Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Book Review: Divine Madness by Josef Pieper

"Divine Madness": Plato's Case against Secular Humanism by Josef Pieper

Josef Pieper examines an extended argument from Plato's Phaedrus, one of the later dialogues. Pieper quotes Plato, "The highest goods come to us in the manner of the mania, inasmuch as the same is bestowed on us as a divine gift" (p. 7). Mania is deliberately untranslated in this quotation because the meaning is unpacked over the course of this small book (59 pages).

Due to the nearly 2500 year gap between the first writing of Phaedrus and our reading of it, there is no neat equivalence between the Plato's Greek term and our modern English usage. The idea isn't lost to us, it just needs more than one English word to express it. The title of the book, "Divine Madness," is, at best, an approximation. Pieper throughout the book uses words like inspiration, ecstasy, or frenzy. Most often he refers to it as "being-beside-oneself," a mania where the person is acting not so much "out of his mind" as "beyond his abilities." Plato's examples make the idea clearer.

His first example is prophecy. Prophets speak of things beyond their knowledge, usually during a heightened or ecstatic state (these are the Greek prophets like the Oracle of Delphi). Their words are at once insightful and inscrutable. Modern thinkers tend to disregard the importance of this example because Greek religion has gone by the wayside. Pieper looks at the Christian concepts of revelation and theological inspiration as parallels to Greek prophecy. Inspiration comes from outside the prophet or scholar and lifts him into a realm of higher, divine understanding. Scientific rationalism does not accept either the Greek or Christian examples precisely because they are outside of scientific competence.

Pieper goes through three other examples given by Plato (catharsis, poetic inspiration, and eros) and finds similar modern skepticism but provides interesting and persuasive counterpoints to modern objections.

Pieper's argument is a great example of why studying classic works of philosophy is important. They bring up issues that are relevant throughout the ages. But only if the reader is willing to engage the texts in their own right and to reflect on how the texts apply in the contemporary world. The effort is worth the reward.

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