Christian Platonism

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A Beautiful Mind: Joseph Addison’s Religious Essays

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EADERS of this blog may download a free copy of my new book, a collection of religious and metaphysical essays by Joseph Addison which appeared in the The Spectator in 1711 and 1712. These are certain to delight and edify.  Addison is well known as one of the most skilled prose stylists in the English language; but few today are aware of the sublime quality of his religious essays.

Addison’s influence on both the English and American minds is considerable, yet largely unacknowledged today.

Download the ebook in pdf format here.

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Epitome of Plotinus, Ennead 1.3: On Dialectic, or the Upward Way

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Below is an epitome of Plotinus: Dialectic, or The Upward Journey, in his own words. From: The Enneads 1.3,  Stephen MacKenna (transl.), London, 1917–1930.  Plotinus identifies three methods of upward ascent or anagogy, associating these with the musician, the lover, and the thinker.  These correspond to the Platonic ascents to the Form of Goodness (God) via the Higher Forms of Moral Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, described in the Phaedrus Chariot Myth, Diotima’s Ladder of Love in the Symposium, and the Cave Allegory in Book 7 of the Republic, respectively.  These paths are not completely distinct, however.  As Plotinus notes, dialectic is relevant to all three.  The same, of course, may be said for love of Beauty, and Moral Virtue.

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OUR journey is to the Good. What art or method will bring us there? How lies the course? Is it alike for all, or is there a distinct method for each class of temperament? There are several paths; for all, there are two stages. First, is conversion from the lower life. Second, those who already gain a footprint in the upper sphere may advance still further, until they reach the topmost peak of the Noetic (pure Intellectual) realm. But discussion of this highest degree must wait. Let us here speak of the initial process of conversion. We must begin by distinguishing the three types.

  1. The musician we may think of as being exceedingly quick to beauty, drawn in a very rapture to it. All that offends unison, harmony, and measure repels him. He must be shown that what ravished him was no other than the Harmony of the Noetic universe. The truths of philosophy must be implanted in him to lead him to a faith in that which, unknowing it, he already possesses within himself.
  1. The born lover, to whose degree the musician also may attain. Spellbound by visible loveliness he clings amazed about that. His lesson must be to fall down no longer in bewildered delight before some, one embodied form; he must be led, under a system of mental discipline, to beauty everywhere and made to discern and love the One Principle underlying all.
  1. The metaphysician or thinker, winged already and not like those others, in need of disengagement, attracted to the supernal but doubting of the way, needs only a guide. He must be led to make his virtue perfect; after Mathematics he must be put through a course in Dialectic.

But this science, this Dialectic essential to all the three classes alike, — what, in sum, is it? It brings with it the power of pronouncing with final truth upon the nature and relation of things: what each is, how it differs from others, what common quality all have. Dialectic treats also of the Good and the not-Good, and of the particulars that fall under each, and of what is the Eternal and what the not Eternal; and of these, it must be understood, not by the becoming-knowledge of the senses, but with the Being-knowledge of noesis. This accomplished, it gives up its roaming amongst thoughts concerned with material things, and settles contented in the noetic realm of pure Forms. Is Dialectic, then, the same as Philosophy? It is the precious part of Philosophy. We must not think of it as the mere tool of the metaphysician: Dialectic does not consist of bare theories and rules: it deals with verities. It knows above all, the operation of ones own soul.

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Written by John Uebersax

November 13, 2014 at 12:56 am

What is True Charity?

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Satyagraha

Charity

The other day a thought occurred to me which seems to clarify the meaning of Charity, as distinct from other related things like compassion and sympathy, generosity, kindness, etc. The definition: Charity is acting to love others for the sake of God.

At first glance this may strike you as prosaic – a mere formula, one in fact, found in traditional Christian teaching. Likely I had heard this formula someplace, yet it never quite stuck. This time, however, from my creative imagination, Muse, or call-it-what-you-will, there arose insight into the meaning, not merely the definition, of Charity.

