Plato, St Augustine and the Counter-Enlightenment
by Gwydion M Williams
People can be personally honest but not intellectually honest, or vice versa. In the Wars Of Religion, people suffered horrible deaths rather than accept particular religious formulae or pledges of loyalty that they regarded as untrue. Those same people might also engage in all sorts of trickery that they regarded as acceptable–Jesuits were notorious for it, though they merely extended the Casuistry that was basic to the Latin Christian tradition and was never in fact rejected by Protestants, who had their own anti-Jesuit ‘Jesuitry’.
The term ‘Jesuitry’ was popularised by Blaise Pascal in his Provincial Letters. But on the particular points at issue, it was the Jesuits who took the most sensible and straightforward line. Pascal supported the Jansenist line, which stated that no one at all was worthy of salvation, with even the most pious deserving of hellfire–though it was also supposed that the pious would be granted the salvation they did not deserve, by the Grace of a God who had no need to be Gracious. (And was also not held responsible for such a ridiculous snarl-up, being both all-powerful and not at all to blame.)
The Jesuits, while bound by the Augustan Creed which did more or less say this, had in practice moved religion onto a common-sense basis, with salvation as something you could and should earn by living a reasonably decent life.
Between these two were the Dominicans, an old and powerful religious order whose name was sometimes punned in Latin as Dominae Canae, Divine Dogs. The Dominicans were in principle in agreement with the Jansenist position, but had also decided to join with the Jesuits in denouncing Jansenism as heresy.
Pascal neatly exposes the trick in this conversation between a Jesuit and the seemingly naïve questioner:
“Consequently, according to this doctrine” I said, “this grace is sufficient without sufficing.”
“That is right” he said, for if it suffices, nothing more is needed for action, and if it does not suffice, it is not sufficient”.
“But” I said, what difference is there then between them and the Jansenists?”
“They differ” he said, because it can at least be said in the Dominican’s favour that they continue to maintain that all men have sufficient grace”.
“…If they are like the Jesuits in using a meaningless term, they are unlike them, and like the Jansenists, in the substance of the matter… How then … have the Jesuits come to make common cause with them? And why do they not oppose them as well as the Jansenists?”…
“They must not do that … those who are powerful in the Church must be more carefully handled. The Jesuits are satisfied with having got them to admit at least the name of sufficient grace, although they mean whatever they like by it… One should not bully one’s friends; the Jesuits have won enough. For people are taken in by words; few go deeply into things…” (Pascal’s Provincial Letters , page 42-43)
“You must realise that it is not [the Jesuits] object to corrupt morals; that is not their policy. But their sole aim is not to reform them either. That would be a bad policy. That is how they see it. They have a good enough opinion of themselves to believe that it is useful and virtually essential for the good of religion that they should enjoy universal credit and govern the consciences of all. And as strict evangelical precepts are suitable for governing certain sorts of persons, they make use of them on those occasions which serve their purpose. But as these same precepts do not fit in with the ideas of most people, for these they omit them, so as to have something to please everybody. (Ibid., page 75)
So they have something for everyone, and are so good at matching their answers to what they are asked, that when they are in countries where a crucified God is regarded as folly, they suppress the scandal of the Cross, and preach only Christ in glory, not Christ in agony; as they have done in India and China, where they have even allowed Christians to practice idolatry, by the ingenious idea of getting them to hide under their clothes an image of Christ, to which they are taught to apply mentally the worship paid publicly to the idol Chacim-Choan and their Keum-fecum [Confucius] (Ibid., page 76).
The Jesuits had brief success in both China and Japan, by just the methods Pascal described. China could combine Confucianism with Taoism and Buddhism, because each would respect the other’s idea of the sacred. Christians in the tradition of St Augustine were committed, not just to refusing to respect anyone else’s faith, but also to rooting it out and suppressing it as soon as they had the power to do so. Eventually this was exposed to the rulers of Asia and attempts at compromise broke down.
People have called Pascal a ‘displaced Puritan’–indeed Puritanism was in many ways a continuation outside of Church structures of Catholicism’s more extreme side. Whereas the Jesuits offered a sensible and humane model for how Catholic society could continue to develop. As it happened, Jesuit compromises with foreign customs were unacceptable to the rest of the Church, but compromises with Europe’s own commerce were another matter. There was a general willingness to bend, and not just by the Jesuits. A meaningless distinction was made between ‘usury’ as condemned by the bible, and ‘interest’ which was supposed to be different:
“‘Anyone who is asked for money shall answer in this way: I have no money to lend, but I do have some to put to honest and lawful profit… It is of course true that since it is too difficult to agree about the profits, if you are willing to guarantee me a definite profit, together with security for my principle, we shall reach agreement more quickly, and I will let you have the money forthwith.’ Is that not a very easy way to make money without sinning? And has Father Bauny not good cause to utter these words in concluding his method: ‘Here in my view is the means whereby numerous members of society, who through their usuries, extortions and unlawful contracts provoke God’s righteous wrath against them, can save themselves while making handsome, honest and lawful profits?’” (Ibid., page 120-121)
On the particular matter of ‘sufficient grace’ the Jesuits were being relatively straightforward and the evasiveness was the work of Dominicans. Yet the association of dishonesty and Jesuitry was well-founded:
One of the most embarrassing problems is how to avoid lying, especially when one would like people to believe something untrue. This is where our [Jesuit] doctrine of equivocation is marvellously helpful, for it allows one ‘to use ambiguous terms, conveying a different meaning to the hearer from that in which one understand them oneself’, as Sanchez says, Moral Works… ‘One may swear’ he says, ‘that one has not done something, though one really has done it, by inwardly understanding that one did not do it on a certain day, or before one was born, or by implying some other similar circumstance, but using words with no meaning capable of conveying this; this is very convenient on many occasions, and is always quite legitimate when necessary, or useful, to health, honour or property’ (page 140-141)
All of this theology was of course pompous gibberish, with no internal logic and no resemblance to the creed originally preached by Jesus. It is also the substance of the Imperial-Catholic tradition that generally dominated the Church, and might even be common ground between bishops and monarchs trained in the same position. Because all of the flexibility on actual conduct was combined with brutal intolerance for those who would not use the correct formula at the correct time.
The Greek Orthodox tradition had after its early bitter disputes been content to leave apparent mysteries as just that: it’s Gods Logic and no one can be expected to comprehend it. But theologians within the Latin tradition had been unwilling to leave it there, and kept picking over and redefining the creed in the hope of making it better. Centuries of working and reworking by experts in Casuistry had turned the apparent simplicities of Jesus’s teaching into a theology that explained nothing and yet required absolute adherence to certain doctrines that explained nothing in a manner satisfactory to the dominant schools of theologians.
Latin-Christian theology in its developed form was intricate and learned, but a complete insult to the intelligence, a point illustrated in detail by Jesuit-educated sceptics like Diderot and Voltaire. And where religion did not have the power to stamp out all original thinking, it allowed science to develop without regard for the irrationalities of creed.
