The Most Beautiful Work

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

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.

Goodness

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)

Truth

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.

Immortality

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.

5 thoughts on “The Most Beautiful Work

  1. [“Mr. Cavarnos objects to on the ground that Christian love is the love of the person, not the abstract.]

    Perhaps we should not think of Platonic forms as being “abstract” in the way our empirical concepts are–rather, they are more like “the Word of God” as described in the book of Hebrews (i.e. “living and powerful”) and in John (i.e. creative).

    This objection also reminds me of Kant’s notion of “personhood” (in contradistinction to the “persons” of whom God is said to be “no respecter of”). Surely we are not called upon to love persons in the latter sense? But Kant very elegantly formulates his categorical imperative as follows:

    “Act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of anyone else, always as an end and never merely as a means.” (Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals).

    This seems perfectly consistent with the second great commandment, but once again, we must ask, what constitutes a person, for Kant? A person, in Kant’s sense, is not merely a bundle of desires such that in order to love someone (ourselves included), we must defer to their/our desires as ends in themselves. Rather, a person is a rational being– a being who participates in the life of the Spirit –however oblivious he or she may be to that life. As such, that which is absolute– that which must be given priority –is the “being” of the human being (which transcends the faculty of desire–cf. Frithjof Schuon: “man is not made solely of blind desire; he has received intelligence that he may know God”).

    So, when human beings “respect persons” (in the sense that God does not), they are typically deferring to power and prestige in a very calculating way (i.e. they know which side their bread is buttered on). But when they respect persons in Kant’s sense, they are respecting the dignity of the human being as an end in itself–apropos of which, I hope this extended excerpt from The Groundwork (which I find very illuminating) is not too long or off topic:

    “All of the ends—material ends—that a rational being voluntarily sets before himself as things to be achieved through his conduct are merely •relative, for their value comes solely from how they •relate to the particular way in which the subject’s faculty of desire is constituted; and from this we can’t get any practical laws, i.e. any universal and necessary principles that hold for all rational beings and for every act of the will. So the only imperatives that these relative ends support are hypothetical ones.

    “But suppose there were something whose existence in itself had absolute value, something which as an end in itself could support determinate laws. That would be a basis—indeed the only basis—for a possible categorical imperative, i.e. of a practical law.

    “·There is such a thing! It is a human being!· I maintain that man—and in general every rational being—exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be used by this or that will at its discretion. Whenever he acts in ways directed towards himself or towards other rational beings, ·a person serves as a means to whatever end his action aims at; but· he must always be regarded as also an end. Things that are preferred have only conditional value, for if the preferences (and the needs arising from them) didn’t exist, their object would be worthless. ·That wouldn’t count against the ‘objects’ in question if the desires on which they depend did themselves have unconditional value, but they don’t·!

    “If the preferences themselves, as the sources of needs, did have absolute value, one would want to have them; but that is so far from the case that every rational being must wish he were altogether free of them. So the value of any objects to be obtained through our actions is always conditional. Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature, if they are not rational beings, have only relative value as means, and are therefore called ‘things’ [Sachen]; whereas rational beings are called ‘persons’, because their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves (i.e. as not to be used merely as means)—which makes such a being •an object of respect, and •something that sets limits to what anyone can choose to do. Such beings are not merely subjective ends whose existence as a result of our action has value for us, but are objective ends, i.e. things [Dinge] whose existence is an end in itself. It is indeed an irreplaceable end: you can’t substitute for it something else to which it would be merely a means. If there were no such ends in themselves, nothing of absolute value could be found, and if all value were conditional and thus contingent, no supreme practical principle for reason could be found anywhere.

    “So if there is to be a supreme practical principle, and a categorical imperative for the human will, it must be an objective principle of the will that can serve as a universal law. Why must it? Because it has to be drawn from the conception of something that is an end in itself and therefore an end for everyone. The basis for this principle is: rational nature exists as an end in itself. Human beings necessarily think of their own existence in this way, which means that the principle holds as a subjective principle of human actions.

    “But every other rational being also thinks of his existence on the same rational ground that holds also for myself; and so it is at the same time an objective principle—·one that doesn’t depend on contingent facts about this or that subject·—a supreme practical ground from which it must be possible to derive all the laws of the will. So here is the practical imperative: Act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of anyone else, always as an end and never merely as a means.”

    ~ Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals

    http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/authors/kant.html

  2. [“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.”]

    The allusion is to Socrates’ speech in “The Symposium” with Socrates sharing a conversation between himself and a woman named Diotima. Here is an excerpt which includes the very famous “ladder of love” segment, but the entire speech is worth reading (as is the rest of the dialogue, for that matter.

    === quoting Plato ===

    “These are the lesser mysteries of love, into which even you, Socrates, may enter; to the greater and more hidden ones which are the crown of these, and to which, if you pursue them in a right spirit, they will lead, I know not whether you will be able to attain. But I will do my utmost to inform you, and do you follow if you can. For
    he who would proceed aright in this matter should begin in youth to visit beautiful forms; and first, if he be guided by his instructor aright, to love one such form only–out of that he should create fair thoughts; and soon he will of himself perceive that the beauty of one form is akin to the beauty of another; and then if beauty of form in general is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty in every form is and the same! And when he perceives this he will abate his violent love of the one, which he will despise and deem a small thing, and will become a lover of all beautiful forms; in the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form. So that if a virtuous soul have but a little comeliness, he will be content to love and tend him, and will search out and bring to the birth thoughts which may improve the young, until he is compelled to contemplate and see the beauty of institutions and laws, and to understand that the beauty of them all is of one family, and that personal beauty is a trifle; and after laws and institutions he will go on to the sciences, that he may see their beauty, being not like a servant in love with the beauty of one youth or man or institution, himself a slave mean and narrow-minded, but drawing towards and contemplating the vast sea of beauty, he will create many fair and noble thoughts and notions in boundless love of wisdom; until on that shore he grows and waxes strong, and at last the vision is revealed to him of a single science, which is the science of beauty everywhere. To this I will proceed; please to give me your very best attention:

    “He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty (and this, Socrates, is the final cause of all our former toils)-a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not fair in one point of view and foul in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place fair, at another time or in another relation or at another place foul, as if fair to some and-foul to others, or in the likeness of a face or hands or any other part of the bodily frame, or in any form of speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as for example, in an animal, or in heaven or in earth, or in any other place; but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things. He who from these ascending under the influence of true love, begins to perceive that beauty, is not far from the end. And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is.

    This, my dear Socrates,” said the stranger of Mantineia, “is that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute; a beauty which if you once beheld, you would see not to be after the measure of gold, and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose presence now entrances you; and you and many a one would be content to live seeing them only and conversing with them without meat or drink, if that were possible-you only want to look at them and to be with them. But what if man had eyes to see the true beauty–the divine beauty, I mean, pure and dear and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life–thither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine? Remember 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.”

    http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html

  3. One can argue ignorance is synonymous with Untermensch. Its just too bad we live in world today run by Untermenschs.

  4. ‘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.’ Priceless! Thanks for that 🙂

  5. There is a huge difference between to write about such things and to be them.

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