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Key to the Republic of Plato

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N A SERIES of articles here I’ve been arguing that Plato’s Republic is not about politics at all (except perhaps, indirectly), but rather is intended as a sublime allegory for the complex moral and cognitive workings of the human psyche; and that this allegorical and psychological perspective is the key to the interpretation of the Republic. To recap what has been said in earlier articles here, the basic premise is that in the Republic Plato uses his description of an ideal city-state mostly as a vehicle for explaining the proper and harmonious operation of the human psyche, which can be likened to a city.  By this means Plato seeks to help his readers comprehend and acquire the virtue of Righteousness (dikaiosyne, or rightness of soul).

This view was known in antiquity (Proclus mentions it in his Commentary on the Republic), although not an especially common one. In modern times, writers have been more inclined to uncritically accept the premise that the Republic is a literal political treatise; even the esoterically inclined Thomas Taylor, who himself wrote a masterly essay on the allegorical meaning of the Odyssey, was unwilling to part with the notion.  It is of some interest, therefore, to note that, in the 19th century, the American Platonist, Hiram K. Jones, urged most strongly for an allegorical reading of the Republic: “Let us then have done with all this improbable and silly notion about a figmentary political State.”

Jones published his take on the Republic in “Key to the Republic of Plato,” which appeared in the journal The Platonist in 1890.  Main extracts from the article are supplied below.

Johnson’s interpretative innovations include the suggestion that the citizens of psychopolis (e.g., our thoughts, passions and judgments) can, at least in some cases, be meaningfully regarded as male and female, and may have offspring — I made similar suggestions in the table of allegorical correspondences here.  Even more original and noteworthy is his opinion that the population of our inner city may be very large, containing not merely a few, or a few dozen or hundred, but “multitudes” of inner citizens.  He explains this by implicating human innate knowledge of Platonic Forms — a fundamental and emblematic principle of Platonic psychology, developed especially by Plotinus and later Neoplatonist philosophers.  The traditional Platonic view is that human beings have a divine spark in their soul, an image of God and/or God’s consciousness, and that this spark includes knowledge of every principle, form or relationship.  Jones seems to suggest that, even if this vast knowledge is unconscious, it spawns an unfathomably complex and numerous population of thought structures which interact, and which require some form of governance to avoid conflict and ensure harmony.  If that is indeed his meaning, then this could easily be his most important original contribution to philosophy.

Where did Jones get the idea to interpret the Republic allegorically?  Possibly from that consummate allegorical exegete, Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BC – c.50 AD), whose works would have certainly been known to him, either directly or from the writings of Platonist colleagues like Alexander Wilder.  Philo allegorically interpreted the Pentateuch, his rule being that every figure and event corresponds to something in the human psyche.  Philo’s views, though he himself was somehat forgotten, were enormously influential in shaping subsequent Christian allegorical interpretation of Scripture.

Another possible influence is Swedenborg, who, like Philo, subjected the Bible to extensive allegorical interpretation; there were many Swedenborgians in Jones’ circle of contacts.  Swedenborg, incidentally, was himself almost certainly influenced by Philo:  his brother-in-law, Erik Benzelius the younger, was one of the foremost Philonists of his time and worked with Thomas Mangey in the production of the first critical edition of Philo’s works (Williams-Hogan, p. 211).

Curiously, Jones was of the opinion that Laws was not written by Plato, but by a satirist.  Jones’ fellow American Platonist, Tayler Lewis (1845) had earlier opined that, in contrast to the allegorical nature of the Republic, Laws was Plato’s literal attempt to design a just political state.  Why it occurred to neither of them (or nobody else, as far as I can tell) that Laws too is an allegorical work is unknown.

THE JUDGMENT of the thoughtful and the critical, the Republic of Plato has been regarded as his greatest achievement. Accepting this estimate as just, the question is before us: in what consists this claim, that in this we have the greatest work of a man who in universal human opinion ranks among the very first of men: What is its merit? … What was the aim in the author’s mind? What did he undertake to do in the framing and constitution of this work?

As the first step in this enquiry we will assume hypothetically that he did not attempt to conjecture and frame for mankind a model Social-Polity, a model Political-State. The hypothesis that he thought himself submitting to mankind a model Political-State was seized upon and used against him by his own contemporaries, and countrymen, such as could not, or did not reach the plane of his thought…. The presupposition, that we have, or can have the key to Plato — the philosopher — from critics and expositors who have not in their mental constitution the philosophic capacity to reach the plane of his thought and theme, is only misleading….

