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tags: Platonism, idealism, spirituality, metaphysics, mathematics, PHI, beauty, eternity, hierarchy, embodiment, time, freedom, Christianity, knowledge, Sartre, existentialism, individuality

Ideal Forms, Ideas, are at the core of Platonic metaphysics. The Ideal Forms are archetypal objects and structures: immaterial, profoundly static, eternal, removed from the space/ time and materiality of the mundane world, and so, easily associated with (the interiority of) some divine super-intelligence. In Platonism, the association of eternally static Ideal Forms with transcendent (immaterial) spirituality or intelligence is far removed from the capricious personality of ordinary subjectivity, and yet that association is there, as discussed below. The Ideal Forms occupy a position near the top of the metaphysical world-structure, a hierarchy of descent from a divine One-ness-of-all-beings at the highest level of reality down to a churning multiplicity of ephemeral appearances at the level of embodied human experience. Each increment of that descent from divine One-ness is a kind of imperfect self-portrait created by the stage immediately higher, a self re-creation that is progressively reduced in perfection, distorted at each step by the loss of some stability and accuracy, so that, where we live at the bottom, reality is unrecognizable, represented by utter illusions, flickering shadows of sketchy models of reality (the Cave parable in Republic). That structure of descent taken altogether is the primal hierarchy, as each successive stage down is defined as completely dependent on the power of the stage above, and the structure as a whole is eternally unchanging, as are the archetypes of objects and the divine One-ness at the top.

This may seem a slightly cartoonish presentation of Platonism, tilting to the NeoPlatonic or even Orphic end of Platonic visions of reality, but it has the virtue of presenting in a brief and straightforward way the features of Platonism which are enduringly influential and most problematic: absolute sanctification of what remains eternally unchanged, assertion of the sovereign power of that eternal Being in determining a rigidly top-down hierarchy, and finally, disparagement of ordinary human embodiment. This conception of reality, ruled by the sacred eternal (stasis, stillness, immutability), stands as a core counter-force to any philosophy of freedom, regardless of the rationalist features in Platonism.

Mathematical Idealism

Plato’s type of top-down grand scale metaphysical idealism emerges from a mathematical inspiration. Mathematics has been one of the most powerful inspirations for philosophy, and especially for metaphysical idealism and rationalism. Philosophy has attracted a lot of mathematicians who admire changeless abstractions, and their opinions have had decisive influence: Pythagoras, Al-Kindi, Descartes, Leibniz, Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell. Mathematics suggests a set of perfect and eternally stable objects: geometrical forms, numbers (the number PHI)*, functions, and operators, which are recognized in a multitude of different structures and situations, in a way that suggests their existence separate from, prior to, and far more permanent than, any particular instance. Mathematics shares that quality with experiences of beauty. Beauty has a force of impression that suggests an invisible higher world where beautiful forms exists forever in radiant glory. The normal world is a place of continual change, of brief novelty and passing away rather than eternity, but beauty (often associated with works of art) seems to raise an object above the ephemeral material stratum and giving it the look of eternity, perhaps because it is especially memorable and inspires a wish that it last forever just as it is. Also, there are direct overlaps of math and beauty in the mathematics of musical harmony, for example, and the mathematics of architectural beauty, and of course in what was called the music of the spheres. Language as an impersonal structure of rules has also inspired speculation about this mathematical mode of being. Objects of mathematical knowledge and the forms of beauty seem to have a pristine, crystalline existence that is immaterial, revealing some mode of being beyond the laws and forces of material existence. In philosophical thinking, mathematics, logical forms, linguistic forms, and instances of beauty have all been interpreted as glimpses of transcendence and immateriality. (* For an introduction to PHI, see Chapter 20 of The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown.)

Christian Platonism

The dominance of the hierarchical force of Platonism was sanctified and made legally mandatory by Christianity as it became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 324, because the previously developed and widely familiar language of Greek philosophy had been used to construct the Christian message. The process continued after the Romans abandoned their western provinces, and Christian institutions had to re-launch within the ruins, a patchwork of rural baronial turf holdings, eventually becoming powerful enough to re-claim the old imperial domain as western Christendom from around 800. (The deeply Christianized trunk of the Roman Empire continued uninterrupted in the eastern provinces, where Greek culture, including Platonic ideas, had been dominant for centuries.) In that second coming of organized Christianity to the west, the crucial interpretation of doctrine by Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo, was a Christianized version of NeoPlatonic metaphysics. Having thus established from ancient times its dominance in the European system of cultural reality, Platonism has been the most important metaphysical vision by far, and the inescapable form of idealism. Before Christian Platonism and NeoPlatonism, there was pre-Platonic Orphic metaphysics with a similar vision of divine cosmic hierarchy. The conceptual system of reality embraced by medieval alchemists had the same sources: ancient Greek Orphic mythology and the philosophical work of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle. Nineteenth century Romantics still mused on a variant of the same vision.