Mediaeval Latin Christian Church promoted the idea that all healing ought to be supernatural, and must be diabolical unless they controlled it. This was probably heretical in Christian terms, as well as foolish. The claim for occasional supernatural healing is found in the Bible, but nothing against regular medicine. There was strong tradition that gospel-writer Luke was a doctor.
It is definitely recorded that St Paul relies on ships to cross seas, rather than trying to walk upon the water. Presumably he accepted that Jesus had done this once–it may have been invented later, but is the Gospels. So there was no necessity to take a hard line, not in religious terms. But to build up clerical power, a mix of harshness and of dispensation given out as a godfatherly gift was a winning formula.
St Augustine of Hippo did a great deal to impose a culture of intolerance, an Imperial version of Christianity that was far removed from the creed as understood at the time the Gospels were written. His background was as a Pagan Roman philosopher, but one of many who reached for a new culture to continue.
What happened under Constantine was not so much Rome becoming Christian as a declining Empire co-opting a Romanised version of Christianity. City of Men and City of God. Of men claiming authority in the name of God, in practice. Hobbs was quite right to identify Roman Catholicism as the ghost of the empire
The Bible is a complex work. You wouldn’t have thought of a match between a drunken prostitute and neurotic prophet as a marriage made in heaven, but that’s what the Book of Hosea says. The Lord’s skills as a marriage fixer seem in doubt.
Christianity was originally a Jewish sect, and also a religion ‘founded in anger’. A rather justified anger, indeed, against a Roman world that was wasting the potential of civilisation on the swinish luxury of a few. There had been a long struggle, at least as far back as the Macabee revolt against the Seleucid Greeks. But it had been subverted and defeated and was soon to be destroyed.
The Book of Revelations makes most sense if set just after the fall of Nero, and before the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The latter event, as well as the destruction of the Temple, are not foreseen in Revelations, though the Gospel writers do have Jesus warning of it.
It seems odd that the Jewish historian Josephus fails to mention Jesus’s prescience on this matter, which would have fitted wonderfully with Josephus’s general line as a pro-Roman defector from the unsuccessful Jewish revolt. Josephus’s passing comments on Jesus are a little too favourable and reverential to have been his original words: the relevant passages may be invented but are more likely reworked. But on Jesus’s supposed warnings of ruin for Jerusalem prior to the World’s Ending, we have nothing.
Christianity began as a protest against the world. Anger and protest were justified, but led to a creed that was badly prepared for the problems of power when it itself eventually became dominant. When Christians were in positions of power, they typically treated enemies and dissidents as the Church itself had once been treated.
This differs from Islam, which was probably also a small end-of-the-world cult in the beginning, but then became a small government in a desert city and a state in miniature that had either to conquer or be destroyed. Muhammad received new revelations in line with the new circumstances, providing a basis for fairly stable Islamic rule, of a sort that Christianity never really did achieve.
Before you can have a manufacturing society, you have to manufacture the correct sort of person. The very failure of Christianity to find stability made it easy to do under the cover of tradition and faith. ‘Reinventing God’ was an old trick, the Catholic Church did it several times, with bad results.
Rome’s authority was based on it being the only big and old Christian centre in Western Europe, and also the only city that meant something to everyone. And so the Bishops of Rome managed to expand their authority, in part by an old claim that the Apostle Peter had been the first Bishop.
In my view, the lack of early evidence for Peter in Rome is more decisive than lack of contrary claims. We depend on what the Church allowed to survive, and any actual tradition at some other place would have been easy enough to erase. Forgery and fraud was widespread–Luther remarked that Jesus had had twelve disciples, and seventeen of them were buried in Germany. Yet in the case of Peter, listed as Rome’s first Bishop and theoretical root of Papal power, there was an overwhelming need to suppress any evidence he had been buried at any place other than Rome.
It is also unlikely that Peter was ever a bishop, because in his day it was a relatively junior position. There were a crowd of ‘bishops’ or overseers in each Christian community and the authority of the various apostles stood far higher.
The real importance of Rome was its continuance of pagan and imperial traditions. There had been empires ever since Babylon, but none before Rome had much impact on Western Europe. And the imperial tradition survived as an imperial trend within Catholicism.
Emperor Constantine had merged the pagan Roman state with a religion that had grown up within a state structure it was hostile to. This is sharply different from Islam, which had created its own state. And from Hinduism, which had an old and complex view of how religion and states should coexist, one that was broadly taken up by Buddhism.
When Roman Paganism seemed unable to root out Christianity, Constantine decided to try co-opting one faction of Christianity, as his allies against both pagan rivals and alternative versions of Christianity. Promoting Jesus to Godhead as part of the process was useful from a Roman-Imperial point of view, it meant that no subsequent preacher could claim equal or superior authority. Yet this left a theological mishmash, Jesus was God and human, and Christ was just as divine as God the Father and also different and inferior. None of this would apply if Jesus were seen as a mortal though very exceptional man, a man with a special authority from God, which most likely was the view of the Gospel writers.
The early Christians were very brave and sincere, I don’t dispute that. I think that very few of today’s preachers and telly-evangelists would do well if offered a simple choice between renouncing their faith and being thrown to the wild beasts. Whereas very large numbers of early Christians behaved remarkably in face of a similar choice. But since they were expecting the immanent end of the world some 1900 years ago, the accuracy of their understanding is open to question.
An end-of-the-world placed in charge of a world that shows no signs of ending has to go through some strange contortions to carry on. Beginning with St Augustine of Hippo, if not before, there was an ‘historic compromise’ between the Christian and late-Pagan world view. And a dominant ‘Imperial Catholic’ view came to dominate, the traditions of the Roman Empire growing within the Church after the Empire lost coherence.
Since neither Jesus nor Paul of Tarsus had ever said anything to indicate that a Christian state was even possible, it was an open question how it should be run from Constantine onwards. Under Constantine, there was a definition of Christianity and some persecution of dissenting Christians, but nothing like the mass intolerance that happened later. The Imperial-Catholic tradition chose to be the most intolerant of all major religions, and without any necessity or even much good justification.
The pagan emperors before Constantine had already decided upon a rather odd religious solution, seeking to impose an extremely narrow sectarian religious vision that synthesised Greek and Roman traditional religion with Sun-worship and pagan neo-Platonism. This merged with a version of Christianity, with many good things discarded and some of the worst features of both retained. This official Christianity was far removed from Jesus’s teachings, and yet also not a normal or fully functional religion. And no other major creed anywhere in the world has been as intolerant, though Islam came close. It was unique, in that it was committed in principle to extinguishing all other ways of life on the planet.
Also in as far as it kept to Imperial-Catholic traditions, it wanted to rule the world but did not like the world. And whatever else Puritanism rejected, it always hung on to this piece of ‘popery’.
