351 Plato Forever

In his preface to Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche declared that “Christianity is Platonism for the people,” and he determined to destroy therm both.  Yet the distinguished mathematician/philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said the history of Western philosophy is little more than a “footnote to Plato,” and however frequently he’s been assailed by ambassadors of modernity such as Nietzsche, Plato still speaks, for he set forth a powerful worldview that perennially attracts serious thinkers.  This is especially true for Christians who have, from the earliest centuries, found much in Plato to interweave with their faith.  “Plato’s philosophy is remarkably religious,” says Paul Tyson, “and some of Plato’s most profound insights and moral sympathies can quite easily be merged with Christian doctrine and practice” (p. 38).  Accordingly, the stories of Christian Platonists such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien have garnered such vast audiences.  Therein we find “that real reality still speaks to us; reality undergirded by intrinsic moral meaning and (for want of a better term) ‘public’ spiritual purpose, and overshadowed by divine goodness and love” (p. 22).  Inasmuch as “‘Platonism’ means belief in transcendent Reality that relativizes the transience, contingency, injustice, moral relativism, violence, and mortality of human existence understood in exclusively immanent terms, then yes, Christianity is a type of Platonism” (p. 119).So says the Australian philosopher, Paul Tyson, in Returning to Reality:  Christian Platonism for Our Times (Eugene, OR:  Cascade Books, c. 2014; Kindle Edition).  He notes that all of us, even as children ponder philosophical questions, so:  “Everyone does metaphysics.  Whenever we endeavor to understand the nature of reality we are doing metaphysics” (p. 1).  We wonder about immaterial as well as material realities; we think about spiritual as well as physical things; we are religious as well as sensate beings.  So Tyson invites us to read his “essay on Christian metaphysics” that holds “Christian Platonism is right about the nature of reality” since it declares “the unseen God really is the present source and ongoing ground of all created reality,” and that “the qualities of beauty, goodness, and truth, wherever they are in some measure discovered, are divine revelations of real meanings that give the world in which we live its value and purpose” (p. 3).  Tyson thinks Christian Platonism deeply shapes Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.  For example, in the concluding volume, The Last Battle, “all the heroes of the story have died and find themselves in Aslan’s country.  But it is not a world where they are disembodied spirits and it is a world that they strangely recognize.  Professor Kirke—Digory from The Magician’s Nephew—explains that the true reality of all good things does not pass away.  The mortal world that we call ‘real’—the realm of birth and death, change and struggle, chance and entropy—is really a realm of shadows, yet these shadows somehow participate in the reality to which they point.  So when we die and our soul leaves the realm of shadows, we enter reality (still as embodied souls, but with a very different, yet strangely the same, body) properly for the first time.  Aslan’s country—the origin and destiny of all that is truly Real—is the home of all that we taste as true, beautiful, and good in the shadow lands.  Aslan’s country is the home of what reality we do know here in the realm of shadows, and it is the country to which we are traveling through our mortal lives.  After this explanation Digory Kirke observes that ‘It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!’” (p. 25).   

Tyson also thinks J.R.R. Tolkien effectively reworks ideas found in Plato’s Republic.  Tolkien’s Hobbits—simple, truthful, good, faithful—exemplify classic morality.   “Hobbit goodness is for small people who love and serve, for people who do not want to dominate and who refuse forceful ambition as a mode of operation.  Hobbit morality is the opposite of Nietzschean greatness, the opposite of Wagnerian poetics, the opposite of the quest for self-defined personal glory that characterizes inherently agonistic and constructivist understandings of virtue.  . . . .   Thus Plato and Tolkien set the wisdom of the little people against the power of the great” (p. 31).  

This Platonic wisdom of the little people certainly appears in the New Testament, and Tyson notes some important passages, though he admits he is “proof-texting” in the process.  In statements such as “For now we see in a mirror darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (I Cor 13:12), Paul clearly believes here is a transcendent, spiritual world wherein we hope to abide.  Plato’s dialogue, Phaedrus is “in some regards like 1 Corinthians 13” inasmuch as it “is concerned with love and with the unseen truth that is more basic than the appearances that are manifest to us by our sensory appreciation of the world” (p. 85).  In the wonderful Prologue to John’s Gospel we read:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word with With God, and the Word was God”—a passage totally consonant with Plato’s metaphysical position.  So Tyson says:  “In sum, the New Testament maintains that the Word of God is the non-material source of all that is tangible in the cosmos, that eternal realities are primary and material realities are derived from and dependent on primary reality for their existence, and that the realm of immediate tangibility is not the ultimate realm of reality. Thus, if we are to ‘see’ reality as it really is, we cannot see it with our physical eyes.  We must see it by a process of spiritual discernment which is a function of our receptivity to divine illumination” (p. 84).    

