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Philo: The Allegorical Meaning of Cain’s City and His Descendants

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Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Cain building the city of Enoch (1860)

DEAR PHILOTHEA, Here, as you requested, are some remarks on Philo’s allegoresis of Cain’s descendants (Genesis 4:17−24), supplied as a continuation of what I previously wrote concerning the sacrifices of Cain and Abel.  As before, I wish to supply only brief pointers, believing that the spiritual meanings of the Old Testament — which are always anagogical or upward leading — require a dedicated personal effort to ascertain: so that meanings and the means of their understanding (effort) coincide.

The basic narrative of these verses, which follows upon the death of Abel, is as follows:

Cain fled God’s presence and dwelt in Nod.
Cain married and begat Enoch.
Cain builded a city.
Enoch begat Irad.
Irad begat Mehujael.
Mehujael begat Methusael.
Methusael begat Lamech.
Lamech had two wives: by Adah he begat Jabal and Jubal.
And by Zillah, Lamech begat Tubal and Naamah.

There is, as you noted, a tendency of readers to gloss over these verses, as though the author of Genesis merely inserted stray folklore.  However that view is inconsistent with how we know we should approach Holy Scripture, which is to assume that all there is placed intentionally and for some definite purpose: sometimes the more irrelevant a detail seems, the more strongly it alerts us to the existence of spiritual meanings.

That is certainly how Philo, our guide for interpreting Genesis, approached these verses.   I like to remind myself that Philo was once believed to be the author of the Wisdom of Solomon.  That is no longer thought to be the case, but the point is that he might have been the author; that is, he is without doubt a profoundly wise, devout and learned representative of the Alexandrian Jewish culture from which Wisdom of Solomon also originated.  Since we look upon the anonymous author of that work as divinely inspired, may we not consider Philo as well one of the eminent line of Jewish prophets?  And if that’s so, we are most fortunate to have, in addition to the Old Testament itself, a spiritually inspired, providential explanation of how to approach interpreting it.

But even to consider inspiration merely as a phenomenon of the human collective unconscious, we may see Philo as a gifted sage and great artist: a man of wide learning, pure intentions and immense zeal to edify others — an extraordinary creative genius, whose works reflect the supraconscious. Enough on this, then.

Philo performed a careful exegesis of these verses from Genesis 4 in his work titled On the Posterity of Cain (De posteritate Caini).  Here, as in his other allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament, Philo applies what we may call the principle of psychological correspondence: each person signifies a specific disposition of the human mind or personality, and each incident symbolizes a psychological event or process (Uebersax, 2012).

As previously described (Uebersax, 2018), for Philo, Cain and Abel symbolize the struggle (psychomachia) within each person between what, lacking better terms, we may follow St. Paul in calling carnal-mindedness and spiritual-mindedness (Romans 8:6). In brief, Cain symbolizes a certain fundamental condition of egoism and impious self-will, and stands in contrast with Abel, who represents an attitude of childlike trust in God.

For Philo, then, Cain’s descendants represent a progressive degradation and corruption of our mind when we leave an uplifted condition — where thinking is holy — to one ruled by egoistic, material concerns. We join the ‘race of Cain’ when we let worldly concerns predominate over spiritual ones.

We can observe this pattern of cognitive descent on various time-scales and with varying severity: from a major mutations in personality lasting months or years, to lesser shifts that occur throughout each day (Uebersax 2014). Hence the issue here is not only descent of the personality into major vices like obsession, gambling, addiction, etc., which ruin ones life entirely, but also daily descents into agitation, distraction, frustration, anger and despondency.  These lesser forms of descent, though perhaps brief, may still amount to a temporary death of ones soul.

Sequential ordering. Philo is describing the phenomenology of mental descent.  While each figure in Cain’s lineage corresponds to a different disposition and to associated cognitive processes, we need not assume these mental events always follow a strict order. However in some cases there does seem to be a tendency of one of these dispositions to ‘beget’ another.

In any case, Philo’s interpretations correspond to mental events that we may, with practice, learn to observe as they occur.  By attending closely to them, and to the transitions from one disposition to another, we may potentially learn how to arrest or even reverse mental descent as it happens. One may think, for example, “Ah, at this point I have become like Mehujael!” and then take appropriate corrective action.

Even if his analysis is not complete, or not correct in every detail, it nevertheless supplies considerable material for personal reflection.

