“Things of the senses are real if they are considered as perceptible things, but unreal if considered as goods.” (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, p. 45)
To understand the statement above, one must see it in the light of Plato. It has been said, with some justice, that every philosopher is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian, and there is no doubt that Simone Weil is a Platonist and was hostile to Aristotle. What can it mean to say that things such as health and fitness, food and drink, property and progeny, are illusory goods?
We wish to look for counterclaims to positions that we have been given in our social and cultural contexts, in our education, for our goal is to attempt to get beyond our Caves. The quest for knowledge is a moral impulse. The essence of education is liberation. We wish to stop saying silly Russellian things like ‘God is as incredible as a celestial teapot’, or some other such comments that issue from propagandist ‘scientists’ who in their public speaking have ceased to be scientists and have become sophists at best, or politicians at their worst. Human beings will have their gods whether they recognize them or not; the goal of liberation or education is to ensure that one is not worshiping false gods.
What we call our ‘personal knowledge’ is the adopting of a position where an ineluctable element of de-cision, a cutting off of reflection and an engaging of the will, has been made: one must decide (and, indeed, has decided) what one will believe and how one will live. These decisions are grounded in the choices provided by our our culture, our ‘shared knowledge’, from our Caves. They are the products of what that kind of thinking which the Greeks understood as phronesis establishes. There is no argument, or set of arguments, that definitively establishes or grounds the desired conclusion, or justifies one’s personal way of life; and if one thinks that one has found that argument or set of arguments, then one has decided in favor of that argument or set of arguments without, perhaps, realizing that one has done so. If nothing else, one has decided to leave off investigating the matter. One has chosen, like some of the prisoners in the Cave, to return to the realm of the shadows. In most cases, it is our social and cultural contexts, our shared or historical knowledge, which grounds our de-cisions and our ceasing to inquire and to reflect.
What does it mean to say that the world of the senses is the world of shadows in the Cave and what relation does this have to knowledge and religion?
First of all, to call the things of the senses ‘shadows’ does not mean that such things when conceived as goods have no reality whatsoever; the point is rather that they lack absolute reality, according to Plato. When Macbeth, for example, sees a dagger before him, it has a ‘reality’, but its reality is as a shadow; it is the construct of a mind that sees daggers. (The dagger could also be interpreted in a positive sense in that it is the “last warning” to Macbeth before he makes his decision and acts). It is a construction of Macbeth’s de-cision: he is going to kill Duncan. Because the shadows lack an absolute reality, they cannot satisfy us ultimately (as Macbeth’s crime will not ultimately satisfy him). This delusion of desires/needs is the foundation of consumerism and of those societies based on the appetites.
The Idea of the Good is that which imparts to things their goodness. For Plato, the Ideas determine the ‘essence’ or the ‘what-ness’ of some thing. Birches, oaks, and larches all share in the idea of ‘treeness’, but the individual tree is not the idea of the tree itself. So with all the things of the world: what is good in them is given by the idea of the Good, but is not the Good itself. Their ‘goodness’ is a shadow of the Good just as a photograph of a loved one is not the loved one themselves, but a ‘shadow’ or an image of them.
Because human beings are by nature the religious animal in that they are capable of being moved by gods, we can approach the question of what is most important with regard to knowledge and religion via the notion of idolatry. The essence of idolatry lies in the absolutizing of the relative, or of the universalizing of the particular. This is, in fact, what Aristotle does in his interpretation and understanding of Plato’s idea of the Good (agathon), and his interpretation of the ideas in general. A finite good becomes an idol when it is treated as if it were an infinite good, i.e., one capable of satisfying our infinite desire. That our desire is infinite is shown by the fact that it is never satisfied by any finite object or series of finite objects. Not even an infinite series of finite objects (novelties or ‘experiences’) could satisfy it since what we really want is not an endless series of finite satisfactions but, though we don’t know it, the absolute good which is the Good itself. This is why our releasement from the chains in the Cave must be done by “force”, and involves some “violence”, and why the experience of this releasement is a painful one. Our enchainment to the desire to experience “experiences” is one of the roots of the difficulties for us in understanding ourselves. Self-knowledge for the Greeks was called “wisdom” or sophia and this involved contemplating the eternal things.
