An intriguing part of Islamic history is the moment when Muslim scholars encountered Greek philosophy for the first time. A revealed religion with a complete cosmology suddenly bumps up against a system of thought based on deductive reason, but whose brilliance is undeniable. These Islamic scholars quickly began work reacting to this new (albeit ancient) philosophical work, ushering in a particularly productive period of thought in the medieval world. Of course, Christianity underwent a similar process; in both cases religious thinkers were impressed by what they found in Greek philosophy, and determined to evaluate their own beliefs using this newly found system of thought.
As a Latter-day Saint, I found myself having what must have been a similar experience when encountering Greek philosophy for the first time. Like the early Christians and Muslims, Latter-day Saints have inherited a revealed and more-or-less complete cosmology that ostensibly has little to do with Greek philosophy. The interest Joseph Smith had in the ancients appeared to be more geared towards the Hebrews and Egyptians. Indeed, there is no evidence that he was aware of even the more popular strands of philosophy, Greek or otherwise (see Top, 2016). And yet, these ancient philosophers’ arguments have just as much relevance to Latter-day Saints as they do to any other religious group. Latter-day Saints are equally as beholden to finding truth. As Joseph Smith said “the first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation” (as quoted in Smith, 2007, 264).
Latter-day Saints would find much they recognized as truth in early Greek philosophy, and of course, the challenges Greek philosophy posed to other religious groups who encountered it remain as well. This essay will focus more on the former point. It is too ambitious to examine Latter-day Saint doctrine through the lens of all Greek philosophy, and hence I have chosen a slightly more manageable (although still too dense by far) slice of that pie--the Pre-Aristotelians.1 I do so not only for reasons of reducing scope, but also by reasoning that Aristotelian thought is essentially Christian thought, inasmuch as early Church fathers were intensely interested in blending principles from Aristotle with truths they found in the Bible. It also provides an opportunity for readers to gain exposure to some Pre-Socratic philosophers, who are part of one of the least known of the branches or eras of Greek philosophy, and thus their ideas are likely to be the most novel to compare and contrast. They would also have been the least familiar to Joseph Smith.2 Of course, even my efforts at division leave too broad an intellectual area to do more than make a rather superficial survey, but I leave it to the reader whose interest may be sparked by one particular area or another to investigate more fully. Likewise, I point out only a handful of subjects I believe would be of interest to Latter-day Saints; others might find totally different subjects based on the same reading. Again, I leave it to the reader to investigate more fully should their interest be piqued.
My core aim is to show how resonant these millenia-old ideas remain, even to a modern church. I focus on the topics of the nature of the universe, eternity, humanity, truth, opposition, and the political community. As the Muslim and Early Christian thinkers that preceded us found out, answering the arguments put forward by these ancient philosophers is both challenging and exciting.
The Nature of the Universe and Eternity
Pre-Socratic philosophers were often focused on discovering first principles, or that which is the cause of all else. The philosopher Anaximander believed the first principle was something called the Apeiron, which means infinite, limitless, or beyond the imagination of humans (see description in Burnet, 1930). From this Apeiron, which is different to any other element or substance, arose all the heavens and the earth. Aristotle described Anaximander’s apeiron as an unlimited, eternal, primordial mass which perpetually yields fresh materials from which everything we perceive is derived.
Similarly, the philosopher Heraclitus proposed a first principle, but with a fiery twist: “This world-order [the material universe], which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living Fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out” (Diels & Kranz, 1922, p.30).
Likewise, the philosopher Parmenides thought that non-being cannot exist, so something cannot come into being from non-being. And the entire school of atomists believed that atoms, that which they conjectured made up the universe, were infinite; they could never come into being or be destroyed as they are uncreated (Adamson, 2014).
The atomists were examples of materialists, or those who believed that everything that exists must be made of matter. Others, like Thales of Miletus, went even further into what is known as hylozoism, or the belief that all matter is alive or has a soul (as reported by Aristotle; see Reeve, 2017).
There was also a widespread belief about the natural or harmonious order of the universe, perhaps inspired mainly by the regularity of the observable heavenly bodies, but also by a confidence in the supremacy of reason, and thus an assumption that God also uses reason to order the universe. The Pythagoreans, for example, believed in a celestially-inspired golden mean, as well as an ordered cosmos where celestial spheres inhibit their proper place (Adamson, 2014).