Etymology. Philo applies here what may seem to us some very speculative etymologies in associating each descendant of Cain with a mental disposition. However we shouldn’t overestimate the importance of these etymologies for Philo. There’s no reason to think that they came first in his thinking, and then led him, based on a name, to derive a psychological meaning.  Another and perhaps more likely possibility is that he relied here more on his knowledge of human psychology and on self-observation. That is, he may sometimes have chosen an etymological association after the fact, as it were, to accommodate a prior psychological insight or theory. Alternatively, he may sometimes merely suggest questionable etymologies as helpful mnemonic devices for readers (or his hearers, if, as some suggest, he originally composed this material as homilies).

In any case we shouldn’t let questionable etymologies prejudice our minds against Philo or his interpretations. We should rather focus on his deep insight and remarkable powers of phenomenological analysis. This is superb philosophizing!

Finally, to avoid confusion, please note that in Genesis there are two Enochs, two Methuselahs and two Lamechs; in each case one is bad (Cain’s lineage) and one is good (Seth’s lineage).  Here Philo’s interest is with the bad line.

Now we’ll proceed to Philo’s allegoresis verse by verse.  As much as possible we’ll use his own words. Unless otherwise indicated all paragraph numbers refer to On the Posterity of Cain.

~*~
Genesis 4 (KJV)
[16] And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

Land of Nod (22, 32; Cher. 12f.)

Nod is similar to the Hebrew word for “toss.”  “Eden” symbolizes an opposite mental condition characterized by peace, joy and right reason.

IT IS worth while to notice the country also into which he betakes himself when he has left the presence of God: it is the country called ‘Tossing’ In this way the lawgiver indicates that the foolish man, being a creature of wavering and unsettled impulses, is subject to tossing and tumult, like the sea lashed by contrary winds when a storm is raging, and  has never even in fancy had experience of quietness and calm. And as at a time when a ship is tossing at the mercy of the sea, it is capable neither of sailing nor of riding at anchor, but pitched about this way and that it rolls in turn to either side and moves uncertainly swaying to and fro; even so the worthless man, with a mind reeling and storm-driven, powerless to direct his course with any steadiness, is always tossing, ready to make shipwreck of his life. (22; cf. DeCherubim. 12f.)

Having now shown each side of the picture, calm in a good man, restlessness in a foolish one, let us devote our attention to the sequel. The lawgiver says that Naid, ‘Tumult,’ to which the soul migrated, is over against Eden. ‘Eden’ is a symbolic name for right and divine reason, and so it is literally rendered ‘luxuriance.’ For right reason above all others finds its delight and luxury in the enjoyment of good things pure and undiluted, yea complete and full, while God the Giver of wealth rains down His virgin and deathless boons. And evil is by nature in conflict with good, unjust with just, wise with foolish, and all forms of virtue with all forms of vice. That is the meaning of Naid being over against Eden. (32)

[17] And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.

Cain’s wife (33−39)

‘WIFE’ … [means] the opinion which the impious man (habitually) assumes touching (all) matters. … Of what sort then is an impious man’s opinion? That the human mind is the measure of all things. (34f.)

For if man is the measure of all things, all things are [incorrectly seen as] a present and gift of [ones own] mind … including … thought, resolves, counsels, forethought, comprehension, acquisition of knowledge, skill in arts and in organizing, other faculties too many to recount. Why … deliver … discourses about holiness and honouring God … seeing that you have with you the mind [that presumes] to take the place of God? (36f.)

Enoch (41−43; cf. 35f.)

Philo interprets “Enoch” to mean “thy gift,” here understood as “my gift to myself.”  He connects this with the preceding discussion of Cain’s wife, viz. the opinion that ones sensations and thoughts belong to ones ego.

THOSE who assert that everything that is involved in thought or perception or speech is a free gift of their own soul, seeing that they introduce an impious and atheistic opinion, must be assigned to the race of Cain, who, while incapable even of ruling himself, made bold to say that he had full possession of all other things as well. (42)

Builded a city (49−62)

A characteristic of egoistic thinking is that one builds a veritable city of false beliefs, wrong opinions and supporting rationalizations, populated by inauthentic dispositions.

NOW, every city needs for its existence buildings, and inhabitants, and laws. Cain’s buildings are demonstrative arguments. With these, as though fighting from a city-wall, he repels the assaults of his adversaries, by forging plausible inventions contrary to the truth.  His inhabitants are the wise in their own conceit, devotees of impiety, self-love, arrogance, false opinion: men ignorant of real wisdom, who have reduced to an organized system ignorance, lack of learning and of culture, and other pestilential things akin to these. His laws are various forms of lawlessness and injustice, unfairness, licentiousness, audacity, senselessness, self-will, immoderate indulgence in pleasures … Of such a city every impious man is found to be an architect in his own miserable soul, until such time as God takes counsel (Gen. 11:6), and brings upon their sophistic devices a great and complete confusion. (52f.)

