Word Doc: LiliSnyderThesis
Chapter 1: Introduction
People often ask me what my “major” is at Georgetown University. The short answer is history and philosophy, but, like all short answers, the truth is more complicated. My diploma will say “Individualized Study,” and my courses were predominately the core courses required by the BALS program. That still doesn’t really describe the education I received. The core courses of the BALS program taught me how to look at history, how to place people within a cultural context, and how to recognize and write about the truth. We learned history through the eyes of philosophy. I was constantly struck by how people of different epochs and cultures spoke of the same truth. For my thesis, the culmination of my Georgetown education, I took four seemingly unrelated philosophers, and connected them through a common perspective on the truth. Plato, St. Augustine, Galileo and Kandinsky, the four thinkers of this essay, all preach same truth through different lenses. Plato uses the perspective of philosophy, Augustine uses religion, Galileo uses science, and Kandinsky uses art.
The same truth is by christened different names. Plato calls it the Form, Augustine calls it God, Galileo sees a form of it in science, and Kandinsky calls the truth the Essence. Even within one version of the truth, the truth can be called by many names. For example, God is called by dozens of names in the in the Hebrew bible including YHWH (Yahweh), ‘adonai, ‘elohim and LORD. God is omnipotent and indescribable, and therefore cannot truly be named. Before emancipation, slaves took the name of their masters as a symbol of ownership. No one can own the truth, and therefore no one can really name it.
The thinkers of this essay had a dualistic philosophy. They all believed that there is the empirical world, where mankind dwells, and the theoretical world, where the truth resides. The truth, in other words, is separated from the material world. Plato believed that death frees the soul from the body and brings man closer to enlightenment. St. Augustine believed that love of God lifts man beyond the material world. Galileo believed that scientific truth brought mankind closer to God, and Kandinsky challenged men to look beyond form for the raw expressive truth. Each of these philosophers fundamentally sought the same truth.
Besides a fundamental theory, these thinkers are connected through their position in history. Plato revolutionized the teachings of philosophy, St. Augustine defined a budding religion, Galileo smashed open scientific truth, and Kandinsky questioned beauty itself. Each man was a leader in his chosen field, and changed the course of history. Plato, as the first of these thinkers, was especially influential in changing the course of philosophy. Plato, in all of his modesty, said, “I, as it seems, give motion to the works of others as well as my own.” (Euthyphro 43). He inspired future generations to uncover the truth.
Chapter 2: Plato: The Similes of the Sun and Divided Line
Plato spoke the truth, a truth that seeded inspiration in countless succeeding philosophers. A.N. Whitehead, a prominent 20th century western philosopher, said that all western philosophers are merely a series of extended footnotes to Plato. Plato is commonly regarded as the starting point to philosophy, and “has both the gift and the inclination to inspire” all readers (Flew 42). “Plato is the first major figure in the history of Western philosophy” (Adams 11). Plato’s truth resonated through generations, and still rings true today.
Plato had a particular ability to draw out intelligence. His didactic method continues to challenge modern readers and developing philosophers. Plato’s dialogues consist of two characters. Socrates plays the role of the teacher, and Socrates’ followers, the role of the pupil. Socrates believed that it was the responsibility of philosophers to draw out instinctual knowledge within his pupils (Plato, “The Republic” 262). He believed that knowledge was not learned, but remembered, and it is the obligation of the philosopher to remind the pupils (Plato, “The Republic” 263). The modern reader can relate to Plato’s truth because each reader of Plato’s dialogues embodies the pupil, and so it is as if Socrates is next to you, allowing you to formulate his intellectual conclusions while guiding your intellectual process.
Historians argue whether Socrates or Plato is the source of this philosophy. There is not a single surviving written document by Socrates’ hand, but his philosophy was preserved in the writings of followers such as Plato, Xenophon and Antisthenes (Stone 14). The philosophy within Xenophon and Antisthenes’ works differs from the philosophy within Plato’s. This leads modern philosophers and historians to conclude that at least part of the philosophy within Plato’s dialogues is Plato’s own ideas, inspired by his teacher. “Plato’s theory of Forms developed out of the Socratic search for absolute definitions” (Stone 75). In other words, Plato’s philosophy is a mix of Platonic and Socratic ideas.
Plato challenges his readers to go deeper, to question, and to uncover the truth. For Plato, this truth is called the Theory of the Forms. The Theory of the Forms is not explicitly explained in any of the dialogues (Flew 46). Plato often refers to and builds upon this theory, but does not assume that his readers require a concise explanation of the theory (Flew 46). The Simile of the Sun, the Analogy of the Divided Line, the Allegory of the Cave and the dialogue Phaedo will be explored in this essay. In them, Plato describes aspects of the Forms, the process of understanding the Forms, and knowledge of the Forms.
Simile of the Sun
In the Simile of the Sun, Plato describes the Good, and compares man’s knowledge of the Good to the eye’s ability to intake light. The difference between “Good” and “good,” and “Form” and “form” is the same difference between justice imposed by the courts and Justice imposed by the gods. The Form of Justice can never be attained on the sublunary sphere, because the justice is limited by material form (Phaedo 257). For example, one culture’s social standard is another culture’s unjust civil liberty violation. Justice on earth is subject to man’s perspective. Throughout Plato’s writings, “the Form” is called by many names. In this particular simile, he writes of the form of the Good. Like Zeus on Mount Olympus, surrounded by lesser gods, the Form of the Good reigns over all other Forms. The following analogy compares the relationship between the eye and the sun to the relationship between the mind and the Good.
The sun gives light to the earth, and the eye acts as the receptacle. The eye interprets light, and allows man to visualize the earth (Plato, “The Republic” 247). Plato says, “Apply this analogy to the mind. . . . When the mind’s eye is fixed on objects illuminated by truth and reality it understands” (The Republic 247). The form of an object exists whether man can see it or not, just as the Good exists regardless of man’s ability to perceive it. Everything in this material world has a Form that exists only in the realm of the Forms. A true Form cannot exist in this material world because it is limited by its material constraints.
The mind is the receptacle for the Good. Plato says, “the good . . . bears the same relationship to sight and visible objects in the visible realm that the [G]ood bears to intelligence as intelligible objects in the intelligible realm” (The Republic 247). Just as the eye perceives the light of the sun, the mind perceives knowledge of the Good. The Form of the Good illuminated the intelligible world. The Good is the “source of reality and truth” and “gives intelligibility to objects of thought and power of knowing to the mind.” Without the Good, the mind would be unable to reason and categorize the world. The Good “is the cause of knowledge” and truth and “gives the mind the power of knowing” (Lee 248). Without the Good, men are merely animals.
The Divided Line
The Simile of the Divided line defines the material world and the world of the Forms and begins to question how man perceives the realms of the material and the Forms (Lee 249). “There are, corresponding to the four section of the line, those four states of mind; to the top section intelligence, to the second reason, to the third belief, and to the last illusion” (Plato, “The Republic” 255). These four states are in ascending order of consciousness. Those who are only aware of the shadows are the least aware of the Truth, and those with knowledge of the Forms have the most awareness of the Truth.
The material world is all that is visible, and can be further divided into two parts. The superior is “the originals of the images” (Plato, “The Republic” 252). This subdivision consists of actual objects trees, buildings, tables, etc. The inferior subdivision is the “shadows” within the material world (The Republic 252). Shadows of an object are reflections of these original objects. Television, for example, is a modern comparison to these shadows (Lee 255). Those who give up their social life for the sake of television allow the glowing rectangles, filled with shadows of objects, to distract them from reality.
In order to further explain, Plato gives the example of geometry. He says that mathematicians must make certain assumptions, but “it is not about the square or diagonal which they have drawn that they are arguing, but about the square or diagonal itself, or whatever the figure may be” (The Republic 253). The figures merely represent a mathematical assumption, and the mathematician uses reason to come to conclusions. They “treat as images only, the real objects of their investigation being invisible except to the eye of reason” (The Republic 253). Still, these mathematicians depend on objects to reach their conclusions, and are therefore limited by the material world.
The Forms lie within the intelligible world. This world can also be further divided into reason and knowledge. To reason is to gather evidence from the natural world, Plato uses this evidence to formulate conclusions. This is clearly one step beyond the material world, because it is taking objects of the material and questioning their purpose, their origin. Animals merely interact with the objects within the material world. Only mankind has the intellectual capacity to formulate conclusions. Still, reason is based upon the material and therefore the inferior of the subdivisions of the intelligible.
