Plato and the Body

“If human existence sans bodies is better, could you blog about why God made us with bodies and why we will be raised with them?”

The question was posed to me on twitter. The request was to answer on my blog.

I’m happy to blog.

Have I said human existence without bodies is better? I do not remember having done so. I am looking forward to the resurrection because I’ll have a better body. Let me also say, I prefer Plato and I think he is defensible. But I’ll abandon Plato if it can be demonstrated that he is incompatible with Christianity. I defend Plato, also, because I think he is ignorantly dismissed. You can be very learned and ignorantly dismiss Plato. Plato is not easily dealt with.

The assumption, I am guessing, is that because I’m a Platonist I believe existence without bodies is better. For the pagan Platonist, the body is a prison. Even for Origen, the body was a punishment. But Origen was disciplined by Scripture, and this changed his Platonism; a punishment is not the same as a prison. I got the sense reading him that 1 Cor 15 was a very important passage for him. He believed in the resurrection very much, and thought hard about how the body of the resurrection differs from the perishable body that is sown. Just there we can see a development of Platonism, and that is an important thing to remember.

Some persons who are not sympathetic to Platonism, or ignorant of it, find it convenient to take a view that allows for no development. This is what they think Plato said (which may or may not be right), and this, then, must be what Platonism actually is. Is there more than a superficial acquaintance with the more popular and less technical of Plato’s writings? I have often not found that there is not. If Platonism is allowed to be Platonic, however, it is an idea, it is formal, it is a principle of intelligible coherence which can be grasped more clearly as we learn more about it. If you are not a Platonist, you may not believe that about Platonism. It is just a concept, you may think, that Plato invented. But a Platonist must be allowed to believe it is something independent of Plato to which we can have better access than Plato did. It can be seen more clearly, apprehended better, since it is, after all, an object of knowledge. We must be allowed to believe that Platonism is the Form of philosophy (as I suppose Hegelians believe Hegel’s is philosophy come of age).

If Platonism may develop (that is, if our apprehension of a better philosophy may proceed on the assumption that Plato first discovered the broad outlines of what we hold), then pagan Platonism may be corrected by Christian Platonism, and Christian Platonism become more robust and consistent. I believe Platonism is true, and so I think the Christian appropriation leaves us with a better Platonism than Plato held. Did Aristotle get things right? Is he valuable? Of course. But Plato is fundamental in a way Aristotle can never be. Do I believe in the transmigration of the soul? I do not. I do believe I’ll transmigrate from this old body into one that is better, and therefore different. I’ll take Aquinas’ description of the resurrected body, for example. I find it eminently Platonic. That is not the same as the reincarnation which Plato believed.

Platonism and Gnosticism

Another thing to consider about the conditional above, is that unexamined views of Platonism tend to get distorted by views on Gnosticism. It is assumed that Gnosticism is Christianity ruined by Platonic thought. If you think that, then you get a debased view of Platonism. Let me counter that view with three names: Irenaeus, Origen and Plotinus.

When the church needed champions to take on Gnosticism and defeat it, who did it call on? The most obvious name is Irenaeus. According to Eric Osborne, a qualified and respected historian of the early church, Irenaeus was a Platonist. That is how Osborne characterizes Irenaeus in his monograph on the same. So who did the church call on to write a manual in tedious detail listing all the many wrong teachings of this variegated phenomenon later designated as Gnosticism? A man whose philosophy is clearly identifiable as Platonic. It was not a bad move. Irenaeus is still our main source and the main argument against Gnosticism.

The other person the church called on repeatedly was Origen. Origen traveled to debates against Gnostics, was valued for refuting them, and probably knew them very well. I say this because he lived in the epicenter of the more reputable Gnosticism, Alexandria, and even went to some of their secret meetings when he was young. Was Origen a Platonist? There is little doubt on that score. Platonism sometimes overwhelmed his Christianity. No Christian of his day would have called him a gnostic though (except for Clement who also resisted the Gnostics and called himself the true gnostic). Yet he was called on to debate Gnostics and refute them. He understood and repudiated them without, obviously, repudiating Plato.