To-day, the universal eminence of Plato in the judgment of mankind is attributable to the essential ideal order and quality of his thought; eminent itself in that it is grounded in the identification of Ideas, Essential Forms, as the first principles of things known and knowable.

Plato therefore as Philosopher is always Ideal, Essential, in his subject and aim. History, Biography, Art, Social Sciences, Political Science, Moral Science, Institutions, Laws, Government, are no where found to be the theme, and end of his contemplations. But Spirit, Life, Causes, First Principles, Essence, Idea, and thence the generations of the mutable and transient orders of things.

Returning to the question, however, namely: What was the aim of the Philosopher in the production of this work, — it is assumed that “The Politeia” — ”The Republic,” as translated — is a Soul Polity, and not a Social Polity: and that the healthy perfections of the Soul are rooted in the Idea and principle of Justice. And as to the mode and process of searching for and identifying this principle and cause, we must find its form and essence in the interior life of the Soul, and not in the conventionalities and notions and workings of an external political State. (pp. 255−257)

THE AIM then of the philosopher is not to invent a model State, but to discover rather the Model-Soul — the [individual] Soul in realization of Justice in itself — a state of Health and Righteousness, and Savedness, — and true life on the one hand, and on the other the contrariety, namely, the soul in realization of injustice in itself, a state of disease, impurity, and wretchedness, and destitution of all true life.

In the next place then, — after what method does the Philosopher propose to pursue the investigation? What manner of discourse does he propose to institute? … says Socrates:

“… the Inquiry we were attempting was no trifling one, but one as appears to me, suited for clear seeing (clairvoyant) persons.”

“Since then,” said I, “we are not very expert, it seems proper to pursue some such mode of investigation of it, as if some one should order persons not very sharp sighted, to read small letters at a distance! and then discover to them the same letters large elsewhere and in a large field; it would then appear desirable, me thinks, first to read these, and then to examine the less, as it is found that these are the same.”

“We will first then, if you please, inquire in what manner it exists in States; and then we will in like manner examine it in the individual, attentively observing the similarity of the greater to the idea of the less.” [Republic 2.368]

Justice in States is assumed to be a similitude of justice itself — an objective likeness; justice itself is subjective, ideal, essential, causal, celestial in God, and psychic in man; while its political existence is phenomenal.

The Philosopher then proposes to take the phenomenal, conventional manifestation as a letter and symbol of the subject idea; its similitude with the real form affording a vehicle apt for discourse, in which we are to look attentively, from the similitude to the subject idea itself. (pp. 259−260)


The Platonist (1881−1888) and Bibliotheca Platonica (1889−1890) were published by Jones’ friend and colleague, Thomas Moore Johnson.

THE PARABLE, and fable, and allegory and myth, are each different modes of discourse by means of representatives. And the more exalted the nature of the subject the more mythic must be the representative, that is the more mystic the subject, the more must the representative scenic form violate the literal ordinary consistencies. The law of this order of speech requires that things and animals, and men, and institutions, shall speak and act, and work in various violations of the consistency, and the literal truth of their natural history.

Plato then proposes to constitute a State or commonwealth whose fashion and working shall be so framed as that the mind shall find in it transitional facility, a looking from the symbol to the thing symbolized, from the speech to the thing spoken of — Justice in the commonwealth, is the ostensible manifestation, the phenomenon of Justice itself.

Plato then proposes to search for the Idea, Justice itself, whose intrinsic power worketh righteousness in the Soul and in the State as its effects: and he initiates the mythic State as a mode of investigation and search.

Justice in idea, and essence and cause is not to be found in the actual social institutions. In these are the plane of its manifestations and effects only.

It was no part therefore of Plato’s design to surmise, and submit for the adoption of mankind a model political state. This matter as an aim lies rather in the province of the politician and Statesman, than in that of the philosopher. And whether or not the Greeks already had as much common sense and science about that, as mankind have since, or ever will arrive at, it consists not with the range of Plato’s thought as Philosopher, nor with the common sense and judgement of Plato, or any other noteworthy man, to present to mankind such a formula for a practical system of human society.

This then is a Mythic State regarded in the letter, which in much of its fabrication and working, intentionally violates the common sense and the common plan, and the common proprieties of the mere social and political institutions — as much in the Greek, as in the English and American social manners and tastes and judgments and facts; and not more so than in our own Mythic use of Israelitish and Roman and Scandinavian, histories and Biographies, and occurrences — and many other like uses in our oracular, and Poetic and Philosophic customs of speech. (pp. 260−261)

AND NOW what say we? Is it possible or not? Is it probable or not, that the Greek was enlightened to see and know, that the justification [JU: making righteous] of the Soul is the salvation of the Soul, for this and for all worlds and experiences, present, past, and future. And was it therefore perceived by this embodiment of their wisdom, that the most worthy and exalted service he could devote himself in, would be the revival and and establishment of this central truth in the mind and spirit of his countrymen and of his age.