Latter-day Saints might not seek to identify the exact meta-substance of the universe, but they would be comfortable with this idea of existence as having always existed, and with an ordered universe. In Doctrine and Covenants, 93:29 & 33 we are told that “the elements are eternal” and that intelligence “was not created or made, neither can be.” Interpreting such statements, Joseph Fielding Smith said that: “the Lord declares that the elements are eternal. Matter always did and, therefore, always will exist” (1953). Furthermore, like the materialists, Latter-day Saint doctrine declares that “there is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; we cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter” (Doctrine & Covenants, 131:7-8). And like the Hylozoists, Latter-day Saint doctrine suggests that even inanimate objects may have spirits since “the Lord God, created all things…spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth (Moses 3:5). Even the Earth itself is considered a living entity with its own spirit (see Moses 7:48; Doctrine & Covenants 77:1-2 & 130:8-9). This spiritual creation is emblematic of planning and order. Consider also the description of the harmonious ordering of the universe given in Abraham chapter 3, where all the planets and stars fit into their perfect places. Or in Doctrine & Covenants 88 in which it says that God “hath given a law unto all things, by which they move in their times and their seasons; and their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which comprehend the earth and all the planets.”3
The Eternal and Celestial Nature of Humanity
Some Greek philosophers followed the supposition that matter is uncreated and eternal to its logical conclusion--that the souls of human beings are therefore also uncreated and eternal. In the Platonic dialogues The Meno and the Phaedo, Plato (through Socrates) puts forward his belief that our souls have always existed.4 Not only have they always existed, but in a conscious state: “our souls must also have existed without bodies before they were in the form of man, and must have had intelligence” (Buchanenen, 1948, p.219).
Heraclitus of Ephesus believed that both the heavenly bodies and our souls were made of fire (see Kirk & Raven, 1957). Thus, our souls are literally celestial. Furthermore, he believed in a sort of hierarchy of souls, where, although everything is made of fire, there are gradations of purity. The purest and brightest fire was the most divine, and the more fiery souls are the wiser ones. In other words, the "intellect is explicitly placed in the soul" by Heraclitus (Kirk & Raven, 1957, p. 206).
Heraclitus was not alone in believing in a natural difference in the quality of souls or intelligence. Anaxagoras gives a concept of ‘mind' that suggests that it is distributed quite unevenly across the universe. And Plato in The Phaedo suggested that the souls of individuals who love knowledge are superior: "No one who has not studied philosophy and who is not entirely pure at the time of his departure is allowed to enter the company of the gods, but the lover of knowledge only" (in Buchanen, 1948, p. 228).
Latter-day Saints, too, believe in the idea of eternal, uncreated souls. In Doctrine & Covenants 93:29 it says that "Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be." And Joseph Smith declared that "the Spirit of Man is not a created being; it existed from Eternity and will exist to eternity. Anything created cannot be eternal, and earth, water, etc.—all these had their existence in an elementary state from Eternity" (Ehat & Cook, 1980). Elsewhere he is quoted as saying:
“We say that God himself is a self-existing God; who told you so? it is correct enough but how did it get into your heads? Who told you that man did not exist in like manner upon the same principles? The mind of man is as immortal as God himself. . . . Is it logic to say that a spirit is immortal, and yet have a beginning? Because if a spirit have a beginning it will have an end . . . intelligence exists upon a self-existent principle, it is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about it. . . . The first principles of man are self-existent with God” (as quoted in Top, 2016).
And in yet another sermon he says: “I am dwelling on the immutability of the spirit of man…All men say God created it in the beginning. The very idea lessens man in my estimation; I do not believe the doctrine, I know better. Hear it all ye ends of the world, for God has told me so” (as quoted in Top, 2016).
Latter-day Saints also believe that souls differ from one another in quality. In the third chapter of Abraham, God tells Abraham that this difference is an eternal principle; that where one thing exists, another thing must exist which is greater than it (v.8-9). Consider his language in verses 16-19: “If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them…if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other…there shall be another more intelligent than they.” And God justifies his place at the head of creation because he is “more intelligent than they all” (v.35). In other words, a natural hierarchy exists simply out of merit--God is the most intelligent of all the beings in creation, and hence he is the most fit to rule those less intelligent than him. And he seems to have organized humanity thus. In Abraham 3:22-23, Abraham notices that some spirits stand apart from others; they are “noble and great” and “chosen.”
