(2/2) Did St. Mark Read Plato / Did Plato Read Moses?

Above: Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus Sermon in Athens, by Raphael, 1515.


Did St. Mark Read Plato / Did Plato Read Moses?


Let’s consider the Unknown God Paul is preaching about in the above pictured sermon. Here is a brief, general introduction:

  • In Athens, there was a temple specifically dedicated to that god and very often Athenians would swear “in the name of the Unknown God” (Νὴ τὸν Ἄγνωστον, Nē ton Agnōston).  Apollodorus, Philostratus and Pausanias wrote about the Unknown God as well.  According to the book of Acts, contained in the Christian New Testament, when the Apostle Paul visited Athens, he saw an altar with an inscription dedicated to that god and was invited to speak to the Athenian elite at the Areopagus. Because the Jewish God could not be named, it is possible that Paul’s Athenian listeners would have considered his God to be “the unknown god par excellence”. His listeners may also have understood the introduction of a new god by allusions to Aeschylus’ The Eumenides; the irony would have been that just as the Eumenides were not new gods at all but the Furies in a new form, so was the Christian God not a new god but rather the god the Greeks already worshipped as the Unknown God. His audience would also have recognized the quotes in verse 28 as coming from Epimenides and Aratus, respectively.

Paul gave this speech:

  • 22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps fumble about for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we, too, are his offspring.’ 29 “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:22-31 NRSVUE)

Let’s try to think this through in a Greek way, and how the unknown is the source of the known with Plato. Being has its source in what is beyond being, and so our knowledge/guiding perspectives have their sources in what is beyond them and serves as their grounds.  Let’s consider this from the perspective of the Continental approach to philosophy.

Continental philosophy is going to be particularly interested in how we un-hide (a-letheia, truth) phenomena.  This approach starts very early in life (eg., teaching children to dis-close phenomena by comparing/contrasting),  see my philosophy for kids site Secular Web Kids.  The main figure interpreting philosophy in this way is the phenomenology [a discourse (logos) on what shows itself (phenomena)] of Hegel.  Hegel summed this approach up at the end of his INAUGURAL ADDRESS Delivered at Heidelberg, on the 28th October, 1816:

  • The Being of the universe, at first hidden and concealed, has no power which can offer resistance to the search for knowledge; it has to lay itself open before the seeker — to set before his eyes and give for his enjoyment, its riches and its depths.

For example, we don’t see the category of unity when we sense/look at the sock even though we know the sock is a unity.  But when we tear the sock, the category of unity is un-hidden, which is to say made conspicuous, negatively, precisely “as a lost unity.”  This example was Heidegger’s favorite entry point to Hegel, the torn sock example which he called Phenomenological Kindergarten.  Let’s use this to un-hide Plato and connect this to Psalm 19:12 (NRSVUE) from my last post (“But who can detect one’s own errors? Clear me from hidden faults.” (Psalm 19:12))

Plato said philosophy has its ultimate origin in wonder (thaumazein).  What does this mean?  When we are exploring the thought path opened up by our guiding perspective, sometimes we encounter block (aporia) in the path.  For instance, we may be travelling along the guiding perspective of the traditional definition of marriage, when we encounter a remarkable block: that our guiding perspective is doing violence to LGBTQI+ rights.  The block is that our trusted guiding perspective that we’ve used all our lives is unable to appropriate the LGBTQ+ phenomenon, and in fact is doing violence to them.  In Plato’s language, there is an “a-poria” that produces wonder (thaumazein) because there is something unreachable by our guiding perspective (something beyond Being, epekeina tes ousias), which is an occasion to deconstruct our guiding perspective and reconstruct it, in this case in a more inclusive way.  Because this gives birth to new knowledge/thought paths, Plato called this “beyond Being” the idea of the good (idea tou agathou). This is the essence of Plato’s allegory of the cave.

It is in this way that I was thinking about psalm 19:12 from last time, with the hidden and approaches to it.  If we think of Jesus who through the cross dis-closes the hidden vileness of humanity that wrongfully killed him and which makes possible the transfiguration of the soldier (“truly this is the son of God/an innocent man,” Jesus as “truth,” un-hiding, “a-letheia), I think we have a good model to see the interplay between Jewish and Greek thought (developed most extensively by Dennis MacDonald), and how the Continental Philosophical tradition of Hegel allows us to frame this.