Plato: Timaeus, Critias, and Mystical Thinking

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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29 Responses

  1. Andy Smith says:

    It’s philosophy, it’s not mysticism. Mysticism is practice, not ideas. Mystical thinking is a contradiction in terms.

    The idea mentioned here–how a state of awareness beyond all thought and language can be connected with the familiar world, or with the mind/brain that experiences the familiar world–is arguably one of the most important ones confronting neuroscientists, psychologists, and others who want to understand mind, behavior and experience (as opposed to mystics themselves, who just seek to realize this state). Plato, of course, had no answers to this problem, any more than anyone who has followed him has. Nor are there any answers on the horizon. Which I suppose makes it a great issue for discussion.Report

    • Rufus in reply to Andy Smith says:

      @Andy Smith, I was aiming for paradoxical, but okay. It is possible that these guys were perhaps trying to reflect on that state and put it into words, right? I mean, Socrates is remembered for the dialogues, but also for spending quite a bit of time alone and inert in some sort of state that everyone around him characterizes as deep thought, but which seems to have been something else. He describes it as awareness of a world of pure forms. But my feeling is that Socrates, at least, was familiar with the mystical state, even if describing a world of Forms stamped into plastic Becoming doesn’t answer how it relates to the ordinary world. Plato probably was not. But, if I realize that state and attempt to reflect on it and put it into words, that would be philosophy right? At least, I can’t see why it wouldn’t be.Report

  2. Rufus F. says:

    I do love that we’re talking about this and get spam from a colon cleanser site. Not being a mystic, I won’t take that as a sign!Report

  3. Paul B says:

    Semi-quibble: “a God above gods” isn’t an entirely accurate description of the Demiurge, who though prior to the Olympians (or whoever — I forget how specific Plato gets) is still tied up in the physical world and thus below our old friend The Form of the Good.

    This had a huge influence on later mystical developments. Early Christians more or less equated the God/Word of the New Testament straight up with the (neo-)Platonic Good, and then Marcion and other Gnostics took things a step further and identified the God of the Old Testament (that is, of imperfect creation) with the Demiurge. Despite the fact that such views were condemned as heresies, traces of Plato’s extreme dualism still undergird a good deal of Christian thinking.

    (No-doubt-about-it-quibble: strictly speaking, fire isn’t any old pyramid but a tetrahedron)Report

    • Paul B in reply to Paul B says:

      p.s. Thanks for the link to the Deenan essay. As a proud product of a great books curriculum, I wholeheartedly agree that it’s an essentially liberalizing enterprise — and I’m appalled at his impulse to constrain it!Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Paul B says:

        @Paul B, Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure what the Deenan proposal was- it sounded a bit like reading the canon, but ending with more religious writers, or maybe just leaving out Nietzsche.

        That said, I definitely agreed with his main point- that some conservatives still talk about the great books as if you’re supposed to read them and come out subscribed to the National Review and crusading for Christendom, when really they lead to as much vertigo as caerimonia (note: a great Latin word for religious awe). Liberalizing, sure, but also confusing, bewildering, exhilarating, and not exactly prone to leave you marching under any particular banner. If I vote, maybe it’ll be for Heraclitus!

        That point goes the other way too. I’ve certainly heard the “Western Civ has got to go!” argument from so-called progressives. Actually one criticism of this particular project was that it is merely “right wing fetishizing of the West”. I ignored the charge because, 1. I’m still planning to cover a shit-ton of philosophical, religious, and literary works from the “East”, 2. I’d be pretty amazed if the “right wing” would have me, and 3. Frankly, I thought it was sort of a stupid complaint. I am never going to read or not read anything in order to be suitable for or antagonistic towards some political ideology or another.

        But, of course, that’s the point of the great books! You don’t seek out art, literature, poetry and philosophy to further immerse yourself in the small-minded battles of your day. The whole fun is standing on your tip-toes trying to listen to the conversations of people whose thoughts are really, really interesting! As a product of the curriculum, I’m sure you know that the whole fun is in trying to make sense of bewildering concepts like the Demiurge and not worrying too much about who to vote for.Report

        • Paul B in reply to Rufus F. says:

          @Rufus F., yeah, I never understood the left-wing opposition to the canon. But then again I graduated in ’05, so I encountered a curriculum that included more than dead white males. Pre-culture war, I suppose things probably felt a lot different…Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Paul B says:

      @Paul B, Ah, okay, I got that Demiurge confused for God too! It’s interesting- I’m reading a book about Aquinas (Saint Thomas Aquinas by G.K. Chesterton) and how he got away with drawing so much from Aristotle, who was a bit controversial at the time for: 1. of course, being a “pagan heathen”, and 2. having just been recovered from the Muslims. The short answer is that Aquinas was a genius. What was interesting though was that Aristotle was taboo, but (according to Chesterton) the Catholics in Europe were still drawing heavily from Plato in the 1200s. It seemed like it should be easier to bring in Aristotle than Plato, but like you suggest many of the earlier church fathers were steeped in Platonism. It definitely seems to be there in Augustine.

