Plato and Christianity

Index to this series

This post uses work of Hannah Arendt, Augustine, R. G. Collingwood, Tom Holland, Somerset Maugham, and Ved Mehta.

Elevated highway, way above city streets
Ortaköy, December 27, 2021

In the first post of this series, I gave some reasons to read the Republic, and one of them was the problem of how our political leaders were not always the best. Plato had not solved that problem, since we still had it; but that meant nobody else had solved it either. Plato had at least taught us that people with great worldly power could nonetheless be more miserable than their subjects. In the Republic, Plato has Socrates teach that lesson

  • to Thrasymachus, in the latter part of Book I;
  • to Glaucon, who concludes at the end of Book IV that if having an unhealthy body is bad, having a vicious soul is worse;
  • in Book IX, with the account of the tyrant;
  • with the Myth of Er in Book X.

I quoted Hannah Arendt’s summary statement of the Socratic principle: “It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.” If people recognize this principle, they may trace it to Christianity rather than Plato. Tom Holland did, in a brief essay of 2016, “Why I was wrong about Christianity.” I looked at this in “Doing and Suffering.”

As a child, Holland had known there was something wrong with his religion,

when, at Sunday school one day, I opened a children’s Bible and found an illustration on its first page of Adam and Eve with a brachiosaur.

Holland learned to admire classical antiquity, but in the way that Thrasymachus in the Republic and Polus in the Gorgias admire tyrants:

Sparta and Rome, even when subjected to the minutest historical inquiry, did not cease to seem possessed of the qualities of an apex predator. They continued to stalk my imaginings as they had always done – like a tyrannosaur.

Then Holland recognized that being an apex predator was not the greatest thing:

The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more.

With the example of the antisemitism of an Anglican monk, I gave a bit of corroboration for Holland’s quotation of Voltaire:

Every sensible man, every honourable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.

And yet according to Holland,

Voltaire, in his concern for the weak and oppressed, was marked more enduringly by the stamp of biblical ethics than he cared to admit.

I pause to ask whether Socrates has concern for the weak and oppressed. A prior question would be, who are those persons? After Judas complained of the waste, when Mary anointed Jesus with spikenard, the last is supposed to have said (in John 12:8, and similarly in Matthew 26:11 and Mark 14:7),

For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.

Different economies produce different kinds of poverty. The burden of the Republic (as I see it of course) is to dissuade those who are inclined to oppress their fellows; and yet Socrates’s method is not to arouse pity, and he condemns tragedy for doing just that.

Tom Holland went on to publish a book called Dominion in 2019. The British subtitle is The Making of the Western Mind. The American one may be more descriptive: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.

In the book, Holland mentions the influence of Plato on Christianity. The influence has come to us through Augustine, but it concerns immortality, not justice:

‘When death comes to a man, the mortal part of him perishes, or so it would seem. The part which is immortal, though, retires at death’s approach, and escapes unharmed and indestructible.’ [Phaedo 106e] So had written Plato, a contemporary of Aristophanes and the teacher of Aristotle. No other philosopher, in the formative years of the Western Church, had exerted a profounder influence over its greatest thinkers. Augustine, who in his youth had classed himself as a Platonist, had still, long after his conversion to Christianity, hailed his former master as the pagan ‘who comes nearest to us’. [City of God 8.5] That the soul was immortal; that it was incorporeal; that it was immaterial: all these were propositions that Augustine had derived not from scripture, but from Athens’ greatest philosopher. Plato’s influence on the Western Church had, in the long run, proven decisive.

That passage contains every mention of Plato in Holland’s text, according to a search of the epub file that I located through Library Genesis; and the search is corroborated by the index of the book. There is also a footnote, according to which the word philosophy originated with Plato, although tradition attributes it to Pythagoras; another footnote sources to Plato’s Ion the description of Homer as “Best and most godlike of all poets.” That’s it for Plato in Dominion, of which

The ambition … is to trace … how the belief that the Son of the one God of the Jews had been tortured to death on a cross came to be so enduringly and widely held that today most of us in the West are dulled to just how scandalous it originally was.

In “Doing and Suffering,” I mentioned the doctrine that God had used the Jews to prepare the way for Jesus Christ. I ask now whether Plato also prepared the way, by writing of his teacher, who also gave himself up to the mob to be put to death.

Hannah Arendt seems to think so. I have already alluded to “Truth and Politics,” which appeared in The New Yorker, February 25, 1967, pages 49–88, with plenty of ads, the pages with text having the following numbers of columns, for a total of 34:

page columns
49 3
50 3
51 3
52 3
54 2
56 1
59 1
60 1
62 2
67 1
68 2
70 1
73 1
74 2
76 1
78 2
83 1
84 2
86 1
88 1

In “Truth and Politics,” Arendt says of “the Socratic proposition ‘It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong’” (p. 59),

this sentence has become the beginning of Western ethical thought, and … as far as I know, it has remained the only ethical proposition that can be derived directly from the specifically philosophical experience. (Kant’s categorical imperative, the only competitor in the field, could be stripped of its Judaeo-Christian ingredients, which account for its formulation as an imperative instead of a simple proposition. Its underlying principle is the axiom of non-contradiction – the thief contradicts himself because he wants to keep the stolen goods as his property – and this axiom owes its validity to the conditions of thought that Socrates was the first to discover.)

