About Me

My Photo
Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Friday, 14 November 2014

Origen's orthodox Christology

It is often said that there were unhelpful subordinationist elements in Origen's Christology that blossomed in later Arianism. In other words, Origen's Christological legacy was found, in part, among the heretics.

I have long thought that this view was likely based on misunderstanding Origen—that terms he used were later picked up and used differently by some in Christological debates, and those later uses were then read back into Origen.

Anyway, yesterday I read a fascinating article that maintained that far from having subordinationist tendencies, Origen was a strong anti-subordinationist and that a line can be traced from his views into Nicene orthodoxy. His heirs were not the Arians, but defenders of Nicene orthodoxy—Athanasius and the Cappadocians in particular.

Its author even argues that the key creedal term homoousios (of one being with ...)—which was used by Origen of the Son's relation with the Father—may possibly have proposed by Constantine at Nicea on the advice of Eusebius (who got it from Origen). This is, of course, speculation. But it is interesting speculation.

The article is

Ilaria L. E. Ramelli, "Origen's Anti-Subordinationism and Its Heritage in the Nicene and Cappadocian Lines." Vigiliae Christianae 64 (2010) 1–29

Here is the abstract:
Nyssen’s arguments in In Illud: Tunc et Ipse Filius entirely derive from Origen (probably also passing through Marcellus of Ancyra and Eusebius). Origen’s influence, theoretical and exegetical, is evident in every passage, from the argumentative pillars down to the tiniest details of exegesis. Gregory’s close dependence on Origen in his anti-subordinationism, within his polemic against ‘Arianism,’ confirms that Origen was not the forerunner of ‘Arianism,’ as he was depicted in the Origenistic controversy and is often still regarded to be, but the main inspirer of the Cappadocians, especially Nyssen, in what became Trinitarian orthodoxy. Origen inspired Marcellus, who was anti-Arian, Eusebius, who in fact was no ‘Arian,’ Athanasius, the champion of anti-Arianism, and the Cappadocians. I argue extensively that Origen’s Trinitarian heritage is found, not in Arianism, but in Nyssen, Athanasius, Eusebius, and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan line, on the basis of a painstaking analysis of his works (always with attention to their reliability in relation to Greek original, translations, and fragments) and of Pamphilus, Eusebius, Athanasius, and other revealing testimonies, pagan and Christian. The origin of the homoousios formula is also investigated in this connection. Further interesting insights will emerge concerning Eusebius and his first report of what exactly happened at Nicaea.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Rethinking the Tower of Babel with Paul Penley

Looking ahead to ETS in San Diego made me think of the last time it was there (2007), and a paper that I heard on the tower of Babel. It was subsequently published in the ETS journal.

Paul T. Penley, “A Historical Reading of Genesis 11:1–9: The Sumerian Demise and Dispersion under the Ur III Dynasty.” JETS 50.4 (2007) 693–714

I reread the paper yesterday and was again impressed by it. The thesis is not new, but it is worth considering. In a nutshell, Penley is arguing that the Babel story is not some ahistorical primal event but a historical remembrance of cultural events that can be more or less identified. Crazy, huh! In fact, not crazy.

The story, he argues, is a summary of cultural shifts that took place over a period of two millennia! These have been compressed down into a representative story.

Penley’s thesis is that the story begins with an eastward migration in the Tigris-Euphrates basin (Gen 11:2), which matches the Ubaid period in the first half of the fourth millennium BC. This migration led to settlement in Mesopotamia and the development of urban cultures.

The tower was a ziggurat, one of the famous temples of Mesopotamia that were ritual mountains symbolically reaching down into the underworld and up to the heavens. The tower incident in Genesis 11 refers not to a single ziggurat connected with one particular city (e.g., Babylon, Ur, Uruk, Borsippa), but is representative of all the urban centers built around such artificial temple-mountains.

The story tells of the unity of the people and their ambitious building work. This links to the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur in the third millennium BC (c.2110–c.2000 BC). This was a period in which the land was united, great building projects were undertaken, and Sumerian was the common language. In some ways, a golden age.

However, this dynasty met its demise around 1960 BC with serious incursions into Sumer by Amorites from the Arabian desert, soon supplemented by attacks from the East by Elamites. The great unifying Sumerian culture fell, never to rise again. The unifying language was broken up too, with the introduction of new, alien languages. This, Penley sees in the climax of the biblical story with its confusion of languages, the halting of the building project, and the dispersion of the people.

This is not then a story about the origin of different languages in the world. It does not speak of “the whole earth” having one language, but of “the whole land” (eretz) having one language (11:2). This, thinks Penley, is the land of Sinar and the language is Sumerian. The focus is not global but local. Genesis is telling “a theologically charged historical summary of the rise and fall of Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia from the fourth to the third millennium BC” (p. 709).

For the author of Genesis, this was all preparation for the story of Abraham from Ur.

Interesting suggestion.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Was Athanasius a universalist?

When it comes to patristic universalists, everyone points to Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, and some folk point to various precursors and followers of Origen, but not many people seek to enlist St. Athanasius (d. 373). However, in her recent 900-page volume on apokatastasis, Ilaria Ramelli makes a pretty strong case that Athanasius was indeed a universalist.

She notes that he was a supporter and defender both of Origen and of certain of Origen's followers, including Palladius, Theognostus, and St. Anthony. She further demonstrates that Athanasius absorbed a range of theological and exegetical insights from Origen.