      I guess a pyramid isn’t exactly a tetrahedron- I just figured it might ring more bells for anyone else who slept through high school geometry!Report

      • Paul B in reply to Rufus F. says:

        @Rufus F., writing my comment last night set me a-wiki-ing, and I ended up at this quote from Chesterton on Aquinas:

        Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each started with a paradox; a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view.

        Which is of course right in everything but the time frame. If only Chesterton had had a more thorough grounding in the great books, he’d have known that the abandonment of common sense for paradox goes all the way back to Parmenides, indelibly affecting everyone–Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas–who followed! (Everyone until Hume, I’d say).Report

        • Rufus in reply to Paul B says:

          @Paul B, I’ll have to see what he means when I get to that, because for sure he’s talking about something that happened a lot earlier. What’s weird though is that he makes the point often in the book that what happened during the Renaissance wasn’t really anything special in comparison to the naissance that came in the Middle Ages. So I’m not sure what he’s going on about.

          And, to be sure, his own writing style owes quite a bit to the sort of paradox that goes back so far! As you say, it’s also amazing how these early philosophers start by moving far away from common sense and end by having a huge impact on the thought of the centuries that come after them.Report

  4. Bob Cheeks says:

    Rufus F. : Re: “This is philosophy. It is also mysticism. To my mind, mystical thinking is to see the patterns that shine forth in the world’s endless flood of sensory information as images of the pure and eternal Divine. For a mystic, it isn’t important if this knowledge comes by mental epiphany or by divine Revelation; all that matters is that we know.”
    Voegelin argued that the Platonic metaxy , defined by the poles of immanence and transcendence, contain the whole of human existence. And while we deal with “science” in the immanent, the Platonic “psyche” is the place where the sensorium experiences the engendering transcendent reality, the “experience” of God, the pneumatic illumination. Man’s challenge has always been to successfully capture, explicate, and believe the truth conveyed in the symbols of that experience, which as Voegelin points out are the source for right order in the world.
    I suppose you might say it explains why we are, politically, always in high dudgeon and how, when we obliterate the transcendent, we end up either housing people in concentration camps or destroying the final vestiges of an olde republic…and calling it progress.Report

  5. Bob Cheeks says:

    er…more correctly, I should say that “science” is done within the tension of existence in a movement toward the immanent, and the pneumatic experience within the same tension is in movement “toward” the transcendent!Report

    • Rufus in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

      @Bob Cheeks, This should be really interesting in terms of Empedocles because he’s traditionally been called “the father of science”, but he begins with empirical study of the physical world only to move to an awareness beyond the physical senses- he says at one point that god can neither be seen with the eyes, nor held in the hands- and then to an overall cosmogony. Recently, it’s been argued that his mysticism and science are two sides of the same coin- something we could argue about a great deal of early philosophers.Report

  6. Bob Cheeks says:

    Paul B., if you could explicate the ‘gnostic’ strand running through Christianity I would be ever grateful (especially John, who’s a favorite). I’m doing a paper on a related subject and you may provide some help. And, I’ve just read a brilliant paper related to Voegelin’s modification of the ‘gnostic’ question based on new materials, circa 1974 and particularly re: recent translations of Joachim of Fiore.Report

    • Paul B in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

      @Bob Cheeks, A lot of my thinking on this subject was shaped by Wendell Berry’s excellent essay “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” which you can find here:

      Basically, any sort of dualism — body/soul, sensible/intelligible, word/flesh, immanent/transcendent — is going to put God on the ideal side of the dichotomy, and is thereby going to at least implicitly deprecate creation. Obviously that deprecation is explicit in various Gnostic heresies (Marcionism, Valentianism, Docetism), but orthodox Christianity accepts the same dualist framework (without it, what’s the point of Jesus’s incarnation/crucifixion/resurrection?) and thus makes room for traces of small-g gnosticism. Think of total depravity, priestly celibacy, anchorism & eremitism, mortification of the flesh, the “vale of tears,” and so on.

