Articles by

Steve Fleming

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and D&C sections 88 and 93

By April 24, 2017


In this previous post, I noted the similarities between DC 88:6-13 and a passage from Thomas Taylor’s translation of Plato’s Republic 571b-c. That passage happens to be right in the middle of Plato’s allegory of the cave, and upon further reflection, major elements from the cave seem to show up not only in section 88 but also 93.

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Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity 10: Joseph Smith

By December 22, 2016


So in sum, if Platonism shows up in Joseph Smith’s scriptures and revelations (some examples), there may have been biblical precedence for it.

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9


Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity 9: Platonism for the Masses?

By December 18, 2016


Nietzsche’s famously made this claim in the introduction to his Beyond Good and Evil, but Origen said something similar in his response to the Celsus. Among Celsus’s numerous critiques was that Christianity appealed to the lower classes and that its ethics were derivative of philosophy. Celsus quoted the passage from the Timaeus—“It is a hard matter to find out the Maker and Father of this universe; and after having found Him, it is impossible to make Him known to all”—before declaring, “You perceive, then, how divine men seek after the way of truth, and how well Plato knew that it was impossible for all men to walk in it” (Against Celsus 7.42).

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Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity 8: Plato’s “new Gods”

By December 16, 2016


Plato’s concept of God seems to have been the central feature of his unwritten doctrine, based on Tubingen scholars arguing that it had to do with the One and Plato’s statement in the Timaeus, “Now to find the maker and father of the universe is hard enough, and even if I succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible” (28c). That you can only tell it to very few people lines up with what Plato said about his unwritten doctrine.

Plato seemed to have something monotheistic in opposition to the Greek pantheon since Socrates continually refers to “God” in a monotheistic way: one of the charges against Socrates was “not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in” new gods.  (Apology 24-b-c).

With that in mind, here are a series of quotes that Andre Dacier thought were the most important for making the connection between Christianity and Platonism.

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Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity 7: Human Progress or What I Told My Daughter about the Old Testament

By December 14, 2016


This was the same daughter who said she was ready to leave the church over the Old Testament when she was 8.  Not surprisingly, she wasn’t too crazy about the text when she studied it in seminary last year. She felt like she got a lot of lessons on God handing out punishment for what looked like violation of totally arbitrary rules.

I’d been thinking about the topic too in light of a statement in Plato’s Timaeus: “Now to find the maker and father of the universe is hard enough, and even if I succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible” (28c). It’s hard to know God, and if you come to that knowledge it’s even harder to explain it. As Paul said, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor 13:12).

So I told my daughter this: “This is what I think. Knowing God is difficult for humans. We do our best and make our hypotheses, but our point of view and understanding is limited.  So our understanding of God has changed over time, and has gotten better in many ways. In the Old Testament, we’re seeing that process: the long process of the human understanding of God improving.” She seemed to like that idea.

Trying to gain this knowledge of God seemed to have been a major part of Plato’s unwritten doctrine.  More on that in my next post.


Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity, pt. 6: Plato in the Pentateuch?

By December 12, 2016


You can’t read a text by either an early Christian or early modern Platonist without being hit by a barrage of claims that Plato got most of his ideas from reading the Hebrew scriptures.  Says Margaret Barker, “The similarity between much of Plato and the Hebrew tradition is too great for coincidence.”[1]  Barker attempts to prove that Plato’s ideas did come from the Jews, but does so with little evidence.[2]

In his new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, Russell Gmirkin considers “the possibility that both the Pentateuch and the Hebrew Bible as a whole drew on the writings of Plato found at the Great Library at Alexandria.” Gmirkin bases this argument on the assertion that “the Pentateuch’s law collections despite containing a few laws of Ancient New Eastern origin, are in large part based on Athenian law and on Plato’s Laws, and that the Hebrew Bible as a literary collection was based on instructions found in Plato’s Laws for creating a national literature.”[3]  Such an argument builds on Gmirkin’s previous work that argued that similarities to other texts suggested that the Pentateuch was written at the time the of the reported translation of the Septuagint (c. 270 BC.)[4]  

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Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity, pt. 5: The Parable of the Sower

By December 10, 2016


To me, the strongest connection between Jesus’s secret teaching and Plato’s is the parable of the sower. Those who argued for Jesus having a secret teaching saw his parables as proof: said Origen, “Jesus explained all things to His own disciples privately; and for this reason the writers of the Gospels have concealed the clear exposition of the parables, because the things signified by them were beyond the power of the nature of words to express.”[1]  The parable of the sower is the clearest evidence that Jesus had different teachings for the masses and for his closest followers: exoteric (inside the walls) v. esoteric (outside the walls).

