Philosophical Mysticism in Plato, Hegel, and the Present

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Robert Wallace
  • London: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Philosophical Mysticism in Plato, Hegel, and the Present is the kind of ambitious book that usually only enthusiastic novices dare attempt, but only scholars with a lifetime of dedicated work can accomplish. Arranged in nine meandering chapters, Robert Wallace’s book has a daunting goal. He seeks to revive “philosophical mysticism,” understood as “the doctrine that we sometimes have direct knowledge of a higher reality or God” as a project for contemporary philosophy (x). Specifically, Wallace takes aim at what he calls “the Platonic philosophical theology.” Still, his chief interlocutors are Plato and G. W. F. Hegel rather than the late ancient Middle and Neoplatonists or the theistic Platonism prominent in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions through the Middle Ages into modernity (1). That said, we are treated to intriguing glimpses of a dizzying array of other thinkers along the way. Aristotle, St. Paul, Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, Rumi, Nicolas Cusanus, George Berkeley, Immanuel Kant, Mary Wollstonecraft, Alfred North Whitehead, Martin Heidegger, Aldous Huxley, and Ludwig Wittgenstein all make at least cameo appearances. Because of the extreme breadth of his sources, Wallace’s book is unlikely to bear much fruit with beginners. Often, we are given little more than a name which presupposes a lot of his reader. Therefore, the work will be most beneficial for scholars and graduate students in theology and the philosophy of religion.

The overarching concern here is to take seriously a seriously out-of-date notion, degrees of reality. Wallace is careful to alert his reader that this is not a turn to levels of metaphysical reality, whether the two worlds of many interpretations of Plato or the proliferation of links in the Great Chain of Being elaborated by later Neoplatonists. Instead, Wallace has in mind the “higher degree of freedom and reality” that we all encounter in the everyday transcendence of human thought (3). It is our “unifying rational activity,” cognitive but especially conative, that discloses the mystical ascent to the Divine for Wallace (3). The ability to make up our mind about anything is an indication of the “inner freedom” recognized first by Socrates and Plato as the pursuit which “makes a person more real, more herself and more a person” (9). In explicit contrast with most forms of theism, Wallace identifies the realm of true freedom as God. That is, Wallace’s God (which he identifies with Plato’s and Hegel’s too) is the “freedom, truth, love, and beauty” that we already encounter in our ordinary lives (17). Wallace’s mysticism is thus not a flight from the everyday world but the realization of the hidden (because presupposed) truth thereof in human terms.

How do we realize this mystical awareness? By becoming more fully who we already are. In Platonic terms, “our motive for leaving the cave is to be ourselves, to ‘become entirely one,’ and, for that purpose, to be guided by what’s really good, rather than by mere belief” (139, italics original). When we actualize true inner freedom as centers of our own thinking and choosing through “our ability to go beyond our initial desires and opinions,” (93) we realize the only divinity worth knowing for Wallace. Much like that of Paul Tillich and others steeped in the Christian Platonist tradition, this transcendence is not foreign to us and thus not another finite object for our attention. Instead, this truly infinite God is a “higher standard that’s not alien to us, and consequently doesn’t threaten our freedom” because both the standard and our freedom are “created by the process of revising our initial opinions and desires through thought” (93). The apparent affinities with Whitehead’s process theology here, though inconsistent with the evident idealization of divine and human aseity elsewhere, deserve further development than they have in this work.

Wallace is perhaps at his most persuasive when arguing that his conception of God and the unifying process of actualized inner freedom avoids the problems faced by fundamentalists, dogmatists, and atheists alike who identify God as a potential inhibitor of human freedom. All equally, “miss the key point” that God is not an object that stands over against us in the exercise of human freedom (93). Voluntarists, libertarians, and empiricists who base accountability on character fail for this reason and because they cannot account for the crucial role of unifying the person as Wallace’s Platonic/Hegelian approach does (143–146).

Why refer any of this to “God”? Because Wallace argues, in becoming most fully ourselves, we are also becoming “as much like God as possible” (186, quoting Plato, Theaetetus 176b). For, “it’s precisely God, Plato implies, who is fully ‘himself,’ by virtue of not being distracted by mortal or bodily concerns. So that to become like God is to become one’s true self” (186). By becoming our own centers of free thought and decision, we emulate the perfect freedom of the Divine. Just how to square this with the insights of contemporary psychology and feminist theory about the intensely social nature of human wellbeing is an area of particularly glaring need here. While Wallace attempts to show in later chapters how none of his theological speculations is inherently amoral or disinterested, this is apt to feel like an ad hoc add-on to an otherwise classically sterile picture of the philosopher rapt in contemplation while the world burns. The conceptual tools are present in the spiritual vision Wallace lays out to avoid this shortcoming in an integrated way, but we await future work to see that spelled out explicitly.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Derek A. Michaud is lecturer of philosophy and coordinator of Judaic and religious studies at the University of Maine.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert M. Wallace


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