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.

For a quick recap, in the cave, prisoners are chained in the cave and can only see shadows on the wall, representative of the false reality of our earthly existence. But if one can escape the chains and ascend out of the cave (the philosopher) he or she will be able to behold the true reality of the light of the Good. Nowadays, this tends to be taught as secular education, and while education does play an important role in the allegory, historically most commentators viewed it as a kind of heavenly ascent. This passage under Platonists from Hannah Adams’s A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations (1817) is indicative of the standard view of Plato in Joseph Smith?s time:

The Platonic system makes the perfection of morality to consist in living in to the will of God, the only author of true felicity; and teaches that our highest good consists in the contemplation and knowledge of the supreme Being, whom he emphatically styles the good. The end of this knowledge is to make men resemble the Deity, as much is compatible with human nature. This likeness consists of the possession and practice of all the moral virtues.[1]

This combination of seeing the Good and becoming like God was central to how the Neoplatonists interpreted the allegory of the cave, and was at the heart of the Platonic concept of the Philosopher King: the person that gains enlightenment (leaves the cave and sees the good) who was best to rule the ideal city.[2]

In DC 88: 6-13, Christ has both the qualities of the Good (the source of all light, both the sun and intellect) and the philosopher (“He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things” [6]). That is, Christ, by going through the process of gaining enlightenment by coming out of the cave and seeing the Good, became the Good.

DC 93 makes this combination clear: Jesus “received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness” (13).  Jesus received “the fulness” or deification as explained by verses 16 and 17 (“he received a fulness of the glory of the Father; and he received all power.”) Section 93 also begins with the allegory of the cave’s central issue: seeing God (1).

Like the allegory of the cave, section 93 says the goal is to get other people to also make the ascent. Says Taylor’s translation, “It is our business then, said I to oblige those of the inhabitants who have the best geniuses, to apply to that learning which we formerly said was the greatest, both to view the good, and to ascend that ascent.”[3] DC 93:20 says that people who keep the commandments “shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father,” and the end of section 88 sets up a system of holy education (the school of the prophets).

Thus the allegory of the cave seems to have played an important role in these revelations and suggests a number of elements of the Nauvoo theology.

[1] Hannah Adams, A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathan, Mahomoten, and Christian, Ancient and Modern, 4th ed (Botson: James Eastburn, 1817), 225.

[2] Dominic J. O’Meara, Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Clarendon, 2003). I argued that many of the Book of Mormon prophets, Enoch, and Smith himself had these essential characteristics of the Philosopher King, the chief characteristics of which are laid out in allegory of the cave. “Joseph Smith as the Philosopher King: Neoplatonism in Early Mormon Political Thought,” Journal of Mormon History 38, no.3 (2012): 102-127. When I wrote the article, I thought Smith picked these ideas up through disparate sources, I now think he read Plato directly.

[3] The Works of Plato, viz. His Fifty-Five Dialogues, trans. Thomas Taylor, 5 vols (London: R. Wilks, 1804), 1:363.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Hey Steve, I’ve been rereading some of my books on renaissance hermeticism. I’d forgotten just how influenced they were by the Iamblichus style of platonism especially as read through the lens of the hermetic corpus. I was struck by how similar these passages you are discussing are to that style of platonism. That is that despite the shift away from the hermetic style of platonism in the renaissance towards the Cambridge style of platonism this god making sense persisted.

    While as we’ve discussed before Joseph doesn’t appear to have used John Everard’s translation of the hermetic corpus even though it likely was available, he seems to have many of the ideas of renaissance platonism indirectly. Beyond perhaps 4:89-93 which has things like “That an Earthly Man is a mortal God, and that the Heavenly God is an immortal Man.” However how platonic ideas are interpreted seems much more the renaissance view of Ficino and others. While you appeal to the allegory of the cave here, it’s important to note that this is a very particular approach to the allegory that not all platonists shared. It’s the allegory read through the lens of the corpus hermeticum.

    Of course this influence is much stronger when Joseph turns to the Book of Abraham although there the differences from the hermetic tradition are at least as significant.