To understand true Charity it helps to refer to Platonism.

A hallmark of Platonism is that God is identified as the source and very essence of Goodness. Plato’s defined God, in fact, as the Form or pattern of Goodness of which all individual good things partake, just as all triangles partake of…

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Written by John Uebersax

July 24, 2014 at 9:30 am

True Charity and Anamnesis

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Charity

The other day a thought occurred to me which seems to clarify the meaning of Charity, as distinct from other related things like compassion and sympathy, generosity, kindness, etc. The definition: Charity is acting to love others for the sake of God.

At first glance this may strike you as prosaic – a mere formula, one in fact, found in traditional Christian teaching. Likely I had heard this formula someplace, yet it never quite stuck. This time, however, from my creative imagination, Muse, or call-it-what-you-will, there arose insight into the meaning, not merely the definition, of Charity.

To understand true Charity it helps to refer to Platonism.

A hallmark of Platonism is that God is identified as the source and very essence of Goodness. Plato’s defined God, in fact, as the Form or pattern of Goodness of which all individual good things partake, just as all triangles partake of the Form of a triangle. (This conceptual principle is a powerful and distinct asset to those who try to understand who or what God is – but that is a topic to take up another time.)

With this innovation, our definition becomes “Charity is the doing of good to others for the sake of the Good.”

How does this help? One way is with respect to the Platonic principle known as the unity of virtues. Because all virtues, and indeed all good things, are instances of the Good, a corollary is that pure virtue of any kind, i.e., pure Truth, pure Beauty, pure Justice, etc., must be compatible with every other pure virtue. One cannot, for example, act in a way that affirms Truth yet contradicts Justice or Beauty. This principle supplies a means by which we may test whether a given act is true Charity: the act must awaken in us an awareness of Goodness generally; contemplating or performing the proposed act should leave our mind ‘basking’ in the glow of the train of all divine virtues.

This has some very practical implications for modern social activism. It means that one cannot be motivated by Charity and yet act in a contentious way. Suppose a person is angry that poor people do not have adequate health care. This is certainly an important concern. But if this concern takes the form of hateful denunciation of other people – the greedy rich, selfish Republicans, whoever – then it is not a form of Charity. Because anger is not consistent, in fact it is incompatible, with the Virtues. This helps us see why St. Paul defined Charity as he did: Charity “charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.” (1 Corinthians 13 4–5)

The Platonic perspective also reveals four further attributes of Charity. First, it is it’s own reward. Plato had a name for that kind of experience where we suddenly we regain our ability to see truth: who we are, what really matters, what brings us happiness. He called it anamnesis, literally unforgetting (an = un, amnesis = forgetting). True Charity should have the quality of anamnesis: it realigns our mind such that we are again in touch with our true nature; we become properly oriented to ourselves, other people, Nature, and God.

Clearly this is much different from, say, sending money in a perfunctory way to a “charity” like Greenpeace. Sometimes such actions are performed out of a sense of mechanical duty. Other times they may be motivated by sentimentality – as when one feels sorrow at the plight of abused animals. There is nothing wrong with such actions. They are commendable, in fact, and may well constitute virtues in their own right; our only point here is Charity is something distinct and greater than these things, and to lose sight of the distinction is to risk losing sight of the full meaning and significance of Charity.

Second, the proposed definition shows how Charity is ultimately connected with our own salvation (understood in a broad, nondenominational, psychological sense). The truth is that, however much we may believe or protest otherwise, our ultimate instinctive concern is not with others, but for ourselves. Said another way, our first order of business is to help ourselves. History is full of examples of people who neglected their own moral development for the sake of busying themselves with other people’s problems. To such as these one might well say, “Physician, heal thyself,” or “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew16:26) We must be constantly aware, in whatever we think or do, or our own need of salvation in this broad sense. This is the meaning of humility. The moment we lose sight of our immense proclivity for error, much of which goes under the name of ‘egoism’, then our ego takes over and all manner of mischief is liable to occur. Unless God or the Good is in the picture, any action, even giving a million dollars to help others, will have a strong egoistic component.

