Remembering Plato

For a long time, Christians in the West have had a greater openness to Aristotle’s philosophical thought than to Plato’s.

It was never really a fair contest.

We had little enough of either Aristotle’s or Plato’s writings in the early Middle Ages of the Latin West. When we did recover more of their texts, we received Aristotle quite a bit earlier than Plato, and for the interpretation of Aristotle we had in St. Thomas Aquinas a thinker of unquestionable brilliance and holiness.

Plato was restored to us at a later time, after Aristotle had come to possess a great philosophical importance for us, and Plato came associated with Western interpreters who were not named as Doctors of the Church, or even, for the most part, as canonized saints.

Besides all this, there is something about Aristotle that is not so troubling for the religious mind, compared to Plato’s writing.

Aristotle’s thought is able to be isolated, to focus on one topic at a time. This means we can learn from Aristotle’s wisdom without being forced to wonder what relationