Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Singing Against the Faith of the Church

While attending the recent Mississippi Conference on Church Music and Liturgy, the choir sang a piece that really caught my attention. Entitled “In Remembrance,” it’s part of a larger Requiem whose music was written by Eleanor Daly. Requiem received the National Choral Award for Outstanding Choral Composition of the Year by the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors (ACCC) in May 1994. The music for “In Remembrance” is truly beautiful and moving. That alone would make this an attractive selection for funeral services.

However, there are problems with the words (which are attributed to an anonymous author):

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glint on snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle morning rain.
And when you wake in the morning’s hush,
I am the sweet uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die.

A Church anthem or hymn is not just a piece of music with words added on. First and foremost, a Church anthem or hymn is a theological text. And so its purpose – with the aid of music – is to teach and communicate the faith of the Church.

So, what kind of theology does the text for “In Remembrance” convey? And is that theology in sync with the faith of the Church?

By summing up the whole, the first two lines of the text go a long way towards answering these questions: “Do not stand at my grave and weep./I am not there, I do not sleep.” This is a clearly stated denial of the reality of death (which is more emphatically laid out in the last words: “I did not die”). According to this text, death is ultimately an illusion. It’s something that happens only to the body, not to the “real self” or soul. And so the “real self” transcends embodiment and lives on beyond the demise of the body.

At a surface level, this may seem comforting and pastorally appropriate for those who have lost loved ones in death. But, in somewhat Gnostic fashion, what it’s really saying is this: “Your grief is unfounded because your loved one hasn’t really died. He/she has just lost his/her body, which isn’t really who he/she is anyway. So grieving and crying are for those who don’t really understand the truth of what has happened. Death isn’t real. If you’re enlightened enough to see the reality behind the appearances, your grief will vanish.”

In other words, your grief, your pain, your tears, your suffering over the loss of a loved one - it's all a mistake.

If that’s true, then unless he was putting on a show, Jesus was wrong to have wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. And our Prayer Book would also be wrong to affirm that grief is compatible with Christian faith because “The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death” [The Book of Common Prayer, p. 507].

The text of “In Remembrance” entails a body/soul dualism which privileges the soul as superior to the body, and which envisions the soul as intrinsically immortal. But it goes a step further by envisioning what happens after apparent death as the dispersal of the “real self” or soul throughout the world. And so in addition to its Gnostic overtones, this text resonates more with a Hindu than with a Christian post-mortem vision. Huston Smith’s explication of this aspect of Hinduism resonates with the text of “In Remembrance”:

Underlying man’s personality and animating it is a reservoir of being that never dies, is never exhausted, and is without limit in awareness and bliss. This infinite center of every life, this hidden self or Atman, is not less than Brahman, the God-head [The Religions of Man (Harper & Row, 1958), p. 27].

Contrary to the view grounded in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the body is not an intrinsic part of the “real self” from this perspective. Smith explains: “In the Hindu view, spirit no more depends on the body it inhabits than body depends on the clothes it wears or the house it lives in. When we outgrow a suit or find our house too cramped we exchange these for roomier ones that offer our bodies freer play. Souls do the same” [ibid., p. 75].

While it is certainly true that a body/soul dualism found a niche within Christian theology, it’s also true that this dualism contradicts the biblical teaching that human beings are created in the image of God. Reformed theologian Shirley C. Guthrie explains:

In the Bible human beings are not essentially spiritual or physical. Whatever else our basic humanity is, it has to do with our whole being, spiritual and physical, body and soul in their inseparable interrelatedness. It is as embodied souls (or life) and besouled (or living) bodies that we are created in the image of God [Christian Doctrine Revised Edition (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), p. 195; emphasis in text].

Along similar lines, Guthrie offers biblically-grounded reasons for rejecting the doctrine of the immorality of the soul which “In Remembrance” implicitly entails. It's worth quoting in full:

Biblically informed Christians reject the doctrine of the immortality of the soul because of the unbiblical split it makes between body and soul, physical-earthly and spiritual-heavenly life. If the concept of the soul’s innate ‘divine’ immortality is unbiblically optimistic about the future that lies ahead of us, its contempt for the body is unbiblically pessimistic. The Bible does not teach that the body is a shell or prison in which we are trapped and from which we long to escape. It teaches that we are created and are body (male or female body!) as well as soul, and that bodily as well as spiritual life is willed and blessed by God. It also teaches that our hope for the future is not for the soul’s escape from bodily-physical life into some higher and better spiritual realm but for the renewal of our total human existence as embodied souls and besouled bodies. So it was with Jesus: The New Testament does not tell us that his soul left his body and "went home" to be with God; it tells us that God raised him b0dily from the dead and that the same earthly Jesus his disciples had known before (to be sure with a transformed "new" body) returned to the God from whom he had come. So it will be with us. … Biblical-Christian hope for the future is hope for human beings who are body and soul in their inseparable unity [ibid., pp. 380-381; emphasis in text].

