It is no accident–and indeed it is in all likelihood only the case because he was so honest–that what Plato never discussed philosophy absent a conception of power within which to couch it. His philosophers were at the same time Kings: philosopher kings. This is to have decisive significance for a God who assumes one of the titles of the Roman Emperor, somewhat equivalent, we might say, to that of a King. Indeed, some like the eminent biblical scholar and popular theologian N.T. Wright make the connection explicit: one of his latest books, for example, is entitled, ‘How God Became King.” We may look with scrupulous interest, then, at the tableau of Jesus’ death. Before he is hung on a cross between two criminals, Jesus of course, holds two eminent audiences: the civil authority of Pilate and the ecclesial authority of Ciaphas. He is, in the end, like a common criminal, condemned by both. In Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for the Passover, his entry on the back of a Donkey echoes a passage from Zechariah 9, lampooning thus of the pomp of Alexander the Great who was at the time ravaging the land from Tire to Jerusalem to Gaza. The irony of Jesus’ entrance is only further heightened by what we might assume was Pilate’s entrance into the city more in the manner of Alexander than of Jesus. Jesus is entering the city as a satire of kingship–and he is put to death in like manner, cloaked in the imperial purple, with a sign over his head: Here is the King of the Jews. He is the diametric opposite of the achetypal king–an Alexander the Great or a Herod or an Augustus. This is all the more significant if we consider Jesus the most archetypal anti-king in relation to the most archetypal king in the history of western thought: Plato’s philosopher kings.
Many have been perspicacious in recognizing the dark irony of Jesus’ crucifixion, this Son of God, this Nazarene anti-king whose Kingdom of God is an anti-empire. But none, so far as I know, have explored the relation of Jesus’s anti-kingship to philosophy. Some have gotten quite, quite close. I think here especially of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, both probably owing to their strongly anti-Platonic instincts. And yet it seems they have only grasped the shadows, the epiphenomena of the true differences which separate Jesus from Plato–or from Socrates. Kierkegaard, in the Philosophical Fragments, compares the Socratic mode of revelation with the Christian, both of which he suggests are incommensurable with the other. But he is wrong. He senses perhaps that Christianity is incommensurate with Platonism, but he is unable to articulate the precise manner in which this might be so. He was also, in his ‘Attack Upon Christendom,’ prescient in his critique of bourgeois Christianity, but he does not think to connect this critique with his critique of Plato’s metaphysics–the connection which becomes clear in Plato’s own philosopher-king. Nietzsche was slightly different. His critique of Platonism was precisely right. The philosopher with the hammer slammed the nail into the coffin of Platonism, but he confused Christianity with Platonism, a flaw we cannot fault him for. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche together grasped different contradictions on the surface of things, but they were unable to get down to the depths of things. They criticized the flip sides of the same coin. Kierkegaard saw that Christianity was incompatible with Platonism, but didn’t find Platonism in the end problematic. Nietzsche found Platonism problematic, but identified it with Christianity. Both were so close: Christianity is incompatible with Platonism, and Platonism is problematic–because Plato represents the mold of the philosopher-king whereas Jesus was a poet and a peasant.
Plato himself was the first to recognize the incompatibility between poetry and philosophy. He speaks in The Republic of an “ancient agon” between the philosophers and the poets–and it is for this reason he would have all poets removed from his city. One so crude as Plato did not understand Homer, and one so crude as a Platonist would not understand Christ. Plato, of course, criticizes Homer’s poetry for not portraying reality correctly, for being too far removed form it, because reality for Plato, let us not forget, is the metaphysical world of forms, an invisible order of things which only the enlightened philosopher, ostensibly, can see. Plato has transcended the world of mere reality. Plato is constantly looking up, up into the clouds; his God is none other than the Form of Forms, a sort of metaphysical apparatus to give stability to his metaphysical invention–to anchor his metaphysics in a literal deus ex machina. Christ couldn’t be more different.