    Comment by Clark — April 27, 2017 @ 10:45 pm

  2. You’re right, Clark. The Good becoming the Good isn’t in the allegory of the cave, so this is an adaptation for sure. And yes, that line from the Corpus Hermeticum does sound very Mormon and would fit DC 88 and 93 (and Kind Follett).

    But the wording in 93 (that are additions to John 1) looks a lot like passages on Origen that were available. Charles Buck’s entry on Origen says that Origen taught “The humanity of Christ was so God-like he emptied himself of this fulness of life and glory, to take upon him the form of a servant.? So Jesus didn’t have fulness at first like 93 says. And the entry from the Encyclopedia Britannica on “Origenists” (a supposed early Christian group that I don’t think really existed) said they believed “that Christ is the son of God by adoption; that he has been successfully united with all the angelical natures, and has been a cherub, a seraph, and all the celestial virtues one after another.? Not the wording, but definitely the concepts here. So I think these entries could have inspired reading the cave in this way.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 28, 2017 @ 1:13 pm

  3. The emptying of God isn’t just in Origen – in Jewish thought this is the idea of tzimtzum or God withdrawing to create a space within himself. It’s a kind of privation or constriction by God to enable creation. It’s mainly in Lurianic Kabbalism (16th century) However you get somewhat similar ideas in other figures. How much of this was original with Lurianic Kabbalism and how much is just a common part of many platonic movements is I think still debated. Scholem sees it as a break with neoPlatonism whereas others note its similarity to the logic of privation. Usually the divide is over how much Plotinus is seen as defining neoPlatonism as opposed to the other schools that often divided the One in late antiquity not to mention gnosticism.

    Comment by Clark — May 1, 2017 @ 4:45 pm

  4. I should note that I just don’t know enough about the Cambridge Platonists that I think you make extensive use of and how they differ from the Renaissance Platonists beyond the Renaissance figures seeing Plato through that hermetic lens. So, for instance, the decans as quasi-intelligent daemons/angels who are intermediaries are seen as important. The Renaissance gives much more thrust to the theurgical view of Plato that we see in Iamblicus rather than the more philosophical view which I think characterized the Cambridge take. That is in the Renaissance there’s this quasi-magic like conception where you use the philosophy to do things. It’s that angle that I think some see as persisting through masonry and related trappings down to Joseph Smith.

    As I think you’re really arguing well for, Joseph apparently was influenced by these other aspects of platonism more outside the hermetic tradition. Which is really quite interesting. I’d love to know better how many of the early Fathers he’d read and from what editions. I’ve come around of late to thinking that both Joseph and Orson Pratt’s conceptions of material spirits come right out of Tertullian’s stoic materialism. A lot of the language is quite similar to discussions of Tertullian in early 19th century texts.

    Comment by Clark — May 1, 2017 @ 4:53 pm

  5. Thanks, Clark. I’d be interested in knowing more about emptying. All I know now is that Origen did say that and that in was reported in Buck. I don’t know why Origen said that, or what the context was.

    In terms of what influenced JS, this is certainly speculative, though I have some strong opinions (not surprising). One jumping off point is that fact that he donated one volume of Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History to the Nauvoo Library. The first volume has an extensive discussion of Origen and the Neoplatonists whom Mosheim strongly criticizes even though the descriptions sound very very Mormon. So I think JS read that.

    My argument is that the Smith family had knowledge of the English visionary Jane Lead (I’m giving a paper on that at this year’s MHA). Those texts have the most Mormon parallels. Lead clearly read Plato, the Neoplatonists and Origen too. She mentions both Cabala and Origen in her writings, so I’m arguing that Lead is what prompted JS to look up information on those topics (Cabala in the from of John Allen’s Modern Judaism (1816), which has lots of Mormon sounding stuff in it’s descriptions of Cabala.)

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 1, 2017 @ 5:48 pm

  6. Allen, Mosheim, and the other Origen references all say the Mormon-looking ideas (pre-existence, deification, etc) all came from Plato, so I think these sources are what inspired JS to look up the Plato translations.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 1, 2017 @ 6:05 pm

  7. […] more research after the dissertation, I came across some new information. As I?ve mentioned in these posts, I?m now thinking that Smith actually looked up translations of Plato earlier than I had argued […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » A Possible Source of the Word Telestial, Part 2 — May 2, 2017 @ 11:07 am

  8. Is the version Joseph had more or less the same as the 1850 second edition which is available online? I assume it’s the same as it was translated in 1755.