The Christian hope is a far cry from any perspective which either denies the reality of death in all of its pain, tragedy, and ugliness, or which views human post-mortem existence in terms of disembodied eternal bliss and/or as the dissolving of selfhood into the ocean of being. For the Christian hope is centered on resurrection. And by definition, resurrection includes the body. Drawing on the 15th chapter of the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, Anglican bishop of Durham N. T. Wright puts it like this:

This is ... a theology in which the present physical body is not to be abandoned, nor yet to be affirmed as it stands, but is to be transformed, changed from present humiliation to new glory (Philippians 3.21), from prsent corruption and mortality to new incorruption and immortality. This is indeed the defeat of death, not a compromise in which death is allowed to have the body while some other aspect of the human being (the soul? the spirit?) goes marching on [The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003), p. 358].

In light of Guthrie’s Reformed theological perspective and the work of Anglican theologian N. T. Wright, I submit that the text of “In Remembrance” conveys a (perhaps somewhat confused) mixture of Platonic, Gnostic, and Hindu ideas about death and post-mortem existence that contradict the faith of the Church. It is therefore inappropriate for such a text to be used in the context of a Christian burial service.


Perpetua said...

Good analysis.

FYI The words of the poem are generally recognized to have been written by Mary Elizabeth Frye and to have been written with regard to the death of a Jewish woman. See here.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comment, Perpetua. In attributing this to an anonymous author, I was going by what I had read in the music sheet at the conference.

N. T. Wright quotes a part of this text in his book Surprised By Hope and says that this text was an "anonymous poem, left, in case of his death, by a soldier going to Northern Ireland" (p. 11).

It all makes me wonder if the true origins of this text are actually known ...

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

Very nice. With some interest in medieval philosophy, I thought I'd point out that the folks responsible for body/soul dualism in Christianity were very attentive to the concerns you raise.

Two basic approaches were popular. The first, with older roots, held that there is a dualism of body and soul, both of which die. The second, eventually historically more dominant, held that the soul is immortal, and does not (strictly speaking) die, but that the "separated substance" of the soul is not a real human being; only when the body is raised and reunited with the soul does is the human being really there.

The folks responsible for Christian doctrines of mind/body duality did not fall into the trap of thinking that our true self is only the soul, or that the resurrection of the body is unimportant. Such views are far more connected to the thought of Descartes than anything Christian. (And, of course, Plato, especially when we add the "you shouldn't be sad at a death" part.)

BillyD said...

Besides its being heretical, the song seems psychologically unhealthy: telling those that grieve that their loved one didn't die doesn't isn't doing them any favors.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the historical perspective, Thomas. This raises the question of how exactly the Church eventually bought hook, line, and sinker into a body/soul dualism that has more in common with Platonism than with biblical faith. Indeed, the purpose of N. T. Wright's Surprised By Hope is to provide a corrective to that error.

And I quite agree with you, BillyD - this stuff is psychologically unhealthy in its denial of the reality of death and the very real grief and suffering it causes.

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

i'm afraid that the church knew nothing of Platonism and didn't really buy into Platonism. it had a little connection to neo-Platonism, but i think it was Stoicism that played the major role here.

i think that much confusion happens by assuming there is one idea, called "body/soul dualism", and writing as if we all just know what that means. the people who fall under that heading have such wildly differing views (Plato, Aristotle, Stoics, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant) that really there just isn't much in common with them. as a result, i don't think it's possible to say anything either for or against "body/soul dualism" that makes any sense. it just isn't a single concept.

that we have bodies, and that we have souls (in the ancient sense of that word, where soul means, essentially, "whatever is the difference between a person and a corpse"), are uncontroversial theses. that "body" and "soul" don't mean the same thing is also a gimmee. the question then is the relation between the two.

which means that really, the church didn't buy hook, line, and sinker, into anything, since there isn't anything really much in common to the different views lumped as "body/soul dualism" which isn't shared also by whatever views get called monism.

applied to the poem: the problem is not that the poem is "dualistic". the problem is that the poem expresses a particular view of body, and of soul, which are each problematic. body, that it is unimportant, and does not participate in resurrection; soul, that it is capable of existence without body, does not (cannot?) perish, and lacks personal identity after death.

that's the problem, not any association with "dualism", whatever that might mean.

