[Note: reposted from an original 2020/12/02 share on my personal blog.]
“The curtain of history rises on a world already ancient, full of ruined cities and ways of thought worn smooth. Mediterranian peoples knew there had been disasters, but remembered little in detail” (2). These opening lines of Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy mesmerized me, and the spell remained throughout the book. Clark participates throughout his book in philosophy’s true task: “Philosophical discussion and reflection are not simply means for solving intellectual problems (though they are and must be that). They are also charms, counter-charms, for the deliverance of the soul” (41, quoting Hilary Armstrong). To put it more modestly, “what we need—tradition says—is to awaken insight” (36).
Clark does not remain modest in his claims for philosophy, however. Reflecting on the death of Socrates, Clark claims that he practiced “a kind of philosophy at once more dangerous and more obscure than moderns now remember” (43). The deadliness of philosophy was a commonplace as we see with Zeno who was “one of those who perished as philosophers were meant to do: defying a tyrant with such courage that, after his murder, the tyrant was overthrown” (63-64). This standard carried through to Christian sages as well. Describing Saint Maximus (who had his right hand removed and his tongue cut out to prevent his writing and speaking), Clark points out that “parrhesia, ‘outspokenness’, was the hallmark and privilege of the awkward holy man in all periods of Byzantium” (203, quoting The Byzantines by Averil Cameron). Stephen R. L. Clark clearly advocates the practice of what these sages preach, saying in his preface, “I have my own beliefs about the only truth that matters, but it is the nature of that truth, as Plato recognized, that it cannot be conveyed by writing” (xi).
The book moves chronologically overall but with a fluid topical arrangement providing enough systematic clarity to make me imagine using this book in a classroom with students. Although sweeping in its scope, Clark is not shy about identifying a center and taking sides. The chapter on Plato is titled “Divine Plato” and is placed at the center of a chiastic structure, with four chapters before and four after, each with some reverberating echoes in their content leading up to Plato and receding from him. Chapter ten functions more like an epilogue that places the entire ebb and flow of Mediterranean philosophy into active contact with our own world—one of a long-crumbled Christendom and of established modern superstitions (as Clark calls them, more below). Echoing his opening lines, Clark points out that we are once again “being brought up among the ruins” and that we are likely soon to pass through another period of youth which is always an opportunity to “rediscover glory” (208).
In a further example of taking sides, Clark calls Plotinus “probably the greatest” of Hellenic sages (196) and provides a delightful section of chapter9 (“The way we didn’t take”) which considers what Rome might have looked like had it become a “Plotinian empire” (200). It would at least have been kinder, Clark says, than the attempt at a pagan renaissance made by the emperor Julian. Despite his love for Plato, Clark gives a thoughtful and positive treatment to all the schools of wisdom seeking within the Mediterranean world. He gives none of them a corner on the market and recognizes multiple threads that link them together.
Although the book is not polemical, Clark quietly points out modernity’s blindspots at several points. For example, he says:
The story that has most affected recent writers is that our ancestors were enmeshed in superstition, that ‘the Greeks’ invented science to escape, then lost their nerve and succumbed again to ‘Oriental’ fantasies. Popular works on science refer disparagingly to the ‘Dark Ages’ and to ‘Medieval Superstition’. This story too is a fable. (5)
Another critique of the modern world is its greed. Clark notes that “‘wanting more’ (Greek morealists called it pleonexia) is the disease of progress” and that “not everyone has succumbed” (3) and goes on to say:
The very realism of much Greek thought was not friendly to the growth of anything we could call ‘science’. It was better not to disturb things, not to image that we could control the world, or always evade disaster. Even if we succeeded in the short term, the effects might not be good. (19) …Most philosophers gradually concluded …that …only small groups of friends, or even solitaries, could live well. (72)
Part of the solution for Clark is recognizing that we occupy a world that is more than material. Sounding like my hero Wendell Berry, Clark says that “in the merely material world, there are no privileged places, times or scales: there is nowhere that is uniquely here, no time that is uniquely now, no reason to suggest that the human scale of things is especially important” (116). As I have already pointed out, the way forward that Clark holds out for us is to rediscover glory. Based on the many examples of courageous sages that Clark holds up, however, any recovery of glory would seem likely to require a high degree of personal sacrifice, commitment and self-imposed limits (again very much like Wendell Berry). A modest assessment of ourselves as those who should “contemplate and imitate the world” in part “by building things” can open up “a mode of understanding” (176).
