The Platonic Ideals: The Good, the True, the Beautiful

In the remote days of the old Dark Age Blog, I was ungenerous enough to describe Socrates, Plato and Aristotle as the Larry, Curly, and Moe of the Western intellectual tradition — that is to say, the Three Stooges. Actually, I’m rather ambivalent about the accomplishments of the “Greek Mind”. It’s not so much wrong-headed as it is incomplete. Perhaps they were the right men for their times, but they aren’t for our times.

I left off the last post with a riddle about the Platonic triad of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, pointing out that not only were these formerly the Muses of the mythical structure of consciousness (and probably the Moirai or Fates as well in their shadow or negative aspect), but that this triad was incomplete.

It is said that Plato is responsible for the rupture between logos and mythos, and that seems certainly true. Over the doors to his Academy was inscribed “Let none enter here who are ignorant of geometry”, and that was explicitly meant as a pointed exclusion of the mythical consciousness. Yet, it was also somewhat disingenous, since Plato heavily relied on the precedents of the mythos for his own philosophy. The Platonic eidola (“Forms” or “archetypes” or “ideals”) are little more than mental abstractions of the old names of the gods, the same old gods but now deprived of their own subjectivity. They have become pure objects, and are real only as pure ideal objects. And even today, we can’t seem to resist putting the phrase “the True, the Good, and the Beautiful” in capital letters.

I wanted to point this out as an example of what Gebser means by the latency of consciousness structures, and especially the latency of the magical and mythical within the mental-rational. Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle were pretty much examples of what Nietzsche means by “the transvaluation of values” (or “revaluation of values”) and of a corresponding devaluation of values. The logical relied upon the mythical for its capital and raw material. They took the names of the gods and translated the gods into “concepts”. And so, what were formerly the names of the Muses became the ideals or archetypes or eidola called “True”, “Good”, and “Beautiful”.

I don’t necessarily fault them for this since, as discussed earlier, they were wrestling with the decadence of Greek civilisation and the increasingly ineffectiveness and deficiency of a once vital mythical consciousness. The popular notion that they represent a so-called “Greek Golden Age” is completely ridiculous. They did what they did because they were struggling with the pressure and stress of a society and civilisation in decline. Today, we are pretty much struggling with the same issues.

This brings me to the subject of Carl Jung and his contemporary notion of the “archetypes”. They aren’t Plato’s archetypes, and Jung’s own rediscovery of the mythical and magical (and the archaic) foundations of the mental-rational consciousness structure represents something of a complete reversal of the historical intellectual trend. Jung’s archetypes aren’t cold, dead intellectual abstractions, or even what Freud calls “complexes”. They are living entities of the psychic cosmos, once again revealed with their own subjectivity and identity.

Given the bias of the mental-rational consciousness, Jung had to cast his insights and experiences of the psyche into acceptably neutral terms, so instead of speaking of “the soul” he spoke instead of “the Self” as something distinct from the Ego or “conscious attitude” but to which the conscious attitude or ego was related and beholden. But in his post-humously published “Red Book”, Jung is a lot less circumspect, and he discloses in words and drawings, the reality of the psyche and its inhabitants (or “archetypes”) as themselves autonomous entities. His own principal teacher of the reality of consciousness he called Philemon, and this is how he pictured him.

Jung's Teacher Philemon

Jung’s Teacher Philemon

And while doing some research on the Red Book I also came across this illustration of one of Jung’s visions.

Jung's mandala of the Self

Jung’s mandala of the Self

As you can see, it’s identical with the indigenous Sacred Hoop.

Sacred Hoop

Sacred Hoop

Now, Gebser did know Jung. They were both members of the Bollingen Circle. Gebser was a bit critical of Jung’s Analytical Psychology, but Jung probably never shared with Gebser the secret life he lived and recorded in his Red Book, and which is rather more reminiscent of William Blake’s poetry and art than of science itself.

The point here is, that Jung’s incredibly rich inner life represents a kind of reversal of the totally abstracting tendency of Greek rationalism represented in Plato. The archetypes live again and, moreover and perhaps most importantly, are allowed to speak for themselves, as entities having their own psychic validity and autonomy.

