PLATO, CHRISTIANITY AND WORLD POLITICS
John S Moore
The impact of Socrates' execution on the ancient world was revolutionary. 399 BC is one of the most famous dates in history, a turning point in classical culture. Following that, the meaning of Greek civilisation may be held to have changed. Rather than the mythological framework elaborated by Homer and Aeschylus, it was now the educational project initiated by this man. The dramatic story of his death was peculiarly suited to the idea of a new beginning. With this we confront the tyranny and cruelty of the old order. For a while, even Homer was almost overtaken in esteem by Socrates' friend and admirer Euripides.1
Under the Macedonian and Roman empires, the
Socratic ideal as interpreted by Plato and Aristotle was to spread through much
of the civilised world. It became part of the imperial mission. The disruption
of Empire meant far reaching change. With the extinction of the gods of old
It is usual to think of the Jews as the most significant of a number of subjugated nations opposed to Hellenisation. Hegel, for example, saw the historical destiny of the Jews as that of repairing an unhappiness that the secularising empire had introduced.
'The unhappiness of the Roman world lay in its abstraction from that in which man had hitherto found his satisfaction, this satisfaction arose out of that pantheism in which man found his highest truth in natural things, such as fire and water, and further in his duties, in the political life of the state… The unity of man with the world is thus for this end broken, that it may be restored in a higher unity, that the world as an intelligible world may be received into God.' (History of Philosophy vol. 2 p386)
In his Short History of the World, H G Wells remarked on how the decline of the Phoenicians was curiously followed by the first appearance on the world stage of the Jews, clearly implying large scale conversion to an essentially invented historical identity. 'After the fall of Tyre, Sidon, Carthage, and the Spanish Phoenician cities, the Phoenicians suddenly vanish from history; and as suddenly we find, not simply in Jerusalem but in Spain, Africa, Egypt, Arabia, the East, wherever the Phoenicians had set their feet, communities of Jews. And they were all held together by the Bible and the reading of the Bible'. Wells' low estimation of the Judaic contribution to civilisation has fuelled accusations of anti-semitism. Anti-semitism takes various forms. Sometimes it appears as defence of Greek civilisation against its supposed enemies. The Jewish ideal as revealed, for example in Enoch, Maccabees, or the Revelation of St John, comes across as a revolutionary anti-Greek impulse, suggesting an ancient equivalent of Marxism. Seeing the basic Jewish principle as anti-Socratic, some admirers of Socrates respond with hostility towards the Jews. The conflict goes deep to the heart of all subsequent western culture. The Jewish reason for staying out of the Socratic culture is the very powerful idea of the one God, Yahweh, Who insists upon dogma, obedience and faith. The historical impact of Christianity meant that this God principle continues to have effect in modern culture. Its irruption into the ancient world appears as the invasion of something anti classical, badly in need of explanation, alien both to Socrates and to the older world of the Greeks. It is a problem to assess its significance, to make sense of it in terms of traditional Greek wisdom. The God of the Jews and Christians represents to many a hateful and irrational demand with little to be said in its favour.
For some such critics, Christianity comes
across as a Jewish plot to subvert that ancient pagan culture for which a lot
of people still feel the strongest affinity. Behind this is sometimes a
suggestion of a Persian plot. It can seem that the priest ridden society of the
In The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, p 463, he gives this quote from Eduard Meyer:- 'Judaism originated in the name of the Persian King and by the authority of his Empire, and thus the effects of empire of the Acheminides extend with great power, as almost nothing else, directly into our own present age'
The philosopher Philo Judaeus
viewed the Jewish heritage quite differently. For him the Greek and Jewish
traditions could fuse, to the advantage of both. On the level of material
culture this is what had happened in
The crucifixion is a motive that is curiously prefigured. The execution of Jesus repeats that of Socrates. This is a parallel that has often been noticed; though the piety of most commentators usually inhibited them from taking the parallel very far. Even in Plato’s Republic there is a remarkable passage concerning the idea of a just man. 'The just man then, as we have pictured him, will be scourged, tortured, and imprisoned, his eyes will be put out, and after enduring every humiliation he will be crucified…' This is Glaucon speaking to Socrates. Apart from the blinding, this could be a description of the Jesus who was to exert such a hold upon mankind.
