Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Jesus and Plato Paper...

Recently I was asked to compare Plato's perception of reality as articulated in "The Allegory of the Cave" with that of Jesus' as articulated in "The Gospel of John." In light of this request I have written the following paper. (I have included the entire paper below because the previous link was password protected.)

The purpose of this paper is to examine the similarities and differences in Jesus’ and Plato’s perception of reality. This analysis of Jesus’ and Plato’s thought will be based on the Gospel of John and The Allegory of the Cave. Plato’s Allegory was written hundreds of years before Jesus walked the earth and yet the areas of overlap between these two men’s teaching is striking. The first part of this paper will focus in on five areas of overlap between JPR and PPR. In fact it is the contention of this author that there are many more areas of similarities between the two than there are differences. However, the differences that exist are fairly significant and two of these will be addressed in the second part of this paper.

In The Allegory Plato describes the prisoners in the cave as being unable to turn their heads and behold what is going on behind them. Plato is addressing people’s inability to really understand reality because of their present circumstances. These prisoners did not realize that they were bound and that their perception of reality was inaccurate. They assumed based on all the empirical data that reality was what they were beholding. This is similar to what Jesus taught related to the nature of sin when he confronted the religious people of his day. In John 8:34 Jesus said that those who commit sin are in bondage to sin. In other words, since all people sin and are thus in bondage to sin they are unable to have an accurate perception of reality. Much like the prisoners in Plato’s allegory, these religious people that Jesus interacted with, did not feel enslaved, nevertheless this did not change the reality of their enslavement and their inability to rightly perceive things.

Another area of similarity between JPR and PPR can be seen in Plato’s description of what would happen if one of the prisoners beheld the fire. The prisoner would desire to “escape and turn back to the things which he could see distinctly, convinced that they were really clearer than these other objects now being shown to him.” Plato says that the prisoner would “suffer pain and vexation” if he were forced to go beyond the fire into the direct sunlight. In other words, the prisoner has an internal, intrinsic desire for the “false reality” and when he sees the “sunlight”, even though it is true, he is repulsed by it. This is very similar to JPR as remembered by John. In John 3:19-20 we read, “…the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” Much like the prisoner in the cave who is repulsed by the experience of the sunlight, so those who see the light reject the light because they loved the darkness. For both Jesus and Plato “truth” is not something that is merely intellectually satisfying, it is something that must be enjoyed on the affectional level as well.

The third area of overlap in JPR and PPR can be seen in Plato’s description of the process that the freed prisoner would go through once he was brought into the sunlight. At first “his eyes would be so full of its radiance that he could not see a single one of the things that he was now told are real.” However, after some time the prisoner’s ability to accurately behold reality would increase. Two specific examples in the teaching of Jesus illustrate how this process worked for his first disciples. The first example is found in John 2:19 where Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” We are then told that the disciples did not fully understand that he was talking about his physical body until after his resurrection (cf. John 2:22). They went through a process of being able to accurately assess “truth.” The second specific example that shows that JPR was one in which a person increasingly arrives at an ability to rightly assess truth can be seen in John 16:12. Jesus tells his disciples, “I have many thing to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” In other words, there was truth that the disciples needed to know, but as of yet they were not in a position to receive it. They needed to go through a process of being able to rightly assess and appreciate truth, much like the “freed prisoner” in Plato’s Allegory.

The fourth area of overlap between JPR and PPR can be seen in what would happen to the freed prisoner after he recognizes true reality. The freed prisoner would “surely think himself happy in the change” and be sorry for his fellow prisoners. The freedman would not desire or “covet” the things of the shadow world, instead he would be “like Homer’s Achilles” and “endure anything rather than go back to his old beliefs and live the old way.”
JPR was one that was very similar to this. It is perhaps best illustrated in his healing of a blind man in John 9. When the blind man was healed he was willing to suffer the ridicule and ostracization of the community for the sake of his experience of truth. He did not care ultimately about receiving the commendation (John 9:30-34) of those who were still blind (cf. John 9:39-41). The man knew that his experience of truth had forever changed him and much like the freedman from The Allegory would “endure anything rather than go back to his old beliefs and live the old way.”

The fifth area of overlap between JPR and PPR can be seen in how the fellow prisoners of the freedman would treat him when he returned to the cave and gave his assessment of reality. Plato points out that the prisoners would “laugh at him [the freedman] and say that he had gone up only to come back with his sight ruined; it was worth no one’s while even to attempt the ascent. If they could lay hands on the man who was trying to set them free and lead them up, they would kill him.” JPR is very much in alignment with this particular Platonic perception of reality. The similarity is clearly illustrated in Jesus’ teaching to his disciples that the world would hate them (cf. John 15:18-19). The reason that the world would hate them is because even though they still function in the world, their understanding of reality has been so transformed that it is though they are not of the world. Much like Plato’s freedman who returns to the cave, the disciples have experienced true reality. When this experience of true reality is shared with others it often causes the recipients to be enraged and seek to kill the messenger. This is because they love the darkness and do not want to come to the light.

Now that we have seen some of the similarities between JPR and PPR we move on to an assessment of two specific differences. The first difference between JPR and PPR is that in The Allegory Plato describes the prisoner as being dragged away in a very forceful way before coming to the knowledge of the truth. Both Jesus and Plato use the same word (e[lkw) to describe the process of being freed from the realm of shadows/sin, but Jesus makes much clearer that the One doing the e[lkw, does it in such a way that the one being freed from his present reality actually desires to come (cf. 6:37-44). Had Plato been able to hear Jesus’ teaching on this it appears that he would have embraced it; however, as it is JPR and PPR are in tension on this point.

The second difference in the JPR and the PPR is seen in the way that the prisoner comes to the reality of truth. In The Allegory the prisoner is taken out of his present realm and thus arrives at true reality. However, in Jesus’ perception of reality “True Reality” has invaded time and space. Or to put it in Platonic terms, “True Reality has entered the cave.” This is seen most clearly in Christ’s claim to be “The Truth” (cf. John 14:6). In other words, the “True Reality” has entered into our world and this “light shines in the darkness” (cf. John 1:5). There is no need ascend into another realm in order to understand the true nature of things. For the True Nature of things has descended into our realm.

It is amazing that Plato had developed this understanding of the nature of reality some three hundred years before Jesus came to the earth. What this testifies to is the amazing way in which God has set up the world. The creation itself reveals many amazing truths about God and His created order and God has created humans in such a way that they are able to ask logical questions which can lead to a more full understanding of the nature of reality.

1 comment:

John said...

interesting assignment. Makes me want to sit next to you at Phoenix Seminary.