If the Church could not run society on the basis of the original doctrine–and it could not–then it was questionable if they had any right to exercise power at all. The theory, of course, is that they are merely handling spiritual matters. Which is ludicrously silly, since it has been shown repeatedly that the division is meaningless, and no consistent barrier has ever been drawn
The first stage was simple obedience to a Christian emperor, a stage justified by St Paul’s remarks about the need to obey even wicked rulers. It is a view which the Greek-Orthodox tradition preserves but which Catholicism subverted and evaded. Further developments and an intrusion on the secular realm began in Spain, not Rome, with Isidore of Seville laying the basis Interestingly, Spain was then overrun by Islam, very gradually recovered, and then as the conqueror of the New World in the 16th century came closest to achieving its own version of the Imperial-Catholic goal (which was not always centred on the Vatican, nor even clerical).
Long before that, the Imperial-Catholic tradition manage to extinguish the Celtic Church, which was older, saner and more genuinely religious. The Imperial-Catholic tradition was good at producing gifted energetic hysterics, a tradition that continues in all of its descendant cultures.
The incursion into Ireland by the Norman baron Strongbow was a separate adventure from the Norman conquest of England, which itself had gained a lot of moral force from Papal support and a Papal banner sent as a good-luck charm. Strongbow and his successors, if left alone, might have made Ireland a coherent kingdom–witness the later success of the originally-Norman family of Robert the Bruce in Scotland. But Scotland had long since accepted Imperial-Catholic forms in preference to its own Celtic-Christian traditions, so the English king’s attempt to conquer it was treated as a secular matter in which the papacy stood neutral. In the case of Ireland, the Papacy under an English-born pope made the link and no later pope took any opportunity to separate the two kingdoms. They had always a strategic objective, to bring the last separate Celtic territory into the Imperial-Catholic and Latin framework.
Papal power in Mediaeval Europe defined what was moral, in as far as anyone could. And repeatedly did so in a corrupt and immoral fashion, showing the basic flaw of religious pushing part-way into politics. My own ancestors, on both the Saxon and Welsh side would have once practiced a more genuine religion than what the Papacy imposed, mainly through Norman power. Serfdom was spread and supported, for as long as it went with the Papal version of Christianity.
Celtic Christianity and Saxon Christianity were not, in my view, either nearer or further from the original creed preached by Jesus of Nazareth. I’d read him as a sincere extremist within the doomed community of Palestinian Jews, who were visibly being destroyed by Roman power during his lifetime.
Like many other tribalists, the Palestinian Jews supposed that the entire universe was centred upon them and could not be expected to continue without them. But with the world visibly still in existence, and with the Roman Empire stabilised, both a form of Judaism and a form of Christianity managed to carry on in the revised world.
Judaism after the Destruction of the Temple was at root the Judaism of the Babylonian exile. Its recreated Israel had flourished for a few centuries and then perished. The methods of living as a minority community in someone else’s state remained valid and were continued. And H G Wells in his History Of The World, his interesting and generally speculation that there was direct conversion of non-Jewish Semitic communities to a version of their culture that was visibly flourishing in a strange new world.
Israel of the Second Temple was an exceptional Semitic hold-out after the fall of Babylon and Tyre and the utter destruction of Carthage. Carthage had been Rome’s great enemy, Jews merely one of dozens of peoples who had taken an awful lot of subjugating before the Roman empire finally digested them. Even when the Temple authorised by the Persian Empire had been destroyed by the Romans, Jews mostly maintained a tribal/commercial way of life in cities, and therefore were able to maintain themselves.
Meantime Pagan Europe’s ideology was a mess, a mix of the cold-blooded and deeply dishonest philosophy of Plato, and the kindly but confused enthusiasm of the tiny Jesus sect and all of the oddities that grew out of it.
The Jewish/Christian/Islamic tradition saw the whole of existence as something designed for humans to be tested by God and judged worthy of heaven or hell. This contrasts with the Eastern tradition that sees people as living within nature and not necessarily superior to anything else. It’s also notable that the priestly function has been kept going even though its rational is lost when you replace a crowd of capricious and bribeable gods with one all-powerful God with fixed rules for human conduct.
The original Church had been democratic, with elected bishops. This narrowed gradually till it was a ‘Clerical Republic’, officials with lifetime tenure and yet still elected by those they were to govern.
During the Reformation, the higher clergy within Catholicism took advantage to suppress all election except at the very top. The clerical republic was replaced by an oligarchy of cardinals, one of whom had quasi-monarchic rights as Pope but not control over the succession.
The Papacy in mediaeval times made a botched attempt at a theocracy, ended up leaving all traditional authority damaged. They repeated the same error in the Reformation, going to extremes on the theological issues which had causes division, like papal power and transubstantiation.
Protestantism arguably began with John Wycliffe. It was linked to Royal power, supported King against Church and was mainly conservative, asking that the Catholic hierarchy stay within its traditional terms of reference. Wycliffe’s protector was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and a younger son of Edward III (and a much worse character than Shakespeare makes him in Richard II).
In the later dynastic struggles, religion did not override family ties and dynastic ambition. Mary Tudor tried to recover England for Catholicism, yet allowed herself to be succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth. Now if Henry’s break with Rome were seen as invalid, Elizabeth was merely another bastard child of a monarch and the true heir was Mary Queen of Scots. Yet this other Mary had married the short-lived King of France in the same year Elizabeth succeeded Mary.
It was also an age in which no one’s religious alignment was very certain. It took the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre to defeat French Protestantism, while the defeat of Catholicism in England and Scotland was moot. And Elizabeth herself was for a time conditionally Roman Catholic
Very few politicians took God seriously, as distinct from enlisting the appearance of Divine Approval in what they wanted to do anyway. This applied as much to clerical politicians in the Vatican as anyone else. It should not be wondered that the Pope celebrated William of Orange’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne. The Vatican clique was just as much opposed to traditional moderate Catholicism as to Protestantism, and saw the former as the more immediate threat.
Once religion becomes politicised, people are interested not so much in God as in their own opportunities to speak for God. The Christian tradition is worst on this, and has invented the greatest number of new rules with small or imaginary Biblical support.
Rules on abortion and contraception, seen as central by today’s self-styled ‘moral majority’ is deduced from zero Biblical authority. There was also little solid basis for Papal authority, or for keeping nuns and monks bound to oaths of chastity and self-denial. In practice, chastity and self-denial were mostly theoretical, yet the Church much preferred to live with abuse than modify it’s own right to ‘speak for God’ and hold its monks and nuns to whatever pledges of obedience they had once given.
In the Reformation, the theological house of cards collapsed–partly because the hierarchy was grossly in violation of its own rules of poverty. And partly because the dominant factions in the Church had insisted on a series of unlikely positions, most notably Transubstantiation, all of which offended tradition and increased their own opportunities to speak for God
Suppose that some alien ‘Denebians’ were unobtrusively observing us humans in the same manner as we observe ants. They might have watched Europe’s Reformation without understanding the culture and arguments behind it. And it might have seem as if asexual and relatively docile colonial organisms among the humans had suddenly metamorphosed into self-reproducing and much more aggressive entities.
In many ways, Puritans were like monks who’d burst out of the monastery and decided to inflict their maladjustment on all and sundry. Which is just what Martin Luther was, of course, but he was not really a Puritan, and Lutherism settled down as a Church about as normal as Anglicanism, as far as I can figure.
