Platonism and Christianity

W.S. Tyler

"The peculiarity of the Platonic philosophy," says Hegel, in his History of Philosophy (vol. ii.), "is precisely this direction towards the supersensuous world, - it seeks the elevation of consciousness into the realm of spirit.

The Christian religion also has set up this high principle, that the internal spiritual essence of man is his true essence, and has made it the universal principle."

Some of the early Fathers recognized, as they well might, a Christian element in Plato, and ascribed to him a kind of propaedeutic office and relation toward Christianity.

Clement of Alexandria calls philosophy "a sort of preliminary discipline for those who lived before the coming of Christ," and adds, "Perhaps we may say it was given to the Greeks with this special object; for philosophy was to the Greeks what the law was to the Jews, - a schoolmaster to bring them to Christ (Strom., 1, 104 A; cf. 7, 505, 526). "The Platonic dogmas," says Justin Martyr, "are not foreign to Christianity."

If we Christians say that all things were created and ordered by God, we seem to enounce a doctrine of Plato; and, between our view of the being of God and his, the article appears to make the only difference" (Apol., 2, 96 D, etc.). "Justin" (says Ackermann, in the first chapter of his Das Christliche des Platonismus, which is the leading modern work on this subject), - " Justin was, as he himself relates, an enthusiastic admirer of Plato before he found in the gospel that full satisfaction which he had sought earnestly, but in vain, in philosophy.

And, though the gospel stood infinitely higher in his view than the Platonic philosophy, yet he regarded the latter as a preliminary stage to the former, In the same way did the other apologetic writers express themselves concerning Plato and his philosophy, especially Athenagoras, the most spirited, and philosophically most important, of them all, whose Apology is one of the most admirable works of Christian antiquity."

The Fathers of the early church sought to explain the striking resemblance between the doctrines of Plato and those of Christianity, principally by the acquaintance, which, as they supposed, that philosopher made with learned Jews and with the Jewish Scriptures during his sojourn in Egypt, but partly, also, by the universal light of a divine revelation through the "Logos," which, in and through human reason, "lighteth every man that cometh into the world," and which illumined especially such sincere arid humble seekers after truth as Socrates and Plato before the incarnation of the Eternal Word in the person of Jesus Christ.

Passages which bear a striking resemblance to the Christian Scriptures in their picturesque, parabolic, and axiomatic style, and still more in the lofty moral, religious, and almost Christian sentiments which they express, are scattered thickly all through the Dialogues, even those that treat of physical, political, and philosophical subjects; and they are as characteristic of Plato, as is the inimitably graceful dialogue in which they are clothed.

A good selection of such passages may be seen in the introductory chapters of Ackermann's work on the Platonic Element in Plato. A still more copious and striking collection might be made.

But we do not wish to rest our thesis upon single passages, which, of course, may be exceptional, or, if taken out of their connection, might be misunderstood. To preclude mistake, we must examine the Platonic philosophy itself in its principles and spirit.

1. Perhaps the most obvious and striking feature of it is, that it is pre-eminently a spiritual philosophy. Hegel, as we have seen, speaks of "this direction toward the supersensuous world," this "elevation of consciousness into the realm of spirit," as "the peculiarity of the Platonic philosophy."

There is no doctrine on which Plato more frequently or more strenuously insists than this, - that soul is not only superior to body, but prior to it in order of time, and that not merely as it exists in the being of God, but in every order of existence. The soul of the world existed first, and then it was clothed with a material body.

The souls which animate the sun, moon, and stars, existed before the bodies which they inhabit (Timaeus, passim). The pre-existence of human souls is one of the arguments on which he relies to prove their immortality (Paed., 73-76). Among the other arguments by which he demonstrates at once the immortality of the soul and its exalted dignity are these: that the soul leads and rules the body, and therein resembles the immortal gods (Paed. 80);

that the soul is capable of apprehending eternal and immutable ideas, and communing with things unseen and eternal, and so must partake of their nature (Ibid., 79); that, as consciousness is single and simple, so the soul itself is uncompounded, and hence incapable of dissolution (78); that soul being everywhere the cause and source of life, and every way diametrically opposite to death, we cannot conceive of it as dying, any more than we can conceive of fire as becoming cold (102- 107); that soul, being self-moved, and the source of all life and motion, can never cease to live and move (Paedrus, 245).

That diseases of the body do not reach to the soul; and vice, which is a disease of the soul, corrupts its moral quality, but has no power or tendency to destroy its essence (Repub., 610), etc. Spiritual entities are the only real existences: material things are perpetually changing, and flowing into and out of existence. God is: the world becomes, and passes away.