[18] And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech.

Irad (66−68)

THE SON of Enoch is named Gaidad [Irad], which means ‘a flock.’ Such a name follows naturally upon his father’s name. For it was fitting that the man who deems himself beholden to mind, which is incapable of comprehending its own nature, should beget irrational faculties [dunameis], collected into a flock. (66)

Now every flock that has no shepherd over it necessarily meets with great disasters, owing to its inability by itself to keep hurtful things away and to choose things that will be good for it. (67)

For when the protector, or governor, or father, or whatever we like to call him, of our complex being, namely right reason (orthos logos), has gone off leaving to itself the flock within us, the flock itself being left unheeded perishes, and great loss is entailed upon its owner, while the irrational and unprotected creature, bereft of a guardian of the herd to admonish and discipline it, finds itself banished to a great distance from rational and immortal life. (68)

Mehujael (Mahujael, Maiel; 69−72)

THIS IS why Gaidad is said to have a son Maiel, whose name translated is ‘away from the life of God.’ For since the flock is without reason, and God is the Fountain of reason, it follows that he that lives an irrational life has been cut off from the life of God. (69)

Methusael (Methuselah; 73, 44f., cf. 41)

This descendant of Cain is not to be confused with the long-lived Methuselah of Seth’s lineage in Genesis 5.

WHAT issue awaits him who does not live according to the will of God, save death of the soul? And to this is given the name Methuselah, which means (as we saw) ‘a dispatch of death.’ Wherefore he is son of Mahujael, of the man who relinquished his own life, to whom dying is sent, yea soul-death, which is the change of soul under the impetus of irrational passion. (73f.)

He who receives [this] death is an intimate of Cain, who is ever dying to the way of life directed by virtue. (45)

Lamech (74−79; 46−48; cf. 41)

WHEN the soul has conceived this passion, it brings forth with sore travail-pangs incurable sicknesses and debilities, and by the contortion brought on by these it is bowed down and brought low; for each one of them lays on it an intolerable burden, so that it is unable even to look up. To all this the name ‘Lamech’ has been given, which means ‘humiliation,’ [or ‘brought low’] … a low and cringing passion being [an] offspring of the soul’s death, [and] a sore debility child of irrational impulse. (74)

[19] And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah.
[20] And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle.
[21] And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ.

Adah (79−83)

For Philo, Ada means “witness” — in the sense of self-witness and attention directed to ones thoughts and acts.

THE LOW and grovelling Lamech marries as his first wife Ada, which means ‘Witness.’ He has arranged the marriage for himself, for he fancies that the prime good for a man is the smooth movement and passage of the mind along the line of well-aimed projects, with nothing to hinder its working towards easy attainment. ‘For what,’ says he, ‘could be better than that one’s ideas, purposes, conjectures, aims, in a word one’s plans, should go, as the saying is, without a limp, so as to reach their goal without stumbling, understanding being evidenced in all the particulars mentioned?’ (79)

If a man has used a natural aptness and readiness not only for good and worthy ends, but also for their opposites … let him be deemed unhappy. … for verily it is a desperate misfortune for the soul to succeed in all things which it attempts, although they be utterly base. (81)

Therefore, Ο mind, have nothing to do with Ada, who bears witness to (the success of) worthless things, and is borne witness to (as helping) in the attempts to accomplish each of them. (83)

Jabal (Jobel; 83−99)

IF you shall think well to have her [Ada] for a partner, she will bear to you a very great mischief, even Jobel (Gen. iv. 20), which signifies ‘one altering.’ For if you delight in the witness borne to (the goodness of) everything that may present itself, you will desire to twist everything and turn it round, shifting the boundaries fixed for things by nature. (83)

The man who removes the boundaries of the good and beautiful both is accursed and is pronounced to be so with justice. These boundaries were fixed … on principles which are divine and are older than we and all that belongs to earth. This has been made clear by the Law, where it solemnly enjoins upon each one of us not to adulterate the coinage of virtue, using these words: ‘thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s boundaries, which thy fathers set up.’ (Deut. 19:14) (88f.)