    Out of curiosity as I’ve never read Allen, is that a possible source for that controversial Kabbalistic quote in Times and Seasons?

    Comment by Clark — May 4, 2017 @ 10:18 am

  9. We don’t know which edition JS donated since the reference to the donation in ?The Complete Record of the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute,? just says ?Mosheims Church History 1 Vol.? I guessed that the first volume was most likely since some guy named “Junior” did a write up for the Times and Seasons on infant baptism where he quote the first volume a lot. So did Benjamin Winchester. Alexander Campbell did a whole write up in his periodical on the Origen section from Mosheim. Unfortunately there were two translations at the time: Archibald MacLain and someone else (can’t remember). I used the MacLain 1821 New York printing. There were lots and lots of printings; it was very popular.

    In terms of the Kabbalistic Times and Seasons quote, do you mean Neibauer’s write up on Jewish notions of the resurrection that got debated by Lance Owens and Hamblin? No it wouldn’t be the source of that. However, Hamblin argued that all those books that Neibauer cited could have come from a famous Kabbalistic text by Mannaseh Ben Israel. Allen cites Ben Israel’s text quite a bit and those citations have a lot of Mormon sounding ideas.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 4, 2017 @ 10:41 am

  10. Quinn is the one who mentioned Allen in Magic World View. I looked it up because right before I turned in my dissertation, I had gone through the Origen references which all said that embodiment is a kind of punishment. So I wanted to find pre-existence ideas with a more positive view. Since I’d read that Kabbalah did, I decided to look through Quinn’s references and that’s why I looked up Allen. Allen actually has a lot more Mormon similarities than Quinn noted (including being sent to earth as part of a divine plan rather than a punishment). Good stuff, though it delayed my turning in my dissertation by a couple of weeks as I scrambled to do a bunch of rewriting.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 4, 2017 @ 11:04 am

  11. Yes, I meant Neibauer. I’d forgotten Hamblin’s positive suggestion that Neibauer was quoting Sefer Nishmat Hayyim. Thanks for bringing that up.

    I don’t think you need the kaballah for the idea of pre-existence, although the kabbalistic ideas are interesting. It’s a common theme in hermeticism though. The hermetic Adam is divine and even has the power of the seven governors. His fall is even willing and is as much an expression of his power as anything. (To the point that it might constitute a background for Brigham’s Adam/God ideas)

    I think what’s interesting is that Mormonism in many ways simply expresses this alternative view which you can find in the renaissance or late antiquity quite easily. I think it entails that Joseph might well have had elements of it in his environment. As I said I think your discoveries with Taylor are extremely interesting. But for a believing Mormon they can always point to these traditions in early Christianity as well up through Origin and company.

    Comment by Clark — May 5, 2017 @ 11:52 am

  12. Yes, preexistence ideas are around, but like I said so many in the reference works and whatnot described embodiment as a punishment. For instance, Hannah Adams’s entry on “Origenists”: “That souls were condemned to animate mortal bodies, in order to expiate faults they had committed in a pre-existent state; for no other supposition appeared to him sufficient to account for their residence in these gross material bodies. See John ix. 2, 3.”
    Andrew Michale Ramesay’s The Travels of Cyrus (popular in the 1700s and 1800s) which goes on and on about preexistence also describes it as a fall.

    So the more positive view that Allen describes Kabbalah having fits better. And Allen seems more accessible.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 5, 2017 @ 1:01 pm

  13. Right, but that’s what I was getting at. While there definitely were strains of hermeticism that picked up the negative type of gnosticism towards the body, many were much more positive. As I mentioned in the other thread Yates saw Adam’s fall in the hermetic tradition as quite different.