And let us then have done with all this improbable and silly notion about a figmentary political State — which both as a theme and a performance is so inconsistent and unequal in form and tone and dignity and quality and worth, with the general character of his thought, as to require the most damaging exceptions and apologies for gross errors and puerilities, as it must be, while we attempt to read the treatises named the “Republic” and the “Laws” as a model social system devised by the Philosopher. (pp. 263−264)

Meeting of the Plato Club of Jacksonville, Illinois.  (Jones seated left of center, just behind table.)

IN THE Thought of the Greek, as indeed in the Thought of all the enlightened ages, the Soul is assumed to be microcosmic — a comprehension in its constitution of all the principles and forms and powers constitutive of the macrocosm — the great world outside of the Soul. So as that all things, all principles, and all forms and powers constitutive of the great outside world exist also in strictest counterpart within the soul of man. And this is the ground and reason of man’s capacity to be conscious of and to form knowledge of all things from Deity to the atom.

And the awakening to the consciousness and the knowing of these elements and factors of his being and existence is the experimental process and history, of all the educations and disciplines of the actual life; man could not know that which is foreign to and not himself unless there should exist the counterpart to it within himself.

— multitudes of intellections, of thoughts, of reasons, of understandings of judgments; and multitudes of sensations of affections, of desires, of motives, of aims, of will and deeds. Within is , and these are necessarily related in rational order and process and harmony and peace, or in chaotic order and process and strife and tumult.

Hence there exist within the Soul order and harmony and peace and health and plenty and divine joy; and there exist also in the Soul contentions and strifes and tumults and riots and wars and pestilence and famine and deadly dearth of good. He who does not know this has not begun to know himself.

And these actors in the Soul are distinguished as masculine and feminine in all oracular and philosophic terminology — in all epic and dramatic method the intellectual and rational principles of the mind are masculine, while the sentient principles, the affections and emotions and desires are feminine.

And in these several forms of discourse concerning the invisible forms and powers it is customary to designate them as men and women. (pp. 266−267)

MOREOVER, the intellectual, and moral powers are progenitors, and they generate thoughts and affections. These thoughts and affections are sons and daughters. And these all are the men and the women and the children of the world within the Soul.

And if you will believe it there are in this method and these terms of viewing the subject, as many men and women and children and other things in the Soul, as there are outside of it: and ere we exhaust the self knowledge we shall discover that there is as much to do, to effect order and harmony and health and peace and plenty among the men and women and children and things in the Soul, as among the men and women and children in the social state.

We have heard much of that internecine warfare between the sensual and the spiritual powers in man, and we have heard also of that peace within which passeth all understanding, and we have heard also that he that ruleth his own spirit is mightier than he that taketh a city: and these things will be greatly magnified in our appreciations ere we shall have solved the problems of life.

And it is here within the Soul, and of these populations of the Soul, that the Soul Polity of Plato’s “Republic” must be understood: and into this must we look if we would see and know the kingdom of the Heavens. It will be found within us, or not at all.

To be saved from our selfishness, to be saved from our sins, to be made just is a chief business of life, and it is not accomplished as some may imagine. (p. 268)

Chapel classroom at the Concord School of Philosophy, where Jones was a featured instructor.

THE MAN must know himself, a labor much declined. He must know himself in his intellectual and moral principles and powers, in his own thoughts and affections and ambitions and desires and passions and will and way. And more than this, he must establish his Intellectual and moral powers as guardians and rulers over his animal nature. In this guardianship his intellectual and moral forces must be a unit — the house must not be divided against itself. His intellectual faculties whose function it is to see and to know what is right and true and good, and his moral powers of feeling and knowing and believing what is right and true and good must watch together, and walk together and work together and fight together against all invading enmities and foes, if he would establish and maintain the celestial order and rule in the commonwealth within. These are the relations of the Mythic men and women and children treated of in the Republic of Plato.

The Soul that is unconscious of, and uninformed of these conditions and reasons of divine order and peace and is actually void of them….

A divine polity within the Soul, then, a “kingdom of Heaven within you”, is thus seen to be the Politeia which Plato seeks to disclose and establish in the view and belief of his fellow-men. And what lower order of theme — what less important subject should most probably engage the best thought, and the labor of producing the greatest work of the life of a man so eminent in the discussion of the problems of the inner nature of man and of the world.

