Footprints of Reason:
On the notion of comity as an intrinsic feature of universal intelligence, with reference to Marcel Mauss' study THE GIFT, Plato's TIMAEUS, and a quote from a Maori sage, of the Ngati-Raukawa tribe.
| THE GIFT is the title
of an empirically based study of the life sustaining forms of archaic gift
exchange by the French social anthropologist Marcel Mauss.(1)
He worked on the general theme of exchange, interrupted by the catastrophe
of WWI, for over twenty years, and published his famous and controversial
essay in 1925, two years before Lindbergh landed his Spirit of St. Louis
in Paris. In his comparably path-breaking study, Mauss presents globally
distributed traditional patterns of gift exchange as creating the generative
and regenerative core of the human enterprise. In addition, he shows in
detail how the dynamic of gift exchange patterns contains, employs and constrains
hostility and aggression.(2)
The wealth of observations on how the fear of strangers, and the unfamiliar
in general, is not permitted to erupt in panic, but is transformed into
activities productive of social well being is most impressive. And so is
the ingenuity shown by different peoples' social inventions and conventions
by which they manage to arrive again and again, often in patterns tied to
the seasons, at a precarious balance of the creative and destructive forces
inherent in all the transactions that sustain and also, at least potentially,
threaten life. Mauss endows the multifarious concept of gift exchange with
its widest possible sense, involving all things, persons, services, performances,
linguistic transactions and actions as valuable objects in the merry-go-round
of exchange among peoples and their institutions at feasts, visits, initiations,
funerals, receptions and other celebrations.
This ingenious mixture of commentary on legal codes and on data about human behavior gives rise to the profound moral intuition of the transcendental and transcendent value of comity. Comity, or civilized attitudes and behavior among peoples, tribes, communities, families, and individuals, can be understood as a cultivated and habitual courtesy of the soul and heart, an organ the Greeks called thymos. Such a habit of the heart partakes of liberality, and it is this liberality which struck Tocqueville, when he visited the U.S. almost two-hundred years ago, as the defining characteristic of Americans.(5) The moral intuition Mauss's essay mobilizes is impressive and profound not because it discloses something new, but because it brings original knowledge back that has been disowned by the modern disinherited Western mind.
Mauss's text and data reveal the basic triple pattern, or rhythm of exchange in the circulation of gifts between individuals, tribes and entire peoples. What also emerges is the basic design of exchange between the material and spiritual dimensions of culture, i.e., between the all-inclusive world of nature and the intermixed realm of the supernatural. Though his essay contains sections that suggest that it is the super-natural that encompasses the natural, the main thrust of Mauss's argument, I believe,, gives precedence to nature. Relying on reason as the pervasive principle of cosmic totality, Mauss leads the attentive reader to a momentous inference: That it is the circulation of gifts between nature and super-nature that generates, by human agency, the domain of culture. All gift exchange between groups of people, between self and other, native and stranger, friend and foe, host and guest takes place in the larger setting established by the flow of gifts between the inter-penetrating spheres referred to as nature and super-nature, divine mind, or spirit.