The parable of the sower has very striking similarities to passages from Plato’s Phaedrus and Theages.  In the Phaedrus, in the same passages that Socrates says that writing is problematic and higher truths need to be taught orally, he compares teaching to a farmer planting seeds: “Now what about the man who knows what is just, noble, and good? Shall we say that he is less sensible with his seeds than the farmer is with his?…  The dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge…. Such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human can be” (276b-277a).

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Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity, pt. 4: Evidence of a Marital “Sealing” Rite in the Greek Mysteries?

By December 8, 2016


As an addendum to my secret tradition posts, I recently came across something interesting related to Plato and the Greek mysteries.  In my post on Plato, I noted the Anne Mary Farrell’s dissertation arguing that Plato often made allusion to the Eleusinian mysteries and that the that Diotima’s ladder of love in Plato’s Symposium may have been related to ritual stair case in the Eleusinian telestron (or the temple where they performed the rite). The Symposium also contained Aristophanes’ myth of spilt male and female pairs that can be “welded” back together so that they’ll be “one and not two in Hades” (ie the afterlife). So I wondered if since Diotima referred to a ritual, Aristophanes might have as well.

Joseph Campbell’s description of the Orphic Sacramental Bowl suggests that Aristophanes was referring to a rite. Unearthed in 1837, the object was later melted down by the Russians during World War I, but not before casts were made in England in 1867.[1]

To explain why I found this Campbell’s description of the bowl significant, I first need to describe what Plato says about souls falling from and returning to the Gods in his Phaedrus. At 246 d, Socrates launches into his description of the chorus of the Gods by declaring, “Let us turn to what causes the shedding of wings, what makes them fall away from the soul,” based on his belief that we had preexisted with the Gods and our wings had allowed us to be up in the heavens with them.  Socrates then describes the chorus of the Gods, how the Gods travel around the cosmos to behold “the place beyond heaven” or true reality, a process that Farrell says had the most over references to the Eleusinian mysteries.  Premortal humans follow the Gods to behold this reality, but if “by some accident [the premortal soul] takes on a burden of forgetfulness and wrong doing, then it is weighed down, sheds it wings and falls to the earth,” ie becomes a mortal (246d-248d).

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Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity, pt. 3: The Secret Tradition

By December 4, 2016


Since I’m going to be referencing the Christian secret tradition a lot in these posts, I wanted to list out the post I did on this topic a couple of summer’s ago.  I’d wanted to put these together anyway.

Clement of Alexandria declared, “The Lord after his resurrection imparted knowledge to James the Just and to John and Peter, and they imparted it to the rest of the apostles, and the rest of the apostles to the seventy, of whom Barnabas was one.”

Introduction

Clement’s letter to Theodore

The debate of the the letter to Theodore

Evidence of a ritual

Judeo-Christian Apocalypses

The Greek Mysteries

Plato

The Disciplina Arcani

Theurgy

Joseph Smith


Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity, pt. 2: Debates

By December 4, 2016


Friedrich Schleiermacher, who played a major role in the modern study of Plato, rejected the notion of a Platonic oral tradition, arguing that Plato’s central purposes were expressed in his dialogues. Though Friedrich Nietzsche was heavily critical of Schleiermacher’s interpretation, Schleiermacher’s became the dominant view especially in the Anglo-American academy.[1]  American Harold Cherniss went so far as to say that Aristotle was simply mistaken when he referenced Plato’s “so-called unwritten doctrine.”[2]

