Like recent academic philosophers, ancient Greek philosophers were often suspected of not adhering to the popular religion of their time. Socrates lost his life as a result of accusations that he corrupted the youth and didn’t worship the gods of Athens. But from Plato’s account of Socrates, it seems clear that he didn’t reject the notion of God; and leading modern philosophers in the age of science haven’t done so either. From René Descartes in the seventeenth century through G.W.F. Hegel in the nineteenth century and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alfred North Whitehead, and Iris Murdoch in the twentieth century, important philosophers have made the notion of God central to their thinking, while making no appeal (for this purpose) to sacred writings or to what’s commonly called “faith.”1
These philosophers have tried to show how the notion of God, and more broadly the notion of a reality that transcends merely natural mechanisms, pervades all of our everyday functioning including science itself. So that contrary to a common “secularist” assumption (which is shared by many religious writers as well), transcendence is found throughout modern culture, and science-oriented secular humanism is just as committed to transcendence as religion is. Religion and humanism differ only in the way they conceive of this transcendence. But unlike the apparently irresoluble dichotomy of “faith” versus “reason,” differing conceptions of transcendence are something that we can discuss with each other. And thus the “God of the philosophers” opens up a possible dialogue in an area in which what we tend to experience is mutual incomprehension and, often, condemnation.
Drawing on his reading of Plato and Plato’s successors, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1841:
We live in division, in parts, in particles. Meanwhile within man is the soul of the whole; … the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.2
But precisely because, as Emerson says, we live “in division,” we are likely to have difficulty understanding what he has in mind when he speaks of the “One.” In our perennial discussions of religion versus science, for example, we seldom consider that like religion, science too involves transcendence, in the way it takes us beyond our everyday appetites and opinions. So, both nominally “religious” and nominally “secular” people orient their lives toward something that transcends the everyday, and the differences between them may have more to do with how they describe this transcendent something, than with what it fundamentally is.
Of course, the “philosophers’ God” has always been controversial. Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard, and Martin Heidegger all doubted that a “rational” God could inspire the ecstasy that religion celebrates. Their doubts are understandable, since much of what goes by the name of “reason” in our society, such as calculating how to get whatever you happen to want, is far from being inspiring or ecstatic. But I think we can see how an important variety of what we call “reason” is, in fact, inspiring and a source of ecstasy.
Reason in the form of science is inspiring because by seeking truth, rather than being guided merely by our natural appetites or opinions, or fear, anger, or self-importance, science is a “higher” activity, which goes beyond the ordinary course of nature. It is higher, and inspiring, because its ignoring of our appetites, opinions, and so forth makes it free. And in that way, science is something that we could call super-natural, higher than nature, and an aspect of the higher reality that we traditionally call “God.”
This is the gist of Plato’s account of the role of reason in the soul, in Republic book iv, together with his famous allegory of the man who ascends out of the cave, in book vii. Without using the word, “freedom,” Plato is describing how we can rise above mere appetites and opinions, so as to be governed by our own thought rather than by our physical environment. And he doesn’t hesitate to describe the resulting self-government as “divine” (Republic, 497c).
In addition to science, other “higher” activities that we engage in are love, ethics, and the arts. These, too, can take us above our natural appetites, opinions, and so forth, into something that’s less a product of our surroundings, more self-governing and freer, and in that sense higher, and super-natural. That’s why we find all of these activities inspiring. And it’s why Plato gives extensive attention to love and to ethics.
As for the arts, in particular, Plato is critical of them, in the Republic, precisely because he wants the inspiration that we certainly get from them to lead us in a good rather than a bad direction. Consider, for example, the bad inspirations that we get from the arts that are used in advertising and in propaganda. So as not to suffer from an un-free strife between art and ethics (or between love and science, and so on), we need to integrate all of our higher activities with each other.
In his own artistic practice, in the depictions of people and ideas in his dialogues, Plato gives us a model of how we can do this. The discussions that he shares with us often inspire strong feelings in us, but they always lead in one way or another toward the question of what is good. So that in this way, his art is ethical—while his pursuit of ethics, or the good, is at the same time a pursuit of beauty, which he persuasively describes as the visible form of the good.
So, as much literary art does, Plato shows us how to integrate ethics with art. For the sake of our freedom, we can probably imagine similar ways of integrating the other arts and love and science with ethics and with each other.
So, if science, love, ethics, and the arts constitute a higher, self-determining reality when they’re properly integrated with one another, and if religion is primarily an inkling of this higher reality, then the apparent conflict in our culture between religion and science isn’t necessary. It isn’t necessary because a plausible kind of religion, the philosophers’ kind, celebrates science as an aspect of the highest reality. We can see versions of this philosophers’ religion emerging, from time to time, in every religious tradition. The respect for science that the Dalai Lama demonstrates, for example, is an instance of Buddhism’s tradition of free intellectual inquiry. The same unification can be seen in the intellectual traditions of Islam, Judaism (Maimonides), and Catholic Christianity.