      That’s probably too vague to offer much in the way of explication, but I hope it’s at least somewhat helpful (especially since my initial comment was just a tad glib).Report

  7. Bob Cheeks says:

    er….also Rufus and Rufus F. are two different dudes, right?Report

    • Paul B in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

      @Bob Cheeks, My understanding is that “Rufus F” is Platonic shorthand for the form of Rufus, while “Rufus” is the mundane dude who partakes thereof.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Paul B says:

        @Paul B, Something like that. We’re the same person- this problem arises when I forget that I have to log in to the site to get this fancy picture by the name. Of course, if it’s a matter of being angered with some comment I’ve made, the answer would be, “No, it’s the other guy”.

        And, as we’ve said elsewhere, we are all Rufus.Report

  8. Bob Cheeks says:

    Paul B., thanks dude, I”m downloading and yes, it’s helpful because I’m trying to come to terms with Voegelin’s description of the presence of the divine in the expressions:”Beyond” and “Beginning”…and I’m getting a headache.Report

  9. Bob Cheeks says:

    Paul B., “is going to put God on the ideal side of the dichotomy, and is thereby going to at least implicitly deprecate creation.” My question is, do we not figure “Original Sin” in the “depreciation” of creation, since, biblically speaking, “creation” shares the reductive effects of “O.S.” with man and we might want to keep in mind that “O.S.” is the result of a quest for gnosis specifically forbidden by God.Report

    • Paul B in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

      @Bob Cheeks, well I said “total depravity” above, which I guess is a little too specific, but yes — the whole notion of fallen man living in a fallen world cut off from God is rooted in Platonic dualism, as appropriated by St. Augustine and other figures in the early church. And to someone coming from outside the Christian tradition (namely, me), it doesn’t sound much different than the Gnostics’ similarly Platonic claims of the inherent corruption of the material world.

      Gnostic heretics and orthodox Christians surely disagree on the causes (imperfect demiurge vs. Adam’s fall) and solutions (direct mystical experience vs. Jesus’ crucifixion) to our flawed existence, but the point I’m trying to make is that both share the notion that there’s any flaw in the first place.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Paul B says:

        @Paul B, One of the things I find interesting about the Gnostics- although I really could be wrong about this one- is the sense I get that they start by focusing on that flawed mundane world in order to transcend it. I get the feeling that, yes, the intelligible world is of a lesser order to them, but nevertheless, there’s not the same division we make between physics and metaphysics, in that it seems like you can start off doing either, or both together, and wind up at the same higher place.Report

  10. Bob Cheeks says:

    Paul B., excellent. Fufus…that’s the ticket, Fufus!Report

    • Rufus in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

      @Bob Cheeks, That’s fine with me. In fact, my wife calls me Froofie- so that’s out. But Fufus is okay.Report

    • Paul B in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

      @Bob Cheeks, I don’t know if you’re still reading this thread, Bob, but it occurred to me that my comments made it sound as if the church fathers tacked Platonism onto Christianity a couple of centuries AD. That’s a huge over-simplification — it doesn’t account for why we find similar ideas in the Gospel of John, and it leaves out the fact that there were Hellenizing (and specifically Platonizing, e.g. Philo of Alexandria) movements within Judaism before, during, and after Jesus’s (earthly) lifetime. I don’t really know anything about this, but I imagine the earliest Christians would have picked up on it as they started spreading the gospel.Report

      • Bob Cheeks in reply to Paul B says:

        @Paul B, Thanks for the clarification Paul, but I kinda thought that’s where you were coming from. My only criticism and it may be a misunderstanding on my part is that I sense you doubt the possibility of the metalepsis, the divine/human encounter and being a mystic I embrace them at every opportunity.
        Also, I haven’t quite worked out the ‘gnostic’ thread in JOhn’s Gospel, my favorite, that even Voegelin says is there. Just because John “knew” the Lord in life and in spirit doesn’t, at least in my mind, qualify as gnostic or that he saw the ‘world as fallen.’ Both sects see the “world as fallen” but ascribe different reason, one orthodox, the other, for me, is apostacy.
        I have to clarify ‘gnostic’, it’s much to broad for me. I see ‘gnostic’ as a special form of sin. The seeking of gnosis forbidden by God…there’s something there that I have to find!
        You’ve been helpful Paul, much impressed and fire away!Report