Episode 01: An Overview of the Ideal

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“You’re such an Idealist…”

“In an ideal world….”

“Ideally, we could….”

The influence of  “Idealism” has so penetrated our language and our thinking that we don’t recognize it as perhaps the oldest continuously-operating philosophical system in the West. Although its influence rises and falls, its conception and articulation of “the Good” continues to shape our beliefs and aspirations. This is not good as opposed to evil, but the absolute source of all beneficence, beauty, and justice.

Bust of Plato from Glyptothek Munich.

Bust of Plato from Glyptothek Munich.

Since its founding by Socrates and Plato over 2500 years ago, “Idealism” has been the rootstock of all Western philosophy.  Alfred North Whitehead¹ of course said famously that all Western philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato, and Plato’s formulation of the Ideal set the tone for something new and unique in the world.  It is rational without being dry; spiritual without being religious; it acknowledges the shortcomings of humans, but also believes they can be as gods.
The aim of this series is to show the Ideal not as an abstract intellectual construct, but as an eternal and ever-present reality that can be known in experience by people everywhere. It is of course evident that in using the words “known” and “experience,” we are running up against the limits of language. By describing the Ideal as “eternal,” we acknowledge that it exists prior to and independent of language; by saying people “experience” it, we imply that we are different from it.  All references to it can be only allusions, and in no way can define or limit it.  Still, it is useful to speak of it if we remember that it cannot be contained within the mind; rather the mind is contained within it, and must expand to its dimensions in order to comprehend it.
Many attempts have been made to “define” the Ideal, and many of them will be examined in this series, but they all point to it as the ultimate Reality, eternal, ever-present, imperceptible to the senses, but knowable to the intellect.  Again, this is not the intellect in the ordinary sense of the thinking or critical mind, but a “higher” faculty of consciousness suited perfectly to knowing the Ideal, sharing its nature.  The Ideal is the source of all the transient objects and thoughts that can be perceived, but these are seen derivative, depending on the Ideal for their existence, therefore being less real.  In Plato’s formulation, they are mere shadows or reflections.
For some reason, most discussions of the Ideal seem to go immediately to the analogy of chairs or tables or desks.  Although there are any number of individual chairs, the analogy goes, they all share common abstracted traits that enable us to apply the word “chair” when we see one.  This conception of the Ideal as some kind of virtual furniture warehouse is a limitation and does it a disservice.  Attempts to define or prove it are self-defeating.  We can only allude.
For this reason also we will not speak of  “Idealism” as a school of thought that can be compared and contrasted with other schools of thought.  This too is a limitation.  As we will see, Plato’s school of the Ideal was not in competition with other schools of thought such as Stoicism or Pythagorianism; they all attempted to transform the lives of their students through study and practical exercises.  Plato founded his Academy to to teach the Ideal, but he always returned to its indefinability, saying we cannot speak of the Ideal or the Good itself, but only the child of the Good.
Although the clearest and most extensive description of the Ideal begins with Plato, there are intimations of it in the pre-Socratics as well as in other religious and philosophical traditions.  Many attempts² have been made to connect it with Eastern traditions, and the similarities are compelling: for example the Vedic tradition from India which speaks of the Atman as the reality and the world of the senses as Maya, or illusion. But of course there need not have been a “horizontal” communication among cultures for this to be the case.  If what we call the Ideal is the reality behind appearances, it will be the same for all cultures, although they will express it differently.
Within the Greek world, however, there are clear connections.  One is with Anaximander’s use of the term apeiron, or limitless, unbounded.  As Werner Jaeger says in The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers

 …the thing with which the world begins can only be something that is identical with none of the given substances, and yet is capable of giving rise to the vast immensity of them all. The distinguishing property of this something must therefore be the fact that it is itself unbounded; and so Anaximander calls it by this very name—apeiron.

Jaeger goes on to quote Aristotle, “…it encompasses all things and governs all things, as those persons declare who posit no other causes besides the apeiron, such as mind or love.  And this, they say, is the Divine.  For it is immortal and indestructible, as Anaximander and most of the natural philosophers maintain.”  Aristotle’s description of it as divine indicates a unity of philosophy and religion, before they became artificially separated into two separate and supposedly incompatible systems.

Bust of Parmenides of Elea

Bust of Parmenides of Elea

Parmenides, a generation older than Socrates, was so insistent on the ultimate reality of this unbounded that he could barely acknowledge the existence of things.  In his fragmentary poem he states, “Only one account of the Way remains: Being is!  Along this path are many signs: Being is uncreated, Eternal, Whole, of only one substance, unmoved, and without end….”4  And while the accounts we have of the life and teachings of Pythagoras are far removed from his historical person, it’s evident that he founded a school which taught a mathematical model of an unchanging reality.
Although we will be considering much greater detail the descriptions of key writers on their experience of the Ideal, it is worth previewing them to show the thread which connects all their thought.  (There are of course many other writers in this tradition who could have been included.) It soon becomes apparent that these writers are not simply quoting and elaborating upon Anaximander or Plato, but reporting on their own first-hand experience, an experience not reaching into the past.  It also becomes apparent that they do not traffic in sound-bites: they do not give systematic definitions that can be understood by the critical mind.  (It should also be said that I will not be providing much in the way of commentary on their writing: they are entirely capable of saying what they mean. It’s up to us to admit to the possibility that they actually do mean what they say.)
Plato, summing up his three analogies of the Ideal in The Republic (and using his alternative name of The Good, or Agathon, says:

… my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.5

Bust of Plotinus (204/5–270)

Bust of Plotinus (204/5–270)

Plotinus, who lived in the third century AD, gives a number of accounts describing his union with what he calls the One.

