Brief Thoughts on Plato’s Symposium and the New Testament

Some time ago, I re-read Plato’s Symposium, and I was struck by a few parallels to the New Testament. I may have remarked already over the fact that Plato has Love eulogized by many different characters just as Paul eulogizes Love in I Corinthians 13, one of the most famous and most beloved portions of the Christian Bible. Paul writes that “when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.” I couldn’t help thinking that he could have lifted that from the Symposium. Plato has his Socrates quoting Diotima to the effect that understanding Love is like a staircase: in the beginning, it’s about physical attraction to one person. But later, one understands that it’s possible to feel this for many, and then later again, it’s not about physical attraction at all–and such attractions are greatly downgraded in importance.

I was also struck by the figure of Alcibiades, who basically crashes a very philosophical dinner party when he shows up very drunk with a few courtesans hanging on to him. Alcibiades was one of the foremost political figures of ancient Athens, and he was part of the circle of Socrates. But he was Public Enemy #1 on several occasions, and he was associated with the Persian Empire in its war against the Greeks. Plato seems to be saying, “yeah, he hung around with Socrates and the rest of us, but he didn’t take Socrates’ wisdom to heart.” In other words, the Alcibiades portions of the dialogue are apologies–defenses of Socrates.

Jesus had a figure in his inner circle, too, who didn’t take his wisdom to heart: Judas. And like Alcibiades, Judas is not present for the whole of the Last Supper. Judas leaves early, just as Alcibiades arrives late. Both were involved in political games and failed to understand the meaning of Love.

In the Synoptic Gospels’ accounts of the Last Supper, mention is made of how the guests were “reclining”; similarly, the reclining of the guests at supper–the standard way to have such a banquet in the eastern Mediterranean in those days–is mentioned in the Symposium.

Mention is also made of hymn singing: in the Symposium, the hymn is sang at the beginning, whereas in the Synoptics the hymn is sung at the end of the meal, before going out to the Mount of Olives.

There is probably much more that could be said. Perhaps I will return to the subject at some point in the future.

On Religious Fundamentalism: A Personal Reflection Hastily Typed

The following is a somewhat-edited version of an email I just sent an interesting person who got in touch with me through this blog:

Hello A,

Thank you very much for this message. I enjoyed reading it.

I think the basic problem with religious fundamentalists is that they really are experiencing a failure to listen to others. For example, let’s say a fundamentalist is talking with you. When he’s “listening,” he’s really just being silent while you talk so he can plan his next line. In other words, for the fundamentalist, “listening” is a tactic. To put it in Martin Buber’s terminology, to the fundamentalist, there is no Thou; there is only I.

I must admit that it’s true that I no longer listen to religious fundamentalists. In fact, I can’t give them the time of day. I’m grateful that when I was a fundamentalist, my teachers and friends were much more patient with me than I might be with fundamentalists now! But I feel incredibly and permanently damaged by the version of Christianity that I was raised with.*

I was raised with hyper-Calvinism and a belief in six-day literal creationism. I believed in the doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection and the Day of Judgment, with some going to everlasting Hell, and others to eternal bliss in Heaven. When I was in Northwest Baptist Bible College (now defunct, though the seminary lives on) here in BC, Canada, I slowly began to change. Hyper-Calvinism and a literal hell were the first beliefs to go. During this time, I took courses in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and I realized that when NT writers were quoting the Hebrew Bible (usually via the Septuagint), they weren’t just quoting, but actively re-interpreting it. This became problematic in certain NT polemics when “the Jews” were accused of failing to understand their own scriptures and then damned to hell for it! At that point, I used the term “misinterpretation” rather than mere “reinterpretation” of the NT passages in question.

The NT’s misinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible–for various reasons I prefer not to use the term “Old Testament”–bothered me and slowly ate away at the back of my mind.

Then I transferred from my Bible college to the private evangelical Trinity Western University, where I took classes in biblical Hebrew. I still remember one very brave professor who had us reading parallel passages in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. It was obvious that earlier biblical texts were being quoted and then altered by later biblical writers. Sometimes–say if they were writing about history–it was possible for both passages to be true, but other times, there really were contradictions. My professor used to say, “this is how to teach Christians about J, E, D, and P in the Documentary Hypothesis.” And indeed, when I read the first two chapters of Genesis in Hebrew, I quickly saw that there were two very different, contradictory accounts.

