Plato’s March of Folly, Round Two — Jesus Avoids the Trap

In an earlier post (Plato’s March of Folly), we looked at the sad state of affairs humanity has had to endure, courtesy of Plato and his descendants. The beguiling aspect of philosophy is such that, were one to be fully and entirely devoted to it, the practical aspects of living would disappear.

Not convinced?

In his Republic, Plato introduces us to the image of a person living in a dark cave and then, when liberated from the darkness, that human being slowly begins to see as their eyes adjust to the light. Obviously, the cave is a metaphor for knowledge, and of course, you would have to assume the person trapped in the cave is living in a nice climate, since when they leave the cave they automatically encounter sunlight. So, clearly, this metaphor applies nicely to warm weather environments like Athens, but would not really work in, say, Seattle.

Of course, there are other logistical issues with all of this. Like, how did the person in the cave get their food? Who raised them? Who protected them? Sure, they had no sight, but their hearing would have been attenuated — what would they have heard in their many years growing up?

The logistical aspects of philosophy, clearly fail. The “what if” aspect is enticing and beguiling, and, well, it is just that — beguiling. But it is not realistic in this world. This world.

In Genesis 3, we encounter a situation where Eve is presented with a beguiling offer — to know good and evil, like God. In standard Socratic method fashion, the crafty serpent entices Eve with a question by which she is won over. To have the power of God, well who wouldn’t want that?

Is the serpent a salesman? Yes, definitely. But what is he selling? For one, a road out of the garden. How does he do it? With a question, much like the Socratic method (see Tarazi, The Rise of Scripture, p. 59).

The beguiling aspect of the Socratic method is that it puts the receiver in a disadvantageous position, as a passive participant in someone else’s line of thinking. The end result is a form of control over a person or situation, precisely because it appears to the one being questioned that they are gaining something, in Adam and Eve’s case, knowledge and power. But they gain nothing, losing even time in productive labor.

The consequence of what happened in the garden is that Adam and Eve, who were entrusted with tending the garden (“you had one job, just one!”) left their duties to go into hiding, become idle, and thereby lose their commission. So, instead of tending the garden, they and their descendants came to work the land in toil and labor (a second best option, as an act of divine mercy; Gen. 3. 17 – 19).

So, is there a way out of this?

In Luke, we have several instances where Jesus is approached with a question. In all of these cases, instead of answering the question, He responds with His own. For example, the Parable of the Good Samaritan opens this way:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (Luke 10. 25 – 26)

At the end of Luke, Jesus is approached by the elders, scribes, and Pharisees and is asked:

One day, as he was teaching the people in the temple and telling the good news, the chief priests and the scribes came with the elders  and said to him, “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?” He answered them, “I will also ask you a question, and you tell me: Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? (Luke 20. 1 – 4)

Jesus makes them work for what they think they know. Productive work is not only good for us, it is part of our calling as free people and children of the Jerusalem above.

As Paul says, let us avoid reckless and useless controversies (2 Tim. 2.23), as well as idleness (2 Thess. 3. 6 – 15). This is pastoral care 101.

In the Same Boat

The Bible, as we have seen in the story of Esau and Jacob (see the post It’s Good to See You, Bro), subverts our expectations. Along this line, as we have said, there are no heroes in the Bible. All our forefathers failed in some manner, with their failures necessitating, if you will, God’s graciousness to bail them out.

While there are many “sacred” idols that are subverted, none is more troubling for us than the Scriptural message that the oppressor and the oppressed are in the same boat.

Accustomed as we are to theology (or theologies), we can miss entirely one of the major concerns of the Bible — power and its abuse. Who has power? How is it wielded? How is authority abused? How is this abuse perpetuated across generations?

So we have religious authority that conspires to sentence the innocent Jesus death, with the religious authorities colluding with the oppressors. We have a proprietor king (David) sending the brave husband (Uriah the Hittite) of the woman he impregnated to a death in a war for which he took no personal responsibility. Worse, Uriah is a foreigner, so wouldn’t that be okay, then?