To make the pattern of gift exchange more concrete, here is an example: The conversation in Plato's TIMAEUS is set in Athens, on the day of the Panathenaea, an annual festival in honor of Athena, goddess of justice and founder of the city. People gather to celebrate her beneficence. The holiday attracted many visitors. Two of them, Hermocrates from Sicily and Timaeus of Locri are introduced as Socrates' distinguished guests. They all have met the day before, in the company of old Critias, when Socrates regaled the company with his account of the construct of an ideal state where wisdom is able to reconcile brute necessity with reason's measure, i.e., justice. Today the roles are reversed. The guests bring their gifts to their host and take part in the festivities. Timaeus says to Socrates: "Yesterday you entertained us with the hospitality due to strangers, and it would not be fair if the rest of us were tardy in offering you a feast in return." (Tim. 17b) He then proceeds to give his report on how the cosmos and its inhabitants came to be, an account I will draw on for a later part of this essay.(6)
The Maussian study's first chapter deals with the spirit of the gift, the thing given, which in the tongue of the Maori is taonga . It also introduces the crucial and elusive concept of the "hau". Mauss says:
"....it [taonga, the thing and the spirit of the thing] denotes everything which may be rightly considered property, which makes a man rich, powerful or influential, and which can be exchanged or used as compensation......The taonga are, at any rate with the Maori, closely attached to the individual, the clan and the land; they are the vehicle of their mana--magical, religious and spiritual power......taonga are asked to destroy the person who receives them; and they have the power to do this if the law, or rather the obligation, about making a return gift is not observed........ Speaking of the hau, the spirit of things and particularly of the forest and forest game, Tamati Ranapiri [a Maori elder of legendary status] gives quite by chance the key to the whole problem:" (7)
Mauss then quotes Tamati Ranapiri's statement as told to and translated by Elsdon Best. "I shall tell you about the hau. Hau is not the wind that blows. Not at all. Suppose you have some particular object, taonga, and you give it to me; you give it to me without a price. We do not bargain over it. Now I give this thing to a third person who after a time decides to give me something in repayment for it, and he makes me a present of something (taonga). Now this taonga I received from him is the spirit (hau) of the taonga I received from you and which I passed on to him. The taonga which I receive on account of the taonga that came from you, I must return to you. It would not be right on my part to keep these taonga, whether they were desirable or not. I must give them to you since they are the hau of the taonga which you gave me. If I were to keep this second taonga for myself, I might become ill or even die. Such is hau, the hau of valuables (personal property), the hau of the taonga, the hau of the forest. Kaati eenaa so much for that."(8)
Mauss, happening across Ranapiri's statement among the papers on his desk, perceives, in a flash of recognition, the concept of the hau as the solution to the query he proposed to pursue in depth in his study on gift exchange. He asks: What is the force, or reason, in the gift that elicits, even compels a counter gift, repayment, or other recompense? The answer, Mauss finds in the light of Ranapiri's brief but poignant discourse, is the concept of the hau. The hau is a hybrid of the material and the spiritual, as well as the economic and legal. To be more exact, the legal principle here is as severely retributive and punitive, in case the rule of the hau is broken, as it is generous and tending toward prosperity if the hau is obeyed. This rule in turn is tied to a cosmic and rational belief system of sanctions if the unspoken contract that defines gift exchange is not honored. Mauss, quite obviously delighted by the hau's many mingling oscillating shades of meaning, proceeds to elevate it to be the master concept of his entire investigation. In this capacity of "idee majeure", the hau attains the rank of a philosophic, universally applicable principle which captures the rational and vital dynamics - a sort of Bergsonian elan vital - of all gift exchange. If the law of the hau is obeyed by all parties, barring catastrophe, life will flourish and a sense of abundance ensue. Showing his awareness of the gulf that separates his empathic understanding of Ranapiri's words from a positivist reading, Mauss comments: "We draw attention to the expression kai-hau-kai which Tregear's Maori Comparative Dictionary translates as 'the return present of food, etc., made by one tribe to another. A feast.' This signifies that the return gift is really the 'spirit' of the original prestation returning to its point of departure: 'food that is the hau of other food..' European vocabularies have not the ability to describe the complexity of these ideas."(9)
Well, leaving aside the Latin common place "do ut des", - i.e., I give so you may give, - Mauss is making an important point about the impoverishment of modern language use, and, by implication, the shortcomings of the modern analytical mind. Archaic and poetic language does have unquestionable powers of conceptual pluri-signification, and kaleidoscopic compression, modern parlance simply lacks. But the question whether three syllables, in any tongue, can render the complexity of the rules for the obligatory circulation of gifts in intelligible fashion is not my main interest. What is intriguing and, I hope, instructive, is to look to find out whether the Maussian contention of the hau's pervasive force in human affairs makes sense today. Is it indeed the case that heeding the wisdom of the hau makes people prosper, and failing to do so, whether out of perfidy or greed, provokes disaster? For all we know, or don't know, it may be quite true that those who follow the rule of the hau enact, by comity, the great unwritten law of life. Morality, at least in the classical philosophic tradition, is not a by-product of evolution, nor a product of human willful or wishful theorizing, but an attempt to enact the forms of life given by an eternal order, on an ever-changing temporal stage.(10)
With this in mind, the question is: Under what guises can the hau be found enshrined in customs recorded in ancient documents that do not belong to archaic social strata but shape world civilization up to the present day? And I could not help but ask whether the hau is only a religious or also a metaphysical principle. If the latter, as I suppose, is true, are there records from philosophy's golden age that bear witness to the law of the hau? Do they disclose the imprints of the same pervasive and life enhancing intelligence Mauss discovered through the empirical evidence of anthropological research reports? And are these philosophic texts the same ones that propel the quest of science, modernity's ascendancy, the triumph of information technology, and ecological plunder? The same ones that are now often said to carry a great burden of glory and shame for the state of the world we live in?
