Demythologizing Plato

Steve Fleming, who’s done a lot of work on neoplatonic influences on early Mormonism, had up an interesting post at the Juvenile Instructor. The context was a brief book review of Wouter Hanegraaff’s Esotericism and the Academy. I’ve not read the book, although I picked up the Kindle version after Steve’s recommendation. The most interesting bit was about how anything superstitious gets expunged from western thought. Steve then quotes from Stephen Webb’s book on Mormons.

“This story,” argues Webb, “has to deal with the fact that Plato himself was a lover of stories and many of the stories he told were about heavenly realities and mystical visions.” “The standard story of philosophy, however, treats [stories like] the charioteer as a myth that Plato used for rational, not religious, purposes. The standard story denies that Plato took any of the details of the myth literally (or even seriously).” “By treating Plato as a lover of stories that he did not believe,” Webb complains, “the standard story of philosophy is as hard to believe as any of the stories that Plato told.” Because the Neoplatonists were overtly religious, asserts Webb, “modern philosophers often show little interest in them, and the many thinkers who populate the Platonic tradition … are rarely taught in undergraduate courses.” That the Neoplatonists were seen to be involved with magic makes them even worse in contemporary philosophers minds, argues Webb, and leads such scholars to try to separate the Neoplatonists from Plato. “Plato is the West’s greatest thinker, and to associate him with someone like Iamblichus is to impugn his reputation,” is the attitude of contemporary philosophers

Coincidentally at the same time I read Steve’s post I was reading Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Hazony’s point is somewhat similar. He basically claims that the western philosophical tradition up through contemporary philosophy simply dismisses any philosophical relevance or influence of Hebrew scripture while treating the Greek thinkers like Plato quite differently. This is done despite Plato and others being just as disreputably religious. The intellectual influence of the Hebrews is thereby discounted while a distorted view of Greek thinkers becomes what’s most important. The demythologized form of these thinkers then forms a trajectory passing through Plato to the New Testament to Augustine and up through modern philosophy. In the philosophy academy even Jesus is seen not as influenced by Hebrew thought but as a development within the Roman Empire thereby tying it to this other intellectual tradition.

This trend is perhaps at its most blatant in moral philosophy – a field that one intuitively supposes must have been influenced in some significant way by the constant exposure of Western thought to the Hebrew Scriptures over more than twenty centuries. Yet this possibility is all but absent from the best overviews of the field of moral philosophy. (Hazony, 17)

While Hazony’s main target is a philosophy tradition that represses the place and genealogy of Hebrew thought in its own tradition, he also takes aim at their treatment of the Greeks. His example is Parmenides, although I’m sure Socrates would have served just as well.

Now, what would happen if we were to apply the same rules of interpretation commonly used in reading, say, the prophet Jeremiah, to Parmenides’ text about his ascent to heaven in a chariot driven by gods? To his being led by the hand by the goddess and receiving commands from her? To his writing down the words he heard from her mouth, and descriptions of the things she showed him, so mankind could attain truth?

Applying the standards that are often applied today in reading the Bible, we’d have to assume, first, that whenever Parmenides describes the goddess as speaking or acting or showing him things, or when he describes himself riding skyward in the chariot, or the actions of other gods he encounters, he is reporting on the occurrence of a series of miracles to which he was witness – miracles whereby knowledge was revealed to him not due to the operations of his own faculties, but due to the will of the gods who chose to reveal this otherwise hidden knowledge to him. Second, we’d assume that all this is no more than fantastic nonsense, and that Parmenides, in choosing to write these things down, must either have been weak-minded and gullible, or else an unscrupulous liar trying to manipulate his audience for the sake of ends now forgotten. And then, having understood that Parmenides is either a fool or a liar for making such false presentations to us, we’d naturally conclude that his writings aren’t works of reason, and that they don’t, therefore, have anything significant to contribute to our own effort to understand reality. We’d then dispose of Parmenides the way we’ve disposed of other ancient texts of unreason.

As it happens, I’m no great enthusiast of Parmenides. My personal assessment is that his attempt to derive metaphysics from something like mathematical logic was a wrong turn in the history of mankind’s quest for truth, and that we continue to suffer the consequences down to our own day. But I don’t see how it makes sense to dismiss a thinker of Parmenides’ stature from serious consideration for no reason other than that his ideas are presented in the form of revelation. As the history of philosophy amply attests, we can’t expect the great figures of faraway times and places to see the world as we do on every issue, and not even on every issue we see as crucial. And if the supposition that Parmenides really did experience his philosophy as the revelation of a goddess is just too much for us, it seems to me there are many possible ways of understanding the presence of the goddess in Parmenides’ text that don’t go quite so far, and yet do not end in a quick and arrogant dismissal of his work: Perhaps we think that in the case of the pre-Socratic philosophers, the invocation of divine revelation was merely a stylistic convention. Or perhaps we believe that the goddess is a metaphor, after all. Or perhaps we believe that in the old days people simply interpreted what we today call the “insight” of the human mind as the speech of a god. Or perhaps we believe that Parmenides was in fact a little crazy, but it doesn’t matter because he came up with some good stuff too. Or perhaps we believe that he inherited old traditions concerning the speech of the gods and developed them in such a way as to make the philosophical lines clearer, while retaining the old story line. Any of these would work to permit us at least a first approach to the content of Parmenides’ ideas if we find reading revelation difficult to swallow. And I’m sure there are many other ways of approaching his text that leave Parmenides’ strength of mind and character intact, and permit us to consider his philosophy with an open mind. (Hazony, 10-11)

