Dialog # 3
revised Wednesday, March 23, 2016
It’s the first of May in our park, Maypole Day, lovely day. My dear Prof. Plagno and I are occupying our usual bench. Four or five grad students and four or five homeless people are slouch-dancing around the rainbow beribboned pole, a student and a homeless person (hard to tell the difference in status or gender) dropping out ever so often for selfies and kisses and the exercise of other body functions. In the spirit of the festival, one of many pagan revelries never quite as Christianized or popularized as Easter, rendering it all the more popular at this park, I turn to my Platonophilic bench mate and ask, “Was Plato…or was he not?”
“My dear doctor Wes, you’re being whimsical. Everybody who knows the Golden Age of Philosophy knows he was. Everybody was. Gay, that is. I presume your ellipsis, those three gaily dancing dots, was for ‘gay.’”
“My very dear professor, I apologize for cowardly resorting to an ellipse so that I wouldn’t have to verbalize a word offensive to your ears. But it turned out that you turned around and filled in the dots gaily enough with a word pretty offensive to mine. So here goes again sans ellipsis and at risk of offending us both, was Plato inspired or wasn’t he?” I asked, expecting to wave the prof off to the Maypole.
And sure enough Plagno leaps up ominously, but dances a delightful little jig around our park bench. “Oh joy! -- indeed my Greeks, their gods and Plato himself, were famously ‘inspired,’ to use your word, which, to my ears, if not flat out offensive is too heavily laden with unwarranted implications. The Greeks had better terms, like ‘muse’ or ‘divine madness,’ which emanated from Bacchus especially, and alighted and danced upon a particularly blessed poet or artist or actor or naked athlete or dancer. Or orator. In our day, politician. Nothing to do your God.”
“Ah! What would we do without divine madness!” I exclaim, following along, relieved. “There would be no inspired, er, divinely mad poets and artists and movie and TV writers, no agonized and agonizing rockers! We’d have no poetry cafes, no book clubs, painting auctions, artist’s receptions with cauliflower and chardonnay, no artists’ statements or manifestos, no graffiti, not to mention no Hollywood, Oscars, and Emmys, or hippies or Height Ashbury Street. Or maybe even no transgendering. Let’s hear it for divine madness! Or am I being too whimsical?”
Apparently I am. Snarling in full wrath, Plagno thunders, “Enough humoring your hidden booby traps and stupid whimsy. I Knew all along that what you’re really asking is, was Plato inspired by God? That Plato even could be inspired by your God is the most insulting thing that could possibly be said – even implied -- about Plato! Everybody knows that Plato functioned purely by pure reason, by the finest use of the finest human brain the world has ever known, the paradigm of sitting down and thinking it out. Socrates was included in the dialogs, but your kind of God was not, dude.” Having thus decreed he settled himself back on the park bench and crossed his arms.
Trying to keep a level look I asked, “But is it not true that Plato did recognize, famously recognize, something intangible and therefore consummately real that is beyond the limits of dialectics?”
“It didn’t take God to tell him that. Reason alone, sir, is enough to come to such conclusions.”
“Platonic reasoning -- and Aristotelian observation,” I added helpfully. “But didn’t Plato himself use the term ‘god’”?
“Yes indeed again! All Greeks did,” beamed the professor
Again surprised at my good professor’s elliptical agility, I sensed that Plagno had readily seized with relief rather than whimsy yet another hidden ellipse. At bottom might he be a bit disinclined to face the issue of God? Whimsical thought.
“But the whole world of antiquity was crawling with gods, dude. Gods, plural, compounded. They had gods like our teenagers have iPhones or San Francisco has gays or illegal immigrants. Everything you looked at, whether, the sun, the moon, a bug, a virgin or a witch, or redwood tree, you saw gods -- gods for every purpose, notably fertility and war and the arts. Everywhere you looked, whether at a hill, a glade, or vale, you saw lovely green parks inhabited by gods and altars and grad students cavorting around them. Evolved into perfection, possessing Batman superhero powers but clad in tunics rather than capes, those Greek gods crammed the Greek Pantheon, Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum And Hall of Fame of Greek Gods -- Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, Venus, Hermes, Hera to list just a few, for whom our scientists still name anatomical parts, insect species, spacecraft, diseases. Prone to exaggerated passions and not overly concerned with generic moral qualities, altogether less Godlike than caricatures of the ‘human condition,’ the Pantheon’s gods could have come out of Hollywood as well as Athens.”
“Plato’s god, or gods, was a humanoid superhero wizard, then?” I asked, playing along with his detour into the famous Pantheon. But in answer to my question Platno yet again twirls.
