Christian Platonism

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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

The Platonic Triad

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There is confusion about the Platonic Triad of higher Forms. Let’s clear this up.

  1. Often the Triad is given as Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.   Because these are all Forms, it might be more technically accurate to refer here to the Form (meaning eternal essence or Ideal) of Truth, the Form of Beauty, and so on. But for simplicity, we simply say here Truth and not the Form of Truth, Beauty, and not its Form, etc.
  1. Within this formulation, naming the first two Truth and Beauty is fine, but calling the third Goodness is incorrect.
  1. The problem is that these three occupy only the second-highest tier in the realm of Platonic Forms. Above all three (and this is of central importance) is the Form of the Good. The very point is that by contemplation any of these second-tier forms (or all together), our minds are drawn upwards to contemplate or intuit the Form of the Good, or God. To call the third Form of the Triad “Goodness” therefore confounds levels. It places Goodness, or the Form of the Good on the second tier along with Truth and Beauty, yet also above Truth and Beauty. This is not only ambiguous, but contradicts what Plato actually wrote.
  1. The third Form of the Triad would be more properly called Moral Goodness. That is, it refers to the Goodness of the moral realm. Here ‘moral’ means something much greater than its colloquial use associated with ethical actions and choices; rather it encompasses everything that concerns meaning, value, and virtue in our life.
  1. Yet the term Moral Goodness is arguably not a prefect choice here. It might be misunderstood as suggesting that what it denotes has a greater or more direct connection to Goodness than Truth and Beauty. But such is not true; for we could as easily call the other two Truth Goodness and Beauty Goodness.The issue then is simply a limitation in vocabulary; we seem to lack a single word that means Moral Goodness.
  1. Now in truth we have such a word: Justice. So a faithful expression of the Platonic Triad could be Truth, Beauty, and Justice. However the word ‘justice’ in English carries certain connotations because of its other uses. For example, people today may associate justice with courts, laws, and retributive justice — associations which obscure the meaning of Justice here. What is meant in the present case is a Justice that is is inseparable from peace, harmony, moderation and right measure.  Perhaps we could call it ‘just rightness,’ as in the sense of that special satisfaction felt when we get something just rightness.
  1. Therefore, with the qualification that one understands this fuller and nobler meaning of Justice, we can give the Platonic Triad as (the Forms of ) Truth, Beauty, and Justice (or Measure, or Virtue, or Excellence).
  1. Plato describes three corresponding means of ascent to contemplation of the Form of the Good: i.e., via Truth (dialectical ascent in Book 7 of Republic), Beauty (Diotima’s Ladder of Love in the Symposium), and Moral Goodness (the Phaedrus Chariot Allegory).
  1. This Triad is not to be confused with the Neoplatonist “trinity” of the One, the Good, and Intellect or Mind (Nous). In the Neoplatonist model, as first described by Plotinus, the One is the ultimate level, from which proceed or emanate in a cascading sequence the Good, and then Intellect from the Good, then Soul from Intellect, then Body from Soul.

Update: Plato seems to come as close as anywhere in his writings to explicitly stating this triad in Philebus 61a–66b, especially 64d–65a: Beauty, Truth, and Measure (metriotes) or Proportion (symmetria). In view of this new information I would be less eager to call the third member of the triad Moral Goodness, as that seems to specific. Principles like Measure, Justice/Justness/’Just right’-ness, Excellence, Proportion and Moderation all seem to apply.  There is perhaps no single English term that expresses the essence of all these, which is perhaps what Plato means here.  The Egyptians elevated this cosmic principle to the status of a goddess, Ma’at (Measure), who also corresponds to the Greek goddess Themis.

Applying the Platonic Triad

Here’s how we put the Platonic Triad to practical use in our life.  When, say, one is struck with the beauty of some beautiful thing, (or the virtue of some virtuous person or action, or truth of some truth), one lets ones mind rise to consider Beauty (or Moral Goodness, or Truth) itself: How all things deemed beautiful must share some common essence, Beauty; how this essence, Form, or Ideal of Beauty is something real; how it is changeless and eternal; how it is more perfectly beautiful than any actual object.  For example, for any beautiful object, we see notice slight flaws or imperfections and can imagine how it could be still more beautiful.  The perfect beauty towards which our mind inclines is the Form of Beauty, or Beauty.

