Some distance from the land of the Hebrews, and some centuries before the foundation of Holy Church, Plato anticipated many of her teachings. He seems privy to mysteries much deeper than those known to the pagan Greek religion – itself not contemptible.
We turn to him for insight, not doctrine. We require what I would call a certain Socratic aloofness to make sense of him. He creates the most elaborate models in the reader’s mind, in order to present his ideas; and that reader may easily fall into mistaking his models for the ideas they represent.
Hence, the condemnation of Plato, sometimes as a “heretic,” which given his time and place he could not possibly be.
The great genius Origen, who came after Christ, but not so long after, is similarly condemned: for he is sometimes unorthodox. But what was orthodox had not yet been quite established from out of the deposit of our faith. Origen himself bows humbly before the ultimate authority of Holy Church, through which this orthodoxy will emerge – in significant part because of the light which has been cast on ultimate questions by such as Origen.
This is a light that still shines, and can be used still to approach the most high and most holy – again, with that spirit of Socratic aloofness. Origen writes not falsely but truthfully, yet incompletely. He does not intend incompleteness.
Hence, too, the modern (or I would say, “post-modern”) tendency to read and condemn Plato as a totalitarian politician. He has often been convicted, through The Republic and The Laws, of proposing a dirigiste, utopian order for this world, when that cannot have been his intention. For these are philosophical works of art.
In the absence of Socratic aloofness, or shall we say Platonic irony, we eliminate that which is of real and permanent value: profound insight into human nature and the human order. Men are in need, in desperate need, of guidance. They will not find a worthy way of life by laissez-faire. Wisdom will require of them humility and obedience. Nor must that love of wisdom (“philosophy” is the word) be absent from those who rule: for they, too, must look upward, in humility and obedience.
For instance, an immensely foolish book by the sincere but literal-minded Karl Popper (The Open Society and its Enemies) presented Plato as the “historicist” ancestor of Hegel, Marx, and Lenin. It turns Plato upside down.
The Catholic Church is unusual, among the religions of mankind, for the emphasis, even the reliance she has placed, on the arts, including philosophy. Plato was the ancient exponent of “education through art.” The Church through twenty centuries has put this into practice.
She has always decorated her churches, with art, poetry, music of the highest quality, intended to expound her truths; she has decorated her monasteries with philosophical inquiry; she has been open to instruction even while instructing. She has herself been taught, repeatedly, by saints, and too by the artists and thinkers who have gone beyond mere words, reconstructing again and again her Gloria – the very substance of religion most easily lost in the mire of this world.
These thoughts are occasioned by a lithograph after a painting by Georges Braque, entitled L’oiseau et son nid (“The bird and its nest”). The original painting dominated Braque’s studio at Varengeville. He would set it up on a tall easel that had belonged to his father. He even carried it with him when he travelled away from his studio.
Braque is associated with Picasso in the public mind, as co-inventors of “cubism.” But they were radically opposed in their intentions. Just how opposite, might be conveyed by an anecdote from Picasso’s studio at Vallauris, where for self-inspiration Picasso kept a giant, “heroic” photograph of his own head — one copy by his bed so he would see it first thing every morning; another overlooking his work space.
It was one of the tragedies of the twentieth century that perhaps its greatest painter — for Picasso was arguably the most talented draughtsman since Rubens — worshipped himself as his god.
He was untypical in that respect. The great modern artists we associate with the School of Paris – Matisse, Roualt, Kandinsky, Chagall, Giacometti are the first five names that come to my mind – were almost to a man what we would call today “religious nutjobs.” Most were in fact very earnest Roman Catholics.
I think of an abstract painting by Alfred Manessier, executed in the year of my birth: Paysage aérien (1953). I have a photograph of it hanging on a wall in his home. His family are gathered at a table beneath it. Above the painting, the artist has placed a crucifix.
One thinks of the decoration of the chapel at Vence, among the genuinely heroic late works by Matisse. He was very old, and ill; like Michelangelo before him, he would not be deflected.
But of this grand oiseau of Braque, what is its meaning?
When asked by the fine American photographer Alexander Liberman, to explain its hypnotic power, Braque said only, “It is as if one heard the fluttering of wings.”
Persisting in his inquiry, Liberman extracted more than this. Plato is quoted: “The soul … when perfect and fully winged, soars upward.” It is purified. The bird in its flight is symbolic, as the dove, of the Holy Ghost.
Not that “peace dove” of Picasso’s, which became iconic through a thousand posters, and was used as symbol by innumerable Communist front organizations, for unambiguously material political causes. For that dove is flatly heraldic; it does not flutter. It is flourished smugly, like the silkscreen from Korda’s famous photo of Che Guevara – exalting the psychopath as revolutionary hero.
Art, philosophy, may be used to guide men upward, towards God; or downward into the gutter of politics and “humanist” dystopias. Magnificent talents will be used for good or ill. If the Church is not the primary patron of art, the devil will be.