30 January 2008

Plato's Metaphysics

The writings of Plato, particularly the account of the “Allegory of the Cave” in The Republic, are arguably the most influential early philosophy texts in the so-called Western canon. The primary idea of this allegory, that sensory realities are only shadows or copies of Ideal Forms existing in the Intellectual World, has been revered, relived, pilloried, parodied, paraded, imitated, and excoriated by philosophers, poets, and artists ever since. You can read a translation of the Allegory here.

The basic idea is that everything you have ever seen with your eyes, touched with your hands, tasted with your tongue, heard with your ears, and smelled with your nose (or, to be more correct, sensed via those organs by the brain)—everything you have ever experienced via your physical body doesn’t really exist. Or at least not as you think it does. Everything is just a vague, dim, shoddy, cheap copy or shadow of its “real” original out there somewhere. The original itself, counter intuitively, isn’t more physical—i.e., doesn’t strictly compare to 3-dimensions objects the way 3-dimensional objects compare to 2-dimenstional ones—the way you might imagine. Nope. These Forms or Ideas are just that—Ideas. Whose ideas? Good question. But hang on to that question for a bit. So “reality” turns out to be far more like what we typically think of as unreality (you tend to think of an apple as being “more real” than an idea of, say, “I have an idea for a new story”). Things without physical existence are more real than those with physical existence. Hum.

So I’m going to have three assignments for my students in this post and subsequent posts on this topic, and I beg all other readers to join in and contribute their thoughts as well!

Assignment One: Identify or explain a problem with the allegory of the cave. Here are some problems I have pondered, or others have pointed out to me. You may use these problems to fulfill this assignment if you rephrase the problem or develop it further than I do.
1. Whose ideas are these? It is easy for a Christian, or any Monotheist, to say that these Ideas are God’s ideas; that the World of Pure Forms exists in the mind of God. But for an atheist, or polytheist, or agnostic, such an explanation might not serve—and it might not be philosophically satisfactory, even if it is religiously satisfying. At the very least, it creates an apparently impossible problem of transcendence: if God is Pure Form, Pure Intellect, completely separate from the physical, is it possible for human beings to enjoy any union with Him? Total and complete Platonism seems to rule out the Incarnation.
2. Why aren’t shadows “real”? hmm and I have been having an ontological debate about the necessary characteristics of being: about whether or not a unicorn is “real.” Is a picture of a unicorn real? Well, the picture has physical existence on the page; real ink/paints/pixels were used to convey that image to our eyes. The imaginary idea of “unicorn” exists; does that prove that there must be a Pure Form of Unicorn in Plato’s World of Forms, otherwise human minds could not conceive of it? A unicorn is a legendary animal; is it therefore a “real” legend, because it fulfills all the qualifications for being legendary? So then, why aren’t shadows “real”? They are real shadows, aren’t they? They have all the attributes required to make a real shadow: darkness, a discernable shape, two dimensions, motion relative to the object casting the shadow, size proportional to the object and to the source of light, etc. So why don’t they count as “real”? Maybe a shadow isn’t as good, or valuable, or useful, as the object which casts it, but isn’t a judgment of utility in an entirely different category from judgments of existence or being?
3. 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. And the problem appears to me to be more fundamental than a mere semantic or literary glitch. It goes back to problem one. How can there be any commerce between the World of Forms and this material, sublunary realm? There needs to be some mediator through which the forms are translated from immutable immateriality into mutable materiality.
4. Historically, Platonism has been condemned because it tends to denigrate physicality. “Platonic love” in common parlance means love that is never physically consummated: a mixture of Platonism and Christianity (or at least Catholicism) may have contributed to negative attitudes towards sex specifically or physical pleasures more generally, leading from asceticism into full-blown mortification of the flesh.
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.
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. In the story, one prisoner gets free and eventually gets out of the cave, where he stares at light and more light until he is able to stare up directly into the sun itself, contemplating the highest truth, the Form of the Good. Yes, he. He is the philosopher-king, the guardian of the utopia in which women will be common property and 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. One wonders if they will be the only inhabitants of the “heavenly” world of Pure Forms?

In my next metaphysical posting, there will be an “assignment” related to solving these problems, or suggesting ways that Platonism has been either misunderstood or reinterpreted to answer those, and other objections. So stay tuned and put your thinking caps on for a defense of the World of Pure Forms.

