Plato – a Christian?

John Hervé says you might think so

‘Yes Father, their relationship is purely platonic – ‘play’ for him and ‘tonic’ for her !'

Plato (428–348 BC) is a household name. He is so important in the history of Western thought that Philosophy itself has sometimes been regarded as commentary on Plato’s works. And not only for the fact that he is the first Western philosopher whose writings remain complete and intact. But what is often minimized is the profound influence of Platonism on the development of Christianity. How so?

Cultural dominance
Well, Platonism was the foremost philosophy in the Hellenistic world and thus the context in which Christianity developed and flourished. Not only was the New Testament written in Greek but it reflects this culture. It was important that Christian thinkers should address this, and make some attempt to accommodate Platonic thought (at least in part). Consequently its main concepts can be easily identified in orthodox Christian thinking.

This does not necessarily invalidate the former or the latter. It is to be expected that any soteriological view (i.e. salvation) would reflect pre-Christian influences; indeed, some would go so far as to argue that it was the mission of Socrates and his pupil Plato to fulfil this role.
Warning! – we always have to remember that their thinking was arrived at solely by philosophical argument and totally independently of Judeo/Christian influences with which we are so familiar.

Plato’s background
Before we go any further, just a quick note about Plato’s background. His Athens was at the apex of its development (the fifth and sixth centuries BC). Tremendous strides were being made not only in the area of Philosophy but also in physics, mathematics, astronomy, history, architecture, sculpture, drama – and it was the first democracy. It was in the latter period of this that Plato formulated his concept of Forms and Ideas (not distinct but alternative titles). Here he was strongly influenced by Socrates (whom Plato regarded as among the wisest of all men); who when examining abstract concepts (such as ‘integrity’ and ‘faithfulness’) was not constructing a definition but actually searching for an entity – something which physically existed! Moreover, these had an eternal quality. Now Plato developed this approach more widely, giving it a universal application. Thus everything, and he means everything, in our world is a ‘shadowy’ reflection of an ideal ‘Form’ which has an eternal reality; and he marshalled many supportive arguments for this from across a wide range of disciplines.

He ‘rings bells’
At once this resonates with Christian thought. There is a divided reality. There is the world of experience subject to change and decay (sic transit Gloria mundi) – the only world we can truly know. Then there is another world we cannot truly know which is eternal and perfectly ordered. This is truly real, unchanging and cannot be shaken. It is apparent straightaway what the implication of all this is when considering what it is to be human: that there is part of us which is transitory, subject to decay, and this reflects a part of us (a second ‘form’) which is imperishable, timeless and indestructible. The Christian calls this the soul. So the influence of Platonism on Christian thought is obvious. But we must persistently remind ourselves that his philosophy does not call for any belief in a Deity or the acceptance of any concept of revealed religion. There have been many Platonists who would not claim to be ‘religious’ in any form. And indeed Plato himself did regard his ‘Ideal Form’ as divine, and also believed in reincarnation; views not necessarily shared by his adherents.

Nevertheless the philosophical ‘world’ has forever been pre-occupied (particularly in the Middle Ages) with the impact and influence of Platonism on Christianity.

And there’s more!
There is an important ‘post-script’ to all this. Another outstanding disciple of Plato who had a profound influence on Christianity was Plotinus (204– 269 AD). He developed the mystical elements in Plato’s thought (Neo-Platonism) and never mentioned Christianity, nor was he one himself. Yet his works had a profound influence on the two great philosophers of the next thousand years (Augustine and Aquinas). Dean Inge (1860–1954), an expert on Platonic Spirituality, wrote of Plotinus as: ‘the great thinker who must be, for all time, the classical representative of mystical philosophy. No other mystical thinker even approaches Plotinus in power and insight and profound spiritual penetration’.

Key works
Plato wrote twenty-four works, in dialogue form, of varying lengths. His Greek prose is unsurpassed in The Republic (overall philosophy), The Symposium (the nature of love) and other dialogues named after the foremost interlocutor of Socrates (e.g. Phaedo, the Laches, the Euthyphro, the Theaetetus, the Parmenides). A gentle introduction is the Apology, Phaedo and Crito which contain his essential portrait of Socrates.

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