Christianity itself appeared at the time of the Jewish revolt against Roman domination, where its origins may be sought, a thought which is central to Enoch Powell`s deep and ingenious, if perverse, reading of Matthew’s gospel. Christianity appears to have been part of a project for the Judaising of the Empire. Central to the new revelation was the crucifixion. Jesus was a sage on the model of Socrates, but suited to the understanding of the uneducated masses. Initially its appeal to such elements was an obvious objection. Theologians like Origen soon deepened it, taking on board and answering the objections of pagan intellectuals like Celsus. Early Christianity was rooted in the emotional impact of the crucifixion. The image of the crucified Jesus projects a different idea from that of a sage like Buddha, though on an iconographic level both owed much to Greek representations of Apollo.
Considering Christianity insofar as it was an
expression of Plato’s vision, it is arguably to Plato, rather than the
Jews, to whom we can look for its notorious intolerance. Plato’s peculiar
repressiveness was a trait of his philosophy that persisted among many of his
followers. One remarkable illustration of this was the seminal Platonist
philosopher Gemistus Pletho,
who after the fall of
Plato’s tyranny, at its most notorious in Laws, has long been found a problem, and various ingenious solutions have been proposed.
Lampert’s article Nietzsche the History of Philosophy and Esotericism (Journal of Nietzsche Studies 1995) attributes Plato’s seemingly intolerant dogmatism to a concern for the safety and well being of his friends. For this philanthropic motive he promoted ideas in which he did not believe as a veil of esotericism, behind which 'dangerous' thought might be concealed:-
'When we read Plato in a way that is attentive to his irony, he can be seen to be sheltering the rational within the irrational, to be defending philosophy by inculcating beliefs that were false but congenial to the preservation of philosophy'. 2
Following the theme through history, Lampert explores the idea of Descartes as an esoteric thinker, suggesting that Descartes real intention was a kind of scientific materialism and that the God stuff was a blind. By the later nineteenth century Nietzsche felt the time had come to reveal the mysteries, because the threat had now changed. Lampert doesn’t like the ‘occult’ aspects of esotericism. Conscious of the defensive, and underplaying the enjoyable, aspects of the esoteric project, it seems he might shut himself off from much of the thrill even in the materialism he uncovers, immune to La Mettrie's rococo voluptuousness.
Terry Penner has argued (in a paper Socrates and the Early Dialogues, in The Cambridge Companion to Plato) that Plato was in youth under the domination of Socrates' personality, and that with increasing age he shook that off, reverting to a temperamental pessimism. 3
Such interpretations treat Plato as plainly inconsistent, whether between what he writes and what he means, or between his former and his later self. By taking a different approach, and thinking in positive terms of Plato’s will to power, it is possible to discern a continuity of impulse from Socrates onwards. Diogenes, another of Socrates' heirs, was the son of a man who had been imprisoned for defacing the coinage. He said he wanted to do the same in a higher, more comprehensive sense. In his view this was a legitimate continuation of Socrates' power urge. Plato might also be seen as a destructive figure. He wanted to overthrow the old and impose his own will upon the future. Gilbert Ryle suggests that the corruption of youth was not something with which the historical Socrates was ever himself charged, that Plato was making the dramatic figure of Socrates face the accusation to which he had himself been subjected.
Instead of thinking of Christian history as a product of the Jewish conspiracy, we might prefer to see it as the working out of a Greek problem. We can relate it to Plato’s own power urge. Viewing the whole of our culture as an intellectual problem, the intolerance of Christianity is Platonic in origin. This is to think of Plato's will as extending forward, right into the high Middle Ages. We may try to take the strange idea seriously, that he actually willed what was to happen, and would have accepted it because of his passion to impose his personality upon mankind. The religious ideas of the Phaedo found fulfilment in systematic orthodoxy. Hildebrand was his legitimate heir.