But so far the investigation has reached merely some characterization of the fruits — the productions of the influx of a regenerating principle in the Soul, and still the question recurs —how does it come to pass? “We were inquiring,” says Plato, “into this — what is the nature of justice; and we were in quest also of the perfectly just man, how he became so, and what was his nature if he really exists.” [Republic 5.472]

With us, the natural history of the working of this principle and the production of these fruits, most briefly outlined are, that by means of ordeal, and a quickening unto reminiscence, of the goods of the Father’s house — determination to arise and go to the Father, and through confession and obedience and duty and service and love of good and truth and beauty and purity the Soul shall reach the best abode. All which is the reversal and contrariety of the career of dissipation and sin — the strewing of the portion of goods in riotous living — the delights of sensuality.

But man is a moral free agent, and this history must be initiated in the motions of his own mind and will. He must voluntarily turn his mind and heart in contemplation and desire of what is most divine. He must arise and open his door and admit the gentle angelic stranger who stands without knocking, knocking, and waiting that he may be admitted; and straightway shall he be led in the way of all truth and duty and service. (pp. 269−270)

I HEARD a very eminent and very orthodox Christian clergyman affirm that Plato was a regenerate man in the Christian idea of the term. No man can so frame and amplify such views and discourse of these doctrines of life without the most profound experimental acquaintance with this subject. (p. 273)


Anderson, Paul Russell. Hiram K. Jones and Philosophy in Jacksonville. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (19081984), vol. 33, no. 4, 1940, pp. 478–520.

Anderson, Paul Russell. Platonism in the Midwest. Philadelphia: Temple University, 1963.

Bregman, Jay. The Neoplatonic Revival in North AmericaHermathena, no. 149, 1990, pp. 99–119.

Jones, Hiram K. Key to the Republic of Plato. Bibliotheca Platonica, vol. 1, no. 4 (Nov.−Dec. 1890), pp. 255−273.

Pitner, T. J.; Black, C. E.; Norbury, F. P. Obituary: Dr. Hiram K. Jones. Illinois Medical Journal, vol. 5 (June 1903−May 1904), pp. 173−174.

Pontiac, Ronnie. The Platonist on Sunset Blvd: Part 1: Hiram K. Jones the Western Wonder. Newtopia Magazine. January 15, 2013.

Lewis, Taylor. Plato Contra Atheos: Plato Against the Atheists.  New York: Harper, 1845.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Camino Real: Paso Robles, CA, 2012.

Uebersax, John. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 29 August 2014. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic.  Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 30 December 2015. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Uebersax, John. Psychopolis: Plato’s Inner Republic and Personality Theory.  Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 12 January 2017. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Williams-Hogan, Jane. The Place of Emanuel Swedenborg in Modern Western Esotericism. In: Eds. Antoine Faivre & Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion. Leuven: Peeters, 1998. (pp. 201−252).

To cite:  Uebersax, John.  Hiram K. Jones’ allegorical key to Plato’s Republic.  Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology.  19 July 2017.  Accessed <day month year>.

Emerson on the Ascent to Love of God by Beauty

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This excerpt from Emerson describes so well the ascent to love and knowledge of God by of Beauty in Plato’s Symposium, or Diotima’s Ladder, that I thought I should share it:

In like manner, personal beauty is then first charming and itself when it dissatisfies us with any end; when it becomes a story without an end; when it suggests gleams and visions and not earthly satisfactions; when it makes the beholder feel his unworthiness; when he cannot feel his right to it, though he were Caesar; he cannot feel more right to it than to the firmament and the splendors of a sunset.

Hence arose the saying, “If I love you, what is that to you?” We say so because we feel that what we love is not in your will, but above it. It is not you, but your radiance. It is that which you know not in yourself and can never know.

This agrees well with that high philosophy of Beauty which the ancient writers delighted in; for they said that the soul of man, embodied here on earth, went roaming up and down in quest of that other world of its own out of which it came into this, but was soon stupefied by the light of the natural sun, and unable to see any other objects than those of this world, which are but shadows of real things.  Therefore the Deity sends the glory of youth before the soul, that it may avail itself of beautiful bodies as aids to its recollection of the celestial good and fair; and the man beholding such a person in the female sex runs to her and finds the highest joy in contemplating the form, movement and intelligence of this person, because it suggests to him the presence of that which indeed is within the beauty, and the cause of the beauty.