These are not just rhetorical questions. Of course there are such books, and one, perhaps the most influential one, has already been introduced: Plato's TIMAEUS. But are we able to read the ancient words with the requisite understanding, or only through the distorting haze of our arrogance and prejudice? Suspended between quite premature triumphalism and cynical despair, we often dismiss what there may be to learn by studying texts and commentaries transmitted from antiquity. A Vergilian tag has it that fate and fortune favors the bold; and it may indeed seem bold, not to say foolhardy of me to come here before you, in the age of Stephen Hawkins, and ask you for a fair hearing for some of the things I gleaned from Plato's creation account. Let us reserve judgment on this tale about how we and the cosmos are attuned to one another in living counterpoint, until we will have taken a new look.(11)
Not wanting to test fate and fortune, nor your patience, I consulted with learned humanist colleagues about their views on the relevance of the TIMAEUS for today's concerns. Their mild encouragement sustained my enterprise for a while. However, attacked by doubts, I looked for reassurance from two pioneering young scientists. One, by name of Shuba Gopalakrishnan, is a former student of mine, the other is my son-in-law, Jeffry Stock-Windsor. Shuba is now at Rockefeller University, starting to make a name for herself in neuro-biology; Jeffry is doing the same with his doctoral research on controls and intelligent electro-magnetic structures in space, at the Mars Mission Center of North Carolina State University.
Both let me know, after having thought about my questions, that though the physiology, physics and math of the TIMAEUS are outdated, the dialogue is more than relevant to current controversies and concerns. Cognitive science and consciousness studies could gain information about how the ancients conceived the intricate connections between mind and body, exit from their respective language prisons, and find new approaches for their research. Howard Gardner, patron saint of cognitive science, took his inspiration forty years ago from another of Plato's dialogues, the MENO. But the TIMAEUS is incomparably richer, though the wealth is often hidden under mythological decor. An intelligent perusal of Plato's creation tale could go a fair stretch in moderating the fight between science and religion. Most of all, a fuller understanding of the nuances of Plato's teaching on teleology could end the stalemate between scientists who uphold an anachronistic materialist determinism in the face of accumulating empirical evidence to the contrary, and those who seek to accommodate the findings of the new physics without resorting to Bishop Berkeley's version of idealism, but see no other possibilities.(12) Approaching the dialogue with this in mind may hold at bay the fashionable, lazily fatalistic acceptance of entropy's inevitability and prevent surrender to the grim and grinning irrational forces at large in the halls of the academy no less than on TV. However, there are promising signs afoot, to wit, the slow ascendancy of organismic over mechanistic models in the life sciences and linguistics, and a new alertness in space research, ready to ascribe intelligent, self-modifying behavior to cellular, atomic and sub-atomic processes mathematics can demonstrate. The fragile confidence in an emergent order we may be able to maintain amidst the turbulence within us and around us, is invisibly strengthened by the ongoing re-discovery of Plato's rational and creative thought, in which we have the privilege to participate.