The Forms are knowledge. Unlike reason, knowledge does not rely on assumption. Instead, knowledge relies on “inquiry solely by and through forms themselves” (Plato, “The Republic” 252). Knowledge is moving beyond scientific reason, and accessing the unquestionable truth within the Forms. Plato says:
[Scientists] treat their assumptions as first principles . . . they proceed in their investigations from assumptions and not to a first principle, they do not, you think, exercise intelligence on it, even though with the aid of a first principle it is intelligible (The Republic 254).
For Plato, the Forms are the ultimate truth. For others, God is the absolute Truth.
Chapter 3: St. Augustine
God is truth. Twins are of the same conception and birthed under the same astrological sign, but they lead different lives and receive different fates (Augustine, “City of God” 5.7). St. Augustine’s Christian theology and Plato’s Theory of the Forms are born of the same basic theoretical structures. They differ in that they were affected by different cultures and influenced different movements. Augustine is recognized as one of the father’s of Christian ideology, and his philosophy impacted this influential religion. He came to Christianity as a convert, after passing years with concubines and dabbling in other religious sects before seeing light in Christ (Augustine, “Confessions”). He came to love God through struggle. He overcame material obstacles to find God, and he encourages his followers to do the same.
Augustine built upon the Platonic philosophy of enlightenment. Like Plato, Augustine believed that consciousness was an evolution, starting from the deceptive shadows, to the distractions of objects, to the limits of reason and finally to pure enlightenment. For Plato, enlightenment was through philosophy. For Augustine, this was incomplete theory because it did not end in the love of God. Augustine says:
having read those books of the Platonists, and having been taught by them to seek incorporeal truth . . . I perceived what it was through the darkness of my mind I was hindered from contemplating. I became certain that You exist . . . (VII 20 Confessions, 45 Flew)
Augustine evolved Platonic theory to include the love of God.
A major difference between Plato and Augustine’s theories is the definition of shadows and enlightenment. Plato was close to Christian truth, but was distracted by false gods (Augustine, “City of God” 8.9 – 8.11). For Augustine, these false gods were nothing more than shadows, impersonating the truth. As we will see in the Allegory of the Cave, Plato believed that the uneducated see shadows on the wall of the Cave as truth because they do not know anything else. This analogy can be applied to St. Augustine’s theory of God. Augustine believed that the real truth lied within Christ, and all other beliefs were merely a distraction from the truth. Pagans believe in many gods, but these lesser gods are merely demons masquerading in god’s form (O’Daly 107). Augustine believed that the efforts of the pagans were on the right track, but were misguided. For example, Augustine believed that ritualistic sacrifice of animals was a deluded conception of what pleases God. God expects the sacrifice of the self, not of animals (10.5).
Augustine found the existence of minor gods to be hypocritical. He believed that minor gods were inconsistent with the supreme authority of Jove. Sharing power with these lesser gods fragments Jove’s authority, but God cannot be fragmented (Augustine, “City of God” 4.9). One could question the similarity of angels to the Greek’s lesser gods. But angels, in fact, carry out the commands of God, but do not bring forth power in and of themselves. “In [God] was life; and life was the light of men” (John 1.1). The divine emanates from God into angels and humans. Anything that is less than God cannot be a source of the divine.
Material pleasures distract from the truth. In Augustine’s youth, he was seduced by earthly pleasures, what he calls the “carnal corruptions of my soul” (Augustine, “Confessions” 2.1). Augustine says, “I . . . longed in my youth . . . to be satisfied with worldly things, and I dared to grow wild again with various and shadowy loves; my form consumed away, and I became corrupt in [God’s] eyes, pleasing myself, and eager to please in the eyes of men” (Augustine, ” Confessions” 2.1). These “shadowy loves” are the exact same shadows that Plato speaks of, soulless and limited in their material form. Augustine eventually came to see his worldly lifestyle as a distraction from the truth in God.
Gods cannot embody the material world, because the material world degrades, while God is everlasting (Augustine, “City of God” 3.12). Pagans believed that gods could embody material objects or characteristics of the earth. Poseidon, for example personifies the seas and Gaia embodies the body of the earth. Augustine recognizes the seas and the earth purely as aspects of the material world. Although they were on the right track, the Greeks confused the material with the gods, when in fact they are entirely separate.
Reason can only be used for the material, and cannot be used to access God. Plato and Augustine are in agreement in this matter. Both believe that reason is a form of higher thinking, but it is not enough to gain access to true knowledge. Reason is limited in its dependency on material objects. A scientific experiment is the collection of physical data, and then formulating the most rational conclusion for the reason of this data. Reason, therefore, can be used to understand the empirical world but can go no further.
Augustine did not believe that he needed evidence of the existence of God. One must have faith in God, and it does not make sense to attempt reason, which is limited by its material starting points, in order to gain knowledge of God. As he would probably be the first to say, Augustine may have been a prolific leader of a profound religion, but he was no scientist. Augustine used his own evidence, collected by his own tools, to formulate his conclusions. He sees the truth within the Bible, and then collects evidence to prove his Christian theories. For example, Augustine points to the genesis of the universe as proof of God’s omnipotent existence. On the fourth day of creation, God created the sun (1.18 Genesis). Mortals measure days by the sun, but, according to the Bible, three days existed before the sun was created. Therefore, it is in fact God, not the sun, which turns time from day to day (Augustine, “City of God” 11.7). For Augustine, this was conclusive evidence towards the existence of God. He used evidence created by Christianity to prove the infallible truth of Christianity.
Another example of Augustine using selected evidence to formulate broad conclusions is in the foreshadowing of Christ. Augustine points to many passages of the Old Testament to prove the coming of Christ. Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve who was murdered in fratricide, refers to a “new morning.” Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve refers to a resurrection. According to Augustine, these references predict the events surrounding the life and death of Christ (Augustine, “City of God” 15.18). The fact is, the writers of the New Testament had the Old Testament at their disposal, and could place allegory within the new texts and highlight analogous events. Augustine sees the New Testament outside of its own context and culture, rendering him unable to see beyond a Christian context and into a scientific means.
To question the existence of God it to lack understanding of God. For example, some might be led to believe that the Holy Trinity does not make sense, that it could be compared to the fragmentation of the power of Jove unto the lesser Gods. But the Holy Trinity is not the power of God divided into three. A common modern explanation for the trinity anomaly is in the different forms of H2O. H2O can be in the form of water-vapor, water and ice, but it is always composed of the same elements. But even this is merely a rational example from the modern world, and one cannot access knowledge of God using this tool. Still, the trinity, like the H2O, is the same element revealed to mankind in three different forms.
Unlike Plato, Augustine did not believe the permanence of existence. Plato believed that energy could not be created or destroyed, but merely transformed into another form. This theory is remarkably similar of the modern scientific theory of the second law of thermodynamics. Augustine, on the other hand, believes this concept to be contrary to science of Genesis. Before God created the heavens and the earth, all that existed was “welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1.2). In other words, God creates energy. Once energy has been created by God, it can abide by the laws of nature. But, energy exists thanks to God. Knowledge
Knowledge of the trinity cannot be accessed through reason. To the uneducated pupil, the trinity does not make sense, as it is three forms that embody God, and fracturing the power of God. Augustine’s On the Trinity was “written in order to guard against the sophistries of those who disdain to begin with faith, and are deceived by a crude and perverse love of reason” (On the Trinity 1.1). Knowledge of God’s absolute power is attained by faith. To try to access God through reason is an “endeavor to transfer to things incorporeal . . . [and] are indeed so much further from the truth” (Augustine, “On the Trinity” 1.1). The human mind cannot question God, because the mind is limited by its material form.
Knowledge is attained through love of God. Augustine says, “the eye of the human mind, being weak, is dazzled in that so transcendent light, unless it be invigorated by the nourishment of the righteousness faith” (On the Trinity 2.1). Men unfamiliar with the light outside the cave are vulnerable to misinterpreting this new light (Plato, “The Republic” 257). Teachers and religious mentors are responsible for guiding those who are unable to understand the truth on their own. Plato believed that others must be shown the light, but Augustine believed that individuals must choose to see the light. Society exists as such that each individual has the opportunity to choose whether to acknowledge God, or whether to be distracted by the evils of the world (Augustine, “On Free Choice of the Will” 43).
