Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part IV

The Platonic Afflatus of Christianity…

Clement of Alexandria and the Phaedo

Platonic Paradoxes:  Night and Day; Sleeping and Waking; Dream and “Reality”…

The Way of the Cross and the Way of the Philosopher…

     It is impossible to overestimate the importance of these ideas for later Western thought.  The whole Christian ethos of contemptus mundiof mortifying the body and anesthetizing the physical senses, of dying to the world and the flesh with Christ on the Cross and in baptism–is profoundly indebted to them, insofar as the early Fathers expressly read the teaching of Plato in general and the Phaedo in particular into the Christian narrative and doctrine.

Since the Platonic afflatus of Christianity is so little understood by contemporary Christians, not excluding the Church’s hierarchs, I cannot resist giving you just a few examples.  For the sake of economy I limit myself here to the early Christian Apologist and Father of the Church, Clement of Alexandria, writing at the end of the second century A.D. (though all of the Christian theologians from the second to the fourth centuries are similarly indebted to the Platonic Muse).

In his great summa, The Stromata, Clement writes:

…The Saviour Himself enjoins, “Watch therefore, for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” [Matt. 24: 42]; as much as to say, “Study how to live, and endeavour to separate the soul from the body.”  (V, xiv).

The quotation is, of course, from Phaedo 67 e, where the goal of the rational life is defined in terms of the soul’s emancipation from the body at death, of which the philosopher’s vocation is a protracted rehearsal.

The whole Platonic gospel of the deliverance of the embodied soul from the earthly cave of shadows and illusions into the ethereal daylight to which it belongs is thus placed by Clement in the mouth of Christ, and identified as the “True Philosophy”:

Now the sacrifice which is acceptable to God is the unswerving abstraction of the mind from the body and its passions [Phaed. 64 c-65 d].  This is the really true piety.  And is not, on this account, philosophy rightly called by Socrates the practice of death? [Phaed. 64 a; 67 e]  For he who neither employs his eyes in the exercise of thought, nor draws anything from his other senses, but with the purified mind alone apprehends reality [Phaed. 65 e-66 a, 82 d-84 b], practises the True Philosophy.  (Strom. V, xi)

The promise of Greek philosophy is thus fulfilled by the “True Philosopher” Christ and His “Gnostic” followers.  Echoing the Phaedo once again, Clement writes:

Just as death is the separation of the soul from the body, so is Gnosis as it were the rational death urging the spirit away, separating it from the passions,…so that it may say with confidence to God, “I live as Thou wishest.”  (Strom. VII, xii)

But Christ’s “True Philosophy” continues nevertheless to be expressed by Clement in terms of the well-known paradoxes of Platonism.  We have just noted one of them, in the inverse relationship between outer sight and hearing and the inner senses.  We have already encountered another in Cicero’s Somnium, in which life on earth is called by Scipio “death”, whereas the death that liberates the soul from its carnal prison ushers in the true life of the spirit in heaven.  According to another, related paradox, our waking consciousness is really a dream of unreality, and it is only in sleep and dream, when our physical senses are anaesthetized, that our inner spiritual senses are awakened and, with them, we perceive reality.

The most famous locus of this complex of ideas is in Socrates’ exposition of the allegory of the caveRepublic, to whose teaching Clement refers approvingly in the Stromata: 

Plato, again, in the seventh book of the Republic, has called “the day here nocturnal”, as I suppose, on account of “the world-rulers of this darkness” [Eph. 6:12], and the descent of the soul into the body, sleep and death, similarly with Heraclitus…(Strom. V, xiv)

But if the “day here” is, by comparison to the “true day”, a dream of unreality, yet, as Clement writes in his Paedagogus,

Turning in on ourselves [Phaed. 65 c], illumining the eyes of the hidden man, and gazing on truth itself,…we may clearly and intelligibly reveal such dreams as are true. (Paed. II, ix)

The distinction between the false dream that haunts the shadow-world of the embodied soul and the true dreams revealed to the inward-turning intelligence was a commonplace of the pagan Middle Platonism of Clement’s time.  The late-second-century Middle Platonist Maximus of Tyre provides a contemporary statement of the theme:

Our life in this realm is simply and truly a dream; the soul, buried in the body and overwhelmed by stupor and repletion, perceives reality with the dim approximation of one dreaming…but should there be a pure and sober soul, little fuddled by the stupor and repletion of this world, then it is surely reasonable to suppose that the dreams which it encounters…are clear and distinct and close to the truth.

