The completion of Plato lies in the resurrection, in the reality that sees not just the immortality of the soul but the acting person as the source of all reason…
Is there any way to bring political philosophy and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem, into a coherent, non-contradictory relation to each other without undermining the integrity of either? The issue is ancient no less than medieval and modern. We need a philosophy that only “searches” for wisdom but did not constitute it. We need a revelation that is open to reason, not based solely on the voluntarist proposition that each existing thing could be otherwise. To consider this relationship, we presuppose that both political philosophy and revelation talk of intelligible things.
Whether we “believe” it or not, we can basically understand what is proposed in revelation. The immediate source of their intelligibility may differ, but, when brought together, reason and revelation turn out to be dealing with at least some of the same issues. This convergence is striking and unexpected. For philosophy to be philosophy, it has to be open to everything that is. A philosophy that argues that nothing exists, or that we cannot know anything even if it does exist, will not be able to enter into this discussion. Such premises do not allow us to think at all.
Political philosophy is the summit of the “practical” sciences, of the things that “can be otherwise.” If man were the highest being in the universe, Aristotle taught us, politics would be the highest science. Politics would then become itself a quasi-metaphysics. Whatever it brought forth, with no transcendent check on itself, would be “good” for this highest being just because he brought it forth. Classical politics were, however, moderate. Man did not make himself to be man. He could not account for himself in his own terms. He was already a certain kind of being. He differed from other beings. When it was asked, “How did he differ?” the answer was that he was able to think. And to think meant not only to calculate but to know things. He had “first principles” that were simply there in his very thinking. He could not maintain that a thing was and was not at the same time. When something contradicted this reason, something was wrong with it. But when it did not contradict, he had to pay attention.
This knowing power that man found in himself was curious. It did not let him rest. He just wanted to know things, things not himself. Indeed, he soon discovered that he could not even know himself without knowing first something that was not himself. He discovered himself, as it were, by confronting something that was not himself. In knowing the house or the tree, he realized that it was “I” who knew what was not really himself. Yet, the more he knew things other than himself, the more he seemed to know himself, as if his mind were, as Aristotle put it, capable of knowing all things.
In this discovery of his own knowing powers, he ran into a further perplexity. Why was it more difficult to know another being of his kind than to know anything else in the universe? He noticed too that if someone wanted to know him better, he had to invite them in. He had to reveal himself. He did not reveal himself to everyone in the same way. A difference existed between acquaintance and friend. He learned that he could not be friends with everyone. But he had to deal with many people whom he did not know well, if at all. When he dealt with them, he could not do so in any old way. He demanded to be treated fairly, justly. Others demanded the same treatment in turn. He had to confront the question: “What is justice?”
Is the World Just a Hell of Injustice?
Justice questions belonged to man’s relation to others of his kind. Claims of being treated unjustly had to be resolved. To do this, institutions had to be set up whereby controversies were settled. Different people set these institutions up in different ways. Some worked better than others. Some hardly worked at all. Why did they not work perfectly? This turned out to be a most distressing issue. Justice seemed minimally attainable. In every existing society of men, many good deeds went unrewarded. Even worse, many crimes committed against justice went unpunished.
To the young Plato, this situation seemed intolerable. His mentor, Socrates, was tried in a legal way but condemned to death unjustly. At this sight, his soul was unsettled. Was there not a city in which such things would not happen? Plato thought long and hard about this question. He feared that the world was itself created in injustice. And if this were so, then it would not matter what we did. No injustice would be ultimately properly punished, so why bother with it?
In desperation, Plato decided to examine the premises. Where would we find a city in which Socrates, the philosopher, would not be killed? His answer was brilliant. The only place where justice would be possible is in a city in speech or in the mind. This conclusion brings us back to the exercise of the mind as that light that we possess whereby we consider what we are, what the world is like. The logic of this argument led to one conclusion: The world is not created in injustice if, and only if, the soul of man, that first act of his being, is immortal. This conclusion was unsatisfactory unless there were arguments that demonstrated that the soul of each person was indeed immortal. So Plato made these arguments.
The argument about the immortality of the soul arose from political grounds. It was the experience of the city unable to deal with justice that led Plato initially to despair about justice in the universe itself. Out of the trial of Socrates, we find a young man whose whole life became absorbed in justifying the goodness of human existence itself. This is the philosophical experience that must be explained.
Socrates on the Cross
The trial of Socrates is replicated in the trial of Christ. In both cases, we have noble and good men before the courts of the best cities of their time. The governor/judge at Christ’s trial even wanted to know what “truth” was, or at least he asked about it. In the reflections of Plato on the trial of Socrates, we have the human mind at its best knowing the issues that must be confronted by a mind. In the case of Christ, the history and explanation of who He was, who He claimed to be, lies in what we now call “revelation.” This revelation stretched through long periods of Hebrew history.
This history even had an account of “the beginning.” The heavens and the earth were said to have been created by God “in the beginning.” It is strange, but when the Gospel of John began its explanation of who Christ was, it also used these words “in the beginning.” But this beginning is one step back from the beginning in Genesis. The world begins in the Godhead, in the activity of the Father who sends the Word, His Son, into the world.
The account of revelation itself contains intelligibility. It can be understood in its outlines. The curious thing about this revelation is how it addresses reason. Indeed, Christian revelation first presented itself not to other religions but to the Greeks, to Athens, to philosophy. It could not properly begin unless it met human reasoning at its best. Revelation is mind addressed to mind as mind—insofar as it knows what it can know, and what it cannot.
Thus, when revelation read Plato, it encountered something familiar. It knew of the death of Christ, the just man rejected and killed by the state. The experience of Christ followed that of Socrates and, as I argue, completed it. Plato was right. Ultimate justice is not found complete in any actual city. But it exists nonetheless. When the young Plato asked if the world was created in injustice, he sought to save justice. Here, political philosophy and revelation meet on their own terms, but terms intelligible to each other. The logic of reason and the logic of revelation meet and supplement each other. In the end, the world is not created in injustice.
The completion of Plato lies in the resurrection, in the reality that sees not just the immortality of the soul but the acting person as the source of all reason. Revelation completes the logic of reason because it answers a question that reason by itself is unable to answer. We suspect from this coincidence that reason and revelation have the same ultimate origin. Political philosophy provides the setting in which the ultimate logic of justice works itself out. Reason at its best and revelation at its purest belong to the same reality.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from The Intercollegiate Review (Winter 2014). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.