It would seem that in no way can reading Plato be necessary for salvation, since Jesus Christ alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Yet Plato teaches us the essential spiritual and metaphysical truths, as well as the mystical habit of mind and soul, without which Faith and Grace are stillborn in our souls…
In his Confessions, St. Augustine remarked that he found all the fundamental truths in Plato… except the Incarnation. Well, that’s a pretty big except. And if true, which it is—nowhere in the entire corpus of Plato is there even a hint of the “Good beyond Being” ever mixing itself with matter, for while the eternal and immutable forms may manifest themselves to us, they could, by metaphysical necessity, never descend to our world of time and space. If Augustine’s remark is accurate, it would constitute a definitive answer to the question that is the title of this paper. For since the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity is man’s salvation; since the authoritative account of it is found nowhere else but in the Gospels, and since Plato, at least implicitly, denied its very possibility, then it would seem that in no way can reading Plato be necessary for salvation. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him; one must love the Lord with one’s whole heart, mind, soul, and strength; love is impossible without knowledge of the beloved; and ignorance of Scripture, as St. Jerome said, is ignorance of Christ. So, reading the Gospels, not Platonic dialogues, is what is necessary for salvation.
But even though we seem to have our answer, let’s keep going. Let me share a brief story: In the weird time of my life when I was working on my dissertation, I landed a job tutoring the children of a multi-millionaire traditionalist Catholic in Santa Cruz, California. I was charged to teach all six of them, one-on-one, all of the liberal arts as well as theology. Well, one day I came to the house and all the literature books in the library were replaced with Lives of the Saints. I asked the father of my students what had happened to the library, and he said something like, “Mr. Kozinski, I realized last night that all that matters is my children’s salvation, that we are saved by being good Christians, and that the best Christians are the Saints, so they should be reading their lives—not Charles Dickens!”
Even though it is true that all that really matters is our salvation, there is something off with this mentality. But what is it precisely? Perhaps it has to do with the paradox that even though happiness is what we desire above all, if we try too hard to obtain happiness, concentrating on it alone as a goal, instead of just doing the things that we love and trying to God’s will, we end up miserable. Perhaps it is the same with salvation—we must desire salvation, surely, but we attain it by desiring God for His own sake, more than for our salvation.
Somehow revelation, faith, grace, the sacraments—though these are necessary for our salvation, they are not sufficient. But why not? To explore this question, and to see if indeed reading Plato is somehow necessary for salvation, we shall first describe what I would like to call “existential Platonism,” which is more of a mindset and attitude than a set of philosophical doctrines. Then we shall examine the culture we live in to show why this existential Platonism is the natural antidote to its anti-logos immanentism and materialism. Next, we shall examine what Rahner called “everyday mysticism,” and discuss why this is the spiritual mode of being that God is calling us to, and why existential Platonism is its necessary complement and condition. Lastly, we shall discuss how Platonic dialectic as an intellectual ascesis or discipline can help up obtain “metaphysical courage,” and avoid intellectual idolatry.
We have heard the story of Abraham Lincoln being educated on nothing but the Bible and Shakespeare. Prescinding from the exact truth of this narrative for a moment, why not just the Bible? Even if we say that of the two, the Bible is vastly more important for our souls, is not our intuition that the Bible cannot really be read profitably without Shakespeare, that is to say, without something like a liberal arts education, which, while not teaching us about the inner life of God and His dealings with human beings, allows us to understand human beings and the world to which the God of the Bible revealed Himself? How can we really understand the Gospels if we do not have a deep and accurate understanding of the human nature that God subsumed into His Divinity, a human nature about which no one, except perhaps for Plato, wrote more profoundly, comprehensively, and accurately than Shakespeare? The liberal arts, the trivium and quadrivium, were considered, before modernity, the indispensable tools for understanding the Bible. So, the liberal arts have some role in our salvation. But what about Plato?
We are born separated from God, and we are saved through grace, which makes us one again with the Divine, makes us children of God, and it is this reestablished kinship with God that constitutes our salvation. But before grace can render us children of God and divinize our souls, our souls must yearn for this sonship, this divinization. What makes us so yearn? A sense of the inadequacy and shadow-like nature of this world, an intense feeling of alienation and homesickness, a profound intuition that there is much more to reality than what ordinarily appears to us. Plato’s dialogues, I would argue, more than any other non-revealed writing man has ever penned, evoke these senses, feelings, and intuitions.