When reading the Hebrew Bible, I realized that a lot of traditional Christian beliefs about God were not actually biblical. Take, for instance, the idea that God is omniscient. This is a standard trope in Christian theology. But when you read in Genesis chapter 3, you read the following: “then Yahweh God brought the animals to the Man to see what he would name them.” This God didn’t know the future. He didn’t know what Adam was going to call those animals. Not only that, but the animals were actually his first attempt to make a partner for the man. It’s interesting that there’s a Jewish tradition that has Adam saying something to the effect of: “hmm, let’s call that one ‘Elephant.’ Nope–not a suitable partner. Next!” And then after God has finally made all the animals and none are found suitable, he improvises and casts Adam into a deep sleep, and then “builds” (in Hebrew) the woman from the man’s bone. This God is a very far cry from the omniscient, omnipotent, and immutable God of Christian theology. And so it is with many passages, especially those which describe God as “repenting.” Actually, I’ve since realized that fundamentalists read just as much into their texts as they read out of them!

At the same time, I also took classes in psychology, and realized just how much of our personalities are due to the chemistry in our brains. It’s ridiculous, now, for me to imagine a God who is spirit, not flesh and bone, as Jesus would say, and yet who still feels anger, sadness, love, hatred, and repulsion.

It’s been many years now, since my biblical studies culminated in a M.A. degree from the University of Toronto. I regard Christopher Hitchens as a hero, and I am much less enamoured of C.S. Lewis (though I still greatly enjoy The Horse and his Boy). I no longer believe in a soul, or in any life after death. And I have read too much of all the genocides, rapes, murders, and abuse of children and women and sexual minorities that have occurred in the name of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It’s not only second-hand. I have in my extended family two very religious men who beat their wives and abused their children. One of these was a Pentecostal pastor who said his wife deserved every blow he gave her on the basis of his interpretation of the Bible.

Nowadays, I tend to see these three Western religions as very evil and stupid in their natures. They hold man back from achieving Nietzsche’s Overman. But I fully admit that there are many truly warm, intelligent, and “spiritual” (in the good sense) people in each of these religions, and I know many. Some of them have touched my life and helped me at critical points. But, to twist a phrase from the NT, I still see the lump of the Abrahamic religions as they are in Western societies as being lightened by the leaven of the Enlightenment: skepticism and tolerance.

My basic problem with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (and also with Hinduism) is that the fundamentalists are growing in numbers and power while the mystics and everyone else in the middle is in decline. Thus you have, for instance, the Baptists and the Pentecostals (for whom I really have no respect!) growing or staying even in terms of demographics, while the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the United Church are all less than a generation away from total extinction.

It is possible that if I had been raised with a less dogmatic, fundamentalist version of Christianity, that I might still call myself a Christian. But for me, there’s just no point. Even if we say that the violence, the homophobia, the Zionism, the racism, the prejudice, the misogyny of the Abrahamic religions was simply “cultural,” while the teachings about love of God and love of neighbour, and the necessity of community, etc., are the “eternal message,” what’s the point? I can have the Golden Rule from numerous philosophies untouched by Christianity; I can have the Rule of Law from secular tradition; and I can friendship that does not presuppose doctrine–and I can have all of these on a secular basis that accepts the findings of science and tolerates others. And if I want literary tradition for spiritual guidance, I can always approach certain strains of Buddhism, or even better, philosophical Taoism.

The funny thing for me, though, is that even though I can intellectually dismiss the God I was raised with, I still feel a vengeful, hateful, controlling God in my life quite often. This God creates feelings of hopelessness and despair until I tell myself again that he’s a mere chimera, a product of theological and social brainwashing. I do feel the need to be part of something larger than myself. I long for community, safety, and wholeness. I don’t really get these in the individualist life I have now.

Alain de Botton has an interesting TED.com talk in which he says something to the effect of: “we as atheists don’t have to say, I can’t have community,” but I’m tempted to be as skeptical of atheistic churches as I am of Christian ones. After all, a friend of a friend in the secular Landmark movement once told me of people nearly coming to blows over a disagreement in their meetings. That’s every bit as bad as the incestuous, backstabbing, backbiting, power-grabbing congregation of Baptists that I grew up in. But at least Landmark never has, and never will fight a Thirty Years War over some philosophical difference the way Protestant and Catholic Christianity have!

All in all, then, I’m longing for something like faith and something like God, but the Abrahamic religions are the last place I’d look for them. Paradoxically, then, I may be living a Thou-less existence.

Feel free to stay in touch, and don’t be afraid of disagreements!

