Thursday, 25 February 2016

Roger Sworder the Platonist

Science & Religion in Archaic Greece

Amidst the madness and cacophony of late post-industrial modernity there are, hidden here and there, still a few quiet voices of perennial sanity. One of them is Roger Sworder the Platonist. Since retiring from a long and distinguished career as a University lecturer – known for his inspiring and compelling lectures – he has been especially productive, publishing numerous books of essays on Platonic and related themes. He stands among the company of a new breed of Platonic scholar who reject the dry, purely textual and theoretical approach to Plato and ancient wisdom traditions promoted in the Western academy over the last few centuries. Instead, like such scholars as Arthur Versluis, Pierre Hadot and Peter Kingsley – and following such maligned advocates as Thomas Taylor in former times - he sees the Greek heritage as a sapiental tradition, a spiritual tradition, that was and is central to Western civilization. 

In Dr. Sworder’s case he is a graduate of Oxford University, but he has few kind things to say about that august institution. He argues that the way the Greek philosophical tradition has been taught in such institutions of higher learning amounts, in fact, to a type of anti-philosophy, the very opposite to a tradition of spiritual wisdom. Indeed, he supposes that the strangulation and deformation of the ‘Classics’ in such institutions has been a deliberate device in the construction of the atheistic wasteland of Western modernity. In part, this is why he has spent his entire career teaching and writing in the remote backwaters of regional Australia. It was in a small, insignificant rural college that he was able to construct and teach a viable programme of studies outside of the strictures of the academic mainstream. This programme took the form of a degree course entitled ‘Studies in Western Traditions’ and then, later, in the wake of the endless amalgamations and restructurings to which Australian universities are prone, in a major programme entitled ‘Philosophy & Religious Studies’. His special expertise in all incarnations of those programmes was the Greeks – Plato, the Presocratics and Homer – and also the English Romantics. Away from the stuffy conventionalism of Oxford he was able to teach as he saw fit for over thirty years. Now he devotes his days to a semi-monastic contemplative existence writing and publishing.

A strident critic of corrosive technologies, he is happily internet-free, has never sat at a computer, composes his work in long-hand and indulges in neither email nor mobile phone. This is not just a stubborn Luddite posture, though; he has a genuine and deeply Platonic concern for the dehumanizing impact of technology, especially on meaningful human work. His deepest fear is that mankind is busily constructing what he calls a “toy store” of gadgets for itself without any notion of why or to what end. For many semesters his flagship subject was entitled ‘Philosophy of Work and Art’, delivered to students of both the Bachelor of Arts and the Bachelor of Fine Arts. Citing the teachings of the Republic – as also the Bhagavad Gita from the Hindoo Tradition – he sees meaningful work as the centerpiece of the human estate and the degradation of work as the most damning feature of industrial modernity. Further still, in the tradition of Thomas Taylor, he is a careful and precise critic of the methodical excesses of the modern sciences that underpin technology, the great shibboleth of our times. His disdain for the vulgarity of techno-modernity is legendary among his friends. A non-driver, he curses the age of the automobile. He has a Pythagorean devotion to fine music (he is married to the Chinese concert pianist, Nan Chien) and a corresponding hatred of noise. Nothing rouses his ire like the infernal racket of machines.

Mining, Metallurgy & the Meaning of Life

A deliberate anonymity is an important feature of Dr. Sworder’s entire manner. He lives in a remote corner of the world, communicates little, and writes his books without fanfare or efforts at self-promotion. He trusts that his work will reach those few who might profit from reading it. He does not indulge in the egoic antics of some and is wary of academic careerists. More to the point, he stays aloof from the New Age fads that occupy the borderlands of the ‘spirituality’ movement. He is neither a shaman nor a Sufi nor indeed an upper-case T ‘Traditionalist’. His writing is simple, clear, sparse and unadorned. He feels no need to show off his skills in Greek and Latin nor the great depth of his reading. His style is understated and modest but readers can be assured that it rests on the solid foundations of a lifetime’s earnest and dedicated study. He avoids verbosity. He is not out to match wits with self-important professors or to dazzle readers with his references. Nor is he building a personality cult. He is offering a sober, penetrating reading of Plato and the ancients relevant to our times and to the impasse in which we find ourselves based on hard-won observation. He receives little credit or acclaim, yet he is – without doubt – one of the foremost Platonists writing in English today. 

