Sunday, May 3, 2009

AtF: Plato's Dialogues with Yahweh

I’m sure that everyone out there has by now been at least introduced to the idea that literalists are great at quote-mining from the Bible. The God Hates Shrimp people are a good place to start research on that idea. It should come as no surprise, then, that the lack of respect they show to their own holy book is echoed in a lack of respect given to the works of evil, benighted pagans. Still, it’s a little shocking to learn that “[t]he concept of this ineffable Creator God permeated the thought of Plato, for example, who sought to replace Hesiod's perverse concepts of the Creation with a more reasonable one, based no doubt upon philosophical concepts far more ancient than Hesiod's and certainly far more profound.” I’d like to formally register my doubt. It is, I suppose, ever so slightly possible to infer the Jewish concept of god from Plato. It is also, I suppose, ever so slightly possible to infer the Christian concept of Heaven from Plato. All it requires, really, is using words in completely different ways than Plato intended. In general, the Platonic Forms and Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine, as given to us by Aristotle, say basically that the world we see is but a shadow of the world of Forms and that the ultimate guiding principle of the universe is understanding of the Forms and Unity with the One. If you turn the world of Forms in to Heaven and the One in to Yahweh then you’ve got the Christian myth. And you’ve also proven that you do not understand Plato in the least bit. Either way, it’s exceedingly possible to quote mine from Plato and get results. To wit:
'Let us therefore state the reason why the framer of this universe of change framed it at all. He was good, and what is good has no particle of envy in it; being therefore without envy, he wished all things to be as like himself as possible. This is as valid a principle for the origin of the world of change as we shall discover from the wisdom of men...' (9)
These words, for the record, were spoken by Timaeus in the dialogue of the same name. Cooper immediately jumps on this and says “Note the echo from Genesis: 'And God saw that it was good.'” But that isn’t what Timaeus said. Timaeus said that there was a creator who wished for all things to be good and like itself. Moreover, the creator of Timaeus’ narrative has no envy. Contrast this with Adam and Eve getting kicked out of Eden lest they become like Yahweh, the Tower of Babel being kiboshed lest the people storm heaven and become like Yahweh, and the children of Israel being warned that their god is a jealous god in Exodus 20. The Biblical creator god explicitly did not want creation to be like himself. The Biblical creator wanted worship from an uneducated, inferior population. Cooper follows his notation about the similarities to Genesis with, “We may also note here that Plato had discovered this concept from the wisdom of philosophers who had gone before him, and that it was therefore not something that originated in Plato's thought alone.” Except the very quote stands in contradiction to Cooper’s conclusion. Timaeus says his is “as valid a principle for the origin of the world” as anything else. This implies that he (or, likely, Plato) realizes that his origin story stands in contradiction to the other stories circulating. Later on when the narrative incorporates the older Greek gods and goddesses it becomes obvious that he’s attempting to maintain a harmony of the old stories with a new framework laid over the top. Moreover, further reading indicates that the creator poured the soul in to the stars and the stars were actually the old gods. Those souls then would sojourn on Earth for a time. At the end of the sojourn “[h]e who lived well during his appointed time was to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed and congenial existence.” From this we can assume Timaeus was arguing in favor of Mormonism. It’s all well and good to return to the heavens after a good life well lived, but what of those that didn’t get to go back?
But if he failed in attaining this, at the second birth he would pass into a woman, and if, when in that state of being, he did not desist from evil, he would continually be changed into some brute who resembled him in the evil nature which he had acquired, and would not cease from his toils and transformations until he followed the revolution of the same and the like within him…
Yup. I’d definitely be hanging my hat on Timaeus’s arguments if I were Bill Cooper. It’s now completely obvious to me that I need to convert. To a deeply sexist form of Hinduism. Meanwhile, Cooper chooses to follow his admiration of Plato by going completely off the reservation.
We can say though that, with the advent of Plato's refined and carefully reasoned model of the Creation together with his (and Xenophanes') higher concept of the Creator, it would seem that the classical Greek model of origins was changed for all time. Never again was it to revert to the divine capriciousness of the many Hesiodic gods for an explanation of the universe. The creationist concept of the ancient world was rather to become, under Plato's inspiration and that of his pupils, more 'scientifically' and logically based, with its firm belief in a single and almighty Creator. However, in its wake, something far more serious than the earlier Hesiodic misconception was to occur.
