Copyright, 1995. All Rights Reserved.
Anyone with intelligence would remember that the eyes may be confused in two ways and from two causes, coming from the light into darkness as well as from darkness into light. Realizing that the same applies to the soul, whenever he sees a soul disturbed and unable to see something, he will not laugh mindlessly but will consider whether it has come from a brighter life and is dimmed because unadjusted, or has come from greater ignorance into greater light and is filled with a brighter dazzlement. The former he would declare happy in its life and experience, the latter he would pity , and if he should wish to laugh at it, his laughter would be less ridiculous than if he laughed at a soul that has come from the light above.
Plato, The Republic
For the purposes of this essay I will use the following terms interchangeably: God, the infinite, truth, Goodness, the divine. I will refer to the witness of this metaphysical truth as a visionary.
If the existence of the infinite is accepted, and that man has the capability to perceive this divinity, a fundamental question remains: how is this vision to be attained? But then one must qualify this assumption by claiming that either all people share this ability equally, or that it belongs to only a rare group of visionaries. If the latter argument is chosen, then is the man who has found God destined to wander our world in frustration over not being able to express his vision? Or is it possible for him to translate his experience to the less enlightened masses and even serve as a messenger of the divine? These questions are central in both the Bible, most notably in the beginning of Exodus, as well as in Plato's Republic, specifically in the allegory of the cave. Each work was written with very different purposes, but the fundamental question they address is the same- how is man to find God?
In the first part of the Bible, man's relationship with God is on an individual level. Adam and Eve eat the apple from the tree of knowledge and are kicked out of the Garden of Eve. They themselves know it was a sin- not because they were told what God wants of them through an intermediary. Noah as well, has an idea of what God expects from him, and is therefore spared from the flood and referred to as a righteous man. The climax of man's personal relationship with God in Genesis climaxes with Abraham, the first man in the Bible to have an actual dialogue with God. Abraham had found god on his own, and he is confident enough in his communication with Him to almost sacrifice his son. Abraham is a visionary in every sense of the word but is not concerned with necessarily communicating his vision with those around him. In Abraham's mind, if God wants him to sacrifice his son, this means he must obey. But never does he assume a universal truth, or that he should convey God's message to his neighbors who need guidance towards the Lord.
The Bible's depiction of man's relationship with the divine drastically changes in Exodus. The visionary in the Bible is no longer a lone man on a private search for truth, but now is out to save his people from physical and spiritual slavery in Egypt. Moses, who is chosen for the job, is more than a little surprised when he bumps into God in the form of a burning bush. When he notices that the bush is burning but is not being consumed, he decides to "turn aside and see this great sight," but then he "hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God." Moses is told that he is to bring forth the sons of Israel out of Egypt, and act as God's messenger. He is, however, unsure how to react. This is, after all, the first time in the Bible that God chooses to communicate to a group through the voice of an intermediary. God tells Moses to merely tell the people that "I AM" has sent him:
Then Moses said to God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And he said, "Say to this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'"
Ultimately, Moses is successful in leading the people out of Egypt, speaking to Pharaoh and making every decision as God's messenger. When Moses leads the Israelites to Mount Sinai, his guidance of the people towards the revelation of God reaches its culmination. The time has come for God to transmit his message to the people. Not directly, but through Moses.
It is in this episode that much of the Bible's ideas regarding the role of the visionary are revealed. To analyze this scene effectively it will be constructive to look at both the behavior of Moses and the Israelites. The function of the prophetic visionary is determined by not only his actions but by the reactions of his audience, so it is important to view this relationship from both sides. Furthermore, it is necessary to observe the dialogue between Moses and God, the source of his vision. The scene at Mount Sinai is actually a three dimensional drama that must be examined from each perspective in order to be completely understood.
