Get the PDF: revised 7 December 2004, minor proofing on 12 July 2006
Since the dawn of civilization, man has looked ever skyward. Erich Fromm posited, “Man is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve” (Fromm 40). And solve Man does. As far back as the ancient Mesopotamian peoples (and possibly before) and as recently as this very day, men still look toward the sky, searching for their god or entity of choice, mostly metaphorically but sometimes even physically.
The point, of course, of an On Top god is that it is absolute: infallible, supremely intelligent, and in most cases compassionate. The idea is not exclusive to middle eastern-cum-western theology, but has been explored by pagan philosophers and hardlining theists alike. Put succinctly, God/Truth/Infinity is the ne plus ultra of all existence, all that is has come from It, and all things aspire to know or emulate It. What follows logically is that all things in the world as we perceive it have inherent meaning, that is, a degree of the Truth lent to it by its creation. First of all, let us dispel any semiotic confusion by stating clearly that for the purposes of this treatise upon absolutism, we will consider ultimate Truth, Beauty, Good, and Love to be one and the same, and that consequently, what we humans may define as “goodness” or “love” is really the seeking out of the ultimate Good as possessed by the autocratic god in question.
Plato, chronicling Socrates, was the first western philosopher to broach the subject in writing by way of a dialogue known as the Symposium. Plato is most well known for his parable of the cave, in which he asserts that humans see gradations of the truth, too ignorant by nature to know better until they stumble upon a truth one degree less removed.
The downside is that Plato’s absolutism necessitates the impossibility of ever realizing full truth. Also, while demanding a universal standard for good, it fails in any way to comment with any specificity upon what makes something good, leaving the issue as clouded as before, ripe for relativism. One detail which Plato does explain is the inherent goodness of creation. Since God is Love, and from that love we were created, then to create, even in the basic biological context of procreation, is in a sense divine (Plato 31). Human love, then, from which this springs, is itself one gradation closer to the ultimate good, in that we first love the mundane, then the good of our lover.
Centuries later, St. Augustine would write that Plato was a sort of pagan precursor to Christian thought. Plato understood the concept of absolutism, which would later become the underpinning of Christianity, but never got a chance the catch the religion on its way from Mesopotamia to Rome (Augustine 226-227). It’s only natural that Augustine should think this, because as a preeminent theologist, Augustine merely inserted Yahweh1 and Yahushua2 into Socrates’ philosophy and had a workable tract of Christianity’s metaphysical underpinning.
Despite being a cornerstone of most modern Christian denominations, much of Augustine’s metaphysics is lost in the tumult of Heaven & Hellfire iconography. More surprising is that Augustinian/Socratic metaphysics answers many of the more pressing questions that doubting Christians have, such as the standard “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Augustine would answer that there is no bad, nor evil. What we perceive to be evil is merely a turning away from the Good, and that true evil would cease to exist by the very nature of its godlessness (233-234). In that the absolutist Creation characterises itself as diffusive, that is, that creation is inherent to love, all things would exist in love, subject only to the degree of their truth.
The marriage of western philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology is even more apparent in Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, which is technically based upon the classical dialectic texts, but still reads like a catechism straight out of the corner church. Boethius’ sage, Philosophia, still talks of God with a capital G (Boethius 69), and chastises Boethius for putting his trust in transitory and idolatrous things like fame and fortune (20), instead encouraging a brand of Stoicism unconcerned with the impermanent and in which control of one’s reaction to fortune is invested entirely in the self. She adds another word to the list of synonyms, specifically “happiness,” to which she ascribes such catholic ideas as self-determination (which, by her logic, is truly possible) and Love, again hinting at the Platonic idea of love as a seeking of the good, the point being that when one learns to embrace the higher ideals that by nature seek Go(o)d, one has no care for that which Fortune giveth and taketh away, so to speak (72-73). Concomitantly, however, Philosophia indicates that earthly pleasures are, as Plato and Augustine said, stepping stones on the path to the understanding of Truth.
