Saturday, July 25, 2009

Plato vs Aristotle

Some of us believe in forms- others, in particulars

As I continue reading up on the Gnostic issues posted last week, I encountered an very fine book. Richard Smoley's "Forbidden Faith" describes how, of the many, many heresies the Catholic church has stamped out over the years, the Gnostic heresy was and remains the "arch-heresy" (or thought-crime, in modern parlance). This is because it attacks the church at its empty heart- the substitution of ritual, dogma, and authority for direct, personal, idiosyncratic experience, which wells up perennially in new movements, drawing again and again on the same fount of personal "gnosis" of divine (if disorganized) experience.

More to the point I am interested in here, Smoley also touches on Greek philosophy's influence on the Gnostics. While Aristotle tended to work from the particular to the general, (perhaps too enthusiastically!), Plato was a partisan of ideals, whether in physics, theology, or ethics. Plato was a strong influence on Christianity, and on the Gnostics in particular, and Smoley reviews the Platonic influence briefly:

"Plato explains reality in a way that could be described as *esoteric. This word does not refer to the difficulty or obscurity of his though. Originally it meant that many of his teachings were given only to relatively advanced pupils, people who were 'further in' the circle (the word comes from the Greek *esotero, which means 'further in'). But it points to another meaning as well: it indicates that these teachings are essentially about inner experience. Unlike modern thought, which views the invisible and internal dimensions of life and thought as purely subjective (and hence unreal), esotericism says these inner dimensions have a genuine reality and can be known and intelligently described. Plato even went so far as to flip conventional wisdom on its head and say that the world we see is itself unreal. The solid objects of ordinary reality are merely copies of imitations of ideal entities that he called 'forms' - abstract images that exist in the realm of thought. The forms alone are real, Plato said, because they are eternal and unchanging, unlike the ceaselessly shifting world here below."

To which I scoffed: "Spoken like a true philosopher!" Whereupon my wife retorted: "But he's right!"

And there we have it- one of the most basic divides in human nature- whether we take ideas and inner experiences as realer than real, or whether we deprecate them as fantasy- subject, at best, to empirical verification. It is a difference that tests the very capability of language to describe. It is a deep temperamental difference. It is a difference at the heart of theist vs atheist debates, with one virtually incapable of understanding the other because each experiences a different reality. It also touches on the Gnostic vs Orthodox divide, because while Orthodox dogma is based to some extent on the visions and inner experience of an originating prophet/messiah and sundry saints, ultimate authority rests elsewhere- in the body of the church and its very this-world hierarchy.

Who is right? What could be a trickier question? As I've noted elsewhere, our inner experience can be construed as the whole world and the origin of the universe, all being conjured on our behalf by the magic of consciousness. And not only that, but any progress we make or change we author, whether outside or inside, has its origins within, in inspiration and motivation- in the mysterious workings of creativity. It is the artists, mathematicians, theorists, and leaders who regard reality as less than interesting- as mundane.

Earth-bound as I am, however, I would offer another perspective- that of population genetics and evolution. Inner vs outer-oriented temperament seems to be one of those fascinating traits subject to balancing selection. Which is to say that there is no one optimal temperament for being human, but only an optimal society made up of many different types of people having many different temperaments, each selected for in small proportion. After a week of Apollo 11 reminiscence, we are reminded of the merging of many talents, from the visionary to the detail-oriented, that made such an adventure possible. And also the various strands in ourselves as onlookers that make us appreciate it, from the mystical to the scientific.

Incidental links..
  • I take back the aspersions I cast on the historicity of Jesus last week. Historians seem to give it general credence, so I will grant it high probability.
  • Krugman gets it on medical reform
  • Blue dogs hear unusual high-pitched sounds...
  • Plumbing the economic crisis.
  • Fie on blasphemy!


  1. This is an exciting line of thought from you. At the risk of being too bold, I feel you are on a similar journey to mine, though from (slightly) different starting points. Perhaps it's the journey we are all on. Balancing what our senses tell us is true with the meaning that our efforts require. Recognizing that "truth" is what I decide it is in the end, despite the fact that I can't decide certain inputs into the equation. Philosophy, to me, is this attempt at harmonization.

    As a younger man, and an artist of a sort, I tended to be prejudiced against my ideas of the physical world, the crude matter around us. I preferred the artist world of creativity and ideas. Then, of course, I realized that the outer world is also "just in my head". Hence my search for harmonization - utilizing faith but fighting the abuse of faith, Pursuing reductionism (perhaps a bit too far)to the point where we see that an idea is a physical electrical charge not ulitimately unlike the keyboard I am touching, Feeling inspiration, at the same time, from pursuing knowledge and from intuitively feeling our assured limitations of perspective, as players in the universe we try to describe.

    The gap is a beautiful thing. But the more we refine it, the more beautiful it becomes.

    I hope I'm not too off topic. I am quite sympathetic to the gnostics and their approach which I think hit on many great truths. Of course, the orthodox had organization on their side. The unfortunate need for hierarchy gave the orthodox meme greater fitness I suppose.

    John Dominic Crossan is less attracted to gnostics because of their dim view of physical reality. I sympathize, but I like their focus on individual experience.

    Fascinating stuff.

  2. I give you props for admitting, contrary no doubt to what you probably have heard from such (lame) sources as, that Jesus existed in real space-time history.

  3. Please check out these references which provide a unique perspective on the themes of your blog altogether.

    This reference contains a unique appreciation of the Symposium. It also contains a critique of the anti-ecstatic hair-shirt reductionism that we have inherited from Aristotle.

    This reference provides a critique of the ideology of scientism which now rules the world.
    It also has essays on God and religion.

    An essay titled Reality Is Not In The Middle via this url

    A unique understanding of the biosphere altogether via.

    Plus an introduction to the authors remarkable Image Art