How appropriate that we are together on this special day. One can almost hear Robin Goodfellow — Puck — say to Oberon, Chief of the Fairies:
"…shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!"
(A Midsummer Night's Dream, III.2:114–115)
When one recalls that Joseph Smith was born at the Winter Solstice, that the First Vision occurred at or near the Vernal Equinox, and that the Angel Moroni made his annual appearances to the young Prophet on successive Autumnal Equinoxes, it does not seem overly strange in the context of the Restoration for a fool to begin on this occasion with a quote from a Shakespeare play celebrating the Summer Solstice. But enough of this foolishness — we must turn our attention to more serious matters.
I would like to establish the context for a consideration of Hugh Nibley as a mentor by turning back the calendar to an earlier time. Although the comparison I wish to make does not match up in every detail, I believe the similarities justify placing Nibley alongside a noteworthy savant from another era. It will be for you to decide whether I am right.
The great wars had ended, and the powerful juggernaut had been repeatedly defeated in battles, the names of which would resound through succeeding centuries. The victors, comprised of an unstable confederation of allies, were still uncertain that the peace they had achieved would last, and they formed a defense league to maintain readiness for any future military threats. Despite mutual distrust among its members, the league existed for more than half a century.
The leading state among the allies emerged into an era of unprecedented prosperity. International trade flourished, and both raw materials and foreign goods arrived daily at its ports, and its own manufactured wares found their way to destinations in all the cardinal directions of the compass from the booming factories and businesses in that nation-state. Its building programs were carried out on such a grand scale that the major historian of the time declared that in future times people would see the ruins of those structures and have an exaggerated sense of the greatness of the people responsible for erecting them.
As you no doubt have recognized, I have been giving a description of Athens during the decades following the Persian Wars of the early 5th century BC. This period is called the Periclean Age in modern literature, taking its name from the political leader of the Athenian democracy from the middle of the century until he died of the devastating plague in 429 BC. A year before his death, Pericles delivered a speech on the virtues of the democracy, stating that Athens was both the envy and the educator of the Greek world.
II.37 "our (state) is a model to others"
II.39 "our (state) is open to the world"
II.41 "our city is an education to Greece…"
II.43 "you should fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she really is, and should fall in love with her"
II.44 "One does not feel sad at not having some good thing which is outside one's experience: real grief is felt at the loss of something which one is used to." (Thucydides, Pericles Funeral Oration I. 34–46)
The Athenians had every reason to be proud of their accomplishments. They had risen to a level of opulence and international power hitherto unknown in the Greek world. Among the buildings and monuments which adorned the Athenian Acropolis were temples which declared their piety, as well as their artistic and building skills. There were monuments dedicated to deities and heroes, making the Acropolis a veritable forest of hewn and carved stonework. There were even inscribed stelae which commemorated the contributions other states had made to the Goddess Athena — which helped defray the expenses of such a spectacular building program.
Education was fostered and highly prized during and after the Periclean Age. Well-known scholars and teachers from the east and the west converged in the great city, sharing their knowledge and rhetorical skills to fawning audiences for handsome fees. Athenians eagerly signed contracts to become disciples of these intellectual giants, hoping, no doubt, that they might acquire some of the knowledge exhibited by the esteemed sages. Festivals of drama, dance, poetry, and music were held each year, further adding luster to this gilded culture. What better life could be imagined than that of an Athenian citizen living during the third quarter of the 5th century BC?
Even when war broke out between allies which had earlier fought together against the common Persian foe, the Athenians assumed that their superiority in military, economic, and political power would see them through to ultimate victory. Thucydides, at first an Athenian general and later an exiled historian of that 27-year long war, states that the enemies of Athens were indeed motivated by fear that Athens would become even stronger and perhaps invincible if they waited indefinitely to attack. (Thucydides I.23). Even so, the first years of the Peloponnesian War consisted primarily of raids by the Spartans and their allies, destroying crops and farm structures but leaving the city intact and unscathed.
On the other side, Athens continued for the most part with business as usual, trusting in defensive measures to maintain her treasured lifestyle. After a decade of skirmishing, followed by a brief truce which was mostly a respite rather than a real peace, Athens changed tactics. As the war broke out anew, Athenian forces undertook offensive and adventuresome actions. Examples include the infamous attack and defeat of the people of Melos, an island which had maintained a strict neutrality before the Athenians killed the men and sold the women and children into slavery. (The Melian Affair, Thucydides V.84–116). About a year later, Athens equipped and sent a large military force to Sicily, lured by the promise of added territory and wealth. The Sicilian expedition resulted in a disastrous defeat for the Athenians, causing widespread panic among the citizens in the city. (Sicilian Expedition, Thucydides VI–VII) Nevertheless, Athenian victories over the Spartans elsewhere in the following years, insulated the Athenians against anticipating and foreseeing the completeness and speed of the city's defeat and fall to the Spartans in 404.
Athenian arrogance regarding material wealth and military might, combined with intellectual snobbery, gave rise to a hubris that ensured the downfall of that cultural tradition, even though almost all Athenians were oblivious of the approaching end or the suddenness with which it would arrive. This basic scenario is familiar to students of history, especially to students of the scriptures, and is nowhere more clearly displayed than in the record of the Book of Mormon. It was one of Nibley's favorite themes.
There was at least one Athenian who saw through the façade of the material grandeur and the self-adulatory description of Athens displayed in the famous speech of Pericles. Socrates was born in 469 and lived through the remainder of the 5th century, and thus saw and experienced the rise of the city to wealth and power in the Greek world. As a stonemason he may have even participated in the construction of the great temples and other monuments on the Acropolis, whose ruins instill a feeling of awe and wonder in the minds of modern visitors. Socrates also survived the cataclysmic defeat of Athens by the Spartans, though in 399 he was tried, convicted, and executed on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. Even though he left no writings as a legacy of his life and thought, the history of Greek Philosophy turns on his name. All philosophers who came before (and even some who outlived him) fall into the category known today as pre-Socratics, and many who came after are called Lesser Socratics. Our knowledge of Socrates is derived primarily from three sources contemporary to him, and they naturally differ widely in their assessment of his philosophical activity and thought.
