478. The Dangers of Philosophy

April 8, 2015

The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 420s to late 340s BCE) serves as a crucial link between Mesopotamian cosmology and the ideas that guided the development of the Western World through the vehicle of Christianity. His cosmology may have been influenced by earlier Greek philosophers, as well as by ideas his step-father acquired as Athenian ambassador to Persia,

The Greek-speaking, Hebrew Neoplatonist thinkers in Alexandria in the new millennium got hold of a Latin translation of Plato’s dialogue, the Timaeus, and even though Plato didn’t have much direct influence on Western thought until the Renaissance, his and early Sumerian cosmology passed almost directly into Christian teachings via the Neoplatonists in the second century BCE. In the fourth century, Roman emperor Constantine took several preparatory steps short of adopting Christianity as the empire’s official religion, which eventually was declared by the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE, more than forty years after Constantine’s death, so assuring the influence of Plato’s thought on Christian theology.

Plato’s dialogue Timaeus is named after the narrator who presents what he has learned about cosmology from his lifetime of study. In that capacity, he is Plato’s persona, serving to distance the author from his own ideas, giving him space to fine-tune his thinking.

I find reading the Timaeus hard work in forcing me to think in terms that may have made sense to Plato and his followers, but are foreign to my own way of making sense of the world.

For Plato, ideas and ideal concepts are more vivid and perfect than their flawed realization in sensible objects and events, while I think of ideas and concepts themselves as abstractions derived from sensory impressions with the nonessential details taken away or suppressed.

Plato thinks the other way around—of sensory impressions as flawed realizations of rational ideas, which are perfect in their own nature. I keep getting twisted around in my head, trying to live in two incompatible worlds at once, two minds at once, two streams of thought at once.

The Timaeus deals with the physical realization of the visible world of stars, planets, and the Earth from an intelligible model representing the essence of rational thought as entertained from Plato’s point of view. Bringing such a world into existence requires a craftsman or creator, which in the Timaeus serves as creator of the universe working from a basic plan and raw materials, though the craftsman himself is a lesser being than a god.

The irony in this version of creation is that the craftsman’s plan is nothing other than a model of the universe derived from human observation, a model similar to an armillary sphere as might have graced the shelves of Plato’s academy in Athens. Plato here indulges in circular reasoning in having the model for the universe being nothing more-nor-less than a model derived from that same universe. This clearly is doublethink, for which Plato makes no apology.

Plato details the fashioning of the model in such a way to ensure that, if the stars and planets are to move in perfectly circular paths, they must possess reason within souls within mobile bodies, thereby distinguishing order from chaos (characterized by random, inharmonious motions). Those three abstract entities are the raw materials of Plato’s universe as ideas in his own mind relayed via his spokesman and narrator, Timaeus.

This self-serving use of philosophy to lend dignity, stature, and order to a product of the human imagination is, in my mind of today, a misuse of human thought, deceitfully substituting the thing-at-hand as a ruse for the very thing sought.

I find this sleight of mind occurring again and again in the history of the meanings projected by humans upon the stars. Essentially, people have made what they will of the stars, and called it the truth. And the stars are so remote from human understanding, we wouldn’t hear them complain even if they did.

In Plato’s thought, the prime mover of the stars was the idea of divine reason as contained in the soul as spread among the stars all moving with identical, circular motions. When in fact those bodies are not moving at all! It is we on Earth who are rotating about our own axis and perennially sailing around the sun with all the other planets.

This is harmony, reason, soul, and order attained by declaration or fiat, not insight, realization, understanding, or research. The early history of cosmology is rife with such prideful acts on the part of recognized authorities at the time. The perpetrators include Sumerian temple priests, Greek philosophers, Alexandrian and Christian philosophers, and theologians throughout the history of religion until today, even into the age of evolution and space exploration, when you’d think we would know better.

In that regard, we are not as wise as we claim to be. Rather, we are stubborn. Recalcitrant. Backward-looking. Stuck in the mud. Sidestepping the fault by citing faith is an abuse of our situated intelligence. We know better. But hide behind our erroneous beliefs nonetheless—largely because we are used to, and highly invested in, those beliefs.

Plato’s desire to attain a universe that conforms to his ideals of reason, order, harmony, truth, and eternal perfection has created nothing but misery for those unable to come anywhere near to attaining any such standard, which surely includes all of mortal humanity. Leaving nobody left over to bask in the radiance of pure idealism.

Plato’s view was that humanity’s proper realm is reason, not sensation per se, because reason is superior to sensation, as ideas in the mind are superior to the imperfect body, which merely houses the mind. In this sense, having the stars supposedly move in rational orbits overhead elevates them as paragons for people to live up to in their worldly strivings. The more like the stars we become in our orderly habits, the closer we approach the ideal of the divine, the rational, and the good.

That is, the more we become like ourselves because we are the ones who are moving in the first place (rotating about Earth’s axis, orbiting the sun), while the stars themselves remain where they always have been, fixed (as far as we can tell) in place. We start and end where we already are, and only cause trouble by making an arduous journey out of striving to get where we want to go by a long and unnecessary detour through the universe of misbegotten ideas in our heads.

Such are the dangers of philosophy. Thinking overmuch without watching where we’re going.

I am turning these hundreds of posts into a blog on the topic of consciousness precisely because I want to offer an alternative to the human mental attitude of past ages. An alternative to judging the world by our subjective experience rather than really grappling with what the world might be like if we stood aside and got out of the way of our own efforts and forgone conclusions, giving the stars themselves a chance to tell their side of the story of our longstanding, mutual engagement.

But I am getting ahead of myself before I tell the rest of the story of the meanings that humans have mapped onto the stars. Enough said for today.

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