Consequently, one should perhaps not be surprised if it turned out that Origen's universalism was also taken on board by the great Anti-Arian saint. And so it appears. Ramelli surveys a range of texts in which Athanasius sees:

  • Christ's incarnation as having a salvific effect on all humanity 
  • Christ death for all as resulting in the salvation of all
  • That what God has called into existence should not perish (on the grounds that then God's work for it would be in vain)
For instance, [all refs in the book]
Flesh was taken up by the Logos to liberate all humans and resurrect all of them from the dead and ransom all of them from sin. 
The Logos became a human being for the sake of our salvation . . . in order to set free all beings in himself, to lead the cosmos to the Father and to pacify all beings in himself, in heaven and on earth.
. . . in himself he has liberated humanity from sin, completely and entirely, and has vivified it from the state of death . . . 
he delivered his own body to death on behalf of all . . . in order bring again to incorruptibility the human beings now doomed to corruption 
That corruption may disappear from all forever, thanks to the resurrection. . . . He has paid for all, in death, all that was owed. . . . He set right their neglectfulness, having rectified all human things by means of his power. 
Creatures, which are his work, should not be reduced to nothing by the deception of the devil. 
[Christ], who through his own power has restored the whole human nature
He handed his own body to death for the sake of all . . . in order to drive back to incorruptibility . . . human beings.
[Christ] has redeemed from death and liberated from hell all humanity.
He died for all . . . to abolish death with his blood . . . he has gained the whole humanity. 
the totality of the people has entered, so that every human be saved. 
He offered the sacrifice for all.
Our Saviour's death has liberated the world. By his wounds all of us have been healed
[In the cross there is] salvation of all humans in all places 
I am most certainly not an Athanasius scholar, but it certainly looks universalist! And given his Origenist sympathies, we'd need some good reasons to think it was not.

Now Athanasius did speak of the eschatological punishment of aionial fire. Presumably this is why people assume that he could not have been a universalist. However, Ramelli argues that Athanasius' use of this concept follows that of Origen. In other words, she argues that he makes a clear distinction between aidios (eternal) and aionios (age-long, or belonging to an age). Thus, future punishment is never spoken of as aidios (eternal), but only ever as aionios (belonging to the age to come). 

She further shows that—like Clement, Origen, and others—Athanasius had a notion of corrective punishment in the age to come. After citing the threat of eternal fire he reveals that its aim is "that these may revive, and those may correct themselves." Those who have been cursed by the Lord can have his mercy and will be inserted anew once they have abandoned their incredulity.

If Athanasius was indeed a universalist, this is not insignificant. It is easy in some quarters to dismiss Origen (often on the basis of misunderstanding him), but one cannot so easily dismiss Athanasius, the great defender of Nicene orthodoxy and the arch-opponent of Arius. If Ramelli is right, then universalism was not as marginal and fringe as it is sometimes claimed. 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Joni Mitchell sings the book of Job

Here is the original version of "The Sire of Sorrow" (Job's sad song).

The orchestral version of the song on the Travelogue album (2002) is well worth a listen. It is a wonderful arrangement.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Biblical Cosmos: endorsements

Here are the endorsements for the book

“In this masterful exposition of the sacramental worldview of the Old Testament, Robin Parry explains why the ‘flat earth’ of ancient Israel continues to be of significance for Christians today. If you’re wondering how, with a modern cosmology, we can still believe that Jesus ascended into heaven, this book is a must-read. And if you figure the Old Testament is simply incompatible with the Christian Platonism of the Christian tradition, you just may be startled by the insights of this book.”
Hans Boersma, J. I Packer Professor of Theology, Regent College, Vancouver

“Delightful. Robin Parry takes the reader on a fascinating tour of biblical cosmology and theology. If you want to enter the minds of the biblical writers, this book will guide you with wit and sound learning.”
Gordon Wenham, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, University of Gloucestershire, and Tutor in Old Testament, Trinity College Bristol, UK

“Parry expertly guides us through the strange biblical world of a flat earth at center of the cosmos, dragon-infested cosmic waters, a dome overhead, and abode of the dead below. But more than that, Parry invites us to accept this strange biblical world as is and to inhabit it, rather than conforming it to ours. In doing so, Parry opens up fresh ways of envisioning not only the biblical world, but Jesus and our own Christian faith.”
Peter Enns, Professor of Biblical Studies, Eastern University, Pennsylvania

“One of the great challenges for reading the Bible today is how to make sense of a biblical view of the world in our modern scientific era. In this book Robin Parry deftly and thoughtfully lays out the key issues as well as suggesting various ways in which we might begin to respond to them. This book is a must read for anyone serious about reading and making sense of the Bible today.”
Paula Gooder, Theologian in Residence, Bible Society, UK

“Robin Parry gives us what is both a fascinating survey of the cosmos as seen in Holy Scripture and a helpful guide to how Christians can best understand that biblical cosmology today. Thorough, lively, and thought-provoking, I warmly recommend it.”
Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of
C. S. Lewis

“This book is simply stellar! What a fabulously helpful way to introduce the significance of the OT cosmology for today!”
Pleiades, open star cluster in the constellation of Taurus

“Roaaaaarrrr!!!!”
Leviathan, mythical chaos monster

“This book is smokin’ hot! I wish I’d read this it when I was alive!”
Saint Augustine, important bishop and theologian bloke

"I feel so honored to have been asked to paint a picture for the cover of this great little travel guide. And to have Leviathan himself agree to pose for it was literally awesome."
Vincent Van Goch, artist