The belief some ancient Greek philosophers had about the different quality of souls naturally led to beliefs about differing outcomes for these souls once they shed their mortal tabernacles. The most well-developed of these is Plato’s account of the afterlife as given by Socrates in The Phaedo as he prepares to drink down hemlock. Socrates reasons that after death a judgment occurs which puts people in various conditions, rather than just heaven and hell:
“Such is the nature of the other world; and when the dead arrive at the place…first of all, they have sentence passed upon them, as they have lived well and piously or not. And those who appear to have lived neither well nor ill, go to the river Acheron…and there they dwell and are purified of their evil deeds…[until] they are absolved…each of them according to his deserts. But those who appear to be incurable by reason of the greatness of their crimes--who have committed many and terrible deeds of sacrilege, murders…or the like--such are hurled into Tartarus which is their suitable destiny…Those again who have committed crimes, which, although great, are not irremediable--who in a moment of anger, for example, have done some violence…and have repented for the remainder of their lives…these are plunged into Tartarus, the pains of which they are compelled to undergo for a year…Those too who have been preeminent for loneliness of life are released from this earthly prison, and go to their pure home which is above, and dwell in the purer earth…in mansions fairer still, which may not be described” (as quoted in Buchanen, 1948, p.272-273).
Given that Socrates had tried to live a virtuous life, he is sanguine about the prospect of his imminent death. Socrates explains his cheerfulness by comparing himself to a swan. He explains that swans have the gift of prophecy, and thus, when a swan knows it will die, its final song is a song of joy and beauty because it is finally to join its divine master:
“They have the gift of prophecy, and anticipate the good things of another world...for they, when they perceive that they must die, having sung all their life long, do then sing more lustily than ever, rejoicing in the thought that they are about to go away to the God whose ministers they are...and I too, believing myself to be the consecrated servant of the same God...would not go out of life less merrily than the swans” (as quoted in Buchanen, 1948, p. 233).
Socrates also famously proposed a doctrine of reincarnation, where people are reborn into the bodies they deserve based on their actions in life. So violent people get violent bodies (think wolves); orderly people get orderly bodies (think bees), and so on. The purest souls escape this rebirth however and “depart to the invisible world--to the divine and immortal and rational; thither arriving, [they are] secure of bliss and released from the error and folly of men…and forever dwell…in company with the gods” (Buchanen, 1948, p. 226). Heraclitus goes further on this idea of release, approaching the Buddhist idea of annihilation, saying that “virtuous souls…join, eventually, the cosmic fire” that makes up the universe (as quoted in Kirk & Raven, 1957, p.209).
For Latter-day Saints, the vision Socrates gives of a variety of post-mortal outcomes based on mortal behaviour seems perfectly reasonable. It is one of the doctrines that sets Latter-day Saints apart from traditional Christians who typically believe only in two absolute post-Earth outcomes. And the description of temporary pain to atone for actions before receiving glory is essentially the same as what Latter-day Saints believe about suffering in the Spirit World. In the Spirit World, Latter-day Saints believe unrepentant individuals have to suffer severe pain for their sins until they are atoned for and are ready to enter a Kingdom of Glory (see Alma 40:13-14; 1 Nephi 15:29; Doctrine & Covenants 76:193-106 & 19:16-17).
Although reincarnation is not a typical part of Latter-day Saint theology, the underlying idea behind it is--that people receive the bodies they deserve. Latter-day Saints interpret Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 25:40 that “there are celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another” as meaning that resurrected bodies will literally differ in their glory and function. Of course, the other aspect of reincarnation or resurrection (that it is a curse compared to oblivion) is not espoused by Latter-day Saint doctrine. It bears thinking about though. Latter-day Saints usually base their thinking about eternity in the idea of progress; that we eternally progress from one state to the next, but that the highest state is a godhood that involves organizing and guiding spirits through the same mortal ordeal as we find ourselves in currently.5 But that endpoint is typically the limit of our vision. There’s arguably a contradiction here; if progress is the unit of eternity, isn’t an unending state of godhood actually stasis? Doing the same thing over and over in one unending, and perhaps eventually wearying, celestial round? Would we not eventually long for the type of annihilation that Heraclitus described, where we reunite with the fundamental matter of the universe? There is nothing to suggest this in scripture or doctrine, but it is certainly raised in Greek philosophy, and is an interesting concept to try fit into the idea of eternal progress.