On one matter all the sources are agreed: Socrates was extremely intelligent. Even at his trial, the accusers of Socrates told the jurors to be on guard lest they be taken in by the eloquence of the defendant (Plato, Apology 17a). The identification of Socrates with rhetoric, which the philosopher denied at his trial, was likely based on a popular drama satirizing his popular influence. A quarter of a century earlier, the comic playwright Aristophanes wrote a play in which he portrayed Socrates as the head of a school of rhetoric (Aristophanes, Clouds, 218–220). The effect of the unflattering depiction of Socrates in the play was long-lasting, for Socrates stated in his defense that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome the prejudice which Aristophanes had planted in the public arena so long ago (Plato, Apology 18). If Aristophanes was not to be believed in describing Socrates as a charlatan by trading in rhetorical trickery, what was the real cause of Socrates being tried on such serious charges?
Plato was at the other end of the spectrum, admiring Socrates as much as Aristophanes derided him. Endless debates have not resolved the question of how much of the historical Socrates can be recovered from the dialogues of Plato, any more than similarly endless scholarly writings have shown whether the historical Jesus can be found in the New Testament Gospels, but as Hugh Nibley showed in his numerous studies of those who wrote about Joseph Smith, one is better off following the friends than the critics of such key figures.
Put in simplest terms, Socrates was a brilliant person with an insatiable curiosity which drove him to get to the base of a matter. After some years of searching and probing into various matters, Socrates states that a friend named Chaerephon had the audacity to travel to Delphi and ask at the Oracle of Apollo if there was anyone wiser than Socrates (Plato Apology 20–21). When the priestess of the Oracle answered that no man was wiser, Socrates admitted his astonishment when he heard what had happened. Note how very "Nibleyesque" (to use Hugh's name anachronistically) were Socrates' subsequent actions. Rather than assume that there was a mistake in the divine utterance, Socrates said "[Apollo] is a God, and cannot lie; that would be against his nature" (Plato Apology 21), Socrates set about trying to understand what the Oracle meant.
His methods for testing the Oracle's pronouncement may appear to be unorthodox, and they certainly were not calculated to win him many friends. He decided to find someone wiser than himself so that he could approach the Oracle and ask for clarification. Given the structure of society in Periclean Athens, it was not surprising that Socrates first interviewed political leaders, thought by both the general populace and especially themselves to have wisdom (Plato Apology 21). The predictable result was that Socrates found politicians to have pretensions of wisdom not fulfilled in the interviews he held with them. Since it appears that these interviews were held in public or quasi-public settings (there being no television available for the somewhat sanitized and vacuous versions of talk shows and interviews found in the media today), there were no doubt many who observed and doubtless enjoyed the discomfiture of politicians being asked probing and searching questions relating to their wisdom. Socrates noted, in fact, the snobbish rich young men with lots of time on their hands, after seeing what Socrates was doing to puncture the inflated egos of politicians, poets, and others, began to imitate him in an attempt to embarrass and belittle others (Plato, Apology 23). The outcome was predictable. The young and inexperienced (to say nothing of foolish) imitators further roused public ire against Socrates, who was seen as the source of such activity, and that likely gave rise to the later accusations against Socrates that he was corrupting the youth.
After the politicians, Socrates turned to various kinds of poets: "tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts" (Plato Apology 22). He found that the poets enjoyed inspiration and a genius for producing their works, but they did not understand the meanings or implications of what they wrote. One cannot help wondering if Aristophanes or some of his colleagues were among those whom Socrates interviewed, thus giving a possible explanation for the animosity which the playwright exhibited to the philosopher.
Socrates next turned to the artisans and craftsmen (today we would use the term "professionals"), and found that they did possess knowledge of many things which Socrates did not know (Plato Apology 22). As with the poets with whom he had talked earlier, however, Socrates found that the skill or knowledge they possessed in one thing gave its possessors the false sense of believing they were also wise or knowledgeable in other areas as well. Although modern titles and professions may appear to be different today, a modern Socrates (perhaps going by an alias, say "Hugh Nibley") would likely arrive at the same conclusions as he formulated some 2400 years ago.
The dilemma of Socrates, if one may call it that, is summarized in a passage which is worth quoting at length:
"…they say that I am wise, for those who hear me always think that I have the wisdom which I find lacking in others. But the truth is, gentlemen, that God alone is wise, and in His oracular pronouncement He is saying that human wisdom is worth little or nothing. He is not speaking of Socrates, but is only using my name as an illustration, as if He were saying, this , to us, the wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is in truth really worth nothing." (Plato Apology 23)
It is well-known to this audience that Hugh Nibley often expressed himself in terms virtually synonymous with those in this quote, and we shall encounter them later on.
Socrates was not a prophet in the usual way that word is used among Jews and Christians, though some people have tried to make the case that he was one. He repeatedly declared that he was aware of his ignorance, and he felt he had a divine commission to show others who claimed to be wise that in reality they were as ignorant as was he (Plato Apology 23). In a more specialized sense, however, Socrates was certainly a prophetic figure in trying to awaken the Athenians to consider ideas and values which were worth more to the soul and mind of man than the materialistic and vainglorious principles and attitudes which were then dominant in Athens.
It has already been noted that Socrates approached people and engaged them in conversation in an attempt to determine if they possessed wisdom. Plato formalized this method of philosophical examination, and most of Plato's Dialogues are stylized versions of dialectic encounters between Socrates and various luminaries of the time (dialectic is simply a technical term for conversation). There is no way to prove how many of these encounters actually took place, and it is equally impossible to determine whether any of the dialogues accurately record any of the words spoken by the various parties. On the other hand, there is no inherent reason or justification for rejecting the ideas and arguments of Socrates and his interlocutors as valid representations of the ideas each would put forth. It is worth noting that dialectic was an approach often used by Nibley, particularly in some of his studies relating to critics of Joseph Smith or the Book of Abraham. The reader is drawn into the dialogue, and the mind becomes engaged in the flow of argument from one side to the other. A brief consideration of three Platonic dialogues will illustrate not only how Socrates would typically analyze a subject, but also what weaknesses and limitations there are in this type of philosophical discourse.