The soul is: the body is ever changing, as a garment. Souls or ideas, which are spiritual entities, are the only true causes; God being the first cause why every thing is, and ideas being the secondary causes why things are such as they are (Paed., 100 sq.).

Mind and will are the real cause of all motion and action in the world, just as truly as of all human motion and action. According to the striking illustration in the Paedo (98, 99), the cause of Socrates awaiting death in the prison, instead of making his escape as his friends urged him to do, was that he chose to do so from a sense of duty; and, if he had chosen to run away, his bones and muscles would have been only the means or instruments of the flight of which his mind and will would have been the cause.

And just so it is in all the phenomena of nature, in all the motions and changes of the material cosmos. And life in the highest sense, what we call spiritual and eternal life, all that deserves the name of life, is in and of and from the soul, which matter only contaminates and clouds, and the body only clogs and entombs (Gorg., 492, 493).

Platonism, as well as Christianity, says, Look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporary, only for a season; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

2. The philosophy of Plato is eminently a theistic philosophy. "God," he says, in his Republic (716 A), "is (literally, holds) the beginning, middle, and end of all things. He is the Supreme Mind or Reason, the efficient Cause of all things, eternal, unchangeable, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-pervading, and all-controlling, just, holy, wise, and good, the absolutely perfect, the beginning of all truth, the fountain of all law and justice, the source of all order and beauty, and especially the cause of all good" (see Philebus, Phaedo, Timaeus, Republic, and Laws, passim).

God represents, he impersonates, he is the True, the Beautiful, but, above all, the Good. Just how Plato conceived these "Ideas" to be related to the divine mind is a much disputed point. In discussing the good, sometimes we can hardly tell whether he means by it an idea, an attribute, a principle, a power, or a personal God. But he leaves us in no doubt as to his actual belief in the divine personality. God is the Reason (the Intelligence, , Phaed., 97 C) and the Good (, Repub., 508 C); but he is also the Artificer, the Maker, the Father, the Supreme Ruler, who begets, disposes, and orders all (cf. Timaeus, passim, with places just cited). He is and , Phaed., 106 D, and often elsewhere).

Plato often speaks also of in the plural; but to him, as to all the best minds of antiquity, the inferior deities are the children, the servants, the ministers, the angels, of the Supreme God (Tim., 41). Unity is an essential element of perfection. There is but one highest and best, - the Most High, the Supreme Good: God in the true and proper sense is one. The Supreme God only is eternal, he only hath immortality in himself. The immortality of the inferior deities is derived, imparted to them by their Father and the Father of all, and is dependent on his will (Tim., 41).

God made the world by introducing order and beauty into chaotic matter, and putting into it a living, moving, intelligent soul; then the inferior deities made man under his direction, and in substantially the same way. God made the world because he is good, and because, free from all envy or jealousy, he wished every thing to he as much like himself as the creature can be like the creator (Tim., 30 A).

Therefore he made the world good; and when he saw it he was delighted (Tim., 37 C; cf. Gen. i. 31). God is the author of all good, and of good only, not of evil. "Every good gift cometh down from the Father of the celestial luminaries;" "for it is not permitted (ob Oijuc, it is morally impossible) for the best being to do any thing else than the best" (Tim., 30 A; cf. Jas i. 17).

God exercises a providential care over the world as a whole, and over every part (chiefly, however, through the inferior deities who thus fulfill the office of angels - Laws, 905 B-906), and makes all things, the least as well as the greatest, work for good to the righteous and those who love God, and are loved by him (Phaed., 62; Repub., 613).

Atheism is a disease, and a corruption of the soul; and no man ever did an unrighteous act, or uttered an impious word, unless he was a theoretical or practical atheist (Laws, 885 B), that is, in the language of the indictment at common law, he did it, "not having the fear of God before his eyes."

3. The Platonic philosophy is teleological. Final causes, together with rational and spiritual agencies, are the only causes that are worthy of the study of the philosopher: indeed, no others deserve the name (Phaed., 98 sqq.). If mind ) is the cause of all things, mind must dispose all things for the best; and when we know how it is best for any thing to be made or disposed, then, and then only, do we know? how' it is and the cause of its being so (Phaed., 97).

Material causes are no causes; and inquiry into them is impertinent, unphilosophical, not to say impious and absurd. Thus did Plato build up a system of rational psychology, cosmology, and theology, all of which are largely teleological, on the twofold basis of a priori reasoning and mythology, in other words, of reason and tradition, including the idea of a primitive revelation The eschatology of the Phaedo, the Gorgias, and the Republic, is professedly a , though he insists that it is also a (Repub., 523) or a (709).

