Thursday, 11 February 2010

380 BCE and All That

So, I was looking through Plato again for the first time in a very long while. And there's this bit in Meno where Socrates says:

As the soul is immortal, has been born often and has seen all things here and in the underworld, there is nothing which it has not learned; so it is in no way surprising that it can recollect the things it knew before, both about virtue and other things. As the whole of nature is akin, and the soul has learned everything, nothing prevents a man, after recalling one thing only - a process men call learning - discovering everything else for himself, if he is brave and does not tire of the search, for searching and learning are as a whole, recollection.
(Plato, Meno 81, c-d)

and this reminded me of something I used to know well as a teenager...

Of course, this is based on Umberto Eco's work, himself a philosopher critical of religious dogma. So is it a realistic depiction of Medieval attitudes to knowledge? Certainly some thought so, as late as 1542. In the preface to Copernicus' book On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres Osiander addresses the Pope:
as soon as certain people learn that in these books of mine which I written about the revolution of the spheres of the world I attribute certain motions of the terrestrial globe, they will immediately shout to have me and my opinion hooted off the stage.
(Copernicus, 1995:4)
New ideas, in religious circles, had their price. Copernicus' conflicted with literal readings of Scripture as well, which was a problem:
He set the earth on its foundations;
it can never be moved.
Of course, Christian philosophy these days is more generally associated with Aristotle than Plato, but in this respect, the idea of received knowledge fits closely with the Platonic notion of Forms. In the Theory of Forms, knowledge of such things is iluminated by the Form of the Good - later identified with the one God of Abrahamic religions - and Forms are the real world, of which the physical objects around us are but pale shadows. In addition, Plato had developed a doctrine of an immortal (albeit reincarnated) soul. Much of this fits with Christian understandings of God.

The idea that Platonism is associated with Christianity is not of course new. St Justin, a 2nd century Palestinian Christian, 'was convinced that in the highminded Stoic ethics of human brotherhood, and especially in the other-worldly Platonic metaphysics, there was much for a Christian to welcome.' (Chadwick 1992:46) and certainly Dante (roughly contempraneous with the setting of Eco's novel) thought him worthy enough to live in the Noble Castle of the underworld, a place for virtuous people who had the misfortune to live before Christ to live out eternity in comfort.*

But why am I telling you all this? Well, mainly because I find the history of ideas interesting, and assume other people might too. Also, because it is an incident which shows the extent to which Christian theology was inspired by ideas that came before it. Finally, because it is a pleasingly exact reflection of the political order of the late medieval age, the very definition of reactionary thinking, a Tolkien-esque desire for a perfect history that makes up for the deficiencies of an imperfect present. It is the polar opposite of the left, and the way in which Eco and Annaud (the film's director) play with it wittily underscores the philosophy's deficiencies. The central deficiency being the unexamined assumption at the heart of the 'recapitulation' idea, that the ability to learn must be due to the knowledge being already present**. The search for a phenomenological explanation is not begun, let alone completed. As with Plato, so with Christianity. It is a poor piece of philosophy that starts from its conclusion, as a rule.

We came then to the foot of a great castle,
Encircled seven times by lofty walls,
And around which there flowed a pleasant stream;


I saw the master of knowledge, Aristotle,
Sitting there with a company of philosophers.

All looked to him, and they all did him honour;
I saw there Socrates, as well as Plato,
The two who stood out and were nearest to him
(Inferno, Canto IV:106-135)

** Melling, in his study of Plato, notes 'he is adding religious emphasis to doctrine seriously propounded, but unsupported ... by adequate argument to substantiate it' (Melling 1987: 62)

Alighieri, D. 1998. The Divine Comedy OUP.
Chadwick, H. 1992. The Early Christian Community in The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, J. McManners (Ed.), OUP.
Copernicus, N. 1995. On The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, Prometheus Books.
Eco, Umberto 1998. The Name of the Rose, Vintage.
Melling, D. 1987. Understanding Plato, OUP.
Plato, 1981. Five Dialogues. GMA Grube (trans.) Hackett.

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