Latter-day Saints also strive for the same equanimity about death that Socrates appears to have achieved. Alma 27:28 praises those who “never did look upon death with any degree of terror, for their hope and views of Christ and the resurrection; therefore, death was swallowed up to them by the victory of Christ over it.” We are also explicitly told not to fear death (see Doctrine & Covenants 101:36). Various Latter-day Saint prophets have also encouraged members to think of death without fear:
“All fear of this death has been removed from the Latter-day Saints. They have no dread of the temporal death, because they know that as death came upon them by the transgression of Adam, so by the righteousness of Jesus Christ shall life come unto them, and though they die, they shall live again. Possessing this knowledge, they have joy even in death” (Joseph F. Smith, 2014, p. 428).
“If we say that early death is a calamity, disaster or a tragedy, would it not be saying that mortality is preferable to earlier entrance into the spirit world and to eventual salvation and exaltation? If mortality be the perfect state, then death would be a frustration but the Gospel teaches us there is no tragedy in death, but only in sin” (Spencer W. Kimball,1955, p.3).
“I was in a small airplane, and all of a sudden the engine on the wing caught fire. It exploded, and burning oil was poured all over the right side of the airplane. And we started to dive toward the earth. We were spinning down to our death. Oh, this woman across the aisle, I just was so sorry for her. She was just absolutely, uncontrollably hysterical. And I was calm. I was totally calm even though I knew I was going down to my death” (Russel M. Nelson, 2018).
The Nature of Truth
The Ancient Greeks gave us the study of epistemology, as they were concerned with finding out how much we can really know to be true. They reached different conclusions. The philosopher Democritus, for example, believed that all truth in the world we perceive is mere social construction: “By convention sweet and by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention colour: in reality atoms and void” (Kirk & Raven, 1957). Elsewhere he says that “a man must recognize by this rule that he is removed from reality” and “this argument too shows that in reality we know nothing about anything (ibid). We know nothing because the only thing that is real is the atomic universe, says Democritus, and so we have to make do only with belief since we cannot see atoms with our eyes (Adamson, 2014).
The philosopher Protagoras can be put in the same category of skeptics. Consider his famous remark that “man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not” (Adamson, 2014). If human beings can only measure truth according to their imperfect senses and reason, what hope have we to approach ultimate truth? Protagoras emphasizes his point by pointing out that even something as seemingly verifiable as assessing temperature is subject to the same flaw: “it could be true-for-me that the wind is cold, and true-for-you that the wind is warm. There is no such thing as the way the wind really is in itself. There is only the way things seem to us” (Adamson, 2014, p.81).
These philosophers were speaking about truth in general, but it applies also to truth about God, or the ability to know the nature of God. The philosopher Xenophanes believed that “the clear and certain truth no man has seen nor will there be anyone who knows about the gods” (Kirk & Raven, 1957). He is skeptical that any human being can know anything about deity with any thing approaching certainty; we can hope and think God is a certain way, but we cannot know for certain. Far more likely, thought Xenophanes, was the idea that we all make God in our own image: “Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black; Thracians that theirs are are blue-eyed and red-haired” (Kirk & Raven, 1957). Elsewhere he adds that if horses and oxen had hands and could draw pictures, their gods would look remarkably like horses and oxen (ibid).
Plato takes a middle road. He affirms the belief that true knowledge is difficult to achieve, and most people muddle along with belief. In fact, most of his dialogues involve Socrates proving to people that they cannot adequately define or describe anything. At the same time, he thoroughly rejects the relativism found in the work of philosophers like Protagorus. Plato believed in absolute truth.6 His theory of forms articulates that--this reality being a reflection of perfect forms.7 Thus, what makes a whole host of dissimilar things beautiful is because they all are echoes of some absolute thing, the form of beauty.
