The Well-Ordered Soul in Plato and Athanasius

I spent five months trying to order my soul. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates establishes the just man as the man whose soul is well-ordered. This means that his appetite, spirit, and reason play their respective roles. Reason guides the appetite and spirit, allowing the just man to evade vice and pursue virtue. Socrates explains that “the most happy is the most kingly, who rules like a king over himself”. Embracing this idea, I sought to order my own soul without any guidance aside from my vague understanding of justice, virtue, and reason. It didn’t work.

In his treatise,On the Incarnation, Saint Athanasius reveals his perspective on Plato’s idea of the well-ordered soul. He exlpains:

For if even Plato, who is admired by the Greeks, says that because he who begot the world saw it distressed and in danger of sinking into a region of dissimilitude, sitting at the helm of the soul he helped it and corrects all its faults, what then is there incredible in what we say, that humankind being in error, the Word sat at its helm and appeared as human, in order that he might save the distressed by his guidance and goodness?

The Son of God lived, died, and was resurrected to conquer death and corruption. The Word took on flesh and became the mediator between God and man. He has reached down to depraved creatures so that he might heal our broken souls and lead us to holiness. It is through his sacrifice that we are able to partake in the glory of our Creator. In understanding the basic message of salvation, the foolishness and arrogance of trying to order one’s own soul becomes apparent. Man is in a perpetual battle with the flesh that cannot be won without the Word at the helm. It is arrogant to assume that a fallen individual possesses the power to rule oneself.

The temporal ends promised by Plato pale in comparison to the beauty and goodness of Christ. The happiness that Socrates mentions is one of earth and time. The kingly sort of ruling described in the Republic is a human ruling which can never be perfected. On the other hand, the Word guides the soul closer and closer to God until the soul is made complete and is able to enjoy the eternal happiness that is the presence of God. Also, when one submits his soul to God, he is submitting it to the only King who is eternally just and sovereign.

Regarding the means to a well-ordered soul, there is action required by the individual. However, it is action that is grounded in the power of Christ. The Apostle Paul closes his letter to the church in Thessalonica saying:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

God, through the incarnation of the Word, does the complete work of sanctification in one’s soul. Plato was right about living virtuously. To have a well-ordered soul, the good must be sought and the corrupt must be expelled. Unfortunately, what Plato failed to recognize is that God is ultimately the King over one’s soul, and must be relied upon for complete order.

Plato’s idea of the soul — though pagan— is captivating and inspiring. By the grace of God, others such as Saint Athanasius have seen and proclaimed the truth of this idea in a new light. With the Word at the helm, the well-ordered soul has now become a sincerely hopeful ambition. This is not to say that it is easy. With a corruptible flesh, it remains a continual struggle to maintain purity in spirit, soul, and body. Nevertheless, there is a righteous King who abounds in grace and lends his strength so that we can become more and more like him and someday rest in the goodness of his presence.

How Deep Does the Rabbit Hole Go?

Editor’s note: This week, we’re running a series on questions, inspired by Matthew Lee Anderson’s book, The End of Our Exploring. We reviewed his book here. There’s a great deal going on this week: buy one copy of Matt’s book, and you can give one away for free. Check out the details here.

 In 1999, there was one film people were talking about (let’s ignore movies like Toy Story 2, The Sixth Sense, and The Phantom Menace, though that last one is for entirely different reasons). The Matrix immediately caught the attention of freshman philosophers all over the nation. There were people who argued that it was just a retelling of Plato’s Republic, which it sort of was. Others said it was Descartes’ Meditations distilled, which is less true than the first. But the point remains: people were talking about this film. More importantly, we were asking questions.

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Morpheus doesn’t ask Neo a question: he presents him two options. It’s a backhanded way of asking a question, though: Neo is forced to ask himself what he will do, and audiences everywhere wanted to know how deep that rabbit hole went. We all know which way Neo went (and if you don’t, I’m terribly sorry, this movie is 14 years old). We wanted to follow the rabbit hole into the deeper reality it offered, regardless of what that actually looked like.

We even think we know that reality. But if the answer in the film is that the rabbit hole goes as deep as Zion and its corresponding life, the latter films suggest that reality is even deeper than that: the Architect informs Neo that he’s just in the most recent iteration of civilization. Perhaps we don’t actually know if we’re in reality.

Skeptics have been asking these questions for years. If The Matrix is Plato’s cave analogy, the latter films push a deeper skepticism; no longer are we concerned with education and liberation, but with great deceivers and possibly solipsism.

If anyone has a corner on questions proper, it’s skeptics. The position is, after all, centered around and based on questioning everything. But if we stop with questions, I think we’ve missed the point. Let’s learn to question well, and then move on to answers.