As we turn towards The One, we exist to a higher degree, while to withdraw from it is to fall.  Our soul is delivered from evil by rising to that place which is free from all evils.  There it knows.  There it is immune.  There it truly lives.  Life not united with the divinity is shadow and mimicry of authentic life.  Life there is the native act of The Intelligence, which, motionless in its contact with The One, gives birth to gods, beauty, justice and virtue. 6

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499)

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499)

Marsilio Ficino, who lived in 15th century Florence, was a key figure in the rebirth of Idealism, translating the works of Plato into Latin.  But it is clear that his commitment also was not not just that of a scholar–he too was moved to experiences of unity such as those described by Plotinus.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile, if we wish to attain what we are seeking, to flee only to that which does not flee anywhere. But that alone cannot flee anywhere which cannot be moved anywhere, since it fills the universe. However, is there any need even to be moved to that which is not moved anywhere, which is present everywhere in every single thing? Then let us not be moved or distracted by many things, but let us remain in unity as much as we are able, since we find eternal unity and the one eternity, not through movement or multiplicity, but through being still and being one. 7

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

And lastly, we will look at Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose accounts of his own experiences with the Ideal are still the clearest and most powerful in English. He says in his essay “The Over-Soul,

There are degrees in idealism. We learn first to play with it academically, as the magnet was once a toy. Then we see in the heyday of youth and poetry that it may be true, that it is true in gleams and fragments. Then, its countenance waxes stern and grand, and we see that it must be true. It now shows itself ethical and practical. We learn that God IS; that he is in me; and that all things are shadows of him. The idealism of Berkeley is only a crude statement of the idealism of Jesus, and that again is a crude statement of the fact, that all nature is the rapid efflux of goodness executing and organizing itself. 8

If you’re a pessimist, this is bad news. It becomes difficult to hold onto the idea that our lives are “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Another feature common to these philosophers is the need to establish schools where the knowledge of the Ideal can be deepened and shared.  Plato, of course, founded the Academy in Athens, which he believed was the only place where his true teaching was made known–not in his written works.  The influence of the Academy continued throughout the Mediterranean world for centuries, no doubt producing other figures whose experiences, either because they did not write or because their writings were lost, are unknown to us.
Plotinus held regular instruction for his followers at the home of his patron in Rome, a woman named Gemina.  He attracted people from all walks of life, even the emperor Gallienus who was himself moved to visit Greece and be initiated in the Elusinian mysteries.

Cosimo de Medici  (1389-1464)

Cosimo de Medici (1389-1464)

Ficino was a founder of a neo-Platonic Academy in Florence that included many of the key creative minds of that heady time and place, often including Ficino’s patrons, Cosimo and his grandson Lorenzo de Medici.  In a larger sense, Ficino participated in an academy of letters, having correspondence with an international network of “Idealists” who came to know Plato through his translations.
And Emerson met regularly with the remarkable group of people who lived in and around Concord, Massachusetts–Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Henry Hedge and others–who were given the somewhat pejorative term “Transcendentalists” by those outside it.
It is also important to remember that these schools, as well as others such as those of Pythagoras, the Stoics, the Epicureans, did not regard philosophy—the love of wisdom—as a purely theoretical exercise, as it has become.  While there were differences in their emphasis and expression, these schools essentially saw humans as disconnected from their true natures, and they attempted through different practices to reconnect them.  As Pierre Hadot says in Philosophy as a Way of Life, 9

In their view, philosophy did not consist of teaching an abstract theory—much less in the exegesis of texts—but rather in the art of living.  It is a concrete attitude and determinate lifestyle, which engages the whole of existence.  The philosophical act is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but on that of the self and of being.  It is a progress which causes us to be more fully, and makes us better.  It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it.  It raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom.

This emphasis on turning one’s life upside down—what Plato called “conversion”–has of course created tension with different political, religious and academic power structures throughout history.  We will see this in more detail during discussions of the historical contexts, but two examples jump to mind: Socrates was executed in 399 BC for “atheism and corrupting the youth of Athens,” and Emerson was denounced and banished from Harvard for many years after delivering his Divinity School address in 1838.  All true expressions of the Ideal must necessarily come from outside the Establishment.
With these preliminaries in mind, let us move on to provide a historical context for the foundational figures in our study: Socrates and his student Plato.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.  Special thanks to Richard G. Geldard.

¹The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh During the Session 1927-28), Free Press, 1979

²  Most thoroughly in Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, Allworth Press, 2001

³  Werner Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers: The Gifford Lectures, 1936, Wipf and Stock, 2003

4 Richard G. Geldard, Parmenides and the Way of Truth,  Monkfish Press, 2007

5 There are any number of editions of The Republic, including several online, such as this.

6 Plotinus, The Enneads: Abridged Edition (Penguin Classics), Translated by Stephen MacKenna, Penguin, 1991

7 Marsilio Ficino,Meditations on the Soul: Selected Letters of Marsilio Ficino, Translated by Clement Salaman et al, Inner Traditions, 1997

8 Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Portable Emerson (Viking Portable Library), Essays and Poems, Library of America, 1996

9 Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, Translated by Michael Chase, Blackwell Publishing, 1995