Category Archives: Plato
In discussions on universalism, the question is sooner or later raised by the non-universalist in the dialogue, “If all are ultimately saved, then why be moral? Why not live it up and do whatever you want? After all, you’ll be saved anyway–so why not get the best of both worlds?” I’m often perplexed as to how to respond. On the most fundamental level, this argument, as I’ve noted in the past, misses the point altogether. Whether belief in universalism persuades people to become debauched libertines or not has no bearing on whether it’s actually true. You might as well say that the tax code is a mess and has all kinds of bad results, and that therefore it must not exist! Universalism may have negative moral implications, or it may not; but to say that it is invalid because of these purported implications is just as silly as saying the tax code doesn’t exist because I don’t like it.
Another approach would be to question the moral development of of the person who asks this question. In Kohlberg’s well-known stages of moral development, the higher levels of morality are increasingly less concerned with a fear of punishment or a conniving attempt to get away with whatever one can get away with. The concern as to the behavior of believers in universalism seems to betray a lower developmental stage on the part of the person making the anit-universalist argument, or an assumption on her part that humans in general are at a lower stage of moral development. In fairness, though, such a counter-argument smacks of the genetic fallacy, as well. After all, a person’s stage of moral development is no more relevant to the truth of non-universalism than the supposed behavior of universalists is relevant to the truth of universalism. Thus, this is probably not the best way to go in responding to this question.
Sometimes, feeling flip, I want to answer the question, “Why be moral if all are saved?” by saying, “Why not?” Nevertheless, there is a serious intent behind this question, and I will try to deal with it seriously. I will try to give at least a partial reason why we should be moral even if we all eventually end up in heaven.
I’ve mentioned the term “Rectification of Names” before. The term in Chinese is 正名, or in Pinyin transcription, Zhèngmíng. This is a very important concept in Confucius’s philosophy, and in my view it is universally applicable. The basic idea is that one has to have a clear understanding of the world as it is and to use this understanding to call things what they actually are. In short, we are enjoined to be honest, and in order to be fully honest we must not only not lie, but we must describe things as they really are. To this end, we must dispense with cant, jargon, obfuscation, propaganda, and so on. We should call things what they are because only in so doing can we understand how we should behave in any given situation. The paragraph below gives a succinct description from the Analects (courtesy of here):
A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.
— Confucius, Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4-7, translated by James Legge
Rectification of Names is a Confucian term, but the idea behind it, as I said, is universal. One of the greatest proponents of this concept, though he didn’t use that term, was the great Greek philosopher Socrates. The “Gadfly”, as he called himself, was so important in the history of Western philosophy that all Greek philosophers prior to him are lumped together as the “Pre-Socratics”. Socrates himself never wrote anything–our knowledge of him comes from his portrayals in the dialogues of his greatest disciple, Plato. In his earlier dialogues, Plato is considered to have portrayed Socrates fairly accurately, though later on he uses him more as a mouthpiece. In any case, I want to focus here on Socrates’ discussion of what is known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, named after the dialogue in which it is discussed.
Coming to the fair land of Cecropia
he piously founded an altar of holy friendship
for a man whom the wicked may not properly even praise;
he, alone or the first of mortals, showed clearly
by his own life and by the courses of his arguments
that a man becomes good and happy at the same time:
but now none can grasp this any more.
–Aristotle, Altar Elegy, in which he speaks of his mentor and teacher, Plato
In order meaningfully to discuss reincarnation in a Christian context, we’ll have to look at Origen. However, to understand him, and the overall milieu, we’ll have to look at the philosophical system that moderns refer to as Neoplatonism. And so the posts multiply….
To use the term “Neoplatonism”, and to describe it as a philosophy is doubly misleading. None of its followers would have called it “Neoplatonism–for them it was just “Platonism”, the teachings of the great Plato. It is we moderns who distinguish the various phases and gradual changes in the philosophical system that began with Plato and lasted for nearly a millennium–arguably longer than that.
Also, “philosophy” didn’t mean the same to the ancients as it does to us. Philosophy–“love of wisdom”–did not mean abstract speculation on the nature of reality, or metaphysics, or such. It meant an integrated way of life that sought wisdom as a way for finding out how humans should live, behave, and prepare for death. What the ancients called philosophy was closer to what we’d term “religion”. The main difference is that as products of a Judeo-Christian background, we tend to view religion as bodies of dogmatic teachings that are more or less incompatible.
Greek philosophical schools were more like modern religions such as Buddhism or the Vedanta schools of Hinduism in that they were more concerned with developing practices and attitudes that would guide followers in this life and the next than with pantheons or revelations. Thus, a Neoplatonist, or Stoic, or Epicurean might take various elements of other belief systems that seemed useful, and might participate (or not participate) in public worship of any pantheon, or none. Thus, while each philosophical school had distinct beliefs and attitudes, none were exclusivist. Just as modern Japanese might combine Shinto, Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist beliefs and practices into their lives–belonging to more than one religion at once–a Neoplatonist might worship Greek or Roman or Syrian gods, or none, or even be a Christian. This despite the fact that Christians and Neoplatonists often argued against each other!
Anyway, I’d like to give a very brief outline of Neoplatonism as background to upcoming posts. Read the rest of this entry
There’s a pop-culture game you see now and then, the name of which I’m unsure, but which you could call “this or that”. You name a certain pop-cultural category in which there are (or are perceived to be) two different major choices, and the players pick which one. For example: “Coke or Pepsi”; “Chevy or Ford”; “PC or Mac”; “Marvel or DC”. You get the idea. If one played this game with ancient philosophy, one might say, “Plato or Aristotle”.
The two giants of Classical Greek philosophy are an appropriate “this or that” for various reasons. Theirs are the last two major schools of Classical Greek philosophy–after Aristotle comes the Hellenistic age. Hellenistic philosophy (some characteristic examples of which are Cynicism, Skepticism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism) is generally thought to be less ambitious, more inwardly directed, and more pessimistic than Classical philosophy. On the other hand, the towering genius of Plato has had the result that we have only fragments of the pre-Socratics. Many of them probably weren’t systematists; but even of those, such as Pythagoras, who probably were, we have little that remains. Thus, for Greek philosophy at its height, the choices are Plato and Aristotle. Read the rest of this entry