Socrates (as reported by Plato) also thought that human beings, by virtue of possessing souls, had the capacity to innately sense truth: “The soul is like the eye: when resting upon that on which truth and being shine, the soul perceives and understands and is radiant with intelligence” (as quoted in Buchanen, 1948, p.540). In a similar vein, Socrates found that in his own life, there were times he recognized truth in the form of divine guidance. I am referring to his famous “divine sign”; a voice Socrates heard which would tell him when a course of action was wrong (Adamson, 2014). In another dialogue, Socrates includes love as a means of communicating truth between the gods and humans (Buchanen, 1948):
“[Love] is a great spirit, and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the moral…he interprets…between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods, he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together, and through him the arts of the prophet and the priest, their sacrifices and mysteries and charms, and all prophecy…for God mingles not with man, but through Love all the intercourse and converse of god with man, whether awake or asleep, is carried on. The wisdom which understands this is spiritual.”
Latter-day Saints have a more straightforward (critics would say simplistic) approach to truth, more confidence that they can know truth, and like Plato, an unwavering stance in the belief of absolute truth. Doctrine & Covenant 90:24 & 28 tells us that “truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come…he that keepeth his commandments received truth and light, until he is glorified in truth and knoweth all things.” Truth here is not relative and is knowable to those who follow God. This latter point is key to Latter-day Saint doctrine as we believe that “the Spirit speaketh truth and lieth not” (Jacob 4:13). The Holy Ghost reveals truth, and in order to be in tune with the Holy Ghost, we have to live so as to be receptive to its influence. To illustrate Latter-day Saint belief here, consider President Spencer W. Kimball’s words (from “Absolute Truth,” Ensign, Sept, 1978, p. 3-5):
“The earth is spherical. If all the four billion people in the world think it flat, they are in error. That is an absolute truth, and all the arguing in the world will not change it. We learn about these absolute truths by being taught by the spirit…these vital truths are not matters of opinion. If they were, then your opinion would be just as good as mine, or better. But I give you these things, not as my opinion--I give them to you as divine truths which are absolute.”
The quote I shared earlier from Socrates about how “the soul is like the eye: when resting upon that on which truth and being shine, the soul perceives and understands and is radiant with intelligence” is one which seems to have a close corollary to Doctrine & Covenants 88:40: “For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraced truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light.” And the divine sign that Socrates believed guided his life is one Latter-day Saints would readily identify with the Holy Ghost, which is the communicator of truth.
Xenophanes’s complaint about anthropomorphizing God is an interesting one to consider from a Latter-day Saint perspective. Arguably, we do this to the greatest extent of any religion since we literally consider God to be a man, and to be the father of all humanity. Not only that, but a God who takes an active role in guiding the everyday decisions of his church and children, and one who has Temples built which are often referred to as the literal house of God. This feeling of closeness with God is characteristic of Latter-day Saints and an admirable trait. Where it goes wrong, in my opinion, is when Latter-day Saints use their own political and social philosophies and infer Godliness to them, or believe God must believe them too.
Heraclitus saw opposition in all things (see Adamson, 2014). The unity of the world, he believed, can be seen in the constant war or opposition between things--unity resides in opposition. Think of a road; the road up is the road down. It’s not merely perspective; the road is both things. Our perspective merely curtails us from seeing the road as it really is. Heraclitus not only believed that opposition does exist, he thought it must exist; balance in the universe can only be maintained by this total strife between opposites (Kirk & Raven, 1957, p.195). Consider this account of Heraclitus from Aristotle: “Heraclitus rebukes the author of the line ‘Would that strife might be destroyed from among gods and men;’ for there would be no musical scale unless high and low existed, nor living creatures without female and male, which are opposites” (as quoted in Kirk & Raven, 1957, p. 196).
Similarly, the philosopher Empedocles believed that the universe was made up of two principles: love and strife. They war against each other, but that is good for human life; if only love happened human life could not; it exists only in that balance.
Latter-day Saints too venerate the principle of opposition. “It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so…righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad…the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other” (2 Nephi 2:11-16). Similarly, Doctrine & Covenants 29:39, declares that “it must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves.” Opposition is thus baked into God’s plan for his children. Without opposition or strife, there is no chance to choose between competing influences or to have the painful experiences that “shall be for [our] good” (Doctrine & Covenants 122:7). Thus, Latter-day Saints often differ in their interpretation of the events in the Garden of Eden, calling it a good thing that they ended their state of innocence, for they were “in a state of innocence…doing no good, for they knew no sin” (2 Nephi 2:23). In fact, we learn that the initial falling away of Lucifer and those who followed him came from a desire to remove opposition.
