Plato and Paul on the human predicament

I wrote this on my blog last week. Thought I’d post it here as well, as it may be of interest to some of you. For some reason the formatting got a bit messed up after I pasted the text to wordpress, and I can’t seem to be able to fix it fully, so you’re welcome to read the original article here.

Much philosophical and religious theorizing is fueled by the sense that humanity is in some sort of predicament, or condition, from which we ought to be liberated in order to truly flourish. A world view is partly distinguished by how it characterizes this predicament — what we could call its diagnosis. The nature of the diagnosis will of course largely determine the proposed cure, or means of liberation — what is sometimes called a worldview’s soteriology (from the Greek soteria = ‘deliverance’).

   Platonism is no exception to this rule. Most have heard of Plato’s memorable ‘allegory of the cave’, which expresses an understanding of the human predicament that would shape Western philosophy for centuries to come. Recall, humans are likened to prisoners in a cave, who can only see the shadows cast on the cave wall in front of them. One of the prisoners somehow escapes the cave and sees the outside world. Though the sunlight initially hurts his eyes, he is amazed at what he sees — the sun, sky, water, trees etc — and judges it to be far superior to the world down below. He quickly returns to his fellow cave-dwellers, to tell them of the other world he has just seen. They aren’t convinced and brush him off, and some even try to kill him.
   As is well known, the cave wall is meant to symbolize the world as it directly appears to us, while the outside world is meant to symbolize the world as it really is — in particular, the perfect, immutable forms. The prisoner who escapes and sees the outside world represents the philosopher, who, not content with the immediate deliverances of the senses, wants to see the world for what it is: a perfect, harmonious kosmos governed by an intelligent mind. What really matters for our purposes is that, for Plato, the human predicament is epistemological. That is, our problem is that we lack knowledge of the world as it really is. This profound ignorance prevents us from accessing the happiness and peace that come with the unhindered contemplation of the good.
  This perspective of the human condition dominated Greek philosophy since Plato. The Stoics, for instance, famously held that suffering is a consequence of a failure to understand that the kosmos is fundamentally good, and hence that ‘evils’ like the death of loved ones are really meant to be. Interestingly, the notion that ignorance is the root cause of the human predicament is also very widespread in Indian philosophical traditions, in which knowledge of reality ‘as such’ (jñāna) is typically deemed crucial to the achievement of liberation from suffering (moksha).
  St Paul the Apostle, the most prominent New Testament author and first great Christian theologian, like Plato, believes that humanity is mired in an unfortunate condition, from which it ought to be freed. His diagnosis is laid out in the first chapter of his magnum opus, the epistle to the Romans. A cursory reading of this chapter should make it clear that Paul’s diagnosis of the human predicament is very different to Plato’s. Notice that Paul explicitly denies that our problem is fundamentally about ignorance. To the contrary, he tells us that we already have knowledge of ultimate matters, or at least have easy access to them:
“Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made”
   The passage goes on to say that though humans ‘knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him”. Paul’s use of words is important here. ‘Honor’ and ‘give thanks’ have to do with your attitude towards someone. The term ‘honor’, however outdated it seems today, refers to the kind of humble reverence that is owed to, say, a parent, a teacher, or perhaps even an older, wiser friend. To ‘give thanks’ is to gratefully recognize someone’s generosity. An attitude of gratefulness and deep respect is a necessary precondition for a healthy relationship with someone whose responsibility it is to look after us (again, like a parent or teacher). Failure to (sincerely) honor and give thanks to God, then, can only mean that our relationship with God will fail as well.
   In short, our predicament, for Paul, is fundamentally relational rather than epistemological: humanity has somehow collectively alienated itself from God. The result of that, according to Paul, is that humans are “futile in their understanding”, arrogantly “claiming to be wise” despite having become “fools” who worship idols or “images”. God’s initial response is to “give them up” to their madness, which further exacerbates their alienation, and leads them to be alienated even from one another (as they become’selfish’, ‘murderous’ ‘slanderers’ and so on).
   This take on the human condition is of course not original to Paul. In fact, Paul’s account reveals his deeply Jewish mindset, since it really retells the Ancient Jewish narrative of the ‘Fall of Man’. Human corruption and suffering comes into the world when Adam and Eve break fellowship with God, preferring to be their own gods. This pattern is repeated throughout the Hebrew Bible, not least in the Prophets, where oppression and injustice invariably arise when Israel rejects its covenant with God in order to pursue idols of their own making.
   To sum up, then, for Plato, humans do not truly flourish because they are ignorant of the divine. It is quite telling that Plato rejected the possibility of akrasia, i.e. acting against your better judgment. If you really know the good, he tells us, then, necessarily, you will follow it.
   For Paul, humans do not truly flourish because they do not have fellowship with the divine. Against Plato, Paul directly affirms the possibility of akrasia: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (…) For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Rom. 7:14-20). To put it informally, ours is a ‘heart’ rather than a ‘brain’ problem.
   As I said at the start, different diagnoses suggest different cures, or soteriologies.
   For Plato, the cure lies in ridding ourselves of our ignorance through the philosophical contemplation of the perfect forms. This consists in a kind of recollection (anamnesis) since, for Plato, the soul had direct access to the forms prior to being embodied in the physical world. Hence it is fair to say that Plato and his followers advance an intellectualist soteriology.
   For Paul, since our predicament is a lack of fellowship with God, the cure lies not in contemplation but in reconciliation (what theologians call atonement, literally “at one”-ment). This is a point on which his fellow Jews would have agreed. Paul parts company with his more conservative Jewish brethren when he declares that this reconciliation is somehow achieved through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God:
“God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:19).
An application: Christians sometimes present salvation as simply a matter of understanding and accepting a set of religious doctrines. In doing so, we are perhaps being more Platonic than Paulinian.
An observation: it speaks volumes that platonistic pseudo-Christian cults in the Ancient World called themselves ‘gnostics’ (gnosis = ‘knowledge’) and held that liberation is attained by acquiring esoteric knowledge of the divine.