More widely, though, the strong religious feeling that mediaeval Catholicism had betrayed by pride and corruption took another form. People in the world who disliked the world, or liked it only as an excuse to denounce its sinfulness. The Bible and especially its early English translations were the raw material out of which British culture was created. Also the rulers found it did not make sense, this was tried and failed under Cromwell.
Puritanism became the unacceptable face of virtue, a trend that developed within the Latin-Christian church. Extremism and unhappiness combined with a devastating effectiveness.
This Imperial-Catholic/Puritan trend expressed itself first in the Crusades, in which one faction within Catholicism managed to incorporate the Islamic idea of Holy War into Christian theology, even though this was against all tradition. And did so with the idea of targeting the Byzantine Empire as much as Islam, there was continuous antagonism between Byzantines and Crusaders before the actual conquest and sack of Constantine’s city by the Fourth Crusade.
Consider the lost opportunity to actually carry through the re-conquest of Canaan from Islam as allies of the religiously-mixed Mongols. The last thing the Vatican wanted was Christendom flourishing outside of their control. Christian Mongol rulers would have provided just that, a much more formidable foe than Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, whom the Pope was busy fighting during the first Mongol invasion of Europe.
In a similar spirit, European intervention in the mid-19th century undermined the traditional Chinese order, but then prevented it from rejecting that order in favour of a home-grown version of Christianity in the Taiping Rebellion. The career of ‘Gordon of Khartoum’ epitomises the contradictions:
The son of an artillery officer, Gordon was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers in 1852. During the Crimean War (1853-56) he distinguished himself by his reckless bravery in the siege trenches outside Sevastopol. Promoted to captain in 1859, he volunteered the following year to join the British forces that were fighting the Chinese in the “Arrow” War. He was present at the occupation of Peking (October 1860) and personally directed the burning of the Chinese emperor’s summer palace. In May 1862 Gordon’s corps of engineers was assigned to strengthen the bulwarks of the European trading centre of Shanghai, which was threatened by the insurgents of the Taiping Rebellion. A year later he became commander of the 3,500-man peasant force, known as the “Ever-Victorious Army,” raised to defend the city. During the next 18 months Gordon’s troops played an important, though not a crucial, role in suppressing the Taiping uprising. He returned in January 1865 to England, where an enthusiastic public had already dubbed him “Chinese Gordon.” For the next five years he was commander of the Royal Engineers at Gravesend, Kent; he spent his spare time developing his own unorthodox, mystical brand of Christianity and engaging in philanthropic activity among poor youths. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Unlike later enthusiasts, I am sure his philanthropic activity among poor youths was genuine and pure. Against this must be set his gross vandalism in helping burn the outstanding Chinese summer palace, a deed which caused some offence among Britons even at the time, as had the earlier Opium Wars. Yet the general policy that Gordon followed–do not leave China alone, and do not allow China to solve its own problems by anything less than complete submission to Western values–remained intact and successful up until Mao’s proclamation of China’s renewed dignity in 1949. One cannot write it off even now, though there seem to be no more men of Gordon’s calibre.
The current Catholic/Puritan alliance–dignified as ‘Judeo-Christian’ so that right-wing Jews can also be included–is not as irrational as some secular critics have supposed. There was always common ground between Puritan and the more extreme versions of Imperial-Catholic view.
- There is no such thing as normal sex
- You are not supposed to enjoy life
- The world is full of devils and their human agents. Puritans shared Imperial-Catholic views on witches, a formalisation of a mixed bag of traditions.
- A belief in the efficiency of evil, using admittedly evil methods for what they see as good ends.
- If God somehow forgot to put a necessary moral rule in the Bible, it’s up to us to help Him out. (Note that though tradition and the Bible are frequently cited, they are not truly respected.)
- Under no circumstances suppose that God might be competent to handle the matter all by Himself.
Puritanism began as a term for those who wanted a ‘purification’ of the Church of England, removing those elements of tradition that Elizabeth had left untouched. On most issues, the Puritans were factually wrong, the Bible did not particularly support their position. The use of imagery and decoration was very old indeed, as was the office of Bishop. And the whole ‘Sabbatarian’ thing was a continuation of a muddle introduced by Imperial-Catholicism, applying inconsistent bits of Jewish Sabbath rules to the Pagan Sun-Day that Christians had from early days celebrated in their own spirit.
On drink, texts condemning drunkenness were twisted to make a ban on alcohol, which is no part of Christianity. And the Gospels record Jesus’s fondness for wine and his habit of citing wine as the next thing to God in his parables.
On sex, the Gospels recommend celibacy as an ideal, but it is not supposed that any large number of people could achieve it in the right spirit. Puritanism tended to reject celibacy, but shares with Catholicism a general guilt about sex even within marriage.
Puritan and Imperial-Catholic found a meeting point in St Augustine. Who was representative of those Christians who reconciled with a decaying Empire and did keep it alive in part.
In the Dark Ages–dark only in Western Europe, but very dark indeed in our poor and gloomy end of Civilisation Ally–the Church under Imperial-Catholic influence gradually became ‘Wholesale Grace-mongers’, exploiting people’s feelings of guilt, desire to make amends and desire to look good.
As ‘Wholesale Grace-monger’ the Catholic hierarch attracted enough scorn to provoke reform movements like Luther’s. But he opened the door to much more extreme protests, Puritan who became ‘Retail Gracemongers’ with every little self-righteous community making its own rules and claiming to have their own supply of Grace. Salvation is almost certain if you’ll sit and listen reverentially while I rant at you.
Puritans and Modernists are in many ways two sides of the same coin. Both are taken to extremes in the USA. Leninism tried to be a Modernist-Puritanism, but then tinkered with the tradition once too often in the USSR by trying to change the iconography with Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin movement.
Rationalism emerging out of Puritanism keeps much the same characteristics, dogmatism and an orderly structure that is based on nothing very sensible. Religion gives us our idea of what we’re doing in the world and what it’s supposed to be about.
People can operate better with a false idea than with no idea at all. Or with a sectarian system of many rival ‘retail grace-mongers’, even more extreme and corrupt than the Catholic hierarchy had been.
Williams Blake was one of many people to have noticed the unexpected strength of the Devil in Milton’s Paradise Lost. William Blake also participated in the Gordon Riots, though Catholicism as such did not seem to concern him. Looking back a little earlier, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress takes the traditional adventure-story and makes it a Puritan fable. A fable of a lone traveller rejecting human authority in the quest for salvation, with ordinary life as part of the snares of the devil. Though it is Grace in the traditional Christian sense, it was not a large step from this to the commercialised Christianity of Defoe or from Blake’s juggling of traditional concepts of good and evil
It’s interesting to compare such European ideas with a slightly older tale of pilgrimage and grace, a Chinese work commonly known in English as Monkey or A Journey To The West.