The Biblical Cosmos: back cover blurb and table of contents

For those of you who want to know a little more about the book, here is the back cover blurb.
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of the Bible
When we read Scripture we often imagine that the world inhabited by the Bible’s characters was much the same as our own. We’d be wrong. The biblical world is an ancient world with a flat earth that stands at the center of the cosmos, and with a vast ocean in the sky, chaos dragons, mystical mountains, demonic deserts, an underground zone for the dead, stars that are sentient beings, and, if you travel upwards and through the doors in the solid dome of the sky, God’s heaven—the heart of the universe.
This book takes readers on a guided tour of the biblical cosmos with the goal of opening up the Bible in its ancient world. It then goes further and seeks to show how this very ancient biblical way of seeing the world is still revelatory and can speak God’s word afresh into our own modern worlds.
Robin A. Parry (the geeza wot wrote the book) is an editor at Wipf and Stock Publishers;
Hannah Parry (the lady wot illustrated the book) is an archaeology student

Table of Contents


Introduction: Welcome to the Biblical Cosmos

Part I: A Tour of the Biblical Earth
1. Joining the Flat Earth Society: The Big Picture 
2. Here Be Dragons! The Sea 
3. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Land 
4. A Land Down Under: Sheol/Hades 

Part II: A Tour of the Biblical Heavens
5. Eyes in Their Stars: The Sky /
6. Brighter than a Thousand Suns: God’s Heaven /

Part III: The House of God: Temple and Cosmos
7. God’s in the House: The Temple and the Biblical Cosmos 
8. Christ’s in the House: Jesus and the Biblical Cosmos 

Part IV: Can We Inhabit the Biblical Cosmos?
9. How Can We Inhabit the Biblical Cosmos Today?
10. The Cosmic Temple Today
11. The Biblical Heavens Today
12. The Biblical Earth Today

Further Reading
Scripture Index

The new book is here: "The Biblical Cosmos"


So here is the illustrator (left) and the author (right) of a new book on biblical cosmography.

In the background the tree is clapping its hands in joy.

The book'll be available soon on Amazon and in sundry places. If you are in the USA, it is already available on the Wipf & Stock website.

The normal cost is $27, but there is a permanent 20% discount on the site, so the book is a mere $21.60 (about £13.50 for those of you who think in British monetary terms).

There are over sixty images in the book—maps, diagrams, and loads of cartoons.

More info to follow

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The mystery of the missing Banksy

Here is some graffiti by the famous British graffiti artist Banksy.
It appeared in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, one week before a parliamentary By-election in which the UK Independence Party was expected to do well. (It did do well, gaining its first ever MP.)

Here is what happened. After receiving some complaints from the public that the mural was "offensive and racist," the council had it destroyed.

That may have been a financial mistake—Banksy paintings are worth a fortune. Be that as it may, the mystery is this:
How could anyone find the artwork offensive for being racist when it is so OBVIOUSLY a critique of people with racist attitudes?!
What happened?

I have no idea.

Perhaps some people genuinely did not understand the point of the picture and got precisely the wrong end of the stick. Perhaps they complained. I can imagine that.

But in that case, you'd imagine that the Council would simply explain the point. Then the offended anti-racists would appreciate that the artist was actually playing on the same team as them. All would be well. Why did that not happen? I have no idea.

Perhaps the council themselves did not understand the point of the artwork.
Hmmmm .... Nope. I find that impossible to believe.

How about this one? Perhaps people with strong anti-immigration attitudes saw the artwork, understood it perfectly, and found it offensive. (Maybe they took offense at the implication that wanting stronger immigration policy is necessarily racist, or maybe they were racists and did not like being mocked.) Perhaps, they reasoned that if they explained the real reason for their taking offense the council would not take them seriously. Thus, in order to get it removed, they pretended to find it offensive on the grounds of its being racist.

I have no idea. It would be interesting to know one day.





Thursday, 9 October 2014

On praying for the damned

I was fairly recently in a church service in which the priest prayed for the soul of the deceased. The good evangelical next to me was somewhat surprised, as he could see no point in doing such a thing. Once someone has died their fate is fixed forever, he said—praying for them will make no difference.

Really?

I am currently reading Ilaria Ramelli's magnificent book The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Leiden: Brill, 2013). It is the most thorough study of universalism in the early church ever undertaken (900 pages of it!).

Anyway, one of the things that struck me in the early part of the book was the recurring theme of the righteous praying for the damned with the result that the latter were rescued from hell.

First, the Apocalypse of Peter, probably from Alexandria in Egypt about 135 AD. In this text, which some early church leaders considered divinely inspired, sinners endure a period of suffering in the afterlife but will ultimately attain bliss thanks to the intercessions of the righteous. They will undergo "a beautiful baptism in salvation."
I will grant to my . . . elect all those whom they ask me to remove from punishment. And I shall grant them a beautiful baptism in salvation in the Acherusian Lake . . . a sharing of justification with my saints . . . . (Rainer fragment)
Chapter 14 has Christ declare to Peter that "You will have no more mercy on sinners than I do, for I was crucified because of them." Because of his mercy he will give them "life, glory, and kingdom without end." (However, lest sinners use this possibility of post-damnation salvation as an excuse to sin, they should not be told about it. This theme of not broadcasting the final salvific end of all to sinners is a theme found in Origen and other early texts.)

Second, we have the Coptic Apocalypse of Elijah (probably second or third century). Here the righteous contemplate the damned in their sufferings while the damned contemplate the bliss of the righteous . . . and then they "will take part in Grace. On that day the righteous will be granted that for which they have prayed." What the righteous have prayed for and what they receive is that those in eschatological punishment should "take part in Grace."

Third, Epistula Apostolorum, probably from Syria around the first half of the second century. Here the disciples are worried about the punishment of sinners in the age to come. Jesus commends them for their prayers for such sinners, and assured them that "I shall listen to the prayer of the just, which they utter for sinners."

