Perverse Matter? What Plato and (Some) of the Fathers Mean

photo-1462219157779-8a35f2687626_optWhen I tell someone I am a Platonist, they often assume I hate the material world, because “Plato.” There were certainly neo-Platonists after Plato who hated the material world, but the accusation is hard to make against Plato himself. Often it is based on little more than Socrates talking about the body as a “prison” in Phaedo before his execution by the Athenian state.

Plato did not think matter was “evil” and finding this idea in Phaedo is a misreading of the text (that later Greeks made). First, Socrates is not Plato, but a character in a dialog. His opinions are not always Plato’s. Second, Socrates is comforting his followers about his death, putting the best spin on his leaving. He uses hyperbole to do so. The man who enjoyed the company of beautiful people and discussion in the marketplace was moving on to the next life. What is this next life? Is it immaterial?

Plato wrote an entire dialog where Timaeus, a scientist, argues that we never “escape” bodies, just get better bodies if we are virtuous in an endless cycle of transmigration of souls. This dialog has many difficulties, but matter is not evil, just perverse. Isn’t that just another way of saying “evil?”

It is not. Timaeus points out that matter and scientific laws do not follow the rules of reason. Nature grinds along doing what nature does and following the rules of nature. This is good, because it allows the world to be predictable, but it is also not reasonable in practice. Take gravity: people fall down, even when falling is not good for the person or society. A good society helps us “defy” natural laws by bending the laws of nature to the will of a reasonable mind. Nature would kill many of us with disease. Mind helps us bend back nature for a bit to make death, necessary to our nature, a bit more palatable, easier.

Matter is not “wicked” such that one could put nature on trial. Nature does not know what it does and (for some reason) has become detached from Mind. Plato thought this because Mind was not omnipotent, but bound by the physical rules He created. Christians think that we experience nature this way because we separated ourselves from Mind that would help us live in a material world.

For a Christian, the issue is further complicated by the existence of minds (men and devils) that encourage matter to do harm. We invent bombs and blow them up, making nature do our will. We must do better and help matter find Mind: justice, order, and what should be. Nature was created good, but our experience of it is now disordered. It does what it should not, because we are what we should not be.

The sage Maximus the Confessor says this and much more:

Thus I think that when he says, “for as long as matter carries within itself disorder, as if in a flowing stream,” he means nothing other than, “for as long as the world is subjected to corruption and mutability,” and we are clothed in this body of our humiliation (Philippians 3:21), and thus subjected to a myriad of troubles that arise from it on account of its inherent weakness. “For as long as this lasts,” then, we should not be puffed up with pride on account of the inequality all around us, but instead we should in wisdom try to smooth out the irregularities of nature, which knows no differences of distinctions or honor, meeting the needs of others out of own abundance.*

 

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Περί διαφόρων αποριών των αγίων Διονυσίου και Γρηγορίου
On Difficulties in the Church Fathers, Vol. 1 (The Ambigua) pp 147-149

Τοῦτο γάρ οἶμαι λέγειν αὐτόν διά τοῦ, ” Ἕως ἄν καί παρ᾿ ἑαυτῆς ἡ ὕλη φέριῃ τό ἄτακτον,” ἀντί τοῦ, Ἕως ἄν ὑπό φθοράν καί ἀλλοίωσίν ἐστι τοῦτο τό πᾶν, καί τό σῶμα τῆς παπεινώσεως περικείμεθα, καί ἴσως τοῖς ἐξ αὐτοῦ διά τήν ἔμφυτον ἀσθένειαν πολυτρόποις κακοῖς ὑποκείμεθα· μή κατ᾿ ἀλλήλων ἐπαιρώμεθα διά τήν περί ἡμᾶς ἀνισότητα, ἀλλά μᾶλλον σώφρονι λογισμῷ τήν τῆς ὁμοτίμου φύσεως ἀνωμαλίαν ἐξομαλίσωμεν, τάς τῶν ἄλλων ἐλλείψεις ταῖς ἡμῶν αὐτῶν ἀναπληροῦντες ὑπερβολαῖς.

I am thankful for the email list that sends me a Maximus the Confessor quotation daily.


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