The first of the dialogues takes place at the porch, or stoa, of the King Archon of Athens, a place we would refer to as the courthouse. Socrates had to go to that place as part of the legal process before his trial took place, and there he met Euthyphro, a well-known diviner and soothsayer, who was leaving the building after filing a suit against his father for murder. To the reader of the dialogue the murder case, as explained by Euthyphro, is at best strangely conceived, and Socrates is also perplexed at Euthyphro's action, though he reserves judgment as one who does not know all of the facts or circumstances relating to the case. Euthyphro is surprised to find Socrates at the courthouse, and is only too sympathetic with Socrates when he learns that one of the charges against him is impiety. Euthyphro confides that he is often attacked and ridiculed for his religious pronouncements.
Put in a delicate way, Euthyphro is a religious fanatic, and were he alive today, he no doubt would have his own evangelical channel or network, trumpeting abroad his views on the gods and religious beliefs and practices. He declares to Socrates that:
"the only real advantage I have, Socrates, and that which distinguishes Euthyphro from other men, is his expert knowledge of such things". (Plato Euthyphro 5)
On hearing such a self-serving assessment of Euthyphro's academic qualifications on the subject of religion, Socrates immediately declares his desire to become Euthyphro's disciple. He would not only learn about matters which were of great interest to him, but he could use his discipleship in his own trial to show his accusers and the jury that he had acted in ignorance and was now mending his ways under the tutelage of an acknowledged master of religion. Euthyphro could not have been more pleased than to have the famous Socrates become his disciple.
Before finalizing the agreement, however, Socrates begins one of his famous examinations to see if Euthyphro really knows as much as he claims. It is predictably a short dialogue. Euthyphro is unable to distinguish religious activities and ritual performances from the purpose or meaning behind them. His professed belief in the gods and his knowledge of mythology are not matched by attempts to understand or delve into the nature of the Gods and related subjects. Being pushed by Socrates not to hold back but share what he really knows, Euthyphro utilizes a dodge which we have all encountered on a number of occasions:
"We will have to talk another time, Socrates, for I am in a hurry now, and I must leave." (Plato, Euthyphro 15)
Apart from the delightful humor in this dialogue, two or three serious points stand out. One sees clearly the foundation upon which all Socratic discourse is constructed. One must first define clearly the terms and ideas to be considered, for otherwise no meaningful communication takes place. We constantly hear talks or sermons in our own meetings full of familiar words which neither speaker nor listener has ever taken time or made an effort to define or understand. Euthyphro exemplifies the academic who has memorized all the relevant facts without going back to see how they were established as facts or what they really mean. Such people expect to bluster their way through by the sheer weight of their authority and academic credentials.
Another salient feature of this dialogue which is also a characteristic of a number of other Socratic dialogues, is that no answer is given to the questions relating to the meaning of piety or faith. Euthyphro clearly does not know and therefore cannot give an answer, but though the reader senses that Socrates really knows, no satisfactory definition is given by him. These dialogues in which questions are raised and are discussed without resolution are called aporetic dialogues. They emphasize method over conclusion, suggesting that one's searching is more important than one's answers. That should be obvious to everyone, since in this life no person has access to all the information necessary to arrive at a final answer in matters pertaining to God and eternity. Nobody understood this better than Hugh Nibley.
I should also point out that although Socrates has become the pivot on which the history of Greek philosophy turns, there is no system of thought or philosophical construct attached to his name. He is sometimes called a supreme rationalist in view of his determination to establish definitions of terms and follow assumptions to their logical conclusions, but in numerous cases the definitions are not clearly given and arguments are often left unanswered. It was the process of searching which mattered more than the conclusions one might reach.
The second dialogue we shall briefly examine is considered by many to be the most artistic and dramatic of Plato's writings. Protagoras, Socrates' main interlocutor in the dialogue, was one of the most successful and influential of the 5th century sophists. He is said to have established the profession of education by being the first to charge fees for the wisdom or skill that he taught. He is best known in the history of philosophy for his agnosticism concerning the existence of the gods, and also for his humanistic doctrine that "man is the measure of all things, both of things which are that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not." In the dialogue entitled "Protagoras", he is a champion of a conservative code of morality and a form of social contract theory. Socrates is respectful toward him, and at the end of the dialogue both Socrates and Protagoras part as friends hoping to meet and continue discussing matters of mutual interest (Plato Protagoras 361).
Our interest in the dialogue has more to do with its overall form and nature than with a detailed analysis of the various topics under discussion. The scene opens with Socrates conversing with a friend about the arrival of Protagoras in Athens a mere two days before. Socrates told his friend that he had just come from speaking with Protagoras, and the friend requested an account of the meeting. Socrates told him that a young wealthy friend named Hippocrates had begun banging at his door with a stick before daylight, beseeching Socrates to get out of bed and take him to meet Protagoras. Socrates obligingly arose, but because it was too early to make a call, suggested that they walk and talk in the open air until later in the day. Hippocrates was determined to become a disciple of Protagoras, and Socrates quizzed him regarding his motivation and real interests. As the sun rose, and thus in the light from heaven, Socrates was coaching Hippocrates through dialectic to be more concerned for his soul than for the mere trappings of a Sophistic education (Plato Protagoras 312–314).
At length they made their way to the home of Callias where Protagoras was a guest (Plato Protagoras 311, 314), and after some small stir with the doorkeeper they were admitted. Only those familiar with Homer's Odyssey, especially the hero's descent into the realm of Hades in Book 11, can appreciate the dramatic setting of this meeting. Just as Odysseus descends from the natural light of day into the semi-darkness and gloom of the realm of the shades (Homer, Odyssey 11), so Socrates and Hippocrates leave the sunlight and go into a covered cloister leading off to rooms lit only with artificial lamps. In his journey to the underworld, Odysseus encountered the great and famous spirits from all over the world, more dead than alive, and able to speak only when they drank of the blood-offering which Odysseus made before his descent. Minos, the former king of Crete, presided over the large company, which is described as moving and circling the court as if performing a stately dance, like the chorus in a Greek drama.
