Paradise Lost, Plato’s Cave

September 6, 2012

I am reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  He wrote it when he was blind.  Does that mean that he was more cognizant of the eternal truths of the world, free from distraction by one of his senses?  That’s what the Greeks thought of poets, and thus, Homer was blind.

I guess Milton found his way out of Plato’s cave, that dark place where unenlightened men see the shadows of truth dancing on the walls.  But Plato banned poets from the ideal republic:  He was always more about power than justice or truth anyway.

Lots of people have commented that Satan is by far the most interesting character in Milton’s epic poem, but I find myself quite taken with Adam and Eve. 

They are quite the humanist pair:  Adam appears before the angel Raphael, come to warn him against Satan, with appropriate humility, but quite confident and stately in his naked beauty.  I guess Milton only attached the notion of idolatry, against which he railed, to costume, gold, temples, and the like, while it seems to me quite possible to idolize, rather than idealize, the human form.  Anyway, the two really do love each other, apparently without sin as of yet.

Satan is the tormented soul, and not because he is forced to lie about on a lake of fire after his abortive coup d’etat in heaven.  He has a head full of ideas that are driving him insane, and he can’t stop plotting.  The sight of Adam and Eve, happy in Eden, drives him to a frenzy of rage and jealousy, and what could he do?  He has free will…that’s how it had to be.

I was wondering while reading if Plato could have known of the Old Testament, but my digging indicates that it is improbable.  The book wasn’t translated into Greek until long after Plato’s death, and though there must have been Jews passing through Athens, it is hard to imagine Plato chatting with them in the Agora.  Certainly, he could have known of myths and tales from the east, some of which – The Flood, the Garden of Eden – are common to many traditions.  Eastern thinking, art, and cults were very influential in Greek thought.

The Garden of Eden strikes me as a sort of inverse of Plato’s cave.  The inhabitants have no ‘knowledge’:  they must not eat of the Tree of Knowledge, but they are happy, paradisically so.  When they gain knowledge at the urging of Satan/Serpent, they are beset by sin, lust, and pain.  They are cast out into the world by God.  Wouldn’t Plato have vomited at the thought that knowledge would bring pain and disaster rather than serenity and peace?   But I don’t think he had a notion of sin that needed to be justified.

In the end, however, I find that I am sympathetic to the scripture’s view.  That is, the Greeks may have invented Tragedy, but when it comes to the Old Testament and Plato, he seems naive, while the story of Eden hits on some deeply felt sense that by gaining the world, and all its knowledge, we have lost something.  Even if it’s not something we want back now.

Augustine: Lost in the clouds

August 23, 2010


After devoting hundreds of pages to a sharply worded, often funny, and always derisive deconstruction of the folly of Roman paganism, St. Augustine finally turns his attention to more positive topics, e.g., the superiority of Platonism as the one pagan philosophy that is closest to the true religion of Christianity.  What strikes me most is the way in which thinkers of his day, and ours, are bewitched by their own polished use of language.  So many chasms of unexplained propositions are glided over so lightly.

From Book VIII, Chapter 6 of The City of God:

As for the teaching which is comprised in [what] Platonists call logic, or rational philosophy, heaven forbid that I should think to compare them with those who have placed the criterion of truth in the bodily senses and have decided that all that belongs to the realm of learning is to be measured by such unreliable and misleading standards.

In other words, abstract thought gives knowledge; observation yields error.  Here we have the Christian imprimatur placed on a Greek concept that will inhibit the growth of science for another thousand years.  As I remarked on my post about Playfair, the great innovator in representing quantitative data with graphs, this prejudice against the evidence of the eyes lingered on into the scientific age.

Here I always wonder what bodily senses they use to see what beauty which they say is found only in the wise. With what physical eyes have they beheld the beauty and grace of wisdom?

A marvelous example of rhetorical skill tripping up the search for truth.  He fixes on a metaphor, takes it as concrete, and then teases out the contradictions that ensue, using it as evidence for his spiritualist point of view.

They saw also that in every mutable being, the form which determines its being, its mode of being and its nature, can only come from him who truly is, because he exists immutably.

This lapidary phrase is almost like a chant, a mantra.  Often, in this chapter, Augustine uses rhythm and apparently simple logic to build to towards a triumphant declaration of the obvious truth of his religion.  He continues with this evocation of the entire panorama of existence:

Nice glasses!

It follows that the whole material universe, its shapes, qualities, its ordered motions, its elements disposed throughout its whole extent, stretching from heaven to earth, together with all the bodies contained within them; and all life, whether that which merely nourishes and maintains existence, as in the trees, or that which has sensibility as well, as in the animals; or that which has all this, and intelligence besides, as in human beings; or that life which needs no support in the way of nourishment, but maintains existence, and has feeling and intelligence, as in the case of angels – all these alike could come into being only through  him who simply is.

Yes, I love it, I do

For a wonderful introduction to The City of God, see this text.

Wheel of Fortuna

September 11, 2008

In college, I read Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy to gain some general intellectual background to Chaucer and medieval literature.  I liked it quite a lot then, and lately, it seems to be cropping up here and there (including as the philosophical inspiration to the protaganist of that entertaining and vastly overrated work, The Confederacy of Dunces) so once again I am reading the last work of that unfortunate man.  It’s as good as I remember it!

I really like the way the piece gets right to the heart of the matter.  He’s sitting in prison, unjustly accused, wailing “Woe is me!” when a colossal figure of Ms. Philosophia comes for a visit.  She wastes no time in pointing out to him that if he were really a philosophical chap, he would realize that if he is the victim of evil men, it’s only because he permits himself to be!

Mr. B is generally regarded as one of the most influential writers of the Middle Ages.  That is, he was the “last of the Romans, and the first of the Scholastics,” living in the late 5th Century A.D. under the Ostrogoth successors to the Latin Roman Emperors.  His works were among the most quoted, copied, and taught in the medieval period. He was from an illustrious family, had a brilliant career, a highborn wife, two successful sons, but he ended up being tortured to death in prison by a Barbarian king whom he had pissed off for some reason.  As the late, great Kurt Vonnegut would have put it, “So it goes…

And that, to be perfectly serious, is part of the message of the The Consolation.  The Wheel of Fortune, so beloved by TV viewers, got its send off into the Middle Ages with Boethius’ work.  I am up, up UP! shouts the king on top…while on the other side the deposed ruler laments, I am down Down, DOWN!  ‘Round and round, and nobody knows where it will stop – it never stops.

As an interpreter and popularizer of Platonic thinking, Boethius, a Christian, elaborated the explanation of how evil can exist in a world ruled by an all powerful God that was begun by Augustine.  This is called theodicy, not to be confused with idiocy. Of course, it turns out that evil doesn’t really exist.

Mr. B. had another argument that I thought was in The Consolation, but which I read in his book on music, it turns out.  All of you high-brow critics will love it:

Boethius points out that there are three types of people who concern themselves with music: theorists, composers, and performers. Of these, the performers are excluded from true musical understanding, … “They … act as slaves, without reasoning or thinking”. The composers, or poets, “compose more with their natural instinct than through the exercise of thought or reason”, but the theorist, on the other hand, “is entirely devoted to reason and thought…”

Boethius draws the conclusion that the theorist is the highest of the three, alone worthy of the name “musician…”

from Boethius’ Three Musicisans

Those who can do, those who cannot become critics…


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