Thursday, November 22, 2007

Platonism and Christianity

Taylor Marshall of Canterbury Tales has an interesting post up about the "direction of causation", as it were, between Christianity and Neoplatonism. On any reading of the Church Fathers it is a relatively easy matter to point to various elements of their metaphysics and theology--especially terminological elements, but also some substantial ones--and draw parallels to similar elements in Neoplatonism. Taylor points out that Plotinus, who is often cited as the "founder" of Neoplatonism, was taught his Plato by the Christian Ammonius.

Although it is an interesting point, I think it's worth pointing out that Platonism, as such, was unavoidable in antiquity, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, and talk of direction of influence will always be hopelessly underdetermined by the data. It is possible to find possible Platonic elements even in the writing of St. Paul, if one uses one's imagination, and of course, it is not only possible, but indeed quite likely, that a man who was educated in that area at the time that St. Paul was getting his education would be learning from men who had read some Plato, so....

The temptation by some Christians to dismiss the influence of Platonism is strange to me. I once knew a man, a very old-fashioned Catholic, who would condemn any view held by Protestants. I asked him, "What about the Trinity? Protestants believe in the Trinity, should we reject that view, too?" I was basically kidding, but the guy was thoroughly stumped. That's what happens when you wed yourself to a particular ideological view of history. The same man was not in the least bit disturbed by St. Thomas Aquinas's frequent allusions to "The Philosopher" (i.e., Aristotle). "That's different", he would say. "Aquinas was merely using Aristotle." The idea being, I guess, that there are certain kinds of cases where the idea isn't merely being "used".

To me, it doesn't matter where the idea came from, just so long as it's true (or, indeed, useful). Some of Plato's ideas were manifestly true, even from a Christian perspective (for example, the idea that the Good transcends being, or the idea that morality is not a matter of mere subjective experience). It is a mistake to maintain that truth began with Christianity, or that Christianity could never learn from Platonists. To what extent and in what specific ways Christianity learned from Platonism will, necessarily, remain somewhat mysterious, but that it did cannot rationally be denied.


Li'l ole Thomist said...

Um , Scott, can you explain what you mean by "Good transcends being"? I thought that one way in which we understand God as being utterly good is through understanding that He is "He who IS". Because it is of God's nature to be, He is pure act in act, and this defines the good.

Anonymous said...

Tend to agree with your point. One of the things that always struck me about the Incarnation was its timing - why that precise moment in history? One speculation would be that you had the "human ingredients" ready for the spreading of the faith - in particular, Greek philosophy to help mine as deep an understanding as possible and a Roman political infrastructure throughout a large portion of the world to help spread it.

Ex-LaRouche said...

It is my understanding that part of what Christianity was doing was to revive the Classical Culture of Platonism. Would you say that this is true?

Scott Carson said...


It is true that some of the Fathers were very interested in classical culture: St. Basil wrote a wonderful little treatise on education in which he not only argues for the value of classical pagan literature but also outlines a curriculum based on it. I think some home-schoolers still use his curriculum. On the other hand, I'm not so sure that I would want to say that this was "what Christianity was doing", if by that we are to understand Christianity, as such, as having some sort of agenda in mind in this regard.

My own view, which is really just that of an amateur, is that Platonism was deeply ensconced in the educational system of the first and second centuries, and consequently anybody who had any kind of education was going to be influenced by it. As Christian theologians and apologists came to be better and better educated as Christianity, as such, came to be more and more tolerated, they were bound to come under the influence of Platonism, and this is what we in fact find in the language and conceptual apparatus of the early Church Fathers.