One would wonder why read Plato in the 21st century? What does this Athenian have to do with us? You are not alone in your questioning. Two thousand years ago Tertullian of Carthage posed a similar question on the validity of Plato’s thoughts. In Prescrption Against Heretics, he queried, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?"
Hopefully, at the end of this reflection we would have answered Tertullian’s questions.
We will begin with some biographical notes.
Plato's (c.428-347 B.C.) real name was Aristocles. He was born into an aristocratic family in ancient Greece. Various philosophers influenced Plato, but Socrates is the one credited with having the greatest influence on him. From Socrates Plato learned that being a lover of wisdom is the highest form of life.
In pursuit of wisdom Plato founded a society in Athens known as the Academy (the first philosophical school). It consisted of intellectuals who pursued scholarly subjects such as philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. The most important feature of Plato’s Academy was his emphasis on putting enquiry before doctrine, and the search for understanding before making truth claims.
Let us now look at his key ideas and their relevance for Christianity.
The most famous idea is the theory of Forms (The Republic). Plato believed in two realms: physical and spiritual or the ideal. The physical world is not the real world, instead ultimate reality exists beyond our physical world. This transcendent world is the world of unchanging truth and original Form. The things we touch, feel, and see, and the ideas we conceive are simply a shadow or photocopy of the original thing in a higher realm. This is the realm of eternal idea and truth and beauty.
To understand this point, let’s take an example of a straight line drawn on a piece of paper or computer screen. Even though it looks like one, the line is bound to be irregular at places. A line on a computer screen is never true and perfect. They consist of square pixels. When put beneath a microscope they will look like stairs rather than a straight smooth line.
Similarly, if we draw them in ink, the ink itself will be absorbed into the paper. Under microscope It will create all sorts of shapes that are not part of a straight line. There will be thicker and thinner portions of the drawn line, with smudges and splatters of ink.
So how do we know what a line is if we have never really seen one?
Well Plato would say that our attempt to draw a straight line, is an imperfect image of the perfect concept in the ideal world or higher realm. It can be applied to anything, for example, the chair is mere shadow of the idea of a perfect chair that exists in a higher realm. So are the trees and the mountains and rivers and everything we see and touch around us.
You can see where this is going and how it influenced Christianity. Plato’s theory of the Form 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 a perfect template for the dwelling of God. God is perfect and eternal, and the perfect being is not part of the natural world. Plato, he provided a reasoned account of a chasm that separates fallible from the infallible, perfect from the imperfect. This was the first major consequence of Plato’s thought. Plato helps us see the transcendent nature of truth. God is transcendent, beyond space and time. Like the Forms, God is Real and True and Perfect. Plato's theory of Form provided a backdrop for early church theologians to develop a Christology known as "from above".
Plato maintained that to comprehend the Forms, the philosopher or the perfect Christian must leave behind everything worldly. Worldly desire and love must be transcended. The priests and the monks are to practice celibacy. The flesh is too weak to be able to perceive the world of Forms – and so the Christian mystic will aim to be released from the prison of the body. They will fast, abstain from alcohol and procreation, and focus their view on the higher realm of God.
The second big idea is to do with the overall structure of Plato's theology.
The idea of logos or divine wisdom or reason was a prominent one in the Ancient Greek. Plato gave it a new meaning by teaching that the logos was a part of a divine triad consisting of the Good, the Mind or Reason, and the World-Soul (Timaeus; Philebus; Christian Platonists of Alexandria). Subsequent thinkers developed Plato's ideas into what they referred to as three "substances"— the first one being the supreme God or "the One," from which came "mind" or "thought" and a "spirit" or "soul." They believed that all three substances were aspects of the same God. The three were one and the same.
Once again, we can see where this is going. The parallel between Plato’s divine triad and the Trinity is hard to miss. The early Church theologians were trained in Greek philosophy, so they interpreted Scripture by using Greek conceptual frameworks. They identified Plato’s Good with God, the Ideas with the Logos of John 1:1, and the World-Spirit with the Holy Spirit, thus redressing Plato’s divine triad in Christian theology.
It is not surprise that the link between Plato's teachings and the Trinity is so strong that Edward Gibbon described Plato as "the Athenian sage, who had thus marvelously anticipated one of the most surprising discoveries of the Christian revelation"—the Trinity (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).
The third and final point is to do with the health and wellbeing of society in general. Although, it has wide-ranging implication for Christian theology.
Plato envisions a society, in which there would be 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 would devote their lives to the public good.
On the other hand, those engaged in economic activity would be entirely excluded from political rule because their way of life colours their worldview to their own self-interest. It makes them unfit to take part in the public arena where what is at stake is the common good. The Guardians or politicians, by contrast, are educated and trained to care primarily for the common good and to sacrifice their own interests to this. They will have no private property, and much of their life will be devoted to training in understanding the theory of Forms. There is a radical equality between women and men, they can both pursue political career, while the status of slavery remains ambiguous, (depending on how we read The Republic), a highly contested idea among social and political theorists. Plato's ideas were refreshing but also notorious.
Plato invited his students to be part of something higher, a transcendent reality of which the world we see is only a small part, and which unites everything into a single harmonious whole. All of us, he taught, shall attempt to escape the cave of darkness and ignorance, and walk in the light of truth and reason.
These ideas of Plato appealed to the early church theologians. To Tertullian, who queried the validity of Plato they answered in the following manner.
Augustine said “The utterance of Plato, the most pure and bright in all philosophy, scattering the clouds of error . . .” He confessed, “I found that whatever truth I had read [in the Platonists] was [in the writings of Paul] combined with the exaltation of thy grace.”
Eusebius of Caesarea maintained that “[Plato is] the only Greek who has attained the porch of (Christian) truth.”
Justin Martyr even regarded the Platonists as unknowing proto-Christians.
The ideas of Plato are by no means perfect, but they created the cultural and intellectual climate in which Christian theology emerged. Whether we like it or not, his ideas are part of our Christian heritage. His transcendent realm of perfect things has never ceased to fascinate us. It has shaped our world and history than any other philosophical concept. From self-help books to celibate priests to Botox, to plastic surgery to organic hand-cream, it all in some ways goes back to the ancient Greek philosopher and his pursuit for truly perfect things.
The Republic of Plato, Francis MacDonald Cornford
Plato's Republic, A Study, Stanley Rosen
Timaeus and Critias, Robin Waterfield
Christian Platonists of Alexandria, Charles Bigg
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon