Articles by

Steve Fleming

JI Summer Book Club 2017, II: A House Full of Females, Chapter 3

By June 18, 2017


Having set the stage of the nature of early Mormon sociality in the first two chapters, in chapter three Ulrich first broaches the topic of plural marriage. But as the title of the chapter suggests, ‘I now turn the key to you,’ the focus of the chapter is the founding of the Relief Society.

With her imposed stricture of not to “merge” reminiscences with diaries, (xx) Ulrich sets up a number of challenges, most notably the fact that very few contemporary early Mormon journals mention it. The focus of the chapter, Eliza R. Snow, said nothing about it in her Nauvoo journal and Ulrich turns to Snow’s much later affidavit to determine that Snow married Smith on June 29, 1842. Ulrich states this fact on page 61, the book’s first mention of plural marriage after the introduction. On that date, Snow wrote, “This is a day of peculiar interest to my feelings” (71).

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A Possible Source of the Word Telestial, Part 2

By May 2, 2017


Seven years ago when I was starting this project, I came across the three-tiered system of the Neoplatonist Hierocles, who called the first step the telestic, or purifying mystery rites. Thinking that was a remarkable similarity among many other similarities between Neoplatonism and Mormonism, I wrote this post giving an overview of those similarities and proposing Hierocles’s system as the possible source of that unusual word.

Many expressed understandable skepticism, and as I was brainstorming, I said the following in comment 17:

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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: esoteric (inside the walls) v. exoteric (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 mortal (246d-248d).

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J. Stapley on A note on the: “A bit of an addendum, now that I have had a chance to research some more. The 1976 General Handbook included a quote from…”


J. Stapley on A note on the: “Thanks for that pointer, Clark. If I've done my math and sleuthing correctly, that would put that story in the late 1960s or early…”


The Other Clark on A note on the: “Great post. I look forward to the contributions of others to the conversation. My two cents: 1) One memorable school blessing story "on the…”


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