…of the Axial Age…
The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, by Karen Armstrong
What many might describe as foundational to Western Civilization, Armstrong describes as the beginning of the end of the Axial Age. The topic is Plato.
I won’t spend time on Armstrong’s review of Plato’s Forms or his cave; I have done this elsewhere (here, here, and here). Instead:
Plato shared the conviction of many Axial philosophers that there was a dimension of reality that transcended our normal experience but that was accessible to us and natural to our humanity.
This is where the plot takes a twist: where others believed this insight could not be achieved by logical reasoning, Plato believed that it could. This was done through the practice of dialectic – a process so rigorous that it could push his disciples into an alternative state of consciousness.
Plato’s path led him to describe the ideal republic; his republic held many characteristics that, according to Armstrong, we would find objectionable: genetic engineering; disposing of defective infants; promising children taken from their parents and raised by specialists; sex for breeding, not for relationships.
Two thoughts come to mind: first, it isn’t clear to me why Armstrong describes that we would find these objectionable today: other than the last point (today we have sex for…sex), each of these “objectionable” practices continues today, albeit in a slightly different form or described in different words.
Second…how many times must we hear from those who denigrate religion generally – and Christianity specifically – that “we don’t need any of that mumbo jumbo for our ethics; we just have to appeal to our common humanity”? What common humanity? As Nietzsche offered (and I paraphrase): why do you believe you can retain your Christian ethics while throwing away your Christian God? It is nonsense.
Plato’s deity was uninterested in the human race; this made him not meaningful to the lives of ordinary men – by ordinary, those not trained and disciplined in Plato’s dialectic. Plato tried to remedy this by treating the Olympian gods as lessor deities – these would interact with humans.
Plato moved further from the Axial philosophers by considering that correct belief came first, and ethical behavior came second; it was a metaphysical view, one that would have been foreign to the earlier philosophers.
There were to be three obligatory articles of faith: the gods existed; they cared for human beings (this must be the lessor gods); and a belief in superstitious ritual was a capital crime. If one would not submit to the true faith? Execution.
Which was quite a turn of events. At the beginning of his journey, Plato was horrified by the execution of Socrates: executed for teaching false religious ideas. By the end of his journey…well, guess what? Plato would become the executioner to those who would hold false (in his view) religious ideas.
Ultimately, Plato made his philosophical religion wholly intellectual – something quite outside of the Axial view. His most brilliant pupil would further this divide. Aristotle would take Plato’s forms and place these in matter; here again, I have written on this extensively in the past and won’t do so now (here, for example). Aristotle would use reason to understand metaphysical and ethical subjects:
[Aristotle’s] “good” consisted if thinking clearly and effectively planning, calculating, studying, and working things out.
A man’s moral well-being depended on reason: qualities such as courage and generosity had to be regulated; both a deficit or an excess of such qualities would demonstrate a less-than-moral life.
Aristotle produced a new god, the Unmoved Mover. Armstrong notes that this was not Yahweh, but I don’t understand why it would be Yahweh – at least not described or understood in the same way. Yes, I understand that all men are in search of God, but what did Aristotle know of Yahweh?
Aristotle was a pioneer of great genius. Almost single-handedly he laid the foundations of Western science, logic, and philosophy. Unfortunately he also made an indelible impression on Western Christianity.
Armstrong points to the leaning by some Europeans on Aristotle’s proofs of the Unmoved Mover. She notes that this is one of his lessor achievements. I will offer that for me it is almost an irrelevant achievement. If this is the reason for her “unfortunately” comment, I don’t see the point or value of her criticism. But maybe there is something more.
I am aware that Eastern Orthodox Christians have a problem with the Western Church, and that they will point to the Aristotelian-Thomistic connection. I guess I don’t understand this well enough. Then again, it is those with whom we are closest that the fights become more personal.
So, is this the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning? Plato moved away from a focus on the ethical behavior that was found in the Axial Age across all regions – placing correct belief ahead of ethical behavior.
We are a couple of centuries away from the logos manifest on earth; as you know, I find in Him Plato’s Form of the Good made manifest…and no one can question His ethical behavior. It might be the beginning of the end of the Axial Age, but what follows is the most perfect Axial being ever to grace this earth.
Regarding this antagonism between the Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity (to say nothing of the Protestants), I am fine with Lewis’s idea in Mere Christianity. But I guess it isn’t enough to believe in the power of the death and Resurrection; it isn’t acceptable to leave it at that. Probably makes me a heathen or a heretic to all.