More from Eric Perl’s book Theophany which so far is unpacking that “being as convertible with intelligibility is such an important idea for platonic thought [that has] disappeared with the rise of nominalism” (as a friend who better understands put it).
Despite differences of expression, the structure of participation, implying at once transcendence and immanence, remains the same in Plato, Plotinus, Proclus, and Dionysius: one and the same term is present in many different things, and as what is the same in all of them (immanent), it is other than and unconditioned by all of them (transcendent).
But if all the determinations of all things are the presence of God in them, then God is not merely “in all things,” as if he were in something other than himself. Rather, God is the whole content of reality, “all things in all things.” God “is all things as cause of all things, and holding together and prepossessing in himself all principles, all limits of all beings.” The various features, characters, or natures, the determinations found in a thing, constitute the entire intelligible content of that thing, all that there is in it for the mind to encounter. And since to be is to be intelligible, they constitute the whole of the thing itself. A being can be nothing but the totality of its intelligible determinations, down to the least details by which it is this particular thing and no other. The divine processions are “in” all things, then, not as contained in something other than themselves, but as constituting their entire content. God is the “cause” of all things, and so subject to all names, therefore, in that the entire intelligible content of all things, and hence the whole of reality, is nothing but the differentiated presence of God.
Eric Perl, in his book Theophany, quoting and explicating Saint Dionysius the Areopagite:
God is the “illumination of the illumined and principle of perfection of the perfected and principle of deiﬁcation of the deiﬁed and simplicity of the simpliﬁed and unity of the uniﬁed… and, to speak simply, the life of living things and being of beings.” He is present to all beings as being, the universal character common to all beings such that they are beings: God “neither was nor will be nor came to be nor comes to be nor will come to be; rather, he is not. But he is being to beings.” Likewise he is present to all living things as life, the universal determination by which they are living things as distinct from non-living things. But the determining, constitutive divine presence is not limited to such exalted attributes as being and life, but includes all the features of each thing, which constitute it as that distinct thing, as itself, and hence as a being.
…Here these “paradigms” or logoi contained without distinction in God, are explicitly identiﬁed as the deﬁning or determining principles which make beings to be. God is thus present in each being as its determining or deﬁning logos, by which it is itself and so is. All the features of all things, therefore, are God—in—them, making them to be by making them what they are, so that God is not only being in beings and life in living things but “all things in all things.” This constitutive presence of God in all things is what Dionysius variously calls the “powers,” “participations,” “processions,” “providences,” “manifestations,” or “distributions” of God. All these expressions refer to God’s causal presence.
Fr. Andrew Louth with “The Necessity of Platonism for Christian Theology.” Delivered remotely to the King’s College Chapel, January 17, 2021. Link to full video of this 2021 Robert Crouse Memorial Lecture.
Summary of the opening comments before my transcription picks up: Christianity is not an intellectual pursuit, and being a Platonist certainly is not required to be a Christian. Louth clarifies that he is not promoting Christian Platonism or interested in any such intellectual camps, as if we needed to opt between alternatives such as “Christian Platonism” or “Christian Aristoteliansim” or “Christian Existentialism.” Finally, Louth makes it clear that he does not consider Aristotle to be fundamentally at odds with Plato but instead to be within the Platonic tradition. What Louth does claim is that, in pursuing the intellectual work of Christian theology, we find that Platonism provided a necessary backdrop or framework—one that uniquely enables Christian thinkers to articulate the centrality of Christ in a way that preserves the mystery of Christ from being sucked up into transcendence or drawn down into imminence.
Transcription of select portions:
18:37 There is not doubt that among the fathers Plato could be held in very high regard. Saint Athanasius [d. 373] …refers to Plato as “great among the Greeks” (though in the context of attributing to him a false doctrine of creation from pre-existent matter). In Saint Anastasios of Sinai’s Questions and Answers [7th century], we find this story. There is handed down an ancient tradition that a certain learned man used often to curse Plato the philosopher. Plato appeared to him in his sleep and said to him, “Man stop cursing me, for you only harm yourself. For that I’ve been a sinful man, I do not deny. When Christ came down into Hades, truely, no one believed in him before I did.”
Plato then had a certain respect among all the fathers, at least in late antiquity. By the end of the first millennium, regard for Plato was more conflicted. Among the anathemas added to the Synodikon of Orthodoxy after the condemnation of John Italus in 1082, an anathema was pronounced on those who “pursued Hellenic learning”—which certainly included Plato—”and are formed by it not simply as an educational discipline but who follow their empty opinions and believe them to be true.”
Aristotle himself had less appeal to the fathers. In a famous phrase, often cited by others, Saint Gregory the Theologian recommended that Christians should present their theology …in the manner of fisherman (apostles) not in the manner of Aristotle. [This] quip that was capped by Saint John Damascene. When writing against John Philoponus, he commented that Philoponus’ problems, both trinitarian and christological, would not have arisen had he not introduced Saint Aristotle as the thirteenth apostle. In both these cases, it seems, that Aristotle meant his logical works which had, in fact, already been incorporated into a fundamentally Platonic context.
…Christian Platonism seems to me a category mistake. …The idea of Christian Platonism …sees these positions—Christianity, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism and so on—as collections of doctrines. But recent scholarship has retrieved a much more adequate understanding of what was meant by philosophy in late antiquity by insisting that such philosophies were not just a matter of doctrines, though they involved doctrines and the philosophers argued over them among themselves, but are primarily to be seen (to use part of a title of a book containing English translations of the most prominent scholar espousing this view, namely Pierre Hadot) as a “way of life.” In this sense, certainly, Christianity could be regarded, and sometimes presented itself, as a philosophical school. But to speak of Christian Platonism muddies the waters. This has been evident especially since Mark Edwards published his book with the provocative title Origen Against Plato in which Origen is presented not as a Christian Platonist (as he has often been) but as an explicit critic of Plato. The different philosophical schools in late antiquity could and did overlap in the doctrines they espoused, but what distinguished them was also quite clear. It was where they found their authority for the doctrines they maintained: the dialogs of Plato, the writings of Aristotle, the Christian scriptures. In late antiquity, in reaction against the Christian and Jewish appeal to their ancient scriptures, we find philosophical schools of a general Platonic color, appealing to the authority of supposed ancient oracles such as the Chaldean Oracles or the treatises ascribed to the thrice greatest Hermes (Hermes Trismegistus), oracles that were claimed as the ultimate source of the doctrines Plato, something that Plato had not exactly discourage in his own appeal in the Symposium to the teachings of Diotima the priestess of Manitea.