Categories: Christianity, Philosophy

7 replies

  1. Good article although I feel the need to remind the author that epistemology refers to the validity, scope, and means of acquiring knowledge, examples such as fideism, rationalism, empiricism etc..

    It’s interesting to note for the sake of comparison the difference between Plato and Paul, Plato and Jesus. For Jesus and Paul had different views of salvation and whats the problem with humanity namely that Jesus doesn’t concern himself with people at large but only “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and religious reform of the understanding/application of the Torah in response to the Pharisees and Sadducees.

    If its true that for Plato the concern for man is his ignorance and need to see the light through seeking wisdom then he has more in common with Christ than he does with Paul as the Torah that Christ believed came from God states:

    “if you obey the LORD your God by keeping His commandments and statutes that are written in this book of the law, and if you turn to Him with all your heart and all your soul. For this commandment I give you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.” – Deuteronomy 30:10-11

    It’s also important to note that when responding to his detractors he was one to say “have you not read…”

  2. Good evening Pat (if I may?)

    Glad you liked the article. Regarding ‘epistemological’, the term means ‘pertaining to knowledge’ (from the Greek ‘episteme’, i.e. knowledge). A lack of knowledge of ultimate matters, then, can aptly be called an ‘epistemological’ predicament. Hence, the author stands by his choice of words.

    I find it very interesting that, in your view, Jesus is closer to Plato in his view of the human condition than to St Paul. The members of the controversial ‘Jesus Seminar’ would agree with you on this one, since they regard him as some kind of Hellenistic sage.

    As far as I’m concerned though, it seems to me that, for Jesus, the human predicament is very much a relational one. Consider two of his most celebrated parables: the prodigal son and the lost sheep. In both stories, the state of sinful humanity is represented by an alienation, i.e. of the son from his father, and of the sheep from his shepherd. Accordingly, the solution to the problem is a reconciliation of both parties (the very meaning of ‘atonement’).

    The very core of Jesus’ message, i.e. the arrival of the kingdom of God, is one of reconciliation between God and his people, who were estranged from their rightful king.

    This narrative of alienation-reconciliation is in keeping with the Hebrew Bible. The passage you cite actually exemplifies this: true flourishing is conditional on ‘turning to Him with all your heart and all your soul’. The passage describes Israelites who, estranged from God and abandoned to their enemies, *turn back* to him and are joyfully welcomed. Again, the emphasis is on relationship, not mere knowledge. This theme is absolutely central to the OT.

    • Hi Chris

      Yes, Pat is fine just don’t call me Susan 😉

      Once again I’m afraid I have to disagree with your definition of epistemology you are quite correct that the root word in Greek is episteme however it is also from epistasthai which means ‘know, how to know’.

      The Oxford dictionary defines epistemology as:
      ‘The theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion.’

