Episode 36: The Ideal and Religion

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The relationship between the teaching of the Ideal and that of organized religion has a long history of conflict, primarily because, as I’ve hinted throughout, religious establishments are threatened by it.  The aim of its teaching is the realization that each of us is nothing less or other than the Ideal.  As Plato says through Diotima in The SymposiumRemember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may.

By contrast, the teaching of most organized religion, Western anyway, is that humans are miserable sinners who can be redeemed only through adherence to its beliefs and rituals.  This is ego masking as religion, using fear and the threat of eternal punishment to keep people in line.  In this episode I’d like to examine this relationship at is has existed through the centuries, and we don’t need to look far to find our first case study: Socrates.

But first we need to get a brief overview of the religion of the ancient Greeks (which subject by itself has occupied the entire career of more than one academician, so excuse me when this examination does not begin to do it justice)¹.  The Greeks were of course polytheistic, worshiping a number of gods and heroes, and seeking benefits to be obtained in this life, since in the afterlife everyone seemed to be pretty much condemned to a shadowy existence of semi-consciousness, rather like the prisoners in Plato’s Cave.  Recall the words of Achilles from the Odyssey as quoted by Plato: Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner.  This is a reason perhaps why the Athenian society was rather obsessed with immortality through progeny and amassing and preserving wealth on earth.

Rembrandt, The Abduction of Europa, 1632, The Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Rembrandt, The Abduction of Europa, 1632, The Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The Greek gods, most of whom were first described by Hesiod in his Theogeny, were a pretty insufferable lot, kind of like high school with life-and-death powers.  (Among other things, you may remember from Episode 33 that Zeus, king of the gods, was the father of King Minos of Crete by raping his mother Europa while in the form of a bull.  Zeus, that is.  Which made him, in a sense, the grandfather-in-law of the Minotaur.)  To be a god or hero in ancient Greece meant only to be superhuman, and possess the ability to control one or more natural phenomena–earthquakes, lightning, plagues–which could wreak havoc on the human race.   There was really nothing compared to our ideas of Godlike compassion or love; even Aphrodite was all about sex.  But the Greeks took them seriously, and spent much of their time trying to appease them.

Athena Varvakeion, Roman copy of a statue of Athena by Phidias, 3d century AD, National Archeological Museum, Athens

Athena Varvakeion, Roman copy of a statue of Athena by Phidias, 3d century AD, National Archeological Museum, Athens

There was no such thing as separation of church and city-state.  Religious rituals were built in to their annual and daily life, perhaps nowhere more so than in Athens.  Athena was of course its patron goddess, and compared with many of the others, one of the most mature.  While she had her martial aspect (Athena Promachos, or “first-fighter”) she was also associated with wisdom and “good counsel,” as seen in one of her symbols–the owl.  In her aspect as a virgin, Athena Parthenos, she was honored with one of the famous buildings of all time–the Parthenon, and with it a huge statue commissioned by Pericles, that has long been lost.   The most important religious festival for the Athenians was the Panathenaia held in her honor every four years.  This featured theatrical performances, athletic competitions, and the ritual slaughtering of hundreds of animals near the Parthenon on the Acropolis.

Cattle Being Led to Sacrifice, South Frieze of the Parthenon, British Museum

Cattle Being Led to Sacrifice, South Frieze of the Parthenon, British Museum

These religious beliefs were so thoroughly embedded in the life of the city that there was no need for a sacred text to be consulted, no real churches (although most homes had shrines) or priesthood (there was one “chief priest,” or Archon, whose job was to oversee the carrying-out of the rituals).  An alleged crime against religion was tried in civil court under the same rules as theft or murder.

Which brings us back to Socrates–and again I must plead inadequacy in this treatment since his guilt or innocence has been the subject of entire books, which do not always look favorably upon him.²  I’ve already discussed some of the historical factors which contributed to Socrates’ arrest (Episode 7), but ultimately I believe, and I believe Plato believes, that the trial was about something deeper: Socrates’ mission of “bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal,” and to bring about this state in others as well.   To this end he believes he was sent to educate mankind, who, like the prisoners in the cave, are seeing only images and not realities.  As Plato has him say in his defense speech, The Apology:

I am that gadfly which God has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.  And as you will not easily find another like me, I would advise you to spare me. I dare say that you may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping; and you may think that if you were to strike me dead, as Anytus advises, which you easily might, then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you gives you another gadfly.

Of course we don’t recognize the gadflies or annoyances or hardships we experience as gifts from God when we are caught napping; mostly we just want to go back to sleep.  “You, my friend–a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens,–are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?”  (The Apology)

But as to the charge in the affidavit, that Socrates “does not believe in the gods of the State, but has other new divinities of his own,” it is actually hard to deny.  In his cross-examination, Socrates gets Meletus to accuse him (Socrates ) of outright atheism–which Socrates can deny–but the whole point of this blog is that he did in fact introduce a new a new god.  And a single, not many, God: the Ideal, the Good, the One, “the universal author of all things beautiful and right,” revealed to Socrates as “an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment.”  For the Greek establishment, this combination is unacceptable.  Instead of a capricious, dysfunctional family of gods and goddesses up on Mount Olympus who need to be constantly appeased and sacrificed to, Socrates has offered a single God who is the source of all virtue, justice and beauty.  And further, he has said that through our own connection to that God–our inner voice–we can shed the illusions that separate us and “become the friend of God and immortal.”

So to counter the arguments that Socrates (and Plato) was an anti-democratic elitist, I would just offer that, seen rightly, he was the most democratic man of his time.  He believed that all people–including women and slaves–had this divine spark within, and could develop it, could climb out of the cave to see the realities.  Who does so in fact does become part of an elite, but one based not on money or connections or even education, but on a realization of the Good within and without.  I  believe Plato’s arguments against democracy were ones concerning the government within the individual.   If we believe ourselves to be nothing more than the sum total of all the limiting adjectives we give ourselves, we will never expand to the full infinite dimensions of the soul.  If we regard all our ideas and desires as equally valid–as equal citizens of our own personal city-state–we will always be ruled by the cacophony they create in the mind and heart; by the anger, greed, envy, and self-pity of the ego.  But by learning to govern oneself, to bring all the divergent voices under the government of the Good, then and only then, does one become fit to participate in the governing of others.

All these principles can be said to apply to the execution of Jesus Christ some 400 years later, for also trying to bring about a democracy of the spirit.  And of course the irony is that the church founded in his name has so often been the enemy of this freedom.

Later “gadflies” we have discussed seemed to become better at not incurring the wrath of the establishment to the same extent, but often their messages were also considered threatening, as we will examine in the next episode.

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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.

¹For a good overview, see C. Kerényi Gods of the Greeks

²Perhaps most notably by Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 1: The Spell of Plato and I.F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates