Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Plato's Cosmic Animal vs the Daoist Cosmic Plant: Religious and Ideological Implications

Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Plato's Cosmic Animal vs the Daoist Cosmic Plant: Religious and Ideological Implications

Article excerpt

"Every construction or fabrication has the cosmogony as the paradigmatic model. The creation of the world becomes the archetype for every creative human gesture..."

Eliade, The Sacred, and. the Profane (45)1

Since a cosmogony expresses a model for an entire way of living, understanding a culture's cosmogony provides great insight into the science, art, religion, and ideology of that culture2. Whitehead identifies two great cosmologies (each with its own cosmogony) that have dominated Western thought as that of Plato's Timaeus, where the cosmos is a living organism, and the "mechanistic" cosmologies of the 17th-18th centuries that anticipate modern "scientific" cosmologies.3 Whitehead even claims that Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato's philosophy of organism.4 Plato proposes a specific animal-model of the cosmic organism.5 Hume, remarking that the universe is not like a watch or a knitting room, mentions both animal and plant-models of the cosmos as alternatives but does not elaborate on the distinction.6 By contrast, parts of Chinese philosophy, especially Daoism, offer a picture of "the organismic nature of the universe" based on a plant-model.7 Although Daoism employs multiple models of the Dao (water, the Uncarved Block, the Female, the Valley, and the Newborn Child,8 the plant-model deserves to be included as well. The Platonic animal and the Daoist plant-models of the cosmos represent two very different sets of moral and religious intuitions about the ultimate nature and meaning of human life.9 Although there are exceptions on both sides, the animal-model is more entrenched in the West and the plant-model is more often accorded a fundamental role in the East. Heidegger writes that the ultimate business of philosophy is to preserve the force of the most elemental words in which Dasein expresses itself.10 The present paper explores the very different "elemental words" in Plato's animal and Daoist plant symbolisms with a view towards understanding the very different ideologies built upon them. The first part presents Plato's animal-model. The second part contrasts Plato's animal-model with Daoism's plant-model. The third part replies to a common objection that the plant-model cannot accommodate human freedom. The fourth presents a plant-model of the Daoist notion of wu-wei (doing nothing, yet everything gets done).11 The fifth part rebuts the objection that Daoism, on the present plant-model, is nihilistic. The final part argues that a proper understanding of the Daoist view of the origin of human ideologies, religion, art and "historical feeling," is inseparable from its plant-model of human life.

Plato's Cosmic Animal

"The world... has become a visible animal, containing the visible... God who is the image of the intellectual, the. most perfect-the one only begotten heaven."

Plato, Timaeus (92c)

Plato could have chosen to model the cosmos either on an animal or a plant but specifically chose the animal-symbolism.12 There are many mixed views that employ both. In the Euthyphro, Plato himself has Socrates compare the education of the youth to the farmer's care for "his young plants."13 Indeed, following Empedocles and Democritus, Plato thinks of plants as a kind of minimal animal.14 Thus, Plato has a minimal role for plant-symbolism but the higher aspects of the animal soul are more fundamental.

First, Plato's cosmos is created by the Demiurge, "the father and maker" of the cosmos.15 Since Plato's cosmos is the perfect animal it is "endowed with intelligence," where intelligence (Reason), consists in the ability to grasp the perfect Forms. Since this perfect rationality is on display in the orderly movements of the heavens, Plato's mortal organisms, themselves modelled on the cosmic organism, are drawn to the heavens above. Thus, the rational soul is likened to "winged steeds" and their "winged chariots."16 Since it is the "natural property" of wings to "raise that which is heavy and carry it aloft," these rational souls can "climb the steep ascent even to the summit of the arch that supports the heavens. …

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