The TIMAEUS is the opening salvo in a trilogy with which Plato wanted to replace the mythic tales that formed the staple of liberal education in Athens. He sets out with shrewd determination to topple the authority of Homer and establish philosophic discourse as the high road of pedagogy. Why does he want to succeed Homer? Because, as he makes plain on many occasions, the great poet's entertaining stories about the comportment of the god's and goddesses, who enliven the Greek mental landscape, are petty lies unworthy of the dignity of the divine. By diminishing the gods, put forward by our imagination as representatives of the super-natural, we diminish ourselves and our possibilities to become fully human. Homer's tales, by pandering to cheap and often cruel pleasures, like laughing at the expense of others, contradict the heart's courtesy and violate comity.(13) Little wonder Plato feels and thinks they curtail the course of moral development. The many stories about sexual exploits, whether by Zeus himself, or by his lively offspring, though Plato finds them lacking in decorum, are not Homer's worst offense. The true offense is embedded in the causal leverage of the Iliad's plot, since the narrative depends on strife and envy, presided over by the goddess Eris, for its unfolding. Thus Homer promotes, perhaps without wanting to, the vice of pettiness. This, to Plato, is serious.
The conflict between poetic levity and philosophic gravity cannot be dissolved by laughter of the cruel sort, nor can the divine be truthfully conceived as mischievous and petty. Seduced by poetic spells, the mind comes to believe in superstitions and is eager to exchange the discipline of truth-seeking, for cheap distraction by shoddy goods. The distracted, petty mind, however, can not take delight in the good; fails miserably in the appreciation of beauty which, out of envy, it can not even acknowledge; and it can do no other than make a shabby farce of truth. Pettiness thus is on Plato's scale of values the opposite of the hau's great law of ongoing creation that gives, quite literally, if Plato and Mauss are right, life its quickening beat.
In the TIMAEUS Plato replaces the goddess of strife, Eris, with Peitho, the personification of intelligent persuasion. Peitho, not contentious Eris, is the moving principle of creation,(14) friendship, not resentment forms the social bond, and generosity, not greed, brings the individual into consonance with the city and the cosmos. In the section on Mauss's study, I implied that the great social anthropologist convinced me that the hau may well be the most compressed version of the great law of life for our species. Plato goes a step farther and, by Socratic indirection, leads the listener to entertain the notion that this very law of life stretches beyond the earthly, or atmospheric circumference and operates as the moral principle of the universe. When he says (Phaedrus: 247) "envy and jealousy stand outside the divine chorus" he readies his listeners to arrive at the notion that goodness animates the universe, and that liberality, not jealousy, is a hallmark of the divine.(15) These notions form part of standard discourse in moral philosophy. What brings a new perspective and emphasis here is the observation that it is liberality, or, in Maussian terms, obeying the spirit of the hau, which is the indispensable precondition for Sophrosyne, i.e. moderation, to strengthen comity in human affairs.
Sophrosyne has been variously translated as moderation, temperance, well-temperedness, self-control and forbearance. In a culture bent on excess and not adverse to the cult of violence, none of these terms is particularly attractive. Yet the popularly sought after attitude of "cool" is quite compatible with the habitus of moderation Sophrosyne counsels. There may be more philosophic wisdom in popular culture than meets the academic philosopher's eye. And this may be for the good since today's philosophic milieu is largely nihilist and defeatist. Still, there may be some who recall Sophrosyne's message in the Dream of Lucian that reads like an idealized/satirized version of the Socratic way: "I will adorn you with many choice jewels, namely, with modesty and moderation, justice, piety, mildness, patience, strength of intellect, fortitude and with an evenhanded affection for all that is good, and make you care for things of great, even ultimate importance. It is these things that distinguish a truly sound mind in the right way. In the long run, the past will be an open book to you and you will not suffer uncertainties what to do in the present moment. With my help you will also understand the future and know how to conduct your life. I will teach you in a short span of life all that pertains to being human and divine."(16)
This brings me to moderation's all time master: the Demiurge. Plato patterned the Creator of the Universe as the prototype of Athens' third estate, the class of artisans and artists, all excellent technicians, whose work gave to the city its immortality. The Demiurge, this most resourceful, inventive maker of the cosmos, a sort of Alexander Calder on the grand scale, is not omnipotent. Being the mythic personification of reason, or the logos, he must contend, and gain the upper hand against the cosmic forces of brute necessity and chance. The countervailing force to brute resistant matter he has at his disposal is the power of the words of intelligent persuasion, personified here by the goddess Peitho.
