Adventism and Plato, at first glance, have nothing in common. They seemingly represent antithetical and opposite conceptions about the world and life. Adventism from its inception has been conceived as following the faith-based biblical model. It has made concreteness and Puritan pragmatism its main focus, has always aimed at a non-dualistic understanding of human beings, and above all, has criticized—as the major theological/cultural perversion of our times—belief in the immortality of the soul. Conversely, Plato follows reason as the essential criterion for orientation in life. He makes the world of ideas the best and only realm to manifest reality, and he contrasts this with the illusory and grossness of the visible and material world. But above all, Plato introduces the concept of immortality of the soul, not only as an appreciation of what is unseen or as the perpetuity of human identity, but most importantly, as a defense of human spiritual dignity and its permanent intrinsic value.
The modern world has by and large broken with Plato because it contrasts his radical dualism with a new scientific-materialist monism. The classical Platonic idealism was an "objective idealism" in the sense that it does not make ideas dependent on the knowing subject. So, it is in contrast with what we might call "subjective idealism," which is characterized by the dependence of ideas on the knowing subject. This is why modern idealism is constructivist and pragmatic while Platonic idealism is a contemplative, intuitive idealism that makes no recourse to any mediation.
But, as often happens in the history of contrasting and opposing ideas and movements, between Adventism and Plato there is a great element of continuity, given by an obsession with order. Let’s start, for this comparison, with a summary reading of The Republic, Plato’s major work in his maturity, organized into 10 books, written around the year 370 BCE. The work revolves around the theme of justice, although the text also contains a multitude of other Platonic theories, such as the allegorical myth of the cave, the doctrine of ideas, and the project of an ideal city, governed according to philosophical principles and by philosophers themselves. Consider two central axes of the book, embodied in its political theory and anthropology, in the context of a defense of Athenian democracy trying to restart after the Peloponnesian War and the trial and death of Socrates.
1. The Temptation of Kallipolis
Kalli-polis means “beautiful-city” in Greek and represents the ordered ideal city in Plato’s The Republic. This city is where justice reigns. But for Plato, justice is order. Thus, Kallipolis is a metaphor for order, proportion, and harmony. Arriving at this is not easy, however, because there are refined but mistaken ideas about justice, such as the one defended by Thrasymachus, who considers that justice is the profit of the stronger. Or the idea proposed by Glaucon, for those who believe that justice consists in defending one's own interests. No, justice is not defined in personal, individualistic terms. Plato's classical understanding is that justice is distributive justice, whereby each person is assured of getting that which corresponds to him or her. And he defends it, not in an ethical but a political manner. Everything must serve harmony, correspondence, and order in the city. Justice is this path to order. To "each to his own." However, it can easily and quickly become "each to his place." Order requires predictability. To these effects, Plato divides the citizens into three classes/functions: 1) the artisans, the lowest class with the goal of working and procuring material goods, 2) the guardians (phýlakes), who instead are to protect the state, and finally, 3) the rulers or philosophers (árchontes), the only ones who can govern the state with morose wisdom.
Adventism, which from the very beginning cultivated a passion and a true ministry for order, does not support a fixed division of roles within communities like the one proposed by Plato. But, in Adventism, the spirit and focus of order have not only become an obsession but, more importantly, aim to make roles and people completely predictable. Plato would not use this term, as it smacks of manipulation, so he uses more acceptable synonyms, such as moral and ethical "trustworthiness." Adventist ecclesiology, for all intents and purposes, follows the model of the Platonic "Kallipolis," with the difference that it is not "theologians" (Plato's philosophers) who rule but "Phylakes" (gatekeepers). These are the technical bureaucrats placed in the most important positions of the church community structure. This, for Plato himself, would have been an abomination and a clear cultural regression.
2. The Temptation of “Right Ideas” (Orthodoxy)
Plato in The Republic not only separates citizens into three classes but links this differentiation to a prior anthropological division. The city would only be an extension of this more fundamental model. In the architecture of this anthropology of order, we find in the lowest rung "the concupiscible soul," eager for material experiences, pursuing only instincts and subduing reason. This soul finds bodily rooting in the belly. In the middle step, we find "the disdainful soul," which is outraged by injustice and pursues justice. Nevertheless, even this part is not entirely rational or lucid. It finds its bodily location in the chest. Finally, we have, at the apex of the anthropological ladder, the rational soul, which sees the prevalence of reason over the rest and should direct the other two parts toward the true goal of justice. Platonic anthropology, with the rational soul as the apex, is a typical anthropological order, which at best directs the unpredictable and centrifugal instincts of the human toward reason, and at worst simply does not even perceive them.