How, then, should Jobel escape rebuke, whose name when turned into Greek is ‘altering’ the natures of things or making them other than they are? For he changed the forms of wisdom and endurance and justice and virtue in general, forms of Godlike beauty, substituting contrary shapes of folly, intemperance, injustice, and all wickedness, obliterating the shapes that had been impressed before. (93)

Jubal (100−111)

‘JUBAL’ is akin in meaning to ‘Jobel,’ for it means ‘inclining now this way now that,’ and it is a figure for the uttered word, which is in its nature brother to mind. It is a most appropriate name for the utterance of a mind that alters the make of things, for its way is to halt between two courses, swaying up and down as if on a pair of scales, or like a boat at sea, struck by huge waves and rolling towards either side. For the foolish man has never learned to say anything sure or well-grounded. (100)

[He swerves aside from the] royal road, which we have just said to be true and genuine philosophy, is called in the Law the utterance and word of God. (102)

Jubal is the father of musical instruments because music, like foolish thought and speech, has infinitely many variations:

RIGHT well then is Jubal, the man who alters the tone and trend of speech, spoken of as the father of psaltery and harp, that is of music. (111)

[22] And Zillah, she also bare Tubal-cain, an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron: and the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

Zillah (Sella; 112−113)

LET us contemplate Lamech’s other wife Sella (Zillah) and her offspring. Well, ‘Sella’ means ‘a shadow,’ and is a figure of bodily and external goods, which in reality differ not a whit from a shadow. (112)

Tubal (Thobel; 114−119)

OF this shadow and its fleeting dreams a son is born, to whom was given the name of Thobel, meaning ‘all together.’ For it is a fact that those who have obtained health and wealth … think that they have secured absolutely all things. (115)

He goes on to say: This man was a wielder of the hammer, a smith in brass and iron work. For the soul that is vehemently concerned about bodily pleasures or the materials of outward things, is being ever hammered on an anvil, beaten out by the blows of his desires with their long swoop and reach. Always and everywhere you may see those who care for their bodies more than anything else setting lines and snares to catch the things they long for. You may see lovers of money and fame dispatching on expeditions to the ends of the earth and beyond the sea the frenzied craving for these things. They draw to them the produce of every region of the globe, using their unlimited lusts as nets for the purpose, until at last the violence of their excessive effort makes them give way, and the counter pull throws down headlong those who are tugging. All these people are war-makers, and that is why they are said to be workers in iron and bronze, and these are the instruments with which wars are waged. (116f.)

It is an invariable rule that broils and factions arise among men scarcely ever about anything else than what is in reality a shadow. For the lawgiver [Moses] named the manufacturer of weapons of war, of brass and iron, Thobel, son of Sella the shadow… . For he was aware that every naval or land force chooses the greatest dangers for the sake of bodily pleasures or to gain a superabundance of things outward, no one of which is proved sure and stable by all-testing time; for those things resemble pictures that are mere superficial delineations of solid objects, and fade away of themselves. (119)

Tubal, who signifies a state of complete inner strife and self-tyranny, is the culmination of the entire line of Cain: hence his full name, Tubal-cain.  His association with bronze and iron is reminiscent of the Bronze and Iron races in Hesiod’s Ages of Man myth (Works and Days 109–201), another allegory of the soul’s progressive descent.

Naamah (Noeman; 120−123)

WE are told that the sister of Thobel was Noeman, meaning ‘fatness’; for when those, who make bodily comfort and the material things of which I have spoken their object, succeed in getting something which they crave after, the consequence is that they grow fat. Such fatness I for my part set down not as strength but as weakness, or it teaches us to neglect to pay honour to God, which is the chiefest and best power of the soul. (120)

From this we see that the Divine word dwells and walks among those for whom the soul’s life is an object of honour, while those who value the life given to its pleasures, experience good times that are transient and fictitious. These, suffering from the effects of fatness and enjoyment spreading increasingly, swell out and become distended till they burst; but those who are fattened by wisdom which feeds souls that are lovers of virtue, acquire a firm and settled vigour, of which the fat taken from every sacrifice to be offered with the whole burnt offering is a sign. For Moses says all the fat is a due for ever to the Lord (Lev. 3:16f.), showing that richness of mind is recognized as God’s gift and appropriated to Him. (122f.)

Final Remarks

In verses 23 and 24, the slain young man whom Lamech refers to is Abel, the disposition of piety, innocence and childlike trust in God, whose death is brought to completion by the line of Cain.

