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.” 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.” Plato was indeed engaged in his own artistic endeavor.
The opening dialogue of Plato’s Republic centers on the question of whether or not “morality is beneficial to its possessor – that, in fact, an individual gains happiness by being moral whether or not any external advantages accrue to him.” Plato has three characters express the general view of the pagans, none of which seem to indicate that morality is an intrinsic good. It is here that the reader gets the first glimpse of Plato’s complaint against the popular poets of his day such as Homer, Hesiod, and Simonides. Reynolds notes that the Homeric religion, in particular, “had a tight grip on the Athenian imagination and represented a dark power against which even the love of wisdom seemed scarcely enough protection.” Glaucon and Adeimantus, two of his young questioners, present the case for injustice as told by the poets and storytellers of the day. This forms a succinct summary of the pagan beliefs about morality against which Socrates must contend.
“There’s an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy.”
“Yesterday I went down to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston …” Thus begins the world’s seminal Socratic dialogue, Plato’s Republic. It is a literary journey through the human soul; a dramatic dialectic in the search for morality. The process will involve constructing a “city with words” in an attempt to create a concrete representation of the elusive human psyche. The hope is that such a projection, writ large, of the inner workings of man will enable Socrates and his young students to find true morality and observe its effects on the one who seeks it above all else. The question: Is morality “intrinsically rewarding” regardless of extrinsic benefits? Inevitably, part of the discussion moves to education, namely, how one ensures the production of a moral soul. What will nourish and protect the inner man on his treacherous quest to find and follow the good? What will guard him against all the various temptations he will encounter along the way? This leads the discussion to poetry, something that C.S. Lewis saw as “a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible.” At first glance, Plato seems to suggest that the arts are inherently dangerous and should be avoided. Yet, we would be remiss if we failed to recognize that the very medium he chooses to denounce them is itself artistic, an attempt to make the invisible soul incarnate. Indeed, Plato’s narrator Socrates will compare the construction of this mythical city to the work of the artist. What, then, is Plato’s assessment of the role of the arts in society, and can we find any truth to guide us in our consumption and production of art in our modern world? Republic is what translator Allan Bloom observed as an “invitation to the philosophic quest.” Let us take Plato up on his invitation and determine if he is correct in his assessment of the role of the arts in the soul and in society.
“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.” 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. 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.” 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.  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.”
In his book, Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart contends that when we moderns read the scriptures, we do so through a lens that has been fashioned by those very texts. As a result, what was once extraordinary has become more than ordinary, appearing as natural and effortless as breathing. In no other event is this more evident than in Peter’s denial and his subsequent sorrow. Hart writes that “what is obvious to us—Peter’s wounded soul, the profundity of his devotion to his teacher, the torment of his guilt, the crushing knowledge that Christ’s imminent death forever foreclosed the possibility of seeking forgiveness for his betrayal—is obvious in very large part because we are the heirs of a culture that, in a sense, sprang from Peter’s tears.”
“Why, LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”
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?
“For an Evening Service”
This hymn is suitable for the Vigil of the Enlightenment
The day that Nature gave is ending,
The hand of Man turns on the light;
We praise thee, Progress, for defending
Our nerves against the dreadful night.
As o’er each continent and island
The switches spread synthetic day,
The noise of mirth is never silent,
Nor dies the strain of toil away.
We thank thee that thy speed incessant
Provides upon this whirling ball
No time to brood on things unpleasant –
No time, in fact, to think at all.
Secure amid the soothing riot
Of crank and sound track, plane and car,
We shall not be condemned to quiet,
Nor left alone with what we are.
By lavish and progressive measures
Our neighbour’s wants are all relieved;
We are not called to share his pleasures,
And in his grief we are not grieved.
Thy winged wheels o’erspan the oceans,
Machining out the Standard Man.
Our food, our learning, our emotions
Are processed for us in the can.
All bars of colour, caste and nation
Must yield to movies and the mike;
We need not seek communication,
For thou dost make us all alike.
So be it! let not sleep not slackness
Impede thy Progress, Light sublime;
Nor ever let us glimpse the blackness
That yawns behind the gates of Time.
~ Dorothy L. Sayers, The Whimsical Christian (pp.6-7).