Bryan Owen said...

Thomas, thanks for another extended and thoughtful comment. I quite agree that the terminology of "soul" and "body" can be tricky, particularly when applied to ancient thinkers. There are differences of meaning, but the basic gist of "body/soul dualism" in which the thinker maintains that the two are ontologically distinct entities in which one (the soul) is superior in the value of its being to the other (the body) is not so hard to pinpoint in Western philosophical and religious thought. That's a different usage of "body/soul" than one in which the distinction is analytic - i.e., a distinction made between two aspects of a unified being (what Guthrie calls a "besouled body") for the sake of analysis.

As to the thesis that the early Church knew nothing of Platonism, one blogger writes: "The temptation by some Christians to dismiss the influence of Platonism is strange to me." I suspect that W. S. Tyler would agree. And Augustine.

Among other problems, the poem expresses a kind of Platonism (or neo-Platonism) which you describe quite well in your next to last paragraph.

It's one thing for Christians to be influenced by such views. It's another thing for Christians to so uncritically accept them that they displace the faith of the Church.

I think that's one of the reasons why N. T. Wright's Surprised By Hope has gotten a lot of play in the "secular" media (including an interview about the book on "The Colbert Report"). Although he's reasserting the orthodox Christian view, that perspective now seems so counterintuitive to so many - both within and outside of the Church - that Wright's basic thesis can seem contrary to Christian faith. Talk about an irony!

Bryan Owen said...

A few more thoughts in response to the thesis that "the church knew nothing of Platonism and didn't really buy into Platonism. it had a little connection to neo-Platonism, but i think it was Stoicism that played the major role here."

Concerning the Patristic Period, here's what Frederick Copleston, S.J. writes in the second volume of A History of Philosophy (Image, 1948):

"As a rough generalisation ... one may say that the philosophic ideas of the early Christian writers were Platonic or neo-Platonic in character (with an admixture of Stoicism) and that the Platonic tradition continued for long to dominate Christian thought from the philosophic viewpoint" (p. 14).

In commenting on the divergent views of Tertullian (who rejected the use of pagan philosophy) and Clement of Alexandria (who embraced such use), Copleston continues:

"Thus while in Tertullian's eyes pagan philosophy was little more than the foolishness of this world, Clement of Alexandria regarded philosophy as a gift of God, a means of educating the pagan world for Christ, as the Jews' means of education had been the Law. He thought indeed, as Justin thought before him, that Plato had borrowed his wisdom from Moses and the Prophets (a Philonic contention); but just as Philo had tried to reconcile Greek philosophy with the Old Testament, so Clement tried to reconcile Greek philosophy with the Christian religion. In the end, of course, it was the attitude of Clement, not Tertullian, which triumphed, since St. Augustine made abundant use of neo-Platonic ideas when presenting the Christian Weltanschauung" (p. 15).

As a matter of intellectual history, the early Church not only knew Platonism/neo-Platonism, but also used its ideas heavily in articulating and defending the faith of the Church. Whether or not that usage extended as far as buying into the ontological understanding of body/soul dualism I mentioned in my previous comment would require looking in more detail at the thought of individual Patristic theologians.

My larger point in all of this is simply to say that - regardless of when or who one blames for it - the popular understanding of Christian faith both within and outside of the Church eventually became one in which an immortal soul is understood as more important the a mortal body, and that, at death, the afterlife consists of the soul sloughing off its body to enjoy an eternity of disembodied bliss in heaven (or, perhaps, an eternity of disembodied torment in hell).

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

without doubt there was much drawing from "platonism or neo-platonism". Since there was a lot of neoplatonic borrowing (in the west at least, especially in Augustine), after all.

but don't let the words confuse you. "neo platonism" is not some kind of revival of platonism, or some sort of "platonism redux". platonism was dead by the 3rd century BC; Plotinus (the principal figure in neoplatonism). From Plato he shared a distaste for the material, though that was hardly a uniquely platonic view.

part of the problem is that Augustine writes about "plato", when he's really talking about plotinus. There's not a lot of evidence that Augustine knew much Plato.