The Tübingen school, or a group of scholars at Tübingen University who study the issue, pushed back against Schleiermacher, by not only pointing out Plato’s over references in the Phaedrus and in letter 7 but also noting the numerous times that Socrates refers to things he cannot talk about throughout Plato’s dialogues.[3] As Dmitri Nikulin puts it, “The Tübingen interpretation to a large extent suspends the fundamental principle of modern hermeneutical interpretation: the sola scriptura. This hermeneutical principle stresses the importance of going back to the ‘original’ text as the only source of dependable interpretation, and hence implies the rejection of any oral tradition of transmission that is construed as only secondary and therefore untrustworthy.”[4]

The Tübingen scholars have set about trying to recover what the unwritten doctrine might have been by looking at clues in Plato’s dialogues and statements by his pupils, to argue that the unwritten doctrines seem to relate to mathematical relations of ultimate reality, and dualism and monism.[5]  Many argue that the Neoplatonist’s “One” may have been what Plato had in mind, and that Plotinus had it right.

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Plato’s Unwritten Doctrines and Christianity, Part 1: Introduction

By November 29, 2016


Early modern Christian Platonists argued that Plato essentially was a precursor to Christianity and such individuals pointed to a few particular passages to make their case.  Many of these passages relate to what is call “Plato’s unwritten doctrines” or ideas that Plato did not write down but only taught orally.

Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, refers to Plato’s “so called unwritten doctrines” in his Physics. In Plato’s seventh letter, Plato says, “There is a true doctrine that confutes anyone who presumes to write anything whatever on such subjects” and that “anyone who is seriously studying high matters will be the last to write about them. Whenever we see a book … we can be sure that if the author is really serious, this book does not contain his best thoughts; they are stored away with his fairest possessions.  And if he has committed these serious thoughts to writing, it is because men, not the gods, ‘have taken his wits away’” (Letter 7, 342a, 344c-d, quotes from the 1997 Hackett edition).

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Plato’s Good and the Olive Leaf Revelation

By October 25, 2016


Scholars have noted the Neoplatonic nature of some of Joseph Smith’s revelations.  The beginning of D&C 88 (The Olive Leaf) sounds particularly so.  In fact, it has numerous striking similarities to Plato’s description of the Good from his allegory of the cave.  The following is Thomas Taylor’s 1804 translation of the Republic 571b-c.[1] Like DC 88:6-13, it mentions ascent and says that the Good (like Christ) is the source of light, the light of the sun, and of human understanding.

If you compare this region … to the soul’s ascent into the intelligible place; you will apprehend my meaning…. In the intelligible place, the idea of the good is the last object of vision, and is scarcely to be seen; but if it be seen, we must collect by reasoning that it is the cause to all of everything right and beautiful, generating in the visible place, light, and its lord the sun; and in the intelligible place, it is itself the lord, producing truth and intellect.

In my dissertation, I argue that Smith seemed aware of Plato and may have used his Timaeus.[2] The above quote suggests Smith may have been aware of Plato even earlier.[3]

______________

[1] The Works of Plato, viz. His Fifty –Five Dialogues, trans. Thomas Taylor, 5 vols (1804, reprint; AMS, 1979), 1:360-61.

[2] Stephen J. Fleming, “The Fulness of the Gospel: Christian Platonism and the Origins of Mormonism,” chapter 6. See here and the comments.

[3] Since I see Plato as rather Mormon, I quite like the idea. “Study it out” (DC 9:8) suggests such a process.


Jane Lead in the Millennial Star

By June 15, 2016


In my first post on Jane Lead, I noted an 1858 article that the editor of the Millennial Star, Samuel Richards, wrote about Jane Lead.[1]  He’d found an 1807 German translation of her works and posted two passages, translated back into English.[2]  Of those quotes, Richards declared, “We have seldom read anything more pointed or expressive of the Latter-day Work than the foregoing.  It is another evidence that those who are spiritually minded, according to the light and advantages they have, can seek after God and learn of His ways—that He giveth liberally to all who ask wisdom of Him, and upbraideth not.”  When I did that first post, I was unable to track down the quotes, but now that I’ve found them, I’m posting what Richards cited along with the English originals.  

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Review: Kyle Walker, William B. Smith, In the Shadow of a Prophet

By June 1, 2016


41e28E-Qn7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Kyle R. Walker, William B. Smith: In the Shadow of a Prophet. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2015. xiv, 639 pp. Photographs, two appendices, notes, sources, index; ISBN 978-58958-505-1.