      But I’m not too interested in squabbling over definitions as we all know philosophers constantly redefine terms in relation to their ideas. I agree that for Jesus reconciling his people to God by bringing the Kingdom of God to Earth but we must ask what the origin of this problem is for that is the root of our conversation.

      I would also say that the allegory of the cave contains an element of emotional alienation rather than an absolute ignorance but my contention was that Jesus did not believe that a man knew himself separate from God but rather ignorant of his being in the ‘cave’ as it was thus being more in agreement with Plato than Paul. Take for example the story of Jesus and the rich man who believed completely that he was fine with God but was shown to be lacking in ‘one thing’.

      With reference to the Shema I can only imagine you accidentally missed out ‘strength’ which presumes a need to put an effort forward and I also have to remind the author that the references to Johns Gospel have an apparently lesser historical worth in relation to the synoptic gospels who present Jesus very differently to the mystical figure found in John.

      • Hello Pat, thanks for your response.

        ” I agree that for Jesus reconciling his people to God by bringing the Kingdom of God to Earth but we must ask what the origin of this problem is for that is the root of our conversation.”

        If reconciliation with God is what we *need*, then it follows that estrangement from God is what we *have*. The cure must match the diagnosis.

        “I would also say that the allegory of the cave contains an element of emotional alienation rather than an absolute ignorance”

        Well, for Platonists (as with the Stoics), negative emotions like fear and regret are themselves the result of ignorance. In contrast, knowledge of the divine results in perfect peace.

        In any case, Plato certainly doesn’t think that we are alienated from God in a relational sense. Plato’s God has no interest in having fellowship with human beings.

        “Take for example the story of Jesus and the rich man who believed completely that he was fine with God but was shown to be lacking in ‘one thing’.”

        I don’t deny that, for Jesus and for Paul, some degree of ignorance is part of our predicament. But it isn’t the root cause. Notice that, in the story you cite, the rich man, while knowledgeable of the Torah, is prevented from receiving life by his *love* of money. He loves his riches more than he loves God, just as humanity loves its idols more than it loves God in Romans 1.

        “With reference to the Shema I can only imagine you accidentally missed out ‘strength’ which presumes a need to put an effort forward”

        Well, I wasn’t quoting the Shema (it’s in Deut 6). But regardless, I don’t see a dichotomy between being reconciled to God and making great efforts, and neither does Paul. Paul is often caricatured as a heinous antinomian, but this is not so.

        “the references to Johns Gospel have an apparently lesser historical worth”

        Where did I quote John?

      • I largely agree with what you said here with respect to reconciliation being important to Jesus’ ministry as well as Plato’s’ god having no interest in men.

        But my main point is related to Christ and his differences with Paul. For Jesus man is not separate from God but only by choice and that it is made, yes, by way of love of something else whether it be riches, one’s self, tradition etc..

        The Gospels themselves, however, address people as being righteous such as Zachariah the father of John the Baptist as well as John himself and his (Christ’s) disciples which perhaps is more optimistic than Plato and the cave and also from Paul and his ‘those who suppress the truth in their unrighteousness’ perhaps we simply struggle through life and don’t always make the right choices for one reason or another whether it be emotional or intellectual.

        My reason for mentioning Johns Gospel is to point out when we are talking about Jesus we have to remember the different depictions of him in the Gospels, most especially in Johns Gospel.

  3. Paul was wrong I’m afraid.

  4. Hello Pat,

    I fear that you have fallen for the caricature of Paul’s theology that I referred to earlier. Paul certainly doesn’t think that no one can be righteous — he repeatedly says that Abraham was righteous. Rather, his point is that true righteousness consists in a humble, childlike trust of God and recognition of one’s insufficiency — what Paul calls ‘faith’. This does not preclude, but rather entails righteous behavior, because faith works through love (Gal. 5:6).

    This conception of righteousness lies at the heart of Christ’s message. Consider the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14): the latter, and not the other, “went home justified before God” because he, and not the other, recognized his need for grace.

    Consider also Christ’s claim to have come not for the “healthy” / “righteous”, but for the “sick”, i.e. “sinners” (Luke 5:32). Evidently, he doesn’t mean that some of us are ‘healthy’ and don’t need healing, but rather that only those who recognize their need will receive it. That Christ came to “seek and save the lost” (Lk 19:10) necessitates that we are indeed lost and in need of finding.

    All of this is of course well in line with the two parables I mentioned earlier, the prodigal son and the lost sheep.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: