Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Chaos and goodness: from Hesiod and Plato to Christianity and Nietzsche

What does Nietzsche mean when he says: ‘Christianity is Platonism for the masses’? An interesting essay, Chaos corrected: Hesiod in Plato’s creation myth, by E.E. Pender, gives us an idea.

The subject of the essay is Plato’s attempt, particularly in the Timaeus but also in the Republic, to establish a new creation myth for the Greeks that would supplant Hesiod’s Theogony, which Plato objected to on the grounds that it wasn’t sufficiently edifying and, indeed, that Hesiod’s depiction of the gods and their role in creating the universe was fundamentally wrong.

In particular, according to Pender, what Plato wants to correct in Hesiod is the ‘moral chaos’ of the Theogony, in which the gods are often portrayed as jealous and spiteful, engaged in plotting, deception and violence. For Plato, god is incapable of malevolence. He is by nature good and his motive in creating the universe is to advance goodness.
‘Unlike Hesiod’s Ouranos, Kronos, and Zeus, Plato’s supreme god is not seeking to create a world order that will allow him simply to gain and then hold on to power. This god and those he creates are themselves good and their aim is to create further goodness.’
Furthermore, Pender says, into Hesiod’s universe, in which chaos is the primal force and strife and power politics define the relationship between the gods, Plato wants to interject a benign and rational being – a demiurge or craftsman-father – able to impose harmony and rationality. Whereas Hesiod identifies a universe permeated by disorder, out of which an ordered cosmos can never fully emerge, Plato sees a world infused with goodness, always striving to achieve perfectibility.

Plato also wants to correct Hesiod when it comes to defining the attributes of the Muses, the goddesses that inspire in the creation of art and the pursuit of knowledge. In Hesiod, the Muses exist to soothe grief and help men forget their troubles; but in Plato they lose their psychogogic qualities and acquire a more transcendental and metaphysical role, which is to guide the human soul (through philosophy and philosophical exercises) towards divine harmony and reason.

In Plato’s creation tale, then, Pender concludes, ‘the principle of goodness is eternally present, the triumph of order and reason is assured by design, human beings have the means to become like gods’.

In which case, to return to Nietzsche and his ‘Christianity is Platonism for the masses’ – a statement, it’s worth stressing, intended to insult Christianity, Platonism and the masses; we can now see that it is not a long road to travel to get from Plato’s ‘eternally present principle of goodness’ to Christianity’s depiction of God as the epitome of goodness; from Plato’s ‘triumph of order and reason assured by design’ to Christianity’s God the Creator and Jesus the embodiment of divine logos; or from ‘human beings [that] have the means to become like gods’, to Christianity’s belief in transfiguration, in which man, innately good (i.e. even if not born good, then always capable of it), aspires, via communion with God or redemption through Jesus, to become suffused by the divine.

* Chaos corrected: Hesiod in Plato’s creation myth is contained in the book Plato and Hesiod, which you can download as a PDF from here.


Hermes said...

Great post, John. I recently read the Edwin Hatch classic, which can be found here:

He makes this concluding statement:

"venture to claim to have shown that a large part of what are sometimes called Christian doctrines, and many usages which have prevailed and continue to prevail in the Christian Church, are in reality Greek theories and Greek usages changed in form and colour by the influence of primitive Christianity, but in their essence Greek still. Greece lives; not only [in] its dying life in the lecture-rooms of Universities, but also with a more vigorous growth in the Christian Churches. It lives there, not by virtue of the survival within them of this or that fragment of ancient teaching, and this or that fragment of an ancient usage, but by the continuance in them of great modes and phases of thought, of great drifts and tendencies, of large assumptions. Its ethics of right and duty, rather than of love and self-sacrifice; its theology, whose God is more metaphysical than spiritual—whose essence it is important to define . . . —in all these, and the ideas that underlie them, Greece lives."

Although a little outdated it is a powerful work. As a Protestant, the only part he really gets wrong is that Hellenism did not corrupt the simple faith of the early Christians, but it greatly enhanced it.

John Akritas said...

Looks like an interesting work. I, too, have become dissatisfied with a lot of contemporary approaches to classical Greek culture and have started going further back to see what previous generations of scholars wrote. I've recently got a copy of Jacob Burckhardt's The Greeks and Greek civilisation.

Hermes said...

That Burckhardt book is very good; however, he suffers from a common mistake in those days where they stop at about 200 BC. Try Werner Jaeger. His Ideals series and the book on Aristotle and later Christianity, is brilliant. But even he does not go far enough. He stops at around 300 AD. One must go further to at least Proclus, Damascius, Dionysios Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus.

The introduction of the God-Man into Greek thought, as an embodiment of Reason and Truth, is an incredible innovation. The best novelists and film directors know that to get an idea understood or have the audience engage with the idea, it is easier to do this using a hero embodying those ideals, rather than peddling dry abstract theories.

Mike Crahart said...

The Hellenistic origins of Christianity is something that I'm really delving into at present and something thats frequesntly and often heatedly discussed on my Facebook Group Page 'Hellenismos Aionios' (Please feel free to join).