So much for Philo’s exegesis of Cain’s progeny and how they relate to the moral/cognitive descent of the psyche.  Philo continues his analysis of descent in his interpretations of the giants mentioned in Genesis 6 (On the Giants) and the Tower of Babel (On the Confusion of Tongues). In addition to considering the descending lineage of Cain, Philo also allegorically interprets the improving race of Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son (Genesis 5). Future articles will discuss these.

References

Colson, F. H. & Whitaker, G. H. Philo: On the Posterity of Cain.  In: Philo, Volume 2. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: 1929.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA: El Camino Real, 2012.

Uebersax, John. The monomyth of fall and salvation. Christian Platonism. 2014. Accessed 22 April 2018.

Uebersax, John. Philo’s psychological exegesis of Cain and Abel. Christian Platonism. 2018. Accessed 22 April 2018.

John Uebersax
First draft: 27 April 2018 (please excuse typos)

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Platonism as Psychotherapy

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Portrait of Plato. Luni marble. Roman copy after a Greek original of Silanion. Inv. No. MC 1377. Rome, Capitoline Museums, Museum Montemartini.

Question: I have heard that Platonism ought to be approached as a ‘therapy of the soul’, or literally as psychotherapy? Can you explain this?

Answer: Yes. A central premise of Plato’s writings is that human beings customarily operate at a ‘fallen’ level of mental functioning. Platonism aims to correct this problem.

To avoid getting too mired in the modern medical model, we could alternatively think of this fallen state not as a disease, but as immaturity. Seen this way, Platonism’s purpose is to assist human beings in developing their full, natural capacity as intellectual, moral, and spiritual beings.

Q: What are the characteristics of this ‘fallen’ state of mental functioning?

Anxiety and worry, negative thinking, distraction, unhappiness, to name a few. The list is almost endless. A simpler way of looking at things is by analogy to attention deficit disorder (ADD): our habitual condition of mind is, relative to our ideal or intended state, what ADD is relative to our habitual state. That is, many of the same cognitive abilities that are impaired in ADD are also impaired in our ordinary fallen state — to a lesser, but still to a very serious degree.

Another analogy is to intoxication.   If one can achieve the higher level of mental function Platonism aims for, one’s ordinary state of mind may seem as one of comparative drunkenness.

But rather than list the problems of our ordinary state, which are only too evident and familiar, it is better to examine the nature of the healed, ‘saved’, or ‘redeemed’ state.

Q: What are qualities of this healed or ‘saved’ mental condition?

In answering this question we are helped considerably by the writings of humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow noted that many people have, either through meditation or other spiritual practices, or else sometimes spontaneously in connection with love, nature, or art, certain heightened experiences. Sometimes these are very brief and intense (peak experiences), and sometimes less intense but of longer duration (plateau experiences). For details, interested readers may consult Maslow’s works (especially Maslow, 1968; 1971). It suffices here to note that peak and plateau experiences are associated with increased sensory and mental clarity, aesthetic appreciation, bliss, insight, and absence of disturbing thoughts or emotions. Maslow summarized this condition by calling it one of Being, as contrasted with our usual condition of becoming. [Note: Few people realize that these terms are explicit references to Platonism, the source of the Being–becoming distinction.]

While peak and plateau experiences are of limited duration, Maslow also noted that over time a person may become more adept at bringing them about. As they become a more common feature in one’s life a general positive transformation of personality may occur.

Maslow, however, operating in the scientific-positivistic climate of the 1950’s and 1960’s, did not sufficiently emphasize the moral or spiritual aspects of the Being state.

Q: Can you elaborate on the moral aspects?

Yes, and this is very important. There is an unfortunate tendency today to confuse morality with moralism. The latter is a rigid frame of mind which seeks to conform all behavior to fixed rules, largely proscriptive (“thou shalt not…”). This legalistic approach does little to develop ones innate moral sense. Rather, it is often yet another manifestation of the fallen condition of the mind.

Morality is something different, something positive. It affirms that human beings are designed to be moral; and that moral actions and virtue come naturally and instinctively, and are essential to ones happiness, well-being, and integrity of personality.

Platonism sees an integral connection between intellectual and moral life. Moral development comes from intellectual or illuminative insights into ones own nature. Platonism seeks to cultivate the life of ones higher mind, the source of these intellectual and moral insights. This has two components, the purgative and the illuminative. The purgative part of Platonism seeks to correct our habitual forms of negative thought and emotions, which impair our ability to consult our higher mind. The illuminative part is concerned with actually accessing the higher mind.

Q: And the spiritual aspect?

