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Fragment 167, Word Count: 3,113.

Plato’s External Almighty

Plato’s metaphysics is an example of an idealism determined to think of ideas as things, in Plato’s case as magical objects. Including magic was Plato’s way of making use of the specialness of ideality (not reducing everything to measurable lumps) but without admitting the full specialness as evident in the direct personal experience of ordinary personalities. Plato’s account was still quasi-religious as an elaborate speculation on occult structure to the world, featuring the dominance of a super-intelligence remote enough to be convincingly transcendent: One Platonic heaven to rule them all, a deliberating universal source. The master tenet of Platonism is a model of existence with Ideal Forms as magical objects near the top of a cosmic hierarchy. The magical objects are immaterial exemplars, eternally immutable but creating all existence below them on the hierarchy of existence by each reproducing images of itself, less stable or exact with every iteration. This is Platonic essentialism, in which the ultimate divisions and categories of things in the entirety of reality are externally given forever in a way that happens to be apparent to human perception. The Ideal Forms are near the top of a structure of descent from a divine oneness at the highest level of reality down to a churning multiplicity of ephemeral appearances at the level of everyday experience. Unlike the constant change of things experienced by human senses, the Ideal Forms are profoundly stable, eternal, removed from the time, place, and gross materiality of the day-to-day world, and associated with a divine super-intelligence.

Plato’s conception of reality also included other occurrences of intelligence, specifically in the human experience of personal interiority, the soul (ideality, personality). Plato’s model was a three part soul: appetite, competitive spirit, and rational cognition. The soul conceived by Plato was preset with those particular sensitivities and postures toward temporally fleeting appearances, a reflector from within of the world descended from remote Ideal Forms. The three Platonic postures of the soul corresponded to three distinctly unequal categories of people, implying a kind of government in which sovereign power is properly performed in accord with the innate quality of class membership (still going strong and dystopian now as it was then). The personal Platonic soul as an exemplar of ideality was incomparably less important than the originals of things in the apparently objective world, the Ideal Forms, which were distinctly separate from ordinary souls, in no way commensurate.

In Plato’s allegory of the cave, from Republic, Book VII, we see Plato’s version of something else of importance in the relationship between the individual human soul and his prime exemplars of ideality. In the story, a crowd of people is watching shapes move about in front of them. They do not know they are in a dark sloping cave, and they are looking at a wall at the bottom of the cave. There are people outside the cave, near the entrance, carrying cut-out images, models of objects, back and forth in the direct light of a fire beaming down into the cave, so that the cut-out images cast shadows all the way down onto the wall at the bottom. The people in the cave believe they are perceiving real objects, when in fact they are seeing shadows of cut-out images of objects. One person in the crowd at the bottom of the cave, presumably thinking philosophically, separates himself and turns away from the wall of images, and sees that he is in a cave with light streaming down from above. He makes his way up the slope and reaches the top where he sees the cut-out images being moved about, casting shadows down into the cave, which the crowd at the bottom mistakes for reality. The story describes allegorically the profound relationship between the individual interior ideality and the truly transcendent Ideal Forms, such that the rational-cognitive aspect of individual interiority has the power to come to know, to behold intellectually, the eternal and immutable core of reality, and that is Plato’s vision of the great drama of human existence, the achievement of philosophical insight.

[Fragment 130, July 4, 2018, How Aristotle Placed Personality (word count: 1,368)]

