decorated initial  'P'lato and Platonism (1894) is as indecisive as Gaston and in no way derogates from the claim of Marius to be the ultimate statement, however ambiguous, of Pater's religious position. I accept the assertion of U. C. Knoepflmacher, in the finest reading of Plato and Platonism to date, that this last work of Pater's is his "final, most elaborate, but still characteristically hesitant and irresolute, iteration" of the question first imperfectly raised in the Renaissance, that of "the reconciliation of the religion of antiquity with the religion of Christ" (pp. 152-53). However, I question the climactic importance he attaches to the work ("an ambitious synthesis of all the assumptions that underlie his scattered essays and works of fiction," "the culmination of Pater's search for an aesthetic religion of form") (pp. 151, 155-56) and his reading of the connection between Pater's Greek "religion of sanity" and his view of Christianity. In the first place, Plato and Platonism is a decidedly imperfect unity — part undergraduate lecture series, part the restatement of his reconciling ideas of the period of the Greek Studies (1875-1880). For example, a central passage on the Ionian and Dorian "tendencies" in Greek life, including politics (pp. 103-105), is borrowed almost verbatim from a passage on Greek art in "The Marbles of Aegina," an essay of 1880 (GS, pp. 252-53). More centrally, the balance of forces has been [296/297] permanently and significantly tipped: always in the background, unlike the essays of the late seventies, looms the Christian standard.

Knoepflmacher feels that, for Pater, "the Greek love of form merely survives in the humanism of Christianity," that "Pagan gnôsis merely becomes Christian 'vision'," that Christianity is simply the "outgrowth" of Pater's "independent" Platonism, that Christianity represents "offshoots" of "Pater's 'true' pre-Christian Hellenism," and that the medieval cathedrals are "after all the evolutionary end-product of 'the Platonic aesthetics' ." (pp. 152-53.) Admittedly Knoepflmacher has no difficulty in showing that the "soothing mental atmosphere" of the Lacedaemonian religion of sanity can be found in Christianity (see pp. 33, 278-79), but certain contradictions in this view remain imperfectly resolved. For example, at one point he admits that the Spartan religion of sanity in Plato and Platonism is unlike the Greco-Christian "religion of cheerfulness" of Marius in being "a curiously shrivelled cult of moral form, a pseudo-Christianity," and yet shortly thereafter speaks of "Pater's Hellenistic Christianity" as if this described the ideal of Plato and Platonism as well as the "Christianity" of Marius. (pp. 156,157.) Similarly, it is hard to see how Knoepflmacher's definition of Pater's Christianity as a mere survival of Greek form is compatible with his view (with which I concur) that in Plato and Platonism Pater's "frame of reference is unmistakably Christian." (p. 158.) The closest Knoepflmacher comes to a final resolution is the formula that as Pater moves from "Winckelmann" to Plato and Platonism, his "humanistic" standards remain unchanged; Pater simply alters the "atmosphere" in which he places them, and, in particular, has "become more and more sympathetic to Christianity and to its 'humanized' symbols" (p. 161n).

My own view is that Marius and the essays of the eighties and nineties represent a fundamental and permanent realignment of the dialectically struggling forces in the Paterian synthesis and that Plato and Platonism does not mark a retreat from that final adjustment. Admittedly, the opening chapter strikes the tone of Culture and Anarchy in its insistence that "Perfection . . . is attainable only through a certain combination of opposites" (p. 24). But the entire polemical thrust of Plato and Platonism exalts the Hebraic Lacedaemonian morality as [297/298] "the saving Dorian soul," a source of discipline and order in the total "true Hellenism" Pater projects, and questions Athenian or Ionian intellectualism as somehow shallow, unstable, and excessively individualistic (pp. 23-24). This latter beginning of the scholastic mentality is condemned as having put the European mind "on a quest (vain quest it may prove to be) after a kind of knowledge perhaps not properly attainable" (p. 40). Of course Pater's suspicion of the Parmenidean "One" springs from his own nineteenth-century relativism and skepticism, his temperamental commitment to the "philosopby of motion." Nevertheless, the important fact for present purposes is that the absolutist, Greek line of European thought — akin to Indian self-annihilation, embodied in Christian mystics like Johannes Eckhart and Johannes Tauler and in "the hard and ambitious intellectualism" of Spinoza — is consistently disparaged for falling below the "deeper Gnôsis" of the Old Testament (p. 49). The Parmenidean One "was like the revelation to Israel in the midst of picturesque idolatries, 'The Lord thy God is one Lord'; only that here it made no claim to touch the affections, or even to warm the imagination" (P. 38) That Christianity is the norm in this last work of Pater's is evident in the crucial Chapter VI on "The Genius of Plato." However historically suspect may be Pater's attempt to combine in the figure of Plato "the utmost degree of Ionian sensibility" and a "desire towards the Dorian order and ascêsis" (p. 110) — in order later to unravel this [298/299] garment into two very different Platonic traditions — it is significant that Pater defends his Platonic "fusion" by reference to a higher, Christian standard:

