Classics with the transcendence ripped out

This comment piece is in this week’s Church Times.

A debate between Boris Johnson and Mary Beard, on the virtues of Greece and Rome, recently drew an audience of thousands. Greek philosophy and classical history routinely secure primetime slots on TV and radio. Books on similar themes abound. The Classics hold a surprising fascination for we twenty-first century moderns.

And yet, contemporary presentations of the ancient legacy commonly miss an element that was fundamental to figures such as Plato and Aristotle, Zeno and Hypatia: the quest to know the transcendent. Without that vertical striving, they judged a philosophy rootless or aimless.

Maybe the likes of Johnson and Beard get nervous when it comes to gods or metaphysics. Reputations are at stake. But the loss of this crucial dynamic matters because it goes to the heart of much with which we today are struggling, from mental health to climate change. If the Greeks have anything for us, it might well be the element that has gone missing. And it’s one that should concern Christians too.

Most of the media treats the Classics in much the same way as it treats matters from the history of science to issues in ethics: cut from the discussion is anything that fails to fit into a secular narrative. Take the presentation of the ancient philosophers. Broadly speaking, it’s said that they developed human reason, overcame religious superstition, and thereby liberated the human mind. You could say: logic plus democracy equals progressive godlessness. Science and reason are treated as diamond-sharp tools that surgically unpick the myths and metaphysics of the past. Public discourse has developed an unthinking habit that pitches enlightenment against divinity.

But the ancient philosophers had an entirely different vision of things, one that might refresh our vision now. They saw reason as a gift that reveals an extraordinary truth: the human mind can share in a cosmic reality that far exceeds its own understanding. Reason’s greatest capacity is to contemplate ever wider horizons, as Iris Murdoch put it; to open onto transcendent vistas upon which the soul can gaze and feed. Consider how Lucretius celebrates Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism, who is today often praised as a poster boy for modern atheism: “The keen force of his mind conquered, and he advanced far beyond the blazing walls of the universe and traversed the immense whole with his soul.” Ancient Epicureans kept their founder’s birthday like a saint’s day, and granted his request to honour his “holy body”.

It’s why Aristotle said that philosophy begins and ends in wonder not empirical evidence, or knock-out proofs, or self-consistent conclusions. It’s why figures like Thales and Pythagoras rushed to the temple when they gained insights into magnets or music: they were not indulging superstitious customs that die hard, but were reframing religious practices as thanksgivings for sharing in the cosmic mind. Similarly, nature is not primarily for us to exploit, but rather for us to connect with and know – an attitude that it’s clear we’ve lost, if you think about our failures to meet challenges such as climate change.

If we could regain the ancients’ transcendent imagination, we might regain an immanent experience of our connection with nature. Caring for the environment might cease to feel like a moral burden and come to be felt as a joyful good. I suspect such a sensibility would make Christianity more attractive too: less a question of judging creedal probabilities about the resurrection or miracles; more a welcome to engage deeply in a felt sense of God.

To put it another way, what ancient philosophy offers is a pathway towards the transformation of your soul. Indeed, it nurtures the sense of having a soul, another perception that the secular narrative undermines. The soul can be likened to the liveliness of a poem — the very poetry, you might say. It is conveyed, but exceeds the material “body” of the poem, namely the words.

An undeveloped soul is like an unfinished poem. It’s flat. It feels empty because its full potential is not realized. People are similar, the ancient philosophers realized. Only worse, they suffer from the emptiness too. The loss may manifest itself in addictions, or persistent and crippling anxieties, or a diminished and depressed sense of vitality. So they developed a range of practices – including meditations and visualizations, rituals and rites, community-living and reason – to awaken the soul. Many of these are becoming popular again, though sadly, often outside of Christian circles.

In fact, it’s more accurate to think of ancient philosophers as monks and nuns. They lived a way of life that was dedicated to manifesting a vision of reality in their lives. Their therapy was not primarily designed to get you through the day. It was designed to release you from a restricted view of things in order to become aware of the deeper pulse upon which life rest, in which we live and move and have our being, as the Stoics used to say before St Paul borrowed the expression.

Again, this has direct implications for today. Take Stoicism. It’s core advice was to learn to notice how you respond to what happens to you. It was the inspiration behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, now widely available on the NHS. And yet, longitudinal studies of CBT’s efficacy are increasingly showing that it does not deliver what it promised. The bigger picture held by the ancient philosophers could help explain why. If you cut out the divine element, as the secular censor does, the therapy loses its efficacy and ground.

Socrates became wise when he appreciated how little he understood. He realised that although the scientists of his day could theorize about the cosmos, and although the engineers of Athens could construct the Parthenon in nine impressive years, this ability to manipulate was being mistaken for wisdom about what the soul requires. He learnt that a civilisation’s moment of greatest peril is when it is at its material peak. Human hubris then feels it can master all things, and exceed the ways of the gods. It’s another lesson the Classics, in their fullness, might prompt us to consider.

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