Protagoras is described in the same language, presiding over two companies (like semi-choruses in the dramas) made up of both well-known and unknown figures, all straining to listen to the voice of the great one, and Protagoras is described as having a voice as enchanting as Orpheus (Plato Protagoras 315). There are quotations and allusions from the Odyssey, book 11, making certain the reader does not miss the comparison. So what's the point of it all?
In the conversation between Socrates and Protagoras which follows, one is treated to a discussion of many of the points of a Sophistic education. These include the arts associated with running a city or state (Plato Protagoras 322–324), the training and practice of public virtues (Plato Protagoras 324–328) and even a display of literary criticism, as both Protagoras and Socrates dissect and analyze a poem of Simonides (Plato Protagoras 338–347). In that setting Socrates was a willing, if reluctant, participant in that kind of discourse (he actually arose to leave at one point, but was constrained to stay and continue, as his participation was considered vital to the success of the meeting) (Plato Protagoras 335–338).
Plato demonstrates that there are two levels of discourse open to his readers: one has to do with the soul and must be conducted in the light and influence of heaven; the other is artificial, focused on matters pertaining to this world, and is conducted in an environment comparable to the miasmic darkness and deathly pallor of those who inherit the realm of Hades. There are not many better illustrations of the choices we make in the things we choose to study, and we can again turn to Hugh Nibley, well-versed in Greek and other ancient cultures, as one who encouraged us to be wise in making our decisions of what and how to learn
The last of the Platonic dialogues we shall examine is interesting for many reasons and on many levels. It took place on the last day of Socrates' life, and a number of friends gathered to share the final hours with their beloved friend. Little is known of those who were present, though one of them, Phaedo, whose name is the title of the dialogue because he was the reporter of the event, had some connections with Pythagoreanism. Pythagorean elements found in the dialogue suggest that Socrates and some of the others present may have had high regard for that philosophical movement. Though most commentators believe that Plato has imposed his philosophical beliefs upon the dialogue, particularly those concerning the theory of forms, few discount entirely the historicity of the basic narration of the events associated with Socrates' death. We shall not concern ourselves with the intricacies of the arguments in the text, but will be content with a few pertinent observations.
It is somewhat ironic that friends gathered at the equivalent of a friend's deathbed, and who might be expected to extend solace and encouragement to the person who will soon die, in this instance rather implore Socrates to help them face their bereavement at his death. In response, a lively conversation ensues regarding the nature and nurture of the soul. Socrates reaffirms to his audience that a person's greatest responsibility is to take care of his soul (spirit) first, and put matters concerning the physical world into secondary consideration (Plato Phaedo 64–68). This is not an argument for celibacy or asceticism, as some have supposed, but a question of eternal priorities. Of course, since the Greeks did not generally believe in the resurrection of the physical body — as did Egyptians and others — concern for the body had no eternal significance beyond the effects it had on the soul.
Various arguments relating to the immortality of the soul are then presented, including the Cyclical Argument (Plato Phaedo 69–72), the Recollection Argument (Plato Phaedo 72–78), and the Affinity Argument (Plato Phaedo 78–84). Responses to each of the arguments show that there is no rational proof for something outside the limits of mortal observation or experience. Socrates gives a Final Argument (Plato Phaedo 102–107), stating that the soul which brings life to the body cannot admit death, and is therefore immortal. This is part of the Platonic Theory of Forms which states that there are eternal and therefore imperishable realities of which the soul is one. This assertion is still susceptible to refutation and not entirely convincing to his friends or to some modern commentators. (see Plato Phaedo 107).
Socrates then turns to a non-rational level of discourse, that of myth. E.R. Dodds stated that the myths found in Plato are "a prolongation into the unknown beyond of the lines established by philosophical argument." (ed. Gorgias 523a2) Some people argue that Plato brings in myths to signal the failure of an argument, much like blaming God or the Devil for some event one cannot otherwise explain. It is, however, possible to see myths as Dodds suggests — a way of perceiving truths not susceptible to logical or experimental proof. In terms more familiar to this audience, spiritual insights and revelations open up the heavens through sources and by means not found in the library. Just as the myths occur only at the end of searching and rigorous reasoning in Plato, so revelations are given after one has worked hard to find answers and gain knowledge in more traditional ways. Joseph Smith studied, pondered, and searched for knowledge in the Bible and by going to religious gatherings in a quest to find truth — then went to the grove. In our own time, Hugh Nibley again emerges as a paradigm for seeking spiritual knowledge. It is time to see how he fits into the context we have established.
The second of two World Wars, both occurring in the first half of the 20th century, had finally come to a close. Great battles had been fought, the names of which would resound long into the future, and military heroes had been identified in all the theaters of war. The victors, comprised of an unstable confederation of allies, became uncertain that the peace they have achieved would last, and they formed an organization through which they hoped to overcome challenges and solve problems without resorting to war. Despite distrust and major disagreements between the member nations, the organization continues to exist more than half a century later.
The leading nation among the victorious allies emerged into an era of unprecedented prosperity. International markets provided a huge appetite for the manufactured goods of the nation, and a strong economy made its currency the standard for the whole world. The building industry could hardly keep pace with the demands placed upon it, and the standard of living enjoyed by its citizens was the envy of peoples everywhere. There seemed to be no limit to the continued material growth and prosperity of this great nation, the United States of America. Patriotism and confidence abounded, and even the unexpected appearance and implied threat of a Russian space satellite in 1957 was more than answered 12 years later when the United States landed men on the moon.
Americans had every reason to be proud of their accomplishments. Statistics relating to the number of cars per family, televisions per household, and even bathrooms per home were published and regularly updated, demonstrating to the world that we are a people to be reckoned with.