Plato says: "The generation of the cosmos came about through a combination of necessity and intelligence, the two commingled. Intelligence, controlling necessity, persuaded her to lead toward the best the greater part of the things coming into being; and in this way this universe was constructed from the beginning, through necessity yielding to intelligent persuasion." (Tim. 48a) The order the Demiurge produces, courtesy of Peitho, is one of subtle balances, of measure and proportion precariously maintained: of contingencies, not certainties. Unlike the omnipotent Deity of the three religions of The Book, the Demiurge is not to be worshiped but comprehended by studying the workings of his works, the job of science. Some of his creativity and skill in finding balance and proportion, is imitated by great artists and, at one remove, by scholars, in the liberal arts. His power is limited to the creative and always risky work of ordering the resistant force of matter and moderating the many whims of chance and her side-kick, the devious wandering cause. Lacking omnipotence, the Demiurge does not manage at all times to keep the universe's precarious balances from being tipped. When bad things happen, no theodicy is needed to make catastrophe intelligible.(17) What is needed, for the sake of consolation and prevention, is the kind of language which clarifies confusion, restoring, even improving the understanding of the interplay of subtle equilibria that make up life. And this is where philosophy comes in: the discipline which is Peitho's domain, where the mind is kept alert, attuned to subtlety, resilient and poised. Most of all, and most in keeping with the law of the hau, Peitho's domain is where the mind is eager to work on behalf of the ontological parity of all members of our species, persuading others to do likewise. The value of controversy, though great, can be over-emphasized at the expense of honest inquiry and opportunities for cooperation. In the blinding, deafening and unavoidable clash of special interests, philosophy's own special interest can not fail to be enhanced by concerted efforts to restore rationalism's legacy and follow Peitho.
Her criteria, as told by Plato, for persuading people to a course of action leading to good results are not complicated. First there is intent: Intelligence, or reason, as defined by classical thought, is only intelligent when it aims, in all its endeavors, at, what is, in all likelihood, the best obtainable result. To weigh such likelihood requires an open, not a closed mind. Second, intelligence, by reflection on experience (18) knows how to prudently deliberate and make the best available choice. The criteria for the right choice are pegged to the well-known, but unpopular principle, that the good of the whole takes precedence over the good of any of its parts. The sovereignty of the common good, judiciously defined, is reason's measure, the standard the power of intelligent persuasion must observe. But Reason's Measure, as defined by Plato and his predecessors, is only a more elaborate edition of Tamati Ranapiri's rhythms of exchange in the circulation of gifts, the law of the hau.
If my argument is found acceptable, it follows that philosophy's tasks include the responsibility to keep up to date with the ever more inclusive transformations of the common good wrought by the agency of time, or history. Today, these transformations are speeding up considerably through the impacts of communication technology and the globalizing of markets. Philosophers, rather than be dismayed by the disheveled state of the profession, may apply the power of intelligent persuasion to help expand the horizons of understanding from the personal and often purely local, across the special interests, many legitimate, that agitate all groups from large to small, to the world, (Geo-city, on the Internet) and the larger whole within which we have been given life. It would be a true failure of nerve, reason, and of faith, not to affirm the growing possibility for the emergence of the comity of nations into political reality. Plato's favorite metaphor of the philosopher as midwife of the truth may be well suited here to give direction to philosophic conversation. And, as Socrates makes plain in word and deed, philosophy relies on intelligence, good will, moderation and courage. It is a language art not practicable for the mean and greedy, nor the fickle and the faint of heart.