Why does this strike me as significant? Well, for one reason it brings to mind something from Castaneda’s famous “leap into the abyss” that concluded his apprenticeship to don Juan. Castaneda discovered to his shock that he wasn’t just one self, but a veritable city of selves, all with their own relative identities and autonomy. But his real task in his leap into the abyss was not just to gain this realisation, but to reassemble and reintegrate himself afterwards. The force of his life had to reassemble him. And that’s what Jung’s own vision of the Sacred Hoop is. There are precise parallels between Jung’s descent into the unconscious described in his Red Book and Castaneda’s “leap into the abyss” or, for that matter, Jean Gebser’s own “leap into the unknown” that is described in the opening pages of The Ever-Present Origin.

These “leaps” were formerly called “leaps of faith” before the word “faith” lost its meaning and potency and became confused with “belief”. Faith is connected to the meaning of “intent”, while belief is connected to the meaning of “will”.

To digress a bit, those things we call “belief” and “will” are reflections in the mirror, images on the surface of the bubble of perception, of something more fundamental than themselves — the undercurrents of faith and intent (or intentionality). This is beginning to dawn on us, finally, which is why we now attempt to distinguish between “Self” and “Ego”.

And there is not much difference between the “leap into the abyss” and Nietzsche’s “stare into the abyss”. Both represent self-annihilation or nihilism by another name. And the corollary to the stare into the abyss is, as Nietzsche put it, “the abyss begins to stare back into you”.

And that brings us back once again to the odd relationship between Minerva and Medusa, or Athena and the Gorgon and the paradox of the mental-rational consciousness. As Heraclitus put it in one of his famous paradoxes: “the road up and the road down are the same”, and that applies to the mental-rational too, and that’s pretty much the meaning of Nietzsche’s remark that “when you stare into the abyss, the abyss begins to stare back into you”. As we’ll see, that’s the fate and endgame of the perspective or “point-of-view” consciousness — nihilism.

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4 responses to “The Platonic Ideals: The Good, the True, the Beautiful”

  1. Don Dwiggins says :

    The title of this post reminded me of an idea that occurred to me, back when I first began to explore beyond the boundaries of materialism. I phrased it like this: “There are three fundamental ways of seeing: the spiritual, the scientific, and the artistic”. I thought that, if one could combine these ways into a harmonious whole, it would lead to a higher level of understanding — sort of an early foray into integral consciousness.

    I wasn’t particularly happy with the words, but couldn’t think of anything better. Sometime later, I noticed the parallel with the good, the true, and the beautiful (which caused a “D’oh!” moment.

    OK, so I’m willing to concede this triad is incomplete, as you said. How might we complete it? Maybe with a fourth concept, or possibly a refactoring of the three into four concepts, teasing apart something that’s conflated in the three? (In saying this, by the way, I’m very much thinking of map-making.)

    • Scott Preston says :

      Actually, you might be interested in Rudolf Steiner’s works on “the Social Question”, for he has a kind of tripartite model very much like you have described, but cast in terms of the political, the cultural, and the economic. in other words “cultural” comprises quite a bit of territory — anything having to do with the Muses.

      http://www.rudolfsteinerweb.com/Threefold_Social_Order.php

      The combination of the three realms you mention — the spiritual, the scientific, the artistic, or ethics, logics, and aesthetics — is the political. I know we don’t like that idea much, because contemporary politics is degenerate, and not fit for purpose. But Blake named politics the chief science because it was the mediator between the spheres — a higher politics, of course, than the nonsense we have to put up with today, where it is simply considered war by other means. Conviviality is the term for the integration of those spheres.

      So, in those terms we can say that the quadratic relation is ethics, logics, aesthetics and politics.

  2. davidm58 says :

    Interesting that you bring up Rudolf Steiner. Jennifer Gidley has written a very good phD thesis comparing Gebser, Steiner, and Wilber (and with a little bit of Auribindo thrown in): “The Evolution of Consciousness as a Planetary Imperative: An Integration of Integral Views”
    http://integral-review.org/documents/Gidley,%20Evolution%20of%20Consciousness%20as%20Planetary%20Imperative%205,%202007.pdf

    Also interesting is this discussion of the cultural and political…I’ll add more comment after reading your newest post on the Platonic Forms.

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