Kyle Walker has further solidified his position as the leading expert on the Smith family with this extensive biography of Joseph Smith’s troubled younger brother, William. In meticulous detail, Walker describes William’s life as one full of conflict: with his brother Joseph and other church leaders during Joseph’s lifetime, with other claimants to leadership after Joseph death, with William’s own followers when William made his own claim, and with William’s numerous wives almost all of whom left him. As one-time follower Edmund Briggs declared, “Everybody that knew William Smith, and worked with him, rejected him” (409).

Walker begins the book with a description of uncle Jesse Smith, the cantankerous family member that threatened to get an ax if anyone said anything about the Book of Mormon. Walker wonders if there was an inherited family trait that would explain William short temper, his refusal to compromise or let things go, and his perpetual self-focus.

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Plato, Gender, and Eternal Marriage

By January 11, 2016


Jesus said, “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage” (Matt 22:30), while Plato said in his Symposium that lovers desired Hephestus to “weld” them together so that “when [they] died, [they] would be one and not two in Hades.”[1]

Such was part of Aristophanes’s myth of the androgyn, that humans had once been androgynous pairs that the gods split into male and female, who now longed for their other half. Such lovers, when they found each other, still yearned to become one again, especially in the next life. Aristophanes then adds the following caveat: “Women who are split from a woman, however, pay no attention at all to men; they are oriented more towards women, and lesbians come from this class. People who are split from a male are male-oriented.”[2]

That is, eternal marriage is a Platonic concept, and Plato had allowances for same gender relationships.

Plato didn’t discuss eternal procreation, but in the Republic he did describe a system radically different than monogamy: shared wives and children.[3] In the Republic, the children belong to everyone, or as Plato says in the Timaeus (which begins by summarizing the Republic), “Everyone of them would believe that they all make up a single family, and that all who fall within their own age bracket are their sisters and brothers, that those who are older, who fall in an earlier bracket are their parents or grandparents, while those who fall in a later one are their children or grandchildren.”[4] Or as Mormon said, “All children are alike unto me” (Moroni 8:17).

I argue here and here that Joseph Smith sought to implement shared marriages as well: or that originally both men and women could have multiple spouses. Such sharing would make allowances for procreation by the larger group that would transcend individuals’ procreative abilities.

[1] Plato, Symposium, 190-193.

[2] Plato, Symposium, 191e.

[3] Plato, Republic, 457c-d.

[4] Plato, Timaeus, 18d.


Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism, Part 3: Inclusive Monotheism and Fabula

By December 22, 2015


This final post on Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism explores the boundaries between theology, fantasy, and literature, particularly in the context of inclusive monotheism. Barbara Newman points out that many theologians who embraced Plato’s Timaeus and its inclusive monotheism in the 12th century were condemned while writers who embraced the Timaeus through fabula, or literature, were not. “Poets, through much of the Middle Ages, had license to proclaim with impunity ideas, however radical, that if voiced as formal theology could have provoked swift, hostile response. Because of it unofficial status, mere literature might well be denounced (as Ovid so often was), but it was hardly worth the trouble repressing.”[1]

Tolkien mixed Platonist and Christian themes in his creation narrative in The Silmarillion and W. W. Phelps began his “Paracletes,” which also mixed these themes, with “Once upon a time.” Yet for Phelps, “Paracletes” was a higher form a literature: “And let me say that I have began this story of the ‘Paracletes,’ or Holy Ones to counterbalance the foolish novel reading of the present generation. My story is not revelation, but the innuendoes relate to holy transactions, which may lead good people to search after truth and find it.”[2] Andrew Michael Ramsay had a similar intent in writing his Travels of Cyrus, which also mixed Christian and Platonic creation ideas: “We have here a fruitful source of luminous ideas, beautiful images and sublime expressions, such as we find in the holy scriptures, and in Milton, who has copied them.”[3]

What Tolkien meant by the Ainulindalë I’m not sure, but like many others he used fabula to give expression to inclusive monotheistic ideas held by some of the West’s most notable thinkers.

[1] Barbara Newman, God and the Goddess: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 65.

[2] [W.W. Phelps] “Paracletes,” Times and Seasons 6 (May 1, 1845): 892.

