Friday, March 24, 2017

Berkeley, Origen, Plato, and Death by George A Gordon 1893

Berkeley, Origen, Plato, and Death by George A Gordon 1893

[In discussing Death and Immortality we] come now to Bishop [George] Berkeley, the most fascinating and inspiring of all philosophers since (Plato, — one whose mind was as great as it was beautiful, whose intelligence and character were indeed a spiritual splendor. He was born in 1685, and died in 1753. His life therefore began seven years earlier, and lasted one year longer, than Butler's. This great and beautiful spirit confronted the problems of his age, the problems of humanity, with a consciousness of insight and power that is still exhilarating. He put a meaning upon the external world that later thinkers have enlarged, but that no one has changed. Berkeley's great question lies here: What does the external world mean? That there is a world beyond us we do not doubt; certainly Berkeley never did. He simply wants to know its meaning. He sees no sense in believing that dead matter can have access to or impress a living mind. If there is to be communion between nature and man, there must be some kinship between them. What does the world of color mean,— the beauty of the morning, the glory of evening, the blue of the sky and sea, the hues of the flower below and the rainbow above? What does the world of sound import, — the rush of the tempest, the roll of the thunder, the song of the brook and the bird, and the voice of man? What do the worlds of touch and taste and smell signify? Vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell tell me of a world beyond me, a world that gives me sensational life, that imparts it in ways that are fixed and orderly. And since I know of no power other than spiritual, it is the Infinite Spirit who, according to his own plan, makes this ceaseless and enriching address through sense to my mind. The world means nothing more than sensations given according to invariable laws, under fixed conditions, and by the immediate volition of God, to the percipient and rational spirit of man. Sensational life is in its nature perishable, and were it not perpetually renewed, it would exist only as a reminiscence. The world of possible sensation is kept in existence by the never-ceasing exertion of Almighty God. On the other hand, spirit is active, unchanging, permanent; decay, variation, dissolution, is utterly foreign to its nature. The soul is a simple, uncompounded substance, and is therefore naturally immortal.

Berkeley's argument is thus the result of his analysis of the world. In the supreme fact of knowledge two things are to be noted, the mind that knows and the object known. Berkeley has told us what he understands by the object known: that it is the world of possible sensation; that it is a perishable world, forever renewed in the mind of mankind by the Infinite Spirit. The knowing mind presents here an absolute contrast to the thing known. It is as the active to the passive, the permanent to the fleeting, the immortal to the perishable. Here indeed the active principle that I call my soul is joined to the passive principle that I call my body. Death is but the separation of this active and passive, this non-mortal and perishable. In another world God will give the soul a body as it shall please Him, and reach its thought by other forms of the Divine address, and by other laws of his self-revealing life. Berkeley's argument is good to the extent that there is in death no hint of the decay of spirit. We have upon this ground of the undecaying soul a vast hope, and we know of nothing to contradict it.

Berkeley's philosophy is very beautiful, and there was never a man more completely identified with his thought. The outward order was to him the ceaseless speech of God to his heart; and the order into which he was led by his non-sensuous spirit was indubitably real and ever present. Truth was sublime, and it was accessible far into the heart of it. In that high confidence and spiritual passion Berkeley lived and died. To his masterful intellect atheism was a wretched absurdity, and the notion of the mortality of the soul one of brutal stupidity. His life kept its fine enthusiasm to the last, tempered and ennobled by a deepening sense of the awful beauty of God. Gracious in youth, a knight in self-sacrifice through his years of strength, kingly in the repose of spirit that characterized his last days, his death was but the coronation of his life. On the evening of Sunday, the 14th of January, 1753, Berkeley was resting on a couch in his own house on Holywell Street, Oxford, surrounded by his family. His wife had been reading from the burial service in the Prayer Book part of the fifteenth chapter of first Corinthians, and he had been making remarks upon that great chapter. Soon after, his daughter went to offer him a cup of tea, and, as his biographer remarks, "she found him as it seemed asleep, but his body was already cold; for it was the last sleep, the mystery of death; and the world of the senses had suddenly ceased to be a medium of intercourse between his spirit and those who remained." Death was but the language of sense now in disuse, and this strong and beautiful soul literally had his conversation in heaven through some form of address still more refined, adequate, and wonderful.

