Episode 37: The Ideal and the Establishment

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Giambettino Cignaroli (1706- 1770) The Death of Socrates

Giambettino Cignaroli (1706- 1770) The Death of Socrates

Socrates, as we’ve seen, paid the ultimate price for offending the establishment of his time, although he didn’t see it that way.  He didn’t really go out of his way to avoid his death sentence, and once it was handed down, he accepted it with equanimity.  As he explained to his friend Crito, he preferred death to a life that was based on an injustice; that of subverting the laws and judgments of the citizens of Athens.  But actually, we may say it goes deeper than that, as Socrates indicates with his final words of the dialogue: “Then let me follow the intimations of the will of God.”  It is his wish to be true to the Ideal that drives his decision.

Plato, having seen what happened to his master, took a different route–that of teaching and writing rather than that of being a public gadfly. The Academy he founded came to coexist peacefully with the religious Establishment, and he must have found a way to teach the Ideal without being seen as a threat.  It survived for about 300 years and its “graduates” spread throughout the Mediterranean world, even after Athens lost its independence.

Plotinus, teaching in Rome in the 3d century, carried on this non-confrontational approach, although it must be said that the Romans, especially by this time in their history, did not seem to take their gods and religious practices as seriously as did the Athenians.  The Empire in the 3d century was straining under the constant wars at its borders, and was also taking on an increasingly “international” character, which had the result of making it more tolerant of different practices and ideas–with the notable exception of Christianity.

But it wasn’t long before the Christians became the Establishment and set about stamping

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (480-525)

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (480-525), teaching, and imprisoned

out the remnants of the “pagan” teachings.  As we saw in Episode 11, Boëthius, who had planned a translation of Plato into Latin, was executed in 525, and just four years later the Emperor Justinian closed down all the pagan schools in the Eastern empire.  So what had been the pariah became the powerful.  When “Platonism” was revived in the Renaissance, it was not seen by the church as serious competition, and so it was allowed expression up to a point.  Marsilio Ficino did get in trouble with the church hierarchy, but that was more related to his writing on astrology than his translations of the pagans.  As the Reformation grew, however, the church became less tolerant of anything that did not adhere to official dogma.

In England in the 17th and 18th centuries, the growth of Protestantism and the universities united in a new Establishment which turned out to be as repressive and intolerant of anything outside itself as the church ever had been.  We can see this clearly in the treatment of Thomas Taylor (as described in Episode 15).  His translations of Plato and the Neo-Platonists, when they were not ignored, were attacked on two fronts: first, Plato for being pagan.  As Kathleen Raine says in a spirited defense of Taylor in her introduction to Thomas Taylor the Platonist, “It must also be remembered that the academic world at the time consisted of Protestant clergymen, to whom the Platonic theology must have been extremely distasteful.”¹  Secondly, Taylor himself came under fire for being self-taught and not from a university.  But I suspect the real prejudice against him came from the fact that he saw Idealism and Neo-Platonic writings not as relics to be studied at arm’s length, but as living, eternal documents which still contained the power to alter people’s lives.

To quote Kathleen Raine again:

Men who, like Taylor, become learned not for the sake of erudition but of truth must always be an embarrassment and a reproach to the merely erudite.  Taylor was calling in question received values of his time; his Platonism was too obviously subversive.  History was repeating itself: as scholastic theologians and humanists alike would have none of Ficino, Pico, and Bruno, so did the pedants of Oxford and Edinburgh unite against the English Pagan.  He was not, like Bruno, burned, nor like Shelley driven into exile; but he suffered continual attack and ridicule for his defense of that philosophy which has again and again been the inspiration of sublime art and anathema to dull minds.²

Harvard Divinity School plaque

Plaque commemorating Emerson's Address at Harvard Divinity School, 1838.

The same prejudice dogged Emerson.  His Establishment credentials were impeccable, for America anyway–he had learned his Latin and Greek and Plato at Harvard, and had been minister at Boston’s prestigious Second Church.  But for him religion had become ossified and had come to regard Jesus Christ as a remote and rather severe judge, who like the Greek gods needed to be approached only through prescribed ritual and subservience.  As Emerson put it in his famous Divinity School Address:

Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love.

This, and the idea that the Good can still be revealed to individual men, was too radical even for the supposed Protestants of the Boston religious Establishment, and Emerson was not invited back to speak at Harvard for another thirty years.   Fortunately, he did pretty well for himself at other venues.

But now, lest I too should fall into the appearance of consigning all this debate to history, it needs to be said that for most of us this rejection of eternal beauty and love which are the hallmarks of the Ideal continues unabated in the Establishment of our own personal city-states; that is, the ego.  In Plato this ego is often represented by figures such as Glaucon.  As we saw in Episode 5, after Socrates has shown the existence of “the first principle of the whole,” Glaucon responds, “I under­stand…, and give my assent, and accept your arrangement.”  This is ever the response of the dianoia (in the sense of “across the mind”), or the understanding.  It believes everything, including consciousness itself, can be reduced to objects of thought that can be inspected, measured, analyzed and “understood.”

What all the writers we have been considering have been telling us is that the realm of the Ideal can never be known by this limited part of the mind.  It is “the peace that passeth understanding.”  It is the source of the love and beauty and happiness which is irrational, inexplicable, and immeasureable.  Its rejection is not just a historical fact; it is an everyday event.  When we see only the laws themselves and not the Law of Laws, we are as guilty as the citizens of Athens, and the professors and clergy of Oxford or Boston.  But like them, we punish only ourselves.

To conclude with Emerson, again from the Divinity School Address:

The perception of this law of laws awakens in the mind a sentiment which we call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness. Wonderful is its power to charm and to command. It is a mountain air. It is the embalmer of the world. It is myrrh and storax, and chlorine and rosemary. It makes the sky and the hills sublime, and the silent song of the stars is it. By it, is the universe made safe and habitable, not by science or power. Thought may work cold and intransitive in things, and find no end or unity; but the dawn of the sentiment of virtue on the heart, gives and is the assurance that Law is sovereign over all natures; and the worlds, time, space, eternity, do seem to break out into joy.

This sentiment is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself. It corrects the capital mistake of the infant man, who seeks to be great by following the great, and hopes to derive advantages from another, — by showing the fountain of all good to be in himself, and that he, equally with every man, is an inlet into the deeps of Reason. When he says, “I ought;” when love warms him; when he chooses, warned from on high, the good and great deed; then, deep melodies wander through his soul from Supreme Wisdom. Then he can worship, and be enlarged by his worship; for he can never go behind this sentiment. In the sublimest flights of the soul, rectitude is never surmounted, love is never outgrown.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Trans­la­tion of Plato by Ben­jamin Jowett.  Graph­ics are not copy­righted, and are believed to be in the pub­lic domain, except photo of Harvard Divinity School by Andrew Hauner, part of the documentary Emerson: The Ideal in America, copyright © 2007, The Ralph Waldo Emerson Institute.  Music cour­tesy of Ste­fan Hagel, and used by per­mis­sion.

¹Thomas Taylor, Thomas Taylor the Platonist, Kathleen Raine and George Mills Harper, eds., Princeton University Press, 1969

²Thomas Taylor, op. cit.