Plato believes that man consists of body and soul, and the soul is liberated from the body through death. For Augustine, part of this concept is correct, that man “consist[s] of soul and body,” but the Greeks missed the conclusive evidence of the existence of God (City of God 8.8). Augustine says, “wherever [Platonists] have sought the truth of man from the mind or from the body, or from both together, it is still only from man they have supposed it must be sought” (City of God 8.8). Augustine believes that the soul is not liberated through death, but through complete submission to God (City of God 10.30). Augustine says, “the soul, which is purged from all evil and received to the father’s presence shall never again suffer the ills of his life” (City of God 10.30). This is not to say that the devout will not receive ills; Job and Christ alike suffer extreme ills within the material world. Rather, a devout faith in God allows men to receive impermanence to pain through the everlasting love of God.
The Greek concept of existence was cyclical. The ancients were infatuated by cycles, such as the cycle of the seasons, of life and death; even the epic stories were created in a story-cycle (Dowden 11). It is only logical they believed in the cyclical nature of the soul and the body. Christians, on the other hand, have a linear construction of existence. They believe that there is a single God and a final resting place with God. This concept, the ability of man to liberate his soul through God, is where Platonic constructs end and the theory of the two cities begin.
The Two Cities
Augustine believed that there are two cities. Augustine says, “there are no more than two kinds of human society which we may justly call two cities . . . the one consists of those who wish to live of the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the flesh” (City of God 11.1). Augustine calls these two cities the city of man and the city of God. These cities exist within the consciousness of man, and each individual has the choice to own membership of the city of God or of man.
The three tiers of beings inhabit the two cities. These three existent beings are God, demons and men, and each share characteristics with the other. Gods and demons share immortality; demons and men share passions, and men and God share knowledge (Augustine, “City of God” 8.14). When man utilizes his capacity of knowledge, he is closer to God. But, if man acts upon his passions, he falls victims to demonic vices.
City of God
Knowledge of God is membership in the city of God. The city of man provides temporary material happiness, but the city of God is eternal happiness (Augustine, “City of God” 8.14). Happiness and success within the material world are predicated upon the faith and worship of God (Augustine, “City of God” 5.13). Success, in this sense, does not necessarily mean wealth, but worth. It means to overcome material inclinations, and seek glory from God (Augustine, “City of God” 14.22).
The city of God is formed by “the heavenly . . . love of God, even to the contempt of self” (Augustine, “City of God” 14.28). This city is not made up of mud and stone, but of dedication, fellowship, and love of God (Augustine, “City of God” 10.5). These materials are bound by the “eternal and immutability of the love of God” (Augustine, “City of God” 9.22). The city of God is made up of immaterial constructs, because the city itself is intangible.
The soul is a reflection of God. Artistic depictions of God often illustrate God as a man with a flowing beard, taking a literal interpretation of the Genesis passage “and God created the human in his image” (Genesis 1.27). However, it does not make sense to restrict God to a material form, as the material form is limiting and God is limitless. It is not the form of man, but the soul of man that was made in God’s image (Augustine, “City of God” 13.24). The soul that “derives its beauty through virtue, abandonment of concupiscence from divine beauty” (O’Daly 124). The divine light in God sparked the soul of man.
The reflection of God within man is similar to Plato’s theory of the forms. Plato says that perfect forms cannot exist within the material world, because the material world is imperfect. This is analogous to Augustine’s description of the soul. The soul of man is not God, but it is a reflection of the essence of God.
Reflections are also evident in Augustine’s description of justice. Like Plato, Augustine also believes that absolute justice cannot truly exist upon this earth. Absolute justice can only truly exist in heaven, and is preformed by God (Augustine, “City of God” 19.27). Justice imposed upon the earth is merely a material means of prevention from harm, a limitation of the vices of the material world.
City of Man
Man selects membership to the city of man by falling prey to his passions, a characteristic he shares with demons (Augustine, “City of God” 8.14). The love of God is faith and knowledge of the everlasting, but the love of self is knowledge of the senses. “Men are surrounded by demonic influences, and must struggle resist the vices” (Augustine, “City of God” 19.8). To seek glory of men is to succumb to these demonic influences, and ignore the word of God (Augustine, “City of God” 14.22).
The city of God is formed by the love of God, but the city of man is formed “by the love of self, even to the contempt of God” (Augustine, “City of God” 14.28). This love cannot be everlasting, because everything within the material world degrades and dies. When “man lives according to man, not according to God, he is like the devil. Because not even an angel might live according to an angel, but only according to God” (Augustine, “City of God” 14.4). Each individual has the choice to contribute to the city of man or of God.
Augustine wrote many of his treatises as the Roman Empire was collapsing (O’Daly 27). As a pagan empire, the Roman Empire held authority for over four centuries. However, the Western Roman Empire collapsed within one century of the conversion of Constantine I. Christianity absorbed some blame for this downfall. At the time, many believed that the Empire was shunned and left to fall to ruin as punishment for turning away from the worship of the gods (O’Daly 29). Modern scholars speculate that Christian faith displaced a sense of civic duty; giving up the body for the sake of the state led to a weakened army within the Roman Empire (Gibbon xcii). God does not ask for the sacrifice of the body. The state asks for the sacrifice of the body for the sake of security, but God asks for much less (Augustine, “City of God” 5.18). All that is asked from God is to realize the truth that lies within him. As an attempt to reposition fault from Christianity, Augustine attempts to separate religion and state. Augustine says that state is of the material world, and is linked to, but not entirely dependent on, God.
Augustine says that all empires are gifts to men (City of God 5.21-5.26). However, both empires and the men who rule them are part of the material world, and the gifts are limited. Christians and pagans alike lose empires and experience death. Immortality is saved for the soul. Material gifts are not necessarily equaled to the devotion of God. If this were the case, Augustine says, then the Roman Empire would belong to the Greeks, as they were more devout towards the gods than their Roman counterparts (City of God 4.28). One does not receive good fortune in the material world for having faith in God. Rather, the love of God is reward in and of itself.
Material goods do not last, but love of God exists for eternity. Augustine says, material goods are ultimately meaningless, as they will either be “lost by us in our lifetime or be possessed when we are dead. . . . But [it] is God who makes us happy, who is the riches of the mind” (City of God 5.18). Riches and other material happiness are merely objects, and the worship of material objects is far from true enlightenment.
Augustine would believe that modern society is blinded to the truth. This is not to say that he would necessarily disavow evolution, for example, because it is contrary to the teachings of the Bible. The Bible, after all, is only a material text, inspired by God’s truth. God may be infallible, but this does not mean that the interpretation of man is without flaw. Augustine would question the reverence to science in the modern day. Science can shed light upon the truth, as will be further discussed in the chapter on Galileo, but it cannot question the meaning or allow us to understand quality. Scientific conclusions can explain the material world, but not everything can be explained by science.
As someone fascinated by health care, I often think about America’s problems of obesity. Science attributes the obesity epidemic to overconsumption of calories paired with under-activity. While this is all true, science cannot go beyond calorie counting and exercise logs and ask the questions why and how. America is so concerned with the number of calories that people tend to forget what a calorie means. Each calorie is nourishment; indirect energy from the sun feeding our bodies. Except for clinical trials that have yet to be performed, science cannot tell us that the tomato grown in the garden is better than a tomato grown in the lab. Knowledge of what is right, on the other hand, can easily give us insight into the fact that a tomato made by God is inherently better than a tomato made by man. The natural tomato has the spirit of God, and this is something no scientist can test.
Chapter 4: Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave
The Education Process
In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes the process of education. It is not an easy process, but an uneducated person can be shown the light of the Truth (Plato, “The Republic” 255). Plato asks us to envision a cave that holds imprisoned men who know nothing of the world above. All they know of the truth is shadows of objects, as described in the analogy of the Divided Line, because they had never been exposed to anything else but these simple shadows (Plato, “The Republic” 256-257). This cave represents a malnourished education.
Uneducated people can be brought into the light, but it is not a painless process. Although these people are exposed to reality, they are instinctually confused at the unknown images. Plato says, “he would be at a loss, and think that what he used to see was far truer than the objects now being pointed out to him” (The Republic 257). The uneducated man cannot recognize the shadows for what they are, mimicry of the truth. Even if this uneducated man were “made to look directly at the light of the fire, it would hurt his eyes and he would turn back and retreat to the things which he could see properly” (Plato, “The Republic” 258). If the uneducated man sees the truth, he would not be able to recognize the truth, and would be inclined to return to what he is capable of understanding.
Learning is a process. After the uneducated man becomes accustomed to the light of the truth, “first he would find it easiest to look at the shadows, next at the reflections of men and other objects in water, and later on at the objects themselves” (Plato, “The Republic” 258). One cannot go directly from the cave to recognizing objects, just as an illiterate person cannot go from learning letters to understanding Plato. It is the responsibility of the teacher to aid those who are growing accustomed to the light.
Plato argues that those who have seen the light are the most reluctant to return to the cave and release the other prisoners (Plato, “The Republic” 258). Yet, it is the responsibility of the philosopher to return and educate those who are not familiar with the truth. Plato says that one must “compel [philosophers] to have some care and responsibility for others” (Plato, “The Republic” 263). Augustine believed that it was the responsibility of the enlightened to guide those who have not yet found God’s truth. This form of education is called proselytizing.
Knowledge is not learned, it is realized. Plato says,
we must reject the conception of education professed by those who say that they can put into the mind knowledge that was not there before . . . the capacity for knowledge is innate in each man’s mind, and that the organ by which he learns is like an eye which cannot be turned from darkness to light unless the whole body is turned . . . the brightest of all realities which is what we call the good The Republic 261.
Knowledge of the truth is inherent, but man is distracted by his material confines and circumstances, the “sensual indulgences” (The Republic 261). Reason can be learned, as it is confined to the material.
Rulers of men ought to have knowledge of the Good. Augustine believed that priests did not necessarily have to be good themselves, as long as they had knowledge of God and passed this knowledge onto others (blogs.nytimes.com). He believed that God was in an entirely different realm, and your own goodness on earth was a personal conversation between the individual and God. Plato, on the other hand believed that philosophers should live out their lives through the Good. “If you get, in public affairs, men whose life is impoverished and destitute of personal satisfactions, but who hope to snatch some compensation for their own inadequacy . . . there can never be a good government” (The Republic 264). The Good must emanate from the philosophers in both social responsibility and on an individual scale. Plato says, “the form of the good . . . is inferred to be responsible for whatever is right . . . and anyone who is going to act rationally either in public or private life must have sight of it” (The Republic 260). Although Plato and Augustine form different opinions about the personal relationship to objects in this particular instance, they each agree that rulers have a unique relationship to knowledge.
The Allegory of the Cave is brilliant because it is repeated throughout history and all philosophy. For example, the return of the philosopher to the cave can be seen as an analogy to Christ. This analogy, of course, was not intentional, as Plato lived many years before the birth of Christ. Plato says, “anyone who descends from contemplation of the divine to human life and its ills . . . [is] put on trial in the law courts or elsewhere about the shadows of justice” (The Republic 260). Those make these judgments are men who “have never seen justice itself” (The Republic 260). Christ, like Plato’s philosopher, descended from divinity, and was put on trial by those who did not understand.
The Allegory of the Cave can also be applied to modern theories. Plato lived over 2,200 years before Darwin published his Origin of Species and knew nothing of the evolution of ape to caveman to the modern human. Yet, his Cave allegory eerily patterns the evolutionary history of man. Like the uneducated man of Plato’s allegory, an early hominoid became aware of form, beauty and purpose.
There have been many moments in human history when man emerged from the cave, so to speak. This moment has been written and pondered about for centuries. In Guns Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond calls this moment “The Great Leap Forward” (39). Diamond describes the Great Leap Forward as the moment in human history when man became aware that he could use agriculture for his benefit. Others have a different perspective of the agricultural awakening, and see it as a step backwards. In The Story of B, Daniel Quinn calls this same agricultural moment “The Great Forgetting.” Quinn points to this instance as when man lost the realization that he was part of the earth.
In the Bible, this awakening can be pointed to when man ate from the tree of knowledge. God told Adam and Eve that they could eat from any other tree in the garden, but if they ate from the tree of knowledge, they would die. The antagonist serpent tells Adam and Eve that they will not die, but that “on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will become as gods knowing good and evil” (Genesis 1.3). The moment that Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, they became aware of their surroundings. “And the eyes of the two were opened, and they know they were naked” (Genesis 1.3). They left the dark simplicity of an innocent Eden, and were cast out unto the world to discover the Truth.
Knowledge is the “physical evidence for original sin” (Pullman 325). In the His Dark Materials fictional trilogy, Phillip Pullman describes this knowledge as “dust,” and this dust is twined with the soul of man, what Pullman calls a “dæmon.” Pullman says, “[dust] seem[s] to cluster where human beings [are], as if it were attracted to us. And especially to adults. Children too, but not nearly so much until their dæmons have taken a fixed form” (325). Knowledge is what makes us human; it is what allows us to realize the existence of our soul, or dæmon, and it brings us closer to God.
Augustine, on the other hand, sees Original Sin as a stain upon humanity. He believes that the soul was instilled in man by God (Wiley 59). Man soiled the purity of his soul in his disobedience to God through Original Sin. For Augustine, biting into the apple from the tree of knowledge was not an allegory of emerging from the Cave. On the contrary, it was an analogy for being cast into the Cave, left to search for the light of God.
Chapter 5: Galileo
Science is truth. Plato, St. Augustine and Galileo all agree that science reveals the truth of the natural world, but is limited to the material world. Science is reason, and God is knowledge. Galileo sought to uncover the truth within this natural world, but made no claims that discoveries in the natural world had the power to explain God. Nevertheless, the Church was threatened by the withstanding power of science. The leaders of the Church did not understand that the material world and the intangible world were separated. The laws of man do not apply to the will of God, and the infallibility of God does not apply to man.
Science and religion are not mutually exclusive. Galileo was both a scientist and a devout Christian, as is Professor Francisco Ayala, the 2010 winner of the Templeton Prize. Ayala says those who confuse science and religion “have not come to peace with science, and that is based on poor scientific location and typically poor religious education” (npr.org). Galileo kindled the debate between science and religion, and it is a debate that still exists today.
The Church fathers who could not see the truth within Galileo’s scientific revelations confused reason and knowledge. As previously discussed, Plato and Augustine believed that reason was used to understand the material world, whereas knowledge was applied to a higher form. Galileo’s theories on the authority of the Church within the scientific community mimic Plato and Augustine’s distinction between science and knowledge. Professor Ayala says “as San Agustin put it, [the Bible is] a book to tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens were made. That’s for science” (npr.org) Science can explain the natural occurrences of the material world and does not necessarily affect the relationship with God.
Science is a form of philosophy. Philosophy is the search for the truth. Religion is the search for truth in God, while science is the search for truth within the material world. In and before Galileo’s time, “when a writer . . . spoke of ‘the new philosophy’ he was referring to modern science” (Flew 18). Like all forms of philosophy, science is a way of understanding patterns of existence.
Contributions and Challenges
Galileo’s contributions to scientific discovery are vast, ranging from the scientific method to the telescope. While Galileo invented neither the scientific method nor the telescope, his innovations shaped the course of experimentation and astronomy. Galileo and his work challenged men to go beyond the literal word and to question and explain the physical universe.
The Scientific Method
Science is contingent upon procedural methods. Scientific methods had been used since the time of the ancient Egyptians, but modern use of the scientific method began during Galileo’s time. Rene Descartes, a contemporary of Galileo, outlined the system of the scientific method in Discourse on the Method, published in 1637. Descartes was inspired by Galileo’s work in physics, and Galileo was inspired by Descartes’ ideas of the experiment. (Gower 67). The scientific method is based on the understanding that experiments repeatedly produce the same results. In other words, there are basic laws of nature that all physical objects are subject to. By contrast, Aristotle did not use experimentation to test his theory of falling objects (Darling 23 Aristotle believed that heavier objects fall at an accelerated rate, an assumption that cannot hold up to experimental proof, as it is incorrect (Sobel 20).
Galileo, on the other hand, did use experimentation. He tested Aristotle’s theory of falling objects by dropping a heavy ball and a light ball from a tower to measure the rate at which they fell. Galileo discovered that the balls hit the ground at virtually the same time, and therefore concluded that heavier objects did not fall faster than lighter objects. Many of Galileo’s scientific contemporaries did not rely on experimentation and raw data for evidence. In fact, a large part of the curriculum at the University of Pisa, where Galileo taught, demonstrated medical students the relationship between health and horoscopes (Sobel 53).
