Joseph Smith’s 1832 First Vision Account and Plato’s Cave

By July 12, 2019

So Universal Theosophy having recently put Thomas Taylor’s 1804 translation of Plato’s works online has made it a whole lot easier to go through the edition of Plato’s works that would have been available in Joseph Smith’s day. I’ve argued that Smith seemed to have used Taylor’s translation, but I was still surprised to have just discovered the striking similarities between certain passages in Smith’s 1832 account of his First Vision and Taylor’s translation of Plato’s cave allegory from the Republic, especially lines 515 to 517. As I argued last year that Smith seemed to have drawn on the passage just after this for the description of Christ in the Olive Leaf revelation (which he dictated the same year), I do see these similarities as evidence that Smith read, knew, and used Plato. And that fact that Plato showed up so prominently in this earliest account of this founding event, I would argue, is a very big deal.

Here’s a write up that I just put together.

Smith’s earliest account of his conversion followed the pattern of Plato’s cave. Just as the prisoners in the cave had been in darkness and “ignorance” “from their childhood,” Smith said because of their required labor, he and his siblings “were deprived of the bennifit of an education.” A prisoner is hypothetically released in the cave allegory and begins the ascent, and Smith had a religious awaking “at about the age of twelve years” and began studying the scriptures. Just as the prisoner starts to realize the problems of the images in the cave as he or she makes the ascent, Smith’s scripture study convinced him that the different churches “did not adorn their profession by a holy walk.” Like the prisoner still remaining in confusion as he or she made the ascent to the light, “from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and darkness which prevaded the minds of mankind [and] my mind become exceedingly distress for I become convicted of my Sins.”[1] While all these elements fit the narrative of evangelical conversion experiences, the next elements in Smith’s 1832 account aligned most strikingly with the cave allegory. After coming to better know God through the scriptures, Smith said he “looked upon the Sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon rolling in their majesty through the heavens and also the stars shining in their courses.” After leaving the cave and adjusting to the light of the sun, Socrates says the escapee, “would more easily see the things in the heavens, and the heavens themselves, by looking in the night to the light of the stars, and the moon, than by day looking on the sun, and the light of the sun.”[2]

In a footnote to a passage in Plato’s Phaedrus that also contained numerous parallels to Smith’s First Vision accounts (see below, not here but when I put it in the book), Thomas Taylor declared that “Plato every where speaks of the sun as analogous to the highest God” and Smith, after viewing these heavenly bodies, exclaimed “all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipontant and omnipresent power.”[3] In the next line in the cave allegory, Socrates says the escapee “would now reason with himself concerning him, that it is he who gives the seasons, and years, and governs all things in the visible place; and that of all those things which he formerly saw, he is in a certain manner the cause.” Just as the escapee would realize the higher power behind what “he formerly saw,” or in the things mortal realm, Smith considered “man walking forth upon the earth in majesty and in the strength of beauty whose power and intiligence governing the things which are so exceeding great and marvelous even in the likeness of him who created them” in addition to God’s power over in the universe, calling God “a being who makith Laws and decreeth and bindeth all things in their bounds.” A few lines later, Socrates says that the Good, whom Smith would equate with Christ (see below), was “the cause to all of everything right and beautiful … in the visible place,” similar to the “beauty” that Smith said that humans created in mortality “in the likeness of him who created them.”[4]

Smith then “cried unto the Lord for mercy” and saw “a piller of light above the brightness of the sun,” similar to the brilliance the prisoner experienced outside the cave. More significantly, Socrates says “in the intelligible place, the idea of the good is the last object of vision,” and Smith said that after seeing the light, “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” With Socrates then explaining that the “intelligible place” is where the Good “is itself the lord” and also speaking of “the soul’s ascent into the intelligible place,” having “the heavens” opened and seeing “the Lord,” followed the cave exactly.[5] Smith’s 1832 Olive Leaf revelation used very similar language to describe Christ that Plato used to describe the Good (see below, or here), a common idea among Christian Platonists and one that Hannah Adams asserted in her entry on “Platonists” in her 1817 Dictionary of All Religions. “The Platonic system,” said Adams, “teaches that our highest good consists in the contemplation and knowledge of the supreme Being, whom he emphatically styles the good.”[6]

[1] Smith, History, 1832, EMD, 1:27-28; Taylor, Works of Plato, 1:357.

[2] Smith, History, 1832, 1:28; Taylor, Works of Plato, 1:358.

[3] Taylor, Works of Plato, 3:327 n.; Smith, History, 1832, 1:28.

[4] Taylor, Works of Plato, 1:358, 360; Smith, History, 1832, 1:28.

[5] Smith, History, 1832, 1:28; Taylor, Works of Plato, 360.

[6] Hannah Adams, “Platonists,” Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, 224.

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