To Plato, philosophy “was the pursuit of a high way of life that was a moral and intellectual discipline so that the soul would be prepared to leave the body upon physical death.  Indeed Plato defines philosophy as a preparation for death: a preparation that involves the practice of dying to all those things that would hinder the soul in its eternal journey towards the Good” (p. 53).  So Tyson thinks:  “The development of Christian Platonism did not happen as a foreign invasion of Greek philosophical ideas into a discretely Jewish primitive Jesus movement.  Rather, Judaism was profoundly influenced by Greco-Roman thought and culture before the New Testament era; the New Testament is written in Greek and its key terms are informed by the Septuagint; the New Testament is saturated with the worldview that synthesizes religion and broadly Platonist philosophical concerns that was common to its age, and; key Jewish readings of Greek notions of logos and doxa are original to Christian faith and are firmly carried into Christian orthodoxy” (p. 123).

In the ancient world Christian apologists such as Justin Martyr and Origin dug deeply into Plato as they developed important theological positions.  Augustine, of course, openly wove Platonic notions into his theological works.  “The Augustinian approach was to think of forms as ideas in the mind of God, which necessarily inform any actual, particular, existing thing with its intelligible essence.  So for something to exist in the created cosmos it must be made a particular instance of something—and for beings like us, matter is the medium of our particular existence—but the intelligible essence of the particular instance of any identifiable ‘thing’ is given to it by the Word of God, speaking form into matter, bringing an idea in the mind of God into expression in concrete material actuality.  So creation is an ongoing process where everything that is is called into being by God, and for the duration of its existence as a particular instance of a certain kind of being, it is always dependent on God for its essential nature and concrete instantiation” (p. 138).

In the High Medieval Ages Christian thinkers such as Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas delved into Greek philosophy (the former favoring Plato while the latter turning to Aristotle).  They both sought to integrate faith and reason and found in the ancient Greeks wonderful sources.  Unfortunately, late Medieval thought, personified by William of Occam, shifted from Platonic Realism and set forth the Nominalism which largely undergirds modern philosophy—especially insofar as it subscribed to tenets of the scientific “revolution” of the 17th century.  After surveying the various trajectories of modern philosophy, and showing how they militate against orthodox Christianity, Tyson urges us to return to the Classical world, embrace and explain Plato, and do the hard work of setting forth a reasonable and persuasive metaphysics—“returning to reality.”  

“In Australia,” Tyson says, “the deforestation, overgrazing, and over-farming of our semi-arid lands has resulted in the degradation of the fragile topsoil, a rising of the water table, and the lifeless salinization of vast tracts of land.  Our modern Western ways have rendered much of this vast and beautiful country a wasteland.  Culturally, we are seeing something similar” (p. 188).  So, counter-culturally, Christians need to rediscover ultimate, unseen rather than seen realities.  Doing so means recovering ancient ways of thinking and living—prioritizing prayer and contemplation, “being still and knowing” that He is God, cultivating an inner stillness, opening ourselves to God.   “We must return to a vision of reality that is grounded in revealed truth of a genuinely spiritual and transcendently sourced nature” (p. 210).  Then, perhaps, both we and our churches will revive.  

                          * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Few contemporary philosophers have so helped students for so many years as Peter Kreeft.  In The Platonic Tradition (South Bend, IN:  St. Augustine’s Press, c. 2018) he makes available a series of easily-accessible lectures designed to “get you hooked” on one of the truly great thinkers of all time.  He wants us to understand Plato’s “worldview,” which enables us to climb out of the “‘cave’ of matter, sensation, and time into another dimension, another kind of reality that is spiritual, rational, and timeless.  If there is a single word for this it is probably the word “transcendence,” or “moreness.”  As Hamlet memorably said:  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Indeed:  “That is the essential point of Platonism:  moreness, transcendence, another kind of reality outside our cave” (p. 5).

