maanantai 12. kesäkuuta 2017

Back to Plato

It has happened often during the history of philosophy that some philosopher is read from a one-sided or even completely distorted perspective – some feature of his writings is emphasised over others. At some point, then, a supposed return to a more faithful reading follows. Usually this new reading is then distorted in another manner and might even forget features that were taken as central in the first reading.

Something like this happened with the reception of Plato's teachings. Over time, the Platonic academy had developed into a sort of skepticism, which emphasised especially the Socratic of dialogical aspect of Plato's books – different views were weighted and all found wanting. Already during Cicero's time an insistence on a more faithful reading of Plato was apparent – certainly Plato had not thought that knowledge was completely impossible. Problem in this attempt to rejuvenate the Platonism was to decide then what would be a properly Platonic doctrine of philosophy.

One of the people trying to find the essence of Platonism was Plutarch, better known as a biographer of eminent historical persons. Even in his more philosophical works, you can see the historian, who is eager to collect all kinds of sayings and aphorisms, which he will insert to text at appropriate time. Naturally, Plutarch borrows heavily from Plato. One can see influences of Plato even in quite small details, such as Plutarch's opinion that poetry by itself is based on deception and is often detrimental to education.

Yet, Plutarch isn't just a blind follower of Plato, and for instance, does not want to banish poets altogether from a good community. Indeed, Plutarch is willing to use poetry as a means of education, as long as the reader is taught what to accept from poetic works. Thus, although one can find characters in poem expressing all sorts of immoralities, a teacher can point out that these immoralities are clearly condemned by other characters, who express the true opinion of the matter. Then again, Plutarch is highly critical of poems or plays expressing crudities just for the shake of cheap laughter, as he assumes to happen in Aristophanes's comedies. But even worse than such crude poems, in eyes of Plutarch, are supposed histories which are actually just collections of malicious gossips, such as he thinks Herodotus to have written.

In general, Plutarch is interested of matters of education. Indeed, in addition to his take on the usefulness of poetry, Plutarch also gave instructions how one should get most benefits out of a lecture and how one should respect the lecturer. But it is not just to school education that Plutarch's writings are restricted, but he is also interested of educating people to in general live well. Plutarch's general idea of good life was one shared by many ancient philosophers: spending too much time in seeking pleasure makes one sleep badly every night and is bad for health.

Plutarch wanted to especially distance his position from Epicureans. When it came to the method of acquiring knowledge, Epicureans were in Plutarch eyes a bit naive when they insisted that all sensations were true – surely this would lead to contradictions, because things seem different from different distances.

Especially critical Plutarch was of Epicurean notion of good life. Plutarch thought that Epicurean identification of all pleasures as bodily was faulty. For instance, in good parties people received pleasure from conversation, and this pleasure, Plutarch stated, was not bodily, but pertained to soul alone. Indeed, Plutarch insisted, mental pleasures were far more stable than fleeting pleasures of body. Furthermore, Plutarch didn't like the Epicurean idea that good life should be lived unknown. Instead, Plutarch stated, a good person should be happy to inspire others for good life.

Plutarch also criticized Epicurean idea of indifferent divinities and denial of afterlife, both of which were supposed to free humans from unfounded fears. Instead, Plutarch stated, people find hope in the idea of provident and well-meaning gods, and the idea of a total end to life causes nothing but anxiety.

Like many earlier philosophers, Plutarch was intrigued by the behaviour of Spartan people, which downplayed the worth of sensual pleasure in favour of military valour and fortitude. Indeed, Plutarch put on some occasions more value on military efforts than cultural achievements. Thus, he thought that people of Athens were to be more appreciated because of their conquests than their artistic endeavours and he regarded Alexander's conquest of Persia as a great practical application of philosophy, by which the whole Middle-East had been civilized. Then again, Plutarch was also keen to advice how to make anger subside.