If however, from too much conversing with material objects, the soul was gross, and misplaced its satisfaction in the body, it reaped nothing but sorrow; body being unable to fulfil the promise which beauty holds out; but if, accepting the hint of these visions and suggestions which beauty makes to his mind, the soul passes through the body and falls to admire strokes of character, and the lovers contemplate one another in their discourses and their actions, then they pass to the true palace of beauty, more and more inflame their love of it, and by this love extinguishing the base affection, as the sun puts out fire by shining on the hearth, they become pure and hallowed. By conversation with that which is in itself excellent, magnanimous, lowly, and just, the lover comes to a warmer love of these nobilities, and a quicker apprehension of them. Then he passes from loving them in one to loving them in all, and so is the one beautiful soul only the door through which he enters to the society of all true and pure souls. In the particular society of his mate he attains a clearer sight of any spot, any taint which her beauty has contracted from this world, and is able to point it out, and this with mutual joy that they are now able, without offence, to indicate blemishes and hindrances in each other, and give to each all help and comfort in curing the same. And beholding in many souls the traits of the divine beauty, and separating in each soul that which is divine from the taint which it has contracted in the world, the lover ascends to the highest beauty, to the love and knowledge of the Divinity, by steps on this ladder of created souls.

Somewhat like this have the truly wise told us of love in all ages. The doctrine is not old, nor is it new. If Plato, Plutarch and Apuleius taught it, so have Petrarch, Angelo and Milton.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson (‘Love‘; Essays, 1st Series)

Written by John Uebersax

December 2, 2015 at 3:17 am

Plato: Philosopher of the Divine Feminine

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Jean Delville – The School of Plato photo

Jean Delville – L’Ecole de Platon (The School of Plato), 1898

The other day I noticed an interesting and often-overlooked detail of Plato’s Republic. The entire conversation which it records took place in the midst of an all-night festival dedicated to Bendis, the Thracian Artemis, a goddess associated with the Moon and the sister of Apollo.

Imagine, if you will, the goings on. Socrates, the protagonist of the Republic, walks 10 miles from Athens to the port of Piraeus, where the newly established festival in honor of Bendis takes place. First there are opening ceremonies and rituals, then a procession. At night there is a mysterious horse race where riders carry torches. Finally, the crowds disperse to enjoy a night-long festival, the details of which we know little.

Between the afternoon and evening festivities, Socrates runs into some acquaintances, who invite him to their nearby house for conversation. There they carry on into the late hours or morning in conversing about the nature of Justice. Meanwhile, all around them, the religious festival to Bendis is taking place. Surely this must have created a unique ambient energy that charged and inspired the conversation. (Anyone who has experienced such an all-night festival will understand this, and those who have not can easily imagine it.)

Bendis-Artemis - Apollo - Hermes

My musing (no pun intended) on all this produced something like a personal epiphany: I suddenly realized how, while Plato is so often considered the ‘son of Apollo,’ that is, a philosopher of the intellectual or solar aspect of the psyche, he is also a philosopher of the lunar, feminine element — and arguably no less so.

Indeed, it is testimony to the vice-grip that rationalism has had on philosophy during the last 150 years that Plato’s strong feminine aspect is not readily apparent. In earlier centuries this was not always so. The ‘other’ Plato — the mystic, the philosopher of love and Beauty, of poetry and music — was known and celebrated. Thus we have the vast European esoteric tradition which owes so much to Plato, the love philosophy of the pivotal Renaissance Platonist, Marsilio Ficino, and the Platonic/Neoplatonic great chain of being central to Medieval art and culture.

Academic philosophers for the last century-and-a-half have explored every nuance of Plato’s rationalism. Indeed, this has reached the point where the productions are too often sterile exercises in vanity and mere scholasticism. To ignore Plato’s lunar side and his love mysticism, is to remove the heart and soul of his philosophy — indeed to deny the very meaning of his word philosophia, love of Wisdom.

The place to begin, of course, is with Plato’s Symposium, Plato’s great work on love. An indication of the extent of modern neglect of this dialogue is that the last book on the topic that even tried to be definitive was written in 1963 (Thomas Gould, Platonic Love, Oxford). Meanwhile dozens, if not hundreds of books have appeared since then treating of Plato’s more rationalistic dialogues, exploring in excessive detail every part and nuance of them.

We are indeed living in a hyper-rationalistic age. A good term to describe this is orthocentrism — the oxymoronic nature of which describes precisely the issue: a rationalistic bias which removes us from our center, assuring disharmony, conflict, incompleteness, and, in the end, untruth.