Fourth, the widely-used  Oracula Sibyllina, Book 2 (around 150 AD), says:
And God, immortal and omnipotent, will grant another gift to these pious persons: when they ask him, he will grant them to save human beings from the fierce fire, and from the gnashing of teeth of the age to come, and will do so after pulling them out of the unquenchable flame and removing them, destining them, for the sake of his own elect, to the other life, that of the age to come, for immortals, in the Elysian Fields, where there are the long waves of the Acherusian Lake, imperishable, which has a deep bed. (2.330–38)
Fifth, the Odes of Solomon (second century AD) seems to speak of Christ breaking down the gates of hell and as rescuing all people from its clutches. Christ says,
I went on to all the prisoners, to liberate them, in order not to leave anyone enchained, or enchaining others. . . . I sowed my own fruits in their hearts, and I transformed them into myself: they received my blessing had had life. They have been gathered in me and are saved, because they have become my limbs, and I am their head" (17.8–14. Cf. ch. 42).
Sixth, in the Gospel of Nicodemus—a fourth century text that contains layers of material from much earlier—Christ has all the dead that had been bound in hell released from their prisons. He snatched all the dead from sin and Satan and death: "No dead is left with us: all those whom you [Satan] had gained with the tree of knowledge, you have now lost with the tree of the Cross."

Seventh, the Apocalypse of Paul (perhaps third century) envisages the postmortem repentance of sinners followed by a baptism in the Acherusian Lake (ch. 22). In ch. 24 those who cannot enter the New Jerusalem because of their haughtiness are finally allowed to enter, thanks to intercession.

As an aside, a whole bunch of texts speak of how God will eventually "have mercy on all" (e.g., the Life of Adam and Eve, Latin recension) or will "liberate everyone from the enslavement to Beliar" (the devil) (Testament of Zebulon 9.8)

Eighth, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the heroine and apostle (Thecla) prayed for a dead and lost woman called Falconilla. Her prayers were answered and the damned Falconilla was transferred to the place of rest of the righteous (3.28–29).

Ninth, the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis (c. 200 AD). Here the dead brother of Perpetua appears to her in a vision in a miserable condition. He had died at the age of seven and had not been baptized. His sister prays for him and he receives postmortem baptism and salvation.

That early Christians did not consider the fate of the dead to be sealed and unchangeable is further indicated also by the fact that offerings for the dead were made (as attested by Tertullian and Cyprian).

The above merely picks out a few items from a small part of Ramelli's massive study. What she demonstrates across the book as a whole is that the roots of universalism go back far earlier than is usually realized—it was not some "out of the blue" invention of Origen—and that universalism was far more widely spread across the early church than is usually realized.

My interest in this blog post is simply to suggest that many early Christians would not have shared our qualms about praying for the salvation of those in hell. Perhaps it is a practice that ought to be reintroduced.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Messiah—from Genesis to Revelation

Yet another fabulous animation from The Bible Project

Thursday, 25 September 2014

If life is an accident, can we celebrate it as a gift?

I was watching a TV show the other day in which one of the people on it said that even if we believe that there is no God and that life is no more than an accident, we can still celebrate it as a gift.

This confused me a little.

Accidents don't give gifts.

So presumably celebrating life as a gift (for the accident believer) is celebrating life as if it were a gift (when, in fact, it is not).

However, to celebrate life as if it were a gift is presumably to celebrate it as if there were a giver. The problem is that if you don't believe that there was a giver, why would you treat life as if there was? This seems to amount to rejecting the claim that God is real but then proceeding to treat life as if you had not rejected that claim. That's quite a tricky tension to maintain. One can only suppose that the reason for it is that treating life as a meaningless accident is not the best way to live it well.

God, eh! You can't live with him and you can't live without him. Dang!

Friday, 19 September 2014

Animation on heaven and earth in biblical theology

This is, to my surprise, a pretty good cartoon on the heaven and earth relation in biblical theology. Well done guys.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Plato and the goodness of the body. Part 8. Conclusion

In conclusion, when situated within the wider context of Plato’s thought, the anti-body texts turn out not to be quite as threatening as they appear. Furthermore, we have seen that Plato’s ontology provides the basis for a positive valuation of embodiment, a valuation worked out more fully in his cosmology. Understanding the world of becoming as dependent on a higher, more real, reality is not the route to evacuating bodies of value but the precise opposite. It is a way to understand how it is that bodies can possess truth, goodness, and beauty at all. They do so by means of participation.[1] In the words of C. S. Lewis, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”[2]


[1] Dr. Paul Tyson sent me the following helpful reflections on Plato and embodiment (email dated 26th August 2014): “The relationship between the temporally apparent and the eternally real is necessary for intelligibility via sensation. . . . [T]he eternal and true being which underlies all spatiotemporal appearing can never be defined or reduced to the terms of becoming. Becoming is a window onto being, and is indeed a derivative function of being; becoming has its glory as a window onto being, a medium of participation in being, but becoming disappears if one seeks to make reality and truth demonstrably contained without reference to that which sensation and time are dependent on. So treating the partial images of eternal truth that we see shifting and changing in embodied time as if they are real in themselves, this is an impossible misreading of reality. Those who accept mere sensational immediacy, mere embodied temporality, mere culturally situated norms and linguistic meanings as real in their own right, and who treat that which provides meaning and essence to embodied existence as non-existent, entirely misunderstand reality, the body, culture, and temporality. Thinking along Platonist lines, clearly we moderns are those who do not understand reality, the body, and temporality, because we assume the reality of tangible immediacy and rational necessity defined within the bounds of material nature is true in its own right. We assume that temporal becoming has no grounds in eternal being. To us, Plato sounds as if he hates embodiment because he does not treat material embodiment as defining reality. We latch onto comments from the dialogues asserting or implying that the body is a prison and matter is evil, and this becomes our means of dismissing Plato as a body hater, and as unconcerned with embodied. . . . But this reflects our limited view of intelligible essence (‘spirit’ if you like) rather than being a fair understanding of how positively Plato approaches the body, temporality, and cultural context as necessary and good mediums of Reality.”
[2] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 117.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Plato and the goodness of the body. Part 7. Phaedrus and the fall of the soul into embodiment