Ultimately, all desire, all need is the desire or need for the Absolute. A desire or need that understood itself, that was transparent to itself, would understand this fact about itself. But our deluded desire thinks it can find satisfaction in the finite. Therein lies the root of idolatry. We give our love to that which is not deserving of our love. In the West, this need/desire was seen in eros whom the Greeks recognized as a god i.e. infinite. Yet Eros, and our experience of Eros is, curiously, both infinite and temporal.
In the East, the Buddha understood this very well: he saw that desire is infinite in that it desires its own ultimate quenching or extinguishing, its own nibbana (http://www.buddhanet.net/nutshell10.htm), but that finite quenchings are unsatisfactory in that they only exacerbate desire by giving birth to new desires endlessly. Contrary to the Buddhist belief that all being is suffering, in the West, this has been seen in the figure of eros or need. Both Plato and the Buddha see this desire in the element or metaphor of Fire, a fire that does not extinguish itself. No desire or need is finally sated; each is reborn in a later desire. (See, for example, the discussion of King Lear on the wheel and its relation to the Pythagorean doctrine under Mathematics and Religion). This wheel of cyclical desire in Buddhism is the wheel of Samsara (http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/bs-s07b.htm). The more one is driven by the appetites looking for the ultimate satisfaction, the more frustrated one becomes. The desire to consume or possess the Beautiful has been understood mythologically as the ‘fall’ of human beings; it is in our nature to consume/possess because we are the needing beings. We believe that taking something into ourselves will somehow make us whole and our desire/need will find rest.
So the Buddha understood the nature of desire or need as infinite in the needing human being. But since he had convinced himself that there is no Absolute, no Atman (see the following link for a discussion of this difficult concept in Buddhism http://www.buddhanet.net/buddhism-self.htm,) nothing possessing self-nature, (in this he can be distinguished from both Plato and Aristotle who saw in physis a self-nature or essence of what something is) he preached salvation through the extirpation of desire/need itself. Desire as such is at the root of suffering, dukkha, not desire for the wrong objects; so the way to salvation is not via redirection of desire upon the right Object, but via an uprooting of desire itself. This uprooting is a ‘violence’ that must be present in detachment from the things of the world, and this detachment, again, is a painful experience.
In Buddhist terms, we could say that idolatry is the treating of something that is anatta, devoid of self-nature, as if it were atta, possessive of self-nature. Idolatry arises when some finite foreground object is falsely ascribed the power to provide ultimate satisfaction. This is the conception of knowledge in the sciences; but in our sciences, there is no conception and no place for the world to be seen as beautiful as the world is seen as ‘object’. This de-cision of our sciences is a closing down rather than an opening up of the world of perception.
The distinction between Buddhism and the thinking that originated in the West is that for Socrates and Plato the world is conceived as good. The drawing power of eros is necessary for us to be led to the Good, and this drawing power is the beauty of the world. The world itself is a souvenir, a remembrance or reminder of the ultimate Good of which it is a testimony. Again, think of it as a photograph of someone we love. The photo is a reminder of the being who draws our love, but is not the real person themselves. This world and all its goods are but a reminder of the ultimate Good itself. Our error lies in mistaking the two as identical.
It is not without reason that the peculiar madness of the lover (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as an example) is the taking of the finite for the infinite. For Plato, there is the presence of the Good in all things that are; and this good is given to us through the perception of the Beautiful which, in its erotic power, draws us towards the Good itself. We can mistake the Beautiful for the Good itself, and this is what creates our ‘values’: we value what we consider the beautiful and what we think the beautiful itself to be, as the Good, and we consider this good of our own making since it is we who impose values on things. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, no?
According to the Pythagoreans, whether or not the absolute Good exists is not the question: reason suggests that we should love the finite as finite, that our love should be attuned to, and commensurate with, its object or its ‘otherness’. To love the finite as infinite is to go beyond the limits (to attempt to exceed the circumference of the circle) and is, essentially, hubristic. Romeo and Juliet love not ‘wisely’ but ‘too well’. The desire/need that is infinite is such because it is for the Infinite and can only be satisfied in the Infinite. Eros is both god and mediator, both finite and infinite as Christ Himself becomes in Christianity. As a young William Blake would conclude in his text “There is No Natural Religion”: “Conclusion. If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again. Application. He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only. Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.” What Blake had come to realize here is that “ratio” understood as “reason”, or the principle of reason, the metaphysics of the experimental sciences, gives the “eternal recurrence of the Same” (as understood by the German philosopher Nietzsche). To counteract this, the Prophetic character of the imagination was, for Blake, required.