Preface: I’m not an expert in any of the fields that I dig into here. I put these reflections up for your evaluation. Let me know where I’m wrong or uninformed.
I’ve been reading through The Republic by Plato. It’s a fascinating book, of course, and it deals with so many great questions. Reading Book VI this morning (in traditional book form, but here’s the link) I was struck by the way that Plato, using Socrates’ character, presented the attainment of the life of a true philosopher as nearly impossible. His pessimistic answer to the question “Then, do you see any way in which the philosopher can be preserved in his calling to the end?” is that even those who have the proper moral and intellectual gifts are likely to fall victim to flattery. The result of this apostasy is that “philosophy is left desolate, with her marriage rite incomplete: for her own have fallen away and forsaken her, and while they are leading a false and unbecoming life, other unworthy persons, seeing that she has no kinsmen to be her protectors, enter in and dishonour her; and fasten upon her the reproaches which, as you say, her reprovers utter, who affirm of her votaries that some are good for nothing, and that the greater number deserve the severest punishment.” (Similarly, Boethius has Philosophy describe a time where she was ravaged by brutish philosophical pretenders in Book I, Prose 3 of Consolation of Philosophy.) The true philosophers are few: “the worthy disciples of philosophy will be but a small remnant.”
Is there hope for philosophy? According to Plato, yes. But only in the philosopher finding or creating an entirely new society where he can rebuild from square one, founding a society that respects philosophy and philosophers.
It’s hard to escape the connections to the New Testament’s considerations of the perseverance of believers in the passage that I referred to in the first paragraph. Part of this could be that the 19th-century British translator, Benjamin Jowett, expressed this in more Christian terms than another translator might. But two things struck me here:
First, Clement of Alexandria famously wrote that philosophy was God’s means of preparing the Greeks for the gospel: “Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring “the Hellenic mind,” as the law, the Hebrews, ‘to Christ.’ Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ.” This is the kind of passage that you can see what he was talking about. Two caveats: a) I don’t know what Clement thought about this passage in The Republic, or much else about him besides this quote and b) I know that his method of approaching pagan literature has been controversial.
Second, Plato’s narrow confinement of the philosophical life to those who have the right nature and nurture is quite different from the Christian approach. Peter Brown points out in The Rise of Western Christendom (2nd edition) that ancient Christians surprised watching pagans by “claim[ing] to be able to transform the human person entirely, through conversion and baptism, in a manner which shocked traditional pagans, as wildly optimistic and, even, as irresponsible – for it seemed to offer easy, ‘instant’ forgiveness of crimes” (68). While “philosophical speculation and moral self-improvement were regarded as upper-class pursuits, not open to the average person” (70), for Christians’ “commitment to truth and moral improvement were held to be binding on all believers, irrespective of their class and culture” (71). Cyprian’s description of his conversion seems to be an example of this.
Brown says that Christian leaders presented their teachings as the true philosophy and the Church as a school of virtue. He says this in general terms, but does cite one quote from Lactantius (ellipses in Brown’s quote): “The few commands of God so change the whole man and render him new when the old self has been put off, that you do not recognize him to be the same … For with one washing, all malice will be wiped out … Here is that which all philosophers sought in their whole life … He who wishes to be wise and happy, let him hear the voice of God” (68).
Two passages from 1 Corinthians come to mind where the basis for the Christian approach is seen:
- “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ ” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ESV)
- “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV)
UPDATE (1/27/13): In Book VII, Socrates does walk back a bit from this criticism, saying “I had forgotten, I said, that we were not serious, and spoke with too much excitement. For when I saw philosophy so undeservedly trampled under foot of men I could not help feeling a sort of indignation at the authors of her disgrace: and my anger made me too vehement.” He doesn’t go further with this, though, so I think my point still stands.