Of course, it may be objected that the opposite error can occur — to be too mystical, to intuitive, not rational enough. Let us not forever operate at the level of excess, reaction, and counter-reaction. We must have both: rationalism and mysticism, Apollo and Artemis.

But we must not imagine that Plato, the wisest of the Greeks, was oblivious to this. Let us gain a new understanding of Plato as a holy (whole, holistic) philosopher.

How better to conclude than with verse? Here is a beautiful specimen of Platonic cosmic love poetry by the Florentine, Girolamo Benivieni (1453—1542; J. B. Fletcher, transl.)

I tell how Love from its celestial source
In Primal Good flows to the world of sense;
When it had birth; and whence;
How moves the heavens, refines the soul, gives laws
To all; in men’s hearts taking residence,
With what arms keen and ready in resource,
It is the gracious force
Which mortal minds from earth to heaven draws;
How it may light, warm, burn; and what the cause
One love may earthward bend, one heavenward bear,
A third sustain midway ‘twixt earth and heaven …

Written by John Uebersax

February 4, 2015 at 12:20 am

Where is the New Humanism?

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In 1967, Pope Paul VI, in the landmark encyclical, Populorum progressio, called upon experts to help forge a “new humanism” — one that that goes beyond mere material concerns to encompass higher values and transcendent aspects of human nature, so as to promote development of “the whole man.” This plea was renewed by John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now again by Pope Francis in his address to the European Parliament (23 November 2014). There is regrettably little evidence of any sustained and coordinated response — or perhaps any response at all — to the past pleas. This makes one wonder how much good it will do for Pope Francis to ask again.

Clearly the ball is in the court of philosophers and intellectuals. Therefore I’d like to pitch a prospectus, as it were — to encourage scholars to pick up this lost thread, consider it, and possibly even eventually get, say, the Templeton Foundation or the EU government to fund conferences or other activity towards this end.

Here are some initial propositions. I offer these as proposals or hypotheses only — as topics for discussion, debate, and dialogue — not as dogmas.

  1. Human beings have, in addition to a body and a biological nature, an interior life. This constitutes one important meaning of the word soul (Greek: psyche), as logically distinct from two other senses of the word, viz., as an animating spirit, and as some element of the person which survives biological death. This sense of soul as interior life is a phenomenological, empirical reality, experienced by each person. We cannot see another’s interior life, but our conversation with others, as well as their conversation and artistic and literary productions, suffice to convince us that others have an interior life basically the same as our own. Understood in this sense, the human soul is a proper object for collective and scientific study.
  2.  To say that human beings have a soul in this sense does not commit us to any particular religious or metaphysical view or belief system.
  3. Human happiness depends more on the state of ones soul (in the sense we’ve stipulated) than on one’s body. Let’s be clear: both ‘physical’ and ‘soul’ happiness are important. We merely propose that the natural ordering is such that the latter is more important. To illustrate the point, a person might be rich as Crassus, yet very unhappy; or poor as Diogenes, yet as happy as a person may possibly be.
  4.  Happiness of soul is, almost by definition, moral in nature. By moral we don’t mean moralistic, but rather that whole dimension of life that pertains to meaning, and includes arts, intellectual development, and culture generally, as well as ethical actions.
  5.  It would appear even from the most casual survey that integral to moral development is love. By love here we mean something distinct from eros or romantic love, and more like unselfish or disinterested love, agape. This is also different from compassion and sympathy. Associated with this higher love are man’s vast creative potentials. Thus the great works of art and literature which we ascribe to genius are typically motivated by or connected with this transcendent love (see e.g., Sorokin, 1954).
  6.  The very nature of human moral development, and hence moral happiness, is such that it can only come about primarily, if not exclusively, as a result of personal effort. Nobody else — no government, parent, teacher, or friend — can, per se, make another person more moral or morally happy. Indeed part of moral happiness is the sense that one has personally overcome obstacles, met challenges, performed difficult tasks, etc.
  7. It would appear that human beings possess an innate sense of moral goodness (Conscience). That it is innate is evidenced by (1) that our moral sense is ubiquitous, such that virtually everything we see or do is judged in moral terms of good or bad; (2) there is remarkable similarly in standards of good and bad across cultures; and (3) we see this sense operating even in children; if you tell a child, “be good,” the child knows exactly what you mean. You don’t have to get into a discourse with a child on whether morality is innate or accidental, universal or relative. It as though one said, “You know that sense you and we all have that tells us what is right and wrong?  Well start paying attention to it!” A look comes over the child’s face like, “Oh right. Now I remember what being good is all about.”
  8.  Man is also a social animal, instinctively, like other animals, concerned with the welfare of other members of the species. This means that ones own moral development and the assisting others’ moral development are interpenetrating and inseparable.
  9.  It follows from the preceding points that the most important way one can help others is to promote their moral welfare. Certainly material assistance figures into this. But once the basic necessities of life are met, to help others with their moral development becomes a more pressing concern than, say, raising the minimum wage by 5%. Thus it is that, at least in better times, human beings have cooperated socially to produce libraries, museums, art, symphony orchestras, public parks, gardens, and so on.