Some of Galileo’s contemporaries could not bring themselves to deviate from Aristotle’s conception of science. These people based their facts on ideas, instead of tangible evidence and data. Of these so-called scientists, Galileo says, “They wish never to raise their eyes from those pages – as if this great book of the universe had been written to be read by nobody but Aristotle, and his eyes had been destined to see for all posterity” (Sobel 53). Aristotle assumed theories to the best of his abilities, but his theories were not necessarily proven, accurate or complete. Galileo would conflict with this type of literal minded person in his struggle to prove the existence of a heliocentric world.
Geocentrism is the theory that the earth is at the center of the universe. This theory is based upon man’s egocentric notion that we are at the center of the universe. Plato theorized that since the heavens were perfect, they could not be made out of materials of this world, and therefore must be made from an extra-terrestrial element, called the fifth element or æther (Darling 12). The planets, according to Plato, were a part of these heavens, and must therefore “rotate in perfect circles at uniform speeds” (Ridpath 30). Aristotle built upon his teacher’s theory, and reasoned that the terrestrial plane is made up of four elements and that these four elements are constantly at war with one another. In the heavens, on the other hand, there is only one element, and so there is no celestial conflict (Ridpath 31).
The ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy built upon the theories of Aristotle (Fomenko 1). Ptolemy analyzed centuries of recorded planetary observation, and saw that both the astronomical data and Plato’s theory that planetary bodies orbit in perfect circles were contradictory. So, he calculated a “complex system of epicycles and perfect circles in which several centuries of recorded planetary observation were reconciled with the philosophy of uniform circular motions” (Ridpath 30). An epicycle is a “circle whose centers move around the circumference of greater circles” (Ridpath 28). Ptolemy applied epicycles to a planetary orbit in order to reconcile the scientific data and Platonic belief.
Science was twisted to accommodate what was believed to be knowledge. Platonic and Aristotelian theory was assumed to be absolute truth. But both Plato and Aristotle were mere mortals, subject to misinterpreting their surroundings. The wisdom of the ancient Greeks was not absolute. Galileo recognized this, and detached astronomical truth from the theories of the ancient Greeks in order to reveal the genuine scientific truth.
Heliocentrism is the theory that the sun is at the center of the universe. Galileo says, “I hold that the sun is located at the center of the revolutions of the heavenly orbs and does not change place, and that the earth rotates on itself and moves around it” (Galileo, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” 1615, Finocchiaro 111). Galileo did not conceive this theory. The Polish astronomer Copernicus is noted for being of the first to theorize on a universe that does not revolve around the earth. Copernicus collected astrological evidence, but did so without the aid of astrological tools. Instead, he based his theory of heliocentrism upon these naked eye observations, but did not leave a trail of evidence (Sobel 51). Galileo used data collected by his telescope and provided evidence and scientific justification for a heliocentric world, thus validating Copernican notions.
Galileo humanized the heavens. He recognized that the heavens were not made of a fifth element, but were an extension of the material world that surrounds us (Wildberg 12). Through his telescope, Galileo saw mountains and deep cavities of the moon, which Galileo said looked “like the face of the Earth itself” (Sobel 31). Galileo also recorded the sunspots, blemishes upon the face of the sun. As the heavens were viewed as God’s perfect sphere, the realization that the heavens were made of the same substances was seen as blasphemous.
Galileo did not intend to replace religion with science. Galileo believed that the truth within God was absolute allegorical truth, and not all aspects of the Bible were to be taken literally. In a letter to his friend Castelli, Galileo says:
though Scripture cannot err, its expounders and interpreters are liable to err in many ways . . . when they would base themselves always on the literal meaning of the words. For in this wise not only many contradictions would be apparent, but even grave heresies and blasphemies since then it would be necessary to give God hands and feet and eyes, and human and bodily emotions such as anger, regret, hatred, and sometimes forgetfulness of things past, and ignorance of the future. qtd in Sobel 63-64
The Bible says that the earth is flat, that the earth revolves around the center of the sun, that the universe was created in seven days, that slavery is acceptable, that homosexual activity is an abomination, and many other ideas that are not applicable to modern times. These ideas are merely “objects” in the Bible, and those who cannot look beyond them do not truly understand the knowledge behind the Bible. The Bible is full of wisdom. The Bible also espouses countless lessons of faith and love, lessons that are applicable to any time. These lessons are the knowledge of the Bible.
The Struggle of Separation
Material truth is separate from God’s truth. God created the physical world, but the physical world was left to be discovered by man (Finoccharo 105). Galileo believed that God created a rational universe, one that was subject to the laws of nature. Many of Galileo’s contemporaries believed that universe ended at the borders of the earth, but Galileo pushed the borders of the material world out toward the sun. Consequentially, this questioned the location of God. Throughout mythology, God was watching over earth from the heavens. But, if the heavens are in fact in the material world, then where is God?
Galileo did not allow scientific truth to question his faith in God. For him, these were two entirely separate ideas, a separation between what is measured in the material and what is believed in the spiritual. He believed that those who seek scientific information from a book, whether inspired by Aristotle or God rather than science, were not truly scientists. True scientists collect empirical evidence, and then formulate a conclusion based upon patterns (Finoccharo 9). True scientists do not find evidence to support their conclusion.
God created the material world, including human ability. Galileo believed that this ability could be realized through science, and the vast universe. Continuing his letter to Castelli, Galileo says, “Who wants to fix a limit for the human mind? Who wants to assert that everything which is knowable in the world is already known?” (Finoccharo 105). Galileo believed that expanding the world into the heavens was not blasphemy, but allowing human intellect to gain a better understanding of the surrounding material world.
Those who believed Galileo’s theories to be blasphemy believed that there was not a separation between the material and the theoretical. They believed that the Bible had jurisdiction over everything, and that the material and the spiritual fell in line with biblical teachings. Galileo thought that those who claimed to understand the teachings in the Bible were, in fact, at fault for blasphemy. Only God can reveal the true meaning of the Bible, and while God cannot be wrong, the interpreters are subject to misinterpretations. In a letter dated 1613, Galileo says:
[Since] two truths can never contradict each other, the task of wise interpreters is to strive to find the true meanings of scriptural passages agreeing with those physical conclusions of which we are already certain and sure from clear sensory experience or from necessary demonstrations. Galileo, “Letter to Castelli, Finoccharo” 105
Since both scientific fact and the Bible are correct, then they must be congruent with each other.
Galileo was faced with the challenge of piecing these scientific facts together. At the time, it was believed that the biblical passages that describe the stationary sun were evidence in and of themselves. In other words, the biblical passages were treated as knowledge. Knowledge does not have to be explained, and it cannot be measured. Regrettably, these passages in the bible were not knowledge.
Galileo also proved that empirical evidence is not necessarily knowledge. Empirical evidence would suggest that the earth does not move, like we are currently moving 66,700 miles an hour around the sun (not to mention the spin of the earth on its axis) (nasa.gov). Scientists of Galileo’s time had no concept of an atmosphere, and did not believe earth’s atmosphere moves with the earth around the sun (Sobel 74). Not only did the Bible dispute a stationary sun, but also empirical evidence disputed a moving earth. In Galileo’s time, there was little conception of gravity and no concept of an atmosphere. In fact, Sir Isaac Newton, who first published theories of gravity, was born the year Galileo died, 1642 (Sobel 75). Scientists must have had some concept of gravitational forces; it was well understood that the earth was round, yet people on the other side did not dangle by their feet. They also must have had at least some concept of an atmosphere, as they were aware that one is not overwhelmed by the motion of a speeding ship.
Instead of allowing himself to be guided by ancient inspired texts, Galileo’s theories were guided by facts. Still, Galileo was not entirely omniscient, and some of his theories were entirely false, constructed to fit within his understanding of the universe. For example, Galileo tried to link the moving earth to the movement of the tides. Galileo discounted the relationship between the movement of the tides and the moon. There were actually contemporary theories linking the relationship between the moon to the tides, but it was science-fiction, related to little men and machines. Perhaps Galileo discounted the entire idea as a whole, not realizing that the lore to be wrong, but the link to be true (Sobel 75). Still, Galileo wrote an entire book on the relationship between the movement of the tides and the movement of the earth. He also believed that comets did not truly exist; that they were illusions like rainbows or aurora borealis (Sobel 89). Galileo is susceptible to error because he is human.
Galileo’s ideas challenged the standard structure of human thought. In his Dialogues, Simplicio, who is an allegory to the Aristotelian philosophers, could not fundamentally agree with a heliocentric world. They “could not believe that God would have wasted so much space on something of no possible use to man” (Sobel 171). Galileo changed the way people thought about the world. He removed humanity from the center of the universe and cast earth to the outskirts of our solar system.
God would not create an illogical universe. If the sun and all of the stars moved around the earth in their complex Ptolemaic orbits, the universe would not be simple. Nor would it be based on a fundamental set of laws, as different planets would be subject to different forces (Finoccharo 107). God made a universe that is created upon fundamental laws, and it is up to man to uncover those laws. In a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, Galileo says, “Holy Scripture can never lie, as long as its true meaning has been grasped” (Finoccharo 115). Galileo aptly believed that the scriptures had been misinterpreted as literal truth. God may be perfect and divine, but His divine word was translated through man, who is imperfect.
Galileo also challenged the literal truth within the Bible and the theories of Aristotle. “While Aristotelian philosophers talked of essences and natural places, Galileo went after quantifiable entities such as time, distance, and acceleration” (Sobel 337). Those who believed in Aristotle’s truth or the Bible’s accuracy over facts were not scientists. Scientists collect facts, and formulate conclusions based on those facts. The Aristotelians and theologians had a theory, and tried to force the facts to fit into that framework. They believed the theoretical could be transferred into the material, but Galileo recognized that these truths were separate.
Galileo’s discoveries spurred scientific knowledge. Science is not just measurements of physical objects. Science is the driving force behind any field dependent on facts, calculations and hypothesis. Because of scientific discoveries, penicillin replaced prayers and atmosphere replaced the æther. Men realized that it was not God who controlled every aspect of existence, and we turned to ourselves. Through science, we can blast through mountains and understand the different aspects of society.
St. Augustine’s world was created from facts of the Bible. He believed everything within the Bible to be irrefutable truth. True, aspects of the Bible could be interpreted and reinterpreted, but his world revolved around the existence of God. For those who took the word of the Holy Scriptures as literal truth, their foundations of belief were shaken at the notion that the world did not revolve around the Sun. Those who had an elastic understanding of the Bible and allowed the Bible to be an inspired ethical text allowed the Holy Scriptures to be everlasting. These everlasting scriptures are not confined to what is written in a book, but an ever-changing ethical framework.
Galileo encouraged this elastic understanding of the Bible. This same debate between modern and Biblical science ensues in modern times over the theory of evolution. Evolutionary theory has been accepted slower than other challenges to the Bible. Over 150 years after Darwin published On the Origins of Species, evolutionary theory is still a controversial subject. A literal interpretation of the story of Genesis is incongruent with fossilized facts.
Chapter 6: Plato’s Phaedo
The purpose of all of Plato’s dialogic discourse is to awaken knowledge. He does so in different forms, repeating the same lesson through different perspectives. In the Phaedrus dialogue, Plato contemplates the separation between the material and the theoretical, and what that means about the existence of the soul. As described in Chapter 2, the Forms do not exist in the material world. Plato believed that everything upon this material world was merely a reflection of its form. The Forms can be thought of as a form of truth or perfection. Equality, for example, cannot truly exist within the material world, as equality to some may be injustice to others. Yet there is something that connects all things that are equal. That indefinable quality is the same, no matter how it is interpreted through cultural or personal filters. According to Plato, this is the essence that links material objects and is a reflection of its true form (Phaedo 229).
Death is the motivating force behind the dialogue Phaedo. It is the only dialogue that includes the actual death of Socrates. Socrates was put to death for corrupting the youth, for giving young philosophers ideas that were outside of contemporary social norms. It is only human to wonder what will become of consciousness once our material bodies leave us. Man seeks purpose in his existence, and find purpose within the notion that meaning to their lives is something they are not able to understand.
Socrates eagerly awaits death. Socrates does not fear death because “true philosophers . . . are always most eager to release the soul” (Phaedo 235). He believes that death frees the soul from the limits of the material world. Life is the union of the soul and body, and death is the separation of the soul and body (Phaedo 224). When the soul is independent of the body, the soul is inseparable from knowledge of the Forms (Phaedo 229). Remnants of this knowledge are carried into the material world, but the abrupt emergence into the material world erases most of our true knowledge. We enter the material world with fragmented instinct, and must relearn what we have forgotten (Phaedo 253). Knowledge, in other words, is the recollection of the soul. While pupils mourn his impending death, Socrates looks forward to the opportunity for the true access to knowledge.
It is only natural to wonder what lies beyond death. Only man has the true ability to plan for the future. Men plant seeds in the autumn and can foresee a spring harvest and store food to slow inevitable spoilage. We are able to recognize patterns, and realize the limitations of their own material form. While apes are able to recognize the death of their kin, only man has the knowledge of his own mortality. Plato’s Theory of the Forms is more than a philosophy, it is validation of existence after death. When Socrates dies, his soul will be separated from his body and united with the Forms.
The soul, like the forms is immortal. Plato believes that life and death are not opposites of each other, but two codependent states of nature (Phaedo 355). The soul is the source of man’s energy. As discussed in Chapter 3, energy cannot be created nor destroyed. Therefore the soul is immortal. The soul, like the Gods, is the “principle of life and . . . can never perish” (Phaedo 367). The soul is the essence of existence, it changes forms but never dies.
The body prevents access to the truth. Plato says, “so long as we have the body, and the soul is contaminated by such an evil, we shall never attain completely what we desire, that is, the truth . . . the body is constantly breaking in upon our studies and disturbing us with noise and confusion” (Phaedo 231). The body renders men myopic to the truth. The material world is perceived through the senses, through the body. The body is limited to sensory perceptions.
All that surrounds us is merely a reflection of the true form. The material world is not truly reality; it is merely a slice of reality. Plato says,
Now I believe…we dwell in a hollow of the earth and think we dwell on its upper surface; and the air we call heaven, and think that is the heaven in which the stars move . . . if anyone should come to the top of the air or should get wings and fly up, he could lift his head above it and see, as fishes lift their heads out of the water and see the things in our world, so he would see things in that upper world; and if his nature were strong enough to bear the sight, he would recognize that that is the real heaven, and the real light and the real earth. Phaedo, 337.
Man is unable to truly appreciate the beauty of the world because of the material confines of the body. When the soul is released, man is able to see beyond the material and access the truth.
Chapter 7: Kandinsky
Truth comes in many forms, including philosophy, God, science and art. The difference between a work of art and a paint-by-numbers is expression. In a work of art, the artist has instilled a piece of himself, a piece of his essence, onto the tableau. Essence within objects is not unique to paintings; literature also has an essence, instilled by the soul of the author. This essence emanates from the page, in a way that cannot be explored by science or explained by reason. Instead, it is knowledge of a connection between the artist and an admirer. Kandinsky attempts to isolate this connection, and remove all extraneous objects and shadows that distract from knowledge.
The Russian painter and theorist Wassily Kandinsky may not be as well known as Plato, Saint Augustine and Galileo, but, like these three predecessors, he was brilliant and he spurred and defined a movement. He pioneered the abstract art movement with his watercolor of 1910 and outlined the theory of abstract art. Kandinsky uses art as a way of expressing his emotions and defining his era (Faton-Boyancé 10).
Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866. He was well-educated, and pursued a career of law before he turned toward artistic inclinations. As a young man, Kandinsky’s his father encouraged his son to explore various fields. (“Reminiscences/Three Pictures” 365). In this way, his life mimicked the progress of his art, as Kandinsky explored different artistic movements before discovering the truth within abstract art.
Abstract art is not self-evident. By contrast, it is simple to find the artistic value through the works of Rembrandt. One need not know the circumstances behind Night Watch (1642), Rembrandt’s famous painting, to feel the familiar clamor of a crowded room and be captured by the artist’s majestic use of light. Even though this painting is centuries old, the viewer can look at the people within the painting and identify with them and the objects within the painting. Kandinsky aims to strip that familiarity, and leave the viewer with raw experience.
Abstraction is the climax of Kandinsky’s artistic journey. His early paintings are traditional in composition; he paints a landscape or a Sunday scene in a Russian village. His brushstrokes are broad and colorful, but one can clearly make out the painted scene. As he progresses, his brushstrokes become broader and colors wilder, blurring the reality of the painted scene. In Murnau Kohngruberstrasse (1908), the road alongside the apple tree is distinguishable, but reality is skewed by thick brushstrokes of colors.