We might begin with the doctrine of the incarnation. I think people too often forget how radical the incarnation is, and only a few, like the theologian Karl Barth grasped its true subversion. It is philosophically very subversive, and it was precisely for its radicalness that it was ridiculed by the learned Greek-educated philosophers like Celsus in the second century. For the Greeks, it was preposterous and absurd to suggest that God would have descended from his Metaphyiscal loft to this gross, material world. Yet descend is the very first thing God does in the gospel of John the Evangelist: the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us. John, contra-Plato, suggests a radical anti-metaphysics: a movement from the lofty world of abstract forms to the lowly tangible world of flesh and blood. It is a movement from heaven to earth, as God enters–if we are to speak philosphically–into the Kantian categories of time and space. We wouldn’t even be able to speak about God otherwise, for God would fall within the realm of the unconditioned, the speculative metaphysics, which Kantian philosophy essentially sealed off.
Let us even suppose, however that John the Evangelist was quite a poor theologian. If we turn to the evangelist Matthew, Jesus himself gives an account which should suffice to provide certain hermeneutic starting points. In the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus states that on the day of judgment, God will say, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Salvation here is nothing less than a matter of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, taking care of those in need. God is a peasant. Not only, if we take the gospels at face value, does God literally incarnate into a Galilean peasant in the historical figure of Jesus, but also himself is a peasant. This could not be further removed from the Platonic account or the Platonic God. Plato of course always suggests to us that God is above, looking down. But the case is the exact opposite, if we are to give Christianity its decisive significance. God looks not form on high, but from below. God is there on the corner of the street. Let us give the attention this subversion warrants: not only, in the Christian imagination, did God find it worthwhile to incarnate–from form–into flesh, to descend, as it were, from his empyreal loft to this world, but moreover, found it fitting that he should dwell among and identify with those far at the bottom of the social strata. God, it seems, is a downward movement, and to miss this point, seems to miss something rather fundamental about Christianity.
We might also consider the profound sacrilege, the theological subversion of proclaiming Jesus a sort of sacrifice. Sacrifice, in the ancient Jewish context had very little to do with appeasing God’s wrath, however morphed this understanding had become today where Jesus has become a sort of liquidity with which we absolve our ethical debt to some (I would say) tyrannical deity. Nevertheless, Jesus’s sacrifice would have been highly subversive if we consider that, on the one hand, the sacrificed items had as their foremost requisite ritual holiness, and on the other hand, that crucifixion is curse, a ritual pollution, we might say. Jesus, thus, in his crucifixion is ritually cursed–and this, it is said, is to constitute a sacrifice to God. The sublime lyrics of Isaiah can be heard in these reflections, but beyond these considerations, we might ask what further significance the accursedness of the crucifixion has for us. We turn here to Gandhi, for it is in his story that the lesson to be drawn is so clear.
In Gandhi’s time, there existed in India–and to an extent still does exist–a strictly defined social strata which he sought, subsequently though unsuccessfully, to end. At the bottom of this strata were the ‘untouchables,’ the poor, who were so addressed because of their job: to clean the fecal deposits of the municipality. Their proximity to fecal matter made them ritually cursed; hence, untouchable. I use the example of Gandhi because it is in this example that the connection between poverty, social exclusion, and ritual accursedness becomes more clearly apparent. If I might be allowed, then, to retroject–though to what extent this is a retrojecting is debatable too, given the possibly similar nature of the anawim–this concept onto the meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion, then we can conclude: through Jesus’s accursed crucifixion, he thus identifies with the fellow accursed, the poor, the excluded, the outcasts. The crucifixion, though people hardly realize it, is politically very transgressive: it is God’s solidarity with the weak, the poor, the suffering, the wretched and accursed of the earth–the losers.
Let us return, however, to the question of the Jesus the poet, perhaps the most poetic human being ever to have lived–and let us consider how we might better understand Jesus in light of a better understanding of the matrix poetry, philosophy, and power. We have said earlier that we may read in Jesus’s crucifixion contiguity with Plato’s hatred of poets. Now perhaps, this admittedly rather abstruse obscurantism can be explicated more fully. We shall have to bring together return to the Platonic philosopher king, for he provides the crucial key: the ineluctable link between power and philosophy. It is in the philosopher king which our intuitions become honest. For we all know intuitively that philosophy is power, perhaps even a sublimated desire of the will to power.
But my time has run out for this post. I shall have to go on about Freud and sex and power some other time.