…the freedom of the good man’s soul from the pleasures and sufferings of the body, when by escaping from the tumult of the physical world and turning its intelligence in on itself [Phaed. 65 c], [allows it to] re-encounter pure Truth, free from imperfect images.  This does indeed resemble a beautiful slumber, full of vivid dreams…[Then] Reason…reawakens the understanding [of the soul], which is dim and constrained and torpid. (Orations, passim)

The complementary relationship between the inner and outer faculties suggested by this passage was another ubiquitous Middle Platonic theme.  As the birth of the soul in the body is the sleep of mind, so, in the imagery of Plato and his followers, by turning away from the bodily senses the mind lulls them into somnolence, and reawakens its own inner, spiritual sensorium:  “You must put the life of the senses to sleep”, enjoins the pagan Middle Platonist Celsus (c. 160 A.D.), “and lift up your minds, turn away from the flesh and open the eyes of your souls [Rep. 533 d].  By those means alone will you be able to see God.” (The True Doctrine)

Clement expresses a variant of the same idea as follows:

The need of sleep is not in the soul…But while the body is relieved by sleep, the soul meanwhile not acting through the body is able to exercise intelligence within itself,…undistracted [Phaed. 66 a] by the affections of the body, and counseling with itself in the best manner…From the practice of wakefulness, it grasps eternity. (Paed. II, ix)

As the reader is invited to infer, then, it is the wakefulness of the Platonic inner man, unclouded by the physical senses, that Clement understands by the vigilance enjoined by Christ in Matt. 24: 42 (Strom. V, xiv, above).  The wakefulness of the intelligence, that is, entails the “sleep” of the physical senses, which is like the “death” of the body, insofar as it releases the mind from the body’s soporific influence, and allows the soul to live again as it was originally intended to, “alone” and unencumbered:

And for this reason…they have called night Euphrone [cheerful, genial]; since then the soul, released from the perceptions of sense, turns in on itself (Phaed. 65 c), and has a truer hold on wisdom.  Wherefore the mysteries are for the most part celebrated at night, indicating the withdrawal of the soul from the body, which takes place [in sleep] at night…And as to what, again, they say of sleep, the very same things are to be understood of death.  For each exhibits the departure of the soul…; as we may also understand this in Heraclitus:  “Man touches truth in himself, when dead and his light quenched; and alive, when he sleeps he touches the truth of the dead; and awake, when he shuts his eyes.” (Strom., IV, xxii)

Other allusions to the Phaedo reveal the same perfunctory Christianizations of these conventional Platonic themes.  Clement records Plato’s warning that “each pleasure and pain nails the soul to the tomb of the body” (Phaed. 83 d). This suggests the New Testament imagery of the Cross, which Clement explicitly discovers in the Platonic exhortation (a calculated paraphrase) to “crucify the passions”.

In Clement’s mind, the way of the Cross and the way of the philosopher are one:

  For if you would loose, and withdraw, and separate yourself [Phaed. 64 c, e, 65 c-d]–for this is what the Cross means–from your life in this world, you will possess it.  And this would be the practice of death [Phaed. 67 e]. (Strom. II, xx)

Thus, the Christian who mortifies the flesh with Christ on the Cross, losing his life in order to save his soul, pursues the identical vocation as the Platonic sage who “rehearses death” as prescribed in thePhaedo, by turning away from the distractions of the body, the senses, and the world and withdrawing into the psychic depths, where the mind may live in tranquil solitude.

Throughout The Stromata, the Pauline ideal of deadness to this world is in this way equated by Clement with the Platonic philosopher’s curriculum of death:

The severance, therefore, of the soul from the body, made a life-long study, produces in the philosopher Gnostic alacrity, so the he is easily able to bear natural death, which is the dissolution of the chains which bind the soul to the body.  “For the world is crucified to me, and I to the world”, the apostle says [Gal. 6: 14]. (Strom. IV, iii)