Besides avoiding conflict between intellect and religion, the philosophers’ religion has the additional advantage that because we experience the philosophers’ God in our experiences of science and other human activities, the perennial issues about why we should believe in a separate divine “being” don’t arise. Since the “soul of the whole,” as Emerson says, is “within” us, we have direct access to it. And thus we don’t have to argue about “belief” in God versus “unbelief” in God. But at most, about what is the best way to interpret experiences with which we are all familiar.
But isn’t God supposed to be a being that’s separate from us? Do the Platonists mean to say that we ourselves, or the “philosophers,” are God? That would seem to deprive the notion of God of much of its significance. But if that’s not what they mean to say, how do they conceive of the relationship between us and God?
What the Platonists are saying is that we are God insofar as we are free. The rest of us, which isn’t free, is far from being God. Calling freedom divine needn’t imply that it’s a separate being. The crucial thing about freedom is that unlike the lower modes of functioning, it’s self-governing. It’s self-governing because it rises above external determining factors like appetites, opinions, and self-importance. Rather than a “being,” we could call self-government, and God, the “process” of rising above these external determining factors.
But to call freedom, self-government, or God a process is not to say that what we’re really talking about here is simply human beings and things that happen to them. That is not what we’re talking about in this case, because freedom and self-government generate something that by being self-governing is more “itself,” and more real as itself, than human beings are, merely as such. In that way, freedom and self-government generate something that we can appropriately call super-natural and divine.
So rather than reducing God to humans, we are (if anything) reducing humans to God, in which we are more self-governing and thus more real, as ourselves, than we are when we’re merely “human.” By producing what’s free and what’s therefore most real-as-itself, the process places its entire emphasis on that outcome, and not on the point of departure.
And this is how God can be above us, transcending us, while still being our own freedom. Our own freedom transcends a large part of what we are. So we as mere humans aren’t God, but to the extent that we act from freedom, we are God.
This is how Emerson can write that “Within man is the soul of the whole; … the universal beauty … the eternal One.” The “One,” which is commonly called God, is “within” us inasmuch as we scattered, incoherent, and impulse-driven creatures sometimes manage to rise above our impulses, our parts and particles, and find a perspective on our situation that is integrated and rationally satisfying. In that case, as Plato says at Republic 443d, “from having been many things,” we become “entirely one.”
Acting as “one,” we are self-governing and free, rather than the playthings of whatever gave rise to our initial impulses, parts, and particles. Being self-governing, we are indeed, for the first time, “ourselves.” To that extent we rise above “nature,” which is composed of such playthings, and we become super-natural, and deserve to be called “divine.” But only to that extent! Since ordinarily, as Emerson says, “we live in division, in parts and particles.”
Does the philosophers’ God, who is the “process” of rising above, rather than a separate being, make a difference to our lives? It makes the greatest possible difference, by making us real as ourselves, rather than as mere collections of experiences, appetites, and opinions. Through this God, we come into being as ourselves.
Plus, by making us real as ourselves, this God makes the world, through us, as self-governing and thus as much itself, and as real as itself, as it could be. The world that produces self-government is itself self-governing, to that extent, and real as itself.
This is probably what lies behind the idea of God as the “creator” of the world, the giver of its reality. It’s through the God that is self-government that the world achieves its fullest reality, its reality as itself.
And finally, by taking us, through science, love, ethics, and the arts, beyond our self-importance as separate beings, and uniting us with each other and with the world that has produced us, this God unites us with everything, past, present, and future, that we love. This gives us the greatest fulfilment or salvation that one could imagine.
Which is not to say that this fulfilment or salvation comes easily to us. We may wonder what will even be left of “us,” if we give up our distinctive opinions, our self-importance, and so forth. Someone might ask, what good to me are “self-government,” reality “as myself,” and unity with everything, if I don’t recognize my previous “self” in them?
Actually, we have always wanted to be real as ourselves, though often in competition with “lower” priorities that can feel very compelling. An example of such a priority is the vanity, or as we might call it today, the “narcissism,” of the brilliant reprobate, Alcibiades, in Plato’s Symposium.
Alcibiades says that under Socrates’s influence, “my very own soul started protesting that my life … was no better than the most miserable slave’s.” Socrates “makes me feel ashamed.” But “the moment I leave his side, I go back to my old ways; I cave in to my desire to please the crowd” (215-216), in the Athenian assembly. Alcibiades is divided between his “very own soul,” or as we might say, who he really wants to be, and his need for adulation.
