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The Archetypal Meaning of Hercules at the Crossroads

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Annibale Carracci, The Choice of Hercules, 1596

THE ATHENIAN philosopher and rhetorician, Prodicus, a contemporary of Socrates, wrote an essay commonly known as Hercules at the Crossroads, which he often delivered orally to appreciative crowds. A moral allegory of deep psychological significance, it describes a young Hercules at a crossroads confronted by two women who personify Vice and Virtue.  Each appeals to him to take a different route: Lady Vice claims the easy path will lead to pleasure and happiness; Lady Virtue reminds him that the road to true and lasting satisfaction is the harder and more toilsome route.

Our best source of the story is Xenophon’s dialogue Memorabilia (2.1.21–34), wherein Socrates is presented as relating Prodicus’ story to a young protege named Aristippus (evidently not the eponymous founder of the Cyrenaic philosophical sect).

Thanks to Xenophon, the story was well known and often alluded to throughout antiquity and beyond.  Cicero, in On Moral Duties (1.32.118; 3.5.25), a work addressed to his son, mentions Prodicus’ tale in the context of choosing ones career.  Others, too, have understood the tale as referring choosing one’s long term course in life.  However we have good reason to believe the story has a deeper psychological and more existential meaning.

One clue to the deeper meaning is the strong appeal of the story throughout the centuries to the artistic imagination.  As Erwin Panovsky (1930) in a seminal work on art history describes, Prodicus story elicited scores of paintings and drawings beginning in the Renaissance.

Another clue to a deeper meaning is to see how this same theme is expressed in many variations throughout antiquity.  The earliest and best known example in the Greek tradition is Hesiod’s Works and Days 1.287−294.

Wickedness (κακότητα; kakotes) can be had in abundance easily: smooth is the road and very nigh she dwells. But in front of virtue (ἀρετῆς; arete) the gods immortal have put sweat: long and steep is the path to her and rough at first; but when you reach the top, then at length the road is easy, hard though it was.
Source: Hesiod, Works and Days 1.287−294 (tr. Evelyn-White)

This passage serves as a virtual epitome of book 1 of Works and Days, which also contains the Pandora and Ages of Man myths, both allegories of the moral fall.

In Greek mythology, a similar trope is found in the Judgment of Paris, where Paris must choose which goddess is more beautiful: Athena, Hera or Aphrodite — allegorically symbolizing Wisdom, domestic virtue, and sensory pleasure, respectively.  His choice of Aphrodite over Athena and Hera led to the Trojan War.  If we understand the Trojan War as allegorically symbolizing the principle of psychomachia, or conflict between virtuous and unvirtuous elements of the human psyche, then the Judgment of Paris may be understood as symbolizing a depth-psychological dynamic that precipitates a fundamental form of  inner conflict.

Plato cites the above passage of Hesiod in two of his works (Republic 2.364d  and Laws 4.718e−719a). Moreover, in two underworld myths presented in his dialogues (Republic 10.614c−d and Gorgias 524a−527a), he describes a parting of two paths — one associated virtue and leading to the Isles of the Blest, and one associated with vice and leading to punishment in Tartarus. If we understand the underworld as symbolizing depth-psychological processes, it suggests that Plato is saying that orienting our mind wrongly leads to internal self-inflicted punishments, the ultimate aim of which is to educated and reform us (Gorgias 525b−c).

The same trope of a parting of the ways in an underworld journey is found in Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid (Smith, 2000).  Further, an epigram attributed (probably incorrectly, but perhaps written within a century of Virgil’s death) describes what is commonly called the Pythagorean Y (so-named because of the resemblance of ‘Y’ to a forking path):

This letter of Pythagoras, that bears
This fork’d distinction, to conceit prefers
The form man’s life bears. Virtue’s hard way takes
Upon the right hand path, which entry makes
(To sensual eyes) with difficult affair ;
But when ye once have climb’d the highest stair,
The beauty and the sweetness it contains,
Give rest and comfort, far past all your pains.’
The broadway in a bravery paints ye forth,
(In th’ entry) softness, and much shade of worth;
But when ye reach the top, the taken ones
It headlong hurls down, torn at sharpest stones.
He then, whom virtues love, shall victor crown
Of hardest fortunes, praise wins and renown:
But he that sloth and fruitless luxury
Pursues, and doth with foolish wariness fly
Opposed pains (that all best acts befall).
Lives poor and vile, and dies despised of all.
(tr. George Chapman)

Like Hercules at the Crossroads, the Pythagorean Y inspired many Renaissance works of art.

