1 Samuel 16:1-13
Recently, I have been reading a book about the influence of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle in the history of Western civilization. It is a fascinating book that shows how these two Greek philosophers who lived approximately four hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ have repeatedly influenced Western thought for over two milennia. The book is entitled The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization.1 The title takes its name from Plato’s famous analogy of the cave. You’re familiar with the analogy? In Plato’s dialogue, The Republic, Socrates suggests that the human situation is something like that of a group of people who have been chained in a cave all of their lives facing a blank wall. Behind the people are a group of figures whose shadows are being cast on the wall in front of them by a fire –something like shadow puppets –and the people are trying to make sense of the silhouettes. These shadows are the only reality the people know. Socrates then asks what would happen if someone were to be released from the cave and were to venture out into the world above to see the sun and nature as it really exists. If such a person were then to return to the cave and tell what he or she had seen, the man or woman would not be believed. The people in the cave know what reality is. It is the shadows that they can see on the wall. They cannot imagine anything else.
Arthur Herman, the author of the book, contrasts Plato’s understanding of reality – knowing the unchanging truth that lies behind the illusory shadows – with Aristotle’s. In contrast to Plato’s focus on knowing the permanent and unchangeable, Aristotle insisted that we could find reality in the ordinary day to day world in the midst of which we live our lives. Where Plato wanted to leave the cave, Aristotle insisted that the cave was where we needed to get to work.
Each philosophy has its consequences for how we live. To be simplistic, Plato’s philosophy included an ethic that focused on knowledge, specifically, knowledge of that which is certain and permanent and about which one cannot be mistaken. Aristotle’s ethic focused instead on what he called “practical knowledge,” that is, how to get things done in a world that was not certain or permanent, and which changed constantly. So Plato’s prescription for how we should live focuses on “knowing.” Aristotle’s focuses on “doing.” There’s a silly joke that’s been around for awhile that gets the philosophers wrong, but basically gets the idea right, so I’ll adjust it by providing the correct names. Plato said: “To be is to do.” Aristotle said: “To do is to be.” Frank Sinatra said: “Do be do be do.” And, of course, Fred Flintstone said: “Yabba Dabba Do.” And Scooby Do said “Scooby Dooby Do.”
Both philosophies have their influences, and also their characteristic errors. The characteristic error of Platonism would be the Socratic fallacy. If we only know the right thing, we’ll be sure to do it. Of course, that is not the case. We all do things that we know we should not do. The characteristic heresies associated with Aristotle are perhaps Pelagianism and antinomianism. Although these are opposite heresies, they are both characterized by a focus on action, on what we do rather than on what we know, on, as we say, “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.” So today the descendents of Plato would be the ideologues, the people who spend hours on their computers typing comments on social media because someone on the internet said something that was wrong. The descendents of Aristotle are the activists. They can be do-gooders who try to change the world for the better, but they can also be the busy bodies who make everyone else’s life miserable by trying to straighten them out.
Why bring up Plato and Aristotle in a Lenten sermon? As we look at the lectionary readings these morning, we note that there is a common theme about “seeing” and “light,” especially when we compare the gospel and epistle readings. John’s gospel tells the story of Jesus healing a man born blind. Before Jesus heals the man, he says: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:6). At the end of the passage, Jesus says: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” (v. 39). The Ephesians passage contains the statement: “Walk as children of light . . . and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” and concludes, “But when anything is exposed to the light, it becomes visible. . .” (Eph. 5:8,14) The similarities to Plato and Aristotle are certainly intriguing. There is the same imagery of light and darkness. The John passage, like Plato’s analogy of the cave, focuses on “seeing.” To the contrary, while the Ephesians passage uses light imagery with its contrast between light and darkness, the focus is on “doing,” more like Aristotle. John seems to be focusing on knowing the light. Paul focuses on “walking in the light.” (more…)