Religious activity was tracked, and even when church attendance began to diminish, polls showed that the overwhelming percentage of the population still declared their belief in God, or at least a Supreme Being in the universe. Education expanded by leaps and bounds following the end of the Second World War, stimulated in part by a generous G.I. Education program which allowed servicemen returning from war to attend college. Nobody can dispute the value and benefits of such a program, but it severely taxed the resources of the educational enterprise to accommodate the great demands placed upon it. In response, graduate programs suddenly and dramatically increased in numbers, and requirements for graduate degrees were modified so as to ensure an adequate number of certified candidates to fill faculty positions in the expanded university world. As one example, foreign language requirements and a knowledge of Classical Antiquity, once a staple of university training, were deemed unnecessary and even irrelevant to the needs of the modern technological world. The focus was on the here and now, and knowledge of the past was relegated to the scrapheap of society. It is interesting to observe how that scrapheap includes things ever closer to the present — the obsolescences of cars, computers, cell phones, and the like result in an ever-shortening lifespan for the items of everyday life.
After establishing defensive alliances following World War Two (NATO, SEATO, etc.), it was more than two decades before America began to undertake questionable military adventures in different parts of the world. My generation saw it in Southeast Asia, and the current generation is seeing it in other places. Just as the Athenians could not foresee the outcome of their follies or the suddenness with which cataclysmic reverses could engulf them, so are we unable to forecast with certainty the outcome of our various adventures. Our cultural pride and arrogance, steeped in education which is increasingly cut off from the wisdom, experience, and especially the prophetic revelations of the past, will cause us to suffer the same fate as the numerous departed civilizations which preceded us.
There has been at least one among us, however, who has seen through the façade of our materialistic culture and the self-adulatory portraits we commission of our nation and particularly of our own particular culture. Hugh Nibley cannot be dismissed as an outsider who doesn't really understand or appreciate our uniqueness or our implied claim to divine exemption from study and hard work because we have the Gospel and a living prophet to protect and preserve us. Nibley jumped through all the required hoops, as it were, to qualify him to speak as much from the inside as one could demand. He served a mission, was a volunteer in the army during the war, obtained a PhD in the days before the streamlining of graduate programs, fulfilled every assignment or calling given to him in the Church, and, with his remarkable wife Phyllis, raised a large family of talented and accomplished children. His long teaching career at BYU was filled with numerous honors, of which this series of lectures is but one example, and the imminent publication of the 19th and concluding volume of his collected works is evidence of a life devoted to scholarship. Having given a cursory survey of his bona fides, let me turn to some observations on Hugh Nibley as a mentor, the topic of this rambling discourse. It is at this point that my earlier consideration of Socrates will be helpful and may even save us some time.
Whether people who knew Hugh Nibley personally or through his writings liked or disliked him (and there are many in both camps), there seems to be no disagreement over the fact that he was an unusually intelligent and gifted individual. I have met colleagues all over the world who are quick to praise Nibley as a brilliant scholar, even though most know him only through his writings. By his own admission, Hugh was consumed by an insatiable curiosity from his earliest years:
"As an infant I entertained an abiding conviction that there were things of transcendent import awaiting my attention." (CWHN 17.7–8)
His first responses to his desires to seek out new things were undisciplined (CWHN 17.9), and he aimed toward science as the arena where everything was happening (Ibid). Finding the field crowded with others who felt the same way, he turned to a different area, one which contained as many artifacts and objects as one could imagine in any scientific laboratory, but which was also suffering from almost total neglect (Ibid). The area of interest was that of ancient writings from many cultures, some of which had virtually disappeared from the maps of history. Among his many gifts were a prodigious memory and an ability to learn and use languages in a short period of time, and his gifts gave him access to those neglected and dusty treasures (Ibid). Nobody at the time had any idea that the discovery of ancient records would become a flood of newly-found documents as the century progressed.
Nibley did not need a Chaerephon or Delphic Oracle to give him purpose and direction in his life's work. He had the scriptures and the prophets. As a relatively young professor Hugh played the game according to the traditional rules:
"But to be taken seriously one must publish, and I soon found that publishing in the journals is as easy and mechanical as getting grades. I sent out articles to a wide variety of prestigious journals and they were all printed. So I lost interest: what those people were after is not what I was after." (CWHN 17.15–16).
He was after his own peace of mind (Ibid.), and he found that by devoting his life to studying the sacred records of the past. Socrates told his Athenian jury that he was doing the will of God by interviewing various people in an attempt to show them that they were as lacking in wisdom as was he. Nibley read the writings of those who criticized Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, etc., as if he was interviewing them, and his conclusions were the same as those of Socrates centuries earlier: people were laying claim to knowledge and wisdom they did not really have. Critics of the prophets were no more interested in being taught and corrected by this mentor than were the Athenian politicians, poets, and craftsmen by Socrates. One should note at this point that neither Socrates nor Nibley is claiming superior wisdom in these interviews and examinations. They are both focusing on the false claims to knowledge held and proclaimed by others. Nibley repeatedly disclaimed that he had knowledge or wisdom, and further claimed that any such claim would be an impediment or barrier to further learning:
"…nobody's very clever, nobody's very brave, nobody's very strong, nobody's very wise. We're all pretty stupid. Nobody's very anything…" (CWHN 17.162)
"Our search for knowledge should be ceaseless, which means that it is open-ended, never resting on laurels, degrees, or past achievements." ("Zeal Without Knowledge", 267)
Nibley was never confused about his role in life as it related to the role and responsibility of Church leaders. His loyalty and commitment to the prophets, both the living and the departed, was never in question. Elder Neal A. Maxwell put it this way:
"Hugh, of course, is above the fray, not in the sense of his being esoteric or highly advanced, but because his commitment is so visible and has been so pronounced and so repetitively stated that that's not even the issue." (CWHN 17:149)
Nibley himself stated:
"…I cannot imagine a body of men less likely to go astray or to lead anyone else astray than the present leaders of the Church." ("Criticizing the Brethren", 443)
His respect for the challenges facing Church leaders could perhaps encourage us all to sustain them more fully than we often do:
"The Brethren have their work cut out for them, and strenuous work it is. It calls for studying the gospel and to see that the greatest possible number of people in all parts of the world get to hear the first principles. This requires constant repetition of first principles to fresh audiences wherever General Authorities go; they cannot be expected to set forth advanced ideas or front-line research." ("Criticizing the Brethren", 339–340)
Notice that Hugh states the General Authorities cannot be expected to set forth new ideas or research, but must repeat first principles to new and fresh audiences. Must we who have perceived and heard these basic teachings for years similarly confine ourselves to mindless parroting of the same platitudes and kindergarten level of instruction in our meetings and classes? To do so makes modern Euthyphros of us, smugly assured of our ability to recall trite responses to hackneyed questions, while we remain in seeming ignorance of the grand program of increasing in knowledge which prophets from Adam to President Monson have enjoined upon us. This is where Nibley comes into his own as a mentor to the Saints.