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Origen, perhaps the greatest intellect in the Christian church after the apostle Paul, should at least be mentioned in connection with our subject. He stood for natural as opposed to conditional immortality. Besides, he elaborated an interpretation of man's life which, if it has been rejected by the church in general, and scorned by the long line of orthodox theologians, is yet, for reach of intellect, for breadth of view, for grandeur and sweep of thought, the admiration and amazement of all scholars. So recent and competent a judge as the late Dr. Edwin Hatch regards Origen's interpretation of man's life as unsurpassed for logical coherence in the whole history of Christian thinking.

According to Origen, death has no power over the soul. It existed before time in the invisible and intellectual world; it is of the same order as the heavenly spirits, and is kindred in essence to God. Freedom is its grand characteristic, involving the possibility of alienation from God. In the intellectual world, before the creation of this material order, a host of spirits turned away from the eternal good. They cannot die, and must not remain in utter and everlasting loss. They must be redeemed through suffering. Thus the material order is brought into being, and the unfaithful souls are sent into time, invested with bodies, assigned their places in life according to the demands of their divine discipline.

This life, and part of the future if need be, is a prison house, an expiation. By all these plagues of time God would purify and bring back his immortal children; by this discipline, severe but kind, God will finally overcome the evil will, and lead on up through an infinite stairway of worlds all lost spirits into complete holiness and blessedness, through communion with himself now become fixed and immutable. Origen's idea of the soul reaches back into the past eternity, and on into the endless future. It begins with all spirits in happy communion with God; but that communion in which God is all and in all is broken through disloyalty before time began. Now comes the creation of this sensuous world, and the advent of man upon this earth, and his education through experience. This education goes on from world to world, in an ascending series; but at the far-off end the broken communion is restored, the fallen spirits are redeemed, the self-alienated souls brought back with all their sin and suffering, shaped into new wealth and joy, into a communion with God that can no more be broken, and in which, forever and unchangeably, God shall be all and in all.

This scheme has never been adopted as a whole. But standing in the presence of the mystery of life, feeling the certainty of God's existence, and the unfathomed reach and significance of the human spirit, the vast coherent scheme of this philosophical theologian becomes impressive indeed, and assumes a grandeur that forbids us to treat it lightly. It seems to most men a fairytale to assert the preexistence of souls. One passage still survives from the loss of the bulk of Origen's works in which he hints at the proof of this dream. All knowledge is but recognition; the classifications of things, of flowers and hills and trees and streams, of beast and bird and man, are made according to the types of these things which are eternal in the heavens, and which men beheld in their preexistent state. That answer may not have literal truth, but it does give the substance of things. Origen's scheme asserts the reality of the intellectual world, declares man's essential kinship with it, pronounces this "muddy vesture of decay" to be but an incident in the history of the soul, and relegates the sensuous order to its due insignificance. Few in our day will be concerned with the literal statements, but there are many who still behold in the scheme of the great Alexandrian the truth about man in a sublime parable, and who recognize beneath the forms of his speech a depth of insight and a breadth of philosophic vision unsurpassed in the thinking of mankind. When we remember that the man from whose brain it came gave his life from the age of eighteen until his death at seventy in serene self-denial, in herculean labors and adamantine loyalty to the cause of humanity, that he was a man who asserted by sweetness and undaunted courage in the midst of false accusations of brethren, and heathen persecutions, and on the horrible rack that ended his splendid career, the ascendency of soul, and proved himself a spirit wearing the nature of God, we are the more ready to consider with sympathy and discernment the scheme by which this great thinker places upon human existence an interpretation so sublime.

In ascending from Origen to Plato — the last and, all things considered, the greatest of the philosophic minds that have considered the question of life beyond death — we are but going from the disciple to the master. Plato is properly the first; but inasmuch as he still remains the richest and most resourceful of all who have sought to give rational vindication to the belief in a future life, it seems but right to reserve him as the natural close and climax of this chapter.