The notion of Christian Platonism confuses the issue, suggesting that Christianity is, as it were, adjectival to Platonism, whereas the reverse was the case for all of those claimed as Christian Platonists. They supported their doctrines by appeal to the scriptures, so at best they could be regarded as Platonic Christians. The only thinker of late antiquity I can think of who might reasonably be regarded as a Christian Platonist was Synesius of Cyrene, the Platonist and neoplatonist who became a Christian, indeed a Christina bishop, but made it clear in a letter to his brother that truth was something he had learned from Plato while what he was to preach as a Christian bishop were no more to him than popular myths. But Synesius is pretty well a unique case.
…So I am not making a case for Christian Platonism. What might seem a more fruitful line could be to note the overlap in doctrines between Christianity and Platonism. There is genuine and important overlap in the doctrines Platonists and Christians embraced. Both believed in the existence of the divine (God or gods), in divine providence (God’s care for the universe), that humans are responsible for their deeds and will be rewarded or punished in an afterlife. In other words, both Platonists and Christians maintained a belief in a moral universe which required that divine providence held sway but did not override human free will. Now to talk of free will is already to use later Christian terminology. Earlier philosophers, both pagan and Chistian, spoke rather of human responsibility. Other philosophical schools had different doctrines, believing that the cosmos was either the result of chance (as Aristotelians were held to belief) at least in the sublunary regions. In the celestial realm, the movement of the stars and planets was indeed predictable or governed by an ineluctable fate (as the Stoics were held to maintain). Christian thinkers drew on an established body of their arguments that had been developed by earlier thinkers (mostly Platonists), but there were Platonic doctrines that Christians rejected. For example, Platonists believed that the soul was immortal—that is, it had existed from eternity and that it would continue to exist to eternity. For Christians, the soul had only an immortal future. Christians believed in the resurrection of the body, a doctrine incomprehensible to most non-Chrsitian philosophers in late antiquity as the Apostle Paul discovered at Athens. Nevertheless, Chistians responded warmly to the idea that, in virtue of possessing a soul, there was a certain affinity between the human and the divine, something expressed in a distinctively Chrsitian way by their doctrine of the human created in the image of God, a doctrine based on the Bible.
28:49 …Nevertheless, this overlap or assimilation of Platonic and Christian theology in the patristic period is not what I have in mind in speaking of the necessity of Platonism for Christian theology.
34:15 …[Walter] Pater’s expositions begins: “Platonism is not a formal theory or body of theories but a tendency or a group of tendencies, a tendency to think or feel and to speak about certain things in a particular way, discernible in Plato’s dialogs as reflecting the particularities of himself and his own mental complexion.” And he goes on to show how an appeal to the general is not intended to detract from our attention to the particular but rather enables us to notice what is particular about the particular. For it is only when we compare one particular with another of the same kind that we notice the particularity of the particular. Later on in this chapter, Pater puts it like this: “By its juxtaposition and coordination with what is ever more and more not it—the contrast of its very imperfection at this point or that with its own proper and perfect type—this concrete and particular thing has in fact been enriched by the whole color and expression of the whole circomplacent world concentrated upon or, as it were, at focus in it by a kind of shorthand now and, as if in a single moment of vision, all that which only a long experience, moving patiently from part to part could exhaust, its manifold alliance with the entire world of nature is legible upon it as it lies there in one’s hand.”
What seems to me important about this procedure of understanding is that it is not a procedure in which, as it where, by applying a certain method we pass from ignorance to knowledge. It is rather a process by which the knowledge we already have, knowledge both of the world around us as well as knowledge of forms of human excellence is clarified and deepened. The process is one of clarification in the light of experience rather that appeal to some empirical observation that adds in some way to our knowledge understood as a collection of information. This growing understanding is, however, a matter of long experience, an experience that is itself central to a way of life.
40:00 …This means that any meaning we find in the world in which we live is, in some sense, received from, even given by something (not yet someone to Plato) beyond understanding. This transcendent reality, bestoying meaning, is glimpsed beyond the good and the beautiful. For Plato himself, this was something untheorizeable. It remains an intuition thought it almost imperceptibly tips over into religious, even theological, intuition.
I remind you at this point about a quotation from C.C.J. Webb that my revered mentor, Professor Donald MacKinnon, used to growl forth in his lectures in Cambridge half a century ago, “We could not allow the name of God to a being on whose privacy an Actaeon could intrude or whose secrets a Prometheus could snatch form him without his assent.”
Plotinus, as we shall see, takes a step beyond Plato but does not take away the sense of transcendence as beyond meaning yet the source of meaning. In this, Plotinus finds a sense of something that would make possible the continuing fruitfulness of meditation on Plato in the Christian tradition that indeed lent the Christian vision the intellectual coherence it needed to articulate its own vision of reality, a vision opened up by revelation, though because it is the revelation of God—ineffable, incomprehensible—it is a revelation that remains a mystery unknown and unknowable.