Plato’s Ideal Forms were one depiction of the transcendence of ideality (intelligence, spirituality, abstraction), but conceived in a way to completely avoid the play of capricious divine personalities familiar from tales of Olympian gods, but also to avoid the reality of human level spiritual autonomy (always worrisome to community-minded aristocrats such as Plato). The association of Plato’s Ideal Forms with intelligent personality is so far removed from ordinary subjectivity and from the capricious personality which some have imagined as divine intelligence that what remains is merely a transcendent or magical power of self-reproduction, self-image projection, that defines this set of objects. Platonic idealism has been the most influential metaphysics by far, having established from ancient times a dominance in the conception of reality at the core of European high culture. With the rise of Christianity within the Roman Empire, from beginnings among nomadic herders in the arid regions adjacent to the ancient fertile crescent, Platonism collided with the dominance of a new orientation, but being so well established in the Hellenistic cultural region it was largely incorporated into this upstart Christian Monotheism. In Plato-tinged Christianity the God on high did His work of creation in stages plausibly beginning with Platonic Ideal Forms. Christianity was also a strictly top-down vision with assumptions of an immutable hierarchy of worldly power and wealth, this time with an omnipotent divine surveillance-agent, score-keeper, and executioner at the top, intent on interfering in human affairs to maintain the chain of subordination, an all powerful super-parental watcher and controller, the mere presence of which immediately defines ordinary human existence as victim-existence. Such a conception of humanity is the matrix of dystopian societies. In Christianity, the capricious divine personalities familiar in Olympian gods were reduced to a single capricious divine personality, the one God of Abraham, but in the process a bit more of the richness of ordinary ideality was returned to the conception.

The Christian External Almighty

Christianity was another idealism, with contributions from Platonism. The world as a whole was perceived as a living Being, fundamentally personified. The innermost reality of all existence was an expressive and creative teleological will, an ideality. In the culture of feudal Christendom, intelligent consciousness (personality) was indisputably the crucial presence in and of the world, but it featured a grotesque bifurcation with two starkly different versions and placements: divine personality and then its creature, human personalty, initially created as very imperfect images of divine personality (sound Platonic?). In Christian idealism, the divine personality’s core creation was the great drama of human souls and their journey. There was a recognized sameness of transcendence between human and divine personality since both produce coherent utterances and acts expressive of the ideation of caring, knowledge, and intention, quite unlike the lumps of inanimate nature. Only intelligence strives toward a specific not-yet or non-actuality, the essence of creation. Teleology anticipates conditions and objects which do not exist except in personal ideation, but which might possibly be made to exist if a specific anticipated agency is exercised through an increasingly remote and improbable future. This is living as enacted and experienced by human persons all the time and, supposedly, also for the power which created them and their entire world. This teleology of creation is the crucial identifier of personality, expressed as curiosity, caring, questioning, learning (accumulating orientation or sensibility), and expressive voice or agency, all teleological postures. In Christendom, the whole meaning and drama of existence as a whole centred on the relationship and interactions between the divine personality and human personalities as both individuals and collectives: the great drama of human salvation from inherent guilt, of earning a return from exile (Eden) back to a close presence with divine personality. Concrete nature was a trivial backdrop, merely a platform or staging, with no importance in itself, in which the drama of personality could play out. This was a strong idealism. There was no clash with Platonism in that, since in Plato’s idealism the eternal Ideal Forms were real, but the ephemeral objects experienced by humans in time were just shimmery images and appearances.

The Roman Church hierarchy was certainly committed to the idealism of teleological persons, with divine personality as the sole source and final destination of everything. Voices promoting Christianity expressed hatred for Epicurean materialism, for example. For Christians, of course, all interior souls had to be punishable for breaking God’s commandments, so they had to be understood as having some moral judgment and choice. That was an upgrade from Plato’s conception of humans as rational beholders of eternal Forms but a small one since, on the Christian conception, original sin almost always determined human choices to be bad. As such, people had to be forced into submission by the religious and civic authorities established by God. That patriarchal conception inspired and sanctified the very rigid, restricted, exploitative, and repressively hierarchical top-down societies of feudal Christendom, dedicated to the culture of violet masculinity, and determined to remain essentially static for eternity, supposedly to persuade the cosmic personality to tilt benign. Feudal Christendom was a grossly dystopian society.