Plato's discussion in the "Phaedo" is much more than a set of arguments in favor of immortality. That dialogue is a consummate work of art; it is a drama, in which Plato's dying master is the chief actor. The arguments are those of Plato, and not of Socrates; still, it adds immeasurably to the charm and significance of the great discussion that the actor in the tragedy is also the chief speaker, that the one about to die is the vindicator of the deathless life.

During the considerable time that elapses between the sentence of Socrates to death and the execution, his friends and pupils gather every day for discussion upon the old themes of thought. The last day of life has come, and that morning the friends gather at the prison at sunrise. Before sunset Socrates will have gone. There is about the doomed philosopher an air of deep composure. He is facing death in cheerfulness and confident faith, and his mood is to his friends an utter mystery. They cannot understand how he does not fear to die; they ask him to explain the ground of his courage. "Did I not think," he answers, "that I should go to dwell in the company not only of gods wise and good, but next also men that have died better than those here on earth, I should be wrong in not feeling sorry at my approaching death. But, as it is, be assured that I trust to join the society not only of good men, but that I shall go to abide with God." "Socrates," said one of his friends, "surely you do not mean to depart and keep this belief to yourself, without letting us share it with you?" Thus it happens that the day between sunrise and sunset, the long and lovely Greek day, the last of Socrates in the prison, the last of the thinker with his friends, is spent in giving his reasons for the faith that is in him.

A fit atmosphere is needed for everything. The most wonderful changes may occur among the heavenly bodies, — conjunctions of planets, eclipses of the moon, the transit of glorious worlds across the disk of the sun; and if the atmosphere is wrought into cloud and tempest these sublime events are hid from human sight. Certain conditions are everywhere essential. A man cannot think at his best in the roar and push of the street. A profane man cannot blaspheme in the presence of the friend whose character he reveres. Balaam cannot curse what God has blessed. If he is to invoke evil, he must exclude from his vision Israel's goodly tents. Plato understands this as few have ever done. He knows that there is a fitting mood for the consideration of immortality; a mood of insight and rational power for the speaker, and one of appreciation and sympathy for the hearer. And so he takes the greatest man in all Greek history, in his high demeanor under an unjust sentence, in his pious confidence face to face with death, surrounded by the admiring love and tender devotion of his disciples, and makes him, in those pathetic and beautiful hours in the Athenian prison between the final morning and evening, the spokesman of his own profound faith concerning the soul.

There is among the friends and interlocutors of Socrates the fear lest the soul perish on the very day of a man's death; the fear lest, on quitting the body, the soul be dispersed and vanish, like breath or smoke, and be nowhere any more. Is the soul dispersed at death, and does it perish then?

Socrates answers first with an argument from opposites. The state of sleep results in its opposite, the state of being awake; and the state of being awake results in its opposite, the state of being asleep. There is this circle in all living things. Death and life are opposites, different states of the same being. Life passes into death as the waking being passes into the sleeping, and death passes into life as the sleeping being passes into the waking. There is a fountain of Being out of which the living come, and into which the dead return. Birth and death are simply the way out from and the way back into the Eternal Life. Plato's first argument does not meet the question of the persistence of the individual consciousness. Perhaps it was meant as a general idea and background for the arguments that were to follow. The argument closes with this fine passage: "If there were such a thing as going to sleep without any corresponding waking again generated from that which is asleep, you know that universal nature would make the famous Endymion* a mere farce, and he would be quite eclipsed, because everything else would be in the same state as himself, asleep. And so also in the same way, my dear Cebes, if everything were to die which is endowed with life, and after their death the dead things were to remain in this shape and never come back to life, isn't it absolutely necessary that everything should be at last dead, and nothing alive? What remedy could possibly be found to prevent everything being swallowed up in death?"

"Here science takes up the tale and asserts that the quantity of force in the universe is always the same. There is therefore the permanent amid the transient; there is the independent upon which to hang the dependent; there is the original behind the derivative, the eternal behind the temporal. Here is one step, one and only one, but it is a step into clearness." ~Aspects of the Infinite Mystery By George Angier Gordon

[*According to legend, Endymion was the most handsome man alive. The moon goddess Selene become thoroughly enamored by him, but knew that his mortality would make him age and one day die.  She solved her dilemma by putting upon him a spell of eternal sleep, under which he would not age and forever retain his beauty.]

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