Seeking Knowledge: Two Paths, Two Destinations

Seeking Knowledge: Two Paths, Two Destinations

I have been contemplating a couple of things lately. First, I realize that when I read Charlotte Mason, I am reminded of the beauty and wholeness of the Gospel message. I am convicted to read my Bible more. I am inspired by Mason’s knowledge and understanding of the word of God and its application to all areas of life. When Mason points back to her principles, the principles are always pointing me to Jesus. Can the same be said of classical philosophy? If classical philosophy would lead me to wisdom, is that the same as leading me to Jesus? Where will classical philosophy lead me? Please join me as I try to answer some of these questions through the work of Plato, one of the greatest classical philosophers.

Plato was a student of Socrates. He was the teacher of Aristotle. His work influenced many men for centuries after his death and the effects of that influence are still being seen in our culture today. Plato’s Socratic dialogues preserved the Socratic method, which, under certain circumstances, can prove a useful tool. Charlotte Mason (1925/1989f) says Socratic questioning should only be used for “moral conviction” and that is the only exception to her prohibition to “questioning from without” (p. 17). The Republic also offers interesting insight into several systems of government through the discussion of justice. (I was surprised to learn that Plato believed democracy to be just one step above tyranny.) Intellectually, I can separate out his useful and practical wisdom (dare I call it that?). But spiritually, I find many of his ideas to be shocking and dangerous.

I’ve been reading G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and in his book he makes several references to Buddhism. I’ve been starting to see that many of his observations about Buddhism could also be made about Platonism. Here’s one example:

Students of popular science . . . are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism. This is generally believed, and I believed it myself until I read a book giving the reasons for it. The reason were of two kinds; resemblances that meant nothing because they were common to all humanity, and resemblances which were not resemblances at all. The author solemnly explained that the two creeds were alike in which all creeds are alike, or else he described them as alike in some point in which they are obviously different. . . . It is rather like alluding to the obvious connection between the two ceremonies of the sword; when it taps a man’s shoulder, and when it cuts off his head. It is not at all similar to the man. (Chesterton, 1909, p. 240)

Chesterton’s comparison reminds me of the comparison between classical philosophy and Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. While some may insist that the two are very much alike, I believe that they are not at all similar, especially to the child. I have found that Plato advocates many ideas that are quite different from Charlotte Mason’s philosophy and her founding inspiration, which is the Gospel. Many of these differences in philosophy affect the way we seek knowledge. The purpose of this article is to explore these differences, which amount to two separate paths to knowledge, with different destinations.

To present Plato’s ideas, I will use Phaedo, the last of the Four Dialogues. It is set in the hours before Socrates is to be executed. With his young friends, he has one last conversation as he contemplates the purpose of life, the nature of man and the eternity of his soul.

The Knower

To understand how to seek knowledge, we first must understand the knower. I believe we should begin by hearing directly from Plato. We start just after Socrates has sent his wife away for crying too much; he then begins to comfort his friends over his impending death sentence. He explains the relief it will be to him for his soul to be released from his body:

Would you not say that [the true philosopher] is entirely concerned with the soul and not with the body? He would like, as far as he can, to get away from the body and to turn to the soul. (Plato, 1892, p. 203)

. . . the body is always breaking in upon us, causing turmoil and confusion in our enquiries, and so amazing us that we are prevented from seeing the truth. It has been proved to us by experience that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body — the soul in herself must behold things in themselves: and then we shall attain the wisdom which we desire, and of which we say that we are lovers; not while we live, but after death; for if while in company with the body, the soul cannot have pure knowledge, one of two things follows — either knowledge is not to be attained at all, or, if at all, after death. For then, and not till then, the soul will be parted from the body and exist in herself alone. (Plato, 1892, p. 205)

So Plato believes that the body is a hindrance to the soul. He later says that the soul is defiled by the body. Is this the state that our Lord intended for us? Did God imprison us in our bodies to punish us? Absolutely not. When God created Adam, his body was created first:

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7, KJV, 2009)

Adam became a living soul in his body. Charlotte Mason is, of course, completely in line with this Christian understanding of the body and soul united as one:

It is so much the habit to think of the person as a dual being, flesh and spirit, when he is, in truth, one, that it is necessary to clear our minds on this subject. The person is one and not several, and he is no more compact of ideas on the one hand than he is of nervous and muscular tissues on the other. That he requires nutriment of two kinds is no proof that he is two individuals. Pleasant and well-cooked food makes man of a cheerful countenance, and wine gladdens the heart of man, and we all know the spiritual refreshment of a needed meal. On the other hand, we all know the lack-lustre eye and pallid countenance of the well-fed who receive none of that other nutriment which we call ideas; quick and living thought is as necessary for the full and happy development of the body as it is for that of the soul. (Mason, 1904/1989c, pp. 64-65)

Plato, on the other hand, believed in reincarnation. He did not believe that a soul had a personality specific to that soul:

Suppose we consider the question whether the souls of men after death are or are not in the world below. There comes into my mind an ancient doctrine which affirms that they go from hence into the other world, and returning hither, are born again from the dead. Now if it be true that the living come from the dead, then our souls must exist in the other world, for if not, how could they have been born again? And this would be conclusive, if there were any real evidence that the living are only born from the dead; but if this is not so, then other arguments will have to be adduced. (Plato, 1892, p. 210)

Plato proceeds to use his reason to show that all things come from their opposites; therefore the living must come from the dead. Later, he gives an account of what each soul faces before being imprisoned again into a body. The manner he describes in which souls are chained to their new bodies shows that the so-called personhood of each individual soul is transitory. By contrast, the Christian understanding is that every individual person created by God is, body and soul, an independent and special being that God knows personally from before birth:

For you formed my inward parts;

you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well.

My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance;

in your book were written, every one of them,

the days that were formed for me,

when as yet there was none of them.

(Psalm 139:13-16, ESV, 2016)

We are known to the Lord our God while in our mother’s womb and throughout life as a whole person, body and soul. The fact that we must personally choose whether to love or reject Jesus as Savior is an affirmation of our individualism. We are not recycled through the universe over and over again, until, through philosophy or works, we finally earn some kind of bodiless, spiritual co-existence. Chesterton (1909) beautifully explains the Christian position:

It is just here that Buddhism is on the side of modern pantheism and immanence. And it is just here that Christianity is on the side of humanity and liberty and love. Love desires personality; therefore love desires division. It is the instinct of Christianity to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces, because they are living pieces  . . . No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls. (p. 245)

Now re-read that quote, but this time substitute Platonism for Buddhism. I think you will find as I do that the observation remains just as accurate.

Knowledge and the Senses

Since Plato (1892) rejects body-soul unity, he also distrusts the senses:

What again shall we say of the actual acquirement of knowledge? — Is the body, if invited to share in the enquiry, a hinderer or a helper? I mean to say, have sight and hearing any truth in them? Are they not, as the poets are always telling us, inaccurate witnesses? and yet, if even they are inaccurate and indistinct, what is to be said of the other senses? — for you will allow that they are the best of them?

. . . Then when does the soul attain truth? — for in attempting to consider anything in company with the body she is obviously deceived. (pp. 203–204)

By contrast, Christian affirmation of body-soul unity points to a much different perspective on the senses. Consider for a moment, in what ways God reveals Himself to us. Is it through essence? Through spiritual encounters? No. God uses our senses and our ability to understand through these senses. It is our spiritual senses and our will that deceive us. Recall the story of the blind man in ninth chapter of John. He had been blind since birth. Jesus made a paste out of clay and spit and rubbed it on the man’s eyes. He then told the blind man to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. After he had done so, the man could see. The townspeople brought him to the Pharisees, who questioned him repeatedly and did not believe that his story could be true. If it were true, it was surely the work of a sinner – breaking the holiness of the Sabbath to perform a miracle. Despite the clear evidence of the miracle and of Jesus’ authority over the things of the earth, the Pharisees stubbornly remained blind in their hearts. They were willing to accept every answer but the most obvious one. Any answer but the one they observed with their physical eyes.

Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” (John 9:39-41, ESV, 2016)

The Old Testament gives us several examples of God speaking directly to humans with audible words. My favorite is the story of Samuel:

And the LORD called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

And the LORD came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.” (1 Samuel 3:8-10, ESV, 2016)

Then, of course, there is the spread of the Gospel message itself, first through the preaching of Jesus and then the disciples. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17, ESV, 2016).