That totally happened. It’s why there’s absolutely no evidence that Alexander the Great considered himself a son of Zeus. It’s also why the Romans totally didn’t rip off the Greek pantheon in the creation of their own mythology. As much as I’m in danger of writing my first book-length blog entry on the topic of Bill Cooper v. the Greek philosophers, I feel that I need to step aside for a moment here. This isn’t history. This isn’t even remotely history. I mean, I knew that coming in. It’s simply not possible to take any book which purports to be a history of the world’s tribes from Noah on down seriously. But what we’ve done right here is step over some strange, invisible line from the point where we can point and laugh to the point where we have to ask a single, deeply important question. “Was this guy hit really, really hard on the head as a child?” I’ve no other explanation for how he can actually honestly say that Plato’s Timaeus ushered in a golden age of Greek monotheism apparently based on the Jewish model. This, too, totally ignores the fact that there was no “Greece.” There was Athens and Sparta and Corinth and Byzantium and Syracuse and the settlements of the Ionian coast and a hundred or thousand others. To assume a unified landscape of thought amongst the Hellenes is laughable. Now, Aristotle was the most famous pupil of Plato. Yes, Aristotle influenced many later Jewish and Christian thinkers, most notably Anselm and Maimonides. Yes, Aristotle’s Metaphysics can kinda-sorta be seen as similar to the Biblical notion of the universe if you cock your head to one side and squint. But if you’re going to base the entire line of Greek thought from him, you’re doing it wrong. Let’s take, for instance, another pupil of Socrates: Xenophon. The Anabasis is peppered with interludes where Xenophon ran through all the necessary rituals of sacrifice to the gods to ask for guidance on the Ten Thousand’s next move. If Plato were actually ushering in an immediate new age, doesn’t it seem as though one of his contemporaries and fellow students would have noticed? But I digress. Cooper notices that at the same time Plato was giving rise to a wonderful new unknown-Yahweh-centered scientific principle a new and completely impossible to explain point of view was on the rise: atheism. He points to Thales of Miletus and Anaximander as proto-Darwins, but assumes that they had to get their knowledge from elsewhere. The basis of this claim is “the laws of ancient Greece against blasphemy and impiety.” To which, again, I ask, “Of which ancient Greek polis do we speak?” The answer is readily given when Cooper claims “such laws invariably prescribed death as the penalty for such a crime, the famous Socrates himself having finally fallen foul of such laws.” Um… Wait… No…? Seriously, this line of reasoning actually hurts my brain. Socrates did, in fact, fall afoul of anti-blasphemy laws in Athens. But it wasn’t for the reasons that Cooper seems to think. See, Socrates plied his trade in Athens right as Athens was making a major transition, specifically from the pre-Peloponnesian War Athens Ascendant to the post-War Athens Degraded. Socrates openly questioned democracy, praised Sparta, and made the wise men of Athens look foolish. In doing so he won many admirers, including Plato and Xenophon, but also made many enemies. Since his targets tended to be the leaders of the city, that means he made many powerful enemies. Post-war recriminations being what they are, Athens was also looking for a scapegoat. So they turned on Socrates and accused him of blasphemy and corrupting the youth. The specific blasphemy charge is that he invented a new supernatural thing to worship instead of going with the old, state-approved pantheon of gods. This, it shouldn’t have to be said, is kind of the opposite of what Cooper thinks the anti-blasphemy laws mean. Moreover, if you unpack the logic, there’s nothing about Cooper’s argument from blasphemy laws that makes a damn bit of sense unless, of course, you realize that he’s once again getting the delicious chocolate of reality all messed up with his rancid, maggot filled peanut butter of fantasy. He has once again decided that since the reason he’s writing his book is to counter atheism, then ancient Athens, too, was only concerned with making sure everyone knew that those pious folks who believed in proto-Judaism were correct and only those evil atheists had to be stopped. By this logic, I assume that the Biblical accounts of the Jews versus the Philistines really boiled down to the evil Philistines worshipping Baal as some sort of ruse to confuse the Jews and make them think that the Philistines had a god. It’s rather disturbing in its implications, really. The entire mindset of After the Flood requires reading all of history and philosophy with a deep, intentional eisegesis. Every word of Lao-Tzu or Plato has to be fit in to an acceptable framework or cast off. Hesiod wasn’t re-telling myths, he was intentionally disproving the existence of a god he’d never heard of and blaspheming that god in such a way that now, close to three millennia later, he deserves to take his place alongside such horrible evil thinkers as Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins. And, of course, in order to make those leaps work it has to be pointed out that, somehow, it’s Hesiod’s fault, that he knew exactly who Yahweh was. It also requires dividing the marketplace of ideas in ancient Greece in to rival schools of philosophy with a desire to push everyone else out. As such, we’ll soon be seeing that Epicurus specifically created his philosophy to contradict all things said by Plato and that Plato then recruited Zeno and the Stoics to his side. All so they could settle once and for all that pesky debate between Creationism and Evolution. No. Seriously. I find, though, that I’m nearly at 2000 words here and I’ll have to unpack the idea at a later time. I think I’m going to need to read the next section several dozen times, too. It just doesn’t make a damn bit of sense… However, just to whet the appetite, I leave you with this thought from Cooper:
The challenge issued by Plato's model of origins was met by Epicurus at every point, even on those more mundane matters that had merely to do with the city-state and jurisprudence.
If you didn’t believe me when I said that Cooper missed the point entirely, that should be all the evidence you need. The primary concern of the Greek philosophers was in how to create the perfect society. Governance of the city-state and jurisprudence, then weren’t the “more mundane matters.” They were the central issue. Any discussion that led to a deeper understanding of the nature of the universe and the designs and desires of any higher power that created it, then, was made in service of the more important discussion about the nature of society. It’s actually fascinating to step back and realize that in modern America the creationists are attempting to hijack an experiment in creating a more perfect society based on philosophy in order to force a discussion on the nature of the creation of the universe. If you need any evidence than Cooper and his ilk just don’t get it, this is a good place to start looking.