Not to be "pure" from the body, but to identify it, in its utmost fairness, with the fair soul, by a gymnastic "fused in music," became, from first to last, the aim of education as he conceived it. That the body is but "a hindrance to the attainment of philosophy, if one takes it along with one as a companion in one's search" (a notion which Christianity, at least in its later though wholly legitimate developments, will correct) can hardly have been the last thought of Plato himself on quitting it . . . . and, Plato thus qualifying the Manichean or Puritan element in Socrates by his own capacity for the world of sense, Platonism has contributed largely, has been an immense encouragement towards, the redemption of matter, of the world of sense, by art, by all right education, by the creeds and worship of the Christian Church — towards the vindication of the dignity of the body (pp. 145-46).

This is to judge by historic Christian standards and not merely by those of Pater's "Hellenic" Christianity.

The "opposed tendencies" that Pater presents as somehow embodied in the historical Plato undoubtedly reflect divergent pulls in his own personality, as they also recapitulate the carefully poised irresolution of the conclusion of Marius. Indeed, the verbal parallels with Marius suggest that Chapter VII, which distinguishes the two tendencies reconciled in Plato, is dialectically the climax of Plato and Platonism. The paradox is the union of "the largest possible demand for infallible certainty in knowledge" with "the utmost possible inexactness, or contingency, in the method by which actually he proposes to attain it" (p. 188). The first of these "two opposite Platonic traditions" is "the ideal, the world of 'ideas,''the great perhaps,' " which "we may assume to be objective and real"; plainly this corresponds to the religiously conceived "revelation" and "undeniable possibilities," an "ampler vision" or "the great hope," to which Marius finally and tentatively opens himself (p. 196; ME, II, 218-221). Similarly, "the dialectical spirit, which to the last will have its diffidence and reserve, its scruples and second thoughts," is a "condition of suspended judgment" and is simply "the expectation, the receptivity, of the faithful scholar, determined [299/300] not to foreclose what is still a question" (p. 196). This receptivity parallels Marius' "elaborate and lifelong education of his receptive powers," his "unclouded receptivity of soul," cherished to the end, which not so much contracdicts those possibilities as prepares him for the acceptance of revelation (ME, 11, 219-20).

