Thursday, 20 October 2016

Plato's Point of View (and why we think he doesn't have one)

One of the greatest barriers to the understanding of Plato is that he is writing from a perspective quite different from our own. I say ‘our own’, because this perspective can be clearly defined as something which we, in our cultural continuum, implicitly accept (even if a number of individuals in that culture don’t). That is, we assume that what is real is what is physical. So when Plato was writing about what is metaphysical rather than the physical, he was writing about something extra, something beyond that physical reality. Sometimes this other level of reality is spoken of as a supersensible realm, in that it is beyond the world of sensory experience, and also beyond a comprehension which requires sense data.

This is not the way that Plato would have looked at transcendent reality. It is not something extra, superposed on physical reality and the world of sensory experience. It was there first, and had its existence before matter and sensory experience came to have existence.

This is the plenum, which I have discussed elsewhere. It is unlimited, and undefined. It is what must be there before anything is defined. It is neither presence nor absence. It can be thought of as the nothingness before the creation of anything, but to characterise it as nothingness is to misunderstand both what it is, and how it needs to be understood.

If the physical world did not exist, and so there was no such thing as movement, all that might be possible, in terms of a physical existence, and consequently movement, would necessarily exist in potential in that transcendent and undefined plenum. The evidence of our senses, and the categories of our understanding, tell us that the world of movement and change, illusion or not, has a certain level of reality, which has a certain mathematical regularity, which is one way to define something which has intelligible reality. All of that is necessarily present in the plenum, which is ever-present and unchanging, and devoid of actual movement. Of any sort at all.

From Plato’s point of view, the transcendent reality is the only thing which is truly real, and which is necessarily what it is, and not something other than it is. It is not a copy of anything. It is eternal in its nature, and is not subject to change of any sort.

The major difficulty in understanding Plato arises from the fact that almost all discussion in Plato’s canon of works is based on an abstract understanding of the transcendent reality. He is not trying to penetrate what is transcendently real from the point of view of physical or sensory reality, existing in time and space. Instead, he has an understanding of the nature of what is real, largely built on logical  and dialectical argument.

By this I mean the nature of reality itself can be approached and understood by questioning what it is, and what it is not, what properties it may or may not have, and how it stands in relation to the physical world. Questions such as ‘is reality itself one or many? If it is one, how is it the case that the physical and sensory world is full of things, and why is it represented to us in such a way?’ And the opposite question also makes sense: ‘if reality consists of the many, and not one thing, in what way can we understand reality as reality itself? Why should there be many things at the root of reality?’

Which is how the ancient consensus about the nature of reality came to be. This consensus was in place as early as the mid-second millennium BCE. But possibly much earlier than that.

So much of Plato’s argumentation is based on a point of view which we generally do not share in the modern world, and which is hard for us to fathom. Where Plato's work is taught, which is almost every major academic institution in the world, it is not taught or understood in terms of a range of arguments which apply to the transcendent reality, and questions of existence and the creation of a physical world which is full of both things and images. Instead, it is taught in terms of exercises in human thought, covering a vast range of subjects, including discussions of metaphysics, the ideas of beauty and justice, ethics and morality, of friendship and love, mathematics, geometry; even philology and etymology (in the Cratylus). It is taught in this way, since much of subsequent philosophical thought has its roots in Plato’s dialogues, even if we do not fully understand the point of view expressed in them.

So Platonic thought is taught in a fragmentary way, which Plato would not have understood, and the intellectual and logical roots of the dialogues are often treated as neither here nor there.

The tradition of studying Plato lay largely fallow after the collapse of the ancient world, and particularly after the closure of the philosophical schools in 529 C.E. This closure is an extremely significant event in history, though the destruction of the glories of the ancient world had been under way already for a considerable period (as far back as the argument with Caligula about putting images of Caesar in the temple in Jerusalem, recorded by Philo Judaeus, who was the man who drew the short straw). The closure of the schools tells us that the basis upon which the ancient world once argued about the nature of reality and physical existence was opposed by imperial power and its requirements, and that humanity was entering a period in which knowledge and thought were thoroughly deprecated.

Ideas of the importance of knowledge and what it is, and also what is meant by the divine, and the role of the divine for the human race, were now based on the requirements of the secular powers, and their political and ideological concerns.

Formerly, political power, and royal and imperial knowledge of the will of the divine and the gods, drew strength from the idea that there was a rational connection between the nature of reality and the divine, and the world of the here and now, the secular world of time, and of physical power (expressed eloquently by Homer, with the golden chain of Zeus stretching into the world, according to his will). Now the nature of reality was of no interest, and gave nothing to the secular powers. Whatever was left of the notion of a rational connection between physical reality and the divine ran the other way. Physical power and its preoccupations would now determine the kinds of discussions there would be about divine things.

We have been on this downward slide since the time of imperial Rome and its campaigns of conquest. It is one of the most powerful of Roman legacies.
The story of the occasional and partial reversals of this long intellectual and cultural slide has yet to be told coherently, and I am not going to undertake the task here. I will mention the reversal in the Italian renaissance, where Plato was understood rather differently than he is now. For example, it is useful to approach Plato through Marsilio Ficino’s understanding of his work, and also through the writings of Giordano Bruno.

So it is not that we have no alternative ways to approach Platonic thought; but we choose not to look at another approach, since we know what is real, and what isn’t. We think this is a rational view, and our own way of thinking, but it has been gifted to us as the result of political and ideological struggles long ago, which did not fear to destroy rational connection with a transcendent Reality, once understood as the reason why the physical world existed at all. 

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