Law and the Political Community
Heraclitus believed in obedience to civil authority; one should protect the laws as one protects the walls in a siege (Adamson, 2014). Part of the reason he believed this is because he thought that human law is given sustenance by, or originates from, divine law (ibid). Certainly, however, these philosophers thought human beings could use their God-given reason to improve the justice of law and perfect the political community. The most ambitious of these efforts is the ideal community Plato describes in The Republic. Those exposed to this work as part of the typical college undergraduate class will recall a rather totalitarian description of a government where children are separated from parents, with a philosopher king at the head feeding the citizens a “noble lie.” At the beginning of the Republic, however, Plato declares that a small and simple agrarian community of farmers, craftsmen, and traders who wear simple clothing and live in peace would be the ideal (Buchanen, 1948). It is only the impossibility of keeping society in such a state (because of the natural human desire for luxury and diversion) that prompts his more complicated vision of government. This more austere version that Plato describes stems partly from his disdain of wealth as a pleasure, and oligarchy as a form of government. In The Republic, Plato describes oligarchy this way (Buchanen, 1948, p.588-602):
“And what manner of of government do you term oligarchy?
A government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it…[where] one, seeing another grow rich, seeks to rival him, and thus the great mass of the citizens become lovers of money…and so they grow richer and richer, and the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue…and in proportion as riches and rich men are honoured in the state, virtue and the virtuous are dishonoured….
The good at which such a State aims is to become as rich as possible, a desire which is insatiable…there can be no doubt that the love of wealth and the spirit of moderation cannot exist together in citizens of the same State to any considerable extent; one or the other will be disregarded…
And so at last…men become lovers of trade and money; they honour and look up to the rich man, and make a ruler of him, and dishonour the poor man…[the people are compelled] to think only of how lesser sums may be turned into larger ones…and to only worship and admire only riches and rich men, and to be ambitious [only] to the acquisition of wealth and the means of acquiring it…
The men of the governing class, are habituated to lead a life of luxury and idleness of both body and mind…they themselves care only for making money, and are as indifferent as the pauper to the cultivation of virtue...and at the same time their fondness for money makes them unwilling to pay taxes.”
Like Heraclitus, Latter-day Saints also tend to think of civil obedience as a fundamental principle. The Twelfth Article of Faith says: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”8 Latter-day Saints also have had, at points in their history, similar primitivist and utopian tendencies as Plato. Early Latter-day Saint history is filled with unconventional trials of utopian lifestyles such as collectivist programs, cooperative programs, and the abandonment of luxury. Moreover, Joseph Smith set out a vision of idealized communities laid out in a gridwork pattern with the Temple at the center. In all these cases, there was an explicit desire to build an egalitarian, self-sufficient community that espoused and reflected religious principles. And finally, Plato’s warnings about the dangers of the pursuit of wealth to a healthy political community have been echoed by many Latter-day Prophets. The most famous was Brigham Young’s declaration that “the worst fear that I have about [members of this Church] is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and his people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell” (Nibley, 1936, p.128).
The value of a comparison like this between peoples of very different eras is certainly contestable. On the one hand, selectively picking through areas of agreement can create the impression that they have much in common, conveniently ignoring the majority of discordant beliefs. I am less concerned with that here, however, in that I am not trying to argue that the Ancient Greeks believed or felt as we do. Likewise, my analysis here makes no attempt to claim that their ideas inspired Joseph Smith, or that his unfamiliarity with them is evidence of his prophetic calling. No, my aim was more modest. I merely wanted to show the incredibly long-lasting resonance, appeal, and perhaps even universal sense of yearning represented by certain ideas. These ideas were first articulated by the ancient Greeks and, amazingly enough, are still alive and well in a community that surely bears little resemblance to them. There is a certain satisfaction that comes from recognizing beliefs one has in such a foreign context, and Latter-day Saints should be no strangers to acknowledging truth that comes from different contexts. As Brigham Young said “our religion…embraces all truth, wherever found…if you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it” (as quoted in Brown, 2011, p.20).