What I just expressed is something that I only found the means to articulate through having to reread, recently, Hans Urs von Balthasar in order to write a chapter commissioned for the forthcoming Oxford handbook on Hans Urs von Balthasar on the influence on the great Swiss theologian of Plato and the Platonic tradition. In the long section on Plato, in The Realm of Metaphysics in Antiquity, Balthasar presents Plato as the supreme witness to philosophy in antiquity while at the same time recognizing inherent limitations. Sternly shaking himself free from poetry and myth, as from an old passion, Plato devotes himself to the quest for truth discovered by reason. But this quest is for him a religious quest, seeking true divinity that transcends the gods—the spurious divinity of the myths. And he does this by occupying himself with becoming like God so far as is possible, by becoming righteous and holy with wisdom. This is, however, a quest, that though pursued by reason cannot be represented solely by transparently rational procedures. The slave in the Meno is shown already to be aware of truths that he had not been taught and of which he is unaware, and this because learning is for Plato a matter of recalling what the soul has already experienced. The myth of the rebirth of the immortal soul in this life in this body is evoked to explain something that reason can reveal but cannot explain.
Other attempts to explore what is involved in the rational pursuit of truth, for instance in the Symposium or the Phaedrus, invoke themes of inspiration, the longing for eros (understood as a dymo, neither god nor human, immortal nor mortal)—themes that seem to transcend or undermine reason. Myth for Plato is to be found and belongs where the lines drawn by philosophical reflection stretch beyond its grasp, and in telling these myths, Plato demonstrates a literary power to evoke and persuade in a way very different than the demonstration of truth by rational argument.
45:30 …Heraclitus’ system of pure being is rejected, and Plato seems to be following Parmenides in the pursuit of pure being in the sense that “…only becomes more demanding since now it must take becoming with it up into being, the half up into the whole. This whole is the soundest, the most honorable. Inspiration, eros, myth can point to nothing higher.
48:09 …Now is born that philosophic aesthetic of the grand style to which even Plotinus will be able to make no significant alteration and which will lay down the pattern for all Western forms of humanism, of antiquity, the middle ages, and right into modern times—an aesthetic which seeks to draw out the glory of God which breaks in upon the human scene in the direction of the human of what for the moment is the same cosmic sublime.
…Though for Balthasar it is Plotinus who sees what the final implications of Plato’s intuition really amount to. He starts a paragraph like this: “Plotinus stands in awe and wonder before the glory of the cosmos.” Here I suggest, Balthasar reaches for his touch stone for understanding of Platonism, in this case that of Plotinus. The cosmos—manifestly a vast ensouled organism in which individual souls, rational and irrational, have their share—throughout this glorious world radiates the presence of an eternal and intelligent spirit in which noesis and noema, the action of thought and the object of thought are one. …And in the ultimate ground of this spirit, there is an unutterable generative mystery at work which in all the splendor of the cosmos simultaneously reveals and hides itself, present everywhere and yet unapproachable. All intellectual activity in heaven and earth circles round this unattainable generative mystery—all longings, love, struggles upwards towards it. All the beauty of the world is only a sign coming from it and pointing to it, so that as he contemplates and seeks to understand the things of the world, the philosopher is compelled at a deeper level to run away, to let go, to turn again to the uniqueness of absolute unity.
On the one hand, the irreferable wonder of the world around us and on the other, stemming from this, a sense of being touched by knowledge in which wonder seems to dissolve any sense of distance between the known and the knower. Wonder before the cosmos does not, at first step, highlight a contrast with our everyday experience (as with the gnostic to whom he was radically opposed and with whom he may indeed include Christians) but reveals a hidden sense of oneness. To Plotinus, in contrast, the vision of the starry heavens directly reveals the certainty of the world’s divinity and an awed reticence fills the soul. It is the manifest and glorious image of an unimaginable wisdom, a wondrous intellectual power reveals itself in this vision. How can the stars be anything other than the divinity manifest? Why should we rob this world, springing forth from God’s spirit, of it Maker and seek to confine him to a meager beyond?
…The stress on individuality [is] wholly positive, divined from above where it is found in the realm of the ideas not from below by material difference. …Poltinas speaks of procession [from the One] as risk but also daring, temerity. An entailment of this is that the One is not separated from anything. Because God is absolutely transcendent, therefore He can be absolutely imminent in all things. Thus does Plotinus reject the utter beyondness of Aristotle’s God (reposing in Himself) but also the Platonic karismas(sp?), separation. Intellection itself reflects the inexpressible unity of the One as the realm of one-many.
This, Balthasar continues, leaves nothing except the One in its moment of eternal self-identity to define what the intellect stretches out towards. God is nothing other than the inner depth of things, the center of that circle whose periphery or circumference they constitute. …The real Plotinus could never rest content with speculation in the modern sense. Throughout his life, he was to stand speechless before the miracle of being that transcends all reason.
56:37 …Balthasar concludes his chapter by making the following comment: “Plotinus draws together the various strands of the Greek heritage in his vision of being as beauty because it is the revelation of the divine. Beauty is thus characterized by an inner differentiation between radiance and form, light and harmony. It is in the fact that his formal ontology and aesthetics leaves the way open to pure philosophy and self-conscious theology that Plotinus represents a moment of kairos. It is in this that both the risks and the fruitfulness of his thought for future ages lie.
For Balthasar, Plotinus is clearly the apogee of Platonism, surpassing even the one that he regards as his master. Transcendence, which for both is only fully sensed in the beautiful, is less as with Plato the subject of meditations then a sense of wonder before the transcendent, a raw wonder not to be themetized or theorized, but speechlessness before the miracle of being and its source. This transcendent is absolute and therefore absolutely imminent, experienced as presence, as immediate, palpable but intangible, felt but never understood.
It is this intuition of Plato’s, an intuition that determined the very being of Plotinus, that I want to claim is necessary for Christian theology—necessary in the sense that without it the Christian thinker will find it impossible to articulate the centrality of Christ, the centrality of the cross for Christian theology. It is this sense of speechlessness before the miracle of being and its source that ensures both the acknowledgement of the reality of God (transcendent and immanent—transcendent because immanent and immanent because transcendent) and a sense of the wonder of creation. Now both of these are necessary if the mystery of Christ is not to be sucked up into the transcendent God or drawn down into the mystery of created being.
