This sourcebook and primer gives a good and deep, if sometimes difficult, overview of Platonic metaphysics in one small volume.
And why would you want to read about Platonic metaphysics?
Speaking for myself, my own recent path to it has been via the study of literary theory. As a writer who wants to create his best work, I am seeking to develop my own understanding of what makes literature, especially imaginative literature, tick. In my travels I came across an intriguing book, Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts by Peter Struck, which traces the rise and development of the literary symbol as a tool in the poet’s kit. According to Struck, the literary symbol came to be seen as a way for poets to express the inexpressible, to place talismans, as it were, of ineffable divine truth in their works. Eventually, with the rise of the Romantic movement, the symbol would become the master device of the impassioned, nonrationalistic poet.
But back in the ancient world, the symbol became one of the main ideas that distinguished the literary criticism that stemmed from the writing of Aristotle, with its emphasis on clarity of expression, from that which stemmed from the writing of Plato, with its interest in understanding our relationship with the divine. And while Plato himself denigrated poetry as being derivative of nature and therefore of low worth, his successors saw things differently, and eventually came to regard poetry as among the things that can put us in closest contact with the divine.
The later Platonists, including Iamblichus and Plotinus, and culminating with Proclus in the 5th century AD, combed through the works of Plato, systematizing, connecting, and extrapolating to develop a sophisticated and robust map of reality. This system is usually referred to now as Neoplatonism, implying that these later thinkers morphed Plato’s metaphysics into a different system of their own, but the authors of Beyond the Shadows insist that Neoplatonism is a misnomer, and that these later philosophers were staying true to a tradition that was already fully developed at the time of Plato in the 4th century BC. Tim Addey observes, in his primer “The Universe of Being”, that the philosophical tradition of which Plato was a part was mainly an oral one, and that therefore the “Platonic” philosophers had access to a body of teachings much larger than what was ever recorded in writing. They were not developing or changing Plato’s ideas so much as making them more explicit and organized.
So what is Platonism? It is a philosophical theory that holds that all of reality is one interconnected thing, ordered in grades of being in ascending levels of perfection and wholeness. At the summit of all these grades, and indeed beyond the summit, is the inexpressible and inconceivable first principle, the origin of everything, which the Platonists simply call The One. They call it The One even though it is no more “one” than it is anything else, being beyond all characterization. But all things that can be known and characterized proceed from The One, and, eventually, revert back to it. An alternative name for The One was The Good, which is what Plato himself usually called it. This name emphasizes that the first principle is the source not only of all being but of all goodness. All of reality is suffused with goodness in the same way that it is suffused with being, but in, as it were, ever weaker concentrations as it is unfolded farther from The One.
This philosophy is powerful, deep, and, to me, inspiring. All the Platonic thinkers, and the authors of this book, insist that the ideas cannot be grasped adequately on our first acquaintance with them; they must be studied and contemplated to be understood. The Platonic thinkers observe that everyone who comes to understand these ideas is spontaneously drawn to them; deep down, we all want them to be true. The apparent evils of life and the world are merely passing blemishes on an abiding reality whose fundamental basis is goodness.
The book is composed of two parts: section 1, “Writings of the Platonic Philosophers on The One and the Gods”, which consists of a short introduction by Guy Wyndham-Jones and a selection of short extracts from the writings of Plato, Plotinus, Proclus, and Plato’s famous translator Thomas Taylor; and section 2, “The Universe of Being” by Tim Addey, an overview of Platonic metaphysics. I read section 2 first, then moved on to the sourcebook of section 1; and I would recommend that approach.
The authors have a strong command of the material, and do a good job of explaining it in an understandable way, even though their writing is not always as strong as one might wish. The book contains plenty of comma faults and other copyediting flaws, suggesting that the publisher, The Prometheus Trust, has more expertise in Platonic philosophy than in book editing. The book itself was hard for me, in Canada, to get hold of. Efforts to buy it direct from the publisher in the U.K. and from Amazon.co.uk were aborted when the sellers would not ship to me. It required digging on the publisher’s website to discover that I had to buy a copy from their North American distributor.
Yes, getting this book was a questone I’m glad I persevered with. The subject matter may seem obscure, even irrelevant; but I don’t see it that way. We all live in a place we call reality; is its nature and structure really a matter of no interest or concern to us? Have we been blessed with minds able to consider these ideas, only to use them solely to chase fleeting physical and emotional pleasures?
According to the Platonists, our human intelligence can all be referred to as a single thing because it is a manifestation of the idea of intelligence or intellect, which in turn is a manifestation of still higher ideas that all trace their origin to The One. We are sentient because sentience is part of the overall perfection of reality, pervading the whole universe. Why wouldn’t we want to put ourselves in the best relationship with these realities?
It’s a question worth asking. And this book gives the serious, interested reader an excellent introduction to this profound view of the world.