His cosmology he professes to have heard from some one (Piced., 108 D); and his theology in the Timaeus purports to have been derived by tradition from the ancients, who were the offspring of the gods, and who must, of course, have known the truth about their own ancestors (40 C). Yet the whole structure is manifestly the work of his own reason and creative imagination; and the central doctrine of the whole is, that God made and governs the world with constant reference to the highest possible good; and "Ideas" are the powers, or, in the phraseo1ogy of modern science, the "forces," by which the end was to be accomplished.

4. The philosophy of Plato is pre-eminently ethical, and his ethics are remarkably Christian. Only one of his Dialogues was classified by the ancients as "physical," and that (the Timaeus) is largely theological. The political Dialogues treat politics as a part of ethics, - ethics as applied to the State. Besides the four virtues as usually classified by Greek moralists, - viz., temperance, courage, justice, and wisdom, - Plato recognized as virtues humility and meekness, which the Greeks generally despised, and holiness, which they ignored (Euthyphron, passim); and he insists on the duty of non-retaliation and non-resistance as strenuously, not to say paradoxically, as it is taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Crit., 49).

That it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong is a prominent doctrine of the Gorgias (479 E, 508 C). But as the highest "idea" is that of the Good, so the highest excellence of which man is capable is likeness to God, the Supreme and Absolute Good. A philosopher, who is Plato's ideal of a man, and, so to speak, of a Christian, is a lover of wisdom, of truth, of justice, of goodness (Repub., bk. vi., passim), of God, and, by the contemplation and imitation of his virtues, becomes like him as far as it is possible for man to resemble God (Rep., 613 A, B).

5. Plato is pre-eminently a religious philosopher. His ethics, his politics, and his physics are all based on his theology and his religion. Natural and moral obligations, social and civil duties, duties to parents and elders, to kindred and strangers, to neighbors and friends, are all religious duties (Laws, bk. ix., 881 A, xi., 931 A). Not only is God the Lawgiver and Ruler of the universe, but his law is the source and ground of all human law and justice.

"That the gods not only exist, but that they are good, and honor and reward justice far more than men do, is the most beautiful and the best preamble to all laws" (Laws, x. 887). Accordingly, in the Republic and the Laws, the author often prefaces the most important sections of his legislation with some such preamble, exhortation, or, as Jowett calls it, sermon, setting forth the divine authority by which it is sanctioned and enforced.

6. Plato gives prominence to the doctrine of a future state of rewards and punishments. At death, by an inevitable law of its own being, as well as by the appointment of God, every soul goes to its own place; the evil gravitating to the evil, and the good rising to the Supreme Good. When they come before their Judge, perhaps after a long series of transmigrations, each of which is the reward or punishment of the preceding, those who have lived virtuous and holy lives, and those who have not, are separated from each other.

The wicked whose sins are curable are subjected to sufferings in the lower world, which are more or less severe, and more or less protracted, according to their deserts. The incurably wicked are hurled down to Tartarus, whence they never go out, where they are punished forever () as a spectacle and warning to others (Gorg., 523 sqq.; Ph�d. 113 D sq.).

Those, on the other hand, who have lived virtuously and piously, especially those who have purified their hearts and lives by philosophy, will live without bodies (Phaed., 114 C), with the gods, and in places that are bright and beautiful beyond description. More solemn and impressive sermons were never preached in Christian pulpits than those with which Plato concludes such Dialogues as the Gorgias, the Phaedo, the Republic, and the Laws.

We have space only to allude to other characteristic features of Plato's philosophy, such, for example, as his doctrine of "Ideas," - the True, the Beautiful, the Good, the Holy, and the like, - which, looking at them now only on the ethical and practical side, are eternal and immutable, and not dependent even on the will of God (the holy, for instance, is not holy beause it is the will of God, but it is the will of God because it is holy, just, and good - Euthyph., 10 D); the indispensable necessity of a better than any existing, not to say better than human, society and government (like the ideal republic, which is not so much a state, as a church or a school, a great family, or a Man "writ large"), in order to the salvation of the individual or the perfection of the race; the degenerate, diseased, carnal, and corrupt state into which mankind in general have fallen since the reign of Kronos in the golden age (Laws, 713 C; Polit., 271 D: Crit., 108 1)), and from which God only can save any individual or nation (Repub., bk. vi., 492, 493); and the need of a divine teacher, revealer, healer, charmer, to charm away the fear of death, and bring life and immortality to light (Phaed., 78 A, 859).