There is this sense within a strong vein of the history of modern philosophy that philosophical figures should either be read in a manner that isn’t disreputable or else simply dismissed. Reading them charitably on their own terms and then merely disagreeing seems done only up to a certain point. This leads to a distorted view of philosophical history.

Now this is changing of course, and has been for several decades. But it’s surprising how long this type of approach persisted in philosophy.


8 thoughts on “Demythologizing Plato”

  1. Thanks, Clark. Interesting. Again, I took very few philosophy classes, but it was interesting to read Hanegraaff’s take. I’ve also heard it referred to as the attempt to remove the Neoplatonism from Plato that started with Leibnez but really took off in the 19th century. But yeah, it seem like it may have distorted more than it restored.

    1. I think it is important to note that typically within philosophy classes the emphasis is on trying to get into a different way of thinking and often on the arguments themselves. So a lot of that affects how Plato, Parmenides, Heraclitus and others are taught. They are either taught to focus on the arguments themselves or in terms of how basic ideas affect later important philosophers. (i.e. the static vs. flux conceptions of metaphysics of Heraclitus and Parmenides)

      So in some ways it’s unfair to criticize philosophy for doing philosophy rather than history of philosophy. The later is important and sometimes the line between the two is blurry, however fundamentally it’s philosophy that’s focused on. At least at the undergraduate level.

      I’ve never considered Leibniz as a kind of Platonist. He’s an idealist of a type, but I’m mainly seen analysis of the common features of Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza. In particular the latter two are much more similar than many think. But again I read them more for philosophy rather than the history of early modernism.

      Leibniz is often seen as a process philosopher and thus in the more Heraclitian camp than the Parmenides camp. Typically Plato is read more as having static timeless forms and thus more like Parmenides. The neoplatonists are interesting since in many ways they’re a syncretic mixture of Plato, the Stoics, and Aristotle although they considered themselves primarily Platonists. However often, perhaps due to the Stoic influence, they are seen more as process thinkers. That process vs. static divide can then be seen in different ways to read Plato himself.

      You clearly have studied the history of early modernism far more than I. So you likely know a strong case can be made that neoplatonism as a category at all may reflect much more divides among philosophers than the ancient figures themselves. (The term originates with Joseph Brucker in the mid 18th century to distinguish genuine Platonism from a “degenerate” form of Platonism) Over at JI you mentioned Taylor who considered himself a neoPlatonist. While I’ll confess I don’t know much about the whole Cambridge Platonist movement and its opposition if I recall this is all tied together. What made the Cambridge Platonists interesting (and undercuts some of what I said in the original post) is that they all were religious with theological background. So of course they were more able than others to embrace the religious element of neoplatonism. In fact some suggest that the Cambridge Platonists are much more neoPlatonists rather than Platonists. But that most certainly does get at that looking askew at the religious element in Plato by many philosophers – especially German ones. Although to be fair the reason for the term was contrasting the early and middle dialogs of Plato with the more systematic views of the neoPlatonists.

      I confess I really need to read more on these folks, especially as an influence on Orson Pratt. For instance while platonists they also were proponents of atomism as a theory of matter. I’ve tended to primarily look at Pratt either through the lens of the Scottish Realists or (due to obvious logical parallels) Leibniz or the Stoics.

  2. I never took any undergraduate philosophy classes (I took a mandatory one for my PhD) but your point about “doing” philosophy makes sense (something I don’t really know how to do personally). So yeah, my focus is historical.

    Actually I think it was Theophilus Gale who coined the term “New Platonics” in his The Court of the Gentiles (1672). “Latter Platonics” was another term that was used in the 17th century. But Brucker played a major role in attempt to delineate the true philosophy from false that Hanegraaff talks about. He talks quite a bit about him in the book I reviewed.

  3. Well there you go. You already are teaching me about the topic. (grin) Feel free to shoot down any of my erroneous conceptions.

  4. No reason to apologize. I was thanking you. I meant it. Shoot down anything I’m ignorant on. I love it when someone shows me I’m mistaken. Means I just learned something. I’m making assumptions about the history from what I know of the philosophy. But there are plenty of gaps not to mention some of this stuff I haven’t looked closely at since the 90’s!

    I’m rereading the Timaeus and there are definitely things that go beyond the typical pantheon. Even the description of the World Soul has some parallels to the descriptions for Fac #2. The way he translates Genesis 1-2 does as well although that also parallels Philo and for that matter the LXX.

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