Plato’s and Plotinus’ intuition remained for them unfulfilled and unfulfilling. The sense behind this intuition that meaning is always received, always being given cannot be ultimately sustained if there is no giver, no God who bestows meaning. For the sovereign reality that must be recognized in the supreme giver, the giver of being itself, cannot rest on the acknowledgement of the creature. This is the mystery of grace which cannot itself demand or require what can only be freely given.
So I leave you with a paradox that Christian theology stands in need of an intuition of the radical givenness of meaning, an intuition that forms the heart of Plato’s metaphysics, an intuition that might even be said to have rendered speechless before the mystery of being its greatest interpreter Plotinus, but which for both Plato and Plotinus could not but remain beyond fulfillment.
Thank you for your attention.
From the Q & A:
1:03:16 …It is this intuition that the meaning of things is not something that we read into them, is not …simply our way of negotiating them, but in fact is something that ultimately is found, not even in the things themselves, but beyond the things themselves and requires from us attention, a contemplative gaze if you like—this is the fundamental issue as I see it.
1:05:52 …What is essential about Platonism for Christianity is that …the truth of things is not something that we confect. It is something that is in some way disclosed and disclosed as a process of refining vision, refining love. It is not something that can be read off from events or even read off from texts.
1:11:09 …Even when they don’t come to a conclusion, the process of the dialog leaves Plato and his interlocutors with a sense that, well, “We know that this is because that isn’t it.” And it’s that sort of intuition that it seems to me is fundamental if our response to the world is a response to the miracle of being rather than just an attempt to make some sense of it.
1:13:33 …In the liturgy, we open ourselves to an experience of being that can be gestured at, that can be reflected in various ways of praising God. …The unwritten traditions are all liturgical acts. …These liturgical acts reach out towards meaning even if we don’t understand why we are doing them because what we are doing is we are standing within a community and drawing on the resources of that community …in order to deepen our sense of openness to the mystery of being which is also the mystery of recreation, …the mystery of everything that is involved in the divine economy.
1:20:14 …There is something in Platonism that we have to take on board if we are going to be able to become Chrisitan theologians. But I don’t believe for a minute that this is done by becoming Platonists, not in the sense of adopting various Platonic doctrines. …There is one thing in which there is no parallel between Christianity and Platonism. …It is only in the Jewish and Christian tradition, in Philo particularly, that God is understood as one who speaks, and what he speaks is the Logos. This is very different from an understanding of the logos that is a meaning that we find in things, a meaning that we think runs through everything. A lot of discussion of what we think is going on in the second century gets completely off the rails because it doesn’t realize how Philo’s idea of talking of God as one who speaks …is something that Platonists could take on but they didn’t really understand what it is about. They didn’t see the idea of God as one who speaks is a way of summing up Genesis one. He is the one who speaks, and his speech comes into effect and is created. …Mark Edwards in his book Origen against Plato …says that all of these people were interpreting text. It was not a free standing discussion of various doctrines which we might or might not share with one another.
1:41:49 …In my experience, most people who are non-philosophers get this point quite easily. They don’t expect to be able to read off from scripture some sort of human wisdom that they are in control of. They are very often very deeply conscious of the fact that listening to the scriptures, trying to understand the scripture, is an encounter, an encounter with God, and that in that encounter what takes place is not, as it were, scripted. …This way of understanding scripture, not as a collection of doctrines or arguments or whatever, …became inevitable at the time of the Reformation and thereafter where people read scripture and understood very different doctrines in it and then saw scripture not as a source of wisdom but rather as a source of argument and knowledge, an arsenal instead of as a treasury. …Trying to understand scripture as a way of mediating an encounter with God is going to make much more sense …rather than trying to see scripture as some sort of textbook. The use of scripture in a kind of frightened way, from the 18th century on, as a way of rejecting what we don’t want to understand about the world in which we live …that is not even thought of by people who argue like that. They think that what they are doing is going back to a way in which the scriptures were understood before all these scientists came along. …That, just as a matter of history, is just wrong. The Genesis account wasn’t read before the eighteenth century as if it was a descriptive account of the way that the world was made. It was understood as a story which was told which helped us to see in what way it was God’s and in what way it was a world in which God was active. …We’ve lost a lot of being able to stand before sacred text and allowing them to help us to understand ourselves and our relationship to God and to other people and have treated them as textbooks, as primitive textbooks of primitive science.
1:52:08 …You know Otto’s idea of the mysterium tremendum et fascinosum. The tremendum is alright, but what is more important is the idea of mystery that draws one into itself, that wants us to go further, to understand more deeply, not to lose this sense of wonder. Attentiveness is absolutely crucial. Certainly in the Eastern tradition it’s a point often made, particularly with the ascetic fathers, that the Greek words for prayer and attention are very similar. There is a sense that they involve one another.
Once, when Griffiths and Barfield were lunching in my room, I happened to refer to philosophy as ‘a subject’. ‘It wasn’t a subject to Plato,’ said Barfield, ‘it was a way.’ The quiet but fervent agreement of Griffiths, and the quick glance of understanding between these two, revealed to me my own frivolity.
“The curtain of history rises on a world already ancient, full of ruined cities and ways of thought worn smooth. Mediterranian peoples knew there had been disasters, but remembered little in detail” (2). These opening lines of Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy mesmerized me, and the spell remained throughout the book. Clark participates throughout his book in philosophy’s true task: “Philosophical discussion and reflection are not simply means for solving intellectual problems (though they are and must be that). They are also charms, counter-charms, for the deliverance of the soul” (41, quoting Hilary Armstrong). To put it more modestly, “what we need—tradition says—is to awaken insight” (36).