A Contrary History of the West & Other Essays

The cornerstone of Dr. Sworder’s ouvre is his work on the father of occidental ontology, Parmenides of Elea, and the relation of that thinker to Plato. He offers his own translation of the famous (fragmentary) poem of Parmenides and an interpretation of its symbolism and implicit cosmology. Although Parmenides is counted as the great metaphysician of the Western tradition, Sworder proposes that the proper way to approach his metaphysics is through cosmology. He reconstructs the parallelisms of this cosmology, seeing the goddess Aphrodite (and her star, the planet Venus) as central to the Parmenidean vision. It is Aphrodite (Venus) who is sentinel to the Palace of Night. Moreover, in a series of simple and elegant correspondences, Sworder shows how this reading of Parmenides demonstrates how the Delphic oracle worked in principle and how it offers a solution to Plato’s most intractable mathematical problem, the Nuptial Number. This was published in a private edition many years prior to the now best-selling venture of Peter Kingsley in The Dark Places of Wisdom and has been republished. For those who are wary of Kingsley’s neo-Shamanic and anti-Platonic primitivism – a journey into a pre-rational darkness - Roger Sworder offers a different account, one that unites Parmenides and Plato in the same tradition. 

Mathematical Plato

In the opening essay of his more recent book Mathematical Plato, he provides an altogether luminous reading of Plato’s most troublesome dialogue, called the Parmenides, in which he offers a simple way to resolve apparent difficulties – from a Parmenidean point of view – arising out of Socrates’ pet theory, the Theory of Forms. Sworder sees Plato as using the monism of Parmenides to resolve the apparent dualities of that Theory and in the process offer a vision of an ‘optimal’ world, the best of all possible worlds. Sworder’s Platonism, that is to say, is not in any sense world-denying.

It is worth quoting the final paragraphs of that essay, since they provide a capsule statement of Sworderean Platonism:

Plato’s theory of ideas expresses that view of the world around us where everything is very beautiful. The myths of the Phaedo and Republic, Phaedrus and Statesman spring from this same visionary power. This is the world of Parmenides’ chariot ride to the palace of a Goddess who reveals all things to him; the world of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Divine and mortal freely mix. Everything is well made and performs at the limit of its potential; our everyday activities are archetypal. It is perhaps a greater injustice than Socrates suffered that Plato should ever be considered a Utopian idealist who despised the world.

Fully to understand how this world is the most perfect possible realization of the fullest totality of the most exquisite ideas is a Her- culean education. The deepest seclusion is needed to complete a thorough study of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music and dia- lectic. After these come their applications to the natural sciences. These studies are typically pursued through early adulthood to middle age. That done, the meaning of our human life emerges as a vision in which no further parting is possible between the absolute and the relative, the eternal and the temporal. There is apocatastasis. This is the goal of Plato’s theory.

The present writer must confess to being a student of Dr. Sworder and to regarding him as a mentor. 

The works of Roger Sworder are available through Sophia Perennis Press. 

The Romantic Attack on Modern Science in England & America

* * * 


Harper McAlpine Black


  1. Harper, Roger Sworder sadly, suddenly and unexpectedly died last week. He had an undiagnosed cancer found when he was hospitalised for pneumonia. We've lost a man of personal integrity, intelligence and eccentricity. Darn it all. These times we need people like him more than ever. My father was a colleague and friend.JN

    1. I was very saddened to hear of Roger's passing today. Both Roger and your father Maurice were an absolute inspiration to me as an Arts student close to twenty years ago. I will never forget either of them.

  2. Very sad to hear about Dr Roger Sworder. I too was a student of his. He was the most inspirational man. He was very astute, and extremely intelligent, in the true sense. God bless you, Roger from Rodney Holmes

  3. Very sad to hear about Dr Roger Sworder. I too was a student of his. He was the most inspirational man. He was very astute, and extremely intelligent, in the true sense. God bless you, Roger from Rodney Holmes

  4. Learned about Roger Sworder through the discussions posted online by Pierre Grimes & Noetic Society.

    Roger's works are amazing, and what a wonderful and useful article from Harper.

    Thank you all, despite only learning about Roger after his death, the integrity and intensity of his work and character seem to continue to resonate.

    All the best to all who visit this page, and thanks for a great article about Roger Sworder.