As Kandinsky approaches abstraction, the figures and scenes of his paintings become indistinguishable, until they seem to fade into the background. While this is evident in his 1910 watercolor, Kandinsky continues to include figures and objects in his paintings until about 1920. When some viewers look at a painting, they look for what they should feel. A scene of poverty should evoke pity, a tranquil landscape should evoke serenity. Kandinsky tries to eliminate this feeling of should, and gives his viewers less and less clues about what they should feel. Every painting is a challenge to feel the expression that comes through the painting. Around 1909 through 1913, Kandinsky even begins to use ambiguous titles, such as Improvisation 9, so the audience can’t find what to feel through the title.
Kandinsky separates the essence and the form. When color red, for example, is imagined, the color is boundless. It can be any shade and any shape. Once this red is put onto a page, the color is limited by its shade and its form (“Concerning the Spiritual” 162). Yet on the page the red still evokes the essence of this boundless form. Plato called this the reflection of the ideal, Saint Augustine called it the soul, and Kandinsky dubbed it the essence. The essence is not what Plato calls the Form and St. Augustine calls God. Instead, the essence is the relationship between art and its creator; the relationship between God and man, and the relationship between the Form and the material.
Kandinsky’s theories of abstraction can be seen through his paintings and essays. Kandinsky wrote two books and gave many lectures on art theory. His first book, Concerning the Spiritual in the Art, outlines the basic principles of interpreting the material world on the page. Kandinsky says, “there are no purely material forms in art” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 166). A painting, in other words, is more than just a picture of the objects that it represents. A painting is also a piece of the artist’s expression, his soul, his essence.
Objects distract from the essence. Kandinsky believed that too many viewers try to understand art; they try to reason with art instead of seeing it in its pure form (“Concerning the Spiritual” 141). They grasp at the objects within the painting. By looking at the river portrayed, they miss the essence of the painting. By taking away material objects within a painting, the audience is left with the essence. A work of art comes into being by the artist harnessing his own essence, and expressing it through his medium. Pure expression in its unadulterated form is abstract art.
Painting inhabits the material space. Although Kandinsky removes the layers of the material objects within his paintings, the very existence of his paintings are material. Music, on the other hand, is immaterial. Music has no form, and can therefore “attain results that cannot be achieved by painting” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 154). A tune inhabits space on the temporal plane, while painting fills terrestrial space. Each piece of music has an essence unique to its own being. If music is the absolute, Kandinsky’s paintings were an attempt to reach this universal ideal. Kandinsky says, “Painting today is still almost entirely dependent upon natural forms, upon forms borrowed from nature” (154). Kandinsky guides his own expression, the essence of his paintings, away from nature and toward the ideal.
As Kandinsky’s theories evolve, he moves away from raw expression and into a planned abstraction. His paintings during this time, from about 1920 until his death, take on a clear form. Shapes within these paintings are brightly colored with sharp edges. Unlike his earlier works, there are no recognizable figures or forms. Kandinsky has stripped his paintings of all aspects of the material and, like the shapes themselves, has clearly separated the material world from the artistic spirit.
These theories, as well as theories of shapes and form, are highlighted in Point and Line to Plane, Kandinsky’s second book. Kandinsky says, “Every phenomenon can be experienced in two ways. These two ways are not random, but bound up with the phenomena-they are derived from the nature of the phenomena, from two characteristics of the same: External-Internal” (“Point and Line to Plane” 532). Kandinsky believes that paintings have the power to affect their viewer on an ethereal level. This power is the expression of the painter transformed into the essence of the painting, then further passed onto the viewer. The viewer need not speculate the objects he looks at, nor articulate the feelings received from the painting. Just like abstract art, the feeling is indefinable yet absolute.
A painting is not just the expression that the artist puts into it, but also the feeling the viewer takes out of it. The expression that the viewer sees within a painting depends on the viewer. In Kandinsky’s 1913 painting, Landscape with Rain, the rain does not appear to be in the painting, but it is as if the painting bled from becoming wet. In other words, the painting is not of rain, but rather rain happened to the painting. The viewer is part of what happens to the painting.
The act of appreciating a painting has two effects. The immediate, and most accessible, is the physical effect. The eye “is charmed by the beauty and the other qualities of color” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 156). This effect is superficial and fleeting. As soon as the viewer turns away, the effect is lost (“Concerning the Spiritual” 156). Kandinsky paints with vibrant colors, as color illuminates the essence. If only the superficial aspects are taken in, the light eventually “vanishes, and its attribute of delighting the eye is met with indifference. Gradually, in this way, the world loses its magic” (156). To prevent desensitization, the psychological effects of the painting must also be absorbed. This is the second effect of painting. Kandinsky says, “the psychological power of color becomes apparent, calling forth a vibration from the soul. Its primary, elementary physical power becomes simply the part by which color reaches the soul” (156). This vibration emanates from the artist, through his artistic medium and onto the viewer.
This essence does not necessarily have to be found within abstract art, but is found within all true forms of art. Cezanne, who is known for his still-life paintings, can “raise ‘still-life’ to a level where externally ‘dead’ objects come internally alive. He treats these objects just as he does people, for he had the gift of seeing inner life everywhere” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 151). In a simple composition of fruit, Cezanne emits a vibrant essence through color and pure expression.
Every creation is instilled with an essence. In the natural world, creation is instilled with the life force of its parent, then turns to create a life of its own; a collaboration between nature and nurture. The painting has the same dualistic qualities. The soul of the artist expressed within the painting and is transformed through the color and composition. Kandinsky says, “These effects, which often seem chaotic to us, consist of three elements: the effect of the color of the object, the effect of its form, and the effect-independent of color and form-of the object itself” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 168, 169). The color and form compose the material aspects of the painting, and the inexplicable effect of the painting is the essence.
Essence is composed of two elements, nature and nurture. The nature of essence is the idiosyncratic element, a pattern of which cannot be replicated in any other individual. The nurture of essence is the affect of the physical world, the place and interactions that happen to collide with the particular essence. Each inhabitant of this essence is a product of its own time. Kandinsky says, “every work of art is the child of its time, often it is the mother of our emotions” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 127). Every soul is formed from experience, the social movements which inspire it and the mediums available to express itself.
Recreation of art is soulless. Kandinsky says, “Any attempt to give new life to the artistic principles of the past can at best only result in a work of art that resembles a stillborn child” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 127). He goes on to say that people of modern times can never have the same “inner lives” as those of the ancient Greeks. Therefore attempts to recreate the forms of the ancient Greeks will “remains soulless for all time” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 127). Art is more than a beautiful form; it is a vessel for a piece of the artist’s soul. The mimicry of ancient art shows a lack of this fundamental understanding. Those who ape the ancients have no conception that art is more than a form that can be recreated; the soul of the art can never be duplicated.
Artists are inspired by the artistic essence of times past. Kandinsky says that art has “awakening prophetic power, which can have a widespread and profound effect” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 131). Plato, St. Augustine, Galileo and Kandinsky were all inspired by the same essential thread. The genetic pattern of their theories was the same, but they each took the theory in a unique direction, expressed through their own individual medium. In other words, the form of the essence was changed by the environment of the creator.
As previously mentioned, all philosophers follow in Plato’s footsteps, at least to some extent, but Kandinsky actually has the same basic theory as Plato. Plato believes that all material objects are a reflection of the ideal form. Plato saw the truth as a glimmer of the ideal. This ideal is not within the material world, but lies within the realm of the theoretical. Kandinsky reinterprets this theory in the context of art. Kandinsky’s ideal is pure expression onto the page.
Kandinsky and Plato employ the same challenge to their audience. Kandinsky says, “in the words of Socrates: ‘Know thyself!’ Consciously or unconsciously, artists turn gradually toward an emphasis on their materials, examining them spiritually, weighing in the balance the inner worth of those elements out of which their art is best suited to create” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 153). Plato challenged students to ask questions, and allowed the student to draw conclusions for himself. Kandinsky challenged his viewers to look beyond what is directly in front of them, and experience the essence of the painting for themselves.