Clark insists that “we [moderns] should acknowledge our own superstitions: that each of us is competent to reason our way to truth and good behavior, and that we can identify ourselves entirely with particular human bodies. These are the errors that Socrates—maybe—spent his life rebutting.” (93) These are lessons that do not come easily to any of us today. We still believe the Enlightenment promise that reason can single-handedly provide solutions to all of our blindnesses and failures, and we consider our “particular human bodies” to be the ground of all ethical, economic, political and medical reasoning.
To more fully understand what Clark means by the modern superstition “that we can identify ourselves entirely with particular human bodies,” we would need to turn to another book of his where Clark says, “A human person requires a cosmos to sustain it: of anyone it is literally true that the whole world is her body, since the light of the sun, and the respiration of algae, are essential to her bodily survival” (God, Religion and Reality, 108). This idea is touched upon in Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy from an ethical angle when, for example, the Mishnah is cited as evidence that Hebrew scriptures say “each person is himself/herself a world” (149) and that “it is the duty of everyone to say: for my sake the world was created” (165).
This concept recalls what Dale Martin has to say about the Apostle Paul in The Corinthian Body (Yale UP, 1995, reviewed here):
The human body was not like a microcosm; it was a microcosm—a small version of the universe at large. (16) …No ontological dichotomy between the individual and the social can be located in Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 5. One may argue that the modern concept of the individual is simply unavailable to Paul. In any case, the logic underlying 1 Corinthians 5 depends on the breaking down of any possible boundary between the individual body and the social body. (173)
Likewise, contemporary Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith has written about this in many places. See, for example, this passage from How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor:
At this point Taylor introduces a key concept to describe the premodern self: prior to this disenchantment and the retreat of meaning into an interior “mind,” the human agent was seen as porous (35). …Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind and meaning, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also “healable”). …To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace. “This sense of vulnerability,” Taylor concludes, “is one of the principal features which have gone with disenchantment.” (36)
Although Clark is clearly not opposed to modern science, he suggests that “we are looking in the wrong place to find traces of experimental science” (11) and says that “it was not the Ionean theories that marked them as experimentalists but the engineering skills that they had learned from older societies” (12). The atomism of Democritus “was less a physical theory than a mystical conclusion” (58), and all the theories of the great Mediterranean sages “were not lisping attempts at modern science, but meditations on the transience of commonsensical subjects, and the strangeness of what comes ‘before’ our world” (60). Identifying the roots of modern science in examples such as “the technical skills of Thales, who enabled Croesus of Lydia to bypass the river that was in his army’s way” (19-20), Clark only suggests that such powers of experimental engineering should always be subject to “the moral lessons that the Greeks preferred (especially ‘don’t go too far’)” (20).
While issuing such warnings, Clark is not shy to point out the beauties of modern science as a potential source for rediscovering glory:
Plato’s demand for beauty in our equations was not vindicated until first Copernicus (following Aristarchus of Samos) and then Kepler devised a better mathematical model for the system of stars and planets. Even now, we are often faced by the ugly or the arbitrary in the heavens: stars may appear and disappear and matter falls together in whirls and clouds in unpredictable ways. The distant ideal is still a Platonic or Pythagorean one, to grasp the numbers that lie behind the phenomenal and also the physical world. (118)
…The Platonistic View is the only one tenable. Thereby I mean the view that mathematics describes a non-sensual reality, which exists independently of the human mind and is only perceived, and probably perceived very incompletely, by the human mind. (111, quoting Gödel’s “Some basic theorems on the foundations of mathematics and their philosophical implications” from 1951)
Likewise, Clark quotes Stephen Hawking at length on the self-sustaining power and beauty of a unified theory and suggests that Plato would have approved (118-119).
While supporting modern science in these ways, Clark asks us not to read the ancient Meditteranian sages and “label one speculative thinker ‘a philosopher’ and another only ‘a poet’ or ‘mystic’ merely because they speak of ‘elements’ instead of spirits’” (10). He turns our attention instead toward how they might help us to see the glory that lies hidden in our world. “We shall not see things straight, so Platonists supposed, until we see their glory” (199). Aristotle agrees in so far as concluding that “beauty is visible, for those who care to look, even in the smallest and the vilest of creatures (Aristotle, De Partibus Animalium, 1.645a15f). Every visible creature is, in a way, an image of the divine” (193). In the current state of this world, truth and glory are hidden. “The Greek word that we translate as ‘truth’ is Aletheia, and a stream of puns makes clear that the Greeks could, if they chose, hear this as ‘the Unhidden’, or as ‘the Unforgotten’” (57). Finding the truth requires the perception of what is hidden within and the recollection of what might easily be forgotten. “What Plato conceived as a proper dialectic …[was] to test hypotheses against each other and against the basic rules of logic, and so at length prevent good arguments from escaping or being forgotten” (63). Yet much is missed and forgotten.
