Plato’s Meno and Phaedo and the preexistence

I am currently taking a class entitled Innateness: The nature vs nurture controversy which is a pretty fascinating philosophy course on the topic of what is human nature. I will be blogging about topics relating to that class for sure. We began the class by reading the Meno and Phaedo by Plato, two works concerned with the question of what is knowledge and how we acquire it. I found these works striking because of some unique overlaps with our concept of a pre-existence, but also with some core differences.

In Plato’s works, Socrates argues that all of our knowledge is not something learned, but merely something recollected. In the Meno he uses the example of a slave that has never learned mathematic principles discovering them for himself as he is asked somewhat leading questions. He concludes that that slaves knowledge must be ingrained in his soul and remembered throughout life.

S: If he has not acquired them in his present life, isn’t it clear that he had them and learned them at some other time?

M: It seems so.

S: Then that must have been the time before he was a human being?

M: Yes.

S: If, then, there must exist in him – both while he is and while he is not a human being – true opinions which can be stirred up into knowledge by questioning, won’t it have to be the case that his soul had in it all this knowledge, all along? For it’s clear that throughout all time he either was or was not a human being.

M: So it would seem.

S: And if the truth about reality is always in our soul, the soul must be immortal. And therefore you should take heart and seek out and recollect what you do not presently know – that is, what you cannot presently remember?

Socrates suggests something that seems very consistent with the LDS tradition, namely the view that individuals are born with an innate sense of right or wrong as well as of such concepts as justice

“And if we acquired this knowledge before we were born, and were born having it, then we also knew before we were born and at the instant of birth not only equal or the greater or the less, but all other ideas; for we are not speaking only of equality absolute, but of beauty, goodness, justice, holiness, and all which we stamp with the name of essence in the dialectical process, when we ask and answer questions. Of all this we may certainly affirm that we acquired the knowledge before birth?”

This seems quite similar in many ways to d&c 93

“29 Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
30 All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.
31 Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light.”

Interestingly, part of argumentation that led Joseph Smith to affirm the notion of Pre-existence also relied on a very similar strain of argumentation as that employed by plato (King Follett Discourse)

“The intelligence of spirits had not beginning, neither will it have an end. That is good logic. That which has a beginning may have an end. There never was a time when there were not spirits; for they are co-equal [co-eternal] with our Father in heaven.”

Thus, it is clear that there are some extreme similarities between the views expressed by Joseph Smith and that advanced in Plato’s dialogues. Still there are some stark differences.

First of all, Plato/Socrates is concerned with the idea of ideal forms. Thus, he believes that everything that exists in this world is but a derivative of some more perfect ideal form.

But the true earth is pure (katharan) and situated in the pure heaven (en katharōi ouranōi) … and it is the heaven which is commonly spoken by us as the ether (aithera) … for if any man could arrive at the extreme limit … he would acknowledge that this other world was the place of the true heaven (ho alethōs ouranos) and the true light (to alethinon phōs) and the true earth (hē hōs alēthōs gē).

This does not seem wholly consistent with our idea of actual perfectibility. In our view, a perfect us has never existed before and does not exist separate from us, for instance. The process of growth and discovery is very real and meaningful. We are actual transforming what is central or core to us ( our intelligence) through the process of living and growing.

This is no where better exemplified than the oft quoted cuplet “As Man is God once was, As God is man may become.” In its most extreme form, this idea is in open contrast to the idea that all of our experience is merely recollection. We may have given up a lot of knowledge to pass through the veil, and much of what we know may be rooted in our interaction with the light of christ, but ultimately there is something actually transformative about our experiences in this life. Socrates in these works does not seem to do too much to imagine or explain the purpose for this physical/material life, and indeed it does not seem like he can offer a coherent response here. We can instead turn to our knowledge that a physical bodily experience and our process of recollecting truth as well as discovering new revelation and insight actually helps to build us up in a way that a life devoid of experience can not do.

I ultimately think that Plato’s work on pre-existence poses an interesting challenge for our relationship with greek philosophy. Many Christian anti-mormon writers have commented on how our ideas of the pre-existence seem totally rooted in greek philosophy rather than biblical thought. Of course, I would disagree with this based on my understanding of Genesis One and accounts of creation as well as verses that hint at the divine council, but these challenges still raise an interesting question in regard to how exactly we can conceptualize our place in relationship to greek philosophy. Was the philosophy a source of apostasy, a potential source of inspired knowledge or something else entirely? These are fascinating questions that deserve significant attention

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