Clark does not remain modest in his claims for philosophy, however. Reflecting on the death of Socrates, Clark claims that he practiced “a kind of philosophy at once more dangerous and more obscure than moderns now remember” (43). The deadliness of philosophy was a commonplace as we see with Zeno who was “one of those who perished as philosophers were meant to do: defying a tyrant with such courage that, after his murder, the tyrant was overthrown” (63-64). This standard carried through to Christian sages as well. Describing Saint Maximus (who had his right hand removed and his tongue cut out to prevent his writing and speaking), Clark points out that “parrhesia, ‘outspokenness’, was the hallmark and privilege of the awkward holy man in all periods of Byzantium” (203, quoting The Byzantines by Averil Cameron). Stephen R. L. Clark clearly advocates the practice of what these sages preach, saying in his preface, “I have my own beliefs about the only truth that matters, but it is the nature of that truth, as Plato recognized, that it cannot be conveyed by writing” (xi).
The book moves chronologically overall but with a fluid topical arrangement providing enough systematic clarity to make me imagine using this book in a classroom with students. Although sweeping in its scope, Clark is not shy about identifying a center and taking sides. The chapter on Plato is titled “Divine Plato” and is placed at the center of a chiastic structure, with four chapters before and four after, each with some reverberating echoes in their content leading up to Plato and receding from him. Chapter ten functions more like an epilogue that places the entire ebb and flow of Mediterranean philosophy into active contact with our own world—one of a long-crumbled Christendom and of established modern superstitions (as Clark calls them, more below). Echoing his opening lines, Clark points out that we are once again “being brought up among the ruins” and that we are likely soon to pass through another period of youth which is always an opportunity to “rediscover glory” (208).
In a further example of taking sides, Clark calls Plotinus “probably the greatest” of Hellenic sages (196) and provides a delightful section of chapter9 (“The way we didn’t take”) which considers what Rome might have looked like had it become a “Plotinian empire” (200). It would at least have been kinder, Clark says, than the attempt at a pagan renaissance made by the emperor Julian. Despite his love for Plato, Clark gives a thoughtful and positive treatment to all the schools of wisdom seeking within the Mediterranean world. He gives none of them a corner on the market and recognizes multiple threads that link them together.
Although the book is not polemical, Clark quietly points out modernity’s blindspots at several points. For example, he says:
The story that has most affected recent writers is that our ancestors were enmeshed in superstition, that ‘the Greeks’ invented science to escape, then lost their nerve and succumbed again to ‘Oriental’ fantasies. Popular works on science refer disparagingly to the ‘Dark Ages’ and to ‘Medieval Superstition’. This story too is a fable. (5)
Another critique of the modern world is its greed. Clark notes that “‘wanting more’ (Greek morealists called it pleonexia) is the disease of progress” and that “not everyone has succumbed” (3) and goes on to say:
The very realism of much Greek thought was not friendly to the growth of anything we could call ‘science’. It was better not to disturb things, not to image that we could control the world, or always evade disaster. Even if we succeeded in the short term, the effects might not be good. (19) …Most philosophers gradually concluded …that …only small groups of friends, or even solitaries, could live well. (72)
Part of the solution for Clark is recognizing that we occupy a world that is more than material. Sounding like my hero Wendell Berry, Clark says that “in the merely material world, there are no privileged places, times or scales: there is nowhere that is uniquely here, no time that is uniquely now, no reason to suggest that the human scale of things is especially important” (116). As I have already pointed out, the way forward that Clark holds out for us is to rediscover glory. Based on the many examples of courageous sages that Clark holds up, however, any recovery of glory would seem likely to require a high degree of personal sacrifice, commitment and self-imposed limits (again very much like Wendell Berry). A modest assessment of ourselves as those who should “contemplate and imitate the world” in part “by building things” can open up “a mode of understanding” (176).
Clark insists that “we [moderns] should acknowledge our own superstitions: that each of us is competent to reason our way to truth and good behavior, and that we can identify ourselves entirely with particular human bodies. These are the errors that Socrates—maybe—spent his life rebutting.” (93) These are lessons that do not come easily to any of us today. We still believe the Enlightenment promise that reason can single-handedly provide solutions to all of our blindnesses and failures, and we consider our “particular human bodies” to be the ground of all ethical, economic, political and medical reasoning.
To more fully understand what Clark means by the modern superstition “that we can identify ourselves entirely with particular human bodies,” we would need to turn to another book of his where Clark says, “A human person requires a cosmos to sustain it: of anyone it is literally true that the whole world is her body, since the light of the sun, and the respiration of algae, are essential to her bodily survival” (God, Religion and Reality, 108). This idea is touched upon in Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy from an ethical angle when, for example, the Mishnah is cited as evidence that Hebrew scriptures say “each person is himself/herself a world” (149) and that “it is the duty of everyone to say: for my sake the world was created” (165).
This concept recalls what Dale Martin has to say about the Apostle Paul in The Corinthian Body (Yale UP, 1995, reviewed here):
The human body was not like a microcosm; it was a microcosm—a small version of the universe at large. (16) …No ontological dichotomy between the individual and the social can be located in Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 5. One may argue that the modern concept of the individual is simply unavailable to Paul. In any case, the logic underlying 1 Corinthians 5 depends on the breaking down of any possible boundary between the individual body and the social body. (173)
Likewise, contemporary Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith has written about this in many places. See, for example, this passage from How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor:
At this point Taylor introduces a key concept to describe the premodern self: prior to this disenchantment and the retreat of meaning into an interior “mind,” the human agent was seen as porous (35). …Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind and meaning, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also “healable”). …To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace. “This sense of vulnerability,” Taylor concludes, “is one of the principal features which have gone with disenchantment.” (36)
Although Clark is clearly not opposed to modern science, he suggests that “we are looking in the wrong place to find traces of experimental science” (11) and says that “it was not the Ionean theories that marked them as experimentalists but the engineering skills that they had learned from older societies” (12). The atomism of Democritus “was less a physical theory than a mystical conclusion” (58), and all the theories of the great Mediterranean sages “were not lisping attempts at modern science, but meditations on the transience of commonsensical subjects, and the strangeness of what comes ‘before’ our world” (60). Identifying the roots of modern science in examples such as “the technical skills of Thales, who enabled Croesus of Lydia to bypass the river that was in his army’s way” (19-20), Clark only suggests that such powers of experimental engineering should always be subject to “the moral lessons that the Greeks preferred (especially ‘don’t go too far’)” (20).