And then consider how Beauty itself is merely one species of Goodness.  Truth and Justice are also good.  So there must be some essence, Form, or Ideal which all have in common.  This is the Form of the Good.

Such considerations may enable the mind to rise, then, higher than Beauty itself, to glimpse with ones soul the Form of the Good.

Adepts in the art of contemplation may then dwell on this sight, or rise still higher, learning more of the Form of the Good.  And, it is said, a person’s mind can ascend still higher, beyond the Good — to the One beyond all differentiation.  That brings us to the subject of so-called apophatic mysticism.  This highest form of contemplation is called dark knowing, because it is beyond all concepts.

But others of us who are not contemplative monks and deal with the practicalities of daily social life may, alternatively, draw from a glimpse of the Form of the Good the immediate intuition of what it implies for practical affairs.  We may see a certain activity or task, for example, “in the light of” the Good; and this may help us to simplify problems, remove obstacles, pursue plans with much greater efficiency and effect, etc.

Thus while some forms of the vision of the Good (the famous visio beatifica) are immensely profound and exceedingly rare, others are within our reach on a daily basis and can be of great value in ordering our practical affairs and lives. This is the goal of a good Platonic or Christian (or other religious) life. A personality built on this principle is the real meaning of Plato’s Republic: a city of soul where all the citizens — our numerous subpersonalities, passions, and dispositions — are ruled by love of Wisdom and love of the Good. Then our personality is a harmonious, integrated whole, and not an unruly mob of conflicting subpersonalities, each ruled by its own narrow desires and schemes.

Further Reading

Plotinus.  Enneads 1.3. On Dialectic.  Trans.: Stephen MacKenna, London, 1917–1930 (4rd. ed.  revised by B. S. Page, 1969).

Summary of Plotinus, Enneads 1.3: On Dialectic, or the Upward Way.

Plato’s Proof of God’s Existence

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MOST anyone who’s taken a course in the history of Western philosophy has run across the famous ontological argument proof for God’s existence associated with St. Anselm of Canterbury.  Actually several versions of the ontological argument have appeared over the centuries, the simplest one being:

  1. By definition, God is a with every perfection.
  2. Existence is a perfection.
  3. Hence God exists.

One of the most interesting things about these arguments is that they have attracted so much attention despite the fact that they are basically unconvincing.

Please don’t mistake my intentions.  Of course I believe in God; I only mean that these arguments, analyzed at the logical level, aren’t very good, and everyone knows that.  The strange thing is that, despite this, the ontological argument has been ceremoniously taught to philosophy students for at least a millenium.  It’s as if to say, “We don’t really have a good logical proof for God’s existence, but rather than abandon the project let’s practice with a second-rate one.”

Curiously, all this overlooks the fact that we do potentially have at our disposal a much better philosophical proof of God’s existence.  To call it a proof in the sense of a logical proof might be technically incorrect — it’s really more of a demonstration. [Note 1] Nevertheless, regardless of how we classify it,  its evidential value for supporting a belief in God is, I believe, substantially stronger than that of the ontological argument.  This experiential argument comes from Plato’s dialogues, most notably, the central books of the Republic and Diotima’s speeches in the Symposium.  It is illustrated as follows:

