There are crucial differences between each individual’s situation as understood in transcendental dualism (the posting of December 15, 2011, “Transcendence in Ancient Philosophy”) and the individual’s situation as understood within the worldview of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. To clarify the differences, it is helpful to refer to a summary of the religion of the God of Abraham provided by Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) (1138-1204), generally recognized as authoritative on this issue. Based on Maimonides’ summary, all the Abrahamic traditions embrace the existence, unity, primordiality, and incorporeality of a creator God, uniquely meriting and commanding worship and obedience from humans. God attends to and knows the actions of individuals, will resurrect the dead, and will reward the obedient and punish the disobedient. Instead of direct general Revelation, God uses certain special persons as prophets, His messengers and avatars on earth.

That set of beliefs situates every individual on an externally imposed axis of submission to, or defiance of, authority, an axis of deserving reward or punishment, grace or disgrace, in a way that is alien to transcendental dualism. It suggests that the primal sense of the sacred among the herder-nomads represented by Abraham was childhood fear and awe of the typical father’s unpredictable and mysterious rages. The God of Abraham is a father in the sky, all-knowing, all-powerful, but unreliable, quick to anger, and inclined to terrifying violence. God’s prophets cannot be verified for authenticity, and yet they claim a profound sovereignty by divine authority, and regrettably serve as perennial role-models of sovereignty within our cultural tradition.

500 B.C.

If we imagine the cultural geography around the eastern Mediterranean in 500 B.C., we encounter a rich variety of ethnic communities. In Egypt, we see a culture focused on the gods of ancient Egypt. In Palestine we see the religion of the Old Testament, the emergence of the God of Abraham, with influence in the surrounding region, perhaps especially in Arabia. Further east in the highlands of Persia, we see the emerging dualism of a religious innovator, Zoroaster, self-proclaimed prophet of the ancient Aryan god Ahura Mazda. Looking west, we encounter ancient Greece with the Olympian gods and Apollo’s oracle at Delphi. Farther west again, the city of Rome had its own pantheon of gods. These communities were known to one another to various degrees, but beginning with the Persian assaults on Greece from 490 B.C. until around 449 B.C., there was increasing contact, especially at first between Greece and Persia.

The religion of ancient Greece was focused on a set of gods with close similarities to humans, including bodies like humans, although with powers to transfigure into whatever they wanted, and who were in close, easy, and frequent contact with humans. The oracle of Apollo at Delphi was a popular institution and the initiative lay with ordinary individuals to present specific questions to Apollo’s Pythia. There was no place for divine prophets. Orphic mystery cults were also active and had common assumptions from transcendental dualism, perhaps accounted for the exile of human spirits within physical bodies as punishment for transgressions in a previous existence, but they did also include promises of rewards and punishments in an afterlife. In a contrasting cultural development, it was characteristic of Greek philosophical thinking to remove disembodied spirits and divinities from an account of the world, to value scientific instead of narrative explanations. For example, Plato’s philosophical work completely abandoned the Olympian gods. In the work of Socrates (possibly) and of Plato there is a development of a non-mystical, non-religious ethics inspired in part by the widespread myths of transcendental dualism. It seems to have been the encounter with Persian dualism which jolted Greek thinking to a new profundity, which we see in the philosophy of Plato (c. 427-347 B.C.). However, the version of dualism that penetrated Greek culture as transcendental philosophy retained not a trace of the prophet Zoroaster, or any personified divinities such as Ahura Mazda. The resulting philosophical form of dualism spread widely in the classical Mediterranean world and then later endured a long competition with Abrahamic religion.

Plato’s Cave Parable

Plato’s parable of the cave, from Republic, Book VII, shows that he drew much from transcendental dualism, but removed the battling gods of good and evil in such a way that completely eliminated subordination of individuals to divine command and with it the importance of prophets, the psychological control of divine reward or punishment, and of divinely sanctioned sovereignty in general. It highlights the difference between acting from an imperative for obedience, for example in matters such as diet and genital mutilation, and acting from the personal impulse to find your way home. That reveals an historically important liberating force from the philosophical tradition. Plato’s hierarchical conception of thinking ability, noted in a previous posting, was a weakness that fortunately does not undermine that liberating force.