The Contestant

The Spirit of Protestantism emerged around the fourteenth century associated with the countercultural movement for universal vernacular literacy to give everyone private access to reading God’s words in the Bible, so, remarkably, assuming an ordinary personal interiority of sufficient gravitas to interpret the most profound Divine message without mediation or guidance from the Church. That was a profound upgrade over both Plato and Roman Church conceptions of the individual soul, so much so that now the conception of human interiority as the exemplar of ideality became more important by far than some speculative prototype of worldly objects, which anyway were only staging for the great drama of existence: the moral journey of the individual soul. The experience of locally embodied individual personality, neither external nor almighty, is always the personally original example of ideality and ideas, and so of transcendent creativity. This was finally having a decisive influence on how ideas were conceived. Then came Martin Luther (1483-1546) as a living example of autonomous moral judgment and Biblical interpretation. Luther’s autonomous gravitas went as far as facing down the entire edifice of the Church hierarchy. It was crucial to standard divine-drama idealism that nothing could rival the overwhelming fascination of the unitary divine personality, the external almighty, and that is where the contradiction with Luther and his spirit of Protestantism arose, because by the time of Luther’s expression of individual humanity, the most ordinary human interior ideality was credited with power to posit reality, as, for example, in choosing or not choosing faith. This recognized a moral journey created moment by moment by the individual person, and approached the independence of agency conceived for divine personality. Such a power implies that an individual is inherently more faceted and with greater capacity for a variety of orientations than anything proclaimed culturally as a collective reality and identity. This was a more advanced humanism than anything from the ancient schools. It was still Christianity, but a version in which the power of individual inwardness was a more active focus of interest and discovery than even the remote and speculative external almighty God. Luther’s vision of autonomous individual interiority, an idealism focused on a primary ideality unlike Plato’s, brought official Christendom down on it like an avalanche. Outbreaks of Protestantism were viciously assaulted in the French Wars of Religion (1562-98) and in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) in Germany, and in many other times and places. The key idea of Protestant idealism, that the inward experience of individuals is the important exemplar of ideality, and so of transcendence, was effectively driven underground, only to emerge very tentatively in Leibniz’s monads, then more boldly in Kant.

[Fragment 158, January 9, 2020, The Arc of the Monad (word count: 803)]

[Fragment 160, February 8, 2020, Existentialism is an Idealism (word count: 728)]

Luther was never a political disruptor but always supported the institutions of political sovereignty he found in place. His focus stayed on Biblical interpretation as a guide for living a Christian life. However, this was somewhat inconsistent with the general spirit of Protestantism. As early as Wycliffe in the fourteenth century, there was an association between the movement for popular vernacular literacy and the English Peasants’ Revolt (1381), just as Luther’s religious movement was associated with a German Peasants’ Revolt (1524-25) against which Luther wrote viciously. Protestantism survived, obviously, but in many different expressions, some apparently radical, and some very much under the thumb of aristocracy and monarchy, the sovereign institutions as they existed in Old Regime Europe. Lutheranism was one of the latter, muted in its disruptive potential by dependence on the protective power of state institutions. The Calvinist cluster of sects could be politically radical, but with divine predestination as a central article of faith, they offered no confrontational upgrade to the conception of ordinary human interior ideality.

External Almighty Restoration

In the cultural turmoil after the European wars of religion, the work of Benedict de Spinoza (1632-77) combined materialism with a radical critique of the Old Regime’s institutions of sovereign dominance: Church, Monarchy, and Aristocracy. Materialism certainly undermined claims by upper levels of the social hierarchy to be directly appointed agents of divinity, since it eliminated an interventionist divinity. It based its political claims on conceptions of what a primordial state of nature would have been, unspoiled by false assertions of exceptionalism through divine intervention. (Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) used the same approach.) On Spinoza’s view ‘thought’ and ‘extension’ are the attributes of a single external almighty “God or Nature”. He presented it as a universal substance transforming along strictly pre-determined patterns, and yet there is a non-mechanistic aspect embedded since this is a substance with innate aspects of intelligence (hylozoist), necessary to account for the human experience of intelligent questioning and teleology. This subjective force in Spinoza’s world is the uncredited magic in his disenchanted system, yet Spinoza’s hylozoist materialism did not raise the profile of the individual person’s interior ideality. Spinoza presented a monist world of God in Nature, with a conception of individual ideality only sufficient to account for rational engagement with the world, driven by preset postures, specifically drives for self-preservation and self-advantage. This is not so different from Plato (but without defining essentially unequal categories of people). Human experience and action were conceived as just more mechanistic structures. On Spinoza’s view the drama of human existence is a petty thing, a scrabble for dominance against all contenders. This view persists in much contemporary science and economics, presenting the drama of human existence as biologically driven conflicts to select the fittest for dominance. On the cosmic scale there is no drama, only an entirely predetermined tumble through an inevitable sequence of events.