So if by "Platonism" we mean "whatever people in AD 300 thought Plato believed", then yes, Platonism had a huge effect. But, since people in AD 300 were mostly wrong about what Plato believed, because they usually thought that Plotinus was a Platonist. "Neo-platonism" is a modern term to help us distinguish Plotinus from Plato. These days, when we write "Platonism" we mean the actual teachings of Plato, the 5th/4th century BC guy.

Nearly all the distinctively "Platonic" doctrines which supposedly were borrowed, were actually Neoplatonic. For example, Plato's understanding of immortality is intensely personal, non-universalistic, and worlds apart from a kind of union-with-all-being mentality that seems at work in the poem, or unity-with-the-source-of-being notion of Plotinus.

Note that for Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, and the Stoics, the soul and body are not ontologically distinct. It is controversial whether Descartes believed they were ontologically distinct. (He said "really distinct", which doesn't actually mean in res, but only "capable of being separated by God.") Also, note that it is possible to believe in an ontological distinction without prioritizing soul over body.

Copleston is an unreliable source for ancient philosophy; he generally errs on the side of finding lots of connections between Christians and pagan philosophy which are anachronistic. Note his easy writing in the quote you give as if Platonism and Neoplatonism were unproblematically one thing!

Yes, Clement was a philosopher. No, Clement did not import Platonism into Christianity. He borrows mostly from the stoics, with a smattering of generic neoplatonism. Moreover, he was critical: he rejected all kinds of stuff that was antithetical to Christianity. This makes simple "borrowing" theses untenable: it was a critical borrowing, and so you can't say, "so-and-so had this wrong idea, b/c it came from foreign source X". With intellectual masters like Clement, the borrowing was critical, and so Clement did consider whether it was contrary to the faith, and we need to understand why he thought it was actually consistent before we reject some thesis or other.

What people often just don't know is that Platonism was dead, dead, dead by the first century AD. There weren't any around.

The poem, which you say, "expresses a Platonism, or neo-Platonism" does so, only in the sens that it expresses a neo-Platonism, and not a Platonism.

As for the popular understanding you identify, I'm hesitant to say. Yes, I've heard that understanding out there. But it's not at all clear that in the middle ages, for example, such an understanding had much play. Certainly medieval christian philosophers had no truck with it. And the popular piety was so intensely body-centered, focused on the resurrection of the body, that I'm would like to see the evidence for popular piety in the middle ages having devotion for disembodied souls in that way.

Moreover, the Christians who borrowed most heavily from the neoplatonists (Augustine, for example), were as explicit as could be that this disembodied soul part of neoplatonism was the part they did not want around the Church.

Indeed, I'd be willing to suggest that the notion of resurrection as involving disembodied souls, with the body playing no important role, is essentially absent in the orthodox Christian tradition, or in popular piety, until the 17th century, and the ideas of Descartes and others.

It will not do to say, "X is a neoplatonic doctrine, they borrowed from the neoplatonists, so they must have borrowed X".

Bryan Owen said...

You again offer much food for thought Thomas, and much that I actually agree with. I think we may be talking past each other on some things that we're perhaps on the same page about.

It's late, so I'll offer a few random thoughts in response.

As far as Copleston's reliance as a scholar goes - well, he was considered quite reliable (and recommended to graduate students) by scholars such as Gene TeSelle and Victor Anderson when I was at Vanderbilt University back in the mid-90s, at least for his work on ancient to medieval philosophy. His work is quite biased in many ways against anything much later than Aquinas (in my reading, at any rate, he clearly does not like Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers). At the very least, I think it would be unfair to judge his work as a whole on the basis of a quote or two.

I also think that in the borrowing of ideas those ideas are altered (subtly or greatly) in the process. If Christian thinkers borrow or are otherwise influenced by terminology, substantive ideas, etc. from pagan or other philosophers, there's a tendency for what gets borrowed to be changed in the process. Some would argue that the change works in both directions, such that the Christianity of the one doing the borrowing is also not quite the same as it was before. (As I recall, some contemporaries of Aquinas were worried that his use of Aristotle was a threat to his orthodoxy for such reasons - he was a radical theologian for his day.) It's never a smooth, easy process.