Some argue that Plato's tyranny, his cruelty and lust for dominance are forgivable because he was writing so early in the history of rationalism. Nietzsche expressed it thus:-
'What took place with the ancient Greeks (that each great thinker, believing he possessed absolute truth, became a tyrant, so that Greek intellectual history has had the violent, rash and dangerous character evident in its political history) was not exhausted with them. Many similar things have come to pass right up to the most recent times, although gradually less often and hardly any longer with the Greek philosophers pure, naÔve conscience. For the opposite doctrine and scepticism have, on the whole, too powerful and loud a voice. The period of the spiritual tyrant is over. …' (Human all Too Human I ß261) 4
Nietzsche himself is often taken at his word as speaking for the day after tomorrow. Yet as on so many matters he apparently contradicts himself, talking elsewhere of the futility of trying to address the future. For Nietzsche, what he called tyranny was unhealthy. He spoke up for a kind of free competition among ideas, in a framework of intellectual honesty. He was for a frank avowal of motives, competition, war of all against all. Health he conceived in terms of an open and generous character, involving respect for the opponent and a chivalrous observance of the rules of combat, meaning respect for the light of truth. He feels he can win by those rules. Where the ancient Greek desired to tyrannise, Nietzsche wants his own ideas to shine out as discoveries. As such they contrast with the arbitrary dogmatism that distorts reality. To defeat this is to restore a sort of freedom. But it is to achieve one’s own power as a liberator, a William the Silent rather than a Borgia.
I would like to float the hypothesis that Plato was in a fairly direct sense responsible for the culture of the high middle ages, as practised in its perfection in France, the distinctively Christian culture of gothic cathedrals and scholasticism; to consider the Catholic idea that Western Europe fulfilled antiquity more faithfully than did the more explicitly Platonic culture of the Orthodox East; that far from being anticlassical, or the result of an alien graft or Semitic intellectual conquest, the Christian middle ages was the realisation of a classical project, one that began with Socrates as interpreted by Plato.
Socrates was as charismatic as Rasputin, both represented ways of breaking out of the circles promoted by superficial philosophies of life. Both embodied desire for power, the impulse to interrupt the masquerade, against the ideas and values put out by the established power. Socratic power is of a higher order than kingly power, his asceticism suggests that of the Brahmins rather than a Christian saint. This does not mean simply that Socrates was in a position to make a greater stir in the world than a mere king, to move more things. He has more impact on the complex of values within which life has value. He creates a culture to replace what offends him.
It is important not to read back into the Greek idea of science the assumptions that prevail in the modern world. Plato was perhaps just not interested in the sort of psychological understanding that preoccupies moderns. That kind of enlightenment was not part of his programme. One reason for this may have been the institution of slavery. Oppression, denial of rights, may have appeared simply the law of life. Plato’s theory of knowledge does not aspire to be universally persuasive. Even though he probably did more than anyone else to create the demand for the universalisable, he does not appeal to it. In this respect he is still half-oriental. He moved in a world of prophets and revelations. Reading Plato is to see how knowledge and the concept of knowledge had to advance beyond him. For a later humanity, a doctrine has to be universally persuasive. The pleasure of tyranny being no longer possible, one comes to seek true knowledge rather than desiring to impose an opinion upon others for one’s own egotistical satisfaction. Something which was not fully developed in Plato and what he helped to develop, was the idea of a community of truth seekers.
Platonic influence upon Judaism may run
deeper than has usually been thought. Recent scholars have disputed the idea
that the ancient Jewish tradition ever belonged to a different cultural world
from Hellenism. The Bible in History, by Thomas L
Thompson brings to a wider public the 'changes in our approach to the Bible and its relationship to archaeology that have come about over the past twenty-five years'. On page 15 he writes:-
'We can say now with considerable confidence
that the Bible is not a history of anyone's past. The story of the chosen and
The biblical concept of Yahweh is essentially to be thought of as post Platonic. The Bible itself is a product of Hellenism, even the Pentateuch is only 3rd century BC. It made use of old sources, king lists, folk tales etc., while completely transforming their meaning.