The novel, 100 chapters altogether, is based upon the popular, traditional tales about a Tang monk named Xuan Zhuang (Hsuan Tsang or Tripitaka) who went, to India to procure Buddhist scriptures. Writing in a romantic, imaginative style, the author artistically creates a Monkey King named Sun Wukong. Courageous and fearless, the Monkey King turns the Palace of Heaven upside down, challenging the authority of all the Taoist deities, such as the Jade Emperor, the Immortals, and the Star Kings, to whom wide publicity was given during the Ming Dynasty. Poking fun at them, he views them with contempt when they try to buy him over. Because of his resoluteness and alertness, he is able to overcome eighty-one ordeals, defeating all the deities and demons each and every time. In the end he reaches nirvana with his master Xuan Zhuang and two fellow monks, attaining Buddhahood. The author’s description of the Monkey King reflects the wishes of the labouring masses of his time, who, like the Monkey King, dared to challenge the established authority, and hoped that they would become totally free after all the ordeals they had gone through. But the Monkey King wears on his head a golden band that automatically tightens up and causes enormous pain if he chooses to disobey his master Xuan Zhuang. No matter what wonders he may work, he cannot jump out of Buddha’s palm. All this shows Wu Chengen’s fatalistic point of view. peasant uprisings come and go, bearing little hope for the future. The limitations of the Monkey King reflect the tragedy that all men have to suffer. The deities and demons the author depicts have as many social implications as they are supernatural. Besides, he attributes to some of the characters an animal characteristic and places them in a special realm of fairy tales where they perform all kinds of magic. The depiction looks natural and harmonious, full of wonder and fun. Journey to the West pioneered a new way of novel writing which was unprecedented and unique. Later novels of this genre fell far behind, in terms of artistic skill as well as content. (An Outline History Of China ,page 355-6)
The ‘West’ in this context was north-west India and the surviving Buddhist states of the Silk Road. The further west including Europe was vaguely known of but lacked attraction. And though the Monkey-king’s initial adventures in the Taoist heaven are a satire of the corrupt Ming court, this rebelliousness is then rejected in favour of a more traditional role, a pursuit of personal salvation while remaining respectful of existing authority.
Wu received a traditional Confucian education and became known for his clever composition of poetry and prose in the classical style. Throughout his life he displayed a marked interest in bizarre stories, such as the set of oral and written folktales that formed the basis of Hsi-yu chi [Monkey], first published in 1592, 10 years after Wu’s death. In its 100 chapters Hsi-yu chi details the adventures of a cunningly resourceful monkey who accompanies the Buddhist priest Hsüan-tsang on a journey to India. Like all novels of its time, Hsi-yu chi was written in the vernacular, as opposed to the officially accepted classical style, and therefore had to be published anonymously to protect the author’s reputation. As a result, the identity of the novelist was long unknown outside of Wu’s native district. (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
Whereas Christians like Bunyan saw other Christian sects as agents of the devil, Buddhists saw Taoism as merely a confused version of their own teaching. The standard Chinese trilogy has Buddha and Confucius and Lao Tzu placed equally; an ideological statement and a good one. You could call it a 21st Century view, Western Europe almost had it in the 18th century Enlightenment, then veered away into both Protestant and Catholic extremism in the 19th century. A process that has ended in Europe but continues in the USA, where the core ‘Yankee’ values have collapsed and no one knows who they are or what they should be doing.
China was conservative thanks to a social system that reached right back to the first Chinese agriculturalists of the Yellow River. A system which had been markedly successful across the centuries. While Europe was full of confusion and contradiction and unexpectedly fell forward into a more complex and powerful mode of social existence.
Monkey remains popular in China down to this day, and in English has a few translations and an eccentric Japanese TV series that the BBC has shown. Not many English people nowadays want to know about Bunyan.
Plato achieved Olympic quality for hitting people, which was fair enough, boxing was an old and resprectable sport. But he should have changed his approach when it came to philosophising and politico-religious matters.
In the boxing ring it’s wise not to compromise. In politics, nothing will work well if each contending factions reckons that that only they have it right. For Plato, people who thought he didn’t know what he was talking about were bad and wicked, while those who believed him and ended in the soup clearly hadn’t listened hard enough. You know people like that, don’t you?
Concerning his virginity or otherwise, I keep an open mind. His later European role as a much-admired pre-Christian philosopher assumes virginity, supposes that the generally homoerotic air of his Academy did not translate into what the Church of England nicely refers to as ‘genital homosexual activities’. Maybe, maybe not, I don’t feel qualified to say. [Nor would it change my view of him, if we ever got some definite answer from the Greek miscelleny currently being put together from fragments save from an ancient rubbish-heap rescued from Egypt.] But it is as a ‘virgin pugilist’ that the later Christianised Roman Empire chose to define him, when they chose to retain a version his heritage.
Plato was also a smooth-talking Greek con-man. He gives the impression of having something wonderful to say. But when you try to pin it down, it slips away.
There is a tradition of pompous piety round Plato and Socrates, and it badly needs to be punctured. Earlier and better Greek thinkers–Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, the Ionian philosophers–had worked out all of the methods that later blossomed as modern science. Plato and Aristotle were a distorting mirror in which later ages caught a glimpse of those earlier and better thinkers. But it took a long time to disentangle the sense from the nonsense, and I’d reckon the process is still far from complete.
Plato’s philosophy led him to dabble in politics, especially in the Greek/Sicilian city of Syracuse, and with disastrous results. Mary Renault’s The Mask Of Apollo is a fine and readable account of the whole mess, though she is much more sympathetic to Plato than I would be. Dionysus the First of Syracuse had saved the Greeks of Sicily from a very serious attempt at conquest by the Carthaginians. He had also tried listening to Plato and decided the man was talking rubbish. He then had Plato sold as a slave, perhaps an attempt at teaching the man a bit about chance and superiority, but Plato was soon freed and learned nothing more than to repeat all of his mistakes with even greater determination. He set himself up as teacher to Dionysus the Second, who in turn decided that Plato was not so useful and was then managing as a quite successful ruler until overthrown in a coup by Plato’s pupil and admirer Dion. Dion did not last long, being murdered by another pupil of Plato’s Academy. The malefactor was then redefined as not really having been a pupil, because Plato and his followers were not going to accept responsibility for any little upsets that the vulgar might see as the predictable results of their own actions.
Dishonesty and elite-power bolstered by philosophy was central to the Socratic scheme as Plato defined it:
It will be for the rulers of our city, then, if anyone, to deceive citizen or enemy for the good of the State; no one else must do so… And if you find anyone else in our state telling lies… you will punish him for introducing a practice likely to capsize and wreck the ship of state. (The Republic, page 126)
Xenophon–the other notable pupil of Socrates besides Plato–showed himself a less gifted liar when it comes to explaining how it was that Socrates taught both Critias and Alcibiades, who almost ruined Athens between them.
According to Socrates’ accuser, Critias and Alcibiades, who had belonged to Socrates’ circle, did more harm to their country than any other persons. Critias developed into the most avaricious and violent of all the oligarchs, and Alcibiades in his turn became the most dissolute and arrogant of all the democrats. For my part, I shall not defend any wrong that these men did to the State, I shall merely explain how their connection with Socrates came about.
