Plato and Religion

In my introductory course in philosophy at Penn State those many years ago, we read a lot of Plato, but not until recently did I realize Plato’s importance in religion.  Perhaps this aspect would have been too controversial back in the 1950s.

A quick background: Plato’s mentor, Socrates, was the eminent philosopher of Athens.  (Socrates was also our family dog while I was in high school.  He was named by my sister and we called him “Socky.”)  Each morning he (the first Socrates) met in his garden for a dialog with his students, but he never wrote anything.  Plato was one of his students and transcribed many of those dialogs, but well after the fact.  How much of Plato’s writings were his own ideas?  We do not know.  Plato only speaks in the voice of Socrates, never his own.

Plato is known for the concept of a Reality behind the everyday world we know.  If someone were to draw several circles freehand, he explains, you could easily pick which is the best.  You can do so because you have in your mind what a perfect circle should look like, and you are comparing the drawn circles to that ideal.  This ideal circle has a reality that is more valid, more real, than any actual circle, no matter how precisely it is drawn.  The ideal is eternal, existing before mankind, existing forever.

We could say the same about Beauty or Cleverness, in fact, about anything.  An entire ideal world exists behind everything we sense or think. This reversal of our usual understanding of reality is primarily developed in Plato’s The Republic, a very readable, easy-to-follow, book.  As with all of the dialogs, the reader is led gently into some very deep concepts by a step-by-step series of questions.  This “Socratic method” is still recognized as one of the best methods of teaching.

In The Republic, Plato gives us his famous allegory of shadows in a cave.  Imagine captives chained to the wall of a cave such that they cannot see the opening, but only shadows of the outside activities projected onto a wall in front of them.  After a long time, they will think the shadows are the reality.  In the same way, we are prisoners of our senses and think reality is what we perceive, when, in fact, this is no more than a shadow of a much richer, true Reality.

This concept expressed what virtually everyone and every religion accepts: there is an unseen world, a richer, perfect world, coexisting with, and responsible for, the world we sense.  Some envision this as the spiritual world, or the Kingdom of God.

“Creation is the incomprehensible passage from the unmanifested One into the manifest multiplicity of nature, from eternity into time,” says Aldous Huxley.  This is pure Plato.  The “unmanifested One” is the eternal Reality behind the “manifest multiplicity of nature,” shadows that are in the world of time.

Even tribal religions have this concept, although obviously not from reading Plato.  When American Indians of the West speak of the Great Buffalo Spirit, they do not mean some sort of cartoonish God that looks like a buffalo but speaks like a man.  They mean a transcendent, eternal Reality of  perfect “buffalo-ness,” of which individual buffalo are mere shadows.

Think about that as you watch the ball come down tonight.

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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