Sunday, November 9, 2014

The modern Platonists

I want briefly to comment on this short recollection from my friend Brittany's blog:

I can remember clearly in college when my professor had each of us stand up, say our name, and what we would do if we didn't become reporters. People were saying things like "go to law school, get my PhD, start my own company, Intern for Google" and when it was my turn I stood up and said,"I would like to be a Mom." There was a moment of silence and then a few laughs...then my professor said, "but what would you like to do with you life?"

These characters supposed the thought that my friend would want to be a mother, that motherhood is what she wanted to do with her life, was laughable and not worth taking seriously. But why would they think that? What's the matter with being a mom? Why isn't that honorable?

I think this attitude is tantamount to a kind of practical Platonism. Of course, we know that the ancient Platonists thought the real self was not the body but a soul which was unfortunately housed in the body. Being in the body is unnatural for the soul; thus Porphyry writes of Plotinus as one who lived as though ashamed to be in a body. Salvation for the Platonic philosophers consisted in discovering your true identity as soul and disassociating yourself from the body by dedicating your time and efforts to the contemplation of reality. This contemplation is the true and proper activity of the soul, not tending for a sickly, mortal body.

Now the modern Platonists don't exactly have this complex Platonic soteriology. They do share one thing with the ancient Platonists, however, and that is a total disregard for the body as an essential component of our identity. Apart from this, there could be no rational justification for their dismissive attitude. Why should it be laughable and strange that a person would want to do exactly what their body is especially constructed to do? It is the grace given to women by God that they can bear children and care for them in a way that men cannot. This is something as close to them as their very bodies. Why is it laughable that a person should want to do this? The only reason to be given is that the body is no essential part of your identity.

I think modern people do think this way, even if they might not explicitly endorse such an anthropological stance. Certainly the disregard for the body is widespread. People fill themselves with drugs and drink alcohol to the point of vomiting, and they consider this fun and games, and can't wait to get together to do it again sometime soon! They work ungodly hours and don't give their bodies the rest they are aching for. These are only a couple of examples.

This attitude is a strange and unnatural one. We don't find it strange that animals of other species mate, try to take care of their young, and so on. If you listen to some persons talk, though, you'd think having kids were the worst thing to happen to a person! Somehow in the modern world, humans have begun to distinguish themselves from nature and to live as if they were beyond it, as if they weren't animals too, created with certain natural functions and ends and goals. To consider the same point from a different angle: the same persons who find it strange that a woman would make it a goal to be a mother might also be very encouraging and supportive of a man who determined that he wanted to be a mother, and all that entails.

I think much of this stems from a knee-jerk refusal of all that sounds traditional and Christian. Christianity teaches that God created a natural order of things, that it is knowable, and that it contains within itself a kind of natural normativity and teleology that ought to be followed. This conviction, as regards sexuality, is expressed in the traditional sexual ethics of the church: sex is essentially ordered to procreation (which, for God's sake, is not to say that there are no other essential elements of sex), and thus sexual activity in which the procreative function is in principle frustrated is immoral. The rejection of Christianity perhaps led to the rejection of this kind of thinking about nature and sex. Homosexuality and transsexualism, despite being rather obviously contrary to the natural order of things, are among the big issues of the day, and if you take an unfavorable stance towards such things, you could be branded a bigot comparable to the racists who did lynchings in the South in the 40s and 50s.