“Not hardly, to answer your question. This time I am the one playing along to turn your ellipse to my purpose of more graphically presenting the contrast, starting with their names, between all those familiar Disneyland gods -- Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, Venus, et al -- and Plato’s god – variously named One, Monad, Source, Nous, and so forth.. and finally, Form.”
“May I interrupt, professor? You speak of Plato’s ‘god,’ singular. The Hebrews were monotheists but the pagans famously weren’t. Was Plato?”
“Now that’s a penetrating question, evoking almost more delving into than I want to bother with on a park bench, Doctor Wes. But I’ll take a deep breath and here goes: From his chair, in which he sat fixed, Plato could with his eyes see sharply (even though glasses weren’t invented yet), say, well formed olive trees or well formed athletes and the well formed sun and stars, causing in his brain corresponding thoughts, such as, besides their sad transiency, that they are basically tangible matter and, being matter, possess qualities, raising profound and famously Greek questions, notably, just what renders these items separate individuals? Do they move? And from that question the next even more philosophical one, what is ‘motion' or the lack of it and what starts and stops it? After those thoughts, Plato, without having moved from his chair, would close his eyes and just think – but where do those thoughts come from? Like eye-originated thoughts about the moon or olive tree, do eye-closed thoughts, necessarily less well formed than the things seen (even without glasses), actually originate from something that, if not seen, is, or somehow has been, experienced, or do they purely and simply somehow just originate from the brain itself? And, circling around, are those brain-originated thoughts actually the templates on which are formed the supposed eye-open-evoked perceptions of the olive tree and sun? If so the olive tree and the sun are only arbitrarily termed ‘matter’ and are indeed transient and inferior, mere forms of the eternal and superior brain-originated template or Form. Meanwhile, the purely mind-originated template, even if consummately superior and capitalized as Form, could not possibly or philosophically be other than less well formed than the eye-originated transient form, even by super-brain Plato. Nor – here comes a crucial Platonic part – did Plato intend to more formalize or characterize the Form. He both passively left it vague because he had no choice, and deliberately left it even more vague. For if Plato’s Form/template were any more conceptually solid it would begin to be like a marble statue (such as the famous Greek gods or the Egyptian or Canaanite idols, or … those of Catholic saints), or like the supremely personified though invisible Hebrew-Christian God. Plato’s mind would have none of that. Nor would his mind, you would say ego, allow room for thoughts that originated anywhere other than his own mind, certainly not the preternatural revelation God granted the Hebrews and Christians. As to your question, the Form being so vague, how can there be more than one of it. In fact, one of it’s designations is ‘One.’ And 'Monad' means one. Alas, in practice it turned out that the Form was just too vague, and Plato et al had to plug in a string of more functional entities like the demiurges, constituting something of a hierarchy of consummates, rather like the Catholic church has accumulated saints. Plus, and you’ve got to admire the ingenuity, being so vague it could smoothly be adapted to and affect any theology, even Christian theology, as it has to this very day.”
“Admire the ingenuity and utility of vagueness I do indeed. Not only has the Form fitted Christian theology, but, in another galaxy far away, also Lucasean ‘Star Wars.’ May the Force’s Form be with you.”
“And may the Form’s force be with you, amen,” mocks the professor, bringing his agnostic hands together to mime Dürer’s drawing of "Praying hands.” … "Zounds! You’ve got me tangibilizing the Form! But you won’t catch me going to a museum in London, Paris, or New York to see stolen marble statues of the Form. There aren’t any.”
“No statues, but may I submit that modernistic abstract blottesque blobs capture the Platonic essence better than any statue could? Hey, in a way your Plato was also an art revolutionary like Picasso, long, long before his time!”
“Plato-Picasso, art innovators. Couldn't resist the pun," says the professor. "Oh Indeed you are so right, dear doctor! Plato was a revolutionary, a world-shaking intellectual and theological and political and sociological revolutionary, more revolutionary than even Marx or Mao, or Lenin or Che Guevara. Plato was an hero of the mind and thus a more heroic world changer than all your dime-a-dozen tall-building-leaping superheroes or Greek heroic gods notably giant-foe-killer Heracles. Hmmm….. Come to think of it the gods in the Pantheon sound more like Harry Potter’s wizard than Super-Spider-Batman superheroes. But I hadn’t thought of his revolution as extending to art. I’ll include that in my PowerPoint, or would if I were still at a lectern rather than on a park bench. Thanks anyway, good doctor Wes. You deserve at least a B and a piece of brie.
