Monday, 17 July 2017

The significance of the chapter on Plato's theory of Being


One chapter in The Sacred History of Being is particularly difficult to understand as presented. It is the way it is because it concerns an argument by Plato concerning the nature of reality, and whether or not divine things can have a presence in the world. It also concerns how such a presence should be understood. The chapter is an assemblage of Platonic argument,  scattered through a number of dialogues. I'm not aware of any other attempt to reconstruct Plato's discussion of the nature of reality, so the job needed to be done. 

The chapter can be understood as a reconstruction of how Plato might have discussed the nature of reality with those of his students deemed to have the ability to grasp the esoteric understanding of Being. It is a reconstruction based on references in his writings, which documents in detail the sources I used.  This documentation allows the argument to be discussed critically by those who have not been on the same path as I have over the past twenty years or so. 

Though the chapter is a difficult read, it is not that difficult to explain. In conversation with a reader recently, I provided a short explanation of the nature of the chapter, and its significance for the overall argument of The Sacred History of Being. It concerns the belief that divinity could be present in inanimate objects, and whether reality itself is necessarily one. And the consequences which necessarily follow from such discussion. 

I wrote:
The chapter which explores Plato's theory of Being is the most difficult chapter in the whole book, without question. But it is crucial to an understanding of the overall thesis. I recommend skipping forward to read the postscript, and the chapter on Pythagoras and Totality, which explain  something of the context and significance of Plato's argument.

I can however tell you what the significance of Plato's argument is, once all the pieces are put together (which is what I did in that chapter). One of the central mysteries of the ancient world is how and why did they believe that inanimate objects could be considered to be divine? Modern anthropologists are forced to argue that they believed this because of intellectual error. The chapter shows that in fact the belief that an inanimate statue could house the divine was based on a logical argument, which Plato references at various points in his canon (most crucially in The Sophist). The logical conclusion of the argument is simply that the world in which we live has a double nature. The world is a plenum which presents to us a partial picture of reality (because we are finite creatures and not infinite). The real world (the fulness, or the plenum) cannot move without compromising its nature. So reality is not subject to change. There cannot be a finite world and an infinite one, which would also compromise the nature of the plenum.

The conclusion which must be drawn, though not overtly and clearly expressed by Plato, is that on purely logical grounds, the finite world is an illusion, and a representation of the unmoving plenum which appears to contain movement. That is its double nature. It is both infinite and finite at the same time.

This is the reason why it was possible to understand an unmoving statue as a god: because it is both infinite and finite at the same time.

The overall argument of the book is to this effect - hence the examination of Mesopotamian rituals for the installation of divine statues toward the end of the book.

So the ancient belief in the divinity of statues was not the result of careless thought or a primitive stupidity, but the result of careful argument about the nature of reality itself, in both Greece and Assyria, and elsewhere. This places philosophical thought (dialectical argument) at the root of religious cult, rather than a separate and unrelated discussion of abstract questions, with no bearing on thought concerning the gods.

I hope this helps with your understanding of the argument.

Best regards,

Thomas 

No comments:

Post a Comment