Despite his dismissal of pleasure and anger, Plutarch was not ready to speak for a complete Stoic indifference. Plutarch even suggested that Stoics themselves did not really believe in this indifference, because they at some places suggested that things that would be indifferent according to their theories were still to be preferred or avoided. Plutarch even jested about the Stoic advice that a wise person would commit a suicide, if pain would become intolerable – a Stoic sage should be the happiest person alive and still end her life because of such a matter that Stoics considered indifferent.

Plutarch also criticized Stoics, because of their suggestion that a cleft between people living well and people living not well or philosopher and non-philosopher was infinitely wide and that one could only leap from one position to another. Plutarch noted how absurd Stoic idea seemed from the viewpoint of common life, in which we think of goodness and badness of life more as end points in a continuous scale of more or less good or bad life. Thus, he noted that we had various criteria, by which to determine whether a person had progressed in her life skills – for instance, if a person began with a certitude of knowing what is right and true and later on realised how little she actually knew, we could say she had become a better person. Plutarch also jested about the Stoic insistence that a perfectly living person would be the most beautiful sight in the world, but no ordinary person would actually appreciate this beauty and would even consider her to be the most distasteful sight – why would anyone even want to gain such a goal?

While Stoics emphasised a good faculty of choice as the only goal of human life, Plutarch noted that this was only a medium for the true goal. Thus, while Stoics stated that all supposed goals outside the human choice were irrelevant and not to be cared about, like Plato and Aristotle before him, Plutarch sought for a proper medium between indifference and sensuous affects: for instance, although grieving too much for your dead beloveds does no good, a period of mourning is seemly and proper. It is intelligence, which can tell what is proper behaviour in each circumstance and which thus secures human being from chance events. Unlike Stoics, Plutarch suggested that intelligence by itself wasn't responsible for human behaviour, because passions were completely distinct from intelligence and something that intelligence had to train.

Plutarch didn't restrict the class of passions to be trained just to desires for sensual pleasures. He was also quick to condemn such activities as talking too much and being too nosy. In many ways, Plutarch followed Aristotelian idea of virtue as a medium between two vices. Thus, Plutarch was wont to admit that one should not spend too much, but also not to procure too much wealth, or that although one should not be rude to people, one should also not try to serve every whim of other persons, or that even though one was not to praise oneself too much, there still were ways to praise oneself modestly. Then again, Plutarch also admitted that there were things one should refrain from altogether, such as being envy of other people's fortune or taking on debt.

Plutarch gave also more detailed instructions on various aspects of life. Plutarch was even concerned about such quite specific topics as giving advice on what issues to speak about during parties. Thus, he mentions that one could, of course, discuss the formalities of parties – whether some people should have a better seat than others – but also more generally interesting questions, such as whether chicken is in some sense prior to an egg.

Plutarch had also something to say about gender relations. He insisted that men and women should have a common criteria for good life: thus, women can be brave in the same manner as men. Then again, he admitted that males and females might have different natures, which would have an effect on how to apply these criteria. This is well seen when Plutarch advised how married people should live together, as he in a very conventional manner suggested that wife should always follow her husband's will. At times, he even went so far as to insist that wife should be glad if her husband chooses to do things unsuitable for well-mannered women with prostitutes. Then again, he also celebrated marriage as a communion of personalities, which is just strengthened by occasional brief moments of mutual sensual pleasure.

Plutarch also had something to say on how we should act as friends. We should not just flatter people, but to tell them frankly, if they have done badly. Furthermore, we shouldn't try to collect a huge group of friends, since one has only a finite amount of love to give to one's friends. Indeed, Plutarch continues, often enemies are more useful to people than would-be-friends, because they at least reveal our faults more truthfully. Then again, Plutarch was very adamant of the importance of family – even animals show love towards their siblings and offspring, thus, surely should human beings also do that.

Plutarch insisted that a true philosopher shouldn't abstain from dealing with the good life of a community. Indeed, he even encouraged philosophers to educate rulers, if the opportunity arose, since through such means they could benefit a great number of people. In fact, Plutarch thought that anyone with experience on how to live well, such as elder people, should not isolate themselves, but take part in communal decisions. No matter what position one holds in community, however insignificant it may seem, its importance is increased by the worth it brings to the community.