Third, our Platonic perspective helps shows how Charity is contagious. If you act towards another with true Charity, the recipient knows, in their own soul, that your act is accompanied by your anamnesis. And since anamnesis always engenders feelings like trust, love, and hope, the person knows that you have gained a reward greater than any human being could give you.

This, in turn, produces a sympathetic anamnesis in the recipient. It reawakens in them a remembrance of what the important, the finer things in life are. And this is cause for them to affirm life and thank God – not so much for whatever charitable benefit they received, but because God made such a world where Charity itself exists. It may literally restore the other’s faith in humanity. Moreover, the recipient is presented with the fact that they too have the ability to show Charity to others. A quality of a truly Charitable act, then, is that it leaves the recipient in a frame of mind eager to show Charity to others. When you act with Charity to others, then, often more important than the physical gift to the other is the psychological gift.

Finally, the Platonic perspective helps us to see that Charity is different from other forms of helping, giving, sharing, etc., in terms of epistemology. True Charity, because it is consciously aligned with God and the Good, opens the mind to an influx of higher thoughts – the mode of knowledge Plato called noesis. This is distinct from our usual form of rationalistic thinking, called dianoia, or reasoning. Thus, a characteristic of true Charity is that it is frequently motivated by inspiration, often more an act of spontaneous creativity than cold calculation. Again, this is not to say that we should avoid applying our logical minds to helping others – only that Charity is something distinct from rationality alone.

 

Written by John Uebersax

May 2, 2014 at 2:55 pm

Platonism is not Complicated

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PlatoBust.gifPlatonism as an ethical system is not complicated.  It is so simple a child can understand it.  In fact, the more complicated an explanation of Platonism is, the less likely it’s true.

Platonism means this: the happiness and joy that comes from ‘being good.’ What does that mean? Just ask a child what ‘being good’ means – there is your answer.

It isn’t complicated. It’s a return to how we are naturally, to what makes us happy, to the pure and innocent state of mind we had before ambition, fear, or sex became issues for us. When we had no anxiety for the future, and each moment was an opportunity to live and to learn.

Truly the Kingdom of Heaven is such as only little children can enter. Platonism is about the return to that state. The driving force of Plato’s philosophy is, in fact, what he calls ‘the Good’. He teaches that we must reconnect our mind to the Good.

Some misunderstand this to mean a lifelong ascetical quest in search of the ultimate mystical experience, the Beatific Vision. But that denies the fact that children in their innocent simplicity have this vision of soul instinctively and continuously. “In heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:10; KJV)

Platonism is a form of yoga – to learn to live in this world with our minds yoked to the Good (or to God if you prefer, choose whichever term you like).

Our ‘opinions’ play a  major role in producing the distorted lens through which we habitually perceive the world.   In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates, the principal figure, continually expresses concern about what he calls “false opinion” (pseudodoxia).   The sophists with whom he contends symbolize the parts of our own minds that produce false opinions and insist on their reality.

Socrates’ two most familiar sayings are “Know thyself” (which of course is not his uniquely; before him it was inscribed on the temple at Delphi) and “If I am wiser than others, it is because I recognize my ignorance.”  Both are prime strategies for overcoming false opinion.  By knowing ourselves we gradually learn that what we really want is not material things, but those things associated with the Good (knowledge, virtue, truth, beauty, etc.)

Recognizing our own ignorance is also important. This is the basis of ‘Socratic skepticism.’  We have to admit that most of our opinions are that: merely opinions.

Once we remove the chains of opinion that bind us as prisoners in Plato’s cave, our mind is free to receive a truer form of knowledge (noesis), which is more immediate and intuitive.  Conscience, in the original and true sense of the term (as opposed to say, the Freudian concept of a super-ego), is a form of noesis.