We should not depreciate our senses; we should enjoy them. Charlotte Mason (1886/1989a) believed that the senses were the first avenue of learning available to the child (p. 65). She believed that we should develop the senses to become more sensitive and to create habits of observation for life:

There is a great deal of joy, again, to be had out of listening  . . . Have you ever been in the fields on a spring day, and heard nothing at all but your own voice and the voices of your companions, and then, perhaps, suddenly you have become silent, and you find a concert going on which you had not heard a note? At first you hear the voices of the birds; then by degrees, you perceive high voices, low voices and middle voices, small notes and great notes, and you begin to wish you knew who sang each of the songs you can distinguish. (Mason, 1905/1989d, pp. 29-30)

Knowledge and Life

How one views the nature of the body and soul will also affect how one views the purpose of life. In Phaedo, Socrates, though he is the one about to lose his life, comforts his friends and rejoices at the thought:

For I deem that the true votary of philosophy is likely to be misunderstood by other men; they do not perceive that he is always pursuing death and dying; and if this be so, and he has had the desire of death all his life long, why when his time comes should he repine at that which he has been always pursuing and desiring? (Plato, 1892, p. 202)

Socrates goes on to ask his friends if the true philosopher should care about the “pleasures of eating and drinking,” or the “pleasure of love.” He asks (rhetorically), “Instead of caring about them, does he not rather despise anything more than nature needs?” (Plato, 1892, p. 203) It seems that the philosopher should simply get through life, go through the motions until the gods decide to end this round and begin the next. There is no promise or hope for the future. While the soul may be freed at death, freedom is short lived. It is only a matter of time before imprisonment in the body begins again.

The biblical perspective is quite different. It tells us that life is a gift, that we are made in God’s image, and that his very breath is in our lungs. Should the Christian disdain this gift of life on earth and be in a rush to go to heaven? Certainly not. The Bible itself is concerned with teaching us how to live. And not how to live in ideal situations, but how to live in all situations. Chesterton (1909) gives us a very Mason-like contrast to the two ways of looking at life:

To the Buddhist or eastern fatalist existence is a science or a plan, which must end up a certain way. But to a Christian existence is a story, which may end up in any way. (p. 252)

How appropriate that the biography of Miss Mason, written by Essex Cholmondeley, would be entitled The Story of Charlotte Mason.This biography includes the first encounter with Miss Mason from a student to the House of Education:

On my arrival at Ambleside I was interviewed by Miss Mason who asked me for what purpose I had come. I replied: “I have come to learn to teach.’ Then Miss Mason said: ‘My dear, you have come here to learn to live.” (Cholmondeley, 1960/2000, p. 69)

Charlotte Mason’s entire philosophy is based on the idea of living: the living God, living books, living ideas, living nature, and children who are born persons. Through her work, Charlotte Mason (1925/1989f) hopes to improve the lives of all children:

It may be that the souls of all children are waiting for the call of knowledge to awaken them to delightful living. (p. xxv)

The Scope of Knowledge

With or without the senses, it would seem that both Plato and Miss Mason agree that we should seek wisdom and knowledge. But are they talking about the same thing? I think the best way to discern this is to look at how wisdom is attained. Let’s begin with Plato. Socrates says:

Many a man has been willing to go to the world below animated by the hope of seeing there an earthly love, or wife, or son, and conversing with them. And will he who is a true lover of wisdom, and is strongly persuaded in like manner that only in the world below he can worthily enjoy her, still repine at death? Will he not depart with joy? Surely he will, O my friend, if he be a true philosopher. For he will have a firm conviction that there, and there only, he can find wisdom in her purity. And if this be true, he would be very absurd, as I was saying, if he were afraid of death. (Plato, 1892, p. 207)

So Socrates says that only in “the world below” can wisdom be found and enjoyed. He then goes on to describe, through reason, that wisdom is gained in this time when the soul is temporarily freed from the body. Knowledge is forgotten at birth and then “recollected” in the present life:

And if we acquired this knowledge before we were born, and were born having the use of it, then we also knew before we were born and at the instant of birth not only the equal or the greater or the less, but all other ideas; . . . of beauty, goodness, justice, holiness, and of all which we stamp with the name of essence in the dialectical process, both when we ask and when we answer questions. Of all this we may certainly affirm that we acquired the knowledge before birth?

. . . But if, after having acquired, we have not forgotten what in each case we acquired, then we must always have come into life having knowledge, and shall always continue to know as long as life lasts — for knowing is the acquiring and retaining knowledge and not forgetting. . .