Philo of Alexandria (fl. ca. 20 AD), the Jewish Middle Platonist philosopher (and, as it happens, the virtual father of Christian allegorical interpretation of the Bible), expanded on Prodicus’ theme in a discussion of the ‘two wives of the soul’ (On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel 1.5.21−34).  Philo’s treatment is quite interesting in its own right, in part because of his remarkable list of over 150 negative adjectives to describe a votary of Pleasure (who plays the role of Vice in Prodicus’ tale).  Readers of Philo will immediately recognize the connection of the story with his allegorical interpretation of the Garden of Eden myth.

Centuries later, St. Ambrose of Milan (fl. 390 AD), in Cain and Abel 4.13−5.15, paraphrased Philo’s discussion and connected it with the ‘strange woman’ (Uebersax, 2009) in the Book of Proverbs (Prv 2:16−19; 5:3−8; 5:15−19; 5:20; 6:24−26; 7:5−27; 9:13−18; 20:16; 22:14; 23:27−35; 27:13, 15), a personification of pleasure and/or folly, and opponent of the virtuous ‘wife of thy youth.’ (Prv 5:15−19).

The theme of two paths associated with a choice or judgment concerning virtue vs. wickedness occurs throughout the Old and New Testament.  Perhaps best known is Psalm 1 (traditionally called The Two Paths).

When we find the same theme like this so prominently expressed across many times and traditions, it implies some universal, archetypal psychological dynamic of fundamental significance. That, I believe, is the case here. This is not a simple, prosaic morality tale such that “one must choose good and not evil.” Rather it confronts us with the existential fact — readily verifiable by introspection and close attention to thoughts — that we are always, every moment at our lives, faced with the two paths:  we can direct the immediate energies of our mind towards seeking physical pleasure, or to virtue, spirituality and higher cognitive activity.  When we choose the latter, all is well. Our mind is a harmony.  This is the path of life. But the moment we stop actively choosing virtue, our mind lapses into its immature state dominated by the pleasure principle; we are no longer true to our genuine nature, and a cascading sequence of negative mental events ensues.

This is not unlike the Freudian distinction between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, which, according to him, it is the principal task of the ego to broker.  However in this case, the reality principle is replaced by what we might call the virtue principle:  that our psyche is, in its core, fundamentally aligned with virtue.  In a sense this is still a reality principle — but, here the reality is that our nature seeks virtue.

To choose the path of virtue, wisdom and righteousness on an ongoing basis is not easy. It is, rather, as Plato calls it, the contest of contests (Gorgias 526e) and requires a degree of resolve and effort we may perhaps rightly call Herculean.

Bibliography

Colson, F. H.; Whitaker, G. H. (trs.). Philo: On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain. In: Philo, Volume 2. Loeb Classical Library L227. Harvard University Press, 1929.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G. (tr.). Hesiod: Works and Days. In: Hesiod, Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Loeb Classical Library L057. Harvard University Press, 1943.

Marchant, E. C. Xenophon: Memorabilia and Oeconomicus. Harvard University Press, 1923. http://data.perseus.org/texts/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0032.tlg002.perseus-eng1

Miller, Walter (tr.). Cicero: De Officiis. Loeb Classical Library L030. Harvard University Press, 1913. https://archive.org/details/deofficiiswithen00ciceuoft

Panofsky, Erwin. Hercules am Scheidewege und andere antike Bildstoffi in der neueren Kunst, Studien der Bibliothek Warburg 18, Leipzig, 1930.