Written by John Uebersax

November 17, 2013 at 12:43 am

Psychology and the Beam in the Eye of Matthew 7:3

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Domenico Fetti - The Parable of the Mote and the Beam - 1619 detail

One of the more psychologically interesting and insufficiently studied passages found in the Gospels is:

 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

~ Matthew 7:3–5 (KJV)

 The reference to the beam in ones eye is an extremely powerful image. It’s a figure of speech, of course, since a roof beam (Greek word δοκς or dokos1, also translated ‘plank’, ‘log’ or ‘timber’) obviously cannot fit in an eye. The power of the statement comes by comparing it to a mote, a small speck of dust, which may be in another’s eye and impairing the other’s vision.  Jesus is saying: “Why worry about some small way in which another person’s views are limited.  Worry about the huge ways in which your own views are distorted.”  That’s how I take it, at any rate, and it seems like a reasonable interpretation.

This is one of those extremely canny sayings of Jesus Christ recorded in the Gospels.  If someone were to ask me what reasons there are for believing that Christianity is a divinely inspired religion, I would include on the list these canny sayings of Jesus.  They are incisive, cutting through layers of artifice and illusion to get to the heart of the things that really concern us as human beings.  Nothing else in the literature of the West can compare to them — not in Plato or the Greek tragedians, not even in the Old Testament do we find such an abundance of these sayings.2  There is something extraordinary, otherworldly about them.  One may recall the words of the Pharisees’ officers, sent to arrest Jesus but returning bewildered and empty-handed:  “Never man spake like this man.” (John 7:46; KJV)

This remarkable level of insight and honesty is evident in the passage above.  It speaks with extraordinary directness to a very real aspect of our experience.  Examining the meaning of words, and relating them to certain principles of modern psychology, we can appreciate even better the importance and relevance of the beam in the eye.

Perceptual and Cognitive Schematizing

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This word-square and others like it, recently circulated around the internet.  The idea is that when you look at the square, one word, out of the dozens it contains, will leap out and present itself to awareness.  These squares have been presented in a casual way — as little more than a parlor game — to analyze ones personality or “what you want in life”.  However there are some serious psychological principles at work here.

If you experiment with one of these squares, you will find that your current state of mind affects what word leaps out at you.  If your mind is on work, or on a romantic relationship, or on philosophy, or on your faith — in each case a different word will appear.  This illustrates most strikingly the truth that ones intentions determine ones perceptions.  What your heart is set on at the moment, what you are most concerned about, what you desire — that will determine which word you see.

This principle of intention precedes perception is, of course, a general one in operation all the time.  It affects how you visually process information when walking outside, for example.  What strikes your attention — people, trees, buildings, whatever — will vary.  A boy with his mind on girls will walk on a city street and notice womens’ hemlines and the  contours of blouses.  An angry and combative man will walk down the same street and notice the physique and demeanor of other men, subconsciously sizing them up, as though to judge whether he could defeat them in a fight.  A guilty person may notice the expressions on other people’s faces, looking for signs of disapproval, or may notice policeman and guards.  There is nothing speculative about this. You can verify the phenomenon yourself any day by taking a walk.  What you see reflects the intentions you have at any time.

A corollary of this principle is that the stronger, more urgent, and more pronounced ones intentions are, the more that attention will selectively focus on certain kinds of objects.

It similarly follows that this principle must also affect our inward perceptions: those features of our interior mental life which we notice at any given time, and those we do not notice, depend on our intentions and desires.

Not only do intentions determine what ones sees, but what one doesn’t see.  If attention is on one thing, it cannot be on another.  And the more exaggerated ones intentions and desires are, the more one will filter out unrelated perceptions.  If one is driven by appetite, covetousness, fear, or anger, one may pass by dozens of smiling, friendly people without realizing it.  In a foul mood one does not see the flowers in bloom or notice the lovely countryside; these things might as well not exist.