While issuing such warnings, Clark is not shy to point out the beauties of modern science as a potential source for rediscovering glory:
Plato’s demand for beauty in our equations was not vindicated until first Copernicus (following Aristarchus of Samos) and then Kepler devised a better mathematical model for the system of stars and planets. Even now, we are often faced by the ugly or the arbitrary in the heavens: stars may appear and disappear and matter falls together in whirls and clouds in unpredictable ways. The distant ideal is still a Platonic or Pythagorean one, to grasp the numbers that lie behind the phenomenal and also the physical world. (118)
…The Platonistic View is the only one tenable. Thereby I mean the view that mathematics describes a non-sensual reality, which exists independently of the human mind and is only perceived, and probably perceived very incompletely, by the human mind. (111, quoting Gödel’s “Some basic theorems on the foundations of mathematics and their philosophical implications” from 1951)
Likewise, Clark quotes Stephen Hawking at length on the self-sustaining power and beauty of a unified theory and suggests that Plato would have approved (118-119).
While supporting modern science in these ways, Clark asks us not to read the ancient Meditteranian sages and “label one speculative thinker ‘a philosopher’ and another only ‘a poet’ or ‘mystic’ merely because they speak of ‘elements’ instead of spirits’” (10). He turns our attention instead toward how they might help us to see the glory that lies hidden in our world. “We shall not see things straight, so Platonists supposed, until we see their glory” (199). Aristotle agrees in so far as concluding that “beauty is visible, for those who care to look, even in the smallest and the vilest of creatures (Aristotle, De Partibus Animalium, 1.645a15f). Every visible creature is, in a way, an image of the divine” (193). In the current state of this world, truth and glory are hidden. “The Greek word that we translate as ‘truth’ is Aletheia, and a stream of puns makes clear that the Greeks could, if they chose, hear this as ‘the Unhidden’, or as ‘the Unforgotten’” (57). Finding the truth requires the perception of what is hidden within and the recollection of what might easily be forgotten. “What Plato conceived as a proper dialectic …[was] to test hypotheses against each other and against the basic rules of logic, and so at length prevent good arguments from escaping or being forgotten” (63). Yet much is missed and forgotten.
In this plight of an unrecognized ignorance, we need harsh measures to awaken us:
We should attend more sympathetically to such dialogues as Cratylus and Enthydemus. In the former, familiar words are deconstructed by random etymologies (so that alethea becomes ‘a godly wandering’). In the latter, wildly fallacious arguments—including ones that seem to show how falsehood is impossible, and that anyone who knows anything must actually know everything—are greeted with mounting hostility by Socrates’ young companion, but with continued respect by Socrates himself. Confusion and not clarity may be the goal: the moment when we find ourselves entirely at a standstill, knowing that we know nothing.
After all, “only when we are dumbstruck by our own incompetence is there much chance of hearing what the Truth will tell us” (90).
In his analysis of Plato, Clark claims that “the principle effect of Plato’s work, in many differing schools, lies not …in his ideas, but in the figure of Socrates, and his delight in argument” (109). This figure was best captured in dialog:
Plato was correct, in Phaedrus and elsewhere, to say that writings, on their own, are easily misunderstood, especially if we don’t practice what their authors preached. So also in the Hebraic tradition, the oral teaching is the medium through which the written is to be interpreted. ‘The Talmud is essentially an activity, not a book: you engage in it, rather than read it as you would a piece of literature.’ The same should be true when reading any philosophy. (104-105)
Clark does justice to Plato’s ideas, nonetheless, and reminds us that “however abstract or pedantic Platonic Forms may seem, especially when they are identified with Numbers, we should remember that they are the objects of passionate love. They are Beauty in its several forms, and derive their being from the Good Itself.” (112) Describing the nous (or perceptive mind or intellect) that can “look at what transcends” the things that it typically perceives, Plotinus says that this is “the Intellect in love, when it goes out of its mind ‘drunk with the nectar’” (115).
Much of my own poor intellectual life could be summarized as a quest to find out what C. S. Lewis meant when he had Digory Kirke say, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” (The Last Battle). I’m therefore happy to see a chapter devoted the “divine Plato” and to hear his claim that:
The immortal Mind in me is just the same as the immortal Mind in you. That mind, in fact, is a god—though the way a particular corporeal being thinks is only intermittently, and waveringly, the immortal mind. We do not think the truth: when we do, there is only one thought in each of us, and that thought will survive our mortal bodies. (112-113).
Speaking of “our particular corporeal being,” however, it is critical to note that Clark clarifies one important misunderstanding of neoplatonism. These philosophers did not despise the material world:
Both pagan and Abrahamic Platonists have found corporeal nature sacramental. Plotinus was vegetarian, refused medicines made from animals, and denounced those ‘gnostics’ who despised the earth. Porphyry, his pupil, was until recently the only ‘professional philosopher’ to write at length in favour of ‘the rights of beasts’ (Porphyry 2000). Nor was this at odds with Plato. (110)
In describing all the schools of gnosticism, David Bentley Hart confirms that “there is none that has an explicit metaphysics of participation” (see this podcast transcript where Hart identifies this lack of “a metaphysics of relation between God and creation” as the “one thing that these schools had in common so that you could classify them as gnostic”). Plotinus likely would have identified Christians as belonging among these gnostic sects (199 in Clark), and David Bentley Hart notes that Christians identified themselves as true gnostics. Nonetheless, this sacramental understanding of corporeal nature (this “metaphysics of participation” in the divine) is actually something that all pagan and Abrahamic Platonists (including early Christians) held in common over against the gnostics sects who did not see this world as a revelation, in any respect, of glory and truth.
