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The Platonic Ladder

Clouds with light aboveNot everyone who stumbles upon Critical Pages is familiar with the Platonic Ladder which we mentioned in an earlier post. That’s been made clear to us. Thank you, all.

The Platonic Ladder is one of Plato’s cool concepts. You can read about it in his Symposium, but to make life easier we’ll give you a brief summary along with some quotes from Plato himself.

Plato tells us that we can and should begin by loving “the beauties of the body.”  We’ll  skip what beautiful bodies Plato had in mind.  The important thing  is that loving a beautiful body is natural and easy to do. It’s the lowest rung on the ladder.

To get to the second rung you “must consider how nearly related the beauty of any one body is to the beauty of any other.” Soon, says Plato, you will “be the lover of every lovely body.” You do this, says Plato, in order to see that the single body you loved first isn’t all that unique.

Frankly, we at Critical Pages have our doubts about that second rung. But let’s continue up the ladder.  You “must grasp that the beauties of the body are as nothing to the beauties of the soul.” (Maybe you can see what we’re climbing toward.) The person who continues to climb upward, “wherever he meets with spiritual loveliness, even in the husk of an unlovely body, he will find it beautiful enough to fall in love with and to cherish.” Soon the climber will discover that “every kind of beauty is akin to every other, and he will conclude that the beauty of the body is not, after all, of so great moment.”

That’s a big achievement, because at that point you’ll see the beauty in many things, even in institutions and abstractions like, say, human rights and justice. (Plato doesn’t actually say human rights and justice, but that’s close enough.) To quote him again, “Starting from individual beauties, the quest for the universal beauty must find him ever mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung–that is, from one to two, and from two to every lovely body, from bodily beauty to the beauty of institutions, from institutions to learning, and from learning in general to the special lore that pertains to nothing but the beautiful itself–until at last he comes to know what beauty is.”

That’s how it goes upward. You start by a natural love for the beauties of flesh and end up loving pure beauty, truth and goodness. That’s the Platonic Ladder. We’ve tried climbing it many times. And it’s good to try, even if you get no further than the first or second rung.

The Puritans Arrive at Plimouth

MayflowerThe best text we can find in regard to the Thanksgiving season is this perhaps familiar one written by Governor William Bradford in his history, Of Plimouth Plantation. The Puritans, or Pilgrims as they’re often called,  had a very hard time after reaching these shores.  Bradford’s wife Dorothy died while the Mayflower was at anchor in Provincetown Harbor, and by the end of the first winter half the colonists had perished. It was a season of death. William Bradford’s account, though written simply and intended merely as a record, reaches a spare beauty, the same beauty that we find in the Puritans’ plain, sparsely furnished meeting houses and churches.  Here is an excerpt describing their plight as they set foot in this land. The spelling follows the original.

But hear I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amased at this poore peoples presente condition; and so I thinke will the reader too, when he well considera the same. Being thus passed ye vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembred by yt which wente before), they had now no freinds to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure. It is recorded in scripture as a mercie to ye apostle & his shipwraked company, yt the barbarians shewed them no smale kindnes in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they mette with them (as after will appeare) were readier to fill their sids full of arrows then otherwise. And for ye season it was winter, and they that know ye winters of yt cuntrie know them to be sharp & violent, & subjecte to cruell & feirce stormes, deangerous to travill to known places, much more to serch an unknown coast. Besids, what could they see but a hidious & desolate wildernes, full of wild beasts & willd men? and what multituds ther might be of them they knew not. Nether could they, as it were, goe up to ye tope of Pisgah, to vew from this willdernes a more goodly cuntrie to feed their hops; for which way soever they turnd their eys (save upward to ye heavens) they could have litle solace or content in respecte of any outward objects. For sumer being done, all things stand upon them with a wetherbeaten face; and ye whole countrie, full of woods & thickets, represented a wild & savage heiw. If they looked behind them, ther was ye mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a maine barr & goulfe to seperate them from all ye civill parts of ye world.

