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Great Minds - Plato

Two thousand years ago, Tertullian of Carthage questioned the validity of Plato's thoughts. In Prescription Against Heretics, he queried, 'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?'

If Tertullian were around today, he would probably ask a different question and would agree with the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead's observation that all Western philosophy (and, by extension, theology) is but a series of footnotes to Plato. Indeed, Plato's ideas are so deeply embedded in our social psyche that we don't even realize our Platonism. Every time we raise questions in the face of authority or pursue a collective course of action and value the common good over individual self-interest, we stand in solidarity with Plato. And we recognize Plato when we affirm that all people are equal and deserve to be treated justly.

Taking our cue from Whitehead, we can say that Plato, whose real name was Aristocles, set the agenda for future thinkers. He was born in ancient Greece and founded a school in Athens known as the Academy. He taught his pupils to put enquiry before doctrine and the search for understanding before making truth claims. Primarily because, for Plato, truth exists beyond our limited perceptions. It is partially revealed, but is not bound to social, historical and cultural realities. This led him to develop his most important idea, the theory of Forms.

Plato noted the transient nature of the world. The world is in constant flux: the seasons reflect the change, structures collapse, and every living being lives and then dies. Even the present is deceiving: our senses of sight, touch and taste can let us down. What seems to be a reality on the distant horizon could be an illusion. But instead of surrendering himself to empty nihilism, Plato believed that beyond this temporary world of appearances is a world of permanence where the ultimate reality exists. He calls this the world of 'Forms' or 'Ideas'. The forms are perfect and unchanging ideals dwelling above us. The things we touch, feel, and see, and the ideas we conceive, are shadows or imperfect copies of the original form in a higher realm.

Philosophers of religion note Plato's theory of the perfect Forms is a precursor to the Christian understanding of heaven as a perfect world, of which the physical realm is a mere impression. Plato provided the early Christian theologians with an ideal template for the dwelling of God.He offered a reasoned account of a chasm that separates the fallible from the infallible, perfect from the imperfect, and passible from the impassible. This was one of the major consequences of Plato's thoughts on Christian theology. The early Church Fathers welcomed Plato with open arms. Eusebius of Caesarea claimed that 'Plato is the only Greek who has attained the porch of Christian truth'. Augustine confessed, 'I found that whatever truth I had read [in the Platonists] was in the writings of Paul'.

Alongside influencing Christian theology, the theory of Forms led Plato to think about how we should live and how society should be. His fundamental concern was making society better so people could live fulfilled lives. In The Republic, he makes several suggestions, starting with a need for good role models. To the Athenians, he gave new celebrities, replacing louche aristocrats and sports celebrities with modest people who devoted their lives to public service. Secondly, he proposed censorship, a term lately associated with the cancel culture. But Plato was concerned with freedom without boundaries. He noted that Athens was full of sweet-sounding but dangerous ideas that led to catastrophic governments and unnecessary wars. In response, he proposed censorship to protect society from public orators and misleading preachers. One wonders what he would say about the role of mass media today in manufacturing public consent. And thirdly, Plato envisions a society in which there would be a complete division of labour between wealth on the one hand and political power on the other. The rulers or the politicians would be 'Guardians' who will devote their lives to the public good. At the same time, those engaged in economic activity would be excluded from political rule because their way of life narrows their worldview to their self-interest. It makes them unfit to participate in the public arena, where the common good is at stake.

Plato’s ideas are deeply provocative and fascinating.

Even some 2,500 years later, Plato remains our contemporary, reminding us that the idea of the common good is worth pursuing and that our lives are enriched and meaningful when we live beyond temporary material gains.

*First Published in Touchstone March 2023.

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