c) The Phaedrus and the fall of the soul into embodiment
Plato’s myth in the Phaedrus of the soul as a charioteer with two winged horses (246a–257b) seems, at face value, to have a drastically negative view of human embodiment. We see here the tripartite view of the soul introduced earlier in this series. The soul is “the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer” (246a). The charioteer is the intellect, the obedient horse is spirit, and the unruly horse is appetite. The soul is not one part of this, such as the charioteer, but the whole team.
In the myth we first see the gods, who are also charioteers with winged horses, though in their case both horses are noble and in perfect balance.  They gods effortlessly ascend to the rim of heaven to look “beyond” it to contemplate the forms. Human souls try to follow in their train, but with their unruly dark horses this is a difficult ascent as the bad horse seeks to drag the soul down. Some manage to get just high enough to glimpse the forms, others rise and fall, glimpsing some forms and missing others, many don’t get high enough to see anything. The soul that glimpses the forms gets another safe circuit around the heavens. In theory, it can keep this up forever (248c). However, if it fails to see the forms it starts to forget, is “weighed down, sheds its wings, and falls to earth” (248c). Depending on how much a person saw before he fell, he will be anything from a philosopher all the way down to a tyrant, the lowest form of human in Plato’s view (248e). The goal is to grow one’s wings back and ascend again. This takes a long time and is very difficult. What makes it so hard is that “the senses are so murky that it is only a few people who are able to make out, with difficulty, the original of the likeness they encounter here,” unlike when we were perceiving the forms apart from our senses. “That was the ultimate vision, and we saw it in pure light because we were pure ourselves, not buried in this thing we are carrying around now, which we call a body, locked in like an oyster in its shell” (250b-c).
The picture of an undesirable “fall” of humanity into a body, a body in which it is now buried alive and imprisoned, is hardly imagery that presents a positive view of embodiment. It is no wonder that many have balked at it. However, I would like to tentatively suggest that things may not be as they appear at first blush.
First, we should note that what Plato offers is “a mythic hymn” (265c) that tells us not “what a soul actually is” but “what it is like,” the former being a task for a god, the latter being humanly possible (246a). The non-literal aspects of the ascent are hinted at in talk of the “the place beyond heaven . . . without colour and without shape and without solidity” (247c). This cannot be a literal “place” nor can it be literally “beyond” heaven. It is “visible only to intelligence” (247c); an intellectual “space” that occupies no physical space. So we need to be careful how we interpret the myth.
Second, we should note a major problem with taking the story as relating to an actual fall into embodiment from a blissful disembodied state. The soul under discussion in the “story-like hymn” is the tripartite soul known from various other Platonic texts. The problem is that everywhere else in Plato the spirit and appetite (the two horses) are extensions of the soul under the conditions of embodiment.[1] To take the story even semi-literally would be to see pre-embodied souls as tripartite and this is problematic at two levels. First, it is inconsistent with what Plato says elsewhere. Second, and more importantly, it is difficult to give any worthwhile account of the two horses for a disembodied soul. Consider how Socrates explains the nature of the dark, unruly horse: it is attracted with passion for earthly things and drags the soul down (247b); it hungers for physical bodily pleasures (253e–254a). Surely these are the passions of the embodied soul.
Now it may be objected that the notion of disembodied tripartite souls must be intelligible because the gods themselves are here tripartite. They too are charioteers with pairs of winged horses. But we need to remember that for Plato the gods are not disembodied. The Timaeus makes very clear that the gods are astral deities composed of soul and body. Their bodies are those astral objects that moved in perfect circles around the heavens (Tim. 38c–40d). Because nothing disturbs their circular motions they are closer to perfection. This, presumably, is why the myth in Phaedrus images them as having two white horses in perfect union (246a; 247b). Humans, in the Timaeus, have their circular motions interrupted by the rectilinear motions of up, down, left, right, backwards, and forwards.[2] This is a result of embodiment and it generates disruption and problems for reason. The Phaedrus myth pictures this condition as that of having an untamed horse that struggles against the wishes of the charioteer. Now if this parallel between the analysis of the internal conflict within the human soul in Phaedrus and Timaeus is correct, then the soul we are talking about is embodied in both cases. What I am suggesting is that while Plato is telling a story about a fall into embodiment, we need to appreciate that it is a story and be open to the real possibility that he is not making any claims about the biography of any actual souls. He is not, in other words, speaking of an actual or literal fall into embodiment, but of the metaphorical fall of an already-embodied subject.[3]
Third, let’s consider the main point of the myth, the problem created by embodiment is, as we saw in the Phaedo, a very specific problem—an epistemological problem. The contrast throughout the myth is between the pure sight on reality when considered apart from the senses and the very murky view offered by the bodily senses (250b). The focus of the myth is on a fall from a higher mode of apprehending reality to a lower mode. For nourishment the fallen souls have “their own opinions” instead of knowledge (248b). The wings are fed from the grass of the plain where truth stands, and cannot be sustained by mere “opinion.” So the task of the soul is to re-grow its wings and to ascend again, moving from sense perception to apprehension of the forms. But, like the descent, this ascent is an epistemic one symbolized as an ascent from the body.
Fourth, the surprise, in light of the use of rather negative body imagery in the myth, is that the actual journey of ascent grants an important role for the body. The philosopher sees beauty here in the sensible world (for beauty is seen all around us) and is “reminded” of the vision of beauty itself. This beauty captures his heart and makes him seem to others like a mad man, for he is “possessed by a god” (249d). The perceivers of beauty “are startled when they see an image of what they saw up there. Then they are beside themselves, and their experience is beyond comprehension because they cannot fully grasp what it is they are seeing” (250a). So literal vision, “the clearest of our senses” (250d), is the start of the journey. Radiant beauty sparkles through the eyes and the intellect recognizes in it that by which the beautiful particular is beautiful, and the wings start to grow.
Importantly, the ascent does not mean leaving the particular beautiful thing/person behind. The philosopher becomes obsessed with the particular object of his love (in the Phaedrus, it is a beautiful boy[4]) and must keep on gazing at it or recalling it in order for his wings to keep growing (251d-e). Ascending to beauty itself does not require leaving the beautiful particular behind.