You see how people can justify all sorts of abuse and oppression. We do it all the time.

So where does the “they’re in the same predicament” come from?

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practised under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. 

This is from Ecclesiastes 4: 1. Notice the concern of the authors with the oppressed. We can agree with this — often, the oppressed have no one to comfort them.

But the real surprise is how the oppressors are viewed — as people under the control and abuse of power, who themselves need to be comforted. The authors of Scripture remind them and us, that oppressors must have learned their control from somewhere. They are living out, as oppressors, a cycle of violence taught to them and likely expected of them.

Can they be freed from this cycle? Yes. What does this look like? Well, we will look at two examples in a future post.

Sufficient for now is to state that human history has shown what happens when the oppressed take up arms against their oppressors. Not only are rivers of blood shed, but should the oppressed succeed in overthrowing their oppressors, they eventually become the new oppressors. The same story continues.

The cycle never ends until both the oppressor and the oppressed can look into one another’s eyes, and walk together. The oppressors, to be freed from the power that rules over them, and for the oppressed to no longer fear their oppressor.

How is this possible? Stay tuned.

Plato’s March of Folly, Round One

It was the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who said that, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

The influence of Plato on the Western philosophical tradition cannot be overstated. Whitehead was correct in that Plato’s ruminations led countless generations after him to “play ball” by taking his ideas seriously. Plato led to Aristotle, tutor to Alexander the Great.

In the Middle Ages, philosophy was seen as a “handmaiden to theology,” while in the Byzantine East it provided, through neo-Platonism, the language and terminology for theology. Then with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the western philosophical tradition really took off, often grouped into geographical regions that mirrored the rise of nations and European empires (i..e, British Empiricism, French Rationalism, German Idealism, etc.).

Think of this — is it a coincidence that the last five hundred years of Western history have also involved absolutist inter-state conflict on a large scale, as nations and empires with different philosophical traditions vied for dominance? One worldview fights another.

All this can be traced to Plato and his Republic. Plato’s Republic was not just a pitch for a new model of society. It was a cultural re-programming, so much so that the introduction of Plato to any region would entail, de facto, a re-wiring of a society’s norms and traditions. This re-programming is written into the DNA of philosophy, since the philosopher lives a quest for a newer society. Of course, newer for whom?

The thought of having this power over the society is tempting and beguiling fruit (Genesis 3.1 – 7; The Rise of Scripture, chapter 1), and is a foreign and corrupting practice introduced into the garden of the Earth created by God.

While Plato was even too much for the ancient Greek city-states to handle (as far as we know, no one in the city-states accepted his sales pitch in his lifetime, as each local society had its own traditions they likely wished to preserve), after his death Alexander of Macedon introduced Plato’s writings to the ancient Near East and to a foreign peoples no less who were conquered by him. These people, with a civilization predating the Hellenistic peoples, were on their way to being culturally erased from history.

So, the cultures of the ancient Near east became a kind of “test case” of rule by a philosopher-king (Alexander). As we saw in the previous post Tasks, though, the project was doomed to fail from the beginning.

Interestingly, it is not known whether these writings were introduced to Afghanistan, also a place conquered by the Macedonian armies. There are places, in fact, where Greek is spoken to this day in remote Afghani villages. Had Alexander not actually introduced Plato’s writings there but did so only in the more developed Near East, then this would support the contention that Plato’s march of folly (a term I borrowed from the late historian Barbara Tuchman) is a cultural re-formatting of society.

Yes, this was an attempt at a cultural reformatting of an entire people, of many languages and traditions, from the least to the greatest. While Alexander was the first to accept the challenge, others have followed after him, with even more passion and destruction, and their own special self-affirming brand of philosophy. As conquerors try to create their perfect world (perfect for who?), the beguiling quest and thought remains that, “I just might succeed where others failed.” This is why, in the history of the West, kinetic wars have been fought to advance ideology, thus affecting entire societies.

With Plato, the march of folly clearly has its costs.