[Fragment 91, February 20, 2016, Romantic Idealism and the Mind of God (word count: 3,287)]

[Fragment 145, April 4, 2019, Desperately Seeking Reality: Scenes From History (word count: 2,189)]

The drama in Spinoza’s work is political, involving the vision of a primordial state of nature contrasting mightily with the sovereign institutions of the Old Regime as Spinoza found them. On such a view, there must have been at some point a dramatic fall from the state of nature, but, with everything predetermined, that should not be conceivable. Spinoza’s authorship was an attempt to begin a reversal of that inexplicable political alienation from nature. In taking the lead in a radical critique of existing hierarchies of power, Spinoza’s materialism occupied the vacuum left by the brutal suppression of Luther’s implicit idealism. Spinoza’s materialism accorded closely with the rising tide of mathematical and materialist science in intellectual networks, the Republic of Letters, which prominently included embattled Calvinists already committed to metaphysical pre-destination, a view which minimized the autonomy of individual interiority as much as materialism did. In this way an ultimate contest with the dominant cultural proclamation of an External Almighty was avoided, but at the cost of conserving the dystopian consequences of that tenet. On the Spinoza/ scientific view, God in Nature was the External Almighty, a match in cosmic importance with the God of Christendom. The existence of the individual as ideality remained well bounded and clearly subordinate. Spinoza was far more interested in the external almighty, what appears under the aspect of eternity, than he was in anything essentially engaged in the movement of time, as ideality is. To construct a conceptual system of reality “under the aspect of eternity” (sub specie aeternitatis), as Spinoza laboured to do, is to embrace the very opposite of the life of intelligences. Objects can be defined by measurements from an instant, but ideality is one of the two vectors of time, specifically the creatively aspirational vector. Ideas and ideality are essentially temporal, searching and opening future-ward.

[Fragment 166, July 28, 2020, Time is a Dual Instability (word count: 417)]

Here’s The Thing

The values which challenged and began to disrupt the long entrenched social dystopias forged by aristocrats, monarchs, and the Church represented the quest for a post-dystopian society featuring equality, universally distributed dignity and rights for individuals, secularism, cosmopolitanism, and democracy. That aspiration for a post-patriarchal future followed from the idealism of individual interiority at the core of the spirit of early protestantism, the authentic heart of Enlightenment. No kind of materialism, not Spinoza’s hylozoist materialism, not the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels, not scientific materialism, can be tortured into being the source or guarantor of such values. Materialism excludes teleological personality, leaving a strict determinism and unfreedom, and the disappearance of transcendence into meaninglessness. Any form of determinism will cash out insisting that everything must be the way it is, sanctifying tradition and ever recurring cycles, the core position of the dystopian preservationists, the political right-wing.

The political left-wing, as the conceiver of a post-dystopian future, must be a party of idealism, because it must elaborate the idea that humanity keeps revising its conceptions of reality in such a way as to live better. That is impossible unless the genius of humanity is a creative freedom at the level of the embodied individual to re-conceptualize itself moment to moment. With the idealism of individual interiority, there is no external almighty proclaiming a cosmic drama. Drama is the creative fabric of every living individual.

Copyright © 2020 Sandy MacDonald.