In this plight of an unrecognized ignorance, we need harsh measures to awaken us:
We should attend more sympathetically to such dialogues as Cratylus and Enthydemus. In the former, familiar words are deconstructed by random etymologies (so that alethea becomes ‘a godly wandering’). In the latter, wildly fallacious arguments—including ones that seem to show how falsehood is impossible, and that anyone who knows anything must actually know everything—are greeted with mounting hostility by Socrates’ young companion, but with continued respect by Socrates himself. Confusion and not clarity may be the goal: the moment when we find ourselves entirely at a standstill, knowing that we know nothing.
After all, “only when we are dumbstruck by our own incompetence is there much chance of hearing what the Truth will tell us” (90).
In his analysis of Plato, Clark claims that “the principle effect of Plato’s work, in many differing schools, lies not …in his ideas, but in the figure of Socrates, and his delight in argument” (109). This figure was best captured in dialog:
Plato was correct, in Phaedrus and elsewhere, to say that writings, on their own, are easily misunderstood, especially if we don’t practice what their authors preached. So also in the Hebraic tradition, the oral teaching is the medium through which the written is to be interpreted. ‘The Talmud is essentially an activity, not a book: you engage in it, rather than read it as you would a piece of literature.’ The same should be true when reading any philosophy. (104-105)
Clark does justice to Plato’s ideas, nonetheless, and reminds us that “however abstract or pedantic Platonic Forms may seem, especially when they are identified with Numbers, we should remember that they are the objects of passionate love. They are Beauty in its several forms, and derive their being from the Good Itself.” (112) Describing the nous (or perceptive mind or intellect) that can “look at what transcends” the things that it typically perceives, Plotinus says that this is “the Intellect in love, when it goes out of its mind ‘drunk with the nectar’” (115).
Much of my own poor intellectual life could be summarized as a quest to find out what C. S. Lewis meant when he had Digory Kirke say, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” (The Last Battle). I’m therefore happy to see a chapter devoted the “divine Plato” and to hear his claim that:
The immortal Mind in me is just the same as the immortal Mind in you. That mind, in fact, is a god—though the way a particular corporeal being thinks is only intermittently, and waveringly, the immortal mind. We do not think the truth: when we do, there is only one thought in each of us, and that thought will survive our mortal bodies. (112-113).
Speaking of “our particular corporeal being,” however, it is critical to note that Clark clarifies one important misunderstanding of neoplatonism. These philosophers did not despise the material world:
Both pagan and Abrahamic Platonists have found corporeal nature sacramental. Plotinus was vegetarian, refused medicines made from animals, and denounced those ‘gnostics’ who despised the earth. Porphyry, his pupil, was until recently the only ‘professional philosopher’ to write at length in favour of ‘the rights of beasts’ (Porphyry 2000). Nor was this at odds with Plato. (110)
In describing all the schools of gnosticism, David Bentley Hart confirms that “there is none that has an explicit metaphysics of participation” (see this podcast transcript where Hart identifies this lack of “a metaphysics of relation between God and creation” as the “one thing that these schools had in common so that you could classify them as gnostic”). Plotinus likely would have identified Christians as belonging among these gnostic sects (199 in Clark), and David Bentley Hart notes that Christians identified themselves as true gnostics. Nonetheless, this sacramental understanding of corporeal nature (this “metaphysics of participation” in the divine) is actually something that all pagan and Abrahamic Platonists (including early Christians) held in common over against the gnostics sects who did not see this world as a revelation, in any respect, of glory and truth.