As well as demonstrating that Plato did not wish to drive a wedge between form and appearance, the strongly positive view of methexis (participation) in the Phaedrus frees him from the charge of otherworldliness and total withdrawal from physicality, for the philosophic ascent does not result in a “loss” of love for particular beautiful things, since the particular participates in beauty itself. Thus the philosopher is synonymous with the lover of beauty, and also with one of a musical or loving nature (248d). . . . [I]t is precisely within the physical world that he recognizes a likeness to the realities, and then is ‘stricken with amazement and cannot control himself’ (241a). . . . [T]he image of the good in the beauty of physicality is not just an empty ‘version’ or simulacrum.[5] And so if the philosopher can be accused of neglecting ‘things below’ like the insane bird (249d), it is not that he turns away from physicality itself (for that would deny him access to the good), but that he neglects a mundane apprehension of physicality as merely immanent or crudely separated from the whole, and all the concomitant proprieties of property, custom, and conventional status (252a). By contrast the contagion of the divine urges the philosopher from place to place, yearning to see the beautiful again.[6]

Furthermore, when the object of his love is another person, as it is in the Phaedrus, the true lover seeks to lead the beloved on the same journey for the beloved’s own sake, rather than using them as a means to an end (255b-e).[7] This is the kind of love that Socrates praises and seeks to awaken in young Phaedrus (252b). And it is praise of this love that is the whole point of Socrates’ speech. Eros, he says, is sent by the gods for our benefit (244a).
Fifth, the two horses themselves play an interesting role in the journey. On the one hand, the unruly horse can cause major problems, forcefully resisting the directions of the charioteer and the promptings of his partner horse. He can drag a soul down into being entombed in a body, blind to reality. However, on the other, the image itself suggests that the horses play a key role in motivating and moving the soul.[8] The charioteer (intellect) is to give direction, but the horses are to translate this direction into movement. As Martha Nussbaum observes, “If we starve and suppress emotions and appetites, it may well be at the cost of so weakening the entire personality that it will be unable to act decisively; perhaps it will cease to act altogether. The idea of ‘nourishing’ the non-intellectual plays an important part in Plato’s myth.”[9] Of course, the horses need training and taming, but when they are so disciplined they play a constructive rather than a destructive role. More than that, Nussbaum argues that the horses play a positive role in guiding our aspirations towards understanding. Socrates’ hymn of praise to the divine madness of erotic love makes very clear that “certain sorts of essential and high insights come to us only through the guidance of the passions. . . . The non-intellectual elements have a keen natural responsiveness to beauty, especially when beauty is presented through the sense of sight.”[10] The three aspects of soul, each with its own desires, respond to beauty in different ways. The appetite wants to have sex with the beautiful boy (254a) while the spirit feels shame and holds back (254a). This conflicted reaction to an instance of beauty throws the charioteer into an initial state of confusion until “his memory is carried back to the nature of beauty” (254b). In this way, the horses, in their limited perceptions of beauty, can spark the mind to seek the form of beauty itself. The dark horse can be overpowered by the charioteer and trained to know fear, awe, and respect in the presence of the beautiful boy. So, when rightly aligned, the embodied parts of the soul can guide and drive the philosopher towards the world so that he is enabled to ascend to the forms.[11] The point is that while the body can be an epistemic tomb, it need not be. The body can play a constructive role in the pursuit of reality so long as it knows its place vis-à-vis the charioteer.
Plato’s problem is not with bodies per se, but with disordered souls. The reordering of the soul and the regrowth of its wings does not require disembodiment. Remember that it is the whole soul that is winged (246a). The soul that falls and the soul that regrows its wings and ascends to the forms is the tripartite soul (nous, spirit, and appetite), which is the embodied soul.



