, the content provided by Plato is ultimately destructive. His influence on religion itself is almost entirely negative; his aristocratic worldview makes him predisposed to obscurantism and esotericism. When taken to its logical conclusion, his philosophy will burn away the same religious feeling that it previously inspired, leaving a kind of cynical exhaustion.
Over time, Platonic dialogue came to symbolize the very notion of philosophical inquiry, proceeding through the free exchange of ideas by the participants, but Plato’s actual texts never fully deliver on this promise. A true dialogue is a meeting between two individuals, neither of whom knows ahead of time where it will lead. When you choose to enter into a dialogue with another mind, you are giving up a certain amount of control over your life and your thoughts, entrusting a part of yourself to another person. But Plato’s dialogues, especially the later ones, are really thinly disguised lectures. Even in “Gorgias” or “Protagoras,” which are written as debates between Socrates and the title characters, it is clear from the beginning that Socrates greatly outclasses the sophists, who don’t really have that much to say. The format of a dialogue serves to make the work more entertaining and artful, but one quickly understands that Socrates’ opponents are not going to present much of a challenge. Perhaps the only exception to this rule is “Parmenides,” where it truly seems that both Socrates and Parmenides are searching for the truth together, and the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.
In the same way, Plato’s world of ideas promises a perfection worthy of humanity’s aspirations, but ultimately gives something else. Platonic ideas are perfect, but completely faceless; they do not possess personhood, and so their existence soon reduces to a reflection of the philosopher who contemplates them. For example, in the “Symposium,” the stated purpose of the participants in the dialogue is to praise the god Eros, but Socrates’ speech depersonalizes him: over the course of Diotima’s explanation of the “most perfect and mysterious form of love,” she drops the name Eros altogether, and instead uses abstract phrases like “absolute beauty,” which “always exists and is not born, does not die, never grows, is never depleted.” Much more important is the philosopher who finally attains this absolute; Diotima affirms, “Do you understand that he alone, contemplating beauty in the way that it is possible to contemplate beauty, will then be able to give birth, not to mere images of virtue — for he would not have come in contact with any such image — but to what is true, for he will have touched the truth?” Socrates closes with the somewhat ambiguous statement, “Then, Phaedrus, accept this speech as my praise of Eros, if you wish, and if you don’t, then call it however you wish and by any name you like.” Finally, when Alcibiades intrudes on the gathering to give the final speech, Eros is abandoned altogether and literally replaced by Socrates himself.
When the philosopher devotes himself to the world of ideas, he is left alone with them — there is no other conscious mind but his own, and thus, no one with whom a real dialogue could occur. The word religio, on the other hand, means contact. What is meant is contact with another, superior mind, whose existence is objective and independent of one’s own. One asks for dialogue with God because one has been exhausted by solitude, by having to be alone with one’s own inferiority. The only solution that Plato’s ideas offer to this problem is a mirror.
The fate of the Platonic philosopher.
But sometimes a mirror is what one really wants. When the individual consciousness is more strongly pronounced, it becomes less willing to accept the existence of other individuals, to say nothing of taking the risk of entering into a dialogue. Prayer becomes especially easy and pleasant when one never expects it to be answered. It is easier to wish for and attain religious fulfillment when one actually believes that there is no God — then, religious feeling takes on a material character and can be satisfied in the same way as any physical desire. One might say that any philosophical study of how God exists or what He thinks, no matter how scholarly and pious, is already an elaborate denial of His right to exist and think.
the Eleatic Stranger, in “Sophist”
In true Platonic fashion, we seem to have identified a distinction between two kinds of spirituality — one directed toward God, and one toward one’s self. I will call them “religion” and “occultism,” respectively. Ironically, the relationship between them is much like the one between philosophy and sophistry in Plato. Outwardly they are quite similar. Every sophist calls himself a philosopher, and every cult calls itself a religion. In fact, occultism works by parasitizing religions. Often, occultists do not even have a stand-alone, clearly defined, coherent teaching; their philosophy is assembled out of unrelated patches from Christianity, Buddhism, Greek mythology et cetera, taken out of context and given arbitrary interpretations.
