Fri 30 Sep 2011
Posted by Andrew Rooke under Theosophical Lectures
Comments Off on PLATO’S ETHICS: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM by Don Shepherd
The key to understanding Plato’s philosophy is that ethics is a form of knowledge. For Plato, ethics is the knowledge of measurement of short-term and long-term consequences. While everyone and everything strives for the “Good” as it appears to them, it is this lack of knowledge of measurement that determines the extent of the failure to reach the true “Good.”
For example, seen from a child’s perspective, a lollipop is a greatly desired treat—or the “Good”—because of its immediate effect on the taste senses, but there is no utilization of the knowledge of measurement of long-term consequences, such as upset stomach or tooth decay, in the child’s decision-making process. Adults make the same mistake. A political tyrant pursues his short-term policies because they appear “good” to him, but he lacks the capacity for measuring the long-term consequence of the degradation of his own human nature. Thus, an individual in possession of a greater degree of knowledge of measurement of consequences establishes the true “Good,” or Transcendent, into his life more fully, thereby acting ethically as opposed to the individual who is in possession to a lesser degree.
If the purpose of life is to attain this form of knowledge, the question arises whether ethics can be taught. Plato gives a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answer to this. If the teacher is brilliant-minded like Socrates, then ‘yes.’ But, if not, ethics is learned by another means entirely. It is in the explanation of this means that Plato introduces the ground of his metaphysics—in this case, the metaphysics of transmigration or reincarnation. Plato’s winged soul, the essence of man, alights on earth for a while and is consequently de-winged. At death, the de-winged soul claims its wings again, soaring through the heavens in a circuitous learning curve bringing it into superior realms and ultimately back to the earth where the soul is de-winged once again. Some individuals, however, are able to remember a glimpse of their previous winged state and act thereon. It is not really so much a glimpse as an impression that remains in the background of their thought, directing that thought along certain lines whether they know it or not.
This retained vision, or lack thereof, accounts for the division between a dangerous love and a moderate love. The ethics of love for Plato is rooted in this metaphysics. While both the tempestuous man and the moderate man give in to their physical inclinations, the moderate man only does so with ‘half’ his mind, reserving the other half as a reservoir to hold the vision—in fact, a vision of the goddess Love, intermediate between man and the true “Good”—and draw upon it to erect a right relationship between lover and beloved. In that right relationship, the goddess Love touches and tinges the lover’s aroma with her own superior measurement of knowledge of long-term consequences, thereby removing the danger to the beloved of misleading, short-term promises and temporary infatuations.
Ethics, then, is a graded form of knowledge, a stairway of sorts, leading to the “Good” or Transcendent. If the goddess Love symbolizes a superior form of that knowledge on higher, refined realms nearer the Transcendent, then the Transcendent itself must be the perfection of the knowledge of measurement.
Plato’s successors particularly took up this line of argument. Aristotle maintained that the Divine Intellect was the singular pleasure of unending thinking or the Divine in rational activity expressed through human lives in their acts of contemplation, or the highest human good. Aristotle’s entelechies, or the astral mould and the physical body, passed through successive states of character—from selfish utility to self-absorbed pleasure to contemplation as the human good for all—on the rise through the affections for Passive Intellect (irrational), Active Intellect (rational), and finally to the perfection of the Divine Intellect reflected in human life through the Doctrine of the Mean of right action at the right time at the right place in the right way. The Doctrine of the Mean was in fact Aristotle’s way of capturing the immediacy of knowledge held by the Divine stepped down into human activity as the natural instinct towards happiness.
Like Aristotle, Plotinus envisioned a series of Knowledge Principles stretching from the sense body to the Transcendent or Plato’s “Good.” The Reason Principle, just above the sense body, could reason on a Permanent Right—this Permanent Right being the immediate sensing of the knowledge of measurement of short-term and long-term consequences. Once in possession of this Permanent Right the Reason Principle could overthrow the higher Intellectual Principle on its way to the Transcendent—an esoteric explanation of the exoteric overthrow of Kronos by the Greek Zeus and the ‘burying’ of Uranos, a theme reiterated in the Christian allegory of the Dragon Chaos being slain by its lower aspect, Archangel Michael, or later St. George, as outlined by Helen Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine.
For Pseudo-Dionysius, this Transcendent, or Non-Being, was simply an excess of being spilling into the lower levels of existence through a series of rays. The Transcendent was a superabundance of knowing. Boethius, the sixth-century reconciler of Aristotle with Plato, took that argument for an “excess of being” one step further, granting Plato’s “Good” with an immediacy of knowledge of cause and effect to the extent that all events impacting individuals, whether fortunate or unfortunate, happened at an instantaneous rapidity within the Divine Mind, measuring all the variables involved in meting out justice—sometimes giving wealth to the weak of character to prevent their further fall into wrong-doing or poverty to the strong of heart to encourage perseverance—without delay like a modern-day computer. Plato’s Transcendent or the “Good” measured short-term and long-term consequences instantaneously—so rapidly that, solving the age-old riddle of free will, it knows what will happen even though what does happen does not have to happen by necessity.
In closing, Plato’s ethics is the ‘Elephant in the Room’ because it informed classical philosophy for nine-hundred years and even influenced the works of Thomas Aquinas as late as the thirteenth century. Even philosophers as late as the seventeenth century, such as Benedict de Spinoza in his Ethics, adapted Pseudo-Dionysius’ concept of superabundance stepping down the power of God to the Mind and its sensory affects as the reason for the human being’s lack of ability to remember his alternate cognitive states in sleep upon waking—the rapidity of instantaneous knowledge was too much for the human brain to process. More importantly, it is the ‘Elephant in the Room’ because Plato’s definition is so singular, yet all-encompassing that it allows for the creation of a self-contained metaphysics while at the same time addressing the fundamental issue facing each of us as human beings which we often do not want to acknowledge, “Can I trust myself and can I be trusted?” For Plato’s Gyges, a man who found a ring of power that made him invisible to this instantaneous meting out of justice, the answer was ‘no’—he went on to kill the king, illicitly marry the queen, and rule according to his passions and lusts.
On the other hand, seeking men and women, taking the core message of Plato’s Republic to heart— rooted in a knowledge of measurement of short-term and long-term consequence somewhere along the path towards the perfection of that knowledge in the Transcendent— can lift their heads, look above, and, linked with the Divine, answer in the affirmative.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Theosophical Society Pasadena.
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