1b) TIMAEUS, in: Divini Platonis opera omnia quae extant. Marsilio Ficino, Interprete. Lugduni, apud Guillelmum Laemarium, MDXC (Greek and Latin) Frontispiece motto: "Vide Benignitatem et Severitatem Dei" (Look at the kindness and severity of God)
2) The ethologist and moral philosopher Konrad Lorenz, in his book ON AGGRESSION, extends the notion of comity into the animal world. Most of all, he shows how aggressiveness, what he termed "so-called evil," is an indispensable ingredient in sustaining and forwarding the process of life.
4) In the TIMAEUS, Socrates is the host of Hermocrates, a general with a fine reputation for peace making, earned by dissuading his fellow Sicilians from imperialist ventures; of Timaeus of Locri known for his statesmanship and eminence as philosopher(whether Timaeus of Locri is a historical or purely fictitious personage is subject of scholarly controversy); the third in the company is Critias, Plato's great-grandfather whose own grandfather was a friend of Solon, legendary law-giver and poet, who had framed the constitution, evidently with Athena's help, for the city-state of Athens. All three guests, not to mention an absent fourth one, were ready to give speeches in return for the gift they had received from Socrates the day before. Old Critias, while giving a short preview of the talk he plans to deliver on the following day, says: "Listen then, Socrates, to a story which, though strange, is entirely true, as Solon, wisest of the Seven (sages of antiquity) once affirmed....that there were great and admirable exploits performed by our city long ago, which have been forgotten through lapse of time and the destruction of human life. Greatest of all was one which it will now suit our purpose to recall, and so at once pay our debt of gratitude to you and celebrate the goddess, on her festival, with a true and merited hymn of praise."(Tim. 20 e) The subject of the talk is an old forgotten tale, related to Solon by priests in Egypt, how Athenian virtue was able to save the Mediterranean world from enslavement by the invading power: imperialist Atlantis.
6) The human soul is a miniature analogue to the world soul, the animating principle of the cosmos. And its highest capability is intellect, or reason. Timaeus tells the company: "Now we ought to think of the most sovereign part of our soul as god's gift to us, given to be our guiding spirit. This, of course, is the type of soul that, as we maintain, resides in the top part of our bodies. It raises us up away from the earth and toward what is akin to us in heaven. In saying this, we speak absolutely correctly. For it is from heaven, the place from which our souls were originally born, that the divine part suspends our head, i.e., our root, and so keeps our whole body erect......And to the extent that human nature can partake of immortality, he can in no way fail to achieve this: constantly caring for his divine part as he does, keeping well-ordered the guiding spirit that lives within him, he must indeed be supremely happy. Now there is but one way to care for anything, and that is to provide for it the nourishment and the motions proper to it. And the motions that have an affinity to the divine part within us are the thoughts and revolutions of the universe." (TIMAEUS, 90 a; Donald J. Zeyl, tr., in Plato, Complete Works, Hackett, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1997.)
7) The question Mauss seeks to answer "au fond" with his study on gift exchange is : what is the juridical and economic rule (regle de droit et d'interet) that obliges repayment for a gift? What kind of power is it in the thing given that makes the recipient pay recompense? Tamati Ranapiri's statement on the hau is seen by him as valid answer which is subsequently treated as the universal law of exchange.
8) For the sake of comparison, here are Tamati Ranapiri's famous and enigmatic words in the rendition of Marshall Sahlins in his "The Spirit of the Gift: une Explication de Texte" (pp 998-1012, Echanges et Communications, Vol.II, 1970, Mouton, The Hague, Paris):
"I will explain it carefully to you. Now, you have something valuable which you give to me. We have no agreement about payment. Now, I give it to someone else, and, a long time passes, and that man thinks he has the valuable, he should give some repayment to me, and so he does so. Now, that valuable which was given to me, that is the product of [hau] the valuable which was given to me [by you] before. I must give it to you. It would not be right for me to keep it for myself, whether it be something very good, or bad, that valuable must be given to you from me. Because that valuable is a return on [hau] the other valuable. If I should hang onto that valuable for myself, I will become ill [or die]. This is all."