We know that Jesus Christ is the answer to the ultimate desires of the human heart. But what about the question? Can there really be an answer without a prior question? And can an answer be an answer for me, unless it is the answer to my question? Jesus Christ is our Salvation, but is He salvation for me unless I first desire this salvation. Eric Voegelin, the great twentieth-century German Platonist, wrote that, “There is no answer to the Question other than the Mystery as it becomes luminous in the acts of questioning”; Archbishop Bruno Forte once said, “What really is important in life is not so much to provide answers, as to discern true questions. When true questions are found, they themselves open the heart to the mystery”; and Origen, that great Platonist eunuch for the kingdom, wrote: “Every true question is like the lance which pierces the side of Christ causing blood and water to flow forth.” Paradoxically, then, the answers to spiritual questions are found in the questions themselves, or better, in the very act of questioning, the art of which was brought to perfection in practice by Plato’s teacher Socrates, and in writing by Plato himself.
Along with how to inquire into Being, Plato teaches us the essential spiritual and metaphysical truths, as well as the mystical habit of mind and soul, without which Faith and Grace are stillborn in our souls. We must believe in the biblical God through obedience to revelation, but do we not need to some extent know that He exists, and know it intimately and existentially? If we believe by Faith and even know by experience that He exists, but we cannot reconcile the revealed doctrine of His providential care of all material things with what our modernized, materialized, mechanized, and Darwinized minds tells us, then we are really part atheist in our souls. If we believe by Faith that He cares for us, but everything in us but our Faith tends to see human power in perpetual battle with inexorable chaos, then we suffer from a dividedness of soul that is spiritually perilous. If our Faith tells us that absolute Goodness exists, but our souls cannot see anything absolute in a world that has been flatted, demythologized, and disenchanted through the imposition of an immanent frame, then we are in danger of believing with one divinely infused part of us, and disbelieving with all the other natural powers. We are told in the Scriptures and the Church that we have an eternal soul, but can we be truly faithful to a truth that is alien to our everyday awareness and intellectual paradigms? God is spirit, we are told by the Church, and so we must believe that there is more to reality than matter, but compared to the men of the ancient and medieval worlds, we tend towards an unconscious materialism.
Plato can teach us to see “the world in a grain of sand” and “eternity in an hour” as the great mystic and Platonist William Blake wrote. He can teach us to see the absolute through the relative, the immutable in the mutable, the divine in the profane. It is Plato above all who teaches us those natural truths dispositive to the fruitful reception of revelation: the existence of the Absolute Good, His providential interest and care for the world, the existence and immortality of the soul, the symbolically charged character of all material things. We cannot be saved, or it will be much harder than it has to be, if we do not experience these realities, even if we ultimately accept them in obedience to Divine Faith.
In short, in Plato’s capacity to prompt recognition of our alienation from true, to provide us a mystical glimpse of this true reality, to evoke a perpetual yearning for it, and enable us, through the dialectical method of inquiry he invented, to achieve some participation in it by a diligent ascesis of mind, he is simply indispensable, both as a precursor to Faith, and a guide along the way to our heavenly home.
Max Scheler, the great twentieth-century German phenomenologist and sociologist, captures well the existential Platonism I have been recommending:
This new attitude might first of all be characterized vaguely enough from the emotional point of view as a surrender of self to the intuitional content of things, as a movement of profound trust in the unshakableness of all that is simply given, as a courageous letting oneself-go in intuition and in the loving movement toward the world in its capacity for being intuited. This philosophy faces the world with the outstretched gesture of the open hand and the wide-eyed gaze of wonder. This is not the squinting, critical gaze that Descartes—beginning with the universal doubt—casts upon things, nor the eye of Kant, from which comes a spiritual beam so alien as, in its dominating fashion, it penetrates the world of things. The man who philosophizes with the new attitude has neither the anxiety characteristic of modem calculation and the modem desire to verify things, nor the proud sovereignty of the “thinking reed which in Descartes and Kant is the original source—the emotional a priori of all their theories. Instead, the stream of being flows in on him, and seeps down to his spiritual roots, as a self-evident benevolent element, simply that, apart from all content. This surrender to being is characterized by love, a willingness to be dominated rather than to dominate, to bathe in the richness of being rather than to impoverish being by seeking to control it for the sake of one’s own subjective assurance.
