Platonism and Christianity

Why am I so wary of Platonism, as expressed in this post?

I am not actually wary of Platonism specifically.  Plato is a very skilled writer.  He writes with style.  In many of the dialogues, if you read with an attentive mind, then Socrates moves beyond asking questions of, say, Euthyphro, to asking questions of me.  What do you, mjjhoskin, think of holiness?  What is the basis for holiness?  What is the basis for this belief of yours? Foundational questions, all of them.  Questions that strike at the root of things.

Plato also has some interesting ideas.  There’s the ever-popular Cave in The Republic, for example.  Timaeus gives us a cosmology not entirely incompatible with reality.  Crito gives us the endlessly-speculated myth of Atlantis.

Plato also teaches transmigration of souls.  He teaches that this world is not the real world.  We have an idea of justice here, an idea of what a table is, an idea of what eros is, but these ideas are not the real things in themselves but shadows of the truth.  The true reality, according to Plato, is in the world of forms, where our souls dwell between transmigrations.  Platonism also teaches a dualism between body and spirit, between physical and metaphysical.  The spirit and the metaphysical are good, the body and the physical are bad.  This stems from the theory of forms.

This last paragraph is there to help show why traditional Christianity, “classic” Christianity, ought to be wary of Platonism.  Many Christians of the Patristic era liked Platonism too much and created bits of speculative theology that were not in line with Scripture, tradition, or the reasoned account of salvation.

Souls are immortal, according to Platonism — this means that they have a pre-existence in the spiritual realm before becoming incarnate in our bodies.  Such is the case in Origenism as well.  In fact, from what I’ve seen of Origen and his anathematised beliefs, a great many of them stem from an outworking of Platonist ideas.

One of the most pernicious and persistent Platonic ideas within Christianity is the dualism between body and spirit, between the physical and metaphysical.  I think this is in Origen, but it is definitely in the Gnostics and sometimes in the ascetics (but their pagan model was more frequently Stoicism).

The body is not bad.

This is part of true Christian doctrine.  In Genesis we are taught that when God created us, He said that His creation was “Very good.”  God Himself took on flesh in the Incarnation.  He became a man.  At the end of time, we shall all be resurrected in a new heaven and a new earth, and we shall have bodies.

The Platonist idea as it manifests itself in Christianty says that our bodies are “fleshly,” and anything that has to do with the body is to be rejected save those things that keep us alive.  Modern Christians who have maintained this dichotomy between flesh and spirit sometimes argue things such as, “Dancing is bad because it is all about your body.”  Ascetics, on the other hand, argue that you should ignore your body and discipline it.  What really matters, however, is mystical experience and seeking God through contemplation.  Neglect the body, therefore.  Some Gnostics, on the other hand, would argue that since flesh doesn’t matter, do as you please!

Classic Christianity argues that flesh does matter, so treat your body with respect, live morally, and enjoy yourself.  Dance.  Eat.  Drink.  Discipline the body, yes, but do so to discipline your whole self, do so to keep it healthy, not to ruin it.

The most pernicious Platonist idea to persist to today is this idea that we are all going to go to heaven when we die, we shall be disembodied and this will be great and this is what we were made for and this world will be destroyed by fire.

FAIL!

Patristic writers (I forget at the moment where I saw this, but it was one of them) lament death because when we die, our bodies and souls are separated, and this is not what we were created for.  We were created to have bodies, to walk on earth, to breathe air.  This is what the hope of Resurrection is.  We will have bodies, but they will be incorruptible.  The souls and bodies of the dead will be re-knit together for Judgement Day, and the saved will spend eternity living with those bodies and enjoying the world.

Thus, while there is much in Platonism to commend it, there is also much to be cautious of.  The same is true of Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Hinduism, Islam, or Buddhism.  Let us not forget that our first commitment is to Christ who was revealed in the Scriptures and has shown Himself through His people throughout history.  All pagan ideas, good or ill, are secondary.

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3 thoughts on “Platonism and Christianity

  1. Your site is quite refreshing, and it’s nice to see someone appreciative of Chesterton!

    In considering Plato today, it’s helpful to consider several points:

    1. Platonism (like Christianity) has a way of being unfairly vilified by some and appropriated/misrepresented by others. To get a true picture of Plato’s ideas, the only sure recourse is to read Plato directly.

    2. To think of a “Platonic doctrine” is almost a contradiction. A central feature of Platonic epistemology is the principle of anamnesis, or unforgetting. For Plato, truth comes not by instruction or persuasion, but by letting the student or reader come to a personal insight — discovering or rediscovering – in an intuitive leap — a truth already known.

    3. While arguably the greatest philosopher, Plato was also a literary genius. His works cannot be fully appreciated without considering that. As often as not, Plato’s works speak to the intuition — through art, symbols, images, and myths. Like Shakespeare, a much philosophy and insight is expressed without formal, literal articulation. This, like the point above, makes it very difficult to say with certainty, “Plato taught this” or “Plato believed that.”

    4. It is not necessary that Plato be correct on every point (or to assume that he presented every idea with the same degree of certainty).