From page 34:- 'It may perhaps appear strange
that so much of the Bible deals with the origins of a people that never existed
as such. This metaphorical nation's land and language: this imagined people's
history, moreover, is an origin tradition that belongs to the new "
He suggests a view on Yahweh as symbol of the
nature of political power and sovereignty. The sovereign power does what he
likes, and may be arbitrary and capricious. If one accepts his sovereignty one
goes along with his childish whims. We may look at the God of the Jews as an
explication of sovereignty in the age of world empires. On this interpretation,
the concept of Yahweh was a comprehensible response to the political and
cultural reality of the Alexandrian era and the
Plato famously warned of the evil of
democracy. Turning to the modern world, we see what significance such warnings
may have for ourselves. We live in the era of American democratic power, which
can often seem like a monstrous overgrown child, much like Yahweh Himself. Many today talk as if democracy is only a good thing, and we can
hardly have too much of it. From Plato to De Tocqueville, its
evils have been well aired, and for those outside
Thompson gives an absorbing account of the
origins of Biblical literature. For all the advantages empire brings, it is
often culturally destructive, except insofar as it sets out to preserve and
absorb traditions. Imperial policy from the Assyrians onwards, involved
massive, forced shifts of population. Imperialism produced more universal types
of religion. The Bible was produced by resettled populations trying to make
sense of their own predicament. A part was played by the libraries first built
by the Assyrians, with their collections of traditions. The split between
Thompson, while he may at first sight appear
to deconstruct Jewish claims and so give credence to anti-semitism,
actually goes some way beyond that. He also 'deconstructs' the Greek tradition,
making it just a part of the oriental. He says the Macedonians inherited the
We have long been taught to think of the Book
of Isaiah, not only as profound, but also as very old, as evolving, and
such literature as an expression of great religious genius, worthy to rank with
the Greek tradition. Biblical critics have told us of a Deutero-,
and even a Trito-, Isaiah. Thompson rejects this,
writing of what he calls his Lego block idea of the construction of the Bible.
From this it follows that traditional ways of reading scripture, cross
referencing etc, are far more appropriate, than the modern way of trying to
trace historical layers. Much of what he says is fascinating and plausible. But
one wants to go further. The more repellent Yahweh tales, like Abraham and
Isaac, he wants to say are just stories. The crucial relationship between man
and God is that of patronage. But following his own lead we might say that,
insofar as the spiritual experience had any real significance and meaning apart
from hostility to
Apparently he finds contemporary value in this idea of God. We naturally wonder what this might be. Presumably he has in mind some application of obedience. What patronage does he wish to accept, what is there in the zeitgeist he might treat in that way? Looking for his current allegiance, it appears to be to some kind of deconstruction. Thompson is clearly influenced by this movement in the way he reads the Bible. He finds irony and humour where one might not normally notice it. He perpetrates his own anachronisms. For example, he looks for feminism, seemingly as if such concerns are somehow right and universal. Deconstruction, post-modern irony, etc. may seem arid and feeble even compared with the existentialism that preceded it, and offered fertile themes for fiction and drama. What it does possess, however, is a kind of authority and a possible intellectual life.
Even if these are misunderstandings, they are a fertile and intriguing demonstration of a possible application of the Biblical God to modern conditions. There is sense to be made of the Yahweh idea in terms of coming to terms with some arbitrary or inevitable authority. Sometimes however, such authority is not really inescapable, it only pretends to be so. Something that only pretends to be inescapable is a fashionable idea like deconstruction. On the other hand there is something inescapable in the reality of American power, with all its deference to the spirit of an unintelligent demos. The stupidity of crude power is an unavoidable feature of modern democracy. The Biblical idea of God may offer a profound exploration of this. What Thompson does not confront is the real hatred the tradition inspired, Yahweh, considered not as a summation of wisdom, but as a disgusting tyrant. He hints at something like a Hegelian urge for an ultimate synthesis, minimising conflict.
In Plato the rejection of democracy was a powerful theme. We easily trace Platonic elements that went into the origins of Christianity, creating a new tradition. Having identified Yahweh as personification of the democratic sovereign power, the next stage would be to consider how to combat what is most odious in it. Plato's antidemocratic solution, could fuse with this exploration of democratic, or anti aristocratic sovereignty. Accepting this sovereignty, we give it a philosophical interpretation that restores the authority of philosophy. Nevertheless a repressive quality persists.
Gnosticism was one ancient opposition movement, an early way of combating the oppression in the idea on its own level. Rather than a simple demand for a return to paganism, it recognised the God of religion as a force to be reckoned with and eventually overcome. It expressed its objective through various myths, one of the most important of which was that of the false God Ialdabaoth, the evil demiurge who conceals the existence of the Truth. Though for a long time it seems to have failed, the Gnostic impulse was revived at the renaissance with the magus ideal. As Protestantism reformed the Church, Gnostics reform God. The aspiration is for a form of understanding for the few, purged of the tyrannous and hateful features of the old God. This is not directly a political, rather a cultural, educational and aesthetic project.