Rochette, Bruno. Héraclès à la croissé des chemins: un topos dans la literature grécolatine. Études Classiques 66, 1998, 105−113.

Savage, John J. (tr.). Saint Ambrose: Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain And Abel. Fathers of the Church 42. Catholic University of America, 1961.

Smith, Richard Upsher. The Pythagorean letter and Virgil’s golden bough. Dionysius 18, 2000, pp. 7−24. https://dialnet.unirioja.es/revista/10126/A/2000

Uebersax, John S.  The strange woman of Proverbs. 2009. https://catholicgnosis.wordpress.com/2009/05/19/the-strange-woman-of-proverbs/

1st draft, 1 Mar 2020

Greek Philosophy for Bible Exegetes

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IT’S GOOD to see when a Christian is so consumed with zeal to understand the New Testament that he or she resolves to learn Greek to better understand its message. For some, this same kind of zeal might motivate an interest to learn about the Greek philosophy circulating at the time the New Testament was written.

St. Paul was well versed in Greek philosophy. He was raised in Tarsus (a philosophical center), studied in Jerusalem at Gamaliel’s rabbinical school, and when in Athens discoursed intelligently with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. The better-educated of those to whom he directed his letters would have been familiar with Greek philosophy and accustomed to thinking about morals and religion in such terms. St. Paul, who was willing to be “all things to all men, so that some might be saved,” would have found many ideas and principles of Greek philosophy helpful in approaching Gentiles and Hellenized Jews with the message of Christianity.

The writers of the Gospels, too, show every sign of being well-educated Greek-speakers, who might easily have been familiar with elements of Greek philosophy.

Jesus himself probably spoke Greek, and may have lived in the large community of Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria during his childhood, where he might have come into contact with Greek learning.

Therefore, for such practicing Christians as may feel inspired to plunge into Greek philosophy to further their Bible study, below is a list of suggested primary texts sufficient to give one a good understanding of the subject.

Diogenes Laërtius (180 – 240 AD), Lives of Eminent Philosophers selections.

Perhaps the best single resource on the lives of ancient Greek philosophers.  Much better than modern texts!  The main chapters (“Lives”) of interest are as follows:

Plato (428 − 347 BC), selected dialogues, in suggested reading order shown

It is widely believed today that St. Paul was influenced by Stoic thought. However, many of the ideas present in Stoicism are found earlier in Plato’s writings.  Stoicism, in fact, could be considered a branch of Platonism.

  • Charmides (an easy introduction to the writing of the greatest Greek philosopher)
  • Apology (background on the historical Socrates)
  • Phaedo (Socrates’ final conversations before his execution)
  • Symposium (On love)
  • Phaedrus (includes Plato’s famous chariot myth)
  • Republic (contrary to common opinion, this is not a literal treatise on civil politics, but an inspired allegory for the governance of ones soul; the subtitle is On the Righteous Man.)

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC)

Cicero (106 − 43 BC)

In Cicero (a Roman who wrote about Greek philosophy) we see a kind of humanism emerging that is almost Christian.  Also, Cicero transmits to us the philosophical ideas of Posidonius of Apamea (c. 135 – c. 51 BC) and Panaetius of Rhodes (c. 185 − c. 110 BC), whose versions of Stoicism would have likely influenced St. Paul and his contemporaries.

Seneca (Seneca the Younger; c. 4 BC – 65 AD), selections 

Seneca was the brother of Gallio, proconsul of Achaea, who handled St. Paul’s case in Corinth. It’s remotely possible that St. Paul met Seneca in Rome, or that among his contacts in Caesar’s household were some who knew Seneca well.

As an example of later Stoicism, one might read either Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius.

Epictetus (55 – 135 AD)

Marcus Aurelius (121 − 180 AD) 

Finally mention should be made of the great Platonic-Jewish exegete, Philo of Alexandria  (c. 20 BC – 50 AD).  The three books of Allegorical Interpretation supply an introduction to his sublime thought.  In some ways Philo is the most relevant of all these philosophers for Christians, but as his writing style is somewhat difficult, it’s perhaps better to first gain a solid foothold in Greek philosophy by reading the other authors.