When Nibley wrote An Approach to the Book of Mormon as the 1957 priesthood manual,
"the committee turned down every chapter. But President McKay overruled the committee on every chapter. He said that if it's over the brethren's heads, let them reach for it. He left every chapter just as I had it. The committee fumed at the mouth and protested, 'We can't have it!' President McKay turned right around and said, 'We jolly well can have it. Let them work at it a little.'" (CWHN 17.50).
Nibley's philosophy regarding Gospel study is encapsulated in the beginning of his intellectual autobiography:
"If we are supposed to find the answers (concerning the meaning of life), they say, Why are they hidden? Precisely because we are supposed to find them, which means we must look for them; the treasure is buried to keep us digging, the pearl of great price lies glittering in the depths where we must seek it out." ("Intellectual Autobiography", xix)
His ideas about looking and digging are clearly seen in all 19 volumes of his collected works. The endnotes bear eloquent witness that Hugh was not a casual reader, and the sources he used are not limited to a few subjects or disciplines. He had a voracious appetite which encompassed everything from the oldest writings in the ancient world to the modern works of scholars and writers like Roger Penrose and Nigel Calder. For any who might suggest that we should study until we receive a testimony (implying that the search is then concluded), Nibley would stand that on its head and proclaim that our testimony should be the springboard launching us into a lifelong search to comprehend and understand what our testimony really means. Do I have a testimony that the Book of Mormon is true? Yes, and now I have a heaven-sent reason to study and learn all I can about it. Such study takes both time and energy, as much as we can devote to the enterprise. As Nibley states:
"That calls for sacrifice, but what of that? Eternal life is not cheaply bought." ("Zeal Without Knowledge", 273)
Nibley was fond of quoting Joseph Smith and Brigham Young on the poor performance of the Saints when it comes to learning. First, a few samples from Brigham Young:
"This people have not received, improved, grown, and enlarged in their capacities as fast as they should have done" (JD 8:134).
"We may look upon ourselves with shamefacedness because of the smallness of our attainments in the midst of so many great advantages" (JD 12:192).
"It is mortifying that the children of this world should know more about these things than the children of light. … The lack of knowledge manifested by us as a people is disgraceful" (JD 11:105).
Nibley was especially fond of the following quotes from Joseph Smith, for they occur repeatedly in his essays. In the first, Joseph Smith gave a breathtaking view of the role of study and learning within a Gospel setting:
"Thy mind, O man, if thou wilt lead a soul to salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity" (TPJS 137).
The reality of the situation among the Saints, however, was not so reassuring:
"How vain and trifling have been our spirits, our conferences, our councils, our meetings, our private as well as public conversations," wrote the Prophet Joseph from Liberty Jail, "—too low, too mean, too vulgar, too condescending (settling for inferior goods to avoid effort and tensions — HN) for the dignified characters of the called and chosen of God". (BH Roberts HC, 3:295–296)
In confirmation of that assessment one could ask any high priest in this audience when he experienced a mentally stimulating or challenging discussion in a high priest group meeting. I once heard Elder Holland tell of a high priest who suffered cardiac arrest during a high priest group meeting — the Emergency Response team was called, and when they arrived they gave resuscitation to three before they found the victim. On another occasion he said that when he died he hoped it would be during a high priest group meeting — that way there would be no discernible difference. Brigham Young counseled: "When you come to meeting … take your minds with you … I want your minds here as well as your bodies." (JD 8:137).
Joseph Smith provides the best possible example of life-long learning. After all the great revelations from the First Vision and the ones collected and published in the Doctrine and Covenants, following the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Books of Moses and Abraham, subsequent to establishing the Restored Church, and all else that he had accomplished, what was it that excited and occupied as much attention as he could devote to it? The study of Biblical and some relevant modern languages. Said the Prophet:
"My soul delights in reading the word of the Lord in the original, and I am determined to pursue the study of languages until I shall become a master of them if I am permitted to live long enough." (Faulring, Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, 133)
That is a challenging enough curriculum for anyone who is looking for a way to pass the time. This difference between Euthyphro and a Joseph Smith or Hugh Nibley could not be clearer. The first rests smugly and comfortably in his self-assurance that he has "expert knowledge of religious matters" (Plato Euthyphro 5), while the latter two, one a prophet who was probably as much at home in heavenly company as with earthly companions, and the other who was certainly as familiar with the library as any other earthly place, continued in a ceaseless quest to gain greater light and knowledge.
