This is part one of a review of Plato’s View of Man by Constantine Cavarnos, available from the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. Part two will deal with the different types of people and the political systems they give rise to.
It is within our power to transform our lives, to restore the proper order within ourselves, giving primacy to spiritual over material values. No task is more urgent, no work more glorious than the regeneration of individuals and of states. In the Euthyphro Plato calls it “the most beautiful work”, which man can accomplish with divine aid. ~ C Cavarnos
We must take care that a teacher of doctrines, which are food for the soul, does not deceive us, like the merchant and the retail-dealer, who sell food for the body. For the latter praise all their goods, although neither they know what is good and what is bad for the body, nor those who buy from them, unless one happens to be a trainer or physician.
In the same manner, those who take their doctrines about in cities and sell them by retail to the person who desires them, praise everything that they sell, although, my excellent friend, probably some of them are ignorant which of their wares is good and which is bad for the soul; and their customers are similarly ignorant, unless one happens to be a physician of the soul. ~ Plato, Protagoras
There are three philosophical sciences. Although they have their empirical and profane counterpart, these sciences are meant in the esoteric sense of referring to the inner nature of their subject matter.
- Anthropology, the science of man
- Cosmology, the science of the cosmos
- Theology, the science of God
In this short book, Mr. Cavarnos focuses on anthropology as taught to us by Plato. The two essays are followed by a series of extracts from Plato’s actual works. As such, it provides a good summary of our understanding of man and his destiny. The point is not simply to explain Plato, but rather to encourage us to engage in “the most beautiful work”, at least those of us who are capable of it.
Man’s True Abode
Man’s true abode is a world of absolute truth, goodness, and beauty, which is the conclusion of the philosophical life. The devil is in the details; even after becoming dimly aware of that, there is still the work that needs to be done. There are some obstacles the can impede one’s path.
Beauty is understood as order and harmony. Mr. Cavarnos writes:
By contemplating objects that possess measure and proportion and by purifying himself through the practice of self-examination, the lover of wisdom becomes more and more orderly and harmonious, more and more God-like. His whole soul becomes converted from darkness to light, from untruth to truth, from the changing to the unchanging, from becoming to being, from disunity to unity.
Many fall short at this point by confusing the idea of Beauty with the accumulation of beautiful things. The mistake is to forgo the development of one’s inner harmony through the attempt to create an orderly and harmonious environment.
Eros is the aspiration for beauty, or love. It is not sublimated sexual desire as in Freud, but rather sexual desire is understood as a lower form of eros; it is the desire for physical immortality through one’s descendants. Eros has led heroes to undergo dangers. Love spurs others to create works of the spirit.
The Platonic path of love passes from the concrete to the abstract, from the particular to the universal, from the personal to the impersonal. The true initiate rises from the love of bodies to the love of persons, then to the love of theories, next to that of institutions and communities, and finally to that of absolute transcendent Beauty.
Mr. Cavarnos objects to that on the ground that Christian love is the love of the person, not the abstract. On the other hand, Plato’s view is consistent with the increasing levels of abstraction associated with the angelic hierarchy. No man is an island, so it is difficult to conceive of man apart from the institutions and communities that he belongs to. They certainly deserve our love.
A man’s fate after death is determined by his way of life on earth. Lust and a contentious attitude are impediments to the good life:
Whoso indulges in lusts or in contentions and devotes himself overmuch thereto must of necessity be filled with opinions that are wholly mortal and … has made great his mortal part. But he who has seriously devoted himself to learning and to true thoughts, and has exercised these qualities above all others, must necessarily and inevitably think thoughts that are immortal and divine. (Timaeus)
I live in the midst of a lie, and die for a lie, and the earth is a lie, and rests on a lie, on a stupid derision. ~ Dostoyevsky, The Demons.
How does one find the truth in a world dominated by the lie? Man suffers from inner deformity or ugliness, from disease of the psyche. He is a deformed being in need of harmony, of beauty; he is a sick being, in need of therapy. This is the result of ignorance, which is the cause of the vices of cowardice, intemperance, and injustice. There are two types of ignorance:
- Conscious ignorance, of which a person is cognizant
- Unconscious ignorance, in which the person claims to know what he does not know
Unconscious ignorance is more insidious, since such a person is not motivated to seek knowledge and believes is a better person than he really is. The rational man is painfully aware of his faults and shortcomings. He knows who difficult it is to achieve any knowledge. He understands the efforts required to master one’s will.
The unconsciously ignorant person, on the other hand, is convinced of his moral superiority. He has a “good heart”, a “happy gene”, a “positive mind”, and so on. He believes in all the right causes with a self-serving passion. Ultimately, he is “beyond dogma and ideas”, his religion is love. In practice, that means that he is impervious to rational and intellectual thought. Unconscious ignorance assumes the form of pride, conceit, prejudice, and leads to contentious and false sophistry. Basically, unconscious ignorance is a lie told to oneself.
The “greatest and most efficacious method of purification” is elenchos: the process of examining one’s beliefs, opinions, and feelings. It purifies “the soul from conceits that stand in the way of knowledge.” The proper use of this method results in intellectual integrity and inner health.
It brings about a harmony between what a person thinks he knows and what he really knows, between what he professes to believe and what he really believes, between what he imagines himself to be and what he really is.
Two associated aspirations raise the human soul above the rest of created nature: the hunger for immortality and the thirst for truth or moral perfection. Either without the other is meaningless … Endless life without truth and perfection would be an eternity of torment, and perfection without immortality would be rank injustice and indignity without measure. ~ Vladimir Solovyov
Plato offers several proofs for the immortality of the soul, which we need not go into at this point. Life extension for its own sake is pointless. A soul that has become purified and perfected may eternally behold perfect Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. There the soul will live with the gods. Obviously, no one is interested in that today. However, if you declare that the soul will spend eternity with its dogs, the whole world takes notice.
Plato’s explanation is that the soul participates in the idea of Life. Mr. Cavarnos clarifies that notion:
That some such view is involved in the Christian conception of immortality is undeniable. But the life in which the soul participates is not for the Christian an abstract idea, but the grace of the Holy Spirit. Only in so far as a man comes to partake of this does he become truly alive and immortal.