John Uebersax
1st draft (sorry for any typos)

Plato’s 19 Proofs of the Immortality of the Human Soul

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William Blake, The Spirit of Plato Unfolds His Worlds to Milton in Contemplation

Is man immortal, or is he not? If he is not, all our disputes are mere amusements, or trials of skill. In this case, truth, reason, religion, which give our discourses such pomp and solemnity, are … mere empty sound, without any meaning in them. But if man is immortal, it will behove him to be very serious about eternal consequences; or, in other words, to be truly religious.
~ Edward Young, Night Thoughts

Art: William Blake, The Spirit of Plato unfolds his Worlds to Milton in Contemplation.

A SpectatorN earlier article proposed the cataloging of Plato’s various proofs for the immortality of the human soul. A fair effort to survey earlier literature has failed to uncover previous systematic attempts; the relative scarcity of studies on this topic generally is unfortunate (and not a little puzzling) given how central the soul’s immortality is for Plato’s philosophy.

As Plato’s proofs are many and subtle we shall proceed incrementally, adding little by little to the present article, until something like a thorough survey is accomplished.

To begin with, some general points.

First, we may in this context distinguish between two kinds of proofs: (1) logical arguments and (2) experiential demonstrations. By an argument we mean a set of propositions or premises, which, by formal rules of logic, imply a definite conclusion; or a set of propositions that together increase the probability that a conclusion is true (i.e., a probabilistic argument.)

By a demonstration we mean an attempt by Plato to bring to our conscious awareness an insight by means other than logical argument. In many cases with Plato this amounts to eliciting an anamnesis (an un-forgetting or recollection) of some previously known or latent knowledge. For example, we previously considered how Plato’s contemplation of the Form of the Good in Symposium 211–212 can be seen as a demonstrative proof of the existence of God. Similarly, some passages of Plato seem intended to evoke in the reader an experiential awareness of the soul’s immortality.

Second, some of Plato’s proofs are more distinct and easy to identify and characterize than others. What may at first seem a single proof may have several variations or senses that merit separate consideration. Here, inasmuch as we are approaching the topic at a data-gathering stage, we will incline more towards separating than aggregating potentially distinct proofs.

Third, some proofs appear in more than one dialogue. Initially we shall be content to, mostly, associate each proof with the dialogue in which it occurs most prominently.

A Bibliography, also to be developed over time, is added. In general the 20th century literature on immortality of the human soul is meager — an indication of the radical materialism that has lately dominated.

One motivation for pursuing the present project is to inform investigation of a related question, namely: have later philosophers introduced many new and original proofs for the immortality of the human soul, or have they, in this area as in many others, more or less only added ‘footnotes’ to Plato? To anticipate somewhat, it is tentatively proposed that one productive way to address this question is to consider three relevant works from different time periods: (1) Book 1 of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (which makes frequent reference to Plato’s main work on the soul, Phaedo), (2) Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology (prominently subtitled, On the Immortality of the Soul), and (3) Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (Nights 6 and 7; “Containing The Nature, Proof, and Importance of Immortality.”)

Plato’s Proofs of Immortality

1. Cyclicity argument.

Source: Phaedo 70c–72e.

Summary: All things proceed from their opposites. Just as death proceeds from life, life must proceed from death. Therefore the soul cannot permanently perish.

2. Recollection (or innate knowledge) argument.

Source: Phaedo 72e–77d; cf. e.g., Meno.

Summary: It appears that we know things that we have not learned in this lifetime — as shown by the fact that when they are made salient, we grasp them immediately and they seem already familiar. This suggests to Plato that we have lived before in a pre-existence; and if our souls existed before this life, they will exist after this life.

3. Affinity argument.

Source: Phaedo 78b–84b.

Summary: There are two levels of reality — the temporal and changing, and the Eternal and immutable; the soul has an innate affinity for eternal things (e.g., Platonic Forms; Truth, Beauty and Moral Goodness; mathematical and religious truths); therefore its own nature must be eternal.