But the connection between them is more insidious and also has a reverse direction: deep inside (or, sometimes, not so deep inside) every religion there is always the possibility of occultism, or the threat of it — the predisposition of its followers to view themselves as a chosen elite separate from the herd, or to create hierarchical gradations of their religion’s teaching, so that the most “sacred” part of it is held back for an elite within the elite. The hierarchical structure of the clergy creates the temptation for clergymen and laymen alike to project a similar hierarchy onto the “enlightenment” or “salvation” promised by the religion, so that the blessing given to ordinary believers is believed (by the believers themselves) to be of lower quality than the one given to hierarchs and members of exclusive orders. Religion cannot survive without clergy, and so this temptation can never be permanently eliminated; it can only be overcome.
Still, these various borderline states notwithstanding, there is a fundamental dividing line between religion and occultism, which lies in their attitude toward truth. Religious truth is revealed once, to everyone, equally, and everyone is free to accept or reject it. It then makes equal demands upon everyone. The degree to which individual souls will be able to transform themselves and live up to these demands varies, but is certainly not determined by any kind of rank or inborn ability. (In fact, high rank is a hindrance: “And again I say unto you: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.“) Religious transformation only becomes possible when the individual soul recognizes its own defectiveness. This is the principle of monasticism: one becomes a monk, not because one is more spiritual than the surrounding laymen, but because one is less spiritual; one feels that one is unwell, and not strong enough to heal oneself. For this reason, monastic philosophy places high importance on humility:
St. Abba Dorotheus, Edifying Teachings
Gaza, 6th century
On the other hand, occultist “truth” is intrinsically hierarchical — it is necessary to hide as much of it as possible from as many people as possible, the justification being that they are not “ready” for it. To see how this works, maybe we can imagine a hapless young acolyte who has just joined a cult (excuse me, a “new religious organization”). Like every new member, he has been attracted by the cult’s entry-level teaching, at the very bottom of the hierarchy, the only part that is “visible” to the outside world. Most likely, this teaching makes simple promises of health and happiness, and uses benign-sounding language borrowed from, say, Eastern mythology and psychotherapy. The functionaries charged with talking to our hero have all strongly disavowed any resemblance to a cult — theirs is a serious religion, they all take a dim view of self-styled gurus and cult-like practices, the whole bit — and our hero feels reassured that he is in the company of earnest truth-seekers. Interestingly, however, these same people have also hinted that this teaching, while very great, does not quite reveal the entire meaning of existence. For that, one requires special initiation, for which our hero is not yet prepared, but which he may yet undergo in the future, though it comes at an extra cost. Our hero then embarks on a long journey full of effort, meditation, spiritual training, and money paid to the cult leader; after this has gone on for some time, the functionaries pay him another visit. They congratulate him — he has finally risen to a new plane of consciousness, far above the pathetic mediocrity of the masses. This is exactly the enlightenment that the organization always promised! But now that he is spiritually prepared, they can finally tell him something more, something that they weren’t able to say before. As it turns out, there is actually another, even higher and more enlightened spiritual plane; in order to reach it, our hero now has to learn a whole other set of teachings, whose existence is only now revealed to him, and whose content is completely different from (even openly contradictory to) the previous ones. Our hero is somewhat dismayed — he liked the original teachings, that was what initially attracted him and motivated him to join the organization in the first place — but finally he decides that this is the price one must pay for true enlightenment, and throws himself with renewed zeal into mastering the new beliefs. When this is done, he is told that they must also be discarded, because, in fact, there is yet another level that had not been visible before. And so it continues, without end, and each “new” level becomes stranger and stranger.
The proverbial picture worth a thousand words. (Or 150 grand.)
As this goes on, the concept of truth is further and further devalued; essentially there is no longer any possibility for truth at all. Each new level of belief is supposed to be superior to the previous one, representing the devotee’s progress, but since it will also inevitably be overwritten (often with its diametric opposite), it has no stand-alone value. Nor is there any hope that, at some point, our adept will finally arrive at something meaningful — because the existence of each new level is only revealed upon completion of the previous one, no one can or will ever know how many levels there are. However, while there may be no truth, the hierarchical structure of this process creates a form of power. Our hero now gazes wistfully at novices who are still earnestly trying to master teachings that he now knows to be utterly meaningless; thus, he knows something about these people that they don’t know about themselves, which is how the cult is able to manipulate its members.