This I believe is the meaning of the beam in the eye.  When ones intentions are disordered, ones perceptions are in chaos.  Instead of seeing the entire world as a harmonious whole, one perceives it fragmented and disjointed. One notices small pieces of the perceptual field which relate to sex or fear or anger or whatever — and  disregards the rest.

To the degree one is in such a disordered mental state, one is not really living in the world at all — not the world as it is.  Instead one is living in a kind of distorted caricature of the world.  It’s the world of the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave;  not a vibrant world of life, spirit, meaning, happiness, and satisfaction.

What, then, is the alternative to the beam  in the eye?  Naturally we have intentions, and these change depending on time and situation.  But it stands to reason that, ideally, these intentions should be harmonious, one intention in balance with the others.  Moreover, as religious people — whether, Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Hindus — we believe in God’s superintending providence.  God guides all at once  — the world, events in our lives, our intentions, and our emotions — to  coincide and harmonize.  We do have free will, however, and must use this free will to moderate and purify our intentions, so as to keep them in balance.  We must keep our appetites within the bounds of what our nature requires at the present time.  This precludes letting any intention become unnaturally strong and dominant.2

This moderation of appetites and passions is not necessarily an easy thing to accomplish, but it is an attainable skill.  It comes from experience and practice, from self-insight, from the intellectual development supplied by philosophy, and by the moral growth produced by religion.

If we can learn this great virtue of moderation (which the Greeks called sophrosyne,  a virtue that doesn’t operate in isolation, but rather interacts in myriad ways with other virtues like courage, justice, wisdom, patience, piety, and humility) then we can remove the beam in the eye.

The resulting condition, I believe, corresponds to what the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow (1970) called “B-cognition” or “Being cognition.”  One description of this state is one “in which the whole of the cosmos is perceived and everything in it is seen in relationship with everything else, including the perceiver” (Maslow, 1971, pp. 252–253).

I also believe that this is at least part of what Jesus means in the Gospels when he refers to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Upon saying this, I must be careful to point out that some ‘modern’ psychologists have said similar things but with a substantially different meaning.  That is, some have suggested that by the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus meant only a certain kind of happy human life; and from this they go on to claim that Jesus was not concerned with spiritual matters at all, and was saying nothing about an after-life; he was merely a social philosopher.  That is definitely not what I’m suggesting.  The Kingdom of Heaven in the sense I mean is not achieved by disconnecting our experience on earth from spiritual concerns, but precisely the opposite: by connecting it with spirituality.  A critical part of producing a state of harmonized intentions, by which we see the world fully and completely — in clear and rich detail, with full depth and meaning — is by ‘tuning in’ to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit.

Notes

1. dokos can also mean an opinion, so there may be a play on words here. In Plato’s dialogues one of Socrates’ main missions is to alert us to how severely our souls are distorted by a habitual mistaking of false opinions for true knowledge.

2. Another such saying, one which seems thematically related to Matt. 7:3, is the light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light (Matt. 6:22).  Indeed all of Matthew 6:19–34 appears relevant to the present theme.

3. We should keep in mind the possibility that exaggerated appetites come not from the body itself, but from a tendency of the mind to falsely interpret appetitive impulses.

Bibliography

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971.

Pollock, Robert C.  ‘The Single Vision‘.  In: Harold C. Gardiner (editor), American Classics Reconsidered: A Christian Appraisal, New York: Scribner, 1958 (pp. 15–58).  Reprinted as  and in Arthur S. Lothstein, Michael Brodrick (eds.), New Morning: Emerson in the Twenty-First Century, SUNY Press, 2008 (pp. 9–48).  Originally published as ‘A Reappraisal of Emerson’ in Thought, 32(1), 1957, pp. 86–132.

White, Rhea A. ‘Maslow’s Two Forms of Cognition and Exceptional Human Experiences.’  1997. < http://www.ehe.org/display/ehe-page2f56.html?ID=23 >  Accessed 15 November 2013.