In the attempt to bring some of these
separate threads together and apply them to the modern world, there is a
message for our times. Looking at American world power and its significance, we
consider what might be done to remedy or combat its negative features while recognising
it has virtues as well as evils. We may see
In a number of respects the concerns of Gnosticism prefigured those of modern thinkers like Nietzsche and Blake. Nobodaddy and Ialdabaoth can be thought of as one and the same. William Blake produced a prototype for Nietzsche’s philosophy. Opposition to Nobodaddy is identical with the war against Ialdabaoth, and suggests Nietzsche's critical assault on modern ideas. Guided by such myths one looks to discriminate the life giving from the oppressive quality in any cultural value. For example, in ideals of materialism and scientific progress we may learn to value the exhilaration they offer to the individual, even while rejecting the idea of unlimited human betterment as a futile fantasy.
Even those with a good understanding of
Gnosticism often take the other side. The historian of Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem counts Blake a
secular mystic who seeks his authority in himself. Like Jonas, the historian of
Gnosticism, he prefers orthodoxy. Jonas praises
All these understandings and creative
misunderstandings, come together suggestively in a fruitful application to the
modern world. If in one sense Yahweh is an inescapable reality, even a
necessary authority, in another aspect he is something hateful that needs to be
overcome. Socrates' will to power, Plato's tyranny, his objection to democracy
and its modern relevance, his alliance with the tyrant Yahweh and his apparent
flaws, the relations between Christian doctrine, American power, Gnostic myths,
and the power of the modern state, suggest possible lines of enquiry at which I
have tried to hint. We may see the God of the Jews as the expression of
concerns that arose in a post Socratic world. Preoccupied with the evils of
democracy, Plato, like the authors of the Bible, wanted to establish some form
of new order. The motives coalesced into a form of tyrannous assertion with which
a lot of people identified, and which was to have a long history, but which
contained the seeds of the eventual reaction. Gnosticism and Protestantism were
different forms this took. Their usefulness as myths may be far from exhausted.
To adapt a homely proverb, one would like to be able to throw out the bathwater
without doing the same to the baby.
Hans Jonas - The Gnostic Religion -
Richard Kraut (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Plato -
'The Bible in History, How Writers Create a Past', by Thomas L Thompson,
, Jonathan Cape , 1999 London
J Enoch Powell- The Evolution of the Gospel- Yale
and London 1994 New Haven
H S Chamberlain - The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century 1899
F L Lucas - Euripides -
, London , Sydney., 1923 Calcutta
Josephus- The Jewish War
Gilbert Ryle- Plato's Progress -
HG Wells - A Short History of the World 1922
Nietzsche- Human all too Human - trans. Faber & Lehman -
1984 Universityof Nebraska
Gershom Scholem - On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism -
1965 New York
1. 'In general his tendency after his death to supersede even Homer in the Greek world has been compared by Eduard Meyer with Goethe's displacement of the Bible in nineteenth century
2. .Following Nietzsche, he
3. 'Consider Plato's Seventh Letter, dating from late in his life, the sheer power, and brooding, pessimistic tone of which almost by itself recommends the letter as genuine, as written by the same Plato we have got to know in the Republic and the Laws. We ask: How could a man like this have produced the sunny, mischievous intellectual adventures in the early, Socratic dialogues? Only one answer readily suggests itself: that there lies behind the character Socrates in those early dialogues an extraordinary personality, whose sheer intellect and character virtually swamped the character of the young Plato, literary and philosophical genius though he was. Not till he was around forty was Plato's own almost entirely opposite personality, with some intellectual help from the Pythagorean mathematician philosophers, able to begin asserting itself in his writings.' P 130.
4. He continues:- 'In the domain of higher culture there will of course always have to be an authority, but from now on this authority lies in the hands of the oligarchs of the spirit. Despite all spatial and political separation, they form a coherent society, whose members recognise and acknowledge one another whatever favourable or unfavourable estimations may circulate due to unfavourable public opinion and the judgements of the newspaper and magazine writers. The spiritual superiority which formerly caused division and enmity now tends to bind: How could individuals assert themselves and swim through life along their own way, against all currents, if they did not see their like living here and there under the same circumstances and grasp their hands in the struggle as much against the ochlocratic nature of superficial minds and superficial culture as against the occasional attempts to set up a tyranny with help of mass manipulation?'
5. From p 380:- 'There is no particularly
Greek way of thinking, any more than there was a Hebrew or Semitic. There never
was a pre-logical way of thinking to contrast
with Greek Philosophy. Aristotle formulated and systematized what had
been understood for centuries. Formal philosophical texts appear already with
some of our earliest texts from
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