4. Form of Life argument.

Source: Phaedo 102b–107b.

Summary: The soul is not only alive itself, but gives life to the body. Therefore it is intimately connected with the essence or Form of Life. Hence it would be illogical or inconsistent for the soul itself to perish.

5. Vitiating principle argument.

Source: Republic 10.608e–611a.

Summary: Every thing has its own principle of destruction, unique to it and innate (e.g., for a body, disease); if a thing is destroyed, it is only by this unique, endogenous principle. The soul has a unique destructive principle, namely vice; yet even the worst vice is not sufficient to completely kill the soul; and since nothing else besides a thing’s internal destructive principle can make it totally perish, the soul must be immortal.

6. Justice argument.

Source: Republic, Book 10 (e.g., 10.612−4, and the Myth of Er that follows).

Unless there are rewards or punishments after this life, it would violate our innate sense of justice. For example, an evil man could avoid punishment for misdeeds by dying. In short, an afterlife of the soul is required to reconcile our strong and innate sense of fairness with the seeming disregard of Fate to moral justice in this life.

7. Simplicity argument.

Source: Republic 611b, Phaedo 78b-d; cf. Plotinus, Enneads 1.1.2, 1.1.9, 1.1.12.

Summary: A thing composed of many elements is susceptible to decomposition; but the soul is a single substance, uncompounded and hence incorruptible.

8. Self-moved mover.

Source: Phaedrus 245c–246a.

Summary: While the soul moves the body, and it moves itself, it is itself not moved by anything external to it. Since being destroyed would imply movement of some sort, the soul, not moved by anything extrinsic, cannot be destroyed and must be imperishable.

9. Universal interest and yearning.

Source: Symposium 201–212.

Diotima’s speeches in Symposium revolve around the subject of immortality. Several senses of immortality are pursued, such as the begetting of children and the imparting of ideas or virtue to other people, leading up to the addressing of immortality in the religious sense. The overall drift is that human beings seem exceptionally interested in immortality and orient much of their lives to striving for it. This would not be logical unless immortality is possible.

10. Proof via purification.

Source: Republic 10.611b–612a; cf. Plotinus Enneads 1.1.12 and especially 4.7.10.

A proof by demonstration. One who is suitably purified, intellectually and morally, may obtain immediate awareness of the soul’s true nature and its immortality.

11. Replenishment argument.

Source: Phaedo 72a-e; cf. Republic 10.611b-d
Summary: Unless the world were not replenished with living souls, eventually all things would be dead; rather, the world is continually replenished with living souls, who must exist somewhere outside of this world before entering. As Socrates puts it, ” if all things that have life should die, and, when they had died, the dead should remain in that condition, is it not inevitable that at last all things would be dead.” (Phaedo 72c). Whether this is merely another statement of, or implicit in, the cyclicity argument is a topic for further consideration.

12. Afterlife testimonies.

Source: Republic Book 10 (Myth of Er).

If we take the Myth of Er literally, then it purports to be an eye-witness account of someone who has personally observed the extra-mundane life of souls. It seems fairly clear that Plato intend us to take the Er myth more than literally; nevertheless, it does serve more or less as an implicit reference by Plato to the genre of survival testimony, of which numerous examples, ancient and modern, exist.

13. Trusted authority.

Source: Meno 81a-b.

Among the Plato’s lesser arguments for the soul’s immortality is an appeal to authority: honored and trustworthy figures of the past have taught it.  The wisest and best of men are the most confident of survival of soul.

14. Tradition and custom.

Source: ?

Widespread or universal tradition implies that belief in immortality is in our common human nature.   This is conceptually different from the proof by trusted authority, though the two clearly go together. (E.g., one function of trusted authority is precisely to articulate most clearly the common knowledge or tradition.) I do not have a definite source for this in the dialogues, but include it here, tentatively, because another source mentioned it in connection with Plato. (Both the tradition and the trusted authority proofs, however, are taken up by Cicero.)

15. Limitless capacity.

Source: ?