So yes, I quite agree - borrowing is almost always a critical borrowing. At the very least, it's always selective - or, to make it more edgy, it's "biased." We bring our prejudgments and our agendas to what we're borrowing. And in the process, we may end up with something quite other to what was originally intended by whoever we're borrowing from.

Your comments raise for me an even deeper question about the meaning of the terms we use ("Platonism," "Neo-Platonism," etc.). For instance, the standard textbook discussions of Plato (including Copleston) talk about him as though his work offers a stable set of teachings in the dialogues, and as though we can be confident that Plato himself is offering an almost systematic philosophical system.

But perhaps that standard textbook reading of Plato is wrong. On what basis other than an assumption can we say that the voice of Socrates is always the voice of Plato? Where in the dialogues does Plato ever break in and say to the reader, "Oh, and by the way, I approve of what Socrates is saying"? Where are we offered a stable theory of the Forms, for instance, and how can we know we have such stability for any so-called "teaching of Plato" in the genre of the dialogue - a genre of literature in which there's no final closure to the dialectic of question and answer, but only provisional closure?

Perhaps Plato was not a "Platonist."

Having said all of this - and agreeing with you that we don't find such a caricature of the faith in most of the great Christian theologians - I still maintain that popular Christianity for the most part lives and breathes and teaches a kind of body/soul dualism which privileges soul over body and for which the Christian hope consists of sloughing off the body for an eternity of disembodied bliss in heaven. That's what I was raised on in the Bible belt of the South. And apparently, it's what N. T. Wright has heard for most of his life in England. We can call that "Platonism" or "Gnosticism" or whatever, but whatever labels we use or however we try to unpack it philosophically and theologically, it is a reality that, regardless of its true origins, has had and continues to have an effective history in Western culture.

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

You raise the "Socratic Question." Normally the problem is identifying which ideas in the dialogues are genuinely Socratic. Once the division of dialogues into early/middle/late went along with a story in which the early dialogues were written before Plato developed his distinct doctrines. Nowadays the historical story isn't so clear. The "early" dialogues are thus the "more genuinely Socratic" ones. The subject quickly gets very complex though.

So when the question is "which ideas are really attributable to Socrates?" the answers are controversial, though generally the broad outlines are not really in doubt. Most would find the Apology, Euthyphro, Crito, Republic Book I (and maybe parts of II), Laches, Ion, Charmides, for example, to be genuinely Socratic. The key dialogues where much controversy centers are the Gorgias and Meno. For understanding Socrates, this is a very important subject. But for understanding Plato and his thought, perhaps less so, as I hope I can explain.

We can rest quite sure that the dialogues truly written by Plato are expressing genuine Platonic thought. That is, it is quite sure that the doctrines taught in all the dialogues--whether early, middle, or late--are all genuine Plato. If we find differences and tensions and even contraductions between them, they are internal to Plato--his own changes over time, perhaps, or perhaps something else. Coming to a good understanding of Plato involves coming to some understanding of these questions. For the understanding of Plato, this is far more important than the Socratic question.

Yet, there is still controversy about "what does dialogue X teach?" For example, how seriously are we to take the creation myth in the Timaeus, or the myth of the afterlife in the Gorgias? It is quite unsure what value we are to assign those parts and just what Plato wants us to learn from them.

However, what is particularly interesting, is that it is those very myths which were most important to figures such as Plotinus. So the parts of Plato where we are most unsure just what exactly Plato was teaching us, tend to be the very parts that Plotinus took as the foundation for his own thought, understanding the myths to be Plato's straightforward expressions of his beliefs.

If anything, this just drives a bigger wedge between Platonism and neo-Platonism, of course.

Throughout the middle ages, btw, the only Plato known to the Latin west was the Timaeus! Imagine how that might distort your views of him...

As for Copleston, I'd say he's an excellent introduction to philosophy, but only that. No substitute for the real deal. :) I'm not surprised that two Christian theologians would like him, but they may not be plugged into the mainstream of history of philosophy as much as, um, well, um, me. It is my field, after all. ;)

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

Oh, theory of Forms. Here's my take. The Phaedo, Republic, and Symposium present pretty views about forms which are pretty consistent with each other. Call that, just so we can give it a name, "the Platonic theory of Forms." What we find in those dialogues also seems to be consistent with the account Aristotle gives in the Metaphysics, and the criticisms he makes of views which he labels as Platonic.

So that's one view, which is pretty self-consistent. Then we find criticisms of that view, most powerfully in the Parmenides and the Sophist. In addition, these are the dialogues which shift away from using Socrates as a mouthpiece.

