Thursday, 12 June 2014

God in Platonic and Pre-Socratic Cosmology

The following was delivered as a talk at the Norwich Centre for Christian Learning, Norwich Cathedral, 11.6.2014. As such, the style is somewhat conversational (which is a style I like to use anyway) and the content is arguably more historical than philosophical. I apologise if this comes across as vague or 'entry level,' but I was attempting to cater to a large audience. 

In this talk, I am going to focusing primarily on the idea of God we come across in Plato’s Timaeus dialogue, a dialogue about the origin of the world. Plato’s cosmology has similarities with the cosmologies offered by numerous pre-Socratic philosophers, while also standing apart from them in many ways. Principally, Plato holds that the world came into being rather than always having been, and he has a divine creator (the Demiurge) who is distinct from the cosmos. This places him in contrast with the majority of Presocratics, who saw the cosmos as eternal (although several suggested it goes through periods of unity and dissolution), and who saw the force or principle responsible for the order of the cosmos as identifiable with the cosmos. This is particularly true of Parmenides and Heraclitus. It is the refusal to identify the world with the source of its own creation that makes Plato so distinct from his predecessors (and successors, principally Aristotle), and so attractive from an Abrahamic standpoint. However, as I hope to show over the space of this discussion, we must be extremely hesitant when we try to too strongly identify Plato’s Demiurge with the God of Genesis.

But first, a few words about the cosmological ideas that preceded Plato.

Philosophical-cosmological enquiries in Greece seemed to have begun with the Milesian philosophers. The Milesians sought to identify the foundational substance of the cosmos, the arkhē, a word that doesn’t have a direct parallel in English but has connotations relating to ‘origin’ and ‘first principle.’ The notion of the ordering principle of the cosmos appears again and again in Greek cosmological and cosmogonic thought. Thales seemingly identified the arkhē with water, Anaximander with an abstract substance devoid of characteristics known as the apeiron, the ‘boundless.’ Anaximander’s arkhē is of particular interest as it is spoken of in language normally reserved for Zeus, suggesting that it has divine characteristics. As the foundational substance of the cosmos has a divine dimension to it, this suggests something of divinity to the world itself, that the divine is identifiable with the cosmos (or with the facet of the cosmos that brings the cosmos about).

The relationship between the cosmos, its first substance, its ordering principle and the divine becomes most interesting in relation to Heraclitus, who blurs the lines between first substance and foundational principle, and evocatively (from a Christian perspective) calls the principle of existence (that is, the principle of ever-persistent change) the Logos. That is a large gap between human perspective on these things and their reality, though, with Heraclitus telling us that ‘[t]o God all things are beautiful and good and just, but humans have supposed some unjust and others just.’ [DK 22B102] Heraclitus is often described as a pantheist, and I do not feel that this is an inaccurate description. The cosmos for Heraclitus is defined by flux, the law of this flux is described various as ‘fire,’ Logos and God, leading to the view that cosmos is, itself, God, bringing about its own existence eternally.

I mention this as contrast for what we will now discuss regarding Plato.

Often, it is said that Plato hates the world, and though he is calling on us to rise above it, we shouldn’t take this to mean that Plato necessarily despises the world. This is a rather Neoplatonic reading of Plato though, Plato according to the Gnostics, perhaps. The world isn’t wicked (at least not in this dialogue); it is imperfect, but only as imperfect as raw necessity demands of it. Indeed we are told explicitly that ‘the god wanted everything to be good and nothing to be bad, so far as that was possible, and so he took over all that was visible -not at rest but in discordant and disorderly motion- and brought it from a state of disorder to one of order, because he believed that order was in every way better than disorder.’ [Tim. 30a] It is interesting that we are offered something that resembles a motivation for the act of creation here. Seeing the state of chaos before him, the Demiurge sought to make it better by bringing it as close to perfection as possible. In Platonic metaphysics, the maker of a thing requires a model, or Form, to work by, and so does the Demiurge (of course immediately problematising attempts to make the Demiurge fully identifiable with the God of Genesis, who has no need of anything beyond Himself to produce the world.) The maker must have used a perfect model, as the maker is good and thus would want to produce a creation as close to perfection as a thing that has come to be can. Further, the Demiurge doesn’t make the world as much as he shapes it out of something that existed previous to the cosmos we now inhabit.

According to Francis Cornford, Plato ‘…believed in the divinity of the world as a whole…’ but I am not sure that that follows from the general flow of Platonic thought. To begin, we need to realise that Plato’s created world, like us mortals, possesses a soul. At first, it is tempting to assert that it is the soul that is the ‘divine’ element, perhaps because of its position of authority over the material world.  However, this is not clearly the case due to the peculiar composition of the soul. In a word, the souls ‘divine’ credentials are suspect. The Platonic soul, both that of individuals and of the world, partakes in both the corporeal and immaterial realms, having both the characteristics of being eternal and unchanging and of being ‘…unlike the Forms in that it is alive and intelligent, and life and intelligence cannot exist without change.’ [Plato’s Cosmology p. 63-4] Cornford here references Sophist 248e]  Thus, it is not as simple a task as declaring the soul to be the ‘divine’ component of a human being or of the world in general- it is, rather, the part that most strongly resembles and partakes in the divine realm, and has the potential to become more like it. As such, if we are right that the divine is wholly and unchangingly good and true, in the same sense that the Forms are, it simply does not follow that, soul or not, the world can be conceived of as divine in Plato’s view. It permits variation and changeability, it has impure elements to it and, finally and most importantly, it became, it was not always. ‘Furthermore, whilst the world soul might continue existing for all time, its continued existence is contingent on God’s will…’ [Johansen, T.K.; Plato’s Natural Philosophy; a Study of the Timaeus-Critias (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004)]