These two men were by nature the most ambitious persons in all Athens… Perhaps it might be objected that Socrates should not have taught his associates politics before he taught them self-discipline…(Xenophon, Conversations Of Socrates, page 74-75)
Xenophon mentions Plato just once, while Plato never mentions Xenophon at all. They may have been rivals for Socrates’ heritage, we lack solid facts. But Xenophon’s account of Socrates’ trial has none of the pompous evasiveness of Plato. He states plainly what Plato is at pains to obscure: that Socrates cooperated in getting himself condemned to death.
“When I was trying to consider my defence before the jury, the divine opposed me straight away… Do you think it’s remarkable that God should decide that it is better for me to end my life now ? … if I go on living, I shall probably have to pay the penalties of old age … I shall become in consequence slower to learn and more forgetful, and inferior to those to whom I used to be superior. Now, even if one were unconscious of this, life would not be worth living… The again, if I am wrongly executed, this may be discreditable to those who wrongly put me to death … I see also that the reputation left to posterity by the dead is not the same for the doers as for the sufferers of wrong (Ibid.,page 215-16)
Socrates managed to be the first martyr in Greek tradition. A martyr to himself, it seems, or at least to his own future reputation, in which he was marvellously successful. He was not, contrary to the popular view, a martyr to either truth or free speech. His pupil Plato favoured a comprehensive tidy-up and censorship of the Greek myths to remove bad moral examples. And Plato’s concept of ‘noble lies’ sounds like another Socratic idea that Xenophon presents more directly:
“Well then” said Socrates, “supposing that a general sees that his force is downhearted and issues a false statement that help is approaching, and by this falsehood restores the morale of his men: on which side shall we put this deceit?”
“I think under Right” (Xenophon, page 183)
There are many more such examples, all saying that bad deeds with good objectives in mind are fine, and especially in favour of ‘superior people’ telling lies so as to persuade their inferiors when honest opinions would not work.
I read Xenophon’s Persian Expedition with no fixed view of the man. But noted how the Xenophon justifies and even admires young Cyrus’s duplicity in tricking the Greeks into joining his treasonable revolt against an elder brother who had already spared him once. And when it came to Xenophon’s account of his own later command, I found a profound ‘ring of falsehood’. It’s a good read, but the man was clearly doing more than he admits and was quite reasonably mistrusted by those he commanded.
Plato sets up the tyrant and the philosopher-king as two polar opposites. To me they seemed exactly the same, apart from Plato’s approval or disapproval. And the two Dionysius’s were tyrants in Greek terms, unchecked rulers with no hereditary right. To Plato, they were potential philosopher-kings and only tyrants when they ignored his ‘good advice’.
The operation was a complete success but the body-politic unfortunately died.
Tyranny was originally a Greek word signifying an authoritarian ruler who did not come from any traditional royal house. Some did definitely run to excesses in maintaining their rule, which was always unstable. Yet outside of the political classes, people tended to judge a government by what it achieves rather than whether it had kept to any particular set of political forms. Tyranny has since became a usefully ambiguous term, that could be applied to almost any strong government, including those with solid hereditary or democratic credentials. Nothing other than personal feelings determine why one ruler qualified as a tyrant and another didn’t.
Alexander the Great is regarded as an historic villain by the Persians, much as we remember Attila the Hun. But some Europeans remembered Attila as quite a good monarch, and one strand of the Nibelung legend has Attila marrying Siegfried’s widow. Likewise the Mongolians began to express pride in the memory of Genghis Khan as soon as Russian influence waned in their country.
Plato taught ‘follycraft’, not wisdom. And most philosophy is just folly pursued with great craftiness. Where it differs from common sense, it is almost always wrong. And Plato was seriously proposing a system of systematic deception, creative artists to be ‘engineers of the human soul’ rather than speak the truth as they saw it:
We must ask the poets to stop giving their present gloomy account of the after-life, which is both untrue and unsuitable to producing a fighting spirit, and make them speak more favourably of it…. We must ask Homer and the other poets to excuse us if we delete all passages of this kind. It is not that they are bad poetry or are not popular; indeed the better they are as poetry the more unsuitable they are or the ears of children or grown-ups, if they are to prefer death to slavery as free men should. (The Republic, page 122-3)
It’s been frequently and correctly argued that many of Plato’s ideas were absorbed into early Christianity. When Christians had to consider running the world rather than just waiting for it to end, the Gospels gave few clues. Jesus and his followers had lived as Jews in a Roman-occupied territory, it was not their problem. But Jews and Christians had diverged sharply, with most Christians not living by Jewish law. Plato provided a model of sorts. His Rules for Guardians has the following:
“Firstly, they shall have no private property beyond the barest essentials. Second, none of them shall possess a dwelling house, or other property to which all have not the right of entry…. They shall eat together in messes and live together like soldiers in camp. (Ibid., page 162-3)
Or like monks? Monasticism was something that was invented within Christianity, using examples from other religions. Buddhist systems were much older and more authentically derived from their founder, though it’s moot if they were the first. But Buddhist monks did not often aspire to political power.
Celibacy and poverty may be good for intellectual pursuits, but the best rulers are typically those who live much like the people they rule. Priests have mostly been bad politicians, and it was observed in mediaeval Europe that the nearer people lived to Rome, the less respect they had for religion or for Christian behaviour.
The Latin-Christian tradition is also remarkable for producing large numbers of open atheists and sceptics, no other religion has been so profoundly unsatisfying to so many for so long. People raised as Hindus or Muslims or Buddhists or Jews might privately decide it was all nonsense, but also nonsense that helped people to live better happier lives than they would live without belief. Such a view is found also among some nominal Christians, but a much larger number could not stomach what was being done in the name of religion.
Plato’s idea was that people far removed from ordinary lives would be good rulers (as distinct from good teachers, which Plato undoubtedly was:
Among the Guardians both private property and the family are to be abolished. Plato’s dislike of both has one main cause. He thought that private interests and private affections distracted a man from his duties to the community; and both are centred on the family. (Ibid., Translator’s Introduction, page 39)
Plato does not give due attention to whether people without private interests would lack sympathy and understanding for the rest of society. Or whether they might express greedy and selfish feelings in other ways, with the organisation becoming an alternative family or ‘greater self’..
Ambitious religions need to resort to threats of damnation and promises of heaven, with strong clerical control over both. The original Christianity was a sectarian movement that was quite content with its own salvation while the rest of a wicked world went to Hell if it did not repent. But when the wicked world became semi-Christian and Bishops found they had power within it, a graduated system of punishments and rewards would be more useful. Besides, there was no use in prayers for the dead if they went immediately to eternal bliss or eternal damnation, as all early Christian tradition accepted.
