This is a series on my blog that has had installments few and far between. My recent posting, The Education of Hesperado, neglected to mention the books I've been adverting to in this series (though I alluded to the fact that I've read more than I implied there). For one thing, that previous posting mostly left out my college years -- six and a half total. Six of those years I spent garnering two Bachelor of Arts degrees, during which only the last two years out of the six were spent actually getting into my studies, once I realized I wanted to be a History major and then a little later also a Comparative Religions major; followed by an ever so evanescent stint as an ephemeral grad student at the Harvard Divinity School (which for reasons I won't go into here I precipitously abandoned after six months). During those years and after, I devoured all manner of books (the entire corpuses of Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme and Arthur Conan Doyle, for example; or pretty much every short story by H.E. Bates I could find; or countless books I would find adventitiously on the shelves of remote stacks in the university library), which I will not recount in detail today -- other than to add that the last habit noted parenthetically is relevant for today's notice.
Today's book from the shelf is one largely unknown except to scholars in the subspecialty of Intertestamental Studies with a focus on Gnosticism: Le dualisme chez Platon, les gnostiques et les manichéens, ("Dualism in Plato, the Gnostics, and the Manicheans"), by an obscure French historian, Simone Pétrement, published in 1967.
Previous Hesperado Book Club postings featured the following:
From Enlightenment to Revolution (1975). by Eric Voegelin (1901-1985);
Catholics and unbelievers in 18th century France (1939), by historian R.R. Palmer;
Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (1949), by Henri and Henriette Frankfort;
Geek Myths and Christian Mystery, by Catholic theologian Hugo Rahner (brother of the more famous Catholic theologian Karl Rahner), written in German in 1957 and translated into English in 1963;
Classics Revisited (followed up by More classics revisited), by the polyhistor Kenneth Rexroth in the late 1960s;
The Symbolism of Evil (1960), by Paul Ricoeur;
my essay on Dante's idea of the "dual ultimate" (duo ultima) from his treatise De monarchia;
and my extended analytical meditation on a short piece by Albert Camus, La mer au plus près ("The Sea Up Close"), published in 1954.
I was turned on to Simone Pétrement's book by a brief mention of it in a footnote in one of Eric Voegelin's books (I think it was his slender 1968 paperback, Science, Politics and Gnosticism) in which the old curmudgeon who always complained about nearly everyone noted her scholarship on the subject of Gnosticism with unalloyed approval. Once I found it at the college library and began delving into it, I was entranced by her searingly apposite instincts to find in Plato the essential core -- the paradoxical mystery of existence.
This paradox at the heart of reality may be put many ways, for its tension has many poles, all perhaps variations on a single theme. In Pétrement's studies (both the book I feature here and an article she wrote, La notion de gnosticisme ["The idea of Gnosticism"], published in Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale in 1960), perhaps the overarching poles are between what have been known in Christian history as "this world" and the "next world" (or "this life" and the "afterlife").
Pétrement often frames this as a "dualism" though she doesn't herself succumb to dualism in probing it, leaving the way open for the posture of a Bergsonian âme ouverte in its questions before the mystery. She also unfolds a respect for Plato as someone who may have been tempted by the Gnostic Answer, but who did not allow himself to be bewitched by it -- a thesis articulated in greater depth by Eric Voegelin in his chapter comparing Plato and St. Paul, in the 4th volume of his series Order and History; and more broadly in his essay, "Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme".
Overall, Pétrement demonstrates a remarkably intelligent, historically literate, and perceptive grasp of the phenomenon of Gnosticism and its relevance to the deeper, ultimate questions of philosophy. If one has come to know Voegelin, one can see why he liked her:
We live under the magisterium of the philosophy of Hegel. The trinity -- thesis, antithesis, synthesis, still seems to guide, if not physics, at least the history of the human spirit. But what I wanted to show is that such an evolution is not necessarily progress, for in surmounting opposition, one loses something very precious. The view of opposition is lost, once one enters into reconciliation. (350-351)
This is another way of articulating what Voegelin called the Tension of Existence, which is also a "tension towards the Beyond". Interestingly in this vein, the great pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (535-574 B.C.) is part of that rare pantheon of thinkers about whom Voegelin seemed to have had no reservations, perhaps because he too saw reality as a tension (or put more robustly as "strife", Eris). About Heraclitus, Pétrement points out a distinction between his seeming dualism of opposition of forces, and the dualism of the Gnostics:
Sometimes dualism is confused with this theory of contrarieties. In reality, dualism is something else. Nothing shows better the distinction than the fact that, for the dualists, it is the mixture which is evil and separation which is good; while for the theorists of contrarieties, it is the inverse. (206)
And in this context, she distinguishes the Jewish Neo-Platonist Philo, who was perhaps a bit too fascinated by Gnosticism:
There is in him [Philo] an obsession with division, with tension; he believed in the necessity of separating contraries, of removing them from each other. The Logos, for him, is the Divider… For Philo, evil supports the opinion of Heraclitus; it introduces “the unity of everything and the reciprocal exchange which produces everything”. (219)
Thus Philo saw in the Heraclitian tension an overarching monism, and recoiled from it. But this overarching monism, in a sense structured by dualism, would be the stance of Voegelin as well; for what is the alternative, but to succumb to the siren song of the Gnostic Answer and cut the cord of the Tension to free-float off to one's esoteric Salvation... ? A false Salvation, that is, whose alluring magic lies precisely in its offer of the Answer to the pain, the Dukha or fundamental "Frustration" (as Buddha would have it), of the paradoxical Mystery. Of all the analytical philosophers I've read -- other than Voegelin -- Pétrement comes the closest to recognizing that the Tension is itself a tension between Dualism and Monism, or perhaps the more crystalline Tension between Tension and Non-Tension.
“In the Parmenides and in the Sophist, there is admitted participation despite the logical objections which sublimate duality, and without destroying duality.” (55-6; author’s italics)
From all this [hints in Plato of monism or dualism], we could well infer that there are strong appearances in favor of a dualist interpretation of Platonism. But above all, one can posit an impression of something unfinished, of a thought open and free, of constant oppositions, of a reality full of problems incompletely resolved. In this metaphysics, there is a certain something that would scandalize a metaphysician. And that, perhaps, is the dualism factor. (81)
… for if it is true that dualism resolves certain difficulties, it is well known that it no less arouses other difficulties; and nothing demonstrates better that the human spirit is not wholly capable of metaphysics. (2)
There is so much more in Pétrement's book which would expand my blurb into a monograph (which someday I may do). I'll end on insights she penned on the Founding Father of Philosophy; and in doing so, showing she carefully read the original Greek of Plato's Dialogues:
As the soul is a stranger to the world or to life, the philosopher is a stranger to the civilized world. He is “bizarre” and “useless”. (52; Rep. VI, 487d, 497b)
Socrates himself said that in the eyes of others, he appeared ἀτοπώτατος, “completely absurd” (52; Théétète, 149a)
The Philosopher is opposed to the wise man, to the sage, to the sophist. The Philosopher is one who loves science, or wisdom, but doesn’t have it. The type of the Philosopher is Socrates, who doesn’t know, who has nothing, who is poor in spirit, who ascribes his better inspirations to his ‘demon’, who says in [the Dialogue] Hippias Major: ἁπορῶ αεἰ [“I am always perplexed.”] (343)