Best wishes,
Nathan

*Hyper-Calvinism was current in the supposedly more intelligent circles of the church I grew up in, but by no means did all members of the church believe in Predestination. My mother, for one, did not. But somehow I spent my formative teenage years under the impression that Predestination was more orthodox than free-will.

First Ride of the Year to Pitt Lake: Pics from Cell Phone Camera

Dike, Mountains,and Clouds at Pitt Lake, April 2015

I just got back a few hours ago from my first cycling trip of the year to Pitt Lake. I usually bike to Pitt Lake multiple times every year, but especially in the summer. This year, a bike repair delayed my first visit, but it finally happened today. My destination is Pitt Lake, but it’s always the side to the south of the dike that I like the most. (That would likely change if someone ever gives me a boat ride to the north end of Pitt Lake, though!)

Swamp south of dike at Pitt Lake, April 2015

On the way back, I saw a family of deer. I believe this is the third time in three consecutive years I have seen three deer at exactly this spot:

3 Deer on the road to Pitt Lake, April 2015

I also saw what I think was a beaver swimming in the one of the ditches on the road about 10 kms from the lake. No picture of him/her, though. I also saw some of the most beautiful ducks I’ve ever seen in my life, and they weren’t ones I’d seen before.

Today’s trip encapsulates why I love this part of BC so much: it’s beautiful, and it’s my home.

On Religion and Discrimination against Homosexuals

With the law recently passed in Indiana (similar to the law that nearly passed in Arizona some months ago) legalizing discrimination against homosexuals, I find that the bottom line, expressly stated in the Indiana law among other places, is religious. God hates homosexual acts. So say the religious, and they know, because they’ve got a Book. But the problem isn’t merely the book itself–it’s most often in the interpretation of the book.

Recently, an unlicensed daycare in Manitoba turned away a child because her parents were lesbians. The parents of the girl have filed a complaint with the provincial human rights tribunal. Of this, one commenter, “kbubass23″ wrote the following:

Why does [sic] their rights out shine [sic] someone else’s freedom of religion? Why do they have to tolerate(daycare) others [sic] rights when their religious freedoms are being trampled on?

This was my answer, formulated primarily from my experience in the Christian religion*:

I think this quote gets to the root of the problem: “Why does their rights out shine someone else’s freedom of religion? Why do they have to tolerate(daycare) others rights when their religious freedoms are being trampled on?”

It comes down to religion after all. But here is what I don’t understand. What Bible passages would you use to deny care for a child on the basis of his/her parents’ actions? (Quite apart from any questions about the interpretation of certain biblical passages that condemn or appear to condemn homosexuality.)

In the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament), I can find verses like Deuteronomy 24:16: “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents.” That’s the law. The principle is this: guilt by reason of being related to someone is not valid.

Meanwhile, in the gospels of the New Testament, Jesus said that whatever was done to the “least of these” would be considered done to him. Matthew 25:31-46 has those outside heaven saying “Lord, when did we see you hungry and not feed you, unclothed and not clothe you?” Jesus says, “inasmuch as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Furthermore, Jesus never judged anyone for their sexuality. This is the man who said, of “a sinful woman” that “she is forgiven for she has loved much” (Luke 7:36-50). Not only that, but Jesus praised her gifts.

Jesus, never said “let the little children come to me–except those who have gay parents.” He is the one who said, “come to the water.”

Traditional theology teaches us that all work can be done “to the glory of God.” In this case, that would mean that the daycare provider would welcome the child of gay parents into her daycare and treat her with love, respect, and equality–and treat her parents with those same qualities.

Turning the child and his/her parents away is the last thing that Jesus would have advised the owner of the daycare to do. Turning the child away was not only potentially illegal, it was incredibly bad theology.


*I am no longer a Christian, but I do feel that most evangelicals and fundamentalists really misunderstand the most important messages of their Scriptures. The great prophets of the OT and Jesus in the NT rage bitterly and with great wrath against certain sins, but these are rarely sexual in nature: their anger is reserved primarily against those who oppress “the poor, the fatherless, and the widow”–in other words, those who are without the protections normally afforded full members of a society. At the moment, in a time of rapidly widening income inequality, the fundamentalists in the US repeatedly vote for wolves (as in, of Wall Street) in the Republican Party rather than others within the party and without who are far more deserving. That this happens on the basis of their profound misunderstanding of their own scriptures is oddly comic but also deeply tragic.


UPDATE: One of the best articles that really dismantles the prejudice against homosexuals from a philosophical perspective is up on the website of The Stone, a New York Times column that deals with theological and philosophical issues. The article is well-worth reading for those interested in this issue.

Hacked! (Updated 3x)

Kindly excuse the ad for cialis. I have asked my hosting provider to resolve the issue. I’m frustrated that this has happened.


UPDATE: Better now, for now. If the US CENTCOM can’t even protect their Twitter feed, I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad, I guess–but I only feel better because the problem has been solved.

UPDATE 2: Apparently there are still problems. I am working with my hosting provider to resolve these, too, but am not optimistic. It may be time to shut the blog down, permanently. I am considering manually copying all of my Classics and Chinese Classics posts to another blogging platform, like Blogger. I will also likely begin the work of transitioning my email to a more mainstream option like Outlook or Gmail. I’ll post at least one final update here in the next few days.

UPDATE 3: FIXED! My hosting company has finally been able to help me; unfortunately, this was only after I twice threatened to shut down my site entirely, so I am not very happy about things. Still, for now, at least, I’ll be back to blogging here.

A Tale of Two Dinner Parties: Xenophon’s “Symposium,” Part 4 – Love

Socrates’ new topic is Love. This is interesting, because we are now close to the end of Xenophon’s Symposium, and it is only now that we turn at length to the topic of Love, recalling the very first chapter when everyone was smitten with the beauty of Autolycus; in Plato’s Symposium, of course, Love was the primary subject of the entire dialogue. In this case, what matters isn’t so much that the historical Socrates spoke at great length of Love in 416 BCE in Plato, and at lesser length in 422 BCE as recorded by Xenophon. If Xenophon really is dependent on Plato, then we don’t really have as much certainty of what the historical Socrates said as we would like. We have a world-class teacher, interpreted by several disciples, who died prematurely on the orders of the State as a result of his teaching–in other words, we have basically the same issues as with the historical Jesus in the New Testament, but with much less attestation. And both the figures have cast long shadows over human history–though I’d characterize Socrates more as a light in the darkness than a shadow on the road.

Xenophon’s Socrates’ version of Love here resembles very strongly the concerns of Plato’s characters in the latter’s Symposium. The focus is very strongly on the homo-erotic. Poor Autolycus; everyone has been staring at him all this time!

Like in Plato, though, this homo-erotic focus is very quickly pulled away from eros towards moral edification. Socrates praises the “love of the mind” above that of the body. Furthermore, Socrates in Xenophon goes out of his way to praise Callias (the would-be lover of Autolycus) for not just trying to get the beautiful Autolycus into bed. Hermogenes praises Socrates for preventing Callias from doing just that, by praising him for his care and concern for Autolycus. Lycon, Autolycus’ father, approves. (Curiously, a Lycon was among the principal accusers of Socrates. Autolycus was executed during the rule of the junta known as “The Thirty”–and its bloodthirsty leader, Crito, an uncle of Plato and an associate of Socrates.)

In short, what is elevated to the level of universal mysticism in Plato is reduced in Xenophon to a simple dictum: don’t try to get young and attractive boys into bed when you could be developing their moral education.

Things get more interesting when the Syracusan returns with the boy dancer and girl flute-player. They put on a romantic and erotic performance as follows:

…the Syracusan came in and said, “Gentlemen, Ariadne will enter her and Dionysus’ bedroom; and after that Dionysus will arrive after having had a few drinks with the gods, and will go in to her; and they will frolic with each other.

And now I must really quote at great length, because the passage is quite beautiful and moving (if one can somehow forget that the two performers were likely slaves):

Hereupon first Ariadne came dressed up as a bride, and sat down on the throne and, although there was still no sign of Dionysus, the Bacchic music was being played on the pipe. At this point the choreographer won admiration, because, as soon as Ariadne heard it, she acted in a way that showed unmistakably that she was delighted at it; she did not go to meet her bridegroom, but she could hardly keep still. When Dionysus caught sight of her, he came dancing across and sat down on her lap in the most affectionate way imaginable, flung his arms around her and kissed her. She conveyed the impression of shyness, but nevertheless returned his embraces lovingly.

When the guests saw this, they clapped and shouted “Encore!” Dionysus got up and helped Ariadne to stand up too, and then there was an opportunity to watch the figures they danced as they kissed [sic] and embraced each other. When the guests saw that Dionysus really was handsome, and Ariadne young and pretty, and that they were not pretending but actually kissing with their lips, they were all carried away with excitement as they watched. They heard Dionysus asking her if she loved him, and the girl vowing that she did, in such a way that not only Dionysus but the whole company would have sworn with one voice that the two young people really did love each other. They did not seem to have rehearsed their movements: it seemed as if they were free at last to do what they had long desired.

