Plato and the Christmas Carol

Plato is despised for trapping the obsolescent ‘West’ in persistent binary thinking about the rational light and the irrational dark. Such thinking apparently persuaded us that the West itself was light, compared with parts of the world mired in bigotry and superstition.

Yet Plato lives after two and half millennia. He is what I suspect many people mean by spiritual, when they use the term not in connection with any particular religious faith. Plato puts forward a case for Eternal Ideas over bodily involvement in making our way to a true knowledge of the real. Purity of intellectual understanding is his beacon.

I write this at Christmas because I believe a much attenuated memory of Plato’s idealism is why some of us still find Christmas carols so moving, long after we’ve left organized Church of England faith behind. Plato’s vision is there for instance in verse four of the carol ‘Once in Royal David’s City’:

‘Now at last our eyes shall see him…’

Plato inspired Christianity with his theory of an Ideal World distinct and eternal in comparison with our own. Christianity took over wholesale the basic Platonic envisioning of a patient human ascent out of darkness towards the light. Paul of Tarsus told the Corinthians that now we see through a glass darkly, but one day the truth will blaze forth.  In Plato’s account in The Republic when we arrive in the Ideal World we can’t immediately look at its brightness, only at reflections in the water. But then at last our eyes can directly see. In the Christian version of the story the truth and the light appear as the Messiah.

‘Now our eyes at last shall see him…’

Diarmaid MacCulloch in his History of Christianity notes that Plato propelled this basic impulse in Christianity, to look beyond the immediate and everyday to the universal or ultimate. He figured it as a great imperative: ‘We should not be content with the shadows.’ So Christianity reworked the Myth of the Cave, in which human beings are from birth chained up in the darkness, unable to see the real. It’s a trace of this great upward straining of the soul to be free of its chains, historic and obscure now, that returns every year, still, as the idea of Christmas.

Look in collection of essays entitled Plato and the English Imagination, and you find  Milton and Traherne and Blake all wrote the poetry of the ‘Platonic ascent’ . This in turn became the work that inspired the great carol-writers, from from the classically educated Charles Wesley in the mid-eighteenth century to Fanny Alexander in the nineteenth.

For Blake it is the Eternal Forms we come to see.

Traherne meanwhile writes:

Sacred Heavenly Flame

That shining for us upon Earth by Night

Restores the World unto its Ancient Light

The native characters of Bliss, that were

Engraven in the Soul.


Transcendent Metaphysicks soar, abov

The reach of Physicks, to Eternal Lov,

Discovers GOD, and brings the Angels down

Makes known the Soul, and what it shews doth crown.

It walks among Invisibles.

And this is also the world we relive in Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Angels from their Realms of Glory.

Milton is superbly hieratic:

O Adam, one almighty is, from whom

All things proceed, and up to him return,

If not depraved from good, created all

Such to perfection, one first matter all,

Indued with various forms, various degrees

Of substance, and in things that live, of life;

But more refined, more spiritous, and pure,

As nearer to him placed, or nearer tending

Each in their several several active spheres assigned,

Till body up to spirit work, in bounds

Proportioned to each kind.

In Wordsworth the power of Plato’s metaphysic of light and truth segues with the emerging Victorian cult of the innocent child as a cause of rejoicing:

Our childhood sits,

Our simple childhood sits, upon a throne

That hath more power than all the elements.

I guess not what this tells of being past,

Nor what it augurs of the life to come,

But so it is.

When Blake observed of Wordsworth that he was no Christian but a Platonist he was saying that for Wordsworth, as for Coleridge, the philosophy of Plato had a power that Christianity lacked. As A.W. Price puts it in one of the essays in Platonism and the English Imagination, it was ‘the power that can come to ideas, like a resurrection from the dead, when they are no longer believable,’ that Platonism carried forward.

And isn’t that exactly the power of the Christmas carol today, that we don’t believe, but we are most deeply moved?


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