To Kreeft:   “The Platonic tradition in Western philosophy is not just one of many equally central traditions.  It is so much the central one that the very existence and survival of Western civilization depends on it.  It is like the Confucian tradition in Chinese culture, or the monotheistic tradition in religion, or the human rights tradition in politics” (p. 3).  Plato’s greatest insight and perdurable legacy—his “Big Idea”—is his theory of “forms,” which are more than mental constructs.  We do not form them—they inform us.  “They are objective truths, objective realities, that are not visible to the eye of the body but only that of the mind.  But the mental eye that sees them is not merely the eye of reasoning or intelligence in the narrow modern sense, but the eye of contemplation or intellectual intuition” (p. 4).

We continually interact with very real things.  “Our minds bump up against the objective and unchangeable reality of 2 + 2 = 4, or ‘triangles always have 180 degrees,’ or ‘justice is a virtue,’ or “effects must have causes.’  Our bodies bump up against real physical walls that we can’t walk through, and our minds just as really and truly and unarguably bump up against real walls of thought that it’s simply impossible to knock down or change.  Triangles and virtues are no less real than physical walls and rocks.  If the truths of mathematics and metaphysics were merely mental, if we made them up, then we could change them, as we can change unicorns or mermaids or hobbits.  But we can’t. And the same is true of the laws of ethics.  If justice were simply man-made, we could change it just as we can change traffic laws.  But we can’t.  We can’t make genocide right or honesty wrong. We discover them; we don’t invent them. And where do we discover them?  Where are they?  In the world outside the cave” (p. 13).

We can know various realities when we think rightly.  Our non-material minds are mysteriously connected with the eternal world of Forms.  Seeking to “know himself,” Socrates discerned “the first Platonic form . . . the form of himself, the essential self” (p. 26).  He could then discover Truth, Goodness, Beauty—the transcendentals—that come into one’s mind from an eternal world, rather “like a meteor coming down from outer space, or like an angel coming down Jacob’s ladder from Heaven.  It doesn’t come from the earth, because it’s not made of matter, and it doesn’t come from my mind.  It comes to my mind and judges my mind as right or wrong depending on whether my mind reflects it and conforms to it or not” (p. 15).  There is a great “chain of being” ascending from purely material to purely immaterial things.  This hierarchy, in Plato, “is a qualitative hierarchy, a hierarchy of value, with the absolute ruling principle being the Good” (p. 21).

After introducing us to Plato’s main positions, Kreeft shows how subsequent thinkers endorsed and expanded upon them.  Aristotle, Plotinus and Augustine, Bonaventure, and Aquinas and many more followed his footsteps.  Though we sometimes stress their differences, both Plato and his pupil Aristotle were epistemological realists, believing in objective truths, knowable realities apart from our minds.  They also “believe reality culminates in a single perfect God, who is eternal Form without matter.  Both believe the universe is ordered hierarchically into kinds, species, immutably different Forms.  Both believe in teleology, final causality, objective purpose, for everything, or as it’s called today, ‘intelligent design’” (p. 38).  Augustine, of course, “was a Christian Platonist.  It’s often said that he ‘baptized Platonism.’  Augustine’s Christianity was not for him a postscript to Plato; Plato was a prescript to Christianity.  Augustine was not a Platonist who happened to be a Christian but a Christian who happened to be a Platonist” (p. 45). 

After showing how much of modern philosophy—nominalism, positivism, nihilism—discarded Platonism, Kreeft finishes his lecture series by inviting us to escape from our caves of ignorance and step into the Sunshine, seeing “Signals of Transcendence in Our World.”  Pondering such things as death and immortality, love and joy, consciousness and imagination, art and music, mystical experiences and nature’s revelations, we may very well join Plato in better grasping the ultimate meaning of it all. 

                               * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Few books better introduce one to the profundity of Plato than Louis Markos’ From Plato to Christ:  How Platonic Thought Shaped the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, c. 2020; Kindle Edition).  He endeavors to show how “the works of Plato can be most profitably read on two simultaneous levels:  as works of genius in their own right and as inspired writings used by the God of the Bible to prepare the ancient world for the coming of Christ and the New Testament” (p. ix).  Above all Plato sought Wisdom, not as prescribed by assorted wise men but as the “one and eternal Truth that transcends our ever-shifting world, that abides and endures” (p. 4).  As is illustrated by his Allegory of the Cave, Plato always tried to move from “the small-t truths of our shadowy world to the capital-T Truth that dwells beyond, on the other side of the door” (p. 6).  In the wake of the Presocratic philosophers, who floundered in the swamp of monistic materialism, clinging to either monism or pluralism, Plato “set Western philosophy on a truly noble path” summed up nicely by St Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:18:  “For the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