My reconstruction is this. Plato developed the theory of forms, by a consideration of the nature of Socratic dialectic. The "definition" that Socrates was always hankering after--what shape would it look like if we got an answer to his questions? What would we be looking at? Plato's answer: the Forms described in the Republic/Phaedo/Symposium.

The earlier development of Plato's thought seems to have been--in my understanding--something like this: What would it take for Socrates' life to make sense? And the answer comes to something like, it would take Socrates to have some hidden knowledge, knowledge he does not admit to, about where the dialectic leads. (While I think that this is the correct story of the development of Plato's early thought, it is not, in my opinion, a correct understanding of Socrates. I think that in a few fundamental ways, Plato misunderstood his master.)

Later, in my view, Plato comes to realize that there are serious difficulties with the theory of Forms, so he begins to write dialogues which exemplify and explain those difficulties. Hence the Sophist and Parmenides.

So what's going on in the Academy? I think Plato never withdraws the earlier writings, which after all, contain much that is good and true! And heck, you can't undrestand the criticism of the ideas without understanding the ideas criticized.

Of course, the Sophist can't be reconciled with the Phaedo/Symposium/Republic view of Forms. But the solution, I believe, is to see the Sophist as a revision of the previous view: an attempt to save part of the theory of forms, at the expense of much of the ethical bite that the previous view had.

Now which is Platonic? Heck, they all are! Which is "Platonism"? Well, maybe there is no "Platonism." But--and here's the real point I was trying to make earlier--the distinctively neo-Platonic doctrines, the ones that Augustine thinks are Plato, are not any of the choices.

For example, there is no conception in Plato answering to the neo-Platonic ontology of the One, and the return of souls to unity with it. Plato never writes as if souls after death lose their individual identity (at least, not the souls of philosophers). And indeed, it's not clear that Plato really believes in immortal souls at all in the Cartesian sense.

Why could I say that? Take the myth in the Gorgias as just a myth. The non-mythic teaching we find is pretty clear (see the Phaedo, for example), that immortality is a consequence of the attunement of the philosopher's mind with the eternal forms. It is because a philosopher sees the forms that the philosopher's soul can be trusted to be immortal. The consolation in the Phaedo is not a universalistic assurance that we all are possessed of an immortal soul; it is rather an assurance that if our soul can become more like it was before our birth (in knowledge and contemplation of the forms) then we can be confident it will survive, and with its personal identity intact.

the neoplatonic view is just so different from anything that is really Plato. it's kind of like the way some people reason (erroneously) about the Bible. Having noted that there are controversies about interpretation, they conclude that there must be no wrong interpretations.

As Stephen Cook taught us at VTS, there are many good interpretations, but there are also some bad ones. Plato would not have been happy with much of anything in that poem!

Bryan Owen said...

Quite fascinating. I appreciate your passion for this subject, Thomas. This brings back good memories of late night discussions and debates over pints during my graduate school days (which seem longer and longer ago).

Quite apart from the question of what ideas in Plato may be genuinely attributed to Socrates (a question which, frankly, I've never found particularly interesting), I'm still not persuaded that when we're talking about the dialogues we can say with confidence, "This is what Plato taught." Again, that requires making an assumption that, in the dialogues, Socrates is the voice of Plato. On what basis in the dialogues can we verify such an assumption? And more broadly speaking, on what basis is it ever a safe assumption that a protagonist is always the voice of the author? Or that the author always approves of what the protagonist says and does? Those are, at best, shaky assumptions.

Based upon the dialogues as an ongoing interplay of question and answer, my reading is that Plato is far more interested in living and exploring the questions of philosophy than in providing stable answers (much less constructing a system). There's no closure in the dialogues to the dialectic of question and answer. And as the reader, we are invited to continue the dialogue. Maybe, at the end of the day, that's Platonism!

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

Your worry is entirely well-placed that we cannot just assume that what Socrates says is "what Plato taught." Indeed. But that only works one way.

That is, there are many propositions in the Platonic dialogues, and some of them might not be genuinely Platonic, for a variety of reasons.

But if something is not in any of the Platonic dialogues, then we can say it's not Platonic. And that's all that was really at stake here.

Many of the positions labelled "Platonic" have nothing to do with the dialogues; that's all I mean. In that category go quite a lot of Plotinus and various things that Augustine and others thought (incorrectly) to be Platonic.