Clark puts this sacramental understanding of the cosmos on display with language from Plutarch that exactly lines up with many passages in C. S. Lewis where he describes the “motions of the universe …not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one” (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature). Here is Plutarch (De Tranquillitate Animi):
I am delighted with Diogenes, who, when he saw his host in Sparta preparing with much ado for a certain festival, said, ‘Does not a good man consider every day a festival?’ and a very splendid one, to be sure, if we are sound of mind [nous]. For the universe is a most holy temple and …into it man is introduced through birth as a spectator, not of hand-made or immovable images, but of those sensible representations of knowable things that the divine mind, says Plato, has revealed, representations which have innate within themselves the beginnings of life and motion, sun and moon and stars, rivers which ever discharge fresh water, and earth which sends forth nourishment for plants and animals. Since life is a most perfect initiation into these things and a ritual celebration of them, it should be full of tranquillity and joy, and not in the manner of the vulgar. (quoted in Clark 239)
When Clark speaks of Abrahamic Platonists, it is clear that he identifies himself among them as a Chrisitan Platonist. From what I have read elsewhere, Clark is a devout Anglican, and he gives full consideration to Jesus Christ among the Medditeranian sages that he covers. In distinguishing Christians from most of the other “Hellenistic Schools” who “offered a way of life,” Clark cites Clement of Alexandria: “I long for the Lord of the winds, the Lord of fire, the Creator of the World, He who gives light to the sun. I seek God himself, not for the works of God.” (154-155)
In another passage, Clark identifies Jesus Christ with “the very Word of God, the thing that the Omnipresent has been saying, is saying, from the beginning and through whom all things were made.” Clark frames the revelation of Jesus Christ in this way, with characteristic modesty and stopping just short of an absolute claim to knowledge:
We cannot, in short, work out what the world is like merely by examining our own ideas of it, as philosophers often hoped. Is there any chance of locating God’s idea of it? Later writers conceived that Jesus himself was the very Word of God, the thing that the Omnipresent has been saying, is saying, from the beginning and through whom all things were made. Rabbinic speculative poetry or metaphysics proposed that Zion, which is Jerusalem, was the very first thing to be made: Jerusalem the City was the centre of history, even if — in human history — it came late. Muslims similarly were to suggest that the heavenly Koran was written ‘before’ all worlds. Christians concluded instead that Jesus was the center, the very first bit of the story as it is conceived in God. In all these cases, there were some features of the story, the place, the text as it was enacted in human history that really could have been otherwise, and other features that really could not have been different, since they were what God always is and says. Is this a story that Jesus himself could have told, as the gospel writers suggest he did? It is at least not clear that he couldn’t have: either the story is true (and clearly He could have told it) or it is at least a story that Hellenized Jews could tell (as Philo of Alexandria almost did). (168-169)
In the end—although this broken and transitory cosmos does contain within its every least and ugliest part a revelation of the divine and although God is even revealed perfectly within history by Jesus Christ—we circle back time and again to the need for small human communities with strong self-limiting practices and a deep desire to see the glory around them. This life is only possible when we remain intentionally modest, recognizing that a human scale is necessarily limited:
Solon told King Croesus that the best the gods could offer in answer to a mother’s prayers was the prompt death of her sons—though he also acknowledged that the unassuming life of a peasant farmer (in good times) was good (or at least was better than the life that Croesus lived). Similarly, in Plato’s Myth of Er, where he imagines how discarnate souls select the earthly life they will be living next, Odysseus shows his wisdom by searching out an ‘ordinary’ life, unnoticed by all others during the choice and destined to be unnoticed during life. The very worst life is one in which we do everything that we momentarily wish, seduced by sense. (194)
What, then, is our right course? We should pass our life in playing games—certain games, that is, sacrifice, song and dance. …[Mankind should] live out their lives as what they really are—puppets in the main though with some touch of reality about them, too. (Plato, Laws 7.803-4 quoted by Clark 120)
This survey of Clark’s book, though wordy, does no more than give a brief glimpse into the wealth of his short work. I’ve not covered the many schools of thought that he surveys with a myriad of bright insights or mentioned the breadth of the relationships that he suggests between the Mediterranean world and its neighbors. Clearly, this is a book that I commend. For my part, I will be looking for other books of his as well. The list is long. His most recent is Can We Believe in People?: Human Significance in an Interconnected Cosmos. Others include: God, Religion, and Reality, From Athens to Jerusalem, Aristotle’s Man, Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice, and G. K. Chesterton: Thinking Backward, Looking Forward.
Clearly, Clark has spent some time laboring to point out glory amid the ruins that we inhabit. One small fragment of this is Clark’s own translation of a famous line from a song composed by Pindar (Pythian 8 line 95 is quoted by Clark on page 186 without citation). It was was commissioned by the family of an aristocrat named Aristomenes as a celebration of his victory in the wrestling event at the Pythian Games of 446 BC: “A shadow’s dream is man, but when a god sheds a brightness, shining light is on earth and life is as sweet as honey.”