Yet another theologist subscribing to such a theory is St. Bonaventure, a notable Franciscan pedagogue whose Itinerarium parallels Plato’s allegory almost to the letter. Bonaventure insists that humans are “bent-over,” and unable to witness God’s truth without considerable journey (Bonaventure 5-6). We first learn to love beautiful things on earth, which, Bonaventure argues, are reflections of God’s beauty, and then love God within things. Later, we grapple with the image of God in our minds, and at last understand that God and Good are one and the same, and pervasive throughout all existence (37-38).
In summation, Platonic philosophy and its descendant theology are concepts so overarching that they span entirely different cultures, either by the soundness of their reason or the collective unconscious upon which they rest. The integration of god, truth, love, beauty and happiness into a benevolent intelligence and the investment of all creation and motive force into said intelligence is a daunting bolus to swallow, but eventually a slick solution to a persistent problem.
Such is the idea’s ubiquity that many of the principles of those metaphysical theories even manifest themselves in pagan literature. Virgil’s Aeneid, for instance, so impressed the Christian allegorist Dante that the former bestowed upon the latter the role of guide through his Inferno, the label of “virtuous pagan,” and a consignment to the outer vestibule of Hell, where classicists without the benefit of Christianity live with the sole punishment of the lack of God’s presence, but none of the morbidly mediÆval tortures in store for the rest of the world’s sinners (89).
The Aeneid pays homage to three things. The first is Rome, the second Augustus Cæsar. In this way, the text was a nationalistic tome. The third, however, was Jupiter, and in this way celebrated the most extreme sort of pietas: that of submission to divine will (217-218). Coupled with the Roman value of pietas was gravitas, sometimes referred to with regard to Stoicism. The Romans viewed emotional reaction as a dereliction of duty, much as Lady Philosophy asserted that so long as one allowed external factors to control one’s reactions, one would never be free, always subjugated to Fortune and whim.
Though written centuries later, Chaucer’s Troilus & Criseyde describes much of the same event, namely the Trojan War. The work doesn’t deal as directly with absolutist/idealist thought, but still gives us vestiges of that thought. A pervasive idea throughout is the so-called “religion of love,” the idea of courtly romances that promptly unravels before the readers’ very eyes. The forward denunciation of this sort of Pausanian worldview is a tacit approval of either absolutism or nihilism, and Chaucer was no nihilist. When Troilus eventually dies, he laughs at his former devotion to such petty love, insisting instead that our attention “on Heaven should be cast” (Chaucer 308). Obviously, Troilus’s love was mired in Bonaventure’s first step, and his ultimate sin was the placement of Criseyde on a pedestal as the most perfect love. When he has ascended spiritually, his focus on the mortal and the trivial is risible to him. Troilus & Criseyde not only smacks of Bonaventure and Plato, but is also is startlingly Boethian, as it wrestles with the concept of free will, yet another derivative of the God qua Absolute theory (213-217).
Capable philosophers have perpetuated the concept of moral/metaphysical absolutism for centuries upon centuries. Dogma has popularized it, ritualism has sanctified it, and late classicism has given it credibility beyond the scope of the God-of-Abraham3 faiths. If one were to look hard enough at his or her faith or philosophy, he or she would find that it says a lot more than myth and mysticism, going so far as to comment upon the very nature of our human love as a reflection of our creation. As a nameless poet wrote,
“But some, betoken to a deity, would name
ourselves as His —unfettered but by Love—
and that He —fitfully— endowed our dirt with Soul,
that hovers somewhere just above,
expounding our breath with cause,
to motivate our self with noble mien,
and fill the partial body whole.
and all should give a pause
to find the nature of His Soul,
which sees in us a smaller scale of such,
perhaps that we could Love as much.”
- Alighieri, Dante. L’Inferno. Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers. London: Penguin Books, 1949. 85-90.
- Augustine, St. Augustine: Earlier Writings. Louisville: Westminster John Knox P, 1979. 222-283.
- Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. Victor Watts. London: Penguin Books, 1999.
- Bonaventure. The Journey of the Mind to God. Ed. Stephen F. Brown. Trans. Philotheus Boehner. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993.
- Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Criseyde. Trans. Nevill Coghill. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1980.
- Fromm, Erich. Man For Himself. New York: Owl Books, 1990. 40.
- Plato. Symposium and Phaedrus. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. New York: Dover
- Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam Books,