Monday, November 17, 2008

New Skins for Old Wine: Plato’s Wisdom for Today’s World, by Stephen C. Lovatt, reviewed by Peter Cowlam

In positing a Christian eschatology, Stephen Lovatt presents a persuasive and thoroughly thought-out argument in its support. Millennia of human soul-searching have gone into difficult and pressing questions as to how civilisations should organise themselves, and how we – the beings constituting them – should live. Plato thought this wasn’t solely a matter of politics, and nor does Stephen Lovatt. It is desirable, of course, that we uphold ideals in fairness, justice, good governance, etc., but if these concepts are borne only of our material life what does that say for our spiritual being, supposing we have one?

‘For a mortal being to somehow gain an association with God, and to be granted a participation in God’s divine life, would be to gain a firm basis for its existence, not subject to the vicissitudes of the material universe. No greater good is possible.’
New Skins for Old Wine, p223

Lovatt, as Plato did, believes in humanity’s divine aspect, the flesh not merely clay, but inspirited:

‘[The gods] having taken the immortal origin of the soul…gave it the entire body as its vehicle.’
New Skins for Old Wine, p118, quoting Plato’s Timaeus (69b-70b)

The learning process our life experience subjects us to, and the institutional tents we raise on its behalf – schools, laws, parliaments, and a lot more things besides – are not just the instruments of social progress.

'The basic point of being human is that a person can relate to the material world and in that relationship the soul can learn what it is to be just. This requires consciousness, because the spirit is only aware of conscious thought, and conscience can only act through consciousness. Life without consciousness (or the prospect of consciousness, as in a sleeper or an embryo) is sub-ethical and so sub-human.'
New Skins for Old Wine, p360

This vale of tears our earthly life is, is a prerequisite of the path of enlightenment the soul is purposed to take, for eventual communion with God, and that is the point of all our agonising over the right models of community being. No other outlook will do, particularly that espoused by the philosophers of relativism, all too prevalent today, whose

‘…common attitudes arise from their shared subjectivist assumption that truth is personal. This implies that truth differs from one individual to the next and so each man’s truth is his own affair. Each of us is an island, cut off from each other, without any hope of meaningful communication. This is a truly sad and frightening prospect to face, and anyone who fully adopts this perspective, it seems to me, is liable to despair.’
New Skins for Old Wine, p244

According to Lovatt, it’s all in fact quite to the contrary, there being just one form of the good (as set out by Plato in his theory of forms), and this it is the soul’s duty to aspire to, having first been enmeshed – and possibly more than once (though a theory of metempsychosis is not fully adduced) – in the complicated circuitry of flesh. How an individual human soul must navigate the world is systematically set out in Stephen Lovatt’s book, with insight into the meaning of, for example, friendship, education, human sexuality, and the relationship of person to state.

For myself, a man in a blinkered life here in this corrupted Eden, it’s a step too far to share his faith, and in my mind raises the question why some people are predisposed to a belief in the Christian God and an afterlife. Is the whole thing just a matter of acculturation, or are some of us closer to God than the rest? And how are we supposed to spend our eternity?

I don’t know the answer, but Stephen Lovatt explores the question in an extremely eloquent and thought-provoking way.

Lovatt, Stephen C, New Skins for Old Wine: Plato’s Wisdom for Today’s World, (Boca Raton, Florida: Universal Publishers, 2007), ISBN 978-1-58112-960-1.

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