[3] Chevalier (Andrew Michael) Ramsay, Travels of Cyrus: To Which is Annexed, A Discourse upon the Theology and Mythology of the Pagans (1727, reprint; Albany: Pratt and Doubleday, 1814), xxi.  See also Ronan’s series at BCC, which discusses similar themes (1, 2, 3).

 


Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism, Part 2: W. W. Phelps’s “Paracletes”

By December 14, 2015


In my previous post, I discussed how many of Tolkien’s creation and fall themes fit within various aspects of Christian Platonism.

Plato had two models. In the Phaedrus, pre-mortal souls fall: “By some accident [the soul] takes on a burden of forgetfulness and wrongdoing, then it is weighed down, sheds it wings and falls to earth” (248c-d). In the Timaeus, God (or the demiurge) “showed [souls] the nature of the universe. He described to them the laws that had been foreordained,” that they would be placed in bodies, “and if a person lived a good life throughout the due course of time, he would at the end return to his dwelling place in his companion star, to live a life of happiness” (41e, 42b-c). As Alan Scott explains,

There was therefore a good deal of disagreement among the later Platonists about the character of the cosmos and the soul’s incorporation. Was the world and our life part of a divine plan? Those who adopted this understanding of Plato interpreted the soul’s incorporation as providential and the heavenly bodies as assistants to a kindly design. Another interpretation of Plato stressed that this life has come about because of sin and error, and so took a very different view of the cosmos.[1]

Scott explains further, “Philo interprets the Genesis account in terms of both of these myths so that the creation of the world is good and the result of divine plan (as in the Timaeus), but the story of Adam symbolizes the soul’s fall because of sin (as in the Phaedrus),” which sounds pretty similar to Mormonism.[2]

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Authority, Revelation, and Dissent: Managing Personal Revelation in a Revelatory Church

By December 10, 2015


Medieval Catholicism believed both in continuing revelation and in personal revelation, but such beliefs could be problematic: what about false prophets? The late Middle Ages were awash with revelatory figures, often women (like Joan of Arc) and thus the church put in place a number of procedures for how to regulate such people. Revelation could not be legitimate unless it was approved by a confessor, who also looked into the character of the revelator. One of the most important trait was humility: if the revelator was willing to submit to the confessor and have all of her revelations regulated then she showed proper humility was a true revelator. If she balked at those restrictions, that was a sign that she had excessive pride, which proved that she was a false prophet.[1]

Obviously the legitimacy of such figures was highly debated (no one more so than Joan of Arc) and the Protestants came up with an even simpler way to deal with prophets: there weren’t any. The Bible was complete so true revelation would be redundant (simply say the same thing) and anything that was new was automatically false.

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Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism: The Travels of Cyrus

By October 19, 2015


Ainulindale_by_Alassea_Earello

Ainulindale by Alassea Earello from http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Ainur

To finish my series on inclusive monotheism (see here here here here) and similarities with Plato’s Timaeus, I wanted to look at similarities between Mormon pre-existence narratives and Tolkein’s.

Many have noted the similarities between Mormonism and Tolkien’s creation stories and others have pointed out Platonic elements in Tolkien. A ring of invisibility is mentioned in the Republic and the first phrase of The Silmarillion, “There was Eru the One,” is especially Platonic since “The One” was the highest deity to the Neoplatonists. Tolkien’s Eru or Iluvatar, though aloof like the One, is rather more like Plato’s demiurge in the Timaeus: the God who plans and oversees the creation.

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Jane Lead’s Inclusive Monotheism

By October 13, 2015


I wanted to put up some quotes from Jane Lead on the issue of inclusive monotheism because her writings generally look so very Mormon and because she addresses issues related to another post I want to do.

In her Enochian Walks with God (1694), Lead talks about holy people becoming deified in the next life who then seek to aid holy people on earth. “For those Angelical Spirits that once liv’d in Flesh, do more nearly sympathise with us in all our Infirmities, and therefore all feelingly they tenderly consider our tempting-state, and give themselves out most readily for our help; they are Advocates, and to remind the Lord Jesus of their Prophecies, that they may have their fulfilling upon us. Of this sort and degree, they are the choicest and greatest in the Kingdom of our Lord, and have very stately Pavilions which are pitched round the Majesty of the Jehovah God” (25).

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