The truth is reflected within us. When an artist is truly conscious of his craft, the act of expression morphs into soulful expression. A carpenter creates a table with the idea of the perfect table in mind, attaining for what cannot actually be reached, but always striving towards the ideal. The creator, be it God or the carpenter, instills the essence into all he creates. Both Plato and Kandinsky recognize the series of truths reflected within us, and use different mediums to draw out this ultimate truth.
The Spiritual Triangle
The Allegory of the Cave is comparable to Kandinsky’s spiritual triangle. The base of the triangle contains the uneducated, and as one ascends the triangle, one sheds materialism and welcomes enlightenment. At the base of this spiritual triangle are those who are distracted by shadows. They are the “least spiritual enlightened . . . filled with materialism as they hide behind labels of religion and politics” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 139-140). Here dwell those who cannot see the separation between the material and the theoretical, those who regard new theories as “potentially harmful nonsense, the same nonsense they yesterday called today’s ‘proven’ theories” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 139). People in the base of this triangle are like those who could not see the truth within Galileo’s theories, those who allow shadows to distract from the Truth.
Descending the spiritual triangle, there exist those who attach meaning to objects. They are aware of the world, but do not hold onto their own sense of knowledge (“Concerning the Spiritual” 140). Kandinsky would say that these people produce aped objects, such as the Washington National Cathedral. There is no doubt that this cathedral is grand and incredibly beautiful. But, it was built in the 20th century in the gothic style, a period of architecture that ranged from the 12th to the 16th centuries. Kandinsky says:
Any attempt to give new life to the artistic principles of the past can at best only result in a work of art that resembles a stillborn child. For example, it is impossible for our inner lives, our feelings, to be like those of the ancient Greeks. Efforts, therefore, to apply Greek principles, e.g. sculpture, can only produce forms similar to those employed by the Greeks, a work that remains soulless for all time. This sort of imitation resembles the mimicry of the ape. (“Concerning the Spiritual” 127)
Those who ape see art as form, and do not see the essence behind the art.
A higher level of the spiritual triangle is reason. Here lies those who are “positivists, recognizing only what can be weighed and measured” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 140). There are those who believe science to be the absolute truth, and believe that reason is the only tool at their disposal.
Kandinsky’s spiritual heaven is at the top of the pyramid (“Concerning the Spiritual” 142). Plato would call the top of the pyramid knowledge of the Forms, while Augustine would call the top of the pyramid love of God. Kandinsky says that it is as if . . .a great city, built solidly according to all architectural and mathematical rules that is suddenly shaken by a mighty force. The people who live in this division indeed live in just such a spiritual city” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 141). This city is well beyond the shadows, beyond form, and beyond reason.
St. Augustine believed that the soul of man is salvaged through God. Kandinsky believed that the soul of man is liberated through art. St. Augustine is to God as Kandinsky is to art. For in art lies the ultimate truth and absolute salvation. Kandinsky says, “Our souls, which are only now beginning to awaken after the long reign of materialism, harbor seeds of desperation, unbelief, lack of purpose” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 128). Kandinsky believed that he was on the cusp of a new enlightenment, an epoch that would be inspired by the abstract expression and freedom of the soul. Ironically, Kandinsky wrote these words in 1910 just before the world was about to go to war.
Kandinsky rid his paintings of materialism. Just as St. Augustine believed in purging of materialistic evils, Kandinsky believed that taking away objects from his paintings represented the end of meaningless materialism. Kandinsky says, “The whole nightmare of the materialistic attitude which has turned the life of the universe into an evil” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 96). Kandinsky puts faith in the fact that materialism is ending, and that the time to see the meaninglessness behind “things.”
The material is necessary. Kandinsky says, ” ‘Nature,’ i.e., the ever-changing external environment of man, continually sets the strings of the piano (the soul) in vibration, by means of the keys (objects)” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 168-169). Augustine does not believe that the material world is evil, per say. Rather, the material is a necessity, without which the soul would have no medium in which to fulfill its purpose. Kandinsky too sees the necessity of the material; without it there would be no paint that the essence could flow through.
Science measures the material world, but it is not all there is. Kandinsky finds the beauty in analyzing his paintings. In Concerning the Spiritual in the Art, Kandinsky analyzes the effect of color within the painting. In Point and Line to Plane, analyzes the shapes and movement of form. This process is comparable to Galileo reasoning with the rational world. The material world and a painting alike can be broken down and analyzed. But, it is only when we step beyond reason and into knowledge that we truly understand the beauty within a painting.
Science has its limitations. Kandinsky says, “Apart from its scientific value, which depends upon a precise examination of the individual elements of art, the analysis of artistic elements constitutes a[n] inner pulsation of the work” (“Point and Line to Plane” 533). Even through material evidence can be broken down and analyzed, there is still something beyond the limitations of science.
Kandinsky would despise the very existence of this thesis. He would see it as a combination of the aforementioned “aping,” overanalyzing the essence of times past, and writing about experience instead of actually experiencing. Kandinsky writes of the “professional intellectuals,” academics who reflect upon art. He says, “By means of these books, they remove the hurdles over which art has long since jumped . . . they fail to notice that they are building their barriers behind art rather than in front of it” (“Concerning the Spiritual” 141). In other words, academics write about life as it was, and don’t see the present right in front of them.
Chapter 8: Conclusion
Plato’s theory of the Forms drives the theories of St. Augustine, Galileo and Kandinsky. Plato believed that there is a separation between the material and the empirical. As mentioned throughout this thesis, reason is limited because it originates from objects. Knowledge, however, is unattached from the material world, and is pure. St. Augustine defined what it means to have faith in God. Galileo explored the scientific truth, while recognizing that reason did not effect faith in God. Kandinsky considered the essence of art. They all recognized that there exists beyond what can be seen, that reason can measure this material world, but that knowledge is of the Forms, God or the essence.
All philosophers are connected in their search for truth. I could have chosen any number of philosophers for this essay, but I chose these four because their relationship was not immediately apparent. They come from different backgrounds, but all explore the same truth. It is only natural for man to categorize and classify. It is an evolutionary instinct to place objects into categories in order to distinguish the poisonous berries from the edible ones and the predators from the prey. But the poisonous berry and the edible one are still the fruit of the earth, and both the predator and the prey are animals. Philosophers may differ in culture or in theory, but all philosophers are desperately seeking to espouse their version of the truth. Texts of all philosophers are also related. Each essay has a piece of knowledge instilled by its creator. This relationship is beyond a point of reason: it is pure knowledge.
Modern society tends to attach labels to the word of God. But God is just a word. The essence of God can neither be limited by definition nor confined to what is in the Bible. There is truth within God just as there is truth within art. We have the finite perception that God is found in a church and accessed through prayer. The concept of God is the same as Plato’s concept of Forms. Therefore, the essence God existed well before the establishment of the Church and before the written Bible. God is knowledge, God is a version of the truth. This truth is beyond what is written in an ancient text; it is lifted out of the confinement of definitions and culture.
God has many forms. In the Hebrew bible, God is given many names, but reveals himself to Moses as “I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be” (Exodus 3:14). The name of the God is of no consequence; names change but the spirit remains the same. God can neither be defined by nor simplified to a single word. In Genesis, God tells Adam to name all of the animals of the earth, as man is master of the animals. “And the LORD God fashioned from the soil each beast of the field and each fowl of the heavens and brought each to the human to see what he would call it, and whatever the human called a living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 1:19). The forms of each animal would be the same with any other name.
In a world where animals are created in test tubes and sustenance comes from a vending machine, man controls every aspect of life. This is not to say that we should ignore scientific accomplishments, such as penicillin or epileptic drugs. Epileptic drugs, for example, improve the quality of life. But this is where science ends, at the material nature of life. Science can improve quality, but cannot determine quality, just as it cannot prove that the natural tomato is better than the engineered tomato. Quality is just another word for the Forms, God or the essence. Each is an intangible idea to strive towards, but can never be truly actualized. Call it what you want, but the foundation of all belief system is the same.
The truth exists. I know that a truth beyond reason exists because nothing so beautiful has been created in the name of science. Science itself is beautiful, the binomial symmetric patterns of evolution, the intricacy of mathematics, the colors and absolute complexity of nature. But the world is not created, it is formed. Human art is created. When art is created in the name of the truth, whether it be God or inner expression, it is beautiful. Art created for shock value or because it has never been done before is limited to history, just as the stories of the Bible are limited to mythology. True art transcends history and God transcends mythological stories. This, for me, is the truth.
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