So a few answers, down and dirty. How deep does the rabbit hole go? If the rabbit hole is reality or existence, it leads directly to the Source–in the Matrix series, this is the leader of the machines, an artificial intelligence of sorts. For us, the source of all reality is God himself. That’s fairly straightforward, I think. But almost nobody actually liked the sequels. Why?

Maybe it is indicative of a culture that eschews answers in favor of questions. Maybe the movies were just poorly made. Maybe we don’t have the attention span, as a culture, to follow deeper philosophical sci-fi over the course of three films (there are a lot of counterexamples to this latter point, at least). Or maybe we can only handle Keanu Reeves’ expression for so long.

This is an answer I don’t have. Maybe sometimes questions are enough.

Whitewashing Cultural Sepulchers

She’s only three, but our differing taste in music is already a source of conflict. When I turn on Johnny Cash or Regina Spektor, she is adamant: “No.  Songs ’bout Jesus.”  In other words, the local contemporary Christian music station.

At first this seemed OK.   Like many parents, I’m concerned about the kind of art my daughter surrounds herself with.  Popular Christian music doesn’t have any obviously objectionable lyrics, so it must be good for her, right?

Not necessarily.  While the lyrics she enjoys are fine, the music itself often is not.  If Plato and Aristotle were correct, listeners should pay as much attention to the sound of a song as to its lyrics.  Yet, in the popular music world, few do that – and it’s probable that few ever have.  Christians have been right to spurn songs that verbally glorify immorality, but unfortunately they have sometimes imported and whitewashed musical styles that may themselves teach bad lessons.  As Carson Holloway wrote recently:

“…music moves the passions, and… this power, exerted repeatedly over time on people who are immature and impressionable, can produce a certain disposition under which it will be either easier or more difficult for reason to see, and for the will to choose, what is right.”

Thanks to the iPod,  music has become one of the most casually consumed art forms.  The entertainment industry has so taken over popular music that much of it is hardly even considered art anymore – and thus the most popular works are seldom examined seriously.  We are so immersed in music that we hardly know how to hear it anymore, and few consider the consequences of blindly opening oneself up to a medium with such tremendous power to sway the emotions.

This wasn’t always so:

“[Plato and Aristotle]…claimed that people generally and the young especially are influenced most powerfully not by the words of a song but by the music itself-the rhythm, harmony and tune. For these ancients, the music itself, not the lyric, causes the stirrings of passion in the soul that show themselves in the movements of the body. Such experiences, repeated often during one’s formative years, leave a lasting mark. And the immoderation such music fosters, Plato and Aristotle remind us, can be harmful, whether or not the words of the songs are objectionable.”

While Plato specified which musical modes were good and which were bad, most find it difficult to be so specific; so difficult, in fact, that it’s doubtful whether such specificity is even useful.  Music is a terrifically complex art form.  Not only does it possess myriad nuances of every conceivable type, but each of these subtleties may have profoundly different effects on each individual listener.  This makes it all the more important that we not ignore the effects that our listening habits have on our moral sensibilities.

When Christian bands stamp family-safe lyrics on songs that sound no different from the latest secular hits, they do their art and their listeners a disservice by failing to account for the soul-shaping forces at work in the very form of their creations. Marshall McLuhan’s famous maxim, “The medium is the message,” applies to music just as much as to other forms of communication.  It’s a far from neutral medium, though fans and critics alike often treat it as one.

Far from encouraging virtue and inspiring worship, much popular Christian music unintentionally fosters the same vices as secular music.  Music ought to help one learn to cultivate higher pleasures, but instead most popular works tend to encourage listeners to stop and be entertained.  This does not mean we should reject popular music altogether; however, it does mean we should be carefully intentional about the quality of art we surround ourselves with:

“…in their attempt to take music seriously, the conservative critics of pop music do not aim high enough. They oppose music that fosters vice, but that limited aim does not do justice to the full flourishing of human nature or to the key role that the right kind of musical culture can play in fostering that flourishing. By failing to aim higher, modern conservatives ignore, and therefore do nothing to correct, the very social conditions that foster soul- and culture-deforming popular music. To understand this failing more fully, we need to develop the likely Platonic and Aristotelian diagnosis of modern popular music, modern culture and politics, and their effects on the human soul.”

While I’m not about to forbid my preschooler from listening to modern music, I do plan to teach her to treat music as an art that will help her learn to pursue higher pleasures and, ultimately, virtue.  In the mean time, we talk about the “songs ’bout Jesus” she likes so much – and the neighbor girl who frequents our home is beginning to wonder why we listen to so much Bach. ‘

Ad Hoc Review #1

The Last Word N. T. Wright, The Last Word [books] — N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, is one of the most brilliant and prolific New Testament scholars in the world. Unfortunately, he is also viewed as one of the most controversial because of his association with the “New Perspective on Paul.” This “perspective” (which I personally reject) causes many evangelicals to dismiss the totality of Wright’s prodigious output. This is regrettable for while his work should be approached with caution, the Bishop has many valuable contributions to offer the Church.
One example is The Last Word, in which Wright attempts, as the subhead notes, to move “Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture.” This “new understanding” is premised on Wright’s central idea:

“…the central claim of this book: that the phrase ‘authority of Scripture’ can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.'”