Socrates makes an argument about thieves to Thrasymachus, after making him blush (351c):

do you believe that either a city, or an army, or pirates, or robbers, or any other tribe which has some common unjust enterprise would be able to accomplish anything, if its members acted unjustly to one another?

This is in latter part of Book I, and in my original account, I quoted Collingwood’s related argument,

evil is at variance not only with good but with other evils. If two thieves quarrel over their plunder, a wrong is done whichever gets it, but no one Devil can will both these wrongs. The idea of a Devil as a person who wills all actual and possible evil, then, contradicts itself.

Socrates uses the Law of Contradiction in Book IV to infer the division of the soul into three parts; then he seems to violate the Law in the latter part of Book V. Anyway, I have now created a category for all of my own posts that talk about the Law.

A quotation of Tom Holland above included his citation of Book 8, Chapter 5, of Augustine’s City of God. In Chapter 4 of the book, Augustine is clear about the difficulty of interpreting Plato:

as Plato liked and constantly affected the well-known method of his master Socrates, namely, that of dissimulating his knowledge or his opinions, it is not easy to discover clearly what he himself thought on various matters, any more than it is to discover what were the real opinions of Socrates.

According to Chapter 5,

the Platonic philosophers … have recognized the true God as the author of all things, the source of the light of truth, and the bountiful bestower of all blessedness … to these great acknowledgers of so great a God, those philosophers must yield who, having their mind enslaved to their body, supposed the principles of all things to be material; as Thales, who held that the first principle of all things was water … Let all those philosophers, then, give place, as we have said, to the Platonists, and those also who have been ashamed to say that God is a body, but yet have thought that our souls are of the same nature as God.

Chapter 8 would seem to express the Socratic principle:

Plato determined the final good to be to live according to virtue, and affirmed that he only can attain to virtue who knows and imitates God … Therefore he did not doubt that to philosophize is to love God … Whence it certainly follows that the student of wisdom, that is, the philosopher, will then become blessed when he shall have begun to enjoy God. For though he is not necessarily blessed who enjoys that which he loves (for many are miserable by loving that which ought not to be loved, and still more miserable when they enjoy it), nevertheless no one is blessed who does not enjoy that which he loves.

In “Judaism for Pascal,” I looked at some of the (weak) evidence for Pascal’s idea that Roman law derived from Jewish. That evidence did not involve Augustine, although he considers the possibility that Plato knew something of Hebrew scripture: this is in Chapter 11 of Book 8 of The City of God.

I wonder then to what extent Christianity is a development of the work of Plato.

Hilltop covered with buildings, lit by afternoon sun, red Turkish flag flying above Ortaköy, December 19, 2021

I can trace my own awareness of this question to young adulthood – to college days in particular, when I first read The Razor’s Edge (which I used fo an example in the previous post). The following dialogue is from Chapter 6, which Maugham begins with a disclaimer:

I feel it right to warn the reader that he can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of such story as I have to tell, since for the most part it is nothing more than the account of a conversation that I had with Larry. I should add, however, that except for this conversation I should perhaps not have thought it worth while to write this book.

Staying in Paris, some time in the 1930s, Maugham encounters Larry by chance.

At the beginning of the Republic, Socrates has been attending a festival in the Piraeus, but is now headed back up to Athens with Glaucon, when somebody touches him from behind: it is the boy sent to detain him so that Polemarchus can take him home to see Cephalus.

In Chapter 6 of The Razor’s Edge, Maugham has been attending a performance of Racine’s Bérénice (which I have not read) in the Théâtre Français, when somebody touches him from behind:

There was an interval after the third act and I went out to smoke a cigarette in the foyer over which presides Houdon’s Voltaire with his toothless, sardonic grin. Someone touched me on the shoulder. I turned round, perhaps with a slight movement of annoyance, for I wanted to be left with the exaltation with which those sonorous lines had filled me, and saw Larry. As always, I was glad to see him. It was a year since I had set eyes on him and I suggested that at the end of the play we should meet and have a glass of beer together. Larry said he was hungry, for he had had no dinner, and proposed that we should go to Montmartre …

Plato does not provide so much detail, and yet every detail that he does provide can be of interest to scholars. In that spirit, I might point out that the boy in the Republic does not touch Socrates, but grabs him by the himation.

Though I had reason to quote Voltaire in the previous post, I do not read anything into Maugham’s details about Voltaire and Racine, except for whatever pleasure they may supply in themselves. As Maugham says at the beginning of the novel, “I want to be read and I think I am justified in doing what I can to make my book readable.”

