Part Three on The Philosopher Poet: On Plato’s “Republic”

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In Plato’s Cave No.1 by Robert Motherwell, 1972

Perhaps the most memorable illustration of the limitations of the pagan poets and their epistemology is Plato’s cave allegory.  Socrates wants to move the minds of the young men away from the visible world to the unseen world beyond the senses, the realm to which reason looks and is grounded.  In the allegory, Plato likens the world as perceived by the senses (and the pagan poets) to a dark cave.  The sensual aspects of our souls are what keep us captive there in chains, while the fire (representing convention) offers a secondary light, casting shadows on the cave wall that we perceive as reality.  The poets might be the ones who produce the shadows that capture our attention.  The goal of reason (and education) is to move one outside the cave into the world that “is eternal, unchanging and utterly good.”[1]  Once one has been freed from the chains and has ascended, he is obligated to return to the cave and seek to free others with captivating images drawn from outside the cave that are necessarily closer to that which is truly good, true, and beautiful.  The genius of this allegory is that it has done just that for many generations.  Reynolds notes that “the image of the cave is so powerful that it has haunted countless other works of art, including poems and movies.”[2]  Plato was indeed engaged in his own artistic endeavor.

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Part One: “My Lord and My God!” The Incarnation and Arianism

View of Acropolis & Parthenon from stone

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son.”[1]

During the twilight hours of late-antiquity, the deepening gloom of cosmic despair could be seen on the horizon upon which the mythologies and philosophies of man had exhausted themselves. In his book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, David Bentley Hart writes that it was “a time when religion and philosophy alike were increasingly concerned with the escape from the conditions of earthly life, and when both often encouraged a contempt for the flesh more absolute, bitterly unworldly, and pessimistic” than ever before.[2] With noble resignation, mankind had come to accept this world as nothing more than a material prison.  History was stuck in an endless cycle, punctuated by the wiles of capricious and demanding gods.   In this view there was a regularity in history that followed the cycles of nature – an endless, thus meaningless, continuum of “creation and dissolution, without beginning or end.”[3]   The wisest amongst the pagans would agree that “generations come and generations go, / but the earth remains forever,” all the while the Supreme God remained completely out of reach and uninvolved.[4] The most one could hope for is to be able to cultivate a resigned soul that was “immune to the effects of time and nature alike.” [5] Salvation could only be found in escape.

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The Post-Christian West and the Eye of a Needle

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Nocturne by Whistler

“Round us in antic order their crippled vices came—
Lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame.
Like the white lock of Whistler, that lit our aimless gloom,
Men showed their own white feather as proudly as a plume.
Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.”

~ G.K. Chesterton

Taking up a theme from a previous post, here is another area in which Christianity changed the world for the better.  Not only did the Gospel’s focus on the poor and unforgotten give value to an entire segment of society that the pagan world looked upon with patronizing pity at best, the Gospel revolutionized mankind’s conceptual framework for understanding reality.  The modern world rejects Christianity at its own peril, as Hart will demonstrate.  We are deluding ourselves, in fact.

In his book, Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart notes that we moderns “believe in nature and in history: in the former’s rational regularity and in the latter’s genuine openness to novelty.”[1]  Not so for the pagans.  They had no concept of “the arrow of time” and did not assume that history contained a “narrative logic” broad enough to house “both disjunction and resolution.”  For them, history could not move “towards an end quite different from its beginning” but was stuck in an endless cycle, punctuated by the wiles of capricious and demanding gods.[2]  In their view, there was a regularity in history that followed the cycles of nature – an endless, thus meaningless, continuum of “creation and dissolution, without beginning or end.”[3]  The wisest amongst the pagans would agree that “generations come and generations go, / but the earth remains forever” all the while, the ultimate deity remained completely out of reach and uninvolved. [4]  The most one could hope for is to be able to cultivate a resigned soul that was “immune to the effects of time and nature alike.”[5]

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Divine Providence and Human Free Will

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“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt

“For I am confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will continue to perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus”  ~ Philippians 1:6

In his book, Classic Christianity, Thomas C. Oden likens the complex interaction between divine providence and human freedom to “good human parenting.”[1]  He writes that “the providence of God guides human freedom in four phases: by permitting, restraining, overruling, and limiting our choices.”[2]  Part of God’s providential care and purpose is to permit us to fail “in order to allow the larger good of enabling freedom.”[3]  At times, God does restrain our actions by non-coercively and indirectly hindering us.  He hedges us in.[4]  He will directly overrule our choices either by correction and discipline or by turning what was meant for evil into good or to spur spiritual growth.  Odens writes, “God guides wisely by going ahead of our present freedom to prepare a new way … opening some doors, closing others … grace [preventing] freedom’s way from leading to disaster, or from tempting inordinately.”[5]

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The Riddle of Suffering

The Body of Christ Borne to the Tomb c.1799-1800 by William Blake 1757-1827

“The Body of Christ Borne to the Tomb” by William Blake, watercolor

“Why, LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”
(Psalm 10:1)

If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does He allow so much suffering?  Arguably, this question lies at the core of human existence.  The silence that seems to greet it pierces our hearts.  Who will comfort us?

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From “The Abolition of Man” to “That Hideous Strength” Part Four: Why Myth?

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Fellows’ Garden, Exeter College, Oxford, 1903 (by John Fulleylove)

Ransom:  “…what we need for the moment is not so much a body of belief as a body of people familiarized with certain ideas. If we could even effect in one per cent of our readers a changeover from the conception of Space to the conception of Heaven, we should have made a beginning.”

Why Fairy-tale, Myth, and Legend?

“On the whole, novels are better when there are no miracles in them,” wrote George Orwell in his review of That Hideous Strength.[1]  According to him, it “would probably have been a better book if the magical element had been left out.”[2]  The relevance of Lewis’s use of the fairy tale form, medieval cosmology, and Arthurian legend completely escaped Orwell.  Still, it should be noted that the book’s anti-materialistic, anti-reductionist message was able to come through for him in spite of this.  Orwell understood the philosophy behind Lewis’s fairy tale, but, without an appreciation for spiritual things, the fantastic elements in That Hideous Strength were merely noise.

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