Then in the final Platonic post, I plan to ask you for alternatives to the allegory of the cave: for other understandings of the universe and meta-universe, if any; for other models of conceptualizing supernatural realities; for works of art or literature or other media that present an alternative worldview or a new way of visualizing Plato’s controlling concept. That’s the plan!

17 January 2008

Planet Narnia invitation

You are cordially invited to attend
an exciting evening of lecture and discussion entitled
“C.S. Lewis’s Narnian Secret”
by Dr. Michael Ward

Scholars have long debated over the apparent disunity of The Chronicles of Narnia and have searched for a hidden theme. Dr. Ward offers a brilliant, original reading of Narnia, revealing correspondences between Lewis’s books and the Seven Heavens of Medieval astronomy.

Saturday, February 2nd, 6:30 pm
The Master’s Academy of Fine Arts
258 Main Street, East Greenville, PA
Entrance fee: $3.00

for more info, call or email Sorina Higgins
484.866.2147 or
or look at Dr. Ward’s website
Please note that this event is for children ages 12 and up only.

Dr. Michael Ward is a writer, speaker, and Anglican clergyman. Since 2004 he has been Chaplain of Peterhouse in the University of Cambridge. Between 1996 and 1999 he lived and worked at The Kilns, C.S. Lewis’s Oxford home. From January 2007 he will be lecturing internationally on the subject of Planet Narnia. You are also invited to financially support this event in order to help defray Dr. Ward’s traveling expenses. If you would like to contribute, please contact Sorina Higgins or the Master’s Academy.

15 January 2008

Planet Narnia is out and about!

Dr. Michael Ward's book, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, has been released from Oxford University Press. Dr. Ward will be speaking at my school in February; an official inviation will follow soon. In the meanwhile, you can view his tour schedule and read about the book here. I'm reading the book now, and a full review will follow shortly. For now, here are some thoughts, which I'm posting around the web to help hustle the excitment along.

I heard Dr. Ward speak back in the summer of 2006, and I was instantly both a fan and a skeptic. His theory about the reason for seven Chronicles of Narnia is fascinating, beautiful, and—so I thought—implausible. But since Dr. Ward was a very compelling speaker (and he’s coming to speak at the school where I teach; see his tour schedule at ), I bought the book and am in chapter four at the moment. Wow! I’m more a fan than ever, and barely a skeptic. I’ve come to the conclusion (like Jim Como) that if Dr. Ward is wrong, it doesn’t even matter, because his reading is completely lovely, plausible, useful, scholarly, thorough, and everything else a critic’s reading can be. But it’s more, too. It seems that he is inside of C. S. Lewis’s head, thinking CSL’s thoughts after him (if that’s not sacrilegious!), quoting from all CSL’s works as glibly and facilely as if he wrote them (or more; CSL was notoriously forgetful of his own writings, though of nobody else’s), tying together disparate elements with ease and grace. His memory is prodigious, his scholarship impeccible, his writing clear and organized, his case lively and delightful. If Narnia needed any boost in popularity or any raising in the academic mind, here it is!

Hierarchy of sins?

A question arose in philosophy class last week that has two aspects, a theological and a philosophical; i.e., one aspect that more clearly relates to Biblical teaching, and one that could be considered as a pragmatic or socially moral question by secular thinkers. Here it is.

I’ll present the theological side of the question first.
Are there degrees of sin? Is one sin worse than another? In what ways? In what ways is lust equal to adultery, as Jesus says it is in Mathew five:
27"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' 28But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

In what ways is hate as bad as murder, as Jesus says, also in Matthew five:
22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

In what ways is murder worse than hatred? It seems clear to me that the Scripture teaches that any sin, no matter how small, alienates the sinner from God. This is the reason for the universal separation of human beings from their creator, because “All have sinned.” A very kind, compassionate, even self-sacrificial person cannot go to heaven on her own merit any more because she has certainly had moments of pride, hatred, anger, and so on in her own mind—even if she has never externally manifest these wicked feelings. Therefore, what difference does more sin make? Is it better to sin less? If any sin at all is enough to damn me, then what difference does it make if I sin more or less? And why is a “big” sin any worse than another, in God’s eyes?

I believe that a big sin is, from one point of view, no worse for the non-Christian to commit; that is, it does no more harm to his soul, because his soul is already dead and condemned. However, “where there is life there is hope,” and each action (from another, more Lewisian or Schaefferean, perspective) does led the doer one step closer to Heaven or Hell. Perhaps a given soul is condemned already; perhaps that soul is even [pre]destined not to be saved. However, I do not know, and that person does not know, the final result of his life. Therefore, whether he speaks kindly and gives up some little pleasure for another’s sake, or speaks harshly and grabs all for himself does push him one way or another.

I am not advocating a works doctrine. There are choices that led us closer to or further away from God. I do not know the eternal path laid invisibly under someone else’s feet; I do not (with incontrovertible certainty) know my own. All I know is the direction in which I am heading now, and the external evidence that suggests which way my friend is heading. If she consistently chooses self over others, nihilism over meaning, autonomy over Sovereignty, and skepticism over relationship, then the evidence is strong that she is not walking towards God. It is then in my interest to help to guard her against any sins that might push her further and faster along that path. Will a one-night stand damn her more than taking the Lord’s name in vain? No. But it is likely to create more complex entanglements with intimate sins and sinners, with passions and pride and amorality, with apathy and moral callousness. I would rather she not profane God’s name. But if she comes to me using the Lord’s name in vain and saying she’s going to sleep with so-and-so tonight, even though she cares little for him and will never see him again, just for a bit of fun and a last fling, which will provoke my comment and advice?

So perhaps there are no degrees of sin when it comes to the bottom line of damnation or salvation, but there certainly are sins that have more grievous social consequences, and perhaps sins that more completely seal the direction one’s soul is taking.

Now let’s consider the same question from a philosophical point of view:
Do numbers matter? Is it ethical to make a decision based upon the numbers of people affected? What difference does a number make? In other words, if a given decision will save five hundred people at the cost of five, is it therefore ethical? Is it moral to, say, drop a bomb that will kill 150,000 people (including civilians) in order to prevent the deaths of maybe twice as many members of the armed forces? Does the inclusion of civilians change the balance? Why? Is it better to try, as the Resistance group of which Bonhoeffer was a member did, to assassinate Hitler than to allow him to continue killing millions?

In other words, is a deed more evil if it affects more people?

In essence, this is at issue in discussions of public and private morality. Some say (one of you readers said to me!) that what politicians do in their private lives should not matter when election time comes. The sub-text is “as long as that evil act does not affect anyone else, it should not influence our decision.”

Digression: that’s not what you said to me; you said something along the lines of “everyone is evil in one way or another and has made many mistakes. If one politician’s mistakes are not in areas that will clearly influence his policy-making, then we should not let those areas change or determine our minds.” Am I right?

End of digression. OK. If it’s true that “as long as that evil act does not affect anyone else, it should not influence our decision,” then it must be true that an action that negatively affect two people (at least) is worse than an action that negatively affects only one. Applying some kind of mathematical test to persons. But I don’t really see how. I don’t see how the same action, hurting two people, is a worse action than that which hurts only one. It still hurts. Or that an action which hurts two people is better than the action which hurts two. Let’s say a leader of a country has an affair. Nobody finds out. So only two people are hurt: himself and his lover. I am assuming here that an evil action hurts those who do it even if nobody finds out simply because it does harm to their souls. It compromises their integrity as persons. It damages their own convictions and their identities as keepers of promises, as strong-willed rational beings who can control their passions, as honest and transparent communicators with no lies to hide. But if nobody finds out, is that better than if somebody does (his wife, say, or her husband, or the other governing bodies), or than if everybody does? If this deed goes public, everyone is hurt. Is that worse?

I don’t really see how. Perhaps it’s the inverse of love. Love does not decrease when it is distributed. So if I love my mother and my father, I don’t give each of them half of my love; I can give each of them the whole. And I can still give the whole to both of my sisters and to my husband, and so on. Love doesn’t work mathematically. So perhaps with the pain caused by sin. Perhaps the whole of the evil can hurt the soul of the doer, but then the whole of the evil can hurt his wife, his constituents, and so on. Back to the bomb illustration. If the government goes in and shoots down a tyrannical oppressor, there’s a certain quantity of pain caused and/or guilt incurred, simply because the deed was a murder. But if they do not shoot him down, and the next day he orders the genocide of 100,000 people, then isn’t that totally quantity of pain and guilt distributed 100,000 times?