Plutarch wasn't just interested of good life of individuals and states, but he had also a keen interest on the structure of natural world, although he was willing to admit that he could just make reasonable conjectures about such matters. His main point was that the universe was a purposeful construct. For instance, Moon didn't just revolve around Earth by necessity, but its revolution had to satisfy some goal. Perhaps, Plutarch suggested, Moon was a kind of a halfway house between cold and inert Earth and bright and lively heavens, so that souls of human beings could there purify themselves of the last vestiges of earthly life on their journey to completely intellectual life of heavens.

Even more interested Plutarch was of living nature. He was quite convinced that animals were not completely removed from humanity and insisted that they could compete with humans in their various virtues – for instance, some animals could reason as well humans and they were more easily satisfied by natural pleasures. Indeed, Plutarch at time even suggested that eating animals was a cruel habit, especially as no animals devoured humans as often.

Plutarch's most original contribution for philosophy was perhaps his search for wisdom beyond this life and world. Following Plato, he suggested that body was of hindrance to seeing the true reality and that death was therefore nothing to be afraid of, but more like a return to a more divine level. Along with body, Plutarch insisted, all the work dedicated to sustaining the body was ultimately of no importance and it would be far better if a human being could survive without any nourishment. Plutarch ridiculed the idea that eating was of importance, because without the need for food there would be no agriculture and therefore no sacrifices for gods. Plutarch noted that an idea of gods as beings who demanded sacrifices and punished humans for failing to provide them was even worse than atheism – it is better to deny the existence of gods than to call them fickle and cruel.

Even though Plutarch was critical of such traditional ideas of gods, he was quite fascinated of religious practices and myths and often tried to find rational explanations for them. He was not really interested of explaining them as symbols for natural phenomena – for instance, he did not think that the myth of the death of Egyptian god Osiris in the hands of Typhon (Seth) and his eventual rebirth with the help of the goddess Isis would be just a story retelling the cycles of river Nile. Instead, Plutarch saw in this tale hints of metaphysical truths. Typhon was an indication of an idea of a source of imperfection that corrupted the natural world and led to death and dissolution of material things. Then again, nature or Isis could reproduce an image of true eternity or Osiris through its cyclical renewal of everything. Similarly, a letter E inscribed on the temple of Apollo in Delphi was according to him a Greek way of saying ”I am”, which indicates that divinity is a source of all being, just like the more famous ”know thyself” is according to him an advice not to think of oneself as a divinity.

Plutarch also criticized the Stoic notion of divinities, which essentially made lesser gods into mere powerful beings, which could be destroyed as well as any material beings. Even more ridiculous in Plutarch's eyes was the notion that the highest creator God would in no manner be any more blessed and happy than any human being that had just found the perfect mode of life. The highest blasphemy in Plutarch's eyes was the Stoic notion that evil things in the world were created by God and that they were even a necessary part of world condition.

Plutarch used Plato's Timaeus as a foundation of his own cosmogony, although he read the dialogue in a rather creative fashion. According to Plutarch, matter used to be a completely chaotic mess, governed only by a living and self-powered, but also irrational force, which ruled the matter with iron necessity. The divinity ordered the matter into a well-regulated universe and gave the force or soul reason, by which to take care of the world. Still, because the world soul had an irrational beginning, the world still contains some hints of irregularity and evil.

Although Plutarch was convinced that divinity was completely removed from human affairs, he supposed that a hierarchy of other beings bridged the gap between them, and for instance, took care that the wicked would ultimately be punished, if not right away, then in the afterlife. These demigods could also be responsible for divination, Plutarch conjectured. This would also explain, why sources of divination could change according to human needs – demigods would leave places, where people did not live anymore, and they would use more cryptic images in times, when secrecy was of utmost importance.

Then again, human souls might attain a similar status to these supposed demigods, when not tied up to the interests of their bodies. Indeed, the faculty for divination or connection to some divination inducing stuff might well be natural for human beings, but only veiled from us by our body. Socrates was an example of a person whose body did not hinder this divining element, but naturally received messages from a higher dimension, which Plutarch mythologically suggested was somewhere in the upper celestial regions.