Everything stated thus far here seems uncontroversial. These are basically common sense notions to which it would seem most people would agree, especially those well educated and with a moderate degree of ‘cultural literacy.’ Yet one would be hard pressed to find anything like an acknowledged consensus in the academic world, much less in popular culture, that would confirm that we all do share this view. (Such would not have been true 100, or even 50 years ago, when the suggestion that ‘we ought to culture ourselves’ would be taken as obvious.)

  1. Now we take things a step further, and enter a more controversial realm. That is to suggest that not only do human being have a soul, but that this soul immortal. We can neither prove nor disprove this proposition. That this premise seems a consistent feature of religion, and that human beings across cultures seem intent on having religion, must be taken as legitimate evidence in favor of the premise, even if it isn’t conclusive. Pascal’s wager-type reasoning might also be applied: if we do have an immortal soul, we would be very ill-advised to ignore the fact; and this far outweighs the potential disutility of incorrectly believing in an immortal soul. If this proposition is true, then, taken along with points 8 and 9 above, it has considerable bearing on our responsibility to help one another. This is difficult ground to safely navigate to be sure. For the sake of saving immortal souls the Catholic Church once tortured and burned heretics! But such distorted interpretations as this do not per se negate the principle that if human beings have immortal souls then this has important implications for our social duties to one another. Having mentioned this possibility, however, the remaining comments below will pertain only to the less controversial points 1–9 above.

A Secular Transcendental Humanism?

What is sought is a humanism that is both secular, in the sense that is suitable for use by civil institutions and is more or less universally agreed on within society, and transcendental, in the broad sense that it includes aspects of human nature that are not biological and material. To achieve this is by no means a remote possibility. In fact, we can refer to examples that already exist. Platonism is one such example. New England Transcendentalism — which in a sense is Platonism come to America — is another. New England Transcendentalism ought very much to interest us, inasmuch as (1) it was founded on, and remained closely connected with, the Renaissance and classical philosophical traditions of Europe, and (2) was very much a conscious and articulate reaction to modernism. This literature is especially strong in its treatment of the theme of self-culture as a moral imperative. (It’s really a pity that professional philosophers today do not give more respect to American Transcendentalist writings!)

Finally, in the writings Carl Jung, despite their frequent obscurity, one can find at least some elements of a secular transcendental humanism. Jung’s work offers a bridge between modern science and traditional religions. It makes no appeal to religious doctrine, but relies on scientific and empirical data to argue for the existence of a human soul that is real, nonmaterial, sacred, and incomprehensibly great. By no means would I suggest that Jung’s theories in themselves supply a new humanism; only that they supply some suggestions, and more importantly that they demonstrate the possibility of a philosophy that bridges the gap between science and religion.

To re-iterate what was initially said, I propose that there ought to be a conference dedicated to this theme. This wouldn’t be very hard to accomplish. I’m constantly surprised at how many books are published each year collecting papers presented at this or that philosophical conference, assembling teams of experts to address topics of much less moment.


Pope Francis. Address to the European Parliament. Strasbourg, France. 25 November 2014.

Pope Paul VI. Encyclical Letter. Populorum progressio (The development of peoples). Vatican City, 1967.

Pope John Paul II. Encyclical Letter. Sollicitudo rei socialis (The social concern).Vatican City, 1987.

Pope Benedict XVI. Encyclical Letter. Caritas in veritate (Charity in truth). Vatican City, 2009.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Ways and Power of Love. Chicago, 1954 (repr. 2002).

































What is True Charity?

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The other day a thought occurred to me which seems to clarify the meaning of Charity, as distinct from other related things like compassion and sympathy, generosity, kindness, etc. The definition: Charity is acting to love others for the sake of God.

At first glance this may strike you as prosaic – a mere formula, one in fact, found in traditional Christian teaching. Likely I had heard this formula someplace, yet it never quite stuck. This time, however, from my creative imagination, Muse, or call-it-what-you-will, there arose insight into the meaning, not merely the definition, of Charity.

To understand true Charity it helps to refer to Platonism.

