Reconciling Plato and Berdyaev via the Phaedrus

1

Analytic philosophy is by the far the dominant tradition in the English-speaking world and many countries in Europe at this point, with a handful of “continental” schools, but in either case, atheism and materialism are taken for granted. The way Plato was taught, like the way my professors taught everything else, sucked the significance out, examined arguments out of context, and generally made Plato seem like a no-good philosopher. It was not until I had written my dissertation and been granted my PhD that I read Plato’s Republic for myself, because it seemed ridiculous not to have read it – like an English major being unfamiliar with Hamlet. It was a revelation and I was overjoyed to find such a congenial mind. Like Dostoevsky, who has been described as continuing the dialogues of Plato, I had found a friend.

While aware that some of my other friendships have ended, the one philosophical friendship I started to suspect would last forever was my love of Plato. However, my fairly recent discovery of Nikolai Berdyaev had me wondering how devoted I could remain to Plato. A Russian friend, hearing me describe one of my philosophical views, noted that it sounded like Berdyaev and recommended him to me. When another friend started taking a strong interest too, my new friendship with Berdyaev began, often feeling like I was entering into a dialogue with my future self, as Berdyaev extended some of my own thoughts into new domains.

The solution to my newly acquired doubts about Plato has been to step outside the description of reality found in Plato’s allegory of the cave, and to look to the Phaedrus, for an extension of the Platonic vision of spiritual and metaphysical realities that is more congenial to Berdyaev’s insights. [1]

Nikolai Berdyaev correctly postulates Freedom – the Great Mystery – at the core of existence; prior to God the Father, prior to love, morality, or creativity. Without Freedom, nihilism is inevitable. Necessity and determinism govern the objective realm. Spirit, acausal Freedom, is linked to the realm of subjectivity, and permits the existence of agency – centers of consciousness and decision-making. Freedom has to be inferred. A beautiful painting, or Einstein’s theories, point to imagination, intuition, and genuine creativity. Thus, they become symbols of Spirit and Freedom. As things in the world, they are just things; just part of being. The painting is objectively daubs of paint on canvas, and Einstein’s theories are objective, unalterable, and fixed.

2Our existential situation can be compared to Paley’s watch. Finding a watch on the sand of a desert island, the watch points to a maker and an intelligence. The watch itself is not the creator, nor is it intelligent. It merely functions as a symbol of the unseen.

Just recently, I heard a philosopher over dinner saying to the students present that the whole concept of free will is incoherent. According to him, it is a non-problem caused by vague thinking and improper definition. Before it is possible to discuss free will, “free” must be defined, and then “will.” Since neither one can be defined those who use the phrase “free will” are guilty of sloppy thinking; creating problems where none exist.

The obvious rejoinder is that Freedom cannot be explained or defined. Creation involves reaching into Freedom via imagination and extracting something that did not exist before, such as the aforementioned painting, or Einstein’s theories. If a line can be imagined between the subjective and the objective, connected to the subjective is acausal non-being, and into causal being the created thing emerges. Without subjectivity and Freedom, no act of creation is taking place. There is no line. Someone is just batting around bits of causal being – except there is no “someone” at all – since agency does not exist without Freedom, just a giant stream of deterministic forces with no centers of consciousness directing the flow. There is merely a giant mush of existence inexorably and mindlessly moving along from cause to effect. Hence the “illusion” of consciousness and “apparent” existence of free will according to seemingly every computer programmer, physicist, and neuroscientist interviewed on popular podcasts.

In the dialogues of Plato, we discover the first novelist, creating convincingly living, breathing, thinking, feeling, protagonists with their own points of view; some of them based on real people, some of them purely fictitious. There is no hint of determinism. There is talk of illusions, but they are illusions generated by the human condition, such as the fantasy that getting all one’s wishes fulfilled will make a person happy. Much of 3what we wish for we would mightily regret if we were to get it. Think of the character “Q” from Star Trek Next Generation who makes Ryker a god, and how quickly Ryker gets corrupted by absolute power and how he sees his own corruption in the negative effect he has upon his colleagues in his altered state and asks to be made man again.

Plato’s Cave seems like it gives a picture of ultimate reality and the human soul. However, the picture of physical reality, mind, soul, and spirit – the shadows, the objects silhouetted by the light of the fire, the Forms outside the cave, and the Sun (the Form of the Good) seems to leave no room for the Ungrund; acausal Freedom.

It seems clear that Plato had had a mystical, religious experience of what he called the Form of the Good and that it filled his heart with adoration. Berdyaev cautions against turning mystical experience into theology or into any kind of metaphysical system because though it might be possible to experience God, to come face to face with God, even to have the experience of merging with God, the Ungrund is often omitted from this experience. It is possible to “know” God, but the Great Mystery must remain relatively vague. Berdyaev and the philosophers he draws upon like Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme have an intuition of Gottheit and Ungrund but this seems relatively rare. “Enlightened” Buddhists seem to describe experiencing something like the Great Mystery, but then they deny the existence of God the Father. Without God the Father as a Person, love is not possible. Buddhists merge everything into a Monistic nihilism where all is obliterated. Love exists between at least two distinct Persons, so all the enlightened Buddhist can do is experience compassion. Trinitarian Christian theism avoids this problem.

Mystical experiences are legitimate, but are perhaps always partial, leaving one thing out or another. Or perhaps it is that they are unavoidably corrupted when put into conceptual terms.

Plato’s Form of the Good seems identical or at least highly similar to the Christian God. But in Plato’s allegory of the cave it seems that there is nothing higher; nothing preceding the Sun. Out of Freedom, both good and evil emerge, and so Plato’s Sun cannot be primary. For that, it is necessary to remind ourselves of another great and famous dialogue of Plato, the Phaedrus.

This fascinating and beautiful dialogue, like the Symposium, is an examination of love; first exploitative, caddish, possessive, base love, treating the beloved as a vehicle for one’s own pleasure, and then a vision of noble love; a love that merges into mystical visions.

At 247 Plato writes:

“Now within the heavens are many spectacles of bliss upon the highways whereon the blessed gods pass to and fro, each doing his own work…

4But at such times as they go to their feasting and banquet, behold they climb the steep ascent even unto the summit that supports the arch that supports the heavens…

For the souls that are called immortal, as soon as they are at the summit, come forth and stand upon the back of the world, and straightway the revolving heaven carries them round, and they look upon the regions without….”

Here Plato introduces a region beyond the gods, and beyond heaven itself, which can function as a symbol of the Ungrund. He writes “Of that place beyond the heavens none of our earthly poets has yet sung, and none shall sing worthily.” This vision is generated for humans by a divine madness associated with noble love; a love that transports the soul beyond its usual limits; beyond God and the heavens – to something that takes precedence. To a vision that even the gods strain to attain. “For the colorless, formless, and intangible truly existing essence, with which all true knowledge is concerned, holds this region and is visible only to the mind, the pilot of the soul.”

What exactly is being seen in this region beyond heaven is not at all clear, which is just fine. “Now the divine intelligence, since it is nurtured on mind and pure knowledge, and the intelligence of every soul which is capable of receiving that which befits it, rejoices in seeing reality for a space of time and by gazing upon truth is nourished and made happy until the revolution brings it again to the same place. In the revolution it beholds absolute justice, temperance, and knowledge, not such knowledge as has a beginning and varies as it is associated with one [247e] or another of the things we call realities, but that which abides in the real eternal absolute; and in the same way it beholds and feeds upon the other eternal verities, after which, passing down again within the heaven, it goes home…”

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At 248 Plato writes: “the soul that has seen the most of being shall enter into the human babe that shall grow into a seeker after wisdom and beauty, a follower of the Muses and a lover.” Noble love has been described as a divine madness, wisdom and beauty are mentioned in the same breath, and “a follower of the Muses” denotes a strong connection with creativity and imagination.

Plato is sometimes described as too devoted to reason, with the implication of a kind of rationalism. However, his vision of the Form of the Good, his dialogues devoted to love and love’s connection to mystical visions suggests that this is inaccurate. René Guenon reminds us that there was both an esoteric and exoteric tradition associated with Platonism. The Form of the Good is supra-rational and philosophy, while being the love of wisdom, is merely preparatory. It is not wisdom itself.

Berdyaev argues that beauty has metaphysical supremacy over goodness. God and heaven exist in a realm beyond goodness because beyond evil. But while goodness and evil depend on each other for their existence, beauty has no such dependence. Plato writes at 250, “Beauty, as we said, shone bright among these visions. … Now he whose vision of the mystery is long past, or whose purity has been sullied, cannot pass swiftly hence to see beauty’s self yonder…”

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For Plato, it is the vision of beauty that makes one’s wings grow – the precursor to experiences of the transcendent. He is right. Beauty is epistemically primary for it is necessary to consider wisdom, goodness, and truth beautiful in order to have any motivation to pursue them.

Plato was aware of the limits of rationality. He often had recourse to myth and was quite explicit and self-conscious about it. The myth in the Symposium of the globular people captures romantic love better than any philosophical explanation could. The visions of the place beyond heaven in the Phaedrus are definitely being thought of as ecstasies and objects of love. At the end of the Phaedrus, Socrates expresses his distrust of the written word as being a kind of dead thing that cannot be interrogated; it cannot respond to questions, nor defend itself and is thus inferior to the ongoing, dynamic interchange between philosophical friends with its constant revisions.

Myth is particularly noticeably the product of the Muses; of imagination and creativity. Its ambiguities call upon the reader or hearer to interpret it. Acausal Freedom, together with the human mind, produces myth. At 265 Plato writes that “there are two kinds of madness; one resulting from human ailments, the other from a divine disturbance of our conventions of conduct [of which there are four kinds.] The inspiration of the prophet to Apollo, that of the mystic to Dionysus, that of the poet to the Muses, and a fourth type which we declared to be the highest, the madness of the lover, to Aphrodite and Eros.” This description is far removed from rationalism, with system building, or a block universe devoid of Freedom.

[1] Thanks to Thomas F. Bertonneau for pointing this out.

4 thoughts on “Reconciling Plato and Berdyaev via the Phaedrus

  1. Pingback: Reconciling Plato and Berdyaev via the Phaedrus | Reaction Times

  2. Would love to know more about the paintings which festoon this article. Berdyaev was a delight to discover. I consistently enjoy your articles, but my enjoyment is incomplete because of my too-shallow opsimathic education. Orthosphere helps. Looking forward to reading your QM/religion essay posted on this All-Saints’ Day.

    • Thanks, Mark! That’s very nice to hear. Also, nice to hear that I’m not driving everyone crazy with all this Berdyaev stuff. Apparently “opsimathic” includes continued learning, which is certainly something I try to do too.

  3. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 11/03/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

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