But if the knowledge which we acquired before birth was lost by us at birth, and if afterwards by the use of the senses we recovered what we previously knew, will not the process which we call learning be a recovering of the knowledge which is natural to us, and may not this be rightly termed recollection? (Plato, 1892, pp. 216-217)

If I were to live by the logic of Plato, I would seek wisdom through philosophy within myself, in an attempt to recall the knowledge of things that I have simply forgotten. As much as possible, I should disconnect from my body and all earthly pleasure so that I might reduce the burden the body places on the soul.

Now, let’s move to the Christian perspective. Chesterton (1909) nicely contrasts these opposing world views:

Certainly the most sagacious creeds may suggest that we should pursue God into deeper and deeper rings of the labyrinth of our own ego. But only we of Christendom have said that we should hunt God like an eagle upon the mountains. . . (p. 249)

The Christian perspective tells us that the person seeking wisdom and knowledge should first seek a relationship with an external God:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. (Proverbs 9:10, ESV, 2016)

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:5, ESV, 2016)

Since Plato and Christian revelation point to two such different methods for attaining wisdom, we might expect that Plato and Christian revelation also point to different ideas of what wisdom actually is. Indeed, they do. Wisdom, from the Hebrew perspective, includes the entire being of the person, as also in Miss Mason’s method. Interestingly, the Aramaic word for wisdom is chokmah, and it includes the wisdom of technical skill. When the Israelites were building the temple after the exodus from Egypt, God filled the craftsmen with wisdom:

And thou shalt speak unto all that are wise hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him, that he may minister unto me in the priest’s office. (Exodus 28:3, KJV, 2009)

Since Plato depreciates the body, he would not accept this kind of technical skill as wisdom. Socrates didn’t work; he spent his days philosophizing with his admirers, so he certainly would not have seen the value in craftsmanship. But God does, and all Christians should; Charlotte Mason certainly did. Her inclusion of handicrafts in the curriculum shows that she understands that the body is part of the child and is part of his pursuit of wisdom. R.A. Pennethorne (1899), one of my favorite authors in The Parents’ Review, tells us:

The child is only truly educated who can use his hands as truly as his head, for to neglect one part of our being injures the whole, and the learned book-worm who is ignorant of the uses of a screwdriver, also lacks that readiness and resourcefulness, mental neatness and capability, and reverence for labour and its results, which a knowledge of practical matter gives. (p. 561)

I come from a long line of craftsmen and skilled laborers. I have seen first-hand the attitudes of pride and superiority that form when a person does not have an understanding and appreciation for the importance of every kind of work. There is one body of Christ, each member having its own duty (Ephesians 4:16), and no work being more important than any other. My work as a hairdresser was no less important than the work of the doctors, teachers, and computer engineers I served. My work now – homeschooling, making dinner, folding laundry and de-escalating tantrums – is no less important than my previous career. So I wonder, how many classical philosophers would be considered wise by the biblical standard?

When Solomon asks God for wisdom, he is given discernment, largeness of heart, proverbs, songs, and knowledge of the natural world (1Kings 4:29, 32-33). The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, but once our hearts are set on Him, the fruit of wisdom encompasses everything that allows us to better serve others and to live more fully in our bodies and on this earth. God would have us be more present, not less. We should be more connected to the people and things of this earth through love. The pursuit of wisdom should project outward.

Chesterton (1909) compares paintings of the Buddhist saint to paintings of the Christian saint. He writes:

The opposition exists at every point, but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. . . . The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards. (p. 243)

Miss Mason’s philosophy and method completely harmonizes with biblical pattern of looking outward from the self. She has the child looking outward in wonder and in pursuit of relationships with many things, and especially with God himself. The crux of her philosophy is in the Great Recognition, “that God the Holy Spirit is Himself, personally, the Imparter of knowledge, the Instructor of youth, the Inspirer of genius” (Mason, 1896/1989b, p. 270-271).

Does this doctrine of ideas as the spiritual food needful to sustain the immaterial life throw any light on the doctrines of the Christian religion?

Yes; the Bread of Life, the Water of Life, the Word by which man lives, the ‘meat to eat which ye know not of,’ and much more, cease to be figurative expressions, except that we must use the same words to name the corporeal and the incorporeal sustenance of man. We understand, moreover, how ideas emanating from our Lord and Saviour, which are of His essence, are the spiritual meat and drink of His believing people. We find it no longer a ‘hard saying,’ nor a dark saying, that we must sustain our spiritual selves upon Him, even as our bodies upon bread. (Mason, 1896/1989b, p. 246)

Knowledge and Purity

While the Christian looks outwardly for wisdom, he is also inwardly aware of sin. As Christians, we know that sin is what separates us from God, and we know that all have sinned. No man is righteous on his own, but self-righteousness is still as much a problem now as it was with the Pharisees. I hope you will follow my logic here. Plato’s ideas on purity and separation from the body actually reinforce our sinful tendencies to seek only the spiritual, to think of ourselves as above others, and to believe that through our own works we can earn a place in the presence of God.