Faith, by which we are saved, is not reducible to the affirmation of doctrinal propositions, for it is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. We need an existential encounter with the God who transcends subjectivity and human consciousness, but, nevertheless, can be touched by us, as von Balthasar puts it: “Suddenly and in an indescribable manner the ray of the Unconditional breaks through, casting a person down to adoration and transforming him into a believer and a follower.” It is meeting the living God in the depths of our souls, not merely adhering stubbornly to beliefs about Him, that saves us. Jesus said that unless you become as a little child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God. What I am calling “existential Platonism,” is, I think, tantamount to the natural spiritual childlikeness of which Our Lord speaks.
The Enemies of Logos
A flower cannot grow in infertile soil, may even die, or not even be born in the first place. Our present culture is, among all the myriad descriptions one could give it, anti-logos, rather than simply anti-Christian. Listen to Hans Urs Von Balthasar describe the Western world in the 1960s, a world in which the enemies of Logos were only just beginning their all-out onslaught.
In a world without beauty—even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it—in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: In such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out. Man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil. For this, too, is a possibility, and even the more exciting one: Why not investigate Satan’s depths? In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency. In other words, syllogisms may still dutifully clatter away like rotary presses or computers which infallibly spew out an exact number of answers by the minute. But the logic of these answers is itself a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone. The very conclusions are no longer conclusive. And if this is how the transcendentals fare because one of them has been banished, what will happen with Being itself?
Thus, we need existential Platonism more than any other post-Christian age did, for Platonism at its core aims at the visceral experience of logos, of order, of an enchanted, soaring, mystical reason that touches the real true, good, and beautiful, of the absolute and transcendent in the thick of the contingent and immanent, of the divine in everything and at every moment. Josef Pieper wrote, in his great commentary on Plato’ Phaedrus:
For the general public is being reduced to a state where people not only are unable to find about the truth but also become unable to search for the truth because they are satisfied with deception and trickery that have determined their convictions, satisfied with a fictitious reality created by design through the abuse of language.[*]
Plato singlehandedly took the sorely abused language of his Athens and lovingly rehabilitated it to become the primary conduit for the human translation of the Divine Logos who came to us four centuries later. We need Plato’s help now to do the same for the tortured and mutilated discourse of our day.
We have within our social order few if any social milieus within which reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life can be sustained…. This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning.
The death of questioning, of inquiry, of what Eric Voegelin called “existential unrest,” is the death of the soul. Thus, ours is a culture of not just physical but spiritual death. The life blood of man’s soul is spiritual and existential inquiry—“Why?” Why? Why? The child asks, and when he loses his innocence he ceases to do so, or only out of self-serving curiosity, for he has become self-sufficient, impervious to a sense of the mystery of Being, whether he is a faithful believer in God or not. As Paul Evdokimov puts it:
The outdated religious person and the modern sophisticated irreligious individual meet back to back in an immanence imprisoned within itself…. The denial of God has thus permitted the affirmation of man. Once this affirmation is effected, there is no longer anything to be denied or subordinated… On this level total man will not be able to ask any questions concerning his own reality, just as God does not put a question to himself.[xiv]
Insofar as the ideology and spirit of secularism and liberalism, technocratism, anthropocentric humanism, mammonism, and moral relativism incarnates itself every deeper into everyday life, the existence of a reality other than naked human will and desire and its various artifacts becomes less and less apparent and available to the soul. Charles Taylor calls this trajectory the Immanent Frame. And not only is the supernatural banished from consciousness, but the natural as well. Guardini tells us that we live at the end of the modern world, modernity being the apotheosis of the trinity of nature, culture, and man, and post-modernity its rejection in an unnatural nature, anti-cultural culture, and inhuman man. The upshot of all this that we are living in the first culture whose primary habituating effect is to render repentance, and thus salvation, as close to impossible as possible. Peter Kreeft:
C.S. Lewis says, in “The Poison of Subjectivism,” that relativism “will certainly end our species and damn our souls.” Why does he say “damn our souls?” Because Lewis is a Christian, and he does not disagree with the fundamental teaching of his master, Christ, and all the prophets in the Jewish tradition, that salvation presupposes repentance, and repentance presupposes an objectively real moral law. Moral relativism eliminates that law, thus trivializes repentance, thus imperils salvation.
