25 February 2008

A Defense of Plato's Metaphysics

I keep forgetting about the old tradition on this blog of announcing what the current author is reading, listening to, and watching. I’ll reinstate it now, and readers are encouraged to do the same and to remind me to keep it up!
Reading: The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis; Great Expectations by Charles Dickens; The Bridge of San Luis Ray by Thornton Wilder; and The Book that Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicholas Copernicus by Owen Gingerich
Listening to: “Slavonic Dances” by Antonin Dvorâk
Watching(over the course of several days, not all at once!): “Sense & Sensibility”; one of Ioan Gruffudd’s “Horatio Hornblower” episodes; Olivier’s Hamlet, and selections from “La Vita E Bella/Life is Beautiful.”

Now, the second installment in the discussion of Plato’s metaphysics and its attendant problems.

First, a digression. I’m rereading C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image, which is the posthumously published volume he developed from his lectures introducing Medieval and Renaissance Literature. I finally have enough background information and a well-developed mechanism of appreciation to be able to read and love this book. It is full of many thrills for me now that it did not have on a first reading years ago. I have been learning much from this book, and look forward to learning more—and to being pointed down many other, related, paths of knowledge. One interesting mental development The Discarded Image has set in motion has to do with Platonism. I always knew that my Christian Platonism came via Lewis; what I didn’t fully realize was how thoroughly his own came from the Medievals, not from Plato—though of course CSL was well read in Plato. But that’s part of the point: the Medievals were not well read in Plato, but only in brief little bits in translation and in the even longer [misinterpreting] commentaries on those bits. Thus the Christian neo-Platonism I hold so dear is really just that: Christian, neo-Platonism—not Platonism proper. By the time it reached me (classes in Classical philosophy notwithstanding; those came after my impressionable immersion in The Silver Chair, The Last Battle, and The Great Divorce), it was Lewis’s re-interpretation of the Medievals’ reinterpretation of Chalcidius’s (and others’) mis-interpretation of the ancient neo-Platonists explication of Plato’s recorded interpretation of Socrates’ doctrine of the Forms—which is only a small part of his totalizing system, by the way!!! —many removes from anything like an original. And I’ve done my fair share of reinterpreting it along the way, too. See this earlier discussion, and this, on a couple of ancient posts. So, I’ll end this long digression by saying that the Christian neo-Platonism I love is really some lovely perversion of pure Platonism, so perhaps my defense will tend more towards my own version, not Plato’s.

Let us now turn to that defense. Here is the assignment for my students, and my request to all other readers. Please read over the problems we raised in the previous metaphysical posting, and try to “solve” at least one. You may be able to do this by suggesting ways that Platonism has been misunderstood or reinterpreted—or by offering your own reinterpretations that better stand up to the sorts of criticism offered last time. Let us stand up and shout in favour of the World of Pure Forms!

1. Problem one: Whose Ideas are these? And if they are God’s Ideas, and if God is Pure Intellectual Immaterial Form, how is it possible for human beings to enjoy any union with Him?
My Christian answer is simply that the Ideas are God’s ideas, and that the Incarnation is an historical and spiritual reality that bridged the gap between immaterial and material, spiritual and mortal. However, there are some other aspects that are perhaps more philosophically pure that I would like to offer. First of all, most thinkers would admit that a human being must consist of something more than the sum of his/her physical parts. Reason/rationality is awfully close to something “spiritual” or at least extra-material. Thought cannot be completed explained by its constituent chemical processes. The truly materialist view that human beings have no soul, no non-material components, is at least as logically unsatisfactory as the view that they do have souls! So even without considering the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, there is a logical basis for postulating some connection between human beings and any existing immaterial beings, since we ourselves have some extra-material part. Then, if an extra-natural or supernatural being is postulated to exist, and to exist in potential connection to His creatures, then why wouldn’t He have created those material beings and realities according to Ideas in His mind? Indeed, how else does a creator (or subcreator) create?

2. Problem two I think is really one of semantics: Why aren’t shadows “real”? They are real shadows, aren’t they?
Well, sure, shadows are real shadows. But readers must remember that the “Allegory of the Cave” is an allegory. Plato (or Socrates, depending on how exact the account is) had to think of experiences his audience had had, and use those as symbols in his story. It seemed natural for him to use a bonfire to symbolize the physical sun, since a bonfire gives out light and heat, as does the sun, and yet is chilly and dim compared to the “real” sun—which introduces a confusion that I an probably countless other teachers have tried to iron out for our students—which symbolizes the Form of the Good in the “world outside the cave,” the Intellectual World. So Plato clearly couldn’t think of something in our material world that is less than real (since every reality meets its own conditions for real existence as the thing it is), so he chose something that easily lends itself to use as a symbol of unreality. A shadow seems less real than the object that casts it. A man’s shadow seems far less real than the man himself. So it made a good literary symbol. I don’t think we need to get hung up on this problem as much as the next.

3. Problem three was sort of a problem of semantics, but I believe is something more. I’ll just restate part of it here. “In the allegory, the firelight (symbolizing the physical sun) is falling on objects, which cast shadows (symbolizing all physical objects you have ever seen) on the wall of the cave. What do the objects symbolize? If they symbolize manifestations of the forms, that messes up the allegory. If the symbolize some kind of secondary form of the form, that doesn’t work.”
This is a fundamental enough problem that I will let other readers chime in before I offer any thoughts of my own. So, please, tackle this one!

4. Historically, Platonism has tended to denigrate physicality: a mixture of Platonism and Christianity may have contributed to negative attitudes towards the body.
Yes, that’s true. This has happened. However, we must not toss out a theory or doctrine just because it has been abused. Every theory or doctrine has been abused! So the more important question is whether it’s really an abuse, or a natural outcome of the theory—or whether we can “baptize” the theory to avoid that abuse. I do believe that Plato’s full teaching does include denigration of the body; however I also believe that Christians can baptize it [have baptized it, through the chain I outlined in the digression above]. That is to say, Christians and really anybody can be neo-Platonists who affirm the worth of the body here and now, and look forward to a multi-dimensionsal, embodied, unimaginably physical and metaphysical and spiritual existence in the future. If food tastes good now, just wait for heaven! If a refreshing breeze and a bubble bath and a backrub and a kiss and a long workout feel good now, just imagine what they’ll feel like in our perfect Heavenly bodies! Wow. As Rosie pointed out: Jesus’ resurrection body ate food, but also walked through walls! I think that’s a pretty good hint of what our “pure form” bodies will be able to do, don’t you? So again: this is not pure Platonism, but I personally believe it’s better than the original: better, and more biblical.

5. The other side of problem #4 is the simple postponement of full existence into some afterlife. Christians are accused of this, too: we’re just waiting for Heaven so we don’t live fully now.
So take the above answer and flip it upside-down. Just because heaven will be better doesn’t mean we’re not living here now and can’t/won’t/shouldn’t live to the fullest. Just because I might be having a feast at a friend’s house on the weekend doesn’t mean I won’t eat all week! Just because my husband and I might go on a date on the weekend doesn’t mean I won’t hug him when he comes home every evening. Besides, it’s unclear to me just how much of this current physical existence will carry over into the afterlife, and/or just how they will be related. I remember a sermon I read in a literature textbook as a kid, called “What are they now doing in Heaven?” It was beautiful, and it speculated , in inspiring terms, that the people in heaven were doing just whatever they loved to do on earth, only so much more! Explorers were thrilled to find endless expanses and limitless labyrinths they could never exhaust, but could eternally explore. Musicians were singing, painters were painting with perfect materials and unsullied imaginations, and so on. It was beautiful! And I remember a conversation with my Dad, in which we speculated that in Heaven we would all “suffer” from a kind of exalted synesthesia, in which we would all see music and smell colors and taste textures and so on, and see the entire range of light beyond the currently visual spectrum, and maybe have X-ray vision, and on and on and on. So in that case, this life is just the first chapter of that life, but not a separate one.

6. In the broader context of The Republic and Plato’s other writings, the Allegory of the Cave had a classist, sexist, and racist application. It seems that only highly educated, privileged, and presumably Greek men are granted the leisure to live a life of contemplation and thus to rise to the highest level of existence.
Well, surely, this is the first element of Plato’s thought that we moderns just chuck out the window. But I’d like to hear your thoughts on it before I begin ranting.

And here are some other problems readers submitted.

Rosie wrote:
1. I think [Platonism] undercuts the freedom and dignity God gives us in actually creating new things out of our own imaginations if we say that the "idea" for these things existed in some other realm (God's mind) prior to our thinking them up, and we are simply taking a stab at it in a poor attempt at copying the original.
2. It denies the uniqueness and individuality of species and instances of things….There is goodness in the particularity of things that exist in the created world. To idealize the "forms" of these things takes away from their realness and substantiality.
1. would we not be accusing God of making less than perfect creations, considering that only one model is a perfect form?
2. if in Gods mind is the perfect image of any form…. and he knows that no man is perfect and cannot reach perfection alone… then by giving us the knowledge of such a form, would he not be setting us up as failures, never being able to reach the perfect/complete destination of the product?
[Oh, and by the way, Darlin, Plato’s theory applies to concepts as well as concrete objects, but abstract concepts, in his thought, can come closer to the “real” forms, because the forms are Ideas (capital I), so ideas (small i) are less flawed, because they do not take a shape through matter.]

1. How did the guy get free? It said he “was set free”, but by who[m]? Or what? Knowledge? But wouldn’t that knowledge be flawed to[o], because we derive knowledge from observations, and those observations will be flawed because the things we observe are nothing more than imperfect forges of the original?
2. What make the “real” objects any more “real” than the shadows? They both exist, don’t they? Why do we assume that because we knew the shadow first and then saw the flower that the flower is more real? Who’s to say that maybe there isn’t some sort of double mirror effect going on, or something else that would make the shadows real, and the object just a copy?
3. What if there’s a more “real” world than the outside world? I mean, if we have lamps and the sun in this imperfect world, couldn’t there be levels similar to this in the “real world”?
[N.B. C.S. Lewis uses this concept in The Great Divorce, in which the entire action takes place only on the “Plain of Heaven,” not in Deep Heaven—suggesting that all of his amazingly real, hard, solid, colored objects would themselves be weak, fragile, and pale when compared to the things in “Real” Heaven, just as the things on earth are weak, etc., compared to those on the plain.]
4. Why would we believe in the “real world”? …finding out something is false will make some people believe that now they are truly seeing, and will make others believe that nothing can ever be known for sure, that everything is a lie. Some people once duped believe the very next version of the truth presented, while others disbelieve all truth once duped.
5. I think that besides the physical bodies we possess, we have minds that can think and process information, and a soul that can feel things. What if each of those things that make us a self (physical bodies, soul, and mind) is just an imperfect copy of each part of the trinity of God? By that, I mean, what if God is THE SELF, and each of us is an imperfect copy of Him, would our body, mind, and soul correlate to a different part of the trinity? …That would explain however why God says we are made in His image.


1. Who can be "enlightened"?
2. How did Plato know that he was fully enlightened? Doesn’t that defeat the logic; I mean the people inside the cave didn’t know they were missing anything, when the one man came out how did he know that he wasn’t missing anything?
3. [If Plato thought he was enlightened, why?] Was it because he was a male and a Greek philosopher? If it was then isn't "enlightenment" somewhat superficial and available for only a select few.
4. If I found out that everything I ever believed to be realities were, in fact, just shadows of realities I would certainly question these new and “real” realities. How would I know that there was not something even more “real” out there? How would I know if the realities I was seeing now weren’t just more detailed “shadows”?
5. Why was just one man “enlightened”?
6. It Plato's cave allegory, the man who broke free from the chains, did anyone help him? Or was it fate? If it was fate, then there is no need for knowledge…If no one helped him up from the bottom of the cave, if no one broke his chains for him then no one taught him. So in a way, Plato seems to be taking teaching out of knowledge.
7. If I showed you a shadow and said plate when the shadow came up on the back of the wall would you know what it was or what it was for? With only a dark outline and a mixture of sounds to create the word would you know what it was? If you had no former knowledge? Is Plato portraying some form of instinct that is above and beyond animal instinct?

So, I throw the field open to your discussions. Enjoy!

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