Clark puts this sacramental understanding of the cosmos on display with language from Plutarch that exactly lines up with many passages in C. S. Lewis where he describes the “motions of the universe …not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one” (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature). Here is Plutarch (De Tranquillitate Animi):
I am delighted with Diogenes, who, when he saw his host in Sparta preparing with much ado for a certain festival, said, ‘Does not a good man consider every day a festival?’ and a very splendid one, to be sure, if we are sound of mind [nous]. For the universe is a most holy temple and …into it man is introduced through birth as a spectator, not of hand-made or immovable images, but of those sensible representations of knowable things that the divine mind, says Plato, has revealed, representations which have innate within themselves the beginnings of life and motion, sun and moon and stars, rivers which ever discharge fresh water, and earth which sends forth nourishment for plants and animals. Since life is a most perfect initiation into these things and a ritual celebration of them, it should be full of tranquillity and joy, and not in the manner of the vulgar. (quoted in Clark 239)
When Clark speaks of Abrahamic Platonists, it is clear that he identifies himself among them as a Chrisitan Platonist. From what I have read elsewhere, Clark is a devout Anglican, and he gives full consideration to Jesus Christ among the Medditeranian sages that he covers. In distinguishing Christians from most of the other “Hellenistic Schools” who “offered a way of life,” Clark cites Clement of Alexandria: “I long for the Lord of the winds, the Lord of fire, the Creator of the World, He who gives light to the sun. I seek God himself, not for the works of God.” (154-155)
In another passage, Clark identifies Jesus Christ with “the very Word of God, the thing that the Omnipresent has been saying, is saying, from the beginning and through whom all things were made.” Clark frames the revelation of Jesus Christ in this way, with characteristic modesty and stopping just short of an absolute claim to knowledge:
We cannot, in short, work out what the world is like merely by examining our own ideas of it, as philosophers often hoped. Is there any chance of locating God’s idea of it? Later writers conceived that Jesus himself was the very Word of God, the thing that the Omnipresent has been saying, is saying, from the beginning and through whom all things were made. Rabbinic speculative poetry or metaphysics proposed that Zion, which is Jerusalem, was the very first thing to be made: Jerusalem the City was the centre of history, even if — in human history — it came late. Muslims similarly were to suggest that the heavenly Koran was written ‘before’ all worlds. Christians concluded instead that Jesus was the center, the very first bit of the story as it is conceived in God. In all these cases, there were some features of the story, the place, the text as it was enacted in human history that really could have been otherwise, and other features that really could not have been different, since they were what God always is and says. Is this a story that Jesus himself could have told, as the gospel writers suggest he did? It is at least not clear that he couldn’t have: either the story is true (and clearly He could have told it) or it is at least a story that Hellenized Jews could tell (as Philo of Alexandria almost did). (168-169)
In the end—although this broken and transitory cosmos does contain within its every least and ugliest part a revelation of the divine and although God is even revealed perfectly within history by Jesus Christ—we circle back time and again to the need for small human communities with strong self-limiting practices and a deep desire to see the glory around them. This life is only possible when we remain intentionally modest, recognizing that a human scale is necessarily limited:
Solon told King Croesus that the best the gods could offer in answer to a mother’s prayers was the prompt death of her sons—though he also acknowledged that the unassuming life of a peasant farmer (in good times) was good (or at least was better than the life that Croesus lived). Similarly, in Plato’s Myth of Er, where he imagines how discarnate souls select the earthly life they will be living next, Odysseus shows his wisdom by searching out an ‘ordinary’ life, unnoticed by all others during the choice and destined to be unnoticed during life. The very worst life is one in which we do everything that we momentarily wish, seduced by sense. (194)
What, then, is our right course? We should pass our life in playing games—certain games, that is, sacrifice, song and dance. …[Mankind should] live out their lives as what they really are—puppets in the main though with some touch of reality about them, too. (Plato, Laws 7.803-4 quoted by Clark 120)
This survey of Clark’s book, though wordy, does no more than give a brief glimpse into the wealth of his short work. I’ve not covered the many schools of thought that he surveys with a myriad of bright insights or mentioned the breadth of the relationships that he suggests between the Mediterranean world and its neighbors. Clearly, this is a book that I commend. For my part, I will be looking for other books of his as well. The list is long. His most recent is Can We Believe in People?: Human Significance in an Interconnected Cosmos. Others include: God, Religion, and Reality, From Athens to Jerusalem, Aristotle’s Man, Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice, and G. K. Chesterton: Thinking Backward, Looking Forward. Clearly, Clark has spent some time laboring to point out glory amid the ruins that we inhabit. One small fragment of this is Clark’s own translation of a famous line from a song composed by Pindar (Pythian 8 line 95 is quoted by Clark on page 186 without citation). It was was commissioned by the family of an aristocrat named Aristomenes as a celebration of his victory in the wrestling event at the Pythian Games of 446 BC: “A shadow’s dream is man, but when a god sheds a brightness, shining light is on earth and life is as sweet as honey.”
Summary of Plato’s understanding of the stars from Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea by Alan Scott (Oxford Early Christian Studies, Clarendon Press, 1994):
Plato is less concerned with how things happen than with why they happen, and for this reason he regards astronomy as only of secondary importance. Though Plato does associate wisdom and purity with gazing upon heaven, his ideal is not the astronomer but the philosopher. Like geometry, astronomy is a discipline in which knowledge of what is eternally true can be available, but such knowledge is of no use unless it is first subordinated to philosophy. Plato has little interest in observational astronomy: true astronomy is not concerned merely with what is seen in heaven but with the understanding of what lies behind what is seen. Even if the Greater Hippias is not a genuine Platonic work, it is faithful to Plato in depicting the learned, pompous, and intellectually shallow Hippias as particularly expert in astronomy. The destiny of the soul is not to look upon the sensible heaven but upon the ’superheavenly place’, which is not possible for physical eyes but only for the soul. The stars, inasmuch as they are visible, do not embody exact knowledge, which can only be grasped by the mind and thought. For Plato, as also for the Pythagoreans, astronomy was useful chieﬂy as a means of understanding what was purely rational. To the mind which understood properly, there was true harmony in heaven even if this was not possible for the material bodies of heaven, even as there is exactness in geometry though it is not part of any merely visible diagram. This is the understanding of sun, moon, and stars enjoyed by the inhabitants of the ‘true earth’ in the Phaedo. Thus geometry and astronomy are part of the necessary training for insight into what was immutable and eternal.
