Dr. Hart’s Christ and Nothing is not encouraging me to read Plato either. If modern philosophy denounces Platonic hierarchies, then I think perhaps some proper evolution has occurred. In Christ and Nothing, Dr. Hart talks about how revolutionary Christ was in the pagan order of things.
The great Indo-European mythos, from which Western culture sprang, was chiefly one of sacrifice: it understood the cosmos as a closed system, a finite totality, within which gods and mortals alike occupied places determined by fate. And this totality was, of necessity, an economy, a cycle of creation and destruction, oscillating between order and chaos, form and indeterminacy: a great circle of feeding, preserving life through a system of transactions with death. This is the myth of “cosmos” — of the universe as a precarious equilibrium of contrary forces — which undergirded a sacral practice whose aim was to contain nature’s promiscuous violence within religion’s orderly violence. The terrible dynamism of nature had to be both resisted and controlled by rites at once apotropaic — appeasing chaos and rationalizing it within the stability of cult — and economic — recuperating its sacrificial expenditures in the form of divine favor, a numinous power reinforcing the regime that sacrifice served. And this regime was, naturally, a fixed hierarchy of social power, atop which stood the gods, a little lower kings and nobles, and at the bottom slaves; the order of society, both divine and natural in provenance, was a fixed and yet somehow fragile “hierarchy within totality” that had to be preserved against the forces that surrounded it, while yet drawing on those forces for its spiritual sustenance. Gods and mortals were bound together by necessity; we fed the gods, who required our sacrifices, and they preserved us from the forces they personified and granted us some measure of their power. There was, surely, an ineradicable nihilism in such an economy: a tragic resignation before fate, followed by a prudential act of cultic salvage, for the sake of social and cosmic stability.
[…]This is true even of Platonism, with its inextirpable dualism, its dialectic of change and the changeless (or of limit and the infinite), and its equation of truth with eidetic abstraction; the world, for all its beauty, is the realm of fallen vision, separated by a great chorismos from the realm of immutable reality.
It is true of Aristotle too: the dialectic of act and potency that, for sublunary beings, is inseparable from decay and death, or the scale of essences by which all things — especially various classes of persons — are assigned their places in the natural and social order. Stoicism offers an obvious example: a vision of the universe as a fated, eternally repeated divine and cosmic history, a world in which finite forms must constantly perish simply in order to make room for others, and which in its entirety is always consumed in a final ecpyrosis (which makes a sacrificial pyre, so to speak, of the whole universe). And Neoplatonism furnishes the most poignant example, inasmuch as its monism merely inverts earlier Platonism’s dualism and only magnifies the melancholy. Not only is the mutable world separated from its divine principle — the One — by intervals of emanation that descend in ever greater alienation from their source, but because the highest truth is the secret identity between the human mind and the One, the labor of philosophy is one of escape: all multiplicity, change, particularity, every feature of the living world, is not only accidental to this formless identity, but a kind of falsehood, and to recover the truth that dwells within, one must detach oneself from what lies without, including the sundry incidentals of one’s individual existence; truth is oblivion of the flesh, a pure nothingness, to attain which one must sacrifice the world.
Granted, some of these concepts can be translated or corrected into a Christian view, but I don’t think a pagan would have done that for himself.
It is worth asking ourselves what this tableau, viewed from the vantage of pagan antiquity, would have meant. A man of noble birth, representing the power of Rome, endowed with authority over life and death, confronted by a barbarous colonial of no name or estate, a slave of the empire, beaten, robed in purple, crowned with thorns, insanely invoking an otherworldly kingdom and some esoteric truth, unaware of either his absurdity or his judge’s eminence. Who could have doubted where, between these two, the truth of things was to be found? But the Gospel is written in the light of the resurrection, which reverses the meaning of this scene entirely. If God’s truth is in fact to be found where Christ stands, the mockery visited on him redounds instead upon the emperor, all of whose regal finery, when set beside the majesty of the servile shape in which God reveals Himself, shows itself to be just so many rags and briars.
This slave is the Father’s eternal Word, whom God has vindicated, and so ten thousand immemorial certainties are unveiled as lies: the first become last, the mighty are put down from their seats and the lowly exalted, the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent empty away.
Since my background with the pre-Christian world is mostly in the Old Testament, I do not think that the pagan order was a universal view. There were coups of power all the time, like that of the younger sons, Seth, Jacob, and Joseph, the Hebrew slave, Moses, thwarting Egypt, pagan Ruth being the great-grandmother of King David, who supplanted his birth order and Jonathan’s right to the throne. It seems Israel was influenced at times by their pagan neighbors, but God brought about cleansings of the idols and admonitions against the wrong attitude of offering sacrifices, (like Psalm 50/51). Many Jews did not recognize Christ, but they were not the ones who followed their own tradition in spirit and in truth. Many Jews did, and they were the first converts. I get the idea that the OT people I mention above would have. In other words, types of Christ had existed throughout all time, even though a minority may have recognized them.
I am also pondering what would have happened if Greek (Athens) had not been the language of the Early Church. Since the Jews (Jerusalem) rejected Christ and the early Church did not continue in Hebrew, we will never know. However we still have the Old Testament which was decidedly Hebrew, the Septuagint Greek’s translation notwithstanding. I have read a little about how Hebrew storytelling is metaphorical and pictoral. Being mostly a concrete thinker I identify with Christ as Shepherd, the Lamb of God, the Rock of Ages. I also believe that there are enough references to the Old Testament in the services and Church Fathers to keep that imagery and method alive (maybe a friendship between this method and the idea of forms and analogeia entis can be made, which I may explore later). The Church Fathers, starting with St. Paul on Mars Hill, apparently did not inact a dialectical antagonism between the two in practice, at least not to the point of cleansing the language references of either one, Tertullian’s and Justin Martyr’s differences of opinion notwithstanding.