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

 

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Plato conversing with his students, mosaic from Pompeii, first century BC

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.”[1]  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.”[2] 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.

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

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“There’s an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy.”[1]

 “Yesterday I went down to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston …”[2] 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?[3]  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.”[4]  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.”[5]  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.

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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 Wind and the Trees by G.K. Chesterton

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“The Wind and the Trees”

by G.K. Chesterton

I am sitting under tall trees, with a great wind boiling like surf about the tops of them, so that their living load of leaves rocks and roars in something that is at once exultation and agony. I feel, in fact, as if I were actually sitting at the bottom of the sea among mere anchors and ropes, while over my head and over the green twilight of water sounded the everlasting rush of waves and the toil and crash and shipwreck of tremendous ships. The wind tugs at the trees as if it might pluck them root and all out of the earth like tufts of grass. Or, to try yet another desperate figure of speech for this unspeakable energy, the trees are straining and tearing and lashing as if they were a tribe of dragons each tied by the tail.

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Peter’s Tears

A detail from St Peter in tears by El Greco

St. Peter’s Tears by El Greco (1541-1614)

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.”[1]

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The Bond of Love by Nicole Howe

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Below is a guest post from my dear friend and fellow graduate student at HBU.  It is a beautiful reflection on the Holy Spirit.  Enjoy!   

“The Bond of Love” by Nicole Howe

Arguing for the existence of God is becoming especially difficult in a materialistic culture that demands knowledge come exclusively via empirical and scientific means. The difficulty is not due to a lack of evidence for God’s existence, (nor for the historicity of Jesus), but because God’s entire being is something that ultimately transcends our material world.

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