Therefore causing suffering to one person is more to be desired than causing suffering to 100,000 people.

But better to cause suffering to none. Never do evil that good may result. Do the good deed, and leave the unforeseen future consequences to the Great Disposer of future events.

You Star Trek fans: you remember that in the second movie, Spock gave his life to save the ship (and maybe the whole world, I don’t remember). His last line was: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” Very heroic! But then in the next movie it turns out there’s a way to reunite is spirit to his body (convenient; and does that lessen his sacrifice, since he knew he could be resuscitated?), so Kirk et al go through great hazards, including the death of Kirk’s son, to resurrect Spock. When they have succeed, he asks why they did this for him. Kirk answers, “Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.”

OK, my examples are becoming cheesier and cheesier as this post goes on. I’m sure you’ve heard the starfish story: a guy is walking along a beach after a storm. Thousands of starfish have been washed up on the shore and are slowly baking in the sun. he’s tossing them back in, one by one. Somebody mocks him, saying, “There’s thousands of them! You’re never going to make a difference.” He tosses one back into the ocean, and says, “It made a difference to that one.”

How have great teachers of the past chosen to live? For numbers? For individuals? For making a difference one little change at a time? For rallying thousands to their cause to make huge change? Have they served the many, or the few? Does it really matter, in the end? Consider this question from both side, the theological and the philosophical. If you do more good deeds, are you therefore a better person than someone who does one huge good deed? Or are neither good in the eyes of God? If you save one person at the expense of many, have you sinned against the majority? Or served the one?

Looking forward to your thoughts!

14 January 2008

Faith and Film

Comment, a magazine published by the Work Research Foundation in Toronto (whose "mission is to influence people to a Christian view of work and public life"), has had a bunch of great articles on faith and film lately:

"Something beautiful in Hollywood" is about actor Eduardo Verástegui's calling as a "missionary to Hollywood," the film Bella in which he stars, and its production company Metanoia Films, which seeks not to be specifically Christian, but to speak to audiences the "truth that's already written on their heart, truth about the beauty of life, the dignity of the human person, issues of social justice, issues of family, so many things that just ring true to the human heart."

"In search of a good film: nine signposts" suggests ideas to help Christians decide what films to watch, and how we should engage them.

"2007's best films" is pretty self-explanatory. Best films from a faith and film perspective, though not necessarily Christian in content nor produced by Christians. And some might raise eyebrows at Focus on the Family.

11 January 2008

Literary Travel

I have just become acquainted with a kindred soul who runs Classical Pursuits. They take people on tours to places with literary/artistic significance, where you read and discuss works by the authors who lived in or wrote about that place. Check out some of their tantalizing trips. I'm very tempted by the Flannery O'Connor one in April.

03 January 2008

January Poem of the Month

Secondary Worlds

You said to me, “Why read a fantasy?
Can’t we learn enough from history?
Why should I care about some universe
That’s non-existent—well, except in verse—
When this poor world of mine is such a mess?
Talking animals are foolishness;
Goblins, witches, wizards, dwarves, and elves
Useless at best: at worst, they’re something else
Demonic or idolatrous. These gods
Of wood and water—what are they but frauds
In lovely forms? Go learn your catechism,
Leave Middle-Earth, or Narnia, or Bism
Inside their own mythologies. Come read
Some facts, and don’t tell me the poetry
Is fairer there, for I don’t really care.”

Oh, do you not? I thought I saw you stare
With fixéd wonder at a painted page:
A green hill, golden cup, and sword arranged
In an enchanted wood. I thought your gaze
Meandered idly to the printed page,
Then started open with a blissful shock
Of beauty. There, although the beasts could talk,
Although a dryad stepped from every tree,
Although the landscape was an allegory:
Still you read on. I wonder what you felt
When unicorns appeared and broke your heart
With whiteness and their poignancy of grace;
When the ocean’s secrets, doubled on its face,
Were your own secrets, mirrored in its depths;
When what the beasties had to say was truth,
And your heart leapt and grew to give it room.

- Admonit