Xenophon then says that the bachelors all wanted to get married, and those with women in their lives rode their horses home to meet them.

It’s quite a powerful and lovely concluding passage–and unusual not least in that it is a real slave-owner (a pimp, of sorts) who produces such loveliness–along with Autolycus, who does so separately and innocently.

Socrates is not in this text the possessor of esoteric knowledge, as he is in the Diotima passages in Plato’s Symposium. Here, he is reduced to a good-natured old man who doesn’t want the young boys to get, ahem, plucked before they’re old enough and morally-educated enough. There’s nothing offensive about this Socrates. Rather, he is a peg on which to hang thoughts of love–thoughts that are portrayed as increasing domestic happiness in many houses in Athens.

In short, Xenophon has “recorded,” as he claimed to in his introduction, “the deeds of truly good men.” In a way, the Symosium functions as an Apologia of Socrates: a “truly good man” who wanted all men to wear goodness the way women wear perfume. Socrates turns the hearts of those in socially-acceptable relationships towards each other in love. He protects the young from being sexually taken advantage of while helping those in a position to do just that to focus on “loving” their boyfriends by “morally educating them.” He praises poverty and consorts with people who are poor, and proud citizens. He has a good sense of humour. There is nothing here that would warrant a cup of hemlock.

The question is: which Socrates did we get–the historical one, or the one Xenophon wishes us to know? The answer is surely that it is the latter we see depicted here in this Symposium. For my part, though, I could certainly see much of this Socrates as being actually more or less historically accurate, and I don’t think it ideal to rely solely on Plato for our impressions of Socrates. The Platonic portrait in Plato’s Symposium and the Xenophonic one here are sometimes at odds, but are complimentary rather than mutually exclusive. In any case, it is the literary Socrateses (plural!)–and not the singular actual historical one, that we have got–and these literary portraits are worthwhile and valuable…and, often, enjoyable–and quite often unexpectedly so. In reading Xenophon, we find that there are pleasant surprises.

A Tale of Two Dinner Parties: Xenophon’s “Symposium,” Part 3 – Development

After each participant in the symposium of Xenophon’s work of that name has indicated what he is most proud of, Socrates dialogues with each person about how this attribute or possession can help to make people better. There is banter, there is wit, there is intelligence: but of course no one can stand up to Socrates, and this is very much in line with Plato’s depiction of him.

Finally, it remains to ask only Socrates about what he is proud of. Callias does so:

Now then, Socrates, how do you justify your claim to pride yourself on the disreputable calling that you mentioned?

Socrates then starts by asking yes/no questions, along the lines of “Do you think it’s the duty of a pimp to represent his clients as pleasing persons?” Everyone replies in unison “Certainly!” to this and each of the next several questions Socrates asks them. They obviously think this is very funny, and the wine is starting to get the better of them. The Socrates asks:

“Which would be the better — the man who can make his clients agreeable to one person or the man who can make them agreeable to many?”

Here the company was divided, some saying “The man who can do it to most”, and others saying “Certainly”!

But now Socrates says that Antisthenes is a much better pimp than he is. Antisthenes gets angry, and then Socrates says what he really means is that Antisthenes puts people in touch with each other who can benefit each other. For instance, he introduced the famed sophist Prodicus to Callias. Antisthenes is pleased with the compliment, and we find ourselves wondering why Xenophon would have a man whom we know was executed for corrupting the young pride himself on his ability to put people in touch with other people. Perhaps it’s because he was the star of the show, the one who brought everyone together. Technically, though, our host tonight is Callias (and in Plato, it’s the husband-husband team of Pausanias and Agathon).

The chapter ended, Xenophon then begins the next chapter with a “beauty contest” between “the pimp” (as Socrates again refers to himself), and Critobulus, the one who said that he could make others better through his good looks.

Socrates says that his own eyes bulge out, and that gives him better vision (“like the eyes of a crab,” he says), which means his eyes are better than the handsome Critobulus’s. He then proceeds to justify all his ugly facial features in the same way. Once the arguments are done, the “judges” (the two performing slaves!) collect the votes of the participants in this 5th century BCE parody of a reality show. It’s unanimous: Critobulus wins! Socrates, trying to sound clever, playfully accuses Critobulus of corrupting the judges, and then says to Hermogenes, that he is annoying them “over the wine”–and how, by not talking when there’s silence! After a few more words, things cool down. The Syracusan leaves for a bit, and then Socrates introduces a new subject.