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Aristotle. (2017). De Anima. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Brown, R. J. (2011). In Your Mind and in Your Heart. The Summerhays Lectures on Science and Religion.
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Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (2011). Men’s Hearts Shall Fail Them. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/media/video/2011-11-0020-mens-hearts-shall-fail-them?lang=eng
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Ehat, A.F. & Cook, L.W. (1980). The Words of Joseph Smith. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University.
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Kimball, S.W. (1955). Tragedy or Destiny. Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year.
Kirk, G.S. & Raven, J.E. (1957). The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge University Press.
Nibley, P. (1936). Brigham Young: The Man and his Work. Deseret News Press.
Oman, N.B.(2021). Civil Disobedience in Latter-day Saint Thought. BYU Studies Quarterly 60, no. 3.
Reeve, C.D.C. (2017). Politics: A New Translation. Hackett Publishing Company.
Russell, B. (1946). A History of Western Philosophy and its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Smith, J. (2007). Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/eng/manual/teachings-joseph-smith/_manifest
Smith, J.F. (1953). Church History and Modern Revelation. Deseret Book Company.
Smith, J.F. (2014). Gospel Doctrine. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/47109/47109-h/47109-h.htm
Top, B.L. (2016). “The First Principles of Man Are Self-Existent with God”
The Immortality of the Soul in Mormon Theology. From Let Us Reason Together
Essays in Honor of the Life’s Work of Robert L. Millet. BYU Religious Studies Center. https://rsc.byu.edu/book/let-us-reason-together
I.e. the philosophers before Aristotle. Typically a Pre-Socratic division is used in Greek philosophy, but I couldn’t resist throwing in some ideas from Plato (through his Socratic dialogues). The rest of the work examined here, however, is Pre-Socratic. ↩︎
Which is not to say that the ideas put forward by these Pre-Socratics would have been totally unfamiliar. Many of the ideas have been remarkably resilient over the millenia, even if the sources themselves have been largely forgotten. ↩︎
God gives laws, but Anaximander also believed that God is subject to laws as well, or at least has to operate within certain natural boundaries (Russell, 1946). Latter-day Saints have a similar perspective in a God bound by laws: “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say” (Doctrine & Covenants 82:10). ↩︎
It is the idea which buttresses his famous theory that no true learning can occur on Earth. What looks like learning is just recollection. Because our souls have always existed, and thus before we were born we were already ageless creatures, we had already learned an incredible amount before mortality. When we learn something on Earth, we’re actually remembering something we already knew. ↩︎
The divinity of procreation was something Plato took up in The Symposium, where he says:
“procreation is the union of man and woman, and is a divine thing, for conception and generation are an immortal principle” (Buchanen, 1948). ↩︎
Of course, belief in absolute truth naturally lends itself to a belief in good and evil. Plato has an interesting perspective here. In the Platonic dialogue Protagoras, Socrates posits that good and evil are merely pleasure and pain (see Buchanen, 1948, p.107-108). When we say that something good can be painful, we merely mean that we are choosing to maximize later and greater pleasure. For example, we undergo an operation in order to maximize the greater pleasure of health. Or, for religious people, we might choose to forgo worldly pleasures to maximize the greater pleasure of salvation. This has echoes to 2 Nephi 2:27, which says that men are free to choose either eternal life or eternal death--that sounds like eternal pleasure or pain. Likewise, if men are that they might have joy, that sounds like the object of existence is pleasure, or goodness in this case, the two being synonymous. ↩︎
One example of this kind of thinking in Plato’s dialogues comes from his discussion of language. Socrates, quoting Homer, states that things like rivers have one name used by the gods and another name used by humans, suggesting that the gods possess the true name of things, or the name of things in what might be called the true language (see Adamson, 2014, p. 177). And later in that same dialogue, Cratylus, Plato (through his character Socrates) talks about how Greek words in their most perfect form express the character of what the word represents. For example, Hector can mean “one who holds’’ just as Hector is the holder of Troy (Adamson, 2014, p. 177). For Latter-day Saints, this sounds something akin to the concept of the Adamic tongue, or some pure version of language that God gave to Adam and Eve. Joseph Smith sometimes called this “pure language” (see the Joseph Smith Papers, D2:213-215). ↩︎
See, however, Oman (2021) for an interesting perspective on the theological view of Latter-day Saint civil disobedience. ↩︎