After conducting us on an illuminating journey through a number of Plato’s dialogues, Markos digs down into two of his later works—Laws and Timeaus.  Unlike The Republic, Platos Laws prescribes not a “corps of specially educated philosopher-kings but . . . a system of laws: not rex lex (where the king is the law) but lex rex (where the law is the king)” (p. 79).  Rather than training “moral guardians,” he seeks to discover “fixed moral standards that can then be instilled in the citizens” (p. 83).  As he frequently does, he points “to the four classical virtues, which Plato here ranks in descending order of importance as wisdom, self-control, justice, and courage” (p. 83).  These virtues come from a transcendent realm, so obviously the Sophist Protagoras’s assertion the “man is the measure of all things” cannot stand.  On the contrary:  “‘God ought to be to us the measure of all things, and not man. . . .   And he who would be dear to God must, as far as is possible, be like him and such as he is.  Wherefore the temperate man is the friend of God, for he is like him; and the intemperate man is unlike him, and different from him, and unjust’” (p. 91).  Plato is clearly sought to align God and man, seeing that “the existence of such a God not only makes sense philosophically and theologically but is also profoundly practical in the social and political sphere:  ‘It is a matter of no small consequence, in some way or other to prove that there are Gods, and that they are good, and regard justice more than men do. The demonstration of this would be the best and noblest prelude of all our laws’” (p. 93).  Here “Plato comes quite close to a biblical understanding of God as a Being who is intimately involved in the world he made” (p. 94). 

In Timaeus Plato sets forth acosmological argument for the existence of God only hinted at in Laws.  Of all his dialogues, “Timaeus comes closest to the Bible in its view of God, creation, and the Beatific Vision.  Indeed, though it is highly unlikely that Plato had access to the Hebrew Scriptures, parts of Timaeus read like a commentary on Genesis 1” (p. 96).  After retelling the myth of Atlantas, Plato proposes that “it is neither mechanical forces nor jealous deities who shaped the backdrop against which we act out our small but meaningful lives.  It was God, not an impersonal divine mind or a pantheistic force spread out across the universe, but a personal deity to whom Plato, shockingly, gives the titles of Father and Creator” (p. 102).  Nothing like this had ever appeared in Greece!  Apart from the biblical Genesis, “Timaeus is the only ancient book to posit a Creator who predates matter” (p. 102).  Still more, this Creator, Plato said, was “good” and “desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be.  This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world . . . God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable’” (p. 105).  God is Good and wants to bless His creation.  

Unsurprisingly, Christians have found in Plato a rich reservoir of philosophical insights worth incorporating into their worldview.  So Markos guides us on an intellectual journey through some of the most influential thinkers who have counted themselves Plato’s pupils—“specifically Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Palamas, Augustine, Boethius, Dante, Erasmus, Descartes, Coleridge, and C. S. Lewis, though a fuller list would include Aquinas, Donne, Milton, Newman, and Chesterton” (p. 119).  Considering how such great Christians embraced Plato, Markos says:  “It is my belief that Plato was one of the greatest sub-creators of the ancient world.  He may not have written epics like Homer or tragedies like Sophocles or histories like Herodotus . . . but he did construct myths that brought to shimmering life his vision of a two-tiered cosmos in which the unseen World of Being is more real and substantial than the World of Becoming that we perceive, day by day, through our senses.  Just as importantly, his myths have inspired generations upon generations of philosophers, theologians, and poets—both pagan and Christian—to journey from the lower world to the higher.  Those who truly love Plato have not been satisfied merely to study him.  They have yearned to see the things-that-are with the clarity that he saw them, to perceive behind the shifting shadows of our world the eternal things that do not fade or decay or die.  They have sought to defend the Good, the True, and the Beautiful as real things and justice as an absolute to which we must conform ourselves.  And they have struggled mightily to resist the downward pull of the appetitive part of their soul lest they grow dull, languid, and brutish.  Plato the sub-creator makes us want to do these things, even as Lewis and Tolkien make us want to visit Narnia and Middle-earth or look up and see the heavens, not as our house, but as our home” (p. 217).

    Speaking for himself, Markos says:  “I can attest that reading Plato has made me want to be a better man, a better teacher, and a better Christian, to ascend the rising path and so find my true telos, the higher purpose for which I was born” (p. 217).  And so too may we!

# # #