Why We Need to Read and Teach Plato
Plato is simply indispensable to a Catholic education, both as a precursor to Faith and a guide along the way to Heaven.
In the weird time of my life when I was working on my dissertation, I landed a job tutoring the children of a multi-millionaire traditionalist Catholic in Santa Cruz, Calif. I was charged to teach all six of them all of the liberal arts as well as theology. One day I came to the house, and all the literature books in the library were replaced with lives of the saints. I asked the father of my students what had happened to the library, and he said something like: “Mr. Kozinski, I realized last night that all that matters is my children’s salvation, that we are saved by being good Christians, and that the best Christians are the Saints, so they should be reading saints’ lives—not Charles Dickens!”
Even though it is true that all that really matters is our salvation, there is something off with this mentality. But what is it precisely? Perhaps it has to do with the paradox that even though happiness is what we desire above all, if we try too hard to obtain happiness, concentrating on it alone as a goal instead of just doing the things that we love and trying to do God’s will, we end up miserable. Perhaps it is the same with salvation—we must desire salvation, surely, but we attain it by desiring God for His own sake, more than for our salvation.
Although revelation, faith, grace and the sacraments are necessary for our salvation, they are somehow not sufficient. But why not? We have heard the story of Abraham Lincoln being educated on nothing but the Bible and Shakespeare. Prescinding from the exact truth of this narrative for a moment, why not just the Bible? Even if we say that of the two, the Bible is vastly more important for our souls, is not our intuition that the Bible cannot really be read profitably without Shakespeare, that is to say, without something like a liberal arts education, which, while not teaching us about the inner life of God and His dealings with human beings, allows us to understand the human beings and the world to which the God of the Bible revealed Himself? How can we really understand the Gospels if we do not have a deep and accurate understanding of the human nature that God subsumed into His Divinity, a human nature about which no one, except perhaps for Plato, wrote more profoundly, comprehensively, and accurately than Shakespeare?
We are born separated from God, and we are saved through grace, which makes us one again with the Divine and once again children of God, and it is this reestablished kinship with God that constitutes our salvation. But before grace can render us children of God and divinize our souls, our souls must yearn for this sonship, this divinization. What makes us so yearn? A sense of the inadequacy and shadow-like nature of this world, an intense feeling of alienation and homesickness, a profound intuition that there is much more to reality than what ordinarily appears to us. Plato’s dialogues, I would argue, more than any other non-revealed writing man has ever penned, evoke these senses, feelings, and intuitions.
We know that Jesus Christ is the answer to the ultimate desires of the human heart. But what about the question? Can there really be an answer without a prior question? And can an answer be an answer for me, unless it is the answer to my question. Jesus Christ is our Salvation, but is He salvation for me unless I first desire this salvation. Eric Voegelin, the great twentieth-century German Platonist, wrote that, “There is no answer to the Question other than the Mystery as it becomes luminous in the acts of questioning”; Archbishop Bruno Forte once said, “What really is important in life is not so much to provide answers, as to discern true questions. When true questions are found, they themselves open the heart to the mystery”; and Origen, that great Platonist eunuch for the kingdom, wrote: “Every true question is like the lance which pierces the side of Christ causing blood and water to flow forth.” Paradoxically, then, the answers to spiritual questions are found in the questions themselves, or better, in the very act of questioning, the art of which was brought to perfection in practice by Plato’s teacher Socrates, and in writing by Plato himself.
Along with how to inquire into Being, Plato teaches us the essential spiritual and metaphysical truths, as well as the mystical habit of mind and soul, without which Faith and Grace are stillborn in our souls. We must believe in the biblical God through obedience to revelation, but do we not need to some extent know that He exists, and know it intimately and existentially? If we believe by Faith and even know by experience that He exists, but we cannot reconcile the revealed doctrine of His providential care of all material things with what our modernized, materialized, mechanized, and Darwinized minds tells us, then we are really part atheist in our souls. If we believe by Faith that He cares for us, but everything in us but our Faith tends to see human power in perpetual battle with inexorable chaos, then we suffer from a dividedness of soul that is spiritually perilous. If our Faith tells us that absolute Goodness exists, but our souls cannot see anything absolute in a world that has been flattened, demythologized, and disenchanted through the imposition of an immanent frame, then we are in danger of believing with one divinely infused part of us, and disbelieving with all the other natural powers. We are told in the Scriptures and the Church that we have an eternal soul, but can we be truly faithful to a truth that is alien to our everyday awareness and intellectual paradigms? God is spirit, we are told by the Church, and so we must believe that there is more to reality than matter, but compared to the men of the ancient and medieval worlds, we tend towards an unconscious materialism.
Plato can teach us to see “the world in a grain of sand” and “eternity in an hour” as the great mystic and Platonist William Blake wrote. He can teach us to see the absolute through the relative, the immutable in the mutable, the divine in the profane. It is Plato above all who teaches us those natural truths dispositive to the fruitful reception of revelation: the existence of the Absolute Good, His providential interest and care for the world, the existence and immortality of the soul, the symbolically charged character of all material things. We cannot be saved, or it will be much harder than it has to be, if we do not experience these realities, even if we ultimately accept them in obedience to Divine Faith.
In short, in Plato’s capacity to prompt recognition of our alienation from true reality, to provide us a mystical glimpse of this true reality, to evoke a perpetual yearning for it, and enable us, through the dialectical method of inquiry he invented, to achieve some participation in it by a diligent ascesis of mind, he is simply indispensable, both as a precursor to Faith, and a guide along the way to our heavenly home.
This is an abridged version of an article originally published in the Imaginative Conservative. The speech upon which the article is based can be heard here: https://wyomingcatholiccollege.podbean.com/e/lecture-is-reading-plato-necessary-for-salvation-by-dr-thaddeus-kozinski/.
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