The dialogue between Moses and God has developed since the first encounter at the burning bush. Moses was then characterized by fear, awe, and confusion, but now, at Mount Sinai, he is clearly bolder and more expressive in speaking with God. It seems that the more time Moses spends communicating with God, the warmer their relationship becomes. The crucial point that is constant is Moses remains the only person who is having a dialogue with God. After he came down from the mountain for the first time he spends time in a tent isolated from the rest of the people. When Moses was in the tent, a pillar of cloud would hover by the tent's door, indicating the presence of God. By now, Moses is much closer to God than when first discovering the burning bush: "Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend."
Almost immediately after this description, the Bible relates the episode of Moses asking God to, on a literal level, to expose his face. It is clear however, that Moses is really asking God to reveal himself on a deeper level:
I pray thee, if I have found favor in thy sight, show me now thy ways, that I may know thee and find favor in thy sight. . . . For how shall it be known that I have found favor in thy sight, I and thy people? Is it not in thy going with us, so that we are distinct, I and thy people, from all other people that are upon the face of the earth? . . . I pray thee show me thy glory
Moses is in fact praying to God for a revelation of truth, an explanation of the ways of God, so that Moses may "know" Him. Interestingly, it is implied that Moses's motivation for divine knowledge is only a desire to act in a way that will continue to please God and insure the continued divine support for his people. Moses has transcended far above a curious taste from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.
Moses's desire to witness the revelation of God is hardly surprising- the search for the divine is arguably (And I believe) what characterizes all of humanity. What is significant here is God's response.
And the Lord said to Moses, "This very thing that you have spoken I will do; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name" . . . . And he said "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name 'The Lord'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. "
God has granted Moses's request and acknowledges their special relationship. he does not, however, allow Moses to see his face;
"But," he said, "you cannot see my face; man shall not see my face and live." And the Lord said, "Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.
The anthropomorphism, without doubt, is referring to a deeper issue. God is allowing Moses to witness a partial revelation, but the message here is that man is not capable of perceiving God fully. Not even Moses, the one man who God has chosen to speak to out of the entire Israelite population. The man who God speaks to as a friend. Even he is not able to perceive God in His entirety.
In contrast to Moses's friend-like relationship with God, the rest of the Israelites are kept at a great distance. The description of Moses's first ascent to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the ten commandments for the first time is very telling of the people's distant relationship to God. The narrative describes how the mountain become wrapped in smoke, and that the "Lord descended upon it in fire," and God calls Moses specifically to meet him at the to of the mountain. The Bible is quick to add that the people were not invited:
And the Lord said to Moses, 'Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to gaze and many of them perish.
After God announced the ten commandments, loud enough for all the Israelites to hear, they are all shaken with terror:
Now when all the people perceived the thundering and the lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled; and they stood afar off, and they said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die." And Moses said to the people, "Do not fear; for God has come to prove you, and that the fear of him may be before your eyes, that you may not sin."
In fact the people are even forbidden from touching the mountain, or even approaching its border. Whoever touches the mountain, "shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot."
So how is Moses to relay his message to the people who were not allowed to even touch the mountain where he is to meet God?
Not surprisingly his attempts end in repeated frustration. After he descends from the mountain carrying the tablets bearing the ten commandments, he discovers that the people had built a golden calf, and were singing as they danced around it. Upon seeing this, he somehow concludes that this is a grave sin, and he slams the tablets bearing the ten commandments to the ground in anger. In retribution for the nation's singing, he burnt the calf, ground it into powder and made them drink it. As if this wasn't enough, he then orders the Levites to slaughter as many of the rest of the people as they could. . . 3,000 people were killed.
Even when the people are not described as evil "stubborn necked" sinners who cannot possibly endure the company of God without being "consumed" , they are depicted as being unable to withstand the mere presence of Moses. When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai again, his skin shone "because he had been talking with God." The people, including Aaron his brother, were scared to come near him. Only when Moses calls to them do they gather enough courage to come closer. Moses then recounts all that God has unveiled to him at the mountain top. To cover his face's radiance, Moses put on a veil which he would only take off in the presence of God.