[1] This is the case in texts apparently earlier (e.g., Republic) and later (e.g., Timaeus) than the Phaedrus. So it is hard to think that Plato changed his mind on the matter. On the link between tripartation and embodiment in the Timaeus see Johansen, Plato’s Natural Philosophy, 142–52.
[2] See fn. 38.
[3] Eric Perl suggests a very similar reading of the myth in Thinking Being, ch. 2, section 5. In further support of the reading he observes that later in the dialogue Socrates says that when he observes a person who is able to rightly discern forms he will “follow behind as if he [the enlightened person] were a god” (266b). This is an allusion to the myth in which the “pre-incarnate” souls “follow a god” to “the place above the heavens.” Perl’s point is that the story is a mythic presentation of this same point. It does not require literal disembodiment. Thus, one need not take the myth at face value.
[4] The context of the dialogue is the warped homoerotic relationship between Lysias and Phaedrus. Phedrus is obsessed with Lysias, but Lysias merely uses Phaedrus for his own ends. Socrates presents himself, in contrast to Lysias, as a true lover of Phaedrus, a philosophical lover who seeks Phaedrus’ own betterment. On this theme see Bradley, Who Is Phaedrus?
[5] Cf. “[W]hen Plato says that sensible objects are only imperfectly beautiful or just, he does not mean that they are approximately beautiful or just [as if they were imperfect copies of a perfect exemplar]. Rather, he means that they are only accidentally beautiful or just, while the Form and its characters possess the relevant property in an essential manner.” Alexander Nehamas, “The Imperfection of the Sensible World,” 178. Nehemas, however, does still conceive of forms as perfect models. His point is that particulars can (for a time) possess the relevant properties perfectly, and thus be truly good or just or wise or beautiful. Their imperfection lies in that they, unlike the form, do not possess the properties essentially. Indeed, following Allan Silvermann, I think that Plato does not believe that particulars possess any properties essentially, but only by participation in forms. In other words, particulars, unlike forms, do not have an essence.
It is worth saying that while forms self-predicate, it is not agreed what such self-predication amounts to in Plato. So the claim that “the beautiful (i.e., the form of beauty) is beautiful” can mean that it is supremely beautiful—the perfect model of beauty—or that it is self-identical (i.e., it is itself and nothing else). Following Silvermann, I understand self-predication in the later sense. “Beauty is beautiful” does not mean that beauty is a beautiful object. Rather, each form self-predicates insofar as each form is its essence. “When Plato says that each Form is itself by itself, auto kath auto, monoeides, simple, eilikrines, pure, and one, I take him to be referring only to the relation of Form to essence. Being is found only where subject and essence are related, that is only where essence is predicated of some subject. . . . [S]ince the only thing that [a Form] Is is its essence, each Form is monoeides, ‘of one essence’” (Dialectic of Essence, 91).
[6] Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 14, 15.
[7] See fn. 53.
[8] In this analogy Plato clearly sees each of the three “parts” as a source of desire within the soul, each with its own object (the charioteer, nous, desires “the plain truth,” the white horse, spirit, is a lover of honour, the black horse, appetite, loves sexual pleasure and gratification). The challenge is to bring these desires into harmony under the rule of the charioteer.
[9] Nussbaum, “This Story Isn’t True,” 214.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Against this positive evaluation of the horses in Phaedrus, see Frisbee Sheffield, “Erôs Before and After Tripartation,” in Rachel Barney et al. (eds.), Plato and the Divided Self, 211–37.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Plato and the goodness of the body, part 6. The Phaedo's anti-body texts

b) The Phaedo’s anti-body texts
One thinks of the notorious passages in the Phaedo in which Socrates speaks of the body as like a prison for the soul. The philosopher longs for death so that s/he can be separated from the body.
Now I do think that Plato’s assessment of the body in the Phaedo is inadequate. But, rather than simply dismissing it, we need to attempt to understand it in the context of the dialogue itself and the Platonic corpus more widely. The matter is not as bleak as we may think.
First, Plato’s interest in the Phaedo is not the body at all, but the soul. The whole discussion is an attempt to provide a case for the immortality of the soul.[1] Part of the case involves contrasting body and soul in ways that cast the body in a dim light in order to set the soul off in stark contrast. One needs to appreciate that the rhetorical context drives some of the somewhat drastic language and imagery. The picture presented is a call to seek the welfare of the soul and the virtual annihilation of the body. But this “soul not body” language is simply a way of forcibly saying “soul more than body.” The actual point, put in less rhetorically stark terms, is found in Socrates’ words at his trial: “I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul” (Apology 30a-b).[2]
Second, as D. C. Schindler observes, Socrates does not say that the body imprisons the soul but that the soul imprisons herself in the body (Phaedo 82e). What Socrates is referring to is the way in which the body can mislead the soul by overpowering the soul through bodily sensory inputs and desires into imagining that the most real is what we can see and hear and touch and taste. This, to borrow from an image in the Republic, is to mistake the shadow on the cave wall for the reality. To rightly order soul and body is to struggle against the body’s tendency to invert the relationship between body and soul. If the soul surrenders to this it, in effect, imprisons itself. The philosopher’s resistance to the body’s fight to dominate, says Socrates, involves a kind of separation of body from soul—a kind of death. But this is not a literal separation (at least, not prior to actual death): it is a cognitive separation that trains the soul and body to be rightly aligned. And, while this is not Plato’s point in the Phaedo, it is for the good of the body as well as the soul that one resist the body’s attempted coup. Here is Schindler on the negative consequence of the soul submitting to the body’s attempt to rule:

[T]his inversion would in fact by that very stroke eliminate the body’s and thus the senses’ expressive character. In other words, to take the natural world in its materiality as a positive thing in itself separate from its subordination to meaning and thus its expressiveness is to destroy it as image, to render it mute. It thus becomes dead “stuff.” The world surrenders its meaning, and the soul becomes entangled in the push and pull of pleasure and pain as so many mechanistic and therefore unintelligible, noncausal, forces. . . . The irony now ought to be clear: owing to the paradoxical nature of image, the inversion of the body-soul relationship is deeply problematic, not (only) because it trivializes the soul, but because it subsequently trivializes the body. In other words, the absolutizing of the physical fails to accord the physical its due goodness—i.e., it empties of the goodness it can possess only as receiving . . . . But this means that sometimes the vehement condemnations of the body’s tendency to claim ascendancy over the soul that we find in classical literature, both pagan and Christian, may indeed be a zealous affirmation and protection of the body’s significance. . . . One cannot insist on the body’s significance without at the same time insisting on a hierarchical relationship to spirit.[3]

