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Discuss Shelley’s ‘atheism’ and spiritual conviction. (Refer frequently to the works of Shelley that you have studied on the module)

Discuss Shelley’s ‘atheism’ and spiritual conviction. (Refer frequently to the works of Shelley that you have studied on the module)

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Rachel Crossan. Originally submitted for Romantic Poetry and Theory at University of Ulster, with lecturer Dr. Andrew Keanie in the category of English Language & Literature
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Rachel Crossan. Originally submitted for Romantic Poetry and Theory at University of Ulster, with lecturer Dr. Andrew Keanie in the category of English Language & Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
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Discuss Shelley’s ‘atheism’ and spiritual conviction. (Refer frequently to the works of 
Shelley that you have studied on the module)
The Romantic writer Percy Shelley was famously expelled from Oxford University in1811 following the publication of his controversial pamphlet
The Necessity of Atheism
. In thispamphlet, Shelley attacked the idea of compulsory Christianity; a very serious offence, in avery seriously Christian England. In light of this information, it can be quite surprising tolearn that Shelley was, in fact,
not 
an atheist at all, but a Platonist, a philosophy which, by allaccounts, is very similar to traditional Christianity. In fact, Plato (the founder/root of Platonism) was actually
anti-atheist 
, as he showed in his book 
The Laws.
In these volumes,Plato
referred to atheists as “evil and unrighteous men” with “lost and perverted natures”
(Plato, page 259), who should, as a result of their lack of faith in God, be
“punished withdeath” (Plato, page 289). In fact, Plato was so
 
anti-
atheist that he asked how he can be “calm”about, and avoid “hating and abhorring” the men involved with atheism (Plato, page 259).
When one knows that Platonism is fundamentally identical to Christianity, insofar as theyboth believe in God, it would be wrong to brand Shelley an atheist. In fact, Shelley'sinvolvement with Platonism and his general spirituality is widely and consistentlydemonstrated in his poetry.
To properly discuss Shelley‟s poems in relation to Platonism and spirituality,
onemust first understand the aspects and philosophy that constitutes Platonism, specifically,those aspects that may agree, or disagree with Christianity. As previously mentioned,Platonism and Christianity are closely aligned, differing in only a few areas. In fact, in his
article “
Plato and Christianity: A Philosophical Comparison
”, John Wild
asserts that the
“Christian philosophy (was)...implicitly stated by Plato” first (Wild,
page 9). Goenaga andBoronat go further, implying that without Platonism to lay the foundation, there would be noChristianity, going on to say that
it would be “no exaggeration to state that Platonism was the
 
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main vehicle in inspiring Christian philosophical
thought” (2008).
As a result of this, bothphilosophies adhere to the same general ideas. First and foremost, both philosophies believein God (although Plato does switch between the plural and singular in
The Laws)
. Beyondthis,
Plato believed that “the soul, or mind is a non
-material entity which can exist apart fromthe body of man, and that the soul is immaterial and immortal...and that there was, in thisworld, to be no perfect state and no perfect men in it, and that one can only strive for the
ideal” (Landry 1997). This
idea is
referred to as the Platonic “Theory of Forms”, where the“ultimate reality is situated in a
n unintelligible world; above our material world... a place of 
ideal and perfect form” (Shapero, 1999), as opposed to the „now‟, or the
temporary, materialreality. One cannot deny that this theory is very close to the Christian idea of the immortalsoul and the perfect everlasting afterlife in Heaven; as something that should be aspired to,not something that should be feared. The only difference being that in
the Platonic „heaven‟,
the deceased do not go to the Christian idea of Heaven (as a location, like Purgatory or Hell),
 but instead, they join together with the „one‟
th
e ideal „other‟
, become energy and rejoin theuniverse as a perfect entity, that can then go on to move and affect all things in the materialworld. In a way, the deceased joins nature, and so becomes constant and everlasting. Thisidea
of the ideal „other‟
can certainly be seen in the poetry of Shelley; however, it is not theonly aspect of Platonism that Shelley adopted and used in his poetry.Another feature that Shelley places a lot of emphasis on was the majestic, mysteriouspower of nature. Shelley often personified its elements into powerful beings with their ownminds and souls, and, in a way, raising them to the status of Gods themselves. This can beinterpreted as either a sort of Pagan worship or spirituality, or as just another feature Shelleydrew from Plato, as such an idea was first demonstrated
In Plato‟s
Timaeus,
where
 
the worldis treated as a living thing, with both a body and a soul (Zehl, 2009). Of course, this idea of personifying nature is not solely linked to Platonism or Paganism, but also to a general, wider
 
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spirituality or mysticism.
Island recognises this theme in Shelley‟s poetry, stating that “he
[Shelley] finds Nature alive, capable of feeling and thinking like a human organism (2008).The nearly identical Christian and Platonic
idea of the perfect „other‟
and the solely Platonicidea of the afterlife linked to majestic power of nature are two ideas that are, arguably, bestexplored and represented
in Shelley‟s long elegy,
 Adonais
, as agreed by Richard Dover, who
states that “
 Adonais
is notable as an instance of Shelley
s...Platonic philosophy (n.d).
It can be argued that this poem, more than any other of Shelley‟s works
demonstratehis Platonic faith and spirituality, and, once read in the light of Platonic philosophy; itbecomes an excellent argument against branding Shelley as an atheist. The reader may evensee some exclusive Christian references within it. This essay will attempt to, by way of spiritual thinking and Platonic philosophy, isolate and address the specific aspects in
Shelley‟s
 Adonais
(and briefly
Ode to the West Wind 
’ 
)
that may be considered atheist, anddebunk them as such.
 Adonais
was written in 1821 as
 
an elegy to Shelley‟s recently deceased
contemporary poet, John Keats, and its opening stanzas are
 
fairly traditional. These stanzassee Shelley announcing the death of Adonais as a great tragedy, and calling on people tomourn him, as well as his mother, the Greek Mythical character of Urania; the muse of astronomy (followed later in the poem by the Greek Mythological characters of Phoebus andNarcissus). However, it is not until stanza thirteen, when Shelley begins to call upon mythicalcharacters; specifically, personified feelings and forces of nature; that the reader will begin tosee any indication
of Shelley‟s
 
supposed „atheism‟
.
“And others came... Desires and Adorations...
 Splendours, and Glooms, and glimmering IncarnationsOf hopes and fears, and twilight Phantasies;And Sorrow, with her family of Sighs,And Pleasure, blind with tears... (Lines 109-114)

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