The painting of the Mayflower that we’ve posted above is an imaginative work by the 19th century painter William Halsall.  The painting is evocative, but wholly inaccurate.  The Mayflower was a frighteningly small ship about half the size of the grand vessel portrayed here.  To get a sense of how small it was, you might visit Plimouth Plantation  in Massachusetts and go aboard the replica of the  Mayflower that rides at anchor there. The image below is the opening page of William Bradford’s Of Plimouth Plantation as written by is own hand. Plimouth Plantation by William BradfordOnce you gain familiarity with the old script, its spelling and its scribal patterns (“ye” is written with the e placed above the y, and the letters I and J are written alike)  you’ll be able to read Plimouth Plantation And first of the occasion and inducements thereunto; the which that I may truly unfould, I must begine at the very roote and rise of the same. The which I shall endevor to manefest in a plaine stile, with singuler regard unto the simple trueth in all things, at least as near as my slender judgmente can attaine the same.

November and Jupiter

November is a month that starts off rather well — misty soft mornings, blue noontime skies, brightly colored autumn leaves, and a cool clean feeling in the air — but it ends badly with leafless trees, gray skies and freezing rain.

Planet Jupiter

The Planet Jupiter

In addition, this November we have a national recession, an unemployment rate that averages over 8 percent, bankers who want to charge you for access to your own money, and half a dozen argumentative Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for the presidency. So we’re turning our attention to the night-time sky. It’s far less depressing.

The brightest star in this November’s night isn’t a star. It’s the planet Jupiter. Jupiter is the fifth planet from the sun, our Earth is the third, and as the planets revolve around the sun there come times when we’re between the sun and Jupiter and the sunlight reflected at us from that planet is remarkably bright. This November is one of those times.

Jupiter was named after the Roman king of the gods. Yes, yes, we know you knew that. But did you know the name Jupiter derives from Iove and pater, meaning father Jove? OK, maybe you knew that too, if you remembered your Latin. In any case, this king of the gods planet is not only big (and by big we mean it’s more massive than all the other planets combined) it’s also composed mostly of gas. Frankly, we think it’s fitting that the giant king of the gods turns out to be a gas ball.  (OK, maybe we’re more depressed about politics than we knew. )

Jupiter has a lot of moons. Jupiter was an amorous god and astronomers began naming the moons after those he wooed* [That’s an asterisk, indicating a footnote.]  Now, that might strike you as sexist — Jupiter encircled by his sexual conquests.  If there were more women astronomers, maybe the moons would be named after his children. No matter how many satellites they discover around Jupiter, they won’t run out of names if they choose from among his offspring.

Speaking of names, the name Jupiter was given to the day of the week in Latin that we English speakers call Thursday. That’s why countries whose language derives from Latin, the Romance language nations, call it giovedi (Italian) or jeudi (French) or jueves(Spanish) and so on. Old English, deriving from Anglo-Saxon, imported the Northern god Thor, hence Thursday.  I think we can leave this topic now.

Ganymede by Rubens

Ganymede by Rubens

*We’re being prissy polite when we use the word woo here. And we’re hiding something when we say “those he loved.”  One of the moons is named after Ganymede, a male youth whom Homer called the most beautiful mortal. In fact, Ganymede was so beautiful that Zeus/Jupiter abducted him to serve as cup bearer to the gods on Olympus, where he also served as sexual consort to the  king of the gods.  On the right is Rubens’ painting of Ganymede being abducted by Zeus who’s taken the form of an eagle. The word catamite is derived from the name Ganymede.  You knew that, right?


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The fellow pictured here with the open book is Saint Augustine. Augustine is generally portrayed with a book, perhaps because of the mystical words that inspired his conversion to Christianity, “Take up and read; Take up and read.” Or maybe because of his influential written works. This is the earliest known image of Augustine, a 6th century mural from the Lateran in Rome. In reading his autobiography,The Confessions of Saint Augustine, you may find him a not altogether loveable guy, but certainly one of the most original and influential philosophers. His speculations on time and memory could have been written today.  We chose this picture simply because we like the phrase “Take up and read.”  Of course there’s that other phrase, a prayer, that Augustine himself spoke:  “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet” (da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo).  Maybe we should be careful what we pray for.

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.