A hallmark of Platonism is that God is identified as the source and very essence of Goodness. Plato’s defined God, in fact, as the Form or pattern of Goodness of which all individual good things partake, just as all triangles partake of the Form of a triangle. (This conceptual principle is a powerful and distinct asset to those who try to understand who or what God is – but that is a topic to take up another time.)

With this innovation, our definition becomes “Charity is the doing of good to others for the sake of the Good.”

How does this help? One way is with respect to the Platonic principle known as the unity of virtues. Because all virtues, and indeed all good things, are instances of the Good, a corollary is that pure virtue of any kind, i.e., pure Truth, pure Beauty, pure Justice, etc., must be compatible with every other pure virtue. One cannot, for example, act in a way that affirms Truth yet contradicts Justice or Beauty. This principle supplies a means by which we may test whether a given act is true Charity: the act must awaken in us an awareness of Goodness generally; contemplating or performing the proposed act should leave our mind ‘basking’ in the glow of the train of all divine virtues.

This has some very practical implications for modern social activism. It means that one cannot be motivated by Charity and yet act in a contentious way. Suppose a person is angry that poor people do not have adequate health care. This is certainly an important concern. But if this concern takes the form of hateful denunciation of other people – the greedy rich, selfish Republicans, whoever – then it is not a form of Charity. Because anger is not consistent, in fact it is incompatible, with the Virtues. This helps us see why St. Paul defined Charity as he did: Charity “charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.” (1 Corinthians 13 4–5)

The Platonic perspective also reveals four further attributes of Charity. First, it is it’s own reward. Plato had a name for that kind of experience where we suddenly we regain our ability to see truth: who we are, what really matters, what brings us happiness. He called it anamnesis, literally unforgetting (an = un, amnesis = forgetting). True Charity should have the quality of anamnesis: it realigns our mind such that we are again in touch with our true nature; we become properly oriented to ourselves, other people, Nature, and God.

Clearly this is much different from, say, sending money in a perfunctory way to a “charity” like Greenpeace. Sometimes such actions are performed out of a sense of mechanical duty. Other times they may be motivated by sentimentality – as when one feels sorrow at the plight of abused animals. There is nothing wrong with such actions. They are commendable, in fact, and may well constitute virtues in their own right; our only point here is Charity is something distinct and greater than these things, and to lose sight of the distinction is to risk losing sight of the full meaning and significance of Charity.

Second, the proposed definition shows how Charity is ultimately connected with our own salvation (understood in a broad, nondenominational, psychological sense). The truth is that, however much we may believe or protest otherwise, our ultimate instinctive concern is not with others, but for ourselves. Said another way, our first order of business is to help ourselves. History is full of examples of people who neglected their own moral development for the sake of busying themselves with other people’s problems. To such as these one might well say, “Physician, heal thyself,” or “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew16:26) We must be constantly aware, in whatever we think or do, or our own need of salvation in this broad sense. This is the meaning of humility. The moment we lose sight of our immense proclivity for error, much of which goes under the name of ‘egoism’, then our ego takes over and all manner of mischief is liable to occur. Unless God or the Good is in the picture, any action, even giving a million dollars to help others, will have a strong egoistic component.

Third, our Platonic perspective helps shows how Charity is contagious. If you act towards another with true Charity, the recipient knows, in their own soul, that your act is accompanied by your anamnesis. And since anamnesis always engenders feelings like trust, love, and hope, the person knows that you have gained a reward greater than any human being could give you.

This, in turn, produces a sympathetic anamnesis in the recipient. It reawakens in them a remembrance of what the important, the finer things in life are. And this is cause for them to affirm life and thank God – not so much for whatever charitable benefit they received, but because God made such a world where Charity itself exists. It may literally restore the other’s faith in humanity. Moreover, the recipient is presented with the fact that they too have the ability to show Charity to others. A quality of a truly Charitable act, then, is that it leaves the recipient in a frame of mind eager to show Charity to others. When you act with Charity to others, then, often more important than the physical gift to the other is the psychological gift.

Finally, the Platonic perspective helps us to see that Charity is different from other forms of helping, giving, sharing, etc., in terms of epistemology. True Charity, because it is consciously aligned with God and the Good, opens the mind to an influx of higher thoughts – the mode of knowledge Plato called noesis. This is distinct from our usual form of rationalistic thinking, called dianoia, or reasoning. Thus, a characteristic of true Charity is that it is frequently motivated by inspiration, often more an act of spontaneous creativity than cold calculation. Again, this is not to say that we should avoid applying our logical minds to helping others – only that Charity is something distinct from rationality alone.