We should also take note of the Olympian gods and how they figure in the greater Platonic cosmology. To begin with, Plato makes an odd move and takes a veritable leap-of-faith regarding the traditional genealogies of the gods, calling on us to ‘take on their word’  the genealogical accounts of the gods offered to us by ‘descendants of gods [who] must, no doubt, have had certain knowledge of their own ancestors.’  Though he does recognise that these genealogies ‘speak without probable or necessary proofs’ we are asked to ‘follow established usage and accept what they say.’  This leaves us in something of a quandary, but not an insurmountable one. The focus of this passage is on the actual form of worldly existence the traditional gods have, so it may not be too difficult to swallow a tacit approval of the traditional genealogies, under the recognition that we, of course, do not know how they came to be, and that these stories have been around for as long people have told stories about the gods. Perhaps all Plato is saying here is that ‘None of us know where the gods came from, and thus these tales, for as much as they do not stand at odds with reason, are just as likely as any other myth.’ We do not have here an in-depth discussion about the nature of the gods, or their character, merely a vague nod in the direction of tradition. One scholar helpfully observes that in other dialogues Plato recognises that the genealogies are ‘hard to censure because of their antiquity’. [Plato’s Cosmology, p. 138 (footnote)]

It is worth mentioning here that there is always a tension between traditional religion and the kind of philosophical cosmology the Presocratics had been engaging in. However, I emphasise that this ‘tension’ was not something necessarily insurmountable and is often very ambiguous in nature. Although, for example, Anaximander offers an explanation for the source of thunder and lightning in purely naturalistic terms, a phenomenon that was traditionally associated with Zeus, this does not mean that he did not believe in the Olympian gods, or that they weren’t worthy of worship. No Christian’s God is entirely identical with any other Christian’s, and there is no reason to assume it would have been otherwise for the Greeks (indeed, their gods were indubitably protean in nature). It is only in the defiant monotheism of Xenophanes that we see something that closely resembles rejection of the Olympian gods and cynicism toward religion, and even then I am hesitant describing it as an ‘outright’ rejection. It is an inevitability that people with questioning minds would have made perhaps uncomfortable enquiries into the nature and origins of the gods of the civic cults, but this does not mean that they were rejecting them (not even the atomists threw the gods out!): they are simply asking for clarification.

Regardless of the specific details of their origins, the Timaeus account does not question the existent of the celestial gods. The gods are placed in a privileged position in this cosmology, their lot being to create ranks of mortal creatures. This must be done through an agent distinct from the Demiurge, as anything made through him is indissoluble. These inferior gods, then, must produce the other forms of life, whose lot it is to change and vary and die.  These gods, though, are still at best perhaps only quasi-divine, for though they will never meet death, they ‘are not immortal nor indissoluble altogether.’ Seeing as eternity has been a characteristic associated with divinity since at least the time of Thales, this fact is enough to qualify the gods of Olympus as they appear in this cosmology as failing to qualify as divine, again for much the same reason as the world itself is not divine: they came to be.

Finally, there is the question of the Demiurge itself. As said above, this being does not qualify for strict comparison with the Abrahamic god: it is not all-powerful, it required things beyond itself in order to create, the material of the world was pre-existent and it required intermediaries in order to bring about living creatures. Is, then, the Demiurge divine? This is an extremely difficult question to answer, not least because it is very unclear if the Demiurge is intended to be taken literally or metaphorically.  We have little reason to believe that the Demiurge came into being. It seems far more likely that the Demiurge can be said to either have always been, or that it stands outside of time as we comprehend it altogether (given that the Timaeus account includes the creation of time with the cosmos, this seems likely). As such, we can conclude that the Demiurge is eternal and, thus, not corporeal. Further, it is through the Demiurge that Reason comes to overcome chaotic Necessity in the formation of the world; Reason, of course, being the characteristic that the mortal needs to cultivate in their soul in order to grasp the eternal splendour of the Forms and the quasi-divine element of the World-Soul itself. All of this considered, regardless as to whether or not the Demiurge is intended to be understood as an actually existent being or a metaphor for the effect of reason over matter, we can perhaps cautiously suggest that the Demiurge is at least somewhat divine.

The Demiurge, then, is an odd god. Powerful, though not all-powerful, benevolent but somewhat impersonal. Plato’s Demiurge is more like the God of the deists than of the theists: this is nature’s god, not Israel’s. It does not seem that we can really have a relationship with it, and Plato does not call for us to worship the Demiurge. Indeed, Plato in this period of his writing is not as concerned with worship as he is with the idea that the mortal’s soul can become godlike (though his earlier discussions of piety for the gods are for more traditional). Indeed, Plato is not attempting to create scripture here (the dialogue begins with a warning that it is unlikely that we’ll ever be able to truly know how the world came to be, or who made, and even if we did discover this, it is still doubtful that we’d be able to proclaim it to that many people). Plato is here doing what he does best: he is speculating, story-telling: philosophising. He is trying to grasp as close towards truth as he can, a truth that he knows he can never be sure of. 

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