  1. Consider some beautiful thing — say an incredibly beautiful sunset, the kind that totally absorbs you in a profound sense of beauty, awe, and wonder..
  2. Now, instead of pausing in that experience alone — which is our usual tendency — elevate your thoughts still higher and consider that this is not the only beautiful thing.  There are many other experiences equally or more beautiful as this one.
  3. Then consider that there must be something in common amongst all these experiences — in exactly the same way that there is something in common for all triangles, all horses, or all trees.  That is, each of these things has some defining principle or principles, some essence.
  4. Consider further that a defining essence has, at least in theory, some existence outside of its instantiation in actual examples.  Hence we may conceive of the abstract “Form” of a triangle, which would exist even if somehow we were able to remove all physical triangles from the world.  If so, we may also suppose that there is some Form of Beauty, which is the principle that all beautiful things have in common; and that this may potentially exist independently of all beautiful things.
  5. Moreover, Beauty is not the only good.  There are also such noble things as Truth,  Virtue, Excellence, and Justice — which we also unhesitatingly consider good, which delight or assure us, and which can bring us very deep levels of satisfaction.
  6. And, just as with Beauty, we may suppose that there is some essence or Form for each of these other things: a Form of Truth, a Form of Virtue, of Excellence, of Justice, and so on.
  7. And finally, we may contemplate the possibility of some principle or essence which all these different Forms of good things have in common.  This, too, would be a Form — the Form of Goodness.
  8. God is defined as that being than which nothing can be more Good.  Therefore God is the Form of Goodness.

For me, this comes very close to being a fully logically persuasive argument for God’s existence.  But — perhaps more importantly — it can also be approached as a contemplative or spiritual exercise.  That is, as Plato himself presents this line of thought, one is not so much trying to logically convince oneself, as to elicit, by performing this exercise, an elevation of the mind to an awakening or remembrance (anamnesis) of an innate, intuitive understanding of God.  We might call this an experiential proof, or an anagogical proof.

It is, of course, up to each one individually to investigate this method and to determine how well it works; but I will add another thing. Not only does this demonstration supply evidence of God’s existence, it may also promote the development of a sincere gratitude for and love of God.  As one contemplates the nature of Goodness, that is, as one begins to become more conscious of the principle that, if there are good things, there must be a Form of Goodness, one also becomes amazed at the very idea that there is such a thing as Goodness.  And also that we, as human beings, seem particularly attuned to crave, seek, and experience Goodness.  It is quite remarkable that we have this word and this concept, ‘good’, such that we may apply it a huge variety of things and experiences.

The counter-argument of the reductionist will not do here:  he or she might say, “What we consider good merely derives from sensory, practical, and survival considerations; it’s all explained by Darwinism:  we desire and prefer certain things because they are advantageous.”  But that does not explain, among other things, why some of the things we consider most good – say a heroic sacrifice of some noble person – is not materially advantageous.

If, then, we accept that there is something deep and fundamental in our nature such that we seek goodness (which is to say, in effect, that we are moral beings) and also that there is some Author and Source of Goodness, and, further, that it is our destiny as immortal souls to enjoy an eternity of ever greater Beauty and Goodness, then naturally our gratitude to this Supreme Being is spontaneously aroused.

Therefore Plato’s ‘proof’ of God’s existence as the Form of the Good is not only logically appealing, but effective at the level of emotion and devotion as well.

Finally, there are definite connections between Plato’s wish to prove the existence of God, and the many proofs he supplies throughout the dialogues for the immortality of the human soul.  A new article (with some of the leading ideas raised here developed more clearly) considers that topic.[Note 2]

Notes

1. The word ‘proof’ means to try or verify something.  Not all proofs are logical.  Ones proves a gold coin by biting it.  Making evident to ones senses, whether physical or intellectual, that something is real is a valid form of proof.  The point of this article is to suggest that in theology one should not automatically equate proof with deductive syllogisms.

2. Since originally making this post I’ve discovered a few related references.  Most relevant is: Daniel A. Dombrowski, A Platonic Philosophy of Religion: A Process Perspective, SUNY Press, 2005.  Chapter 5 (‘Arguments for the Existence of God’) suggests that a precursor to St. Anselm’s ontological argument can be found in Books 6 and 7 of Plato’s Republic.  There are some similarities between Dombrowski’s discussion and the present one, such as an emphasis on the Form of the Good, but also major differences.  The main difference is that whereas Dombrowski  uses the Form of the Good and the principle of directly intuited knowledge (noesis) to construct a deductive logical proof for God’s existence, I believe Plato employs these principles to present an experiential proof.