We may laugh at these silly cults, but perhaps we shouldn’t — this is also the guiding principle behind any secret society, and really any modern power structure. In a certain sense, every complex organization is built on the “occult” view of the world, with an “inner circle” whose membership may not even be made public, and whose members themselves may never be quite sure that theirs is the real inner circle, that there isn’t another, more authoritative one out there somewhere. Information, in such organizations, is strictly doled out based on rank and always left incomplete; varying degrees of incompleteness allow the higher ranks to control the lower ones. And yet there is no relationship between the secrecy of the information and its truthfulness. In fact, the most secret and esoteric information has the least connection to reality. Perhaps, when a talented young upstart has made a few million dollars and is invited to take his rightful place in influential circles, he is initiated (in a dark room, wearing a white apron) into the first level of secret knowledge…and it turns out to be virtually identical to the cults’ space alien stories. Well, no doubt that is all very useful and helps things to run smoothly, but none of it has anything whatsoever to do with religion. Religions degenerate into cults the moment they introduce “secret teachings” and attempt to restrict access to them for any reason.
It is not hard to see on which side of this divide Plato belongs. To him, truth is a beautiful secret that no one, except perhaps a handful of chosen philosophers, will ever see. In his youth, he might have said (through Socrates) that one can work at being a philosopher and gradually gain knowledge through effort and self-education. But, by “The Republic,” he had settled on a different model — one is selected into the philosopher caste from birth or early childhood, and one’s growth as a philosopher is essentially predestined. It is not a life that one can freely choose:
Socrates and Glaucon (“The Republic,” book III)
Sunlight, it seems, is only for the golden ones.
This is the only point of the stratified society shown in “The Republic.” In the end, the city itself is more of an intellectual game than a serious political program, but the broader notion that justice (“The Republic” has a kind of false start, in book I, with a more typically Socratic discussion of the definition of justice) is inseparable from hierarchy is undoubtedly Plato’s very sincere and deeply held conviction. This way of looking at the world goes far beyond political philosophy — in fact, Plato views everything hierarchically, all human experience and all creation. Recall that the defining characteristic of Plato’s otherwise amorphous world of ideas, the only thing that can be positively affirmed about it, is that it is superior to physical reality. You might meet people like this, who are able to interact with the world only by stratifying every aspect of it into superior and inferior levels. Perhaps they’ve never heard of Plato, and would be baffled if someone called them Platonists, but it is a concise and purely factual designation.
This central aspect of Plato’s worldview is made even clearer in the “Laws,” his final work. In this dialogue, which often devolves into a series of long monologues and has less resemblance to a real human conversation than any other piece by Plato, three old men discuss how a just society should be organized. In painstaking detail, they (more accurately, one of them, a certain nameless “Athenian” who clearly has the most intellectual authority of the three) go through laws governing ownership of property, inheritance, trade, marriage, religious worship, military training, public drunkenness and many other subjects. The laws are elaborate and, in many ways, much more humane than the totalitarian commune described in “The Republic” — Plato makes a great effort to differentiate between offenders who break the law out of ignorance as opposed to willful immorality. He also goes to great lengths to explain the system for electing public officers, which has many democratic elements and imposes very strict standards on the ruling elite. But, at the very end of this lengthy text, there is a short coda, lasting barely two pages, beginning as follows:
the Athenian, in the “Laws”
In other words, everything leading up to here has been completely meaningless. The entire exposition of the laws has been a long digression intended only to bring the reader to this point, which reveals the existence of an extra-legal Nocturnal Council, consisting of a small number of very old men whose existence safeguards and guarantees the proper function of the laws…by being entirely above them. Then, “having been educated thus, they will reside in an acropolis that rises high above the whole nation, and they will be perfect guardians of virtue, the likes of which were never seen in the old ways.”
from the “Laws,” book IV
Plato makes this admirable statement earlier in the book, but as it turns out, he does not believe it at all. In fact, the rule of law is impossible to achieve — even the best and most perfect laws must be protected by an elite with unlimited power. In a brilliant poetic metaphor, this “council” meets only at night, while the vast mass of the population is asleep.
The visual arts really have not done justice to Plato.
This unrelated image conveys a hint
of the secluded secrecy that he must have envisioned.