Schindler’s point is that given Plato’s view regarding of the sensory world as image of the forms, expressing the eternal in time, with particulars (including bodies) participating in universal forms in order to have any meaning or significance at all, one must put the body in its place for the sake of the body itself. To fail to do so evacuates the body of all goodness and beauty and meaning; indeed, of any intelligibility (and hence being) at all.
That is the philosophical context within which we must understand the negative comments about the body in the Phaedo. Even so, Plato’s rhetoric does make for some uncomfortable reading if one’s goal is to affirm the goodness of the body. However, as noted above, that was not Plato’s goal in Phaedo so he does not attempt to mitigate his harsh words when putting the body in its place.
Third, Plato’s philosophy was dynamic and developing. I do not see any major disjunctions in his thought from the early to the late works, but one can trace modifications and developments, in continuity with his basic philosophical orientation.[4] And in relation to the body Plato develops his philosophy in directions that bring out the positive potential that we have seen even in the infamous Phaedo itself.
Iakovos Vasiliou has argued that it was the subsequent development of Plato’s tripartite view of the soul that allowed him to moderate the apparent hostility to the body found in the Phaedo.[5] In the Phaedo “[t]he body is viewed as a recalcitrant ‘other thing’ that can only be avoided, shunned, and admonished, mastered, and punished.”[6] There is no suggestion that one can educate or habituate the body. The Republic, in Books II and III, provides a contrast. There, engaging in the right bodily practices, thereby forming the right habits, is essential for the education of both body and soul (cf. 395d). Habituation is fundamental to the Republic’s training in virtue. The soul benefits from its physical and musical training (410c–411a). In the Phaedo the soul was spoken of as purely rational and engaged the body as if it were some other hostile thing that had to be tamed and forever held in check. In the Republic the notion of the soul has been expanded to absorb the psychic elements of the body within itself.[7] This allows for a far greater integration of body and soul and for a cessation of hostilities between the warring parties, given sufficient training. “The more elaborate psychology expands the educative possibilities. A habituated virtue, which does not depend on a purely rational soul, is now possible.”[8]
Plato’s cosmological thought developed from the Phaedo to the Phaedrus to the full-blown explorations in the Timaeus.[9] And it is with this development that we see an increasingly positive assessment of the body, as we have already noted in our earlier discussions of the Timaeus. With this comes a greater appreciation of the bodily senses. Thus, Timaeus says, “our sight has indeed proven to be a source of supreme benefit to us, in that none of our present statements about the universe could ever have been made if we had never seen any stars, sun, or heaven” (Timaeus 47a). And this positive assessment of the rightly ordered body is not the result of Plato toning down his thinking on body and soul or on forms. Rather it comes from pursuing the trajectories of thought he was already exploring. This positive valuation of the body is, in other words, deeply Platonic.


[1] An attempt that, in the assessment of most philosophers, falls short. Indeed, Socrates himself seems aware that he has not managed to fully persuade his own audience, and so in the end resorts to a “comforting story” about the afterlife. For a brief but helpful assessment see Fred D. Miller Jr., “The Platonic Soul,” in Hugh H. Benson (ed.), A Companion to Plato (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 278–93.
[2] Which for Christians may call to mind 1 Tim 4:8: “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
[3] D. C. Schindler, The Catholicity of Reason, 127, 128. See also D. C. Schindler, “Truth and the Christian Imagination: The Reformation of Causality and the Iconoclasm of the Spirit.” Communio 33 (2006) 521–39
[4] The issue of the interpretations of the differences between the dialogues remains a contentious one. Interpreters tend to fall into one of three camps: (a) those who see a single unchanging philosophy across the dialogues (with differences understood as apparent and not real), (b) those that see stark discontinuities and inconsistencies, and (c) those that find development within a broadly unitary philosophy. The hermeneutical issues concern how to interpret the parts of the corpus in the light of the whole (and vice versa), how we can know which voice(s) in the dialogue represent Plato’s own views, and also whether we can establish a reliable relative order for the dialogues. The majority view is that the early works include texts such as Charmides, Crito, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Protagoras, The middle period included the likes of Phaedo, Cratylus, Symposium, Republic, and Phaedrus, and the late works included Sophist, Statesman, Timaeus, Critias, Philebus, and Laws. But it has to be said that the chronology is uncertain and its hermeneutical significance is a contested issue.
[5] Iakovos Vasiliou, “From the Phaedo to the Republic: Plato’s Tripartate Soul and the Possibility of Non-Philosophical Virtue.” In Rachel Barney et al. (eds.), Plato and the Divided Self, 9–32. Plato speaks of the soul as an undifferentiated unity in the Phaedo. The tripartite soul first appears in the Republic IV. In the light of the later dialogues, the soul of the Phaedo is only a part of the whole soul—the immortal, intellectual soul.
[6] Ibid., 27.
[7] Plato attributes passions and pleasures to the body in the Phaedo (65a; 66c; 81b; 83d; 94b) that he attributes in later texts to the lower parts of the soul—those linked to embodiment. The living body in the Phaedo has a psychic dimension and is the active subject of perceiving. Later dialogues refer to this in terms of the appetitive and spirited parts of the soul. This suggests a development and refinement of his earlier views, not a contradiction of them.
[8] Ibid., 29.
[9] See Cynthia Freeland, “The Role of Cosmology in Plato’s Philosophy,” in Hugh H. Benson (ed.), A Companion to Plato (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 199–213.