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July 26, 2007

Plato: A.E. Taylor vs. P.E. More

To the newcomer to the study of Plato it is remarkable how much disagreement there is, among even the most respected authorities, as to what Platonism actually is. For example, A.E. Taylor cited Paul Elmore More (see July 13 post) as one of the indispensable authors on Platonism, yet Taylor's interpretation is in at least one crucial way almost the opposite of More's.

An essential feature of More's Platonism, as found in his book of that same name, was that it was dualistic, holding that God formed the world out of a non-divine matter ruled by "necessity" (and thereby resembling matter as now understood by physics). This dualism represented a definite advance, More believes, over the monistic pantheism of the pre-Socratic Parmenides and his defender Zeno. It is a kind of middle way between pure materialism and pure idealism. Such dualism provides a solution to the problem of evil: evil is the fault of the resistance of matter to being formed into a perfect cosmos. This seems like an attractive solution in that it avoids the need, fraught with spiritual danger, to postulate the existence of a malevolent second god, as in Manichaeanism or other kinds of Gnosticism (or for that matter the Christian idea of the Devil). No such malign higher power is necessary to account for evil; one must only grasp the tendency of matter to relapse into chaos if left to its own devices, or in the terms of modern science, entropy. In the words of More, the world is a good, ordered place insofar as is allowed by "natural necessity consenting and yielding to the persuasion of reason."

For More, Platonic dualism also covers ethics, which he regards as the central concern of Platonism and the key to understanding it as an integrated whole. (For example, the Republic is on one level a utopian blueprint, but more essentially, More holds, it is an examination of the otherwise hidden inner natures of various kinds of individual souls by drawing analogies with the more visible and familiar structures of various kinds of city-states.) Each of the three pairs of ethical concepts,

virtue morality
opinion knowledge

indicates two fundamentally different entities—though this does not mean that the two (for example, pleasure and happiness) can never be found together. The first member of each pair is the natural counterpart of the second, 'divine' member. And each of these three natural attributes is associated with the mortal, pleasure-driven component of a dualistic Platonic soul, while each divine attribute is linked to the higher, immortal part of that soul.

By contrast, A.E. Taylor (in Platonism and its Influence) in effect regards dualism, at least as far as the doctrine of Creation is concerned, as merely an Aristotelian deviation from Plato. "Plato . . . teaches 'creation' in the sense that he regards the existence of the whole universe and everything in it as an effect of one single cause, the divine goodness, exactly as Thomas [Aquinas] himself does." Aristotle on the other hand "makes the universe a resultant of two equally eternal causes, God, the source of the motion by which 'Form' or 'structure' is evoked or induced, and the structureless 'first matter,' . . . from which or upon which the First Mover evokes or superinduces 'Form.' (pp 123–124). Each author praises Plato for holding the view which that author favours, but the two views do not seem compatible.

(To further add to the confusion, More regards the neo-Platonists as having regressed from dualism to monism, while Taylor seems to overlook any basic distinction between Plato and the neo-Platonists on this point.)


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July 21, 2011 7:23 AM  

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