These two are the main champions of the church against Gnosticism that I know of, and both can accurately be described as Platonists. The problem with Gnostics is not that they used Plato. It is that they got two things wrong: Plato and Christianity. Nobody orthodox will deny they fiddled and took liberties and distorted Christianity. We need to realize they were doing the same with Plato—a popularized, bowdlerized, irresponsible appropriation of some Platonic elements.

After Plato, the next greatest pagan Platonist was Plotinus. He had some Gnostic students attending his teaching sessions in Rome. The way Plotinus taught, we are told by his pupil Porphyry, was this. His students would read a portion of some philosopher (Aristotle say, or Numenius) and then discuss the philosophy. Or they would present papers about things. There would be a discussion which Plotinus would observe, mostly in silence. After a few days, when the discussion was winding down, Plotinus would pronounce himself. Porphyry encouraged him to write these pronunciations down, which Plotinus did. One of them was a treatise against Gnosticism. The Platonic Plotinus was decidedly against Gnosticism, and if his manner of teaching is accurately described by his pupil, then he no doubt had some familiarity with the Gnosticism his students embraced. He hated it.

Plotinus criticized Gnosticism on three points. (1) It was disordered in its metaphysics. For Plotinus there is the One, there is Mind, there is World Soul, and that is all. This was a reasoned and for Plotinus non-negotiable metaphysical structure. It made sense of the forms, it provided a Divine Simplicity, it mediated eternity to the world. He has whole treatises that argue cogently for his structure. The Gnostics had a chaos of inelegant and, what is worse, unreasoned emanations. Plotinus hated the lack of philosophically sophisticated dogma about the structure of reality. I think it made these students gawking adherents rather than real intellectual companions, for Plotinus. Hard to be an intellectual companion to Plotinus, but he was a serious guy and I think expected much of his pupils. (2) He also rejected Gnostic teaching on the ground that it despised the physical world, the created order. This is something people nowadays struggle with. To believe something is inferior is not to believe it is evil. I just read in an otherwise reputable history book something implying that people in the past were misogynists because they believed women were inferior. Some people in the past obviously have made the mistake people in the present make: inferior = bad. Inferior, however, can be morally neutral. A dog is inferior to me, but not therefore a mistake or somehow evil. Gnosticism believed the created order was evil, but Plotinus was shocked by such a non-Hellenic attitude. The world was good, its order was marvelous and intriguing, and it was all because this beauty was derived from, and therefore manifested, a greater transcendent order: that of the forms. That it was derived made it inferior, but not therefore bad. Everything turning toward the forms and participating in them aspired toward them, toward the Good, and this is good. (3) Plotinus also rejected the Gnostics for their irreverence: they made things up, they were incoherent, they ascribed too much to personal creativity without rigorous examination and thought. I think when it comes to defining the variegated phenomenon of Gnosticism, attitude is what really defines them, not dogma. They were the manifestation of a pagan attitude in a Christian context. Not only was Christianity at war with the pagan attitude and its irreverence, Hellenic philosophy was its other historic nemesis and one of the great causes weakening the totalitarian pagan consensus which was collapsing in late antiquity.

If that surprises you, go read his treatise and you’ll see what I say. Plotinus is tough to read, I’ll warn you. I tried and was unable to make sense of him without first reading a few very difficult introductions. But once you get what is happening, he is admirable and amazing. The rigor he expected he practiced, and he wrote his treatises all at one go without revision because of his weak eyesight. His weak physical eyesight, I should say. The mind of Plotinus is wondrous. What he writes against the Gnostics should put to rest the notion that Gnosticism made responsible use of Platonism. Neither in the church nor in philosophy did Gnosticism find acceptance. To think of Platonism through the lens of Gnosticism is to be irresponsible about a serious philosophy, and ignorant.

Which is all to say: do not assume unexamined conclusions about Platonism in order to deal with it.

What is the Body?

