You are a slave boy passing by the Athenian Agora when suddenly you are approached by a bald, bumpy-headed old man with a crooked nose and wild, excited eyes. Stooping at your feet, he scratches out a dusty square and begins pummeling you with a series of odd questions. Quite accidentally you have become a small but critical player in human intellectual history. You are about to help the old man settle a dispute with his friend Meno. The old man is Socrates and the dispute is about the Truth -- whether it really exists. You are about to show that it does.
In his dialogue Meno, Plato argues for the existence of a world of Forms -- a world of perfection. Socrates, the hero in most of Plato's dialogues, queries a slave boy about his knowledge of geometry. Unsurprisingly, he has none; or he thinks he has none. With careful questioning, Socrates shows that this simple, uneducated slave boy understands the Pythagorean theorem even though he has no experience of geometric formulas. Instead, his only experience has been with the imperfect shapes and measures abounding in the everyday world. But of the pure invariant mathematical relations that lie behind abstract geometry, he is utterly naïve.
Human virtues such as goodness, justice, beauty, temperance, and love are like this, Socrates insists. Our experience of them is always incomplete, fallible, and corrupted, a pale shadow of the true Forms of these concepts. Yet somehow we do understand real justice, goodness, beauty, and love. Striving for ever more perfect renderings of these virtues may be our highest human calling. Yet how can we know that for which we strive if we have never actually seen it? The perfections existed in a divine realm, Plato maintained, and our minds -- through training and contemplation -- could access these perfections even though our senses encountered only their mere reflections.
For Plato and Socrates it was essential that the highest human virtues have an objective reality. They were embroiled in a bitter battle with the Sophists, who taught that Truth was defined by circumstance or culture. The virtues had no inherent reality beyond that granted them by societies, governments, or kings. For Sophists, Truth was locally invented. For Platonists, it was universally discovered.
For many people the experience of life makes it hard for them to accept that Truth is purely a human construct. Musicians and poets often declare, quite sincerely, that a song or poem was "out there" somewhere. It was a discovery or an intuition. Celebrated mathematician Roger Penrose claims that mathematical truths exist independently of us. We don't create them; we uncover them and participate in their expression. Maybe this is more imagination than reality. Honestly, I do not know. But the experience is compelling, and I believe this is what Plato was trying to capture and rationally build upon.
This sense of participating in something larger is most profound, I think, when it comes to love. Love of offspring and kin are nature's most powerful manifestations of this emotion. Shakespeare voices the raw force of this love when he has the ghastly Aaron from Titus Andronicus, upon seizing his infant son, bellow, "This before all the world do I prefer/This pleasure all the world I will keep safe." This primal emotion magnified through the lens of human consciousness is often at the core of life's most deeply transformative experiences. At its best, religion represents an attempt at harnessing these experiences and extending them beyond nature's intended limits. Or as Graham Green's Whiskey Priest expressed in The Power and the Glory, "This is what I should feel all the time, for everyone."
Hoover Institute research fellow Mary Eberstadt (Policy Review No. 143) has proposed a provocative theory about the pervasive secularization of Europe. She cites demographic data showing that across Europe secularization followed a significant drop in birth rates. This, she argues, suggests that an important factor in secularization was the decline of family life. First Europeans gave up on children and family, then they gave up on God. Globally, secular marriage and birth rates lag substantially behind those of the devout. For Eberstadt, this points to an inversion of the popular wisdom about religion and family. Instead of religion convincing people that they ought to be married and fruitful, it's being married and fruitful that produce more religion. Other studies have tended to confirm this, finding that people with traditionalist views on marriage, sex, and family are drawn to religion more so than religion inculcates people with traditional views (e.g., Evolution and Human Behavior 29, p. 327).
It may be that experiencing the sometimes ineffable love of family life is, for many, overwhelming. It becomes difficult to accept that this is not a precious thread connecting us to a more perfect love "out there" somewhere. The idea that this love somehow transcends our brief stint on earth becomes equally as hard to dismiss. The lover's intuition, like that of the poet or mathematician, might be the first faint hints of Platonic discovery, or it might be nothing more than weak-minded drivel. I don't know; in fact, I don't think it can be known. But this is not the most important issue.
What's important is how we react to this experience. Atheists make a good point when they claim that eyeing squarely our finite existence should embolden us to live this life with greater moral urgency. We should redouble our efforts at perfecting love, justice, and beauty right here and right now because this is our only chance. For many, this can be a potent inspiration for leading a life well lived. For others, however, the atheist exhortation produces only nihilistic despair: What moral ideal should I work toward if they are all but fallible human constructs?
For these people, an alternative source of inspiration may lie in the belief that when love grasps and overwhelms us, we are ennobled by not dismissing it as a mere fitness-enhancing oxytocin rush. Instead, they wager that these moments are fleeting glimpses of a grand and marvelous drama of which they are a part. They strive to broaden those moments, transforming transient encounters with all-consuming love into an habitual disposition toward life. Often religion is their method for pursuing this.