Human beings seem to have a limitless capacity for knowledge, which would serve no purpose if the soul did not outlive the body. Here again, I have no definite source for this yet, but the idea is implicit in Plato’s general view of Man’s innate divinity and noetic and moral capabilities; and the Neoplatonist view (derived from Plato) that each human soul contains a copy of all Forms.

16. Example of Socrates.

Source: Apology, Phaedo, Crito.

Socrates’ absolute and unfeigned confidence in the face of death, his nonchalance, and what even approaches an eagerness to shuffle off the mortal coil constitute a demonstrative proof. His actions, that is, testify at least as eloquently as his words to the soul’s immortality.

17. Socrates’ desire to convince others.

Source: Phaedo

Beyond his own confidence in immortality, Socrates is intensely concerned to convince others of it. Such benevolent zeal is indicative of well-founded sincerity and possession of an important truth.

18. Socrates’ sign.

Source: Apology.

One reason Socrates gives for his confidence is that his habitual sign or daemon, which customarily warns him in case of danger, did not oppose him in attending his trial. This, Socrates, fully expecting a death sentence, took as strong evidence that his execution posed no harm. Insofar as Socrates believed his sign, and Socrates is a trusted source, this constitutes evidence for the immortality of the soul. Moreover, insofar as, from the testimony of others, we are persuaded of the sign’s trustworthiness independently of Socrates’ own evaluation of it, that is additional positive evidence for immortality.

19. Conviction of Plato.

Plato also seems intensely concerned with convincing readers of the soul’s immortality. His arguments are clearly presented in a spirit of something more than detached speculation. Cicero puts it well.

Even if Plato gave no reasons for his belief — see how much confidence I have in the man — he would break down my opposition by his authority alone; but he brings forward so many reasons as to make it perfectly obvious that he is not only fully persuaded himself, but desirous of convincing others.
~ Cicero, Tusc. Disp. 1.21.49

Thus Cicero alludes here to two different proofs:  Plato’s authority, and his desire to convince others; and the sheer number or proofs Plato produces is seen as evidence of the latter.

Bibliography

Suggestions are welcome. The goal, however, is not to produce a comprehensive bibliography, but mainly to include works that attempt to consider Plato’s arguments in their totality.

Apolloni, David. Plato’s Affinity Argument for the Immortality of the Soul. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 34(1), 1996, 5–32. (Study of the argument in Phaedo 78b-80d.)
https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_the_history_of_philosophy/v034/34.1apolloni.pdf

Bett, Richard. Immortality and the Nature of the Soul in the PhaedrusPhronesis, 31(1), 1986, 1–26.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/4182241

Chase, Thomas. Cicero on the Immortality of the Soul. Cambridge, MA 1851 (repr. 1872).
https://books.google.com/books?id=T8INAAAAYAAJ

Connolly, Tim. Plato: Phaedo. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web, 13 June 2015. (See also References therein.)
http://www.iep.utm.edu/phaedo/

Cornford, Stephen (Ed.). Edward Young: Night Thoughts. Cambridge, 1989 (repr. 2008). https://books.google.com/books?id=-2Q2MgAACAAJ

DeGraff, Thelma B. Plato in Cicero. Classical Philology, 35(2), 1940, 143–153.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/264959

Elton, Matthew. The Role of the Affinity Argument in the Phaedo. Phronesis, 42(3), 1997, 313–316.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/4182565

Ficino, Marsilio. Platonic Theology, On the Immortality of the Soul. Michael J. B. Allen (Trans.), James Hankins (Ed.). 6 vols. Cambridge, MA, 2001–2006.
https://books.google.com/books?id=cQZrkQEACAAJ

Frede, Dorothea. The Final Proof of the Immortality of the Soul in Plato’s Phaedo 102a–107a. Phronesis, 23(1), 1978, 27–41.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/4182027

Gallop, David. Plato’s ‘Cyclical Argument’ Recycled. Phronesis, 27, 1982, 207–222.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/4182153