9) Prestation is a French rather than an English word the translator of the essay, with circumspection, decided to retain. Here in this sentence "This signifies that the return gift is really the 'spirit' of the original prestation returning to the point of its departure", prestation simply has the meaning of gift, or present, with the possible enlargement that it may include the formal notion of the presentation of the gift. The noun 'prestation' in conversational, as well as literary French covers quite a range of significations, e.g., benefit, allowance, fee, tax, levy. When used in the context of sports or the arts prestation is a synonym for performance. Also, "une prestation de serment" is to take (or give, or perform) an oath. As the last expression makes clear, "prestation" is a noun that combines opposite meanings: gift as well as debt, benefit as well burden (even poison or curse). Mauss's choice of the term is almost uncannily 'on target', since it re-introduces into social science discourse the "primary notions" positivism shuns, where opposites still have their vital connection and thinking involves division as well as collection.
10) Plato made three attempts to arrive at a persuasive
account of how to enact the eternal order on the worldly stage: in the
PHAEDO and also the SYMPOSIUM by taking the inner turn, regarding this
world as relatively unimportant and concentrating on the transcendent
eternal realities. The PHAEDRUS changes venue and a balance between this
life and the next is made plausible. In the Republic, the caricature of
an ideal state is depicted with, accepting Walter Burkert's view, ironic
intent. In the projected trilogy, perhaps even tetralogy, which opens
with the TIMAEUS, the mature political thought of Plato begins to find
shape. Alas, the project was aborted midway into the second dialogue,
the CRITIAS (the third one would have been the HERMOCRATES). Why? Speculation
abounds. A simple answer is that Plato could not reconcile the demiurge
of the TIMAEUS with the Zeus of the CRITIAS: the two conceptions of divine
power conflict, and even a great artist, like Plato, could not establish
enough continuity between them to make them plausible. This may have discouraged
him. He also simply may have lost patience with the elaborate pseudo-historic
fictions required by his original plan. So Plato took to writing instead
the lengthy, heavy treatise of the "LAWS," where he is not constrained
by an ambitious literary design, and can give free rein to the philosopher's
nemesis: the urge to legislate.
11) A high point of this order is reached in Aeschylus'
EUMENIDES when Athena succeeds to calm the Furies's bloodlust for due
vengeance by her powers of rational persuasion when she says to them:
"I will not weary of speaking good words, Never shall you say that you,
the elder divinities were cast out of this land by me, the younger, and
by my mortal citizens, with dishonor.
12) Teleology today is a concept in ill repute. In
Greek philosophy telos simply means goal, and whatever contributes to
the reaching of this goal is teleological. The super-natural is rational,
nature is permeated by reason, or intelligence, and it is the nature of
intelligence to always aim for the best obtainable outcome. For Plato,
it would seem, not to accept the teleological nature of reality is a sign
of lack of intelligence, or of a stubborn perversity of mind. In the last
half century, a strong case for Plato's rational teleology has been made,
e.g., by Mssrs. F.M. Cornford and Glenn R. Morrow; and, most recently,
by T.K. Seung in his important monograph: PLATO RE-DISCOVERED, Human Value
and Social Order, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD., 1996.