In primal dualism the world of ordinary objects is the creation of an inferior and jealous rival of the authentically creative god, and so is tainted by a mocking intent as well as by shoddy design and craftsmanship. In Plato’s vision there is a parallel to the idea that the world of bodies is flawed and deceptive. In the cave of the parable, perceived appearances of things are shadows of passing images of eternal Ideal Forms, and so they are a false appearance of reality, a mirage. As in transcendental dualism, Plato’s emphasis was on the assets and liabilities of subjective intelligence in finding a way to go from appearances to reality. His particular description of metaphysical Reality is less important then situating the individual on a personal arc of transcendence. Plato’s Ideal Forms were a specific interpretation and elaboration of a previously broadly familiar idea of “logos” which was thought to underlay the mysterious unity of words, thoughts, and things. Plato’s approach wasn’t religion, and it wasn’t science either. Although his theory of Ideal Forms is a kind of metaphysical speculation he was not basing his claims about personal transcendence on speculations about a supernatural world or stories about what might have happened at the origins of the world. Instead, he was describing the immediate situation of subjectivity in general, immediately available to anyone. He was in the tradition of the earlier Greek sage Heraclitus (“I sought myself.”) which marked out a distinctly philosophical questioning. Plato was writing about thinking in its overall relationship to nature and to culture. In that specific way he was different from both scientists, spiritualists, and religious reformers.

The Third Way

In Plato’s vision, accepting ordinary appearances as reality is encouraged and sanctioned by belonging within a collective. The hero of the parable is among a crowd in the cave, encouraging and cooperating with one another in the pretense that shadows are substantial properties, but when the hero goes out and experiences reality he goes as an individual. Perceived appearances are permeated by cultural influences, and objects of ordinary perception are inseparable from culture. Channelling culture, imitating social and cultural models, being immersed in the language-games of a community, these conditions solidify a cave of certainties which imprisons the mind. The parable of the cave, in combination with the beginning of Book X of Republic, indicates that culture itself, myths that poets and storytellers, or priests, kings, politicians, or advertisers make popular, is a cave of delusion. That is highlighted by Socrates’ declaration in the Apology: “I know only that I know nothing.” To escape from the cave you have to abandon the knowledge that culture has provided, that is, to think independently of the language-games of any society. You become a philosopher when you think without language and exercise innocent subjectivity. Socrates did not claim revealed visions of gods and their purposes. He was no shaman, mystic, or prophet. Socratic inwardness was not mysticism. One of the crucial points about the originality of Socrates and his legacy in Plato and others is that he is exactly not mystical. Socratic innocence was a contribution to the civilization of the west which provided a genuine alternative to mystical religion as ultimate value.

Transcendental practices which originate outside religious organizations divide into two main streams: a mystical anti-individual stream, and a non-mystical individualistic stream with a lineage through ancient Greek philosophy. The purpose of intellectual or mental activity was very different in the two streams. In the mystical stream the purpose was loss of individuality through union with the largest and most all-embracing force of divine nature: the great power “behind” the world of appearances. For the non-mystical stream the purpose of mental activity was often individual happiness through self-knowledge and self-realization, virtue, authenticity, self-possession. For example Stoics considered rationality, reasoning, as the most worthy feature of a person, the feature by which individuals realize freedom, and as such the only portal to virtue. They reached for truth as individuals, and thought that rational processes could find it.

Plato’s parable of the cave is a narrative of climbing out of darkness into light and grace, a narrative of transcendence. Transcendence has dualism built-in or pre-supposed. If there is to be a ‘rising above’, there must be something below from which to begin the ascent. The higher-lower dualism can also be seen as an inner-outer dualism such that inner (subjective intelligence) is higher and outer (the objective world of bodies) is lower. The profound promise of that philosophy was freedom from slavery to nature and culture through the practice of rational thinking. That was the craft of living the life of gods. Plato’s parable of the cave is the exact reverse of the biblical myth of Adam’s and Eve’s exile from Eden, humanity’s fall from grace.

The Two Traditions

The two traditions have had an uneasy co-existence ever since an historical tsunami of Abrahamic theism from Palestine and Arabia washed over the classical Mediterranean world system. That is, since the Jewish diaspora, the spread of Christianity, and the conquests of Islam. The philosophical legacy of transcendental dualism had, for a long time prior to that tsunami, held the high cultural ground of the Hellenistic system and then the Roman Empire. It illustrates the changes to recall that the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (reigned 161-180 A.D.) was a Stoic philosopher. Stoicism represents the legacy of transcendental dualism in spite of the fact that it claimed officially to embrace materialism, a monism. There was an essential spark of freedom to subjective intelligence in Stoicism. However, by the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine (306-337 A.D.), Christianity was being recognized as the favoured religion of the Empire. The old spooks were back in power.

Copyright © 2012 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.