And we can only advert to the radical defects and imperfections of Plato's best teachings, - his inadequate conception of the nature of sin as involuntary, the result of ignorance, a misfortune, and a disease in the soul, rather than a transgression of the divine law; his consequent erroneous ideas of its cure by successive transmigrations on earth, and protracted pains in purgatory, and by philosophy (an aristocratic remedy, in its nature applicable only to the favored few);

his philosophy of the origin of evil, viz., in the refractory nature of matter, which must therefore be gotten rid of by bodily mortification, and by the death of the body without a resurrection, before the soul can arrive at its perfection; his utter inability to conceive of such a thing as an atonement, free forgiveness, regenerating grace, and salvation for the masses, a fortiori for the chief of sinners; the doubt and uncertainty of his best religious teachings; his ifs and whethers, especially about the future life (Apol., 40 E, 42; Ph�d., 107 C); and the utter want in his system of the grace, even more than of the truth, that have come to us by Jesus Christ, for, after all, Platonism s not so deficient in the wisdom of God as it is in the power of God unto salvation.

The Republic, for example, proposes to overcome the selfishness of human nature by constitutions and laws and education, instead of a new heart and a new spirit, by community of goods and of wives, instead of loyalty and love to a divine-human person like Jesus Christ. Baur (Socr. and Christ) does indeed find in the idealized Socrates of Plato an analogy (speculatively interesting, perhaps, but practically how unlike!) to the personal Christ, and in his "Ideas" a basis, not only for the doctrine of the "Logos" as it was developed by Philo and other Neo-Platonists, but also for the Incarnate Logos of the Gospel of John, with which it may, indeed, have some philosophical relation, but probably no historical connection, still less any corresponding influence on the history of the world.

The history of Platonism, and its several schools or sub-schools of thought and opinion, does not come within the scope of this article. It may be remarked, in general, that, in the Middle and the New Academy, there was always more or less tendency to scepticism, growing out of the Platonic doctrine of the uncertainty of all human knowledge except that of "ideas."

The Neo-Platonists, on the other hand, inclined towards dogmatism, mysticism, asceticism, theosophy, and even thaumaturgy, thus developing seeds of error that lay in the teaching of their master. After the Christian era, among those who were more or less the followers of Plato, we find, at one extreme, the devout and believing Plutarch, the author of that almost inspired treatise on the Delay of the Deity in the Punishment of the Wicked, and the practical and sagacious Galen, whose work on the Uses of the Parts of the Human Body is an anticipation of the Bridgewater Treatises, both of whom, like Socrates, we can hardly help feeling, would have accepted Christianity if they had come within the scope of its influence.

And, at the other extreme, Porphyry, and Julian the apostate, who wielded the weapons of philosophy in direct hostility to the religion of Christ; while intermediate between them the major part of the philosophers of the Neo-Platonic and eclectic schools who came in contact with Christianity went on their way in proud indifference, neglect, or contempt of the religion of the crucified Nazarene.

But not a few of the followers of Plato discovered a kindred and congenial element in the eminent spirituality of the Christian doctrines and the lofty ethics of the Christian life, and, coining in through the vestibule of the Academy, became some of the most illustrious of the fathers and doctors of the early church. And many of the early Christians, in turn, found peculiar attractions in the doctrines of Plato, and employed them as weapons for the defence and extension of Christianity, or, perchance, cast the truths of Christianity in a Platonic mould.

The doctrines of the Logos and the Trinity received their shape from Greek Fathers, who, if not trained in the schools, were much influenced, directly or indirectly, by the Platonic philosophy, particularly in its Jewish-Alexandrian form. That errors and corruptions crept into the church from this source cannot be denied.

But from the same source it derived no small additions, both to its numbers and its strength. Among the most illustrious of the Fathers who were more or less Platonic, we may name Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Minucius Felix, Eusebius, Methodius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Augustine. Plato was the divine philosopher of the earlier Christian centuries: in the middle ages Aristotle succeeded to his place.

But in every period of the history of the church, some of the brightest ornaments of literature, philosophy, and religion, - such men as Anselm, Erasmus, Melanchthon, Jeremy Taylor, Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, Neander, and Tayler Lewis, - have been "Platonizing" Christians.

W.S. Tyler, "PLATONISM AND CHRISTIANITY," Philip Schaff, ed., A Religious Encyclopaedia or Dictionary of Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology, 3rd edn, Vol. 3. Toronto, New York & London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1894. pp.1850-1853.