The doctrine of Purgatory was therefore invented by Official Christianity, with small Biblical basis, but using a model that Plato had proposed. In The Republic, he tells of a man who supposedly returned from death and gave an account of a purgatorial Afterlife:
For every wrong he has committed a man must pay the penalty in turn, ten times for each… He pays, therefore, tenfold retribution for each crime… And those who have done good and been just and god-fearing are rewarded in the same proportion. He told me too about the infants who died as soon as they were born or lived only a short time, but what he said is not worth recalling. And he described the even greater penalties and rewards of those who had honoured or dishonoured gods or parents or committed murder…
That Plato thought the matter of dead infants ‘not worth recalling’ is typical of the man, uninterested in anyone unable to become a suitably reverential pupil. Later Christians did at least agonise over the matter and suppose that such infants went to a comfortable limbo, a curious fate after God had supposedly created them and then casually let them die, but the best that could be managed when it came to resolving a visible imperfect world run by a perfect all-powerful God.
Plato also has perpetual damnation in Tartarus for the really offensive people:
“most of them tyrants, though there were a few who had behaved very wickedly in private life. (Ibid., page 395).
Of course something similar is found in earlier religions, including that of Egypt, which may have originated the systematic belief in life after death. It is notable that the oldest books of the Bible say nothing at all about any survival after death. As the Marxist biologist J B S Haldane put it:
“I am told that men have always believed in immortality, and that religion and morality are impossible without it. The truth of this ludicrous statement may be tested by referring to the first seven books of the. Bible. They are full of religion and ethics, but contain no reference to human survival of death. Nor did the Psalmist believe in it. ‘The dead praise not Thee, O Lord,’ he said, ‘neither all they that go down into silence’
“Belief in a life beyond the grave reached its culminating point in Egypt four or five thousand years ago, when the rich, at any rate, seem to have spent more money in provisioning for their future life than for their present. To judge from what has come down to us of his writings, Moses, the Man of God, who was well versed in Egyptian religion, had no more use for a future life than for the worship of crocodiles.
“Most of the men under my command whom I got to know during the war believed in God. But I think the majority thought that death would probably be the end of them, and I am absolutely certain that that is the view of most highly educated people.
“I am also asked to believe in a future life on philosophical grounds. There are a number of arguments which seem to prove that my soul is eternal and indestructible. Unfortunately, they also prove that it has existed from all eternity. And, though I am quite willing to believe that ten years after my death I shall be as I was ten years before my birth, the prospect cannot be said to thrill me. (Haldane on Life, Death and Jesus)
J B S Haldane was a scientist who was also an effective communicator. An enthusiast for Communism in the days when Stalin was in charge of it. Also a pioneer of modern morality, refusing to resign his Cambridge professorship after being publicly named as a guilty party in a divorce action–almost anything was allowed behind closed doors, but to be caught was supposed to be unforgivable, only Haldane successfully argued against this at a ‘moral supervisory’ body that bore the unfortunate Latin name of Sex Veri, and ‘Veri’ was pronounced like weary in the Cambridge style. Haldane was the only major advocate of Darwinian struggle who also practised it:
“When I got the opportunity of killing other people during the war I enjoyed it very much, though it is now more fashionable to say that one hated every moment of it. If I were ashamed of that particular skeleton (which is really a quite respectable relic of primitive man) I should hide my real motive from myself, invent excellent moral reasons for violence, and go forth in holy anger and pious grief to smite the wicked…” (Illnesses that make us healthier, in the collection The Inequality of Man)
None of the other theorists of struggle could match that–Jack London was a mere brawler. But like Jack London, Haldane felt that this primitive vestige was something we could and should grow beyond. Personally superior in a way that their right-wing contemporaries very seldom were, they never the less thought that peace and equality were ideals we should strive for.
Plato was also a superior individual, but in an era when life was so hard that it was impossible to imagine equality except as a crude levelling down. Only the privileged had time to think about the world, so it was to them that Socrates and Plato looked, with regrettable results.
Plato had no clear idea of history. Some of his pupils were gifted mathematicians, because mathematics is best understood in terms of eternal ‘forms’. But Plato was over-confident in applying the same concept to other matters. Thus:
For example, there are many particular beds and tables… But there are only two Forms, one of Bed and one of Table (Ibid., page 371)
The mundane view would be that beds and tables are an adaptation to the human needs for sleep and feeding. A civilisation build by bats or elephants or centaurs would probably do such things quite differently, whereas their concepts of circles and triangles ought to be the same.
Plato did not draw the correct lesson from his parable of the blind men and the elephant. (Which I think came from Hindu philosophy anyway, the Indians having debated similar questions long before and much more deeply.) He might have concluded that you should build an increasingly valid picture from a mix of observation, theory and experiments. The method of modern science, which may have been invented or part-invented by the ‘pre-Socratic’ philosophers. Instead he concluded you could get a ‘whole-elephant’ solution by quasi-geometric methods. Systems of formal logic with dabs of mysticism to fill the gaps, since in fact there is nothing to show Plato’s preferred solutions are any better than anyone else’s.
This is also true of geometry as the Greeks knew it. You may get a valid answer if you apply these tools correctly. And most real mathematics consists of finding a workable and valid solution to a problem that might be impossibly complex if approached directly. Plato’s ‘truer than truth’ philosophy’ took the proto-scientific observation that there are sometimes underlying rules, and twisted it into a metaphysical muddle.
It’s interesting to compare Plato to Confucius, as H G Wells did:
“[Confucius] found a prince, but court intrigues undermined the influence of the teacher and finally defeated his reforming proposals. It is interesting to note that a century and a half later the Greek philosopher Plato also sought a prince and was for a time adviser to the tyrant Dionysius who ruled Syracuse in Sicily.
“Confucius died a disappointed man. ‘No intelligent ruler arises to take me as his master,’ he said, ‘and my time has come to die.’ But his teaching had more vitality than he imagined in his declining and hopeless years, and it became a great formative influence with the Chinese people. It became one of what the Chinese call the Three Teachings, the other two being those of Buddha and of Lao Tse.
“The gist of the teaching of Confucius was the way of the noble or aristocratic man. He was concerned with personal conduct as much as Gautama [Buddah] was concerned with the peace of self-forgetfulness and the Greek with external knowledge and the Jew with righteousness. He was the most public-minded of all great teachers. He was supremely concerned by the conusion and miseries of the world, and he wanted to make men noble in order to bring about a noble world. He sought to regulate conduct to an extraordinary extent; to provide sound rules for every occasion in life. A polite, public-spirited gentleman, rather sternly self-disciplined, was the ideal he found already developing in the northern Chinese world and one to which he gave a permanent form.” (Wells, Short History Of The World, page 110)
Confucius looked back to earlier customs that had more or less worked. His school later provided the basis for a stable sophisticated empire, the most powerful and successful before the age of Industrialism. Whereas Plato’s heritage was ever diverse and self-destructive.
Plato evaded his own geometric model of politics. Geometry has at least a set of clear definitions, though it turned out they simplified the world and missed a great deal of what was going on. Plato never could find any coherent way of solidifying his political concepts, which remained hazy.
Plato’s did however anticipate the later division of labour. The democracy and lack of specialisation of the contemporary Greek world was something he hated and wanted to be rid of:
“But it means a considerable addition to our state, the addition of an army, which will go out and fight for its interest and defend its citizens against all comers.”