    “It is true that he falls, but this fall is in itself an act of his power. He can lean down through the armature of the spheres, tear open their envelopes and come down to show himself to Nature. He does this of his own free will moved by love of the beautiful Nature which he himself helped to create and maintain, through his participation in the nature of the Seven Governors. He was moved to do this by love of his own image, reflected in the face of Nature (just as God loved Man, seeing in him his own beautiful image). And Nature recognises his power, the powers of the Seven Governors in him, and is united to him in love.

    It is true that this is a Fall which involves loss, that Man in coming down to Nature and taking on a mortal body puts this mortal body, puts his mortal part, under the dominion of the stars, and it is perhaps punished by the separation into two sexes (after the curious period of the Seven sexless men engendered by Man and Nature). But man’s immortal part remains divine and creative. He consists, not of a human soul and a body, but of a divine, creative, immortal essence and a body. And this divinity, this power, he recovers in the vision of the divine mens, which is like his own divine mens, shown him by Pimander. Pimander leaves Trismegistus after he has been “invested with powers and instructed in the nature of the All and the supreme vision.”

    In short, the Egyptian Genesis tells the story of the creation and fall of a divine man, a man intimately related to the star-demons in his very origin, Man as Magus.”

    Comment by Clark — May 5, 2017 @ 7:28 pm

  14. It is true that the mortal part is still despised, but because of that divine part it’s different I think from traditional gnosticism. It’s much closer to a duality of natures with one needing to be overcome in terms of what controls them. Closer to say Benjamin in Mosiah 3:18. There you have the natural man of Adam who just has to “yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit.”

    In the Asclepius we have the idea that we need to be a regenerated man with the seed that is the true good sown in him by the will of God enabling him to be born again as a son of God composed of all the powers. Now this seed is definitely a platonic idea in which the incorporeality is emphasized. But as with Benjamin the conflict is between different attributes. Those nature gives Adam and those God gives. The divine attributes drive out a corresponding natural attribute. So knowledge replaces ignorance, joy repulses sadness, etc. There’s a strong dualistic element that is pretty common in the Book of Mormon right up through Moroni.

    The big differences is that the actual source of the “punishments of matter” (these vices) are really the influences of the starts. So the heavenly ascent is both passing by these planets/daemons but abandoning the negative powers associated with them.

    The Renaissance figures like Ficinio explicitly saw this heavenly ascent as regeneration in Christ. (Well all of them except Bruno of course) They see the heavenly ascent as a gift of grace that drives out the predestination of the stars. So natural here means controlled by these influences of the lower world. Without saying anything inappropriate I think you can see some similarities with the Nauvoo endowment that go well beyond what you see in Royal Arch masonry.

    Comment by Clark — May 5, 2017 @ 7:39 pm

  15. Thanks, Clark. Keep a couple things in mind. First, the positive view of embodiment comes from Plato’s Timaeus. In the Phaedrus, it’s a fall, and that tended to get more attention. See this post:

    Second, as I posted around here, recent scholarship now says that hermticism is a problematic term and that all those Renaissance thinkers were actually focussed on Plato. See this post:

    What happened was that a lot of the Middle Platonist philosophers (c. 200 BC to 200 AD) engaged in what scholars call “Platonic Orientalism” or studying non-Greek traditions (Egypt, Judaism, Middle Eastern) and interpreting them in Platonic ways. Neoplatonists, like Iamblichus, did this too. The Hermetic texts were part of that tendency as were Jewish Platonists (Philo) and Christian ones (Clement, Origen). So the Hermetic texts are just one part of a larger Platonic whole. This book explains this:

    So most of that fits under early modern Platonism in one way or another. Kabbalah fits under that umbrella too.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 5, 2017 @ 9:09 pm

  16. I don’t have any problem with that. I like renaissance platonism much better than hermeticism anyway. But I think it’s worth distinguishing their type of platonism from the platonism of Augustine and of most of the medieval era. That theurgical element is an important difference both from how it was interpreted in the more orthodox traditions and definitely from the more philosophical type we get in modernism. But I fully agree that Iamblichus isn’t that different from what gets called hermeticism.

    I also fully agree that not all platonists view materialism negatively. There are those with both views, even in late antiquity. Within modernism people tied to platonism typically are quite positive toward material.