Just as Plato accepts elements of the latest astronomical research but not the philosophical and religious implications it was sometimes thought to have, so too before his later writings he can accept the popular veneration of the heavens without taking it altogether seriously. In the Republic, Plato does say that the craftsman of heaven, like Daedalus, fashioned the courses of the stars with the greatest beauty possible, and at one point Plato even goes so far as to refer casually to ‘the gods in heaven’, one of which is the sun, and yet he also openly doubts that the visible stars are eternal and immutable. Even in his ‘middle period’ Plato shows little interest in the visible stars and planets and with observational astronomy. In this again he was similar to Socrates, who by all accounts avoided the investigation of the heavens and concerned himself mainly with ethical questions.
…The astral soul is either immanent or transcendent; if it is immanent it acts directly on the body, if transcendent, it acts either through the intermediary of a special material body which it provides itself, or through some unknown agency. Plato does not make clear at this point the number of souls in heaven: his usual assumption is that each heavenly body has its own soul and is a god, but if in heaven soul transcends its body there might be only one heavenly soul. It is also not clear in the Laws (as it was in the Timaeus) if stars are gods as well as planets: the Laws only explicitly refers to the divinity of the planets (which is the view found in the Statesman).
One thing which is clear is that the astral soul itself is invisible: we do not look upon the soul, we only calculate its movements mathematically. As Plato had said earlier in the Republic, it is not what is seen in heaven which is important, but what is intelligible. Thus, strictly speaking, one would expect Plato to assert that the heavenly bodies are not gods, but are merely controlled by gods in some way. More speciﬁcally, one might expect him to say that the visible star or planet is a body joined eternally to a soul, which is how he says he imagines the gods in the Phaedrus myth. But Plato is very elusive in matters of religion, and in the end his real opinion is never clear. What is clear is that he has no objection to calling the planets (and sometimes the stars) gods and worshipping them, just as he includes devotion to images in the religion of the state.
…The author of [Epinomis] tells us as Plato did that most people regard the stars as lifeless because of their uniform motion, but that this is in fact a clear sign of their intelligence. The planets do not ‘wander’, and youths should learn enough astronomy to avoid such an error. Mathematical training is combined with astronomical theory, for number is a divine gift which has been granted to humanity to be learned through the observation of heavenly revolution, and is a prerequisite of wisdom. Their precise movement is a proof of universal divine providence and of the priority of soul to body, as it was also in the Laws. The divinity of the stars and of the seven planets is both presumed and stated throughout the dialogue, as it is in much of the Platonic corpus.
This last point that “most people regard the stars as lifeless because of their uniform motion, but that this is in fact a clear sign of their intelligence” is the same one that G.K. Chesterton makes here:
People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness.
If my questioner was one of those clever and disputatious debaters, I would say to him: “I have given my answer: if it is wrong, it is your job to refute it.” But if they are friends as you and I are, and want to discuss with each other, they must answer in a manner more gentle and more proper to discussion.
Plato’s Academy was a genuine religious association in which, for example, one of the members was explicitly appointed to prepare the sacrifice. Perhaps the reason why “purely academic” has sunk to mean something sterile, pointless and unreal is because the schola has lost its roots in religion and in divine worship. (61)
From Leisure: the Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper (1952).
These two reminders from C.S. Lewis about minding our own business have something profound to do with the office of prophethood and the spreading of truth. This fact that bold proclamation, intimate communication and strict attention to privacy are all mutually dependent is somewhat counterintuitive but true.
“Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”
(The Horse and His Boy, chapter 11)
My children are listening to these stories repeatedly (and in indiscriminate order) this summer, so I also overheard this passage again earlier this week:
“But do you really mean, sir,” said Peter, “that there could be other worlds – all over the place, just round the corner – like that?”
“Nothing is more probable,” said the Professor, taking off his spectacles and beginning to polish them, while he muttered to himself, “I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.”
“But what are we to do?” said Susan. She felt that the conversation was beginning to get off the point.
“My dear young lady,” said the Professor, suddenly looking up with a very sharp expression at both of them, “there is one plan which no one has yet suggested and which is well worth trying.”
“What’s that?” said Susan.
“We might all try minding our own business,” said he. And that was the end of that conversation.
After this things were a good deal better for Lucy. Peter saw to it that Edmund stopped jeering at her, and neither she nor anyone else felt inclined to talk about the wardrobe at all. It had become a rather alarming subject. And so for a time it looked as if all the adventures were coming to an end; but that was not to be.
As this whole life is a kind of journey or exile, exercising the office of priesthood often involves a deliberate, steadying or arresting of time (cycles such as weeks, months, anniversaries and festivals help in this regard):
They were now in the palace garden which sloped down in terraces to the city wall. The moon shone brightly. One of the drawbacks about adventures is that when you come to the most beautiful places you are often too anxious and hurried to appreciate them; so that Aravis (though she remembered them years later) had only a vague impression of grey lawns, quietly bubbling fountains, and the long black shadows of cypress trees.
Lewis is always interested in light and it’s transformational effects, especially sun light. Our whole world begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation under the light of God himself. Exercising the eyes of a priest often involves noticing these hints at what the world might truly look like.
Then suddenly the sun rose and everything changed in a moment. The grey sand turned yellow and twinkled as if it was strewn with diamonds. On their left the shadows of Shasta and Hwin and Bree and Aravis, enormously long, raced beside them. The double peak of Mount Pire, far ahead, flashed in the sunlight and Shasta saw they were a little out of the course. “A bit left, a bit left,” he sang out. Best of all, when you looked back, Tashbaan was already small and remote. The Tombs were quite invisible: swallowed up in that single, jagged-edged hump which was the city of the Tisroc. Everyone felt better.