As an illustration of how Platonic metaphysics applied in practice, the medieval theory of social order identified three functional groups which combined in a sort of human pyramid. Those higher in the pyramid controlled and supervised (often owned) those below, by divine design. Muscle-power workers formed the most numerous and lowest stratum. Baronial fighters formed the next level up and were much fewer than workers. The barons held formal possession of land and natural resources, and maintained a culture of armed violence (chivalry, armed men on horses) to enforce the effectiveness of that possession. Priests and their organization, the Church of Rome, formed the highest point of the pyramid. This is a clear application of Plato’s Republic. The medieval agricultural peasants were Plato’s appetite driven workers. The military baronage were Plato’s spirited fighters. The priestly clergy were supposed to be Plato’s contemplative, highly educated, other-worldly ruling class. Orientation to that kind of social hierarchy is still familiar.

The nature and meaning of knowledge was also conceived in terms of Platonism. The official Christian doctrine on knowledge was NeoPlatonic via Augustine: God wills a special illumination within human minds which enables those minds to recognize instances of Ideal Forms. So, knowledge is enabled by a special act of illumination by God in the revelation of something like a universal form, an uncovering of the universal character of what is sensed at a particular time and place. The ultimate object of knowledge is an eternal permanence, the Ideal Form. There was speculation that God created the world by uttering the names of the Ideal Forms, bring them into being, and making language intrinsic to knowledge and to the structure of reality.

On those foundations, Platonic metaphysics looms as a central conceptual pillar in the reality construct of Euro-American culture, foundational even now in the orientation of modern people. It isn’t often recognized as such, but Platonism is there in a mathematical eternity to the conception of the world as a rigidly furnished bundle of things waiting to be discovered. Although the more mystical features might seem alien to modern people, Platonism reveals its ongoing presence as a privileging of stability and fixed structures in the general notion of, and the cultural value projected onto, abstract knowledge as a human accomplishment, a privileging of the perspective of eternity. In addition, not all of the mystical features are alien. For example, Platonism is our source of an assumption that an invisible power is the source of the world we inhabit, that there are super-sensible origins, sources, and explanations for objects and situations we deal with, and so, on that supernatural basis, that creative power, agency, greatness, authority, and legitimacy flow from above and beyond us, from high abstractions. This orientation inspires and provides legitimacy for a striving after hierarchical centralization, for imperialism, in social, economic, and political arrangements. This is how imperialism became, through cultural assimilation, the basic and largely unconscious shape of expectation and aspiration even in modernity.

Separating Spirituality from Embodiment

Platonic metaphysics was an attempt to understand transcendence, and, as such, it is the inescapable idealism, a model of the incongruity between spirituality and embodiment. In Platonism, the transcendence of human spirituality is defined as a mental grasp on what is eternal, based on a sensed affinity or essential sameness of ordinary human intellect or mentality with the immateriality of eternal Being. At the same time, it is an attempt to explain transcendence by appeal to something (eternity) outside normal experience, because normal experience is so emphatically embodied, and bodies never stop changing, and all their changes soon bring them to the end of their brief existence, to death. According to Plato, the body is a tomb, and what Plato wanted from transcendent spirituality was a decisive exit from the tomb. (For Augustine also, the body is the problem.) That is the context of the Platonic attempt to understand transcendence by appeal to eternity. The Platonic hierarchy is a way of constructing both an elaborate separation and a slippery connection between pure spirituality at the top and material body at the bottom, presenting individuals with a picture of the consequences of choosing to concentrate their energies in one direction or the other.

Platonic Heaven, the Immaterial Stratum

The mathematical inspiration of Platonic metaphysics can obscure the fact that even this idealism is a model of spirituality. Ideal Forms are spiritual objects, forms in a divine, higher order, mind, or projections from such a mind. The very concept of immateriality is always some abstraction from the non-actuality of subjective orientation, of a person’s directionality in teleological time, and so essentially an abstraction from the immateriality of time itself. Any removal from tangible materiality is some kind of invocation, projection, or allegory of the non-actuality of subjective interiority. (The only current existence of past and future is as a non-actuality, interior to individual spiritualities as a force of bearing or directionality.) The mathematical perspective of eternity suppresses the temporality of spirituality and so creates the (false) impression of a kind of static spirituality, a simple and pure consciousness or being, and then goes on to assert that such a mythical being is somehow more elevated than, and superior to, ordinary spirituality which is the ongoing construction of futurity, of temporality. The appeal to eternity is a way of editing spirituality (time) out of reality without recognizing what was done, by imagining ordinary objects with the spiritual quality of immateriality, which is only encountered experientially in the always-new and always-incomplete openness of personal spirituality. The perspective of eternity sucks temporality out of ultimate reality, and so sucks out the life. In the ideal world of mathematical abstractions there are no free agents, only objects with complete-destiny-included. It is a world where everything is already finished, with all changes both external and internal to objects simultaneously present in the transcendent object-set. Nothing is happening or being created in the perspective of eternity, and so the spirituality presented, typically presented as transcendent and divine, is really impoverished and effectively dead, fully furnished and complete. There is no exit from mortality here.