13) Such violations of the human bond come in innumerable forms, both public and private, and are facilitated by callousness and coarse manners. Plato's determination to fight against a cultural tradition which, in his view, contributed to making violence and cruelty more acceptable to people, may be traceable to personal experience: Diogenes Laertius, in his "Life of Plato," reports that Plato's mother was sexually assaulted by her husband while with child. Apollo appeared in the father's dream soon after the incident and forbade such violent behavior. Plato may well have felt he owed his life to Apollo's intervention. Whether his fair-mindedness toward women is related to a son's indignation at his father's behavior toward his mother is not easy to tell, but does not strike me as unlikely.(The view of 'women as second sex' Timaeus articulates in his 'likely account' at Tim. 91 supra, should not be taken as Plato's own, but as a courtesy to relay the opinion of Socrates' guest.) The quest for moderation, however, goes beyond Plato's personality, since his experience repeats Apollo's own, with his parents: mild Leto and impetuous Zeus. In the LAWS, sexual abuse carries severe penalties. Inasmuch as Plato aims in the LAWS to apply the Peitho principle, the principle of intelligent persuasion, over coercive threats, he resorts to exhortation: "A man must be careful all through his life, and especially during the time when he is begetting, to commit no act involving either bodily ailment or violence and injustice; for these he will inevitably stamp on the souls (dispositions) and bodies of his offspring." (Laws, 755d) Concerning Sophrosyne, Plato seems to have been quite aware that will power per se is insufficient to quiet the soul and make it compatible with moderation. So, in the Phaedrus, he has Socrates pray to the nature god Pan, in a plea for granting him the power of moderation: "Dear Pan and ye other gods who inhabit here (a lovely spot in the countryside), grant that I may become fair within, and that my external circumstances be such as to further my inward health. May I esteem the wise man rich, and allow me no more wealth than a man of moderation can bear and manage." (PHAEDRUS: 279 infra)
14) Plato's battle against the entrenched Homeric tradition, in the TIMAEUS and the CRITIAS, is not tied to censorship but to the principle of fair and open competition. He is following with this approach in the footsteps of Heraclitus who, in fragmentary and oracular ways, co-opted mythic language in his fight to liberate human intelligence from the stultifying, obscurantist charms of priestcraft and poetic-vatic deceptions.
15) Eris, goddess of strife, the older Greek literary tradition maintains, serves the higher ranking goddess of justice, Athena. Eris's son, Orcus, is appointed to punish perjurers and all who have broken their promises and oaths. Plato, in the TIMAEUS does not change, or add to the traditional accounts of Eris. The goddess Peitho, however, is Plato's invention. She succeeds Eris and the principle of strife is replaced by the principle of cooperation. In Greek, the verb peitho means to persuade, to win over, to entreat, to appease, even to propitiate, regardless of whether the intended end is good or bad. Just like rhetoric, the art of persuasion by all available means, peitho, though an attribute of Athena, is a morally ambivalent term. Plato purified the term, reducing it to univalence, and turned it into the name of his mythic personification of the intelligent power of persuasion. As a supernatural force, Peitho is instrumental in the Demiurge's labors of creation. Her creative function, as described in the TIMAEUS, also bears a close resemblance to the creative Word in the five opening verses of the gospel of St. John.- In the old literary tradition, Hesiod (Theogony, 79-97) makes honey-tongued eloquence, advising with soft words contending parties to desist from quarrel, a gift of the Muse Calliope.
17) Theodicy became unavoidable after the Demiurge had been fused by neo-platonist theologians with Christianity's doctrine of the Trinity. Yet the extent to which rationality has moderated the voluntaristic bent of the scriptural conception of divinity and introjected philosophically modified poetic values, is stunning. Plato's persuasiveness can still be heard in the prologue of Bonaventure's BREVILOQUIUM where the mind of God the Artist is described:
"And so the whole course of the universe is shown by the Scriptures to run in a most orderly fashion from beginning to end, like a beautifully composed poem (song) in which every mind may discover, through the succession of events, the diversity, multiplicity, and justice, the order, recitude, and beauty, of the countless divine decrees that proceed from God's wisdom ruling the universe. But as no one can appreciate the beauty of a poem unless his vision embraces it as a whole, so no one can see the beauty of the orderly governance of creation unless he has an integral view of it." (THE WORKS OF BONAVENTURE, ed. de Vinck, II, 11-12.)
18) Kalidasa, in Shakuntala, tells a parable: On the village commons, a sage and an elephant meet. The sage says, "this is not an elephant" and the elephant shakes his head, leaves and tunnels back into the forest. Now, after some time has passed, the sage begins to wonder about the experience. He looks down at the footprints which are quite large and distinct. Recognizing them for what they were he announces that the elephant had indeed been an elephant.- Socrates reasons in the Theaetetus (Thet. 186d): "Then knowledge is to be found not in the experiences but in the process of reasoning about them; it is here, seemingly, not in the experiences, that it is possible to grasp being and truth."