The rest of Moses' life is spent in a constant battle to keep the Israelites behaving according to the code of life that was revealed to him, even as they continually rebelled. He finally dies in frustration, not even having the opportunity to lead his people into the promised land.
Plato's allegory of the cave is amazingly similar in its portrayal of the man who has found divine truth, both in its use of light imagery as a device to describe the condition of the visionary, and in its conclusion that what has been perceived by the visionary is inconceivable to the masses. The cave is full of ignorant chained prisoners who believe that the shadows on the cave's wall are in fact reality. If a someone manages to free himself from the cave and, after discovering the sunlight above and the true "forms" that are the cause of the illusory shadows, ever returned to the cave, his eyes would be slow to adjust back to the dim light of the cave. The prisoners still chained in the cave would laugh at him, and would foolishly resist being freed themselves. Granted, Moses does not have a problem in convincing the people of the authenticity of his message, but this is only because God had spoken loud enough for all the people to hear. What is significant, however, is that the people are not able to receive or comprehend the revelation given to Moses. "We will do and we will listen," they say with faith as blind as the prisoners in the cave.
Perhaps most importantly, Plato agrees that the man who has found truth has a responsibility to lead the blind masses still trapped staring at the shadows. He writes that although the visionary will not wish to become a leader because he is no longer concerned with what in his view are trivial daily affairs, he has a responsibility to lead the less enlightened masses.
The major difference between the two models of thought is in their interpretation of how man should search for the divine. For Plato those in the cave transcend the shadows and discover the forms through reason. God is found through the sharpening of the mind and education. It is an active process where the individual- his or her abilities and desires, determines whether or not he or she is successful. The sun is analogous to "Goodness," which, when all the inadequacies of semantics are put aside, is equivalent to the divine. When man transcends out of the "cave" of human ignorance he achieves true knowledge. He now understands the Forms and not merely their shadows in the physical world. He understands Justice as an idea and not merely its tangible manifestations. This is a goal, according to Plato, that all people should strive for, but few will accomplish. But unlike the structure at Mount Sinai, all people share the potential of transcending to this state of awareness:
The capacity to learn and the organ with which to do so are present ion every person's soul. It is as if it were not possible to turn the eye from darkness to light without turning the whole body.; so one must turn one's whole soul from the world of becoming until it can endure to contemplate reality, and the brightest of realities, which we say is the Good.
In the Bible, on the other hand, God chooses when and to whom to reveal himself. Moses was hardly in control when he stumbled into the burning bush while watching his flock of sheep. Perhaps what Moses was doing at the time was significant; he would soon afterwards take leadership of a different sort of sheep- a flock of men that, according to the Bible, do not have the ability to even look at Moses's face without fear, let alone find the God on their own. What the people are supposed to do is not try to find personal enlightenment, but to follow Moses without question.
Both the Bible and the Republic are concerned with man's search for the infinite; a higher metaphysical truth that will provide a moral structure for society and its institutions. The question of how this truth can be discovered has always been at the heart of human thought. It is a question which, I believe, is shared in one form or another by all humans- it is the thought which makes us human. What is more important in analyzing Plato and the Bible, however, is interpreting the motivation behind their answers to this question. Surely Plato argues visionaries are by nature misunderstood due, in part, to the bias of his experience- the allegory of the cave serves as a rationalization for why Socrates was misperceived and condemned to death; it implies he was a visionary who was not appreciated after returning to the dark cave of the rest of Athenians. As for the Bible, it is not surprising that the first text of an organized religion would claim that there are those who have a monopoly on truth- a dialogue with God- which the "stubborn necked" masses cannot hope to achieve. The masses must obey the Moses figures or risk perishing from God's anger (or the swords of the sons of Levi). The Israelites have become a nation of sheep and not a nation of Abrahams.
If the reader can recognize these biases, than hopefully his or her personal search for truth won't be too heavily influenced by these texts. Surely truth cannot exist within bias. So my own search for the "Goodness" continues far from the pages of these written shadows. . . .
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