The spiritual aspect of Platonism is what some writers call the unitive life. It is, of course, something understood by experience, not description. However certain leading principles of this state can be noted.

In general, we could describe this state as a form of humility, in which the ego no longer seeks to be ruler of ones psyche, but rather is content in the role of helper to something greater than itself. Now as to what this other entity is, opinions vary. The traditional view, of course, is that it is God. Some, however, such as Jungian psychologists, understand this other as a higher self or Self. To some extent this distinction doesn’t matter — provided that the ego has sufficient respect for this ‘other’ that it relates to it as something holy and sacred. The proper relationship of the ego to this entity, whatever it is, is one of piety and trust.

In this way a person is no longer constrained by the limitations of egoistic over-control, and the various forms of mischief the ego can create. One is more creative and spontaneous, and, in a word, more happy. Various names given to this condition are self-actualization, self-realization, and individuation.

Another way of seeing things is that Platonism is a form of yoga. Etymologically, the word yoga is related to the word yoke. It refers to establishing an ongoing connection or yoke between the ego and this higher ‘thing’ which is God or a higher Self. Note that the word religion has the same meaning of re-connection, as the stem ligio means to connect or bind, and is related to the word ligament.

So we see that, despite certain differences, Platonism, yoga, and traditional religion all aim to restore a kind of natural state or harmony of soul in which the ego finds its proper role. All of these traditions express a kind of instinctive knowledge human beings have that their ordinary state, where the ego is out of control, is unnatural, but can be corrected.

Q: What then is the relationship between Platonism and religion?

Platonism overlaps with that part of traditional religion concerned with Wisdom. Wisdom is an important part of religion, but it is not the only part.

Nevertheless, Platonism complements and may enhance ones experience as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. Many of the greatest Christian thinkers throughout the centuries were also Platonists — for example St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas in the West, and St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus Confessor in the East. Traditionally, Greek philosophy has been called the handmaid of theology, and this is an apt description of Platonism.

Q: Is Platonism for everybody?

Each person is a unique individual, with their own preferred ‘yoga’. For some a yoga of the heart (e.g., charity and service) is best; for others a yoga of Wisdom such as Platonism is more suitable. In general Platonism will appeal most to people who already have a strong intellectual inclination. It is my observation that in modern times people are overall becoming more intellectual, so that Platonism may have broader appeal today than in earlier centuries.

Q: Very well. How does one go about learning Platonism?

First you should know that most of what is written about Platonism, especially in modern times, is of dubious value. Modern philosophers, generally speaking, no longer understand philosophy as a form of psychotherapy, but see it only as an arena for abstract speculation, controversy, and other forms of self-aggrandizement.

For this and other reasons, there is no substitute for reading Plato’s own works. This is made easier by the fact that Plato was great literary genius as well as a philosopher. Once you get accustomed to them, Plato’s dialogues are very easy and enjoyable to read.

I would recommend starting with one or two of Plato’s early dialogues, such as Charmides or Lysis. These make for pleasant reading and, while they are not his greatest works, help one get a ‘feel’ for Plato.

Eventually one will want to work up to his more significant works: Phaedrus, Symposium, Phaedo, and of course what is perhaps his greatest, The Republic.

After reading one or two of his dialogues, you might want to read some of the myths which Plato placed in several of his works. This may help give you an appreciation of Plato’s mystical and intuitive side, which complements the more analytical style found in his prose.

Not all translations of Plato’s works are of equal value. While some modern translations are excellent, others are not. I generally find older translations, especially those of Benjamin Jowett, and those the Loeb Classical Library, more than satisfactory. The Jowett translations, all in the public domain, can be readily be found online. Many of the Loeb editions are also in the public domain and can be found at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu.

I have also provided short explanations of certain key terms found in Plato’s works which may assist you.

Related:  Reading Plato’s Republic as Psychology

 

References

Arvanitakis KI. Psychic structure, psychic illness and psychotherapy in Plato and Freud. Confin Psychiatr. 1980;23(3):164-72.

Cushman, Robert Earl. Therapeia: Plato’s Conception of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Westport, CT, 1976.

Gill, Christopher. Ancient psychotherapy. Journal of the History of Ideas 46.3 (1985): 307-325.

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. New York: Van Nostrand, 1968.

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

Thome, Johannes. Psychotherapeutische Aspekte in der Philosophic Platons (Psychotherapeutic Aspects of Plato’s Philosophy). Hildesheim: Ohms-Weidmann, 1995.

 

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