Rafael, The School of Athens
Here are a few highlights from the history of philosophy showing an interesting variety of views regarding spiritual experience.
Heraclitus around 500 BCE wrote that the god [daimon, indwelling divine spirit] is home [ethos] for a human being. Then Parmenides around 475 BCE, wrote a poem narrating a mystical experience of being carried in a chariot driven by goddesses who pilot him through the Gate of Justice on the way to his insight: that Being is. The revelation included also the thought that Being must be and that we must not think that Being is not.
Comment. Philosophers have sometimes constructed ideas similar to a religion in some ways, but not what most people could understand or benefit from. My interpretation is that Heraclitus had a revelation of the indwelling spirit of God and that Parmenides had an intuition of God as sovereign reality. Some people dismiss “the God of the philosophers” because it does not satisfy essential soul needs for personal relationship, eternal salvation and liberation from evil. But God is real on every level, the prime example and source of all we could ever understand of energy, meaning, and spirit. When philosophers bring forth their concepts, they are fallible in how they think and how they express themselves, even as we are fallible in our interpretation of them; but sometimes they have discoveries. Sometimes a gem awaits the reader in a context of writing that is not so great. In this case, if we interpret the gem by relying too much on context, we will lose the trace of the discovery.
Socrates (469-399 BCE) was hauled into court in charges of corrupting the youth by teaching unconventional things about the gods, and even being an atheist. He defended himself in various ways. He told the story of the Delphic oracle, where the priestess said that he was the wisest man in Greece. He appealed to the widespread acknowledgement of his divine voice, the daimon—or divine sign (daimonion): this must come from God or the gods—so how could I be an atheist? And he said that the gods, by every means that they have ever communicated with mortals, had commanded him to try to wake up the Athenians from their preoccupation with material attractions and pursue truth, beauty, and goodness.
Socrates was condemned by the jury to die in prison by drinking hemlock, and he speaks with friends about reasons for belief in the immortality of soul. After the last “proof,” he finds his friends still fearful, so he tries to calm them by telling his vision of the life after death: for the “philosopher” who has purified his soul by sustained pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness, death leads to glorious realms above.
Comment. I interpret Socrates as having been very spiritually awake, even though his primary quest was intellectual.
Plato (427-347), a student of Socrates, continued this tradition of spirituality to some extent; but in his late cosmological dialogue the Timaeus Plato dropped the concept of an indwelling spirit presence, proposing instead that intellect/reason was the divine gift. In the dialogues he wrote, the primary interest is in rigorous philosophical understanding, but the reader repeatedly sees a secondary discourse weaving in and out, a religious, mythical, and poetic discourse, which some interpreters regard as a sop to the masses and others interpret as the only way Plato could convey his higher insights.
Comment. Plato’s interpretation in the Timaeus of the divine spirit gift as being reason was the crucial turn, which led off the tradition of rationalism, which has tended to dominate Western philosophy.
Aristotle (384-322) affirmed in the Metaphysics 12.7 that God is life, and his life is to think eternal truth. God is in a state which is beyond even our highest experience of contemplative thinking. In the Nicomachean Ethics 10.7, he affirms that our highest happiness comes from perfecting our intellect, the highest within us, which is either divine or the most divine within us, and we should do everything we can in order to live the divine life.
Comment. When Plato died, Aristotle said that Plato was so good that bad men should be prohibited from even praising him.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a Christian in theology and Aristotelian in philosophy, who preserved certain Platonic themes in his system, taught that we only gain knowledge by developing an intellectual understanding of what comes through the senses. Nevertheless, he indicates a certain openness to religious experience when he says that, in addition to the moral virtues such as courage, self-mastery, and prudence, and intellectual virtues such as wisdom, there are theological virtues—faith, hope, and love (caritas)—which are infused into the soul by God. He spoke of “joy in the will.”
Comment. Thomas is known for having had, a few days before his death, a huge spiritual experience, after which he remarked that the worth of his writings and for saying then, “All that I have written seems like straw compared with that which has now been revealed to me.” This remark well expresses the normal sense of radical superiority of revelation over human intellectual labor; but it should not prevent us from appreciating what is living in his work.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650), living when confidence in theological systems was crumbling, went in quest of an absolutely certain foundation for knowledge. He found the proposition “I think, I am” to be perfectly evident every time he would pronounce it or conceive it with perfect clarity and distinctness in his mind. In order for this criterion to be accepted as a guarantee of knowledge, however, it was necessary to prove the existence of God as the perfect Creator of the mind and of everything that the intellect can truly understand if it functions at its best. Descartes’ proof for the existence of God relies on a concept of God as “a certain substance that is infinite, independent, supremely intelligent and supremely powerful, and that created me along with everything else that exists.” He argued that this concept could not have come from any finite, limited source, and inherently implied a cause that could only be God himself.
Comment. Descartes may have initially been impressed by this proof because, as he thought about the idea of God, his religiously sensitive mind felt a great reality in the attributes included in the idea of God. There is a spiritual logic that connects concepts; and thanks to these connections, there are various ways in which thinkers can create paths of intellectual reasoning that express these connections. The spiritual certainty can mislead a thinker into believing that his or her intellectual reasoning is compelling.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) lived at a time when many of the intellectual elite agreed that religion had disgraced itself by involvement in wars, and needed to turn to reason and turn away from mute feelings, “enthusiasm,” and fanaticism. Kant criticized those who rely on merely an inner feeling to establish their ideas about God. Reason—moral reason—does well to regard moral laws as though they were divine commands; but this does not prove the existence of God in a theoretical sense. “A knowledge of laws, and of their morality, can scarcely be derived from any sort of feeling; still less can there be inferred or discovered from a feeling certain evidence of a direct divine influence.” If we rely on such feelings, we “open wide the gates to every kind of fanaticism, and even cause the unequivocal moral feeling to lose its dignity through affiliation with fantasy of every sort. Feeling is private to every individual.” Those sublime feelings simply reflect the feelings that the moral law arouses in a person. (Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone p.104-05).
Comment. Regarding prayer, I have argued that some parts of Kant’s philosophy could have helped him to get beyond this limited interpretation of spiritual experience. Kant’s warning is nevertheless well taken: A big problem among religious people is the tendency to think of certain of their experiences as spiritual—100 percent straight from God—when in fact those experiences are the product of the human mind or a mix of spiritual and merely human inputs.
G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1832) wrote a powerful narrative of the levels of human knowing: each one fails to be absolute, yet each one belongs essentially in the full circle of knowing. His Phenomenology of Geist (spirit, mind, culture) presents what I interpret as a reductive analysis of religion: religion is a necessary, yet misleading, step in the unfolding of mature, modern knowing—religion relies on projection, images, and a sub-philosophical mode of thinking. But when he completes the circle of his conceptual narrative, Hegel gives voice to his tremendous synthesis in terms that express spiritual experience. In the very last paragraph, each stage of knowing becomes for him a “spirit” (Geist), and he quotes Schiller: Only “from the chalice of this realm of spirits foams forth for Him his own infinitude.”
Comment: Hegel here illustrates that a person who does not believe in personal Creator God can enjoy spiritual experience. Despite the fact that the intellectual basis of this experience lacks a key principle, the achievement of mind and soul is of such magnitude that a spiritual reward floods in.
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c3/Raphael_School_of_Athens.jpg In this most famous painting of philosophers, Plato (pointing upward to ideal and invisible realities) is the old man in the center, speaking with Aristotle (pointing downward to emphasize the reality of what we can perceive). Heracleitus is front and just slightly left of center; immediately to the left of him may be Parmenides. Raphael never identified the figures.