As we return to the Protagoras, we recall that the major point of the dialogue was the distinction between the eternal and the mundane in levels of discourse. We have no difficulty accepting the greater importance of the former over the latter, but according to Nibley, people in our culture do not always take either one very seriously. The observation was not unique to Hugh, for he recalled a lunch meeting he had with President Joseph Fielding Smith, who casually remarked, "We are rapidly coming to be known as a mediocre people" ("Criticizing the Brethren," 441). Even in our study of sacred texts, Nibley notes our deficiencies:
"President Benson pleads with us to read the scriptures, so we gingerly pick our way through the Book of Mormon, as if we were tiptoeing through a minefield instead of taking each passage to heart." ("Criticizing the Brethren", 430)
Study of scripture is not all we are to undertake. Nibley repeatedly invokes Joseph and Brigham to remind us that we must be qualified to converse in the learning of the world, nay, to excel in that realm of discourse. A couple of quotes from Brigham Young will illustrate the principles:
"every accomplishment, every polished grace, every useful attainment in mathematics, music, and in all science and art belong to the Saints," (JD 10:224) and "[they are to] collect the intelligence that is bestowed upon the nations, for all this intelligence belongs to Zion. All the knowledge, wisdom, power, and glory that have been bestowed upon the nations of the earth, from the days of Adam till now, must be gathered home to Zion." (JD 8:279)
There would be no purpose in gathering it all together if we are not to make use of it. I recall the electrifying thrill of hearing President Kimball address us in his Second Century Address, where he gave a vision of the potential of this university. President Kimball declared that bathed in Gospel truths and empowered by the Spirit of the Lord, Saints at the university could produce greater drama than that of Shakespeare, music to rival that of Bach, art which excels that of such masters as Michelangelo or Raphael, and so forth. We cannot excuse our lack of knowledge by using the lame argument that we are different, or that our priorities preclude the necessity of such pursuits. Nibley gives an example of how that occurred at BYU:
"Some years ago, when it was pointed out that BYU graduates were the lowest in the nation in all categories of the graduate record examination, the institution characteristically met the challenge by abolishing the examination. It was done on the grounds that the test did not sufficiently measure our unique 'spirituality.' We talked extensively about 'the education of the whole man,' and deplored that educational imbalance that comes when students' heads are merely stuffed with facts — as if there was any danger of that here!" ("Zeal Without Knowledge", 269)
Hugh noted elsewhere that if we are to meet Brigham Young's challenge "to excel the nations of the earth in religion, science, and philosophy" (JD 12:122), "we must first catch up with them!" ("More BY on Education", 350). One thing we cannot overlook in our perusal of the Platonic dialogue is that when Socrates and Hippocrates descended into the Sophistic realm of Protagoras, our hero was at least the match of the great teacher in knowing and analyzing the poem of Simonides. Even as he awaited execution in the last days of his life, Socrates spent some time turning the writings of Aesop into poetry. (Plato, Crito)
Ultimately, the apparent dichotomy between the two levels of discourse is seen to be illusory, for "if we pursue knowledge diligently and honestly our quest will inevitably lead us from the things of the earth to the things of heaven." ("Educating the Saints," 325). Hugh notes that "For Brigham Young, since all knowledge can be encompassed in one whole, the spectrum of secular study blends imperceptibly with the knowledge of the eternities. ("Educating the Saints", 325). That, of course, requires the eternal perspective given in the Gospel framework. Without it, one is confined to an artificial world of lamps and shadows, the curriculum-dominated world of the Sophists. With it, the lights of heaven and the boundless universe are available for infinite and ceaseless appreciation and examination.
If the university offers the opportunity to become conversant in subjects and disciplines relating to this world, the writings of the prophets open the door to the study of heavenly matters. Perusing the Nibley bibliography shows how seriously he took the divine injunction to "search the scriptures." Every volume of the Standard Works is represented in the prodigious outpouring of Hugh Nibley's scholarly efforts. As all readers of his writings can attest, there is no limit to his search for materials which could cast light, regardless how slight the beam, upon a word or verse. The vast amount of ancient writings which began to be discovered at about the time of the Restoration and continue to be discovered in an increasing flood of documents to the present time provided Hugh with virtually endless opportunities to extract new insights and ideas from familiar scriptural records. And if so with him, why not us? The ancient materials are becoming increasingly available to everybody, in photo-facsimile formats for those who wish to try their skill with the originals, and in decent — if uneven — translations for those who will settle for that. From the time of Joseph Smith, the Saints have been encouraged to study apocryphal writings, with only one caveat:
"whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom." (D&C 91)
President McKay's challenge as it pertained to the 1957 Priesthood Manual still applies to all of us: "…let them reach for it … let them work at it a little." (CWHN 17.50). Study of the scriptures is not to be an activity having an end in itself, however, for that would simply result in a new class of Pharisees. Those who pride themselves on their knowledge of the scriptures are really no different from those who are proud of their knowledge in any other discipline. Nibley gets to the heart of the matter:
"…knowledge can be heady stuff. It easily leads … to illusions of grandeur and a desire to impress others and achieve eminence. The university is nothing more nor less than a place to show off: if it ceased to be that, it would cease to exist." ("Zeal Without Knowledge", 267)
The solution to the problem is simple:
"If we get puffed up by thinking that we have much knowledge, we are apt to get a contentious spirit … [and] correct knowledge is necessary to cast out that spirit." (TPJS, 309)
Or, as Nibley puts it: "The cure for inadequate knowledge is 'ever more light and knowledge' " (Zeal Without Knowledge, 267). One need only look to Joseph Smith to see what a searching study of scriptures should lead to. Two examples will suffice:
1. The young boy was pondering the fate of his soul, the perplexing questions of religion surrounding him on every side, and so he took to the Bible. It was his reading the exhortation in James that if one lacks wisdom he should ask God that led Joseph to the grove to pray. The First Vision came in response to scripture study.
2. While Joseph was "translating" the Bible, he was reading John 5 and while puzzling over its meaning, he in company with Sidney Rigdon received one of the most sublime revelations on the Plan of God ever recorded, Doctrine and Covenants 76.
In all of one's studying, the time will come when he or she comes to what appears to be an impenetrable barrier or an insurmountable wall. What then? It is time to bring this to a conclusion by returning to the Phaedo.