“And so revolutionary” continues the professor, himself munching a piece of brie, “was his concept of the ultimate that to identify such a being a whole separate set of designations, not exactly names, had to be concocted. Plato came through. As they say, the Greeks had a word for it, and Plato had words even for things beyond words. That takes creativity. But it turns out that the Platonic words were nondescript and neutral, tantalizingly uninformative, so transcendently creative they don’t sound creative at all, downright boring, especially in English. Plato stoops to using the plainest and most mundane of nouns ordinarily employed in the plainest and most mundane of settings -- one, monad, source, nous, form – and apotheosizes them simply by capitalizing them -- One, Monad, Source, Nous, among others, including ‘Prime mover,’ Aristotle’s contribution. And some philosopher apotheosized ‘good’ by capitalization to Good. Perhaps the one that sticks in most people’s mind is Form. And of course ‘god’ but never, never capitalized.”
“So it’s an every-philosopher-join-in game, professor? How about ‘Nice,’ or Cool, capitalized? A while back I caught you referring to ‘it,’ so may I presume that the list goes from One through Nous through Form to, in a pinch, It (capitalized according to syntactical happenstance)? Anyway I can see why no insect or spacecraft was named for, say, Monad, but I’ve heard of punk rock bands and moving companies named ‘Prime Movers’… But I’m relieved that you, professor, are not Prime Moving your person to the Maypole.….
“But, seriously, professor, why did Plato use such drab noncommittal words for the most cosmic of things? On one hand he is history’s most extreme thought revolutionary, and on the other history’s most monotonous name conjurer. Greek as a language is famous for nothing if not fancy words, of which Greek philosophy is a prime consumer, but for names of the most important entities of all…Greek goes blank. Preternaturally imaginative with plenty of linguistic resources, Plato simply goes blank. Why? Why in the name of Zeus…or Form? Be patient with me, my professor.”
“Being patient is what I’m paid to do, dude. My brightest grad students never catch it before the 5th bounce. Why should you? Plato employed noncommittal words because they are free of the boundaries imposed by description and heavy connotations and thus more accurate and immune to being misconstrued, a cardinal Platonic, if not Christian, offense. And it was fitting: if Plato's consummate was such a vague concept, so was its designation. Golden Platonic proportionality, you see. But at the same time Plato had a very deliberate and cunning purpose: by designating his consummates so ambiguously, any theological and philosophical vocabulary could smoothly accommodate it, thus to disseminate platonism to the ends of the world. His vocabulary allowed as much wiggle room as his dialog format."
I interrupt to say, "Excuse me for interrupting but do you know that you've just elliptically explained to me why Plato used the dialog format to expound his philosophy. Until I learned of Plato's dialogs, and Voltaire's for that matter, I'd always assumed philosophy could best be conveyed by essay or exposition or thesis or textbook, as I had known in Medical school. Gray's anatomy as a dialog wouldn't work, although, granted, as Grey's Anatomy on TV it does."
"No," the prof says, "I wasn't intending to explain why Plato used the dialog. Come to think of it, no student has ever asked about the format. Or of that matter Plato's blah divine vocabulary. So I've prepared a not-quite lecture on that odd aspect, and shall continue delivering it to you, if I may. Rather than caging up a quality by characterizing it as ‘righteous,’ ‘redemptive,’ Plato will refer to consequential behaviors as ethical, far less awkward and more usable. Indeed ‘ethics’ has displaced ‘morality’ in the minds and lectures of all careful and thoughtful modern thought leaders, has it not? ... Although Plato resisted using picturesque terms even he had no choice but to use the ‘term’ god because then as always and, alas, forever the term is so impossibly popular. On into eternity people will be asking Google, ‘did Plato believe in god?’ and get 830,400,306 hits within a nanosecond. Plato’s vocabulary was so elastic as to accommodate it. But be careful never never to capitalize it. However Google handles it, or It, it’s god, not God. Actually Plato’s concept and vocabulary had no need for god even uncapitalized. I would have advised him not to bother with the word. Caused millennia of such deep misunderstanding, ignorant and deliberate, almost more than Google or Yahoo can cope with. Next question?”
“So what does It, or the Form, or whoever/whatever, do!”
“Disappointingly unpenetrating question, dude," replies the prof, impatiently. "After all my delving into the nature of the Form you have the chutzpah to ask what the Form does? Nothing, nothing is what it does. Nothing except emanate. And I'm not being whimsical. Seriously, didn't you know that, after my spending more time explaining it to you than to the dullest doctoral student at the university? I have professorial patience but it isn't infinite!”
