Tag Archives: Plato

Jerusalem and Athens

Back when I was studying Augustine, I found that the more I learned about his view, the more it sounded like he was basically a Calvinist. Predestination, Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Irresistible Grace; all of these themes can be found in Augustine’s thought, a thousand years before John Calvin entered the scene. But I could never be entirely sure. Some of my sources on Augustine were themselves explicitly Calvinists; might they be filtering his thought through their own? How could I disentangle Augustine’s thought from concepts that were layered on ages later? I’m still not sure, but I think the answer is that Calvin was in fact building on ideas first put for by Augustine. Augustine may not have been a Calvinist, but Calvin was an Augustinian.1

Plato gives me a similar feeling. Reading the Republic was a watershed moment in my life. It was almost a conversion moment for me, more so even than my actual conversion, which happened when I was so young that there was very little to convert. Reading through the ancient Greeks, I get the strong feeling that at last I’m getting a glimpse behind the dark glass at the real truth of things.

Greek philosophy seems so in line with Christian theology that it’s uncanny. The very word “philosophy” literally means “lover of wisdom,” which is given the highest praise throughout the Proverbs. Using only their reason, they deduced that there was a single God underlying all creation, in whom everything has its being. They held up pursuit of Truth as the highest good, something Jesus himself would certainly agree with. They were deeply concerned with living a life of virtue, and argued strenuously for it against the Sophists. In this world, they held up “friendship” as one of the greatest goods; but the concept would be better translated as “love,” which again ties back into God himself. Basically, all that is left is to identify those threads with Jesus and you’re done.

I’m hardly the first to think so, either. As early as Justin Martyr, Christians found themselves admiring and turning to the Greeks. And here we again come to Augustine. Augustine was a Platonist, and throughout his writings he merges the two systems of thought together. And that’s the catch. Do I find Plato appealing because he’s right? Or do I find him appealing because I’ve been living my whole life under systems of thought that always had him at their root?

It may not really be that important; so long as he is right the rest is really just details. I will always be grateful to and love Plato. Apologetics gave my faith a shield, but it was philosophy that gave it deep roots.

1 We are all Augustinians, at least all of us in the West.

The Telos of Kitty Cats

Cat have I loved, but dog have I hated.My cat, Plato, died this month of sudden heart failure. One moment he was eating supper, the next his body was sprawled on the ground, and he was gone. At least he died doing what he loved.

Plato was a good cat.

But what does that mean? He never donated large sums to charity, or prevented a robbery, or saved a life, or bequeathed deep wisdom, or even earned a paycheck. He wasn’t even exceptional looking; that is an actual picture of him there, but you could be forgiven for having thought it was a stock cat photo. If I lived the life Plato did, I would be considered a shiftless bum.

But Plato was not a human. He was a cat, and he was a good one.

Plato’s namesake gave us a concept known as telos. A thing’s telos is its goal or purpose. Everything has a telos, and different types of things have different teloses. Spoons, forks, trees, mice, men, and women are each different things with different purposes. Traits that make one of those things good may very well make another one bad. When Paul speaks of the many parts of the body, he is describing exactly this diversified community of telos. God made different things for different ends, and He will only expect from them in proportion to what they have been given.

Plato was a cat, and he was a good one. When we visited to the animal rescue, we only intended to take home his sister. He took it upon himself to curl up in my lap and purr himself to sleep. That earned him a home, and he never tired of earning his keep, filling my empty lap whenever it was possible, and often making a strong attempt even when it wasn’t possible. He liked gazing out the window at the birds, squeaking at them and dreaming of fresh food. On a few lucky occasions he found and dispatched mice which were making their homes where they shouldn’t have. When I worked from home, he would brave a dog 4 times his size in order to be near me. When I went to bed, he would lie on my chest and purr some more. When it grew cold, he would climb underneath the covers and form his own tiny warm cave.

I do not know if animals go to Heaven. I hope, and even suspect, that they do, but I have no real data to work from. But I do know that Plato was a good cat, and our lives were better for having him in it. Plato loved us, and I credit it to him as righteousness.

Rest in peace, kitten.

Nichomachean Politics

Plato and AristotlePeople tend to think of Plato’s Republic1 as a book of political theory, but it is actually about virtue. The first few chapters orient around attempting to define just what it means to act justly, and then debate whether it’s actually better to live a good life instead of a selfish one. Even when Socrates does finally get into a discussion on the proper form of government, he ends up comparing each governmental structure to an individual’s psychological makeup, tying in virtuous government with virtuous living. In fact, the discussion on government is really only a means to an end; Socrates uses it to dovetail back into his earlier discussion, and demonstrate that it is more rewarding to live a just life than an unjust one.

(A side note: all the great philosophers oriented themselves around the question of moral living. The move away from that is a recent phenomenon, and is the main reason our image of “philosopher” has gone from that of a respectable wise man to a stoned undergrad wondering “how can we really even know anything, maaaaan?”)

Aristotle went into more depth on the life of virtue, because Aristotle went into more depth on everything. He ended up with what he called “Nicomachean Ethics” (named after his son). The main idea was that virtue lay in charting a middle path between certain characteristics, where either an excess or deficiency is to fall into error. For example, too much confidence, and you become rash. Too little and you become cowardly. But if you hit just the right balance between fear and confidence, you are brave.

It’s not a perfect system2, but it provides a useful method for looking closer at the neo-neo-Confucian pillars of society. Any institute in society can go wrong when it oversteps its bounds in any direction. Consider the family: it is the bedrock of every society. It produces societal members to keep the society going, and it trains those new members up and gives them the knowledge they need to contribute to that society. At the same time, it provides the parents with incentive to work hard, produce, and build a better future. As a bonus, it provides a support structure for any member when they fall on hard times.

A society oriented away from the family ends up like our inner cities: full of poverty, violence, and no real hope for the future. A society oriented too heavily around the family ends up with clans, where honesty and justice can only be expected between cousins. This latter point is easily forgotten in the West, where we haven’t experienced clans in ages. The fact that we got rid of them and hit on a much better balance is a big part of why we surpassed the rest of the world.

As I continue this Pillars of Society series, that will be my goal: identify the institution, figure out what it’s good for, and then figure out where it can go horribly wrong. Hopefully that will also shed light on good ways to structure that institution.

Unless, of course, I get bored and move on to something other topic entirely. Dragons are kind of nifty…

1 What’s that? You say that normal people don’t think of Plato’s Republic at all? I don’t understand.

2 This is also where folks get the notion that “the truth is somewhere in the middle.” This is never true, or at the very least it is never truly applied. People only ever look for the middle of whatever bubble of opinion they choose to marinate in. This bubble is never itself in the middle of the range of opinion existing in the world, let alone the rest of human history, let alone the set of all possible opinions.