The two following chapters not only make Christianity the standard of reference but unmistakably set it above Greek religion. In Chapter VIII historical Platonism is declared to be the continuation of one of the two components of the Hellenic genius; its origin is in the severe Lacedaemonian religious spirit, "die specially Hellenic element in Hellenism" (pp. 200-201). This was not "a religion of gloom," for the Lacedaemonians, "like those monastic persons of whom they so often remind one . . . . were a very cheerful people" (p. 227). This "religion of sanity," which works for "the establishment of a kind of cheerful daylight in men's tempers," has a "tincture of asceticism" which "may remind us again of the monasticism of the Middle Ages. But then, monastic severity was for the purging of a troubled conscience, or for the hope of an immense prize . . ." (pp. 227, 223). Even more emphatically, Pater concludes his discussion of the Republic in Chapter IX by a cautious judgment on "the greatness of the claim Plato makes for philosophy — a promise, you may perhaps think, larger than anything he has actually presented to his readers in the way of a philosophic revelation justifies. He seems, in fact, to promise all, or almost all, that in a later age natures great and high have certainly found in the Christian religion" (p. 264). Moreover, when Pater comes to seek the historical realization of Plato's philosopher-king, be inverts Matthew Arnold's evaluations of 1863, contrasting Marcus Aurelius unfavorably with Saint Louis: "Look inward, and what is strange and inexplicable in [Marcus Aurelius] realisation of the Platonic scheme — strange, if we consider how cold and feeble after all were the rays of light on which he waited so devoutly — becomes dear in the person of Saint Louis," whose "whole being was full of heavenly vision" (pp. 265-266). Pater finishes with a flourish concerning "this vision of the City of the Perfect, The Republic, Ki Uranopolis, Utopia, Civitas Dei, The Kingdom of God" (p. 266). Again, Christianity is the culmination both historically [300/301] and intrinsically — for, in effect, Pater is endorsing the essence of Arnold's earlier judgment that Christianity, by supplying "an inspiration, a joyful emotion, to make moral action perfect," "has lighted up morality" and that Marcus Aurelius, the noblest pagan moralist, remains unsatisfied, reaching out for the "tears" and "happy self-sacrifice" of Christianity (CPW, III, 134, 156-57) Chapter X, "Plato's Aesthetics," does not further the dialectic of Christian and pagan, except perhaps in so far as Pater, self-consciously and by verbal sleight of hand, identifies Plato's insistence on the connection between aesthetic experience and moral development, with the modem view that art has no end but its own perfection. .

Indeed, the incomplete evidence suggests that the calculated skeptical poise and double-consciousness of Pater's later religious period were in fact tipped even further toward orthodoxy during the final decade of his life. Edmund Chandler's study of the textual changes in Marius between 1885 and 1892 indicates this general movement. Pater's defense of the antinomian morality of Cyrenaicism. and its compatibility with the "old morality" is excised, as are "passages plainly critical of Christianity as a religion, passages which imply a 'historical' approach, and even passages which might be taken as derogatory at first sight." (Pater on Style, pp. 65-67.) This omission of criticism of Christianity, and "a hardening of his attitude towards pagan thought and belief," (Ibid, p. 68.) are exactly what the reviews of Amiel's Journal Intime and Robert Elsmere and the essay on "Style" would lead one to expect. The deliberately maintained mood of those last years seems to have been one of religious hope, "the sort of hope which is a great factor in life" that he wrote about to Mrs. Humphry Ward in 1885. The beliefs and functions of the Church remain, he explained, one of the "obscure but all-important possibilities," "a workable hypothesis." Where Arnold, in "The Study of Poetry" and "Literature and Science," spoke of "the supposed fact" or the "supposed knowledge" underlying Christian theology with the clear sense that it was exploded, Pater's tone here is markedly different as he says, "The supposed facts on which Christianity rests, utterly incapable as they have become of any ordinary test, seem to me matters of very much the same sort of assent we give to any assumptions, in the strict and [301/302] ultimatc sense, moral."11 In fact, the almost Virgilian image of the dying aesthete Marius still open to the ampler vision, or of Plato and Marcus Aurelius in Plato and Platonism reaching out unsatisfied for the fulfilment of their hope, remained Pater's favorite religious image of this period, one which very likely reflects his sense of his own religious position. The two motifs of Pater's later rareer meet in a difficult passage in "The Age of Athletic Prizemen" (1894), one of the last publications of his life. The "Greek," Pater says, whose cultural achievement is summed up in the "pure humanity" of the Discobolus, "has been faithful" in the "administration" of the visible world: "he merited Revelation, something which should solace his heart in the inevitable fading of that" — that is, the world of sense (GS, p. 298). As the climax to this essay Pater quotes from "the Hebrew Scriptures," words given to "the Wisdom, the Logos, by whom God made the world" — "I was by him, as one brought up with him, rejoicing in the habitable parts of the earth. My delights were with the sons of men" (GS, pp. 298-299).


Victorian Website Overview Matthew Arnold Walter Pater OV Next Contents

Last modified 29 August 2007