The “Laws” end without explaining exactly what the council does, but there exists a separate follow-up text called the “Epinomis” (“after the laws”), in which the same three characters pick up immediately where the “Laws” leave off. Many contemporary scholars believe that this text is a forgery, i.e., that it was not really written by Plato. However, it is at the very least genuinely ancient, since it had been known and attributed to Plato in late antiquity, so most likely it came from someone in his inner circle, if not from the man himself. But in any case, even if Plato was not the author, in my opinion it is the only possible logical conclusion from what he said in the “Laws” — above, we saw that he had already named “piety” as the motivation for the institution of the Nocturnal Council, and the “Epinomis” has this to add:
from the “Epinomis”
What is called “astronomy” in the “Epinomis” has an overtly mystical character and is more recognizable as astrology, which, of course, is a favorite pastime of occultists throughout the ages. Astrology itself has no real importance in this system, however. The real essence of what is being proposed is that the members of the Nocturnal Council are not statesmen, but high priests. Their religion is esoteric — as usual, that is the only thing we can say for certain about it, and the fact that its content “cannot easily be seen” by the uninitiated is much more important than the content itself. The author may not be Plato, but he has certainly captured the core idea of Plato’s religious philosophy.
Plato’s belief in the necessity of esoteric knowledge is perhaps most clearly expressed in “Phaedrus,” where Socrates tells the title character the following myth:
Socrates, in “Phaedrus”
He further explains, “Yes, Phaedrus, that is the trouble with writing, just as with painting. The works of painting stand as if they were alive, but if you ask them anything — they are silent, for all their apparent importance. It is the same with [written] speech: you might think that it speaks with wisdom, but when one asks questions, intending to understand its content — it can only repeat the same expressions. Written speech wanders everywhere — among men who understand it, and those who have no part in it: it does not know to whom it should or should not speak; and thus, being subjected to insults and unjust rebukes, it always has need of help from its creator. It can neither defend nor help itself.” Well, it is hard to argue with Plato’s deep scepticism toward the written word, which is never quite adequate for the entirety of what one has in mind, and which can easily be misunderstood or maliciously misread. But it seems to me that the real object of Plato’s distaste is the universal accessibility of a written text: once you have transferred your thoughts to a physical object, there is no foolproof way to keep it from being read by those “to whom it should not speak.”
Plato put this belief into practice. Aristotle, in Physics, explicitly states that Plato’s written dialogues say something “different from what he says in his so-called ‘unwritten teaching.’” Evidently Plato gave secret lectures of some kind, with no written record. It may be, however, that at least some part of this teaching is reflected in the dialogues “Timaeus” and “Critias,” both of which belong to Plato’s late period. In both dialogues, Socrates is present but mostly silent, and the title characters present long and rather boring monologues about the origins of life in the universe. “Critias” has some curiosity, since it is a possible origin of the Atlantis myth, and since it is the only work in Plato’s entire corpus that simply ends in mid-sentence:
last extant line of “Critias”
Whether the remainder was lost, or just never finished (deliberately unfinished?), whatever Zeus said was probably not particularly enlightening. The defining characteristic of any secret knowledge is that it has no content — that was never its purpose.
The cosmogony of “Timaeus” was not particularly influential, but Platonism posed a challenge to Christianity for many centuries. In the 3rd century AD, the Roman-Egyptian philosopher Plotinus brought about a revival of Platonism, this time as a kind of alternative monotheism with a depersonalized God. The central concept of Plotinus’ philosophy is essentially an extreme version of the idea of “one” that Socrates and Parmenides had debated — in the “neo-Platonist” interpretation of Plotinus, “one” is the central idea of the universe from which all things “emanate.” At the same time, “one” is not a living thing, and strictly speaking may not even exist, despite being the source of all existence. In any case, “one” cannot be said to have a consciousness, for the precise reasons explained by Plato in “Parmenides” — one cannot partake in any form of activity or movement, otherwise it would no longer be one. Thus, it has no will and does not make choices; it is a god with no individuality.
Neo-Platonism is not particularly hostile to Christianity in and of itself, though it is quite amazing to see just how difficult it is for a philosopher, who clearly has great respect for the free will of man, to accept the possibility of the free will of God. Plotinus’ philosophy became more problematic when Christian sectarians tried to lift some of his concepts and “Christianize” them. The result was what is usually called Gnosticism.