I noted before that in many of Plato's dialogues the answer to a question was not given. On occasion, the Phaedo being the case in point, rational methods of examination are simply inadequate to the task. That is the situation with the question of immortality, or what, if anything, happens after death. Nibley often refers to this subject as one of the "Terrible Questions," and has shown how philosophers and theologians alike avoid such questions whenever possible. As is well-known from discoveries of ancient writings during the past century and a half, Apocryphal, Apocalyptic, and so-called Gnostic texts were banned by the Rabbis and the Church Fathers precisely because they dealt with the issue of immortality and others of the "Terrible Questions." It is truly unfortunate that modern education increasingly focuses on the "here and now" to the exclusion of looking into the past, for through those discoveries the past is becoming increasingly interesting and exciting to anyone willing to take a look. In a text from an ancient Christian library found in Egypt in 1945 comes this paraphrase of an insightful description of Satan's program:
"Thus we see that he casts the minds of men into distractions and the concerns of life, so that people will occupy themselves with the things of this world and not take time to give heed to matters pertaining to the Holy Spirit." (Hypostasis of the Archons 139:7–11)
As Socrates and his friends discuss the nature and nurture of the soul, along with the natural question of whether the soul survives the death of the physical body, Socrates turns to myth for what we might call a "revealed answer", one that is not susceptible to rational argument or refutation.
If Plato turned to myth in such cases, Nibley turned to the temple. For those who knew him well, Hugh's interest in the temple became obsessive during the last couple of decades of his life. The reasons are obvious: the temple is the gateway to heaven, and as such holds the keys to the "Terrible Questions": Where did we come from? What is the Purpose of this Creation, and of human existence in particular? What happens when this brief mortal life comes to an end? These are the most important ones, though others related to them might be included: What is Justice? Why does Evil exist? How can a human who has sinned return to God's presence? What is the purpose of animals and other forms of life? And so on one might go. To repeat, the temple holds the keys to the answers, and through diligent searching and study, answers may be given in personal revelation.
It is widely recognized today that the temple was the central feature of every ancient civilization. Even more remarkably, temples served the same function in all cultures: "to see the worshipper safely through from this world to the next and to guarantee an acceptable eternity hereafter" ("Temples Everywhere", CWHN 17:486). Even as critics of Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints denounce the re-establishment of this most ancient and venerable of traditions, our modern culture quite happily, if ignorantly, continues to celebrate traditions which had their origins and significance attached to ancient temples, including such diverse examples as academic regalia and the Olympic Games.
Since we have focused on study and learning this evening, we should note that the temple was anciently the repository of the sacred records of the world, including genealogies, a description of the universe, and the writings of the past ("Temples Everywhere", 494). Real learning in the temple, however, is not limited to reading in the temple library, despite the symbolism of bringing all recorded knowledge together into the sacred center, as Eliade calls it. One goes to the temple to receive further light and knowledge at the fountain, not from some part of the stream farther down. According to the ancient sources, the temple is the source of all knowledge, both that pertaining to this world and that relating to the heavenly realm of God ("meanings and Functions of Temples," 312–320, also What is a Temple, passim). The learning which takes place in temples relates to what are often called the mysteries of God. The word mystery (musterion) literally means to keep one's mouth closed, so one is not free to discuss the mysteries outside that sacred setting. Hugh Nibley's obsession with temple and temple knowledge and wisdom surely provides the capstone to his legacy as a mentor to the Saints.
Toward the conclusion of his defense speech, Socrates made the astonishing statement that he was a gift of the God to the people of Athens (Plato Apology 30). To clarify what he meant, Socrates compared the state to a great and noble steed which is large and lethargic in movement, and which therefore needs to be roused to action. Socrates claimed that he was sent by God as a type of gadfly to fulfill that need, and said that he spent his energy constantly and in every way arousing, persuading, and reproaching the Athenians to wake up and shake off their lethargy and seek for true wisdom. He added that they would not easily find another like him (Plato Apology 31), implying that they should treasure and heed the gift which God had given to them.
It would not be farfetched to make the same argument on behalf of Hugh Nibley. To some of his detractors, he may have resembled a more pesky and irritating sort of insect, but hopefully his writings will serve as a stimulus for us to arise from the all-too-common stupors of thought we encounter in our conversations and meetings. Two quotes from Joseph Smith are worth repeating:
"Thy mind, O man!, if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity" (TPJS, p 137).
And again: "your minds will expand wider and wider, until you can circumscribe the earth and the heavens … and contemplate the mighty acts of Jehovah in all their variety and glory." (TPJS, p. 163).
We have been blessed to have a mentor who has shown that a testimony should be the jumping off point for a lifelong search to increase in knowledge concerning the sacred truths vouchsafed to us by the Holy Ghost in our testimonies. Once we can say that we know that our Heavenly Father lives and loves us, we should seek to learn all we can about Him, in preparation for our return to His presence. Once we can testify that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, complete with its principles and ordinances, has been restored, can we do anything else but study diligently how to understand it better so that our lives can be improved by living completely by its precepts? Once we understand that the temple is truly the gateway to eternity, can there be any more important challenge than that of searching out everything relating to temples so that God can reveal the secrets of the heavens to us? After eternity and its wealth of heavenly gifts has been placed within our grasp through the prophets, let us take advantage of such a gifted mentor as Hugh Nibley and dedicate our minds to prepare for eternal life, that greatest of the gifts of God.
I began this evening with some light-hearted comments about fools being gathered together on a Fool's Day to listen to another fool display his ignorance. I hope that was not offensive to anyone, and I would like to close with a couple of more serious references concerning fools.
The most formally educated Apostle in the New Testament was undoubtedly Paul. By his own admission he excelled among those of his age in the study and practice of Judaism (Galatians 1:14), and Peter wrote that Paul's brilliance sometimes made it hard to understand what he wrote (II Peter 3:16). This great scholar, convert, missionary, and Apostle wrote the following to a prideful and unruly branch of church members in Corinth:
"Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise" (I Corinthians 3:18).
Only when one is willing to admit that he is a fool will he open his mind and become receptive to the revelations which are available through the Spirit of God.
And, at last, let me quote the words of Jacob in that famous passage in 2 Nephi:
"…and the wise, and the learned, and they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches — yea, they are they whom he despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them." (2 Nephi 2:42)
May we humbly admit that we are fools before God, and may we become seekers of heavenly knowledge so that He may open the heavens to us.