In this present life, I reckon that we make the nearest approach to knowledge when we have the least possible intercourse or communion with the body, and are not surfeited with the bodily nature, but keep ourselves pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us. And thus having got rid of the foolishness of the body we shall be pure and hold converse with the pure, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere, which is no other than the light of truth. For the impure are not permitted to approach the pure. (Plato, 1892, p. 206)

Do you see the danger here? There are words that stand out, phrases even, that can be misconstrued to be in agreement with Christianity. There are verses in the Bible that can be and have been misconstrued into agreeing with Plato. Ranald Macaulay and Jerram Barrs (1978) discuss the problem with asceticism in Chapter six of their book Being Human:

Because asceticism is such a common problem in the church and because these (Bible) passages appear to encourage asceticism, it is very important to look carefully at them. . .  asceticism raises its head in some form or other in every generation. People think that being a Christian – being spiritual – means giving up everything that is enjoyable and crushing whatever inner impulses they have simply because they are part of the human experience. . . Throughout history there has been a tendency toward asceticism within the religions of the world, so that for ordinary men and women “religion” has become synonymous with the negative, the drab, the gaunt, the unnatural. The monk, for example, gives up everything, renounces his possessions, lives in great austerity, shaves his head and is celibate. This is the idea of “being spiritual.” The “religious,” as they are called, even seem like athletes in a race of negation – each trying to outdo the other in severity toward the body by sitting on beds of nails or in ice-bound caves, never speaking and eating hardly anything. (p. 118)

For a fuller understanding of the confusion that leads to asceticism, and more insight into the negative effects of Platonism in the Church, I recommend reading Being Human in its entirety. Personally, I think the way Plato rejects the body and separates the pure from the impure is completely selfish. I think that such an attitude in a Christian is a hindrance to doing the work of Christ. It is actually a luxury to say that one should have very little interest in the body. To the poor, the hungry, and the sinful, the ascetic is untouchable. And to the ascetic, the common people are impure.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17, ESV, 2016)

By focusing on self, whether through asceticism, according to Plato, or through materialism, according to what we see in our society today, the believer separates himself from the world and loses the opportunity to participate in the real work of Christ. Charlotte Mason (1905/1989e) understood this too:

Life, circumscribed by self, its interests and advantages, falls under the condemnation, – “He that saveth his life shall lose it.”

Therefore, Christ ate with publicans and sinners, and pronounced woes against the respectable classes because the sinners might still have a Will which might rise, however weakly, at the impact of a great thought, at the call to a life outside of themselves. The men at whom no one could point a finger were tied and bound in self, and were incapable of the great act of will implied in, “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve.”

There are but two services open to men – that which has self as the end and centre, and that which has God (and, by consequence, man) for its object. (p. 172)


Plato believed the body exists in opposition to the soul and is a hindrance to the acquirement of wisdom. He believed that true wisdom could only be experienced and enjoyed in the time that the soul spent between bodies. He said that the pursuit of philosophy, through the diminishment of the body, was the best one could hope for in this life. All knowledge which has passed on to the soul in death is forgotten when the soul is imprisoned once again into a new body. Rather than learning new knowledge, education is only the remembrance of those forgotten things and can only be accomplished by introspection and contemplation within the self.

The Christian view, which Charlotte Mason embraced, is that a united body and soul comprise a complete and individual being with inherent value and significance. Life is precious and is a gift. Wisdom is built up as God, the Holy Spirit, educates the person “by means of his senses” (Mason, 1886/1989a, p. 65). The person acquires wisdom as one means of fulfilling the first and second great commandments.

Now I am ready to answer my original questions. Where will classical philosophy lead me? It leads me to myself, which is away from Jesus. If classical philosophy would lead me to wisdom, is that the same as leading me to Jesus? Certainly not.

As Christians, we have to discern carefully which ideas we accept and which ones we reject. It does matter where ideas come from and what lies at the heart of it. We must take seriously the warning of the Apostle:

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8, ESV, 2016)


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