We know little about the details of the development of Platonistic currents after Plutarch, but certain common elements seem to have persisted. Apuleius, who even suggested he might be descended of Plutarch, was, like his supposed ancestor, quite interested of mystery religions, such as the worship of Isis, the mother of gods, which in a sense were only avatars of this one central goddess – or God, since speaking of gender is just conventional, when it comes to this prime creator. Just like Plutarch, Apuleius insisted that a turn away from the sensuous world and its pleasures was required in order to reach this ultimate source of everything. Although interested of such mysteries, Apuleius firmly denied that he had any magical powers – he considered himself more of a researcher of the world around him.

A more mundane approach to Plato was apparently favoured by Alcinous, who used Aristotelianism and Stoicism to understand Plato's philosophy. Alcinous presented philosophical contemplation as a step above normal everyday activities: a philosopher can say how humans should live (object if practical philosophy) more reliably than ordinary people, because he knows what there is (object of theoretical philosophy). Yet, like Stoics had already pointed out, before trying to say what there is contemplation should begin by a study of means of contemplation (what was then called logic).

Alcinous gave a Platonic twist to the notion of studying contemplation, when he said that in addition to senses human beings had a capacity to think certain non-sensuous objects, like the Platonic ideas, which appeared to be known by us even before we were born. An important part of human cognition for Alcinous was just this duality of senses and thinking. While senses as such make us acquainted only with individual, unconnected sensations and thinking as such only with immaterial ideas, humans as both thinking and sensing can also combine individual sensations and recognise them as belonging to concrete objects and similarly recognise ideas as embodied in material entities.

The actual methodology Alcinous accepts for his philosophy is essentially Aristotelian logic, with its different parts for strict demonstrations, probable arguments and even a study of deceptive arguments. But Alcinous regards Plato as being already implicitly aware of this methodology, because he used it in his dialogues before Aristotle wrote about it.

Broadly Aristotelian is also the habit of Alcinous to divide theoretical philosophy into mathematics, theology or metaphysics and physics. Like Plato, Alcinous considers mathematics to be of great use, firstly, in practical everyday matters, but also secondly, in leading us to non-sensuous matters dealt in theology. Yet, it is is not the only way, because even by considering what is sensed we can discover something that cannot be sensed. In other words, while sensuous properties are unstable, there must be something, which remains stable throughout these changes – matter. Because this supposed matter should be able to take on any possible sensuous determinations, it itself must be without any sensible characteristics.

Still, matter by itself cannot have taken on different shapes just by itself, but these must have come out of a different source. This is where Platonic ideas come in – ideas work as a scheme by which matter is modeled, Alcinous says. Furthermore, Alcinous notes that this formation must have been instigated by someone – God.

While Apuleius and Alcinous use different routes to find divinity they conceive his relation to the world in similar manner Just like Plutarch, Apuleius and Alcinous saw especially Plato's Timaeus as a serious description of how the world around us had been created. Or actually, they were quick to explain, there was no one moment of creation, but world was in a sense created eternally – world had existed always, but its existence was dependent on the highest god. In a figurative manner we could say, according to Apuleius and Alcinous, that the wholly immaterial divinity had took independently existing shapeless matter and organised it according to ideal principles or forms. Thus, God imposed geometric shapes to the matter and so produced the first elements. From the elements God had shaped various other stuff – stars and planets and earthly bodies – and finally the whole universe. As a ruler of the universe the divinity had appointed a living entity – a world soul – which it had fashioned out of numerical relationships.

This world soul was then the progenitor of all souls in the world. Some of these souls were as immaterial as God itself, such as the gods of Greek mythology. Other souls were embodied or connected with certain physical bodies, which just meant that these bodies thus were alive. Highest of these embodied souls were fiery bodies – these were the stars and planets, which could also be called gods. Apuleisus was especially interested of an even lower rank of aery entities or lower spirits, which acted as mediators between immutable gods and the earthly worlds. Like gods, spirits or daemons were indestructible, but they still weren't as immutable and independent of all other things as gods were.