That detail may be of interest, if it is a wry comment on authors who are considered more literary, even though they are less readable. In any case, as Socrates apparently spends all night talking with Glaucon and Adeimantus, so Maugham and Larry talk all night in the Brasserie Graf.

I’m guessing that’s a made-up name. A web search turns up no such establishment, but tells me about Culture Night at the National Gallery of Ireland on September 17, 2021, when a duo called Brasserie Graf performed:

Eve Parnell and Katerina Speranskaya gave a Performance of Spoken Word and Music. Parnell selected an extract from Somerset Maugham’s book, The Razor’s Edge. This book was one of the first Western novels to propose non-Western solutions to society’s ills. Its title comes from a passage in one of the Upanishads. ‘The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.’ Accompanied by Katerina Speranskaya on Cello playing a new work inspired by Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.

I do not know whether Parnell’s selection included the following from the Brasserie, some time after three in the morning:

“Do you know anything about Hinduism?”

“Very little,” I answered.

“I should have thought it would interest you. Can there be anything more stupendous than the conception that the universe has no beginning and no end, but passes everlastingly from growth to equilibrium, from equilibrium to decline, from decline to dissolution, from dissolution to growth, and so on to all eternity?”

“And what do the Hindus think is the object of this endless recurrence?”

“I think they’d say that such is the nature of the Absolute. You see, they believe that the purpose of creation is to serve as a stage for the punishment or reward of the deeds of the soul’s earlier existences.”

“Which presupposes belief in the transmigration of souls.

“It’s a belief held by two thirds of the human race.”

“The fact that a great many people believe something is no guarantee of its truth.”

“No, but at least it makes it worthy of consideration. Christianity absorbed so much of Neo-Platonism, it might very easily have absorbed that too, and in point of fact there was an early Christian sect that believed in it, but it was declared heretical. Except for that Christians would believe in it as confidently as they believe in the resurrection of Christ.

“Am I right in thinking that it means that the soul passes from body to body in an endless course of experience occasioned by the merit or demerit of previous works?”

“I think so.”

“But you see, I’m not only my spirit but my body, and who can decide how much I, my individual self, am conditioned by the accident of my body? Would Byron have been Byron but for his club foot, or Dostoyevski Dostoyevski without his epilepsy?”

“The Indians wouldn’t speak of an accident. They would answer that it’s your actions in previous lives that have determined your soul to inhabit an imperfect body.

That last comment by Larry sounds like Socrates’s account of the soul’s rebirth in the Myth of Er. In the myth, after death, your next body is not assigned mechanically, but you choose it; still, you are not likely to make a good choice, unless you get ready in this life. In any case, Maugham is perhaps not such an authority on Hinduism that his character can be taken as an authority; I touched on that problem in an early post of this blog (illustrated with a photograph from Ravello), “Books Hung Out With.”

Building skeleton atop grassy hill, fenced off at base Beşiktaş or Ortaköy, December 31, 2021

Is it Christian, Maugham’s notion that our physical condition is only an accident? Born in Lahore to Hindu parents, blind from the age of three, Ved Mehta is befriended at Pomona College by a young American woman who gets him thinking:

Why would any parents prefer me to a normal fellow for their daughter? But they’re Christians. Maybe Christians would disregard my disability. My father always said that Christians, who believed in personal salvation, had compassion in a way that Hindus, who were fatalists, did not, and that, ultimately, only a Christian girl could make me happy.

Believing in personal salvation must be believing that salvation of any individual is possible by the grace of God. That one can save oneself would seem to be the heresy of Pelagianism. Trying to tie different parts of this blog together, I note that Pascal seems to have been accused of semi-Pelagianism through the cinq propositions in Cum Occasione, but he denies it in Sellier 796, and in Sellier 427 he says, Ce qui les fait croire c’est la croix – what makes people believe is the crucifixion, rather than signs or wisdom. Wisdom is a Greek ideal.

I record here how I recovered Ved Mehta’s words from a memory of reading them when I was just out of college. The words are from page 131, in Chapter 3 – called “The Markless Wilderness” – of the volume of Mehta’s autobiography called The Stolen Light, in the 2009 abridged edition published by Townsend Press, West Berlin, New Jersey, and now available for borrowing from the Internet Archive. In order to find the book, I learned from the Mehta website that, originally published 1989, The Stolen Light was the first volume of Mehta’s autobiography to appear after 1987. That year was when I read Mehta’s words about the desirability of a Christian wife. The words came out in the New Yorker then, and I read them by chance, having found myself in a strange house in Brookline, Massachusetts, with time to kill. I didn’t retain the author’s name, but a web search suggested it must be Mehta. Through my university library, I have access to a database that has let me check the contents of New Yorker issues, one by one, from the summer of 1987. I found that the issue of August 24 had a memoir by Mehta, but only a subscriber could read it. Even a friend who is a subscriber was not able to get good access, but could give me enough to let me find Mehta’s words in the book on the Internet Archive.

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  1. By On Plato’s Republic, 1 « Polytropy on January 11, 2022 at 9:41 pm

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