Gaye, Russell K. The Platonic Conception of Immortality and its Connexion with the Theory of Ideas. Cambridge, 1904 (repr. 2014).
http://books.google.com/books?id=XwWuAgAAQBAJ

Gertz, Sebastian Ramon Philipp. Death and Immortality in Late Neoplatonism: Studies on the Ancient Commentaries on Plato’s Phaedo. Leiden, 2011.
http://books.google.com/books?id=Kzgca5UpTFwC

Geddes, W(illiam) D(uguid). Platonis Phaedo. 2nd ed. London: MacMillan, 1885.
https://archive.org/details/phaedopla00plat

Gilfillan, George (Ed.) Young’s Night Thoughts. Edinburgh, 1853.
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/33156/33156-h/33156-h.htm

Gould, Richard. Cicero’s Indebtedness to the Platonic Dialogues in Tusculan Disputations I. Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1968.

Hackforth, R. Immortality in Plato’s Symposium. Classical Review, 64(2), 1950, 43–45.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/703569

King , J. E. (Trans.) Cicero: Tusculan Disputations. Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA, 1927 (rev. 1945).
http://www.amazon.com/dp/0674991567

MacKenna, Stephen (Trans.), Plotinus: The Enneads. 1st edition. London, 1917. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Web, 16 June 2015.
http://sacred-texts.com/cla/plotenn/index.htm

MacKenna, Stephen (Trans.); Page, B. S. (Ed.), Plotinus: The Enneads. 2nd edition. London, 1956.

O’Brien, Michael J. Becoming Immortal in Plato’s Symposium. In: Douglas E. Gerber (Ed.), Greek Poetry and Philosophy: Studies in Honour of Leonard Woodbury. Chicago, 1984, pp. 185–205.
http://commonweb.unifr.ch/artsdean/pub/gestens/f/as/files/4610/26399_133233.pdf

Patterson, Robert Leet. Plato on Immortality. University Park, PA, 1965.
http://books.google.com/books?id=GRtDAAAAIAAJ

Peabody, Andrew P. (tr.) Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. Boston, 1886.
https://archive.org/details/cicerostusculand00ciceiala

Shorey, Paul. Review of The Platonic Conception of Immortality, and its Connexion with the Theory of Ideas, by R. K. Gaye. Philosophical Review, 14(5), 1905, 590–595.
http://books.google.com/books?id=MJZJAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA590

Shorey, Paul (Tr.). Plato’s Republic. 2 vols. (Loeb Classical Library: Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6). Cambridge, MA, 1935 (repr. 1969).
http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0059.tlg030.perseus-eng1:1.327a

Smith, John. A Discourse Demonstrating the Immortality of the Soul. In: John Smith, Select Discourses, London J. Flesher, 1660; repr. in E. T. Campagnac (ed.), The Cambridge Platonists, Oxford, 1901, pp. 99-157.
https://books.google.com/books?id=CC8qAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA99

Snyder, James G. Marsilio Ficino. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web, 22 June 2015.
http://www.iep.utm.edu/ficino/

Spring, Charles. On the Essence and Immortality of the Soul. London, 1865. http://books.google.com/books?id=xnwXAAAAYAAJ

Stanford, Charles S. A Catalogue of Books Treating on the Immortality of the Soul. New York, 1853. (Also appended to: Charles S. Stanford, Phaedo: Or, The Immortality of the Soul, New York, 1854.)
http://books.google.com/books?id=n4k0JOmmsJYC&pg=PA231

Stuart, Moses. Cicero on the Immortality of the Soul (Questionum Tusculanaram, Liber 1). With Notes and Appendix. Andover, MA, 1833.
https://books.google.com/books?id=VQeTJX8ARXoC

Stull, William. Reading the Phaedo in Tusculan Disputations 1. Classical Philology, Vol. 107, No. 1 (January 2012), pp. 38-52.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/663216

Uebersax, John S. Plato Divinus: Is Plato a Religious Figure? Web, 15 June 2015.
http://www.john-uebersax.com/books/Uebersax-Divinus-Plato-draft-June-2015.pdf