Now to the heart of the matter. What about Platonism and the creation of man as an embodied soul. That the body is a prison is not altogether true, but I don’t think it has for the Christian to be altogether false. Platonism is first of all an epistemology, and then it is everything that follows from that. If you do not understand that, you do not understand Plato. Plato was first concerned with certain knowledge. What can we know? Can we know this mutable world? No, you can’t know something that is always changing. So if we know, there has to be a realm of certainty, an immutable world. Is this consistent with Christian teaching? Yes it is. There is a realm of certainty; there is truth; we can know; and it is an invisible realm. The visible realm manifests it, but is not identified with it. The relation is of symbol to the meaning of a symbol.

Our body is a symbol. That is not to say it is unreal, but what it is derives what it is from something greater. I don’t know how you can be a Platonist and escape from language of levels of being. Is the created world real? Of course. Is there a higher reality? Oh yes, and one, therefore, more real. If you look for ultimate reality in the material order you will go crazy. It is beyond it. So we have material bodies, but matter only acquires anything by form. Is there a form of Body? There must be, and that is true bodiness. My body is me in a derivative way. It gets my meness from what I am essentially: my immaterial part. It is me in the mutable realm, but when I am resurrected will my body be corruptible or incorruptible? Is this a more material body? A more substantial one? (It has to be at least as substantial.) Is it made of superior matter? I am not sure. I am sure it will be incorruptible, and the Platonic epistemology leads me to conclude that this present matter is not incorruptible.

Angels do not have physical bodies, we believe. They have bodies though, just not made out of physical matter. Some might say it is a subtler substance. What is this? I am not sure how you can have subtler atoms. Do they use subatomic particles exclusively, and not in compounds that we know as atoms and molecules? I think that kind of thinking is just barking up the wrong tree. They are spiritual beings with bodies that are constituted by a higher reality, not a differently physical reality, but that is a preference making me say that. What, after all, can a higher reality be? Not sure, though I am sure it exists. C. S. Lewis suggests it two ways: one in The Great Divorce (a hardness that makes our present hardness looks like softness, or a substance that makes our present substance seem more insubstantial) and another in The Last Battle (I like this one, and not just because he acknowledges Plato as the source: all the best parts are present in greater abundance and nothing else). We can only speak of it in terms of what we presently know. We can only gesture at what we haven’t yet experienced. Just because we can’t imagine something clearly, doesn’t mean it is not within the realm of possibility.

Which is to say: I affirm the resurrection of the body. I conceive of it in Platonic terms in so far as I can. I do refuse to think of it as a slightly enhanced but essentially similar state to the present condition. I’d like more. I realize that is what makes me weird, but the alternative to me is to be flat-footed, uninteresting, plodding and dingy of both mind and heart. Still, if Platonism can be demonstrated to deny that (which an intelligent Platonism to date has not been demonstrated to require), then cheerio to Platonism. I’m doubtful, having understood Christian history to be full of Christian Platonists who were powerful, consistent, penetrating thinkers, that my Christian Platonism is under any real threat. I have found that even attacks from learned people are based on ignorance.

So Why the Body to Begin with?

We are lower beings than angels. Inferior, but not therefore evil. Good, after our kind, like dogs are good after their kind. One day, however, we shall judge the angels, and I think that is because we will be greater than them. We will transcend their order of being because unlike them we have been made to grow. Growth, mutability, change—do these belong to all finite beings or to some? You can be made to occupy your place forever: not bored, not weary, perfectly capable for you responsibility and endlessly satisfied with it. I do not think that is how we are. I think we are made to grow, and this requires the material where all is change. So we must begin there, become conscious there, almost like animals, as we are when we are young. If Angels grow, we do not know about it, but I think to grow you have to start out how we do, in matter which is the most mutable. But we do not remain there. And we will have incorruptible bodies.

John Eriugena was the greatest Christian Platonist ever. In his book on the divisions of nature he begins with the division that gives us nature: God on the one hand, and everything that is not God on the other. Everything that is not God is nature. What is the principle of coherence of nature? That which is not God is image of God. And what is the image of God? Man. Man is like Plotinus’ Nous in Eriugena’s scheme. Is that not grand? I think it is. Do you know how much room to grow that provides creatures who begin in the epitome that is practically an infinity of finiteness?

 

 

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