This insight is so rich that it would take a much longer book to suss out it implications; Wright merely scratches surface. (In his introduction he preempts this criticism by saying: “I trust that those who have grumbled at the length of some of my other books will not now grumble at all the things I have left unsaid in what is a very compressed, at times almost telegraphic, treatment.”). Still, he makes some valid tangential points, particularly in pointing out the “Misreadings of Scripture” on both the left and the right. While this short volume (146 pgs) will not be “the last word” on the authority of the Bible, it is certainly a worthy starting point for the discussion. Rating: B+


ALL-ETT ALL-ETT Wallets [products] — Remember the episode of Seinfeld where George Constanza’s wallet was so overstuffed with junk that it made him sit at a tilt with it in his back pocket? George solved the imbalance problem by stuffing his other back pocket with napkins. Instead, he should have bought an ALL-ETT, the “World Thinnest Wallet.” I ordered one after reading the review of David Wayne and quickly concluded that the ALL-ETT is the perfect wallet (though I share David’s one criticism: “…the only problem is that you may forget you are carrying it.”).
My current wallet holds 3 insurance cards, 3 credit cards, 5 membership cards, 1 driver’s license, and 8 one dollar bills and yet is still roughly the thickness of 3 nickels. The nylon “spinnaker cloth” version is paper thin and dirt cheap ($19.95) but I recommend spending a few dollars more ($29.95) for the fine grain Italian leather Executive. Be careful, though, when ordering it by mail. When it comes the envelope is so thin that you might mistake if for junk mail and throw it away by accident (seriously). Rating: A+

Iron Man Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D [comics] — For fans of Iron Man, the concept of Tony Stark subbing in for a missing Nick Fury as the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. is pure genius. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t take advantage of the rich possibilities and instead dishes out the standard post-Civil War fare. Fanboys, however, will appreciate the extras included in the trade paperback, including a reprint of the first appearance of S.H.I.E.L.D., a classic Stark/Fury team-up, and comprehensive profiles of both Iron Man and S.H.I.E.L.D. Rating: B-

Plato’s Lysis [classics] — I suspect the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote The Clouds–a satire which mockingly portrays Socrates as a foolish sophist–after reading Plato’s Lysis–a dialogue that unintentionally portrays Socrates as a foolish sophist. The discussion is ostensibly about friendship (which, herein, appears to mean boy-boy love). Yet after a meandering throat clearing session followed by a dull aligning and knocking down of strawmen, Socrates concludes by summarizing:

If neither the beloved, nor the lover, nor the like, nor the unlike, nor the good, nor the congenial, nor any other of whom we spoke-for there were such a number of them that I cannot remember all-if none of these are friends, I know not what remains to be said.

I too know not what remains to be said, except, “Maybe Aristophanes was on to something…” Rating: D
Related: My friend (and Plato scholar) John Mark Reynolds reviews my review and finds it lacking:

Plato has written a dialogue, a genre that is not written like contemporary philosophy or apologetics. It is more like a philosophical play than treatise. Of course, it is not a play in the sense that it intends merely to entertain. It is trying to encourage participation.Socrates is confronting some very opinionated young men eager to love and sure they understand what love is….
Plato wrote, therefore, in a more guarded manner. He does not “hide” his meaning to frustrate modern readers, but partly for prudence. He also (see Phaedrus) worries that “dead books” that simply pronounce truths will stifle free inquiry and mental growth in a student.

JMR makes some interesting points and he adequately defends Plato and his method. On those points we are in agreement. But what JMR has not done, in my opinion, is explain what makes Lysis a good dialogue. Plato is of the greatest thinkers in history and “friendship” is one of the great themes. So are we really to believe that this is the best that Plato could do?
What say you readers? Who is closer to the truth? Me or JMR?


David Archuleta [music] -For the first six seasons the cultural juggernaut known as American Idol has seeded pop music with the great (Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry), the good (Jennifer Hudson, Elliott Yamin, Bucky Covington), the bad (Kellie Pickler, Blake Lewis, Sanjaya Malakar), and the mediocre (Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Taylor Hicks). But this year the show finally delivers the sublime: David Archuleta.

This week the show is down to the remaining eight contestants: David Archuleta and seven inevitable runners-up that are not named David Archuleta. The 17-year-old wunderkind is the best discovery the show has ever made. (Even New York magazine’s snarky Vulture blog asks without irony, “Is David Archuleta the Greatest ‘American Idol’ Contestant of All Time?”) Rating: A+