“Understand emanate? Well, sort of. Something you’d use deodorant for?” – says I, supposing another bit of collegial whimsy would be welcome. It is not! The professor’s visage clouds over like Disney’s “Bald Mountain” emitting witches and thunder in Fantasia. “That does it! I’ve tolerated and even exploited your ellipses and even been patient when you steal our whimsy – but that's the limit! Once too often! Whimsy is philosophy’s and agnosticism’s, and postmodernism’s, trademarked creative property. And pirating it, as you do willy-nilly, will be investigated by the FBI and penalized to the full extent of law, dude. You cannot have access to whimsy any more than Iran or North Korea to the H bomb. The A bomb, OK, but not the H bomb. Certainly not the W bomb. Anyway, are not you long-faced Christians forbidden to be whimsical, much less have any fun?” smiles the professor as he hands me an especially large piece of his signature brie.
I silently pay proper respect to the brie, and, eyes averted, acknowledge, “You do indeed own it, sir, no question. Whimsy is your's, lock stock and barrel, plus trademark and logo; you and now the postmodernists have cultivated it and are as famous for serious whimsy as mickey mouse ears… So is it not a consolation to all you intellectuals, you and Plato and Voltaire and Derrida, that standup comedians, operating in nightclubs rather than university debating rooms, never touch the stuff? Don Rickles insults; Bob Hope used one-liners; but nowadays comedians use the f-word (and they don’t mean ‘form’). As to Christians, no, they best not use whimsy, or belly laugh comedy, either. Christ expects His true disciples to aim for joyousness in Him and therefore an overall cheerfulness, not toxic polemic whimsy. Whimsy is not one of the fruits of the Spirit. I think wit can be, if exercised delicately, as Christ Himself did though rarely. When on earth He apparently did not laugh much. Why should He? Considering His mission (to conquer sin and Satan against cosmic odds) and His fate (crucifixion and being the object of whimsy and jeering), and with the misery and death around him, laughter would have been pathologically inappropriate affect. Certainly out of character as God. He was a man of sorrows (‘Jesus wept,’) not belly laughs. But He created mankind to be joyous – and to laugh – and is joyous and laughs with us. Indeed, the Old Testament, otherwise so famous for depicting a horrific God, says God delights in His people and ‘will rejoice over you with singing.’ Now that’s a statement that warrants the source text: Zephaniah 3:17 NIV. God, would you believe, sings for joy, along with the angels, in having comforted His people and redeemed them from slavery, misery, subjection, destruction. God does not afflict humanity with slavery, misery, destruction and death and then bust up with cosmic peels of laughter that rattle the universe. He weeps for those who will not accept His salvation. In that way, and so many others, he is infinitely more tangible, and anthropomorphic, than the Platonic Form, or whoever/whatever. … But, my very dear professor, can’t you sort of sneak in a waiver for your friend, yours truly, if I pledge to throw only vegetarian whimsy, maybe a bit spicy?
“Getting back to the Form et al, seriously, what was It good for?”
“A totally unanswerable rhetoric question, warranting not an answer but a curse and no brie, just as expected from a dull old dude whose only knowledge of philosophy is from Wikipedia.”
“The Bible and Wikipedia, that’s all I need, in that order,” says I. So, to repeat, and at risk of lightening bolts from Mt. Olympus, what was It good for?”
“OK, this time I will answer your question, thunderbolts and all. Plato’s ‘It’, as you call it, is good for going where your God cannot – the Form leads the thinking mind straight to agnosticism, now known as broad- or open-mindedness. Your God.. --" but I interrupt, braving the lightening and thunder: "...The Form does all of that through...emanations? Talk about miracles! Our God exercises the Holy Spirit...---" Plagno interrupts me with this thunderbolt: "...You dolt! Your God should have stuck with emanation. What He does is create, command, redeem, judge, generally insert Himself, meddle, bother, and closes minds. Being already the perfected ideal of creation, commandment, redemption, the Platonic Form does none of that, doesn’t have to – ‘cannot,’ you would impudently add." Whereupon the professor leaps up in a huff and bolts towards the Maypole.
"O please come back, dear dear professor!" I shout. He relents and returns and re-seats himself. Pushing my luck, I ask, "Well, my good professor, may I presume to ask you, a full tenured professor, to respond with professorially exemplary open mindedness to the question I was trying to get at from the beginning? This time let me build up to the question, like TV news interviewers are wont to do. BTW do you allow students to build up to their ‘penetrating’ questions? The primal, original church founded by Christ and proclaimed by His apostles whom He picked for exactly their ignorance of and antipathy towards worldly wisdom, notably platonism, retained that innocence until around the 4th century. But by then and certainty to the 11th, church thought leaders, being converted born-again intellectual gentiles proudly identifying themselves as Neoplatonists, saw Plato as a stepping stone to God superior to John and Peter and the rest, thus perhaps as inspired by God as Isaiah, in the same way, or almost. Now for the question: Was Plato and what he contributed to the church as inspired by God as Isaiah or Paul for the advancement of Christianity? Not a few church leaders then and now make that claim, do they not?”