If Plato teaches us anything, and if reading Plato has any effect on our souls, it is this: The Good exists, and we are not it; it is absolute, demands our obedience, is thoroughly knowable by every human being; finally, that it is in searching for, knowing, and obeying this Good, which we can encounter in the very heart of our souls, that we are become happy, and are rendered pure so as to possess this happiness forever. We need to repent to be saved, but we need first to believe in and encounter the Good in the created world before we can meet Him in the Creator.
I now want to try to describe the mode of spiritual consciousness and practice I think God is calling us to, and why an existential Platonism of the heart is the best preparation for these graces. I believe that Romano Guardini’s depiction of the future that he penned in 1956 is true, and the I believe the future he envisioned is now. He wrote:
The new age will declare that the secularized facets of Christianity are sentimentalities. This declaration will clear the air. The world to come will be filled with animosity and danger, but it will be a world open and clean…. As unbelievers deny Revelation more decisively, as they put their denial into more consistent practice, it will become the more evident what it really means to be a Christian. At the same time, the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will cease to reap benefit from the values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies. He must learn to exist honestly without Christ and without the God revealed through Him; he will have to learn to experience what this honesty means. Nietzsche has already warned us that the non-Christian of the modern world had no realization of what it truly meant to be without Christ. The last decades have suggested what life without Christ really is. The last decades were only the beginning.
Guardini does not leave us without hope, or a practical prescription for action in this frightening apocalyptic scenario. He tells us that “free union of the human person with the Absolute through unconditional freedom will enable the faithful to stand firm—God—centered—even though placeless and unprotected.” “Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will be that love that flows from one lonely person to another, involving a courage of the heart born from the immediacy of the love of God as it was made known in Christ…. Perhaps love will achieve an intimacy and harmony never known to this day.”
This immediacy of the love of God, and this harmonious and courageous and intimate love for our neighbor, seem to indicate a new and higher mode of Christian spirituality, what one might call an existential Christianity. This does not mean that a dogmatic, an ecclesial, a sacramental, a liturgical, a charismatic Christianity are thereby excluded or even deemphasized. It just means, I think, that absent a deep existential component, without a mystical intimacy with and awareness of the living God in our hearts, we will not be able to withstand the onslaught of the anti-logos nihilism and lovelessness that awaits us. What Guardini is describing is an experience of God that goes beyond images and concepts. Raimon Panikkar puts it profoundly: “The touch with the real without the mediation of consciousness is precisely the mystical.” I think Panikkar here sums up the deeper teaching of Plato, who was trying to tell us in his dialogues that all words, images, and thoughts are merely fingers pointing at the Sun, but never the Sun itself, and that it is precisely in recognizing the limitations of human thought and consciousness that the Sun, the Good beyond Being, can be touched, or rather, can touch us.
Karl Rahner in the 1960s wrote: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic, or he will not be at all.” He describes this mysticism in some detail in his work, The Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality. He calls it everyday mysticism. Anyone who consistently does the will of God is, for Rahner, a true Christian, though perhaps an anonymous one, as well as a mystic:
There is an individual who discovers that he can forgive though he receives no reward for it, and silent forgiveness from the other side is taken as self-evident. There is one who tries to love God although no response of love seems to come from God’s silent incomprehensibility, although no wave of emotive wonder any longer supports him, although he can no longer confuse himself and his life-force with God, although he thinks he will die from such a love, because it seems like death and absolute denial, because with such a love one appears to call into the void and the completely unheard of, because this love seems like a ghastly leap into groundless space, because everything seems untenable and apparently meaningless. There is the person who does his duty where it can apparently only be done, with the terrible feeling that he is denying himself and doing something ludicrous for which no one will thank him. There is a person who is really good to another person from whom no echo of understanding and thankfulness is heard in return, whose goodness is not even repaid by the feeling of having been selfless, noble, and so on. There is one who is silent although he could defend himself, although he unjustly treated, who keeps silence without feeling that his silence is his sovereign unimpeachability. There is someone who obeys not because he must and would otherwise find it inconvenient to disobey, but purely on account of that mysterious, silent, and incomprehensible thing that we call God and the will of God. There is someone renounces something without thanks or recognition, and even without a feeling of inner satisfaction. There is a person who is absolutely lonely, who finds all the bright elements of life pale shadows, for whom all trustworthy handholds take him into the infinite distance, and who does not run away from this loneliness but treats it with ultimate hope. There is someone who discovers that his most acute concepts and most intellectually refined operations of the mind do not fit; that the unity of consciousness and that of which one is conscious in the destruction of all systems is now to found only in pain; that he cannot resolve the immeasurable multitude of questions, and yet cannot keep to the clearly known content of individual experience and to the sciences. There is one who suddenly notices how the tiny trickle of his life wanders through the wilderness of the banality of existence, apparently without aim and with the heartfelt fear of complete exhaustion. And yet he hopes, he knows not how, that this trickle will find the infinite expanse of the ocean, even though it may still be covered by the grey sands which seem to extend forever before him. There is God and his liberating grace. There we find what we Christians call the Spirit of God.
