Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Voices Carry: Platonic Myth and Modern Fundamentalism

Originally published on CounterPunch.com, June 6, 2003.

Crude religious fundamentalism is poisoning civic society throughout the globe. We see it in the Muslim world – where, with Osama bin Laden and his ilk, it perhaps finds its most virulent form. We see it in Israel, where fundamentalists have introduced wrenching divisions in society – and actually assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a bid to thwart the peace process. And we see it in America, in the bellicose fundamentalism now riding herd on the American government and on increasingly large swathes of American society as well.

One example: the extremists favored by the Bush Administration with appointments to key international bodies have repeatedly killed or weakened efforts to provide basic health care and basic rights to the poorest and most vulnerable women on earth, because of misconstrued (or purposefully inflated) fears that such measures might lead to more abortions, or, in the latter case, "undermine the primacy of the family." These extremists have often lined up the United States on the side of such "allies" as Iran, pre-Saddam Iraq, Libya and Sudan in opposing rights and health care for women in repressive societies.

This worldwide rise in fundamentalism has led to an understandable backlash in many quarters against religion itself. This is unfortunate. For it is not really the fault of Islam or Judaism or Christianity that our modern-day extremists believe there is only one immutable Truth about reality, which they just happen to possess. It is, of course, the fault of Plato, whose poetic fantasy of a changeless Perfection behind the messiness of physical existence infected the Western mind with the germ of ideological intolerance. For if Perfect Truth exists, then it can be known, and once known, it must necessarily be acknowledged as the sole measure, explanation and arbiter of "all of life and all of history," as Mr. Bush likes to say when invoking the Christian God in his speeches.

Plato set in motion the slow death of the old "gods": those powerful evocations who in their conflicts and contradictions, their lusts and doubts, their recklessness, sorrows, tempers – and manifold imperfections – surely embodied the seething chaos of human reality far better than the degraded Platonic idealism adopted by the Pauline Christians. We leave aside here Jesus' ethical teachings, which despite millennia of lip service have never been adopted or even taken seriously by any society throughout history – although a few of the Apostle Paul's more cranky notions about sex and obedience (especially his ever-popular injunction, "Slaves, obey your masters!") have been enthusiastically embraced by Western rulers since the days of the murderous Constantine the Great down to our present age, presided over by leaders who loudly proclaim their Christianity as they order armies off to war.

Paul's simplified Platonism was wedded to a few particular strains of Jewish Messianism. The result, of course, was a complete travesty of ancient Jewish thought, which centered on the primacy of their God ("Thou shalt have no other Gods before Me" is not exactly the same thing as "There are no other Gods but Me"), and on cultivating correct behavior within the national group itself – but never on the universal application of their particular rites and customs. No, this was a "gift" of Platonic Christianity.

Thus began the break-up of a natural religious order that had held since prehistoric times, made up of communities of differing moralities. Each human grouping – nation, city-state, tribe, clan – had their different gods, different faiths (or none at all), different ideas of correct behavior; and this difference was accepted as a simple fact of nature. It was an order where, for example, homosexuality would be abhorred in Israel and celebrated in Sparta; where conflicting "gospels" of the Olympian gods would be told in Crete and Athens (or even within Crete and Athens); where religious war – or even the concept that any one belief-system could or should be imposed on all humankind – was virtually unknown. This order (which was often brutal in its own particular ways, of course) disintegrated under the pressure of a monomaniacal insistence on the universal application of a single belief-system: that of an unchanging Perfect Truth animating all of existence.

The Arab world preserved much of the heritage of Classical Antiquity after it had been lost in the West due to the twin ravages of state-sponsored Christian extremism and barbarian invasion. Naturally, the Platonic myth was part of that inheritance, and was incorporated into Islam from the start. Indeed, Islam "improved" on its borrowings from Judaism and Christianity in this regard. The basic Muslim tenet, "There is no God but God," did away with the ambiguity in ancient Judaism's formulations of deity, while the rigor with which Islam prosecuted the Christian idea of the exclusivity of a single belief-system nearly shattered the Christian West itself.

Many writers have noted that "secular" movements such as Marxism, National Socialism, and the harsh "market fundamentalism" that now dominates the global economy are all off-shoots of this principle: the universal application of a single, unassailable truth. (Mr. Bush, for example, calls his own rapacious brand of crony capitalism "the single sustainable model of national success" in the world.) The "war on terror" now engulfing the planet is not a "clash of civilizations"; it's more of a civil war within Platonism. Fellow believers in Perfect Truth are seeking to impose their particular interpretation of their common faith on each other, and the rest of us as well. And for possessors of Ultimate Truth, there is no price too high to pay – or to impose – in the service of their ideal.

So as these delusionaries shroud the world in blood and darkness, we would do well to remember the origin of their metaphysics. Much like the Apostle Paul, Plato refined and refashioned the earlier teachings of a more rough-hewn, contradictory figure: the philosopher Socrates. It was Socrates, so Plato says, who gave us the idea of a changeless, Perfect Truth that stands outside physical reality and transcends all other values. And where did Socrates obtain this wisdom, which has cost so many, many millions of lives down through the centuries?

From his daimon, as he called it: an unconscious "inner prompting" that acted as his guide.

He got it from a voice inside his head.

Chris Floyd