Sometimes it’s only when “lower” issues such as fear, anger, or vanity are cleared out of the way by some personal catastrophe, that we get a view of what we’ve always wanted which is so clear that it changes our behavior. In such cases, the role of catastrophe in the process can make the process feel like an unearned gift, much like what traditional religion calls “conversion,” or “God’s grace.”
But whether we earn or are given our loyalty to the higher things, to science, love, ethics, and the arts, it’s through this loyalty that we experience the philosophers’ God. In the conception of God as the giver of reality, and in the moral drama of possible “rising above” and loyalty that goes with that conception, the philosophers’ God has what seem to be the key features of traditional monotheistic religions.
This, no doubt, is the reason why versions of Platonic thinking have been very influential in Christianity, in Judaism, and in Islam. Prominent thinkers in these traditions have perceived their close similarity, in fundamentals, to Platonism. Though there have certainly always been limits on the ability of these traditions fully to absorb Platonism’s emphasis on freedom.
An unsympathetic or hostile attitude toward the efforts of others to achieve some kind of transcendence, is hardly evidence of freedom or transcendence on one’s own part. But such attitudes have been all too common in the history of religions. It’s likely that the primary reason for the hostility that religious traditions often exhibit towards those who don’t embrace their precise way of celebrating transcendence, is the difficulty of describing transcendence clearly. It’s much easier to idolize an individual or individuals who we think embody or transmit transcendence, than to focus on the question of what transcendence itself is, and how to achieve it. This fact goes a long way toward explaining the very mixed record, historically, of the traditions that claim to represent transcendence.
But this mixed record is certainly no reason to abandon the pursuit of transcendence. As I’ve suggested, abandoning transcendence would mean abandoning some of our most treasured activities, such as science, ethics, love, the arts, and freedom in general. Rather than a reason to abandon the pursuit of transcendence, the mixed record of traditional religions is a reason to clarify what exactly transcendence is. Which the world’s more “philosophical” traditions generally seek to do, so as to pursue it more effectively. And it’s a reason to celebrate all of the world’s religious traditions insofar as they do contribute to this pursuit.
The fact that versions of many of these Plato/Emerson ideas are familiar from today’s “pop spirituality” should not count against them, any more than the popularization of Christianity or of Quantum Mechanics counts against them. In each case, the question is how well the ideas can be systematized, and then how well they illuminate our experience.
So, as I’ve described, the philosophers’ God shows how those of us who celebrate reason, science, and freedom, and those who celebrate God are celebrating, whether either party realizes it or not, what amounts to the same thing. Both are celebrating a shared, transcendent reality that, as mere humans, we fall short of, and that promises us our freedom.
Both are celebrating transcendence, and both are aware of how we often fall short of it. If we have in mind this fundamental agreement between those who celebrate what they call “science” and those who celebrate what they call “God,” it may be easier for us to feel connected to each other, and to negotiate whatever disagreements remain, between us. We will all be celebrating freedom, and we will all be celebrating transcendence.
The wide array of forms that transcendence takes, in our experience, from science, through love, ethics, and the arts, down to the simplest exchange of greetings with a stranger on the street, connects us with what’s higher than us and, in the same stroke, with each other. Walt Whitman must have had in mind this way in which transcendence pervades our experience, when he wrote:
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in
There is that in me …. I do not know what it is….
Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death…. It is form and union and plan…. It
is eternal life…. it is happiness.
- Rene Descartes’s Meditations (1641) make the knowledge of God the linchpin of all knowledge. Hegel does the same in his Science of Logic (1812-1814) and Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1817-1831). Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) conjures up a realm of “God,” “ethics,” and “the mystical” which he says cannot be “said,” but only “shows itself” (6.522). Ironically, some of Wittgenstein’s admirers, such as the Vienna Circle positivists and Alfred Jules Ayer at Oxford, ignored Wittgenstein’s notion of that which “shows itself” and took it that he wanted us simply to ignore God, ethics, and the mystical. The important mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, elaborated in his Religion in the Making (1926), Process and Reality (1929), and Adventures of Ideas (1933) a fundamentally Platonic metaphysical theology, which he taught at Harvard University in the 1930s. Like Hegel’s and Wittgenstein’s theologies, Whitehead’s, too, has been pushed to the margins of academic philosophy by science-oriented positivism. But efforts are repeatedly made to propound something similar, for example by Michael Polanyi in his Personal Knowledge (1958), by John Niemeyer Findlay in his Transcendence of the Cave (1967), and by Iris Murdoch in her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (New York: Penguin, 1993), which is really a meditation on metaphysical theology. Some interpreters take Murdoch to be an atheist, but when she writes that “no existing thing could be what we have meant by God. Any existing God would be less than God” (p. 506, emphasis added), it’s clear that “God” for her is not something to be brushed aside. I say more about all of these authors in my Philosophical Mysticism in Plato, Hegel, and the Present (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Over-Soul,” in The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 160.