To me, these are beautiful and powerful descriptions of the experience of salvation, in the here and now, right in and through the most ordinary events of our daily lives. Yes, we need to go to Mass and confession (if we are Catholics), to keep to a discipline of prayer, virtue, and good works, to study Christine doctrine, to “keep the Faith.” But are we merely going through the motions? What did Our Lord mean when he said, “Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven”? If the emotional, psychological, and spiritual comfort and security of our Benedict Option fortresses is making these kinds of radical acts of love, obedience and abandonment to the will of God non-existent, or just rare, then maybe we should depart from them, or even destroy them.
Plato teaches us that every particular being we experience is always and already more than itself, for each bespeaks a transcendent and mysterious fullness of being of which it is a partial constituent as well as a mystical pointer. But the deepest teaching of Plato is that reality not only exceeds the written word, as the Phaedrus teaches, but also the spoken word. For, ultimate reality exceeds thought and consciousness altogether—yet we can still somehow touch it, or allow it to touch us. This is what arising out of the cave and ascending the ladder of love to the top of the divided line amount to—the experience of the Real beyond thought, even beyond consciousness. St. Paul wrote, “For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made.” We have all but lost this Platonic vision, and the fructification of grace in our souls requires its recovery.
Metaphysical Courage: To Infinity and Beyond
Over three hundred years ago, Blaise Pascal decried the state of his society: “Truth is so obscured nowadays and lies so well established, that unless we love the truth we shall never see it.” Pascal’s description of his day is a fortiori descriptive of ours, as purpose, meaning, coherence, order, and love, things that make existence endurable and enjoyable, are diminishing fast as a function of our collective cowardice. It is not that truth is not available in our society, but that its being found is a function of our desire for it—and we lack this desire, for we have lost hope in the Truth. As our pluralistic society falls into pieces and becomes ever more fractured into disparate groups with irreconcilable worldviews, the need for a uniting intellectual and moral consensus becomes more and more urgent, and this can only be one centered in Logos. But because radically different worldviews have radically different first principles, it is very difficult to come to agreement on the existence and nature of this Logos through argument alone; and since each group has its own unique philosophical starting point and mode of discourse, argument, discussion, and debate are becoming more and more futile.
We all need—traditional Christians not excluded—to question boldly our assumptions and reflect rigorously upon our first principles. Do we have a courageous understanding of what is real, or do we hide fearfully in false first premises and partial truths we take to be the whole? Are we open to correction, because we see that our consciousnesses always, to some extent, distort reality? Are we truly open to the deepest truth of reality, that it is wild, unsafe, ultimately exceeds our grasp and control, but, is, nevertheless, good and trustworthy? Or do we prefer the secure mental order we create for ourselves? If a lack of mental manhood is the underlying cause of our cultural decline, then we need to take mental risks and perform feats of spiritual endurance in the midst of overwhelming odds. But with the extrinsic help of Tradition, the intrinsic help of grace, and our cooperation with this grace through courageous and relentless inquiry and dialogue in the Platonically existential mode, coupled with our practice of everyday mystical contemplation, we can ascend now, at least partially, to the whole which awaits us personally in the Beatific Vision.
Well, we have yet to hear from Plato, so he can have the last word:
When a man is always occupied with the cravings of desire and ambition, and is eagerly striving to satisfy them, all his thoughts must be mortal, and, as far as it is possible altogether to become such, he must be mortal every whit, because he has cherished his mortal part. But he who has been earnest in the love of knowledge and of true wisdom, and has exercised his intellect more than any other part of him, must have thoughts immortal and divine, if he attain truth, and in so far as human nature is capable of sharing in immortality, he must altogether be immortal; and since he is ever cherishing the divine power, and has the divinity within him in perfect order, he will be perfectly happy.
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