In our time, Gnosticism has acquired a certain vaguely respectable air. No one knows exactly what it is; if you ask someone to give a precise definition, you will not receive a coherent answer — and yet, the name will somehow seem to have a connotation of philosophical and spiritual depth. Usually the one thing that your interlocutor will know for certain is that Gnosticism was somehow opposed to the “dogmatic” Christian teaching…and, if you think about it, that is actually the only reason why it vaguely seems like something good, because the word “dogmatic” now has very negative connotations, even if one similarly has no idea what the “dogmas” actually were or what the argument was about.
In its effort to rewrite Christianity to suit its desires, contemporary culture also expects that these carriers of “authentic” and “non-dogmatic” Christianity should be more like us — more “open-minded” (i.e., fixated on the self), more “complex” (i.e., similar to Eastern religions, or what we think are Eastern religions), expressing a vague respect for “Jesus” as a “teacher” of various insipid “truths,” and so forth. In fact, quite unlike us, but very much like Plato, Gnostics categorically rejected material reality. They believed, or thought that they believed, in God, but they were unable to accept the idea that God would ever willingly “be made flesh, and dwell among us,” in our inferior world. The only way that they could reconcile this belief with numerous Biblical statements to the contrary was to assert that these statements represent a “lower” teaching, and that the real “truth” must have been revealed by God secretly, with no written record, to a small elite, which of course consisted entirely of Gnostics or their precursors.
As we have already seen with Plato, the actual content of the “secret truth” is completely unimportant. The existence of such a “truth” is its content — there is no need to delve into Gnostic theology in order to see that it fully embodies the Platonic worldview. For all that it emphasizes “knowledge” (gnosis), the only purpose of this knowledge is to serve as a mechanism for creating a hierarchy, ostensibly between God and humanity, but ultimately between the “chosen” part of humanity and everyone else. There is no room in this philosophy for the idea of God’s love or sacrifice, and thus, no room for God — the “chosen elite” effectively replaces Him. Thus, no matter how much “Christian” content may or may not have been added on top of Gnosticism, it was never, and could never have been, anything more than a counterfeit of Christianity.
Platonism seeped into Christianity in many other, much more subtle ways. Early Christian philosophers who openly rejected Gnosticism nonetheless found themselves using Platonic language to argue against it, and ultimately ended up just as far away from the teaching that they were trying to defend. The best-known such case is that of the 3rd-century philosopher Origen, author of an articulate polemic against Gnosticism (Against Celsus), who was martyred for professing Christianity by the Roman emperor Decius, but whose own ideas eventually took on so many Platonic elements that they were rejected by the Church. Maybe it goes to show that the appeal (or temptation) of Platonism is in some way inescapable for the religious mind — one has to learn to live with it and keep it within reasonable bounds. Even St. Dionysius the Areopagite, a central figure in Christian mysticism, tried to arrange the angels in Heaven into a very Platonic hierarchy…
As we have already observed, Plato occupies a peculiar position in contemporary culture. On one hand, there is a narrative of Plato as a totalitarian mastermind: out of the entire Platonic corpus, “The Republic” has been chosen as a representative text and foisted on college freshmen, with the interpretation that it presents a radical political program that is obviously opposed to our declared values. On the other hand, this same narrative hails this same book where he supposedly lays out this program as a masterpiece of political thought. This attitude toward him does not seem consistent.
But then, perhaps it is. The part of Plato that resonates so deeply with our elites is precisely his hierarchical, esoteric view of the universe. They see themselves as the high priests of the Nocturnal Council, guardians of meaningless but secret knowledge (no doubt they have developed their own set of myths, which would look patently ridiculous to most ordinary people, and which for that reason must be jealously kept from them), whose function is religious rather than political. Plato’s critique of democracy, in and of itself, may not have much meaning for them, but neither does his critique of tyranny, because Plato himself also showed that the very debate over political programs is irrelevant — true leaders are above all laws, whether democratic or tyrannical. In that sense, “The Republic” and the “Laws” are their sacred texts, presenting an articulate and compelling justification, both rational and mystical, for how they see the world.
(Conclusion: part 4.)