hapax said...


Thanks for reminding me that it is possible to mangle Plato far, far worse than I would even dare to accuse you of.

I am chastised, indeed!

But a nitpick here:

"Aristotle influenced many later Jewish and Christian thinkers, most notably Anselm and Maimonides. "

I think you mean Aquinas here, instead of Anselm? (and even the Angelic Doctor had to perform mental handsprings to accomodate The Philosopher into a Christian framework)

But honestly, yeah, to claim that Plato created a monotheistic proto-Christian intellectual hegemony is pretty darn weird, since his most famous pupil is beloved of materialists because he did one better than the existence of the gods...

...he made them *irrelevant.*

And once that idea completely sank in (and it took a couple of thousand years, more or less)

well, we theists have been fighting a rearguard action ever since.

(really, I only wander by to pick fights with you because what you say is so interesting. But I probably should be posting all this crap on my own site, instead of cluttering up your commentspace)

Geds said...

Um, yeah. I don't think I intended to write "most notably" there. I was thinking more along the lines of, "including Anselm and Maimonides," since I basically picked one later Christian and one later Jewish thinker at random. Aquinas, however, would have been the more notable choice in the Aquinas/Anselm combo. My main goal, there, was to not discuss Aquinas at all. If you think I'm a little iffy on Plato, you don't even want to know how badly I'd maul the Summa Theologica...

And it's fine that you wander over here and pick fights. At the very least these create way more mental exercise than, say, a return visit from Ken.

The Woeful Budgie said...

rancid, maggot filled peanut butter of fantasy


Seriously though, I'm beginning to wonder about this Cooper guy. Between the twisting of other people's words and the rather blatant hate-on for atheism, he's beginning to sound like Ray Comfort's sycophantic little understudy. And it's just making me realize, all the more, how brain-cripplingly awful my fundie-based education was. This sounds like something that'd have been part of the curriculum, something I'd have swallowed whole without a second thought, along with Duane Gish's fire-breathing dragons.


The entire mindset of After the Flood requires reading all of history and philosophy with a deep, intentional eisegesis. Every word of Lao-Tzu or Plato has to be fit in to an acceptable framework or cast off.

Wow, you say that like it's a bad thing... In my experience, that's what evangelical Christians mean when they talk about having a biblical worldview.

The primary concern of the Greek philosophers was in how to create the perfect society. Governance of the city-state and jurisprudence, then weren’t the “more mundane matters.” They were the central issue. Any discussion that led to a deeper understanding of the nature of the universe and the designs and desires of any higher power that created it, then, was made in service of the more important discussion about the nature of society.

See, and that's the sort of thing I doubt I'd have picked up on, if I were reading this book on my own.

Thank you for braving the stupid.

FrodoSaves said...

Well, the orgiastic cult of Dionysus was monotheistic. Maybe they should try to run with that, and see how far it takes them...

Geds said...

Every time I think about harmonizing the cult of Dionysius with proto-Judaism I laugh.

Thank you for that.

David said...

I guess I'm a little late to this party, seeing as this post is over a year old... but since the AtF series is ongoing, I'll go ahead.

I've never read the Timaeus, but I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Gorgias, so I know a bit about Platonic scholarship.

To quote Timaeus the character and then characterize the quotation as reflective of Plato's own views is, well, it's so wrong I don't even know how to put it.

The dialogues of Plato read like plays. To claim that anything in a dialogue is unadulterated Plato requires justification.

Usually, the debate rages over whether Socrates (a character in most dialogues) is a reliable proxy for Plato or not. (For what it's worth, I fall into the latter camp.)

Cooper's claim that Timeous is just laying out Plato's view is just about the dumbest thing I've ever come across. (Actually, Cooper doesn't "claim" anything of the sort -- he avoids the issue, assuming he's even aware there's an issue in the first place.)