To my surprise, the professor seems at home with that question. Students ask it frequently, is my guess. “Like I said from the beginning Plato is nothing if not flexible in every open-minded setting, and platonism is intended and better suited to be the world's philosophical leader, transcending mere religious leadership. You say your God works with man as he is, but, as it has worked out in history, only if man is closed to everything but Him. Your Christ famously assumed the role of bottom-of-the-totem-pole servant and took a towel and washed dirty feet, proclaiming stipulations all the while. Plato serves and washes minds, not just feet, without stipulations other than the mind must be open to philosophical wisdom. So now for the answer: In a way, yes, Plato served Christianity but hardly the same way as Isaiah. It was more like your God moving a St. Aquinas to use his own reasoning power for a change, to go back to fundamentals and ask whether God even exists.”
“Yes, alas,” I had to say. “Indeed they were detoured into that anticlimactic, unnecessary, regressive question, and into history’s biggest pothole – after all, the apostles themselves had no such question, having seen and talked with Him, touched Him, talked directly to Him, as per 1 John 1. By raising such question and resorting to philosophy rather than their own experience and the Holy Spirit, St. Augustine’s and St. Aquinas’s Platonic ‘proofs’ were de facto disproofs. Plato conned the two intellectual saints into re-inventing the wheel rather than moving on. The worldview and priorities and formulation, and doctrines, of the church, by then known as the Papacy and headquartered in old Rome, were thus transformed permanently, regrettably, tragically!”
“Tragically? No no no! Marvelously, commendably -- may I say miraculously? If there is such a thing as God – thanks to agnosticism, the question cannot be answered despite Augustine and even Aquinas -– He led them upward! … I trust you grasped my whimsy there. Seriously, to primitive Platonism the idea of your kind of Heavenly Father, much less His ‘inspiring’ anybody, certainly a Plato, is whimsy, sarcastic whimsy, some say ‘joke.’ Plus, insulting. And the 3rd and 4th century educated emergent Christian thought leaders knew that. If they talked about God it was to identify themselves as, and deal with, Christians taking over the empire. And to demonstrate that Christians could generate not merely those gospels which all scholars agree are inferior as literature, but award-winning writing and philosophy the equal of anything Athenian. For they were in sync with Hellenistic humanistic paideia – defined (a word I find I often must define) as the consummate education as evolved by, and exclusive to, and sufficient for, superior human minds.”
Now it's our good professor's turn for a roll, and he's on one. There must be something about this park, or this bench, or Platonic friendship, or the brie being broken like sacramental bread, that does that to us. “And,” he says, “not only your 3rd and 4th century Christian thought leaders, but Moses (thanks to the Egyptian thinkers, of course) was a protophilosopher extradaordinaire, not simply a prophet. Even Christ was a pedagogue, one of history’s most acclaimed, and rightly so.”
“Now that’s whimsy, all right!” I exclaim without a whit of whimsy in my voice, banging my fist against, as it happened, the Platonic friendship plaque. “You hit the whimsy jackpot, WHAM! Even cursory academic reading of what Christ said, especially in the dialog with the Jews as recorded in John 8, or what Paul wrote, belies that notion, wipes it out, totally. As C.S. Lewis says, Christ is either history’s greatest liar or who He says He is, the Son of God.”
I hadn’t finished my sentence before a smiling Plagno was saying, “I feel sorry for you!”
“Prove it! As you agnostics always say. You’re sorry for me? Are you being whimsical again? Sometimes it’s hard to tell when you Platono-Postmodernists are being whimsical. Shall I take you seriously and expect you to hand me another piece of brie as a peace or consolation offering?”
Automatically issuing me a piece of the ole brie, he carries right on. “Ah! But the secret to intellectual advancement is never to bother reading what Christ said or Paul wrote. At least don’t take it seriously. Take it with, ahem... yes, whimsy,... and a good dose of good Plato-inspired hermeneutics a la Wellhausen. Those sweet nothings needed hermeneutical interpretation and not a little academic re-direction and rightful relegation to allegory, which, in due course, the infusion of good Greek paideia with a little help from German higher criticism accomplished, as it shall for all open minds now and forever, amen.”
No ellipsis about it, it's Maypole time at last. If the prof doesn't head for the Pole I will. But Plagno is already dashing off to share the inspired paideia around the Pole. I wave gaily. "Until next time," I shout.
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