With these three souls described by Plato, the classical and later Christian tradition correlated three essential virtues. These are the so-called “cardinal virtues”: 1) temperance, 2) fortitude, and 3) prudence, all three under the aegis of 4) justice. These four are added to three theological virtues (faith, hope, love), and have represented, for Christians in the Middle Ages and beyond, the ethical model to be followed.
Adventism definitely breaks with Plato's anthropological dualism. Yet a certain theological-cultural naivete and superficiality prevent Adventism from seeing that problems and challenges are always of two opposing signs: by deficit and by excess. Dualism is recomposed by a unified view of human beings as Adventist anthropological holism does. But if one sins, not by dualism but by monolithism, the holistic unitary view not only does not provide a corrective but actually makes it worse. The excessive weight given to "reflective reason" in Plato, and to "practical reason" in Adventism, detaches it from emotions, feelings, and intuition. In Plato as in Adventism, we are thus faced with a reductive and one-sided anthropology, one of rational order. "Orthodoxy of ideas" is not followed, in either case, by a curative "orthopathy of feelings." In actuality, it is feelings and emotions, when they are there, that create a healthy "disorder." And this can preserve life from mechanization and rut. Instead, such beneficial dis-order, which creates and enables life, is regarded by the ethics and anthropologies of order as the number one enemy to be put down, thus erasing the element that guarantees life in its uniqueness and flourishing.
The Platonic political and anthropological model was enormously successful, not only in the Middle Ages but still today in certain areas. But modern ethics and societies have actually made the problem worse. The Platonic model was a dualism, which—while denigrating matter—still acknowledged its own mystery. Conversely, modern pragmatism (secular or religious) has made life and reality a mere calculation. So today we are dealing with a "disenchanted order," a mechanical order from which we find it difficult to detach ourselves.
One of the great critics of Plato and his politics of order is Karl Popper. He calls that Platonic order by another name: "totalitarianism." In fact, his book The Open Society and Its Enemies is a manifesto against all forms of totalitarianism. Popper considers Henri Bergson's distinction between open and closed societies in order to highlight the sharp distinction between democracy and totalitarianism. The closed society is one organized according to rigid norms of behavior, and it provides for the suffocating control of the collective over the individual. The closed society is the expression of totalitarianism, which—in the name of the purity of truth—is ready to sacrifice the individual.
But the open society is founded on safeguarding the freedom of its members through self-correcting democratic institutions that are open to rational criticism and proposals for reform.
Democracy is traditionally defined as government by the people, but the definition is not satisfactory to Popper: democracy is identified with the ability on the part of the governed to control the rulers through a set of strategic institutions that can allow the dismissal of rulers without resorting to violence. Popper believes, then, that the question of who should rule between capitalists and workers is silly because the right question is: how can we organize political institutions in a way that prevents bad or incompetent rulers from doing too much damage?
But Popper’s contribution is double. He speaks against “totalitarianism” on a political level but also against “dogmatism” when he criticizes the induction principle on a scientific level. Totalitarianism as a political event is not detached from cultural dogmatism, in the sense that both express typical forms of rigidity, closure, and obsession with “order.” Politics and epistemology, as much as theology and administration, are more interdependent than what we usually believe. This is also Popper’s cultural lesson for Adventism today.
Adventism certainly does not have its own political theory. However, it implicitly works with a model very close to the Platonic model. A political model of "order" is not implemented outside the church simply because it does not have the means to impose it. The church only limits itself to applying and implementing it inside the church, with disastrous results in terms of pluralism, creativity, personal maturation, and satisfaction—and in terms of a theological point of view with the reinforcement of a hermeneutical, ecclesiological, and missiological reductivism. There are those who destroy with "disorder and anarchy," and there are those who do so with "order and programming." Kallipolis has always been a great temptation. It still is today.
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.
Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.
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