“But can’t the citizens fight for themselves…”
“One man could not do more than one job or profession well…
“Now it is surely of the greatest importance that the business of war should be efficiently run. For soldiering is not so easy a job that a man can be a soldier at the same time he is a farmer or shoemaker or follows some other trade; why you can’t even become a competent draughts or dice player if you don’t practice seriously from childhood, but only do it in your spare time.” (Ibid., page 108)
Plato was an early advocate of a future trend, a specialist military. An idea which on the whole has worked. Back in the 1960s, people spoke admiringly of the Yugoslav pattern of training the whole population for war. Not such a good idea, in view of what later happened.
But note also, political power tended to ‘grow off the edge of a sword’. Greek democracy was based on the farmer-soldier, and faded when professional armies became the norm. Athenian democracy was broad because it required rowers for its navy. Roman democracy gave more weight to the richer citizens because they had the greater military power.
Plato justified and philosophised the trends that won out in the Mediterranean world, specialist armies and rulers set above and apart from the society. Classical Greece never did drop the idea of the all-round man, a notion which later ages have admired. But as with democracy, this was the very opposite of what Plato was arguing for.
Plato also originated what one might call the ‘shysters for God’ principle, the sort of thing that Pascal criticised as ‘Jesuitry’ but which was a much deeper trend within Latin Christianity. Dishonesty on behalf of the Divine–though just why an all-powerful God needs to be served with such baseness is never explained.
Plato first made his mark as a boxer, remember. In the modern world, sporty types often have good subsequent careers in business or politics, but boxing is much more a preparation for gangsterism than anything legitimate.
In the Greek world, as among the later Romans in the dying days of the Republic, there was no very clear line between crime and militarism. Armed men taking over a city could be an army of liberators, at least in their own eyes. But what Plato and his boys did to Syracuse, any half-decent gangster would be ashamed of. It was doing fine under the tyrant Dionysius and his son; Plato’s efforts helped mess it up. Plato however had philosophy to help him wriggle out of it, and subsequent generations have mostly been fooled by his ‘line of patter’.
Karl Popper was spot on when he traced ‘totalitarian’ thinking back to Plato. His mistake was to think that Liberalism represented something different.
Liberalism can be mild when it has already conquered. But it is identical to the systems commonly called ‘totalitarian’ in wanting to impose its own pattern and suppress all else. And Parnell was not mistaken when he identified his allies in the 19th century British Liberal Party as heirs of Cromwell, turned into allies just by a common opposition to Toryism and the landed interest. Liberalism From Cromwell To Lloyd George is a book I definitely intend to write when other projects are completed.
Plato’s world-view has been seen in Western tradition as the quintessential philosopher, God alone knows why. Indeed God or rather certain opinions attributed to God by human authorities are the key to the matter. ‘Rational’ philosophers slip in the assumption that all of their prejudices are somehow blessed by God. And when God somehow carelessly omitted to put the correct justifications in Holy Writ, philosophy can fill the gap.
Please note that Socrates did claim some sort of divine authority, that he was more qualified than anyone else to say what was proper.
It was common gossip that Socrates claimed that the divine communicated to him. This, I imagine, was the chief reason for accusing him of introducing new deities. Yet he was no more heretical than any other people who believe in divination and rely on portents and omens… Socrates asserted what he actually believed: he said that the divine does the communicating. He often warned his associates to do this or not do that, at the prompting of the divine… (Xenophon, Conversations Of Socrates, page 68-69)
The ‘Christianity’ of the Christianised Roman Empire was more like Platonism with a Christian gloss, an historic compromise made in the 3rd Century by one branch of the Church. This synthetic creed, rather remote from the views of Jesus of Nazareth or Paul of Tarsus, was ready and waiting when Constantine decided to accept Christianity as a legitimate supplement to the pagan Sun-cult.
Tertullian’s question, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ was a sound one. ‘Far too much’ was the answer, unfortunately. Born in Carthage, Tertullian pioneered elements of what later became the dominant Latin-Christian tradition. But his path in life was a reversal of the path of Augustine of Hippo.
Saint Augustine (in Latin, Augustinus), bishop of Hippo in Roman Africa from 396 to 430, and the dominant personality of the Western Church of his time, is generally recognized as having been the greatest thinker of Christian antiquity. His mind was the crucible in which the religion of the New Testament was most completely fused with the Platonic tradition of Greek philosophy; and it was also the means by which the product of this fusion was transmitted to the Christendoms of medieval Roman Catholicism and Renaissance Protestantism. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Augustine learned dogmatism from the non-Christian Manichaean, and then applied it to the state-sponsored version of Christianity. His fellow North-African Tertullian left the Catholic Church in favour of a more rigorous and perhaps more genuinely Christian sect:
“In antiquity most Christians never forgave him for his apostasy (rejection of his earlier faith) to Montanism. Later Christian writers mention him only infrequently, and then mostly unfavourably. Somewhat grudgingly, however, they acknowledged his literary gifts and acute intelligence. Modern scholars, however, do not share this earlier view. In the 19th and 20th centuries Tertullian has been widely read and studied and is considered one of the formative figures in the development of Christian life and thought in the West.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
The Montanists and similar creeds lost out to the official version. Augustine was noted for his struggle with the rather similar Donatists:
“a Christian group in North Africa that broke with the Roman Catholics in 312 over the election of Caecilian as bishop of Carthage; the name derived from their leader, Donatus (d. c. 355). Historically, the Donatists belong to the tradition of early Christianity that produced the Montanist and Novatianist movements in Asia Minor and the Melitians in Egypt. They opposed state interference in church affairs, and, through the peasant warriors called Circumcellions, they had a program of social revolution combined with eschatological hopes. Martyrdom following a life of penance was the goal of the religiously minded Donatist. Despite almost continuous pressure from successive Roman, Vandal, and Byzantine rulers of North Africa, the Donatist church survived until the extinction of Christianity in North Africa in the early European Middle Ages.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
The Latin-Christian tradition was intolerant, in part because it had a just-for-me view of the universe. Almost every other tradition would see humans as a small part of a much vaster and older creation. But to Christians of the Augustinian tradition, the world was a grand test or puzzle to which they alone had the correct solution, the path to heaven rather than hell.
Plato’s follycraft allowed crafty thinkers to elaborate a theology that confirmed and reinforced all of their prejudices along the way. And replaced almost all the original teaching of Jesus. Of course the original teaching of Jesus looks like the creed of a small end-of-the-world sect that assumed the mundane world was not important and not their concern. You can’t get a normal functional religion out of that, you have to cheat and fudge.
Remembering Plato and the elephant, I’d hesitate to say which bit of the elephant the Christians of the Augustinian tradition may have got hold of
The 1960s were a grand revolt within Western Europe against the Augustinian tradition, and a recognition that there were other ways to live. A continuation of the 18th century European Enlightenment, against 19th century developments that have no standard name, and which I’d like to call the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’.
The ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ is not yet dead, but is definitely damaged. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the biggest upholder of the various errors derived from Plato is the United States of America. Plato would surely have despised their mix of asocial liberalism, vulgar democracy and hysterical Christian ‘fundamentalism’, yet they are the current fruit of his teaching.