Westerink, Leendert. G. (Trans.). The Greek Commentaries on Plato’s Phaedo. Vol. 1 (Olympiodorus) & Vol 2 (Damascius). Prometheus Trust, 2009.
https://books.google.com/books?id=68ZOAQAAIAAJ

Written by John Uebersax

September 8, 2015 at 1:00 am

On Dogmatic Agnosticism

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Many people who call themselves agnostics are arguably dogmatists.  Why do I say this?  Because today atheistic-materialism is a received opinion, a dogma.  And the dominant cultural assumption, as expressed in higher education and mass media, is that Christianity is obsolete, disproven, and all but finished as a paradigm.  Someone like the comedian, Bill Maher, can get on television and make snide jokes about Christians, and imply by innuendo that all Christians are basically stupid bigots, and everyone accepts these statements as completely ordinary, or even ‘cool’.  Nobody expects him to defend his accusations with intelligent arguments.

The problem is that this so-called conclusion is very far from the truth. Christianity has not been refuted or debunked.  Rather, the logical fallacy of ‘demolishing a straw man’ has been committed on a massive scale.  The poorest examples of Christianity (e.g., fundamentalists) are held up as the examples, and these are ridiculed.

The problem is that Christianity is not defined by it’s poorer examples.  In the same way, if we wanted to ridicule democracy as a principle, we could easily find examples where democracy is abused, ridicule those, and thereby conclude that all democracy is bad.  The same principle applies to any ideology or institution.  The simple truth, evident at least since the time of Socrates, is that *most people* are deeply confused.  Christianity is no exception to this rule.  In fact, one could argue that confused people *should* join a religion — since the express purpose of religion is to un-confuse people.  But no religion claims to do that without a long process.  Hence, it is perfectly consistent with the principles of Christianity that, at any given point in time, most Christians are poor Christians!

A true agnosticism would embrace the principle of intellectual humility.  An intellectually humble person doesn’t follow the scenario outlined above. Intellectually humble skeptics or agnostics would recognize their  ignorance as a liability, and therefore make a determined effort to investigate all plausible possibilities that might lead them to a definitive, or at least probable, opinion.

The first prerequisite of such an orientation, therefore, would be to struggle heroically to divest oneself of prejudice — for all people, being inclined to self-interest, habitually distort and select evidence in self-serving ways.  Next, a virtuous skeptic, in the Socratic tradition, would seek out not the worst examples of an opposing viewpoint, but the best.

Here then is my challenge to skeptics or agnostics who want to exert themselves manfully (or womanfully).  I propose that the work of the Roman philosopher, Cicero, titled On Moral Duties (De officiis) expresses, even though it is not an explicitly Christian work, essentially the same religious world view on morality as Christianity does.  What I’m suggesting is that the work is something extraordinary, sublime, beyond the merely rational, or, if you will, inspired.  Cicero’s eclectic synthesis of Platonic, Stoic, and Aristotelian ethics was integrated into Christianity via the later writers such as Ambrose of Milan, St. Augustine, and many others. The spirit of Christian morality is in it.  That is, Cicero’s philosophical writings contain much of what is best in the Christian moral tradition.  Yes, Christianity assimilated it from a non-Christian writer, but this was done, for the most part, in conscious recognition and admiration of Cicero.

Cicero’s work is also extremely interesting and entertaining to read.  It is a literary masterpiece, and ought to be read by everyone.   Nor can I imagine anyone reading without their feeling edified.

That is the proposal I would make to the sincere skeptic or agnostic.  Read this work, and having your mind placed on a higher plane, as reading the work should do, then in that light you will have a more solid and unprejudiced basis for evaluating the plausibility of the Christian tradition.  If the moral principles advocated by Cicero in the work, for example, are laudable and socially constructive, that would be something to factor into an evaluation of the merits and truth of Christianity, which has preserved this moral tradition, and taught it to countless millions of people.

This page has links to several translations of On Moral Duties that can be read online or downloaded.  The Peabody translation is excellent.

Written by John Uebersax

March 29, 2013 at 11:03 pm