Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Sameness and Difference in Plato

Part of The Sacred History of Being is devoted to a substantial discussion of the Ontological Argument. This may seem to be a rather odd inclusion in a book which is essentially about the idea of the plenum, and the presence of that idea in ancient history, at least as far back as the 14th century before the common era. The reason the discussion is there is because philosophical writing about the divine in the west departed from the consideration of reality as something intricately bound up with a plenum during the Middle Ages. As a result, philosophical argument about the divine, all the way up to the present day, cannot deal credibly with certain issues, and no longer resembles the kind of argument about the divine found in ancient literature. The ontological argument, as formulated from the Middle Ages onwards, contains within itself the essence of the problem. Which is why I subjected it to a critical examination.

Essentially philosophy, as a craft and a discipline, is broken in the modern world. It spends a lot of time running around in circles, chasing its own tail, and is unable to resolve important questions. Philosophy is of course, by its very nature, difficult to do well, since it concerns itself with questions which are fundamental to our understanding of both ourselves and the world. However some of the difficulties encountered by philosophers over the past thousand years or so are problems with the presumptions of philosophy itself, not the complexity of the materials with which it works.

A striking feature of Plato’s discussion of the divine is his equation of the divine (ho Theos) with reality itself. He also speaks of the divine in the singular, within the context of a polytheistic culture. Why does he do this?

The answer is that he understood the idea that behind the world of appearance was an undifferentiated plenum. Unlike many modern philosophers, who take physical existence as a given, and do not ask fundamental questions about what physical existence is, and how it came to be, the question of how it came to be was something which was referenced not just in Plato’s Timaeus, which overtly addresses the question, but was a concern which surfaces in his other dialogues. The nature of the creation therefore was understood to have a bearing on many other questions which the philosopher ought to consider.

A key part of the concept of the plenum is that it represents our human understanding of how the world must have been before anything came to have physical existence. Modern cosmological models of the creation of the universe (such as they are), assume that there was some kind of creation ex nihilo, though the process is necessarily mysterious when looked at from the point of view of physics. The major problem with the idea of a physical creation, is that there is no physics before the creation, no laws of nature, no space, no extension, and no time. There is a complete absence of the principal characteristics of the physical world that we are familiar with. So there is nothing for a physicist to grapple with. Hence most discussion of the creation concerns itself with the hypothetical first microseconds after all these characteristics are imagined to magically and mysteriously appear.

Yet there is no absence at the root of the creation. To say that there is such an absence, is to presume the existence of a presence with which absence can be contradistinguished. There is nothing at all that we can define as an absence. Whatever it is, it transcends the category, ‘absence’. It is neither one thing, or its opposite. It simply is what it is.

How does recognising the transcendent nature of the underlying plenum change the way we must argue about the creation? The definition of the plenum is that, since it is something which cannot be understood as a presence or an absence, it represents instead the potential for such differentiation; in that sense it can be understood as a fullness of what it itself is. It is also the one thing which is truly real, in that it is itself, and does not change its nature. It is beyond time, space and extension. It is eternal, and eternally itself.

How then is the generation of physical reality, with its laws and properties, to be explained? Plato sometimes uses different terminology to refer to the same ideas in his dialogues, which has made some of his meaning opaque, but he does use the idea of the same and the different in connection with the creation of time, using the image of the celestial equator and the ecliptic. According to this image, time began when the two circles were set at an angle to each other.  

In referring to the same and the different, Plato is alluding to what we understand as the Pythagorean notion of the undefined dyad. If reality (the plenum) is one, and the one by itself alone, then, if more than one of anything is to have some kind of existence, the plenum must come to some kind of relationship with itself. So, the plenum (the same) must in some way stand in relation to itself as the different.

This of course is an abstract notion. The plenum is eternally itself, and unchanging. It is also one. If there is to be more than one, or a multiplicity of anything, this can only be in the form of a representation within the nature of the plenum. The representation is not truly real, and any movement within that representation is also not truly real.

This is the origin of the widespread notion in antiquity that the world is illusion, or Maya. The fact that aspects of this illusion can have fatal consequences to individuals, if a rock falls off a mountain, or if people are swept away by a flood, does not undermine the notion that the physical world is illusion, in comparison with the reality of the underlying plenum. Neither does the fact that the physical world is structured according to strict rules, and also functions according to strict rules of what is and is not possible.


  1. Thank you - I really enjoyed this article. I think you're dead right today to say that philosophy is broken. I'd say the last philosopher who tried to deal with the problems of our relationship to reality as set by Plato was Edmund Husserl, who died in 1938 and who managed to combine a person-centred existentialism with a recognition that things-in-themselves do exist and being-in-itself does exist. Again, I very much enjoyed reading your piece.

  2. And thank you for your comment on this article. I agree with you about the general importance of Husserl. In fact there is a large component of Husserlian phenomenology in what I am doing: I use a number of Husserl's concepts and techniques to approach questions in ancient history, and the history of ideas. I've not mentioned this methodological background to my work very much, but it is there, and particularly in 'The Sacred History of Being'. I intend to write about it some way down the line.

    Best, Thomas