Freedom and Time

Metaphysics as an account of spiritual transcendence does not have to seek the perspective of eternity. Freedom is the essential issue of metaphysics, and recoiling from mortality to an imaginary eternity is exactly the wrong way to understand transcendence, spirituality, and freedom. It isn’t a grasp on eternity that makes us transcendently free, but instead our continual and discretionary re-construction of our force of bearing into an indeterminable future. It is exactly our engagement with time, our projecting and imposing teleological time onto nature, which is our freedom, and that force of engagement is inseparable from personal embodiment. Plato’s whole package of eternity, hierarchy, and disparagement of embodiment was wrongheaded and self-defeating.

Sartre’s existentialist description of individual personhood as “existence before essence”, or, to go one better, existence without essence, is a pretty good definition of personal spirituality. Time is the clearest case of existence without essence. Existential non-appearance applies to personal orientation, but that non-appearance is a gusher of creativity. The only way something can exist without essence is by being something other than an actuality, by being an ever reconstructing (re-inventing) bearing out of a no-longer-actual past and into a not-yet-actual future.

The transcendence of spirituality is not found in timeless eternity, but in its creating the non-actuality of time, and by doing so evading the brute and final particularity of actuality, of nature. Far from being a mere illusion or simply trivial in a description of ultimate reality, temporality (change, continual re-orientation) is the most fundamental spiritual reality. Spirituality or transcendence is exactly an attenuation of the particularity of actuality, a flight into increasingly remote possibilities and probabilities: living in time. The point of life is transcendence, but not an imaginary transcendence of lifeless, uncreative, eternity, but instead the transcendence of existence without essence. The point of life is life itself, the flight that is spirituality.

Platonism is not the necessary form of idealism. Any recognition that spirituality as such has to be included in the survey of reality is some kind of idealism. In Platonism, a conception of transcendent spirituality that depends on and follows from disparagement and rejection of normal human embodiment inspires a rigidly top-down hierarchical orientation because the source or matrix of spirituality is removed from individuals and placed in a remote central unity above everything. That limits the conception of freedom to an escape into the stasis and non-agency of the elevated spiritual unity. However, that purported freedom is complete unfreedom. The perspective of particular embodiment is exactly the condition of effective freedom in teleological agency. The force of a spiritual bearing that holds and projects the transcendent non-actualities of time and creativity just disappears without the perspective of embodiment. There is no hidden oneness of all spirituality, because embodiment defines and grounds the plurality and essential separateness, and the spirituality, of human individuals. The individual embodiment of a multitude of separate instances of spirituality, every one granted an essential place in our survey of reality, results in an idealism with a new horizontal configuration. Without privileging the eternal, transcendence reverts to the level of individual embodied spirituality, where the freedom of time and non-actuality are constructed. That completely eliminates the primal metaphysical hierarchy. Without eternity as the source and origin, the anchor of hierarchy disappears. Spirituality is a horizontal multiplicity: any spirituality is, by embodiment, a peculiarly separated individual among a multitude of others. We build interconnections, but we have to connect via our specific embodiment.

Selected Sources and References

The Republic of Plato, translated, with notes, an interpretive essay, and an introduction by Allan Bloom, published by BasicBooks, a subsidiary of Perseus Books, L.L.C., (second edition, 1991), ISBN 0-465-06934-7.

Aristotle and Other Platonists, written by Lloyd P. Gerson, published by Cornell University Press (2005), ISBN-10: 0801441641, ISBN-13: 978-0801441646. (Especially see Chapter One: What is Platonism?, pp. 24-46; and p. 32 for observations on “bottom-up” materialist atomism.)

Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy, written by Rudiger Safranski, translated from German by Ewald Osers, published by Harvard University Press (1991), ISBN-10: 0674792769, ISBN-13: 978-0674792760. (Especially see Chapter Sixteen: The Great No, pp. 223-237, and specifically p. 224 for Plato: the body is a tomb.)

What Is Ancient Philosophy?, written by Pierre Hadot, translated by Michael Chase, published by Belknap Press; (2002), ISBN: 0674007336.

The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, written by Thomas C. McEvilley, published by Allworth Press (2001), ISBN-10: 1581152035, ISBN-13: 978-1581152036. (Especially see Chapter Seven: Plato, Orphics, and Jains, pp. 197-204.)

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.