    With regards to kabbalism, while definitely platonic, I think it’s also worth keeping in mind the religious aspects. Although that’s also true of medieval platonism especially of the mystic tradition like Eckhart etc.

    Going back to Joseph Smith it’s an interesting question since in some places the more theurgical elements seem pronounced (D&C 93, 76) whereas at other times its more just phrasing often significantly repurposed.

    Of course if you want an interesting project it’s worth noting just how much of a platonist Nibley is and how that perfuses his theology. (Particularly the second half of The Ancient State) I always found that interesting since at that period in history platonism was usually seen as an unmitigated evil that was often seen as the source of the apostasy.

    Comment by Clark — May 10, 2017 @ 2:04 pm

  17. Yeah, Mormonism is definitely at odds with Augustine’s influence. This is what I said in my dissertation:
    Clifford Ando argues that despite Augustine?s praise of Platonism, in The City of God, Augustine sought to distance Christianity from Platonism, going so far as trying to eliminate Plato?s vocabulary from Christian theology and saying that Plato was not influenced by Moses (a favorite idea of Jewish and Christian Platonists). In fact, Augustine opposed most of the Christian-Platonic tenets that would find their way into Mormonism: souls being co-eternal with God, expansive salvation (either universalism or near universalism; Augustine went so far as to promote predestination, and no hope of salvation for non-Christians) post-mortal progression, contact with the dead, Heavenly Mother, and Christian esotericism.
    ?Partly, though not entirely, under the influence of the controversy with Pelagius,? argues Anthony Meredith, ?a more somber, less Platonic understanding of human nature gathers force.? Whereas Augustine had followed Plato and Plotinus in arguing that sin was simply error, Augustine now began to argue for sin as more real, a notion he solidified in his doctrine of ?original sin.? Augustine began to see sin as willfulness and pride, exhibited in the eating of the forbidden fruit. ?It is a long way from the Platonic and Aristotelian visions of life where information leads to moral improvement and where no one willingly makes a mistake.? Though Meredith argues that Augustine did not advocate total depravity to the degree Luther and Calvin did, Allison Coudert labels the sixteenth century, the ?age of Augustine? ?because of the harsh and unflattering view of human nature prevailing among both Protestants and Catholics? at that time.

    And I’ll admit that I haven’t read much of Nibley but I was under the impression that he was a proponent of what I call “the Platonic-corruption model,” or that Christianity had been corrupted by fathers who had embraced Plato (Origen etc.) Is that not the case? I’ve look into this a little bit (Roberts, Talmage) but I’m interested in what other Mormon thinkers in the mid 20th century pushed Platonic/Greek corruption.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 11, 2017 @ 10:08 am

  18. I think his view is more that the type of platonism got corrupted. Again The Ancient State he where he tends to embrace an epistemology that’s largely platonic intuition. His view is that the sophists corrupted platonism and always were corrupting it.

    Augustine is interesting since while some Mormons focus on his platonism as the problem one could always note just how radically he transforms platonism. Both original sin, as you noted, but also creation ex nihilo are huge innovations. In particular that latter gap between god and creation causes problems during the medieval era for platonic mystics who tend to efface the gap and return to a more traditional emanation model.

    Comment by Clark — May 11, 2017 @ 10:44 am

  19. Interesting, Clark. I’ll have to take a look.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 11, 2017 @ 1:52 pm


Recent Comments

Ben S on CFP at BYU Studies:: “Some clarifying comments here.”

Smb on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Armand is a wise and lovely man who deserves these kind words. I absolutely agree that his books were key entries in the scholar’s library…”

J Stuart on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Armand, your response made me unexpectedly emotional. Your work has shaped me as a scholar in many important ways, but your legendary willingness to engage…”

Ardis E. Parshall on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I've enjoyed these three discussions -- crowned by this response by Armand Mauss himself. It is so representative of his ability and willingness to interact…”

Blair Hodges on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thank you for your lasting contributions to Mormon Studies, Armand.”

Mirror on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “These have been interesting posts about a major work in Mormon Studies. If I may boil down my understanding of Mauss' thesis to a…”