Some of the aery spirits were connected with bodies fashioned for them by the gods – these were the human souls. Human souls, Apuleius and Alcinous continued, consisted of three parts corresponding to three parts of human bodies – desires residing in stomach and the lower regions of the body, passion or anger residing in the heart and reason residing in the head. Humans shared reason with gods and non-earthly daemons, and thus reason was meant to rule the other two parts of the soul, which would insure the harmony and health of the body also.

Alcinous was especially interested of the Platonic notion that when human reason losed it control over its lower parts, it would become more like an animal and would wonder after death to an animal body. In any case, he was convinced that at least reasoning part of a human would live eternally, although he wasn't so sure about the lower parts.

In a sense, Apuleius and Alcinous regarded Timaeus as the Platonic answer to Hellenistic demand of a theory of universe or physics. Similarly, they wanted to find answers in Plato about ethics, that is, about good life, although often the answers they described as Platonic were actually taken from Aristotle or Stoics. The ultimate good, according to Apuleius and Alcinous, resided in the divinity that had created the world. Even humans could live perfectly only by imitating God and staying in contact with the lower divinities.

Apuleius was somewhat skeptical whether humans ever achieve the goal of imitation of God completely. Indeed, in humans good life, which was naturally a unity, was divided into different facets according to different facets of human soul – wisdom or a good use of reason, courage or wisely controlled use of passion and anger, austerity or a control over desires, and finally justice or a balancing of the three sides of the soul. Alcinous, on the other hand, noted that in a perfect state of human soul these four aspects were essentially a unity – no one could use one's reason perfectly unless one had a perfect command of one's lower faculties, while no one could control one's faculties, unless one could use one's reason perfectly. Still both Apuleius and Alcinous agreed that when we speak of these four aspects of good life in their imperfect, non-unified state, wisdom could be simply learned, but the other aspects require also training of one's lower faculties.

Now, the best thing a person could have, Apuleius said, is the ability to follow these four principles of good life. Only few people could follow these principles perfectly, but then again, only few people lived completely against them, while the majority of human beings lived at least partially good lives – indeed, Apuleius insisted, no one willingly chose a bad life, but this was always a result of ignorance. In comparison, Apuleius continued, other goods are only partially good, that is, good if they are put to good use. Especially pleasure was good only, if it followed a good life, while pleasure following from abuse of the principles was a shameful thing.

Alcinous was more interested of studying affections or irrational processes of human souls, because search for good life required doing something to them. All these affections, Alcinous said, were caused by soul becoming aware of something it considered good or bad – either something that was actually present or something the soul hoped or feared for – or by some mixture of these two basic affections. Alcinous especially instructed people to cultivate natural and necessary affections, which were milder than unnatural affections and thus easier to control by reason.

Friendship and love were topics, which interested both Apuleius and Alcinous. Both philosophers noted that friendship and love come in many levels. Friendship and love were good, if they were guided by principles of good life and showed concern for soul and character of the friend or beloved, whereas friendship and love based on mere seeking of pleasure or self-interest were something fickle and unreliable.

Apuleius and Alcinous also followed Plato's Republic and Laws closely in their description of good and bad communities. In an ideal community, people were governed by wise rulers and defended by brave youngsters. While ideal rulers would need only their own reason for ruling and in a perfect society all things would be common, in practice rulers required laws to guide them and they had to accept private ownership and marriages. If a state lacked wise rulers, the vacuum would be filled, in the best case by soldiers, in a somewhat worse case by rich oligarchs, in an even worse case by democratic assembly, and in the worst case by a single dictator.

Alcinous also considered what distinguished false philosophers like sophists from true philosophers like Plato. While philosophers based their considerations always on the eternal and unchanging source of being, that is, God, sophists took as their foundation things that differed from this source of being and which were thus always in some sense changing and variable. Thus, while a true philosopher would be always unerringly right, a sophist might seemingly change his opinions, as if guided by mere whims.

Ei kommentteja:

Lähetä kommentti