“THE EYE IS THE LAMP OF THE BODY”: PLATO AND JESUS ON TRUE SEEING.

Both Plato and Jesus demonstrate the need to see clearly. Following the last post on Plato’s Cave here is a poem based on one of the miracles of Jesus.

        THE SIGHTING
           John 9

Out of the shame of spittle,
by the scratch of dirt,
he made an annointing.

Oh, it was an agony- the gravel 
in the eye, the rude slime, the brittle
clay caked on the lid.

But with the hurt
light came leaping, in the shock and shine, 
abstracts took flesh and flew;

winged words like view and space,
shape and shade and green and sky,
bird and horizon and sun,

turned real in a man's eyes.
Thus was truth given a face 
and dark dispelled and healing done.

(Luci Shaw "The Sighting"The Lion Book of Christian Poetry 1981) 

The miracle is descibed in John’s Gospel thus:

And as Jesus passed by, he saw a blind man , which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master,who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. I must work the works of him that sent me while it is day: the night cometh when no man can work. As long as I am in the world I am the light of the world. When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle and he annointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And said unto him, Go,wash in the pool of Siloam (which is by interpretation, Sent). He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing. (John 9 1-7 KJV).

The prisoners in Plato’s cave are not blind but they do not see clearly. In the gospel passage Jesus, in declaring himself the “light of the world”, is, as the sun in the Plato story. He is also the redemptive force that heals. In the poem the healed man is able by the light of healing to give meaning to words that had remained meaningless or abstract to him. Things were made real. “This was truth given a face”.

The Plato allegory follows stages of enlightenment. Because of lack of true knowledge the prisoners cannot see properly. In the shadows of the cave they do not see the world as it is and by their “education” they are misled in understanding what reality is. They can readily be indoctrinated with a false view of what things are like. When the prisoners escape, the possibility of true education is opened to them. At first their seeing is confused. The sun dazzles. Curiously, in the Gospels, there is another Jesus healing of a blind man that works like this. In Mark 8:24-25 when Jesus puts spittle on his eyes he reports “I see men like trees walkng” Only when Jesus “put again his hands on his eyes, and made him look up” was he restored and he “he saw every man clearly”. True seeing, distinguishing what is there, clearly take time.

Ultimately, if he goes far enough, the escaped prisoner can see clearly. It is not just a case of identifying things. The sun shines and provides the light by which one sees. The sun is the source of light. First, the escapee sees things like trees and hills but then he realises the source of seeing is the sun. The final stage of his development of proper sight is to see the sun as the source of what he sees and understands. What is around him is good-especially when compared with the shadowy reflections in the cave, so the source that enables him to see is good. To Plato that is the ultimate intuition reflecting the nature of the Source, as the Good.

Jesus also speaks of clear sightedness. In the Sermon on the Mount he declares: “the eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye be unhealthy your whole body will be full of darkness. If the light within you is darkness how great is that darkness!”(Gospel of St. Matthew 6. 22-23. New International Version). To Jesus God is the Father, the Shepherd , the Creator. Jesus sent from God reflects His nature and character. He heals the blind and the blind through him see the Father. The seeing is something given, a redemption, salvation.

Plato is concerned with education. The prisoners back in their cave need to be released. Only education can do that. Those who see must go back to educate those left behind. But here is a problem. Once they return to the old world, because their sight is blinded by the dark, they find it difficult to express their seeing. They might tell the prisoners what they see is a false reflection of reality. But, an artefact passing, an alert prisoner can identify the object to his fellows’ satisfaction whereas the returned educator does not offer what seem to be clarity. They may well prefer the world they have. And the returned educator may be mocked as a misty-eyed dreamer, seeing other worlds that do not exist.

We go back to Christ. Is this what he means by the “light in you is darkness”? -like that of the alert prisoner within his cave he is assured and confident in his identification but the identification is misleading because nothing is seen in the clear sight of day, in the sunlight, from the source of good. Jesus, in the St. John Ch 9 healing, refers to the Pharisees. The Pharisees objected to the healing because it was done on the Sabbath. Their knowledge of the Law has become so elaborate and complex, their rule-making so rigorous that they do not see the blindingly obvious truth that something wonderful and good has been done, someone who was blind, now sees. Jesus says in that gnomic, paradoxical, poetic way he often adopts. “For judgement I am come into the world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind“. (Gospel of St. John 9. 39). The rule-makers, the so-called teachers, like Plato’s false rhetorists, the sophists, do not encourage insight, only bewilderment.(see Note) Pharisees who are with Jesus and heard his words ask him “Are we blind also?” Jesus said unto them: “If ye were blind ye should have no sin; but now ye say, We see therefore your sin remaineth”. (ibid41) Sin is the assumption of knowledge when there is failure of true understanding. In the face of revelation of the wonderful they are in denial.

Plato seeks to lead us to true-seeing by educating the understanding to the point where we see or intuit the source of goodness. Jesus, reflecting God’s love, has the power to heal us of our blindness, so revealing to us that love.

NOTE: Plato was suspicious of the emphasis on rhetoric by many teachers of his time as he saw them encouraging sophistry. “Plato generally treats them (ie. Sophists)) as charlatans who talked purely for victory and took money for teaching the technique” ( Simon Blackburn (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy O.U.P 1996).

This is refected by our modern meaning of sophistry: “Specious or over-subtle reasoning, the use of intentionally deceptive arguments; casuistry; the use or practice of specious reasoning as a dialectic exercise”. (S.O.E.D.)

On the developments of Plato’s thought, I have found very helpful Understanding Plato David Melling. OPUS 1987)

GUEST POST: “THE TOWER OF BABEL” (2)

BY RAY INKSTER

Genesis 11 begins with the story of the Tower of Babel-but why on earth was it include in the sacred text?

In the first eleven chapters of Genesis we are in the realm of myth, which is the expression of the truth in story form. the book itself reached its more or less completed form around the sixth century BC, when Jewish people were allowed to return to their own land after seventy years exile in Babylon.

While there, they would have seen one of the wonders of the ancient world-the Ziggurat, or temple of the God Marduk, which was almost 100 metres high, with seven tiers, three great staircases, and an imposing temple at the top-where the earth met the heavens and the God Marduk his subjects. The Babylonians believed that Marduk had defeated the Jewish God, whose Temple in Jerusalem had been reduced to dust and ashes and that, as a result, to quote 11.4, they had made a name for theselves.

The Jews who returned to what now became Judea did not, of course, share that opinion, especially since the Babylonians and their Marduk had in turn been overthrown by the Persians. In part, therefore, this story about the ill-fated Tower of Babel pokes fun at the Babylonians god-like pretensiousness.

In common with other instances in Genesis, the story also offers an “explanation” for a puzzling fact-in this case, that the world was found to have different peoples in it with different languages. In a similar manner, Genesis also provides “explanations” for names. The name “Babel” in Hebrew, sounds like the word for “confused”, and so is said to reflect the fact that God had “confused” the speech of the tower’s builders so that they no longer understood each other and, in their frustration, “left off building” the tower.

Apart from the fun, however, there is a more serious point being made. In a number of the myths of the Ancient Near east at that time, there is the theme of various gods becoming upset that humans were getting above themselves. They make such a raucous din with their unruly behaviour that the gods can hardly get any peace or sleep. Steps had to be taken to put them back in their proper place.

Echoes of this theme appear in Genesis 3 where, after their disobedience in the Garden of Eden, God says to members of the divine council that”man has become like one of us”, and must therefore be driven out of Eden into a world which will now be much less of a “paradise”. Similarly, in Genesis 6, “the wickedness of man was great in the earth” and the Flood was necessary to clear that wickedness away and make a new start, this time governe by a covenant between God and man.

Humans are incorrigible, however, and so, in Genesis 11, they decide to “build a tower with its top in the heavens”. They’re going to show God what they can do, pay him a visit on his own territory and try to call the shots. Having promised after the Flood that “never again” shall all flesh be cut off”, God now devises a less drastic but effective stratagem for reminding human beings that he has made them, “a little lower than the angels”, and that they must learn to keep that place.

And this is where the story has something to say to ourselves in our 21st century. Some wit once remarked that having built the tower, if only they hadn’t tried to climb to the top things might not have ended the way they did. There is an aspect of human psychology which suggests itself when people are asked why they climb life-threatening mountains, or want to visit distant planets, the reason being, “because they’re there”. Sometimes that’s fine, but at other times alarm bells should ring.

Why are we mining and burning fossil fuels? Because they’re there, and they’re warming our homes, but also now our planet. Why did we smash the atom? Because we could, and we’re producing energy that lights our cities, but also stockpiling nuclear weapons that can destroy ourselves and our world. Genesis 3 would say to us that “our eyes have been opened, and we’ve become like gods, knowing good and evil”. We need to learn discipline and to rein ourselves in-to leave the fossil fuels where they are, and to destroy the weapons of mass destruction. Our scientists need to understand that they aren’t gods, who can produce a “theory of everything”, which would explain all that is physical yet solve nothing that is moral or ethical. Our religious leaders need to understand that they aren’t gods, who exclusively possess all truth, while any who differ from them are infidels to be treated accordingly. The Tower of Babel story reminds us that we are not gods, but human beings. There is so much that we can, and will, never know. We need to understand and accept our limitations, recognising that though that might often lead to our frustration, in other ways it could well be our salvation.

The Greeks, of course, had their own myth-that of Icarus, whose father made him wings of feathers glued on with wax and taught him how to fly. He warned him not to fly too near the sun, but Icarus “could” fly higher, and so he “did” fly higher. The wax melted, and the boy fell into the ocean from which he did not emerge. The wings of Icarus, the Tower of Babel-we can’t say we have not been warned.

Ray Inkster