    These fairly obvious points having been made, let me suggest one potentially more controversial. For quite some time in Antiquity, Plato was regarded as a prophet of the pagan Hellenistic religion. Certainly the likes of Proclus and other late Neoplatonists thought of “the divine Plato” this way. From reading recent papal Encyclicals, it is my impression that the Catholic Church accepts that, while only Christian Scripture is considered inerrant, there may still be value and important “seeds of truth” in the sacred texts of other religions. This seems to leave the door open for accepting some degree of divine Providence associated with other religions’ scripture. (In short, the Christian view is that, while only the Gospel is necessary for salvation, this per se does not preclude that other sacred texts may be helpful or instructive). If that is true with, say, the Qur’an or the Bhagavad-Gita, then why not also with Homer, Hesiod — and Plato?

    This last perspective is very important to balance against the one-sided view of Plato that modern intellectuals have presented. Plato, for the last 100 years or so, has been re-made into the prototype of an analytical philosopher. His religious side is marginalized or trivialized in universities – which is plainly absurd, because Plato’s intense religiosity is manifest on nearly every page he wrote.

    These general points notwithstanding, you’ve keenly identified some very important issues that pertain to the relationship of Platonism and Christianity. It would be nice to think these have all been fairly and carefully researched, discussed, debated, and solved after two millennia — but that is most definitely not the case. The Church Fathers had a curiously ambivalent attitude towards Plato. Many — like Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Augustine, and St. Maximus Confessor, found much of value in Platonist ideas. But at the same time we can see a definite tendency to, for lack of a better term, take “cheap shots” at Platonism by many patristic writers.

    The subject of transmigration is a case in point. Many Church Fathers (including Origen) attributed this doctrine to “Plato, Pythagoras, and Empedocles.” Yet, reading Plato, it is difficult to make this case. Plato refers to transmigration, but mostly in the context of highly symbolic myths he presents. For example, it’s mentioned in the Myth of Er at the end of Book 10 of the Republic. It’s hard to see Plato seriously sticking a metaphysical or next-life discussion at the end of a treatise that has been narrowly focused on psychology and politics. I think a careful reading of the Myth of Er in context strongly suggests that the discussion of reincarnation there is symbolic. The same seems true with other dialogues where the subject is mentioned.

    In any case, it would be entirely uncharacteristic of Plato to pronounce a doctrine that can neither be logically proved nor personally verified through direct, noetic insight. By comparison, consider the Phaedo, and the subtlety of the arguments raised by Socrates and his interlocutors in discussing the nature and immortality of the soul. Nothing like this kind of interplay between extreme skepticism – anticipating the reader’s doubts — and intense, focused logical analysis is ever given to the subject of transmigration.

    It also seems rather revealing that we have no record of Aristotle mentioning a Platonic doctrine of transmigration — although this would seem like just the kind of thing Aristotle would latch onto in criticizing his former teacher.

    A second important issue you mention is Platonic dualism. To keep my comments on this brief, I would simply offer two points. First, it isn’t clear to me that Plato is as radically dualist as others have made him out to be. In fact, I really don’t think it’s true at all. The purpose of Plato’s writings is to help a person become a philosopher — a lover of Wisdom — in *this* life. The passions are an essential part of the Platonic model of the soul. In his famous chariot allegory of the Phaedrus, the passions are like horses which supply the energy to the chariot of the soul, drawing it upwards to the spiritual realm. The goal is to direct the passions/horses, not cut them loose.

    Second, a similar ambiguity concerning dualism exists in Christianity. Certainly many have misunderstood Christianity as leading to dour, dualistic, ultra-ascetical rejection of the world and the flesh. But as you correctly note, that is not the message of Christianity at all.

    Finally, it seems to me that the issue of the Resurrection body is not inherently antithetical to Platonism. The Theory of Forms might allow that there exist Forms of our bodies — eternal, ‘glorious’, perfect bodies. Currently we live in a “fallen” condition, inhabiting fallen bodies. Christian doctrine holds that, after resurrection, people will exist in bodies. But these will be “glorified bodies”; i.e., they will not be identically the same — not the same in every detail and attribute — as the bodies we currently inhabit. Will they be material? That probably depends on what one means by material. Will they be flesh and blood? That depends on what one means by flesh and blood. But they will be glorious and, in some sense, spiritualized. Not only does Platonism not contradict this, I believe it supplies metaphysical concepts by which Christian theologians might explore the point. This brings us, finally, to what I understand as the current Catholic position on Hellenic philosophy: that Christianity has both Jerusalem and Athens as parents, and that this is part of God’s plan.

    • Well-written, John. I need to read more Plato than what was on my Reading Lists — your comment outstrips my post in terms of content!

      Plato is one of the most excellent writers of Greek prose, this is certain. And it is lamentable that his religiosity is avoided in most philosophy departments today (despite ER Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational. I never knew Plato really only mentioned transmigration of souls once; my philosophy prof taught it as one of the Platonic staples.

      I tried to keep using the adjective “Platonist”, rather than “Platonic” simply because “Platonism”, to me, is not simply, “What Plato taught,” but the systems of thought developed by his followers, and so “Neo-Platonism” is more likely the more accurate target of certain criticisms, especially Platonist dualism.

      I agree that we should spend time with Plato, for there are seeds of truth in his teaching, as there are in the rest of the pagans. Plato is especially important because of the impact of his and his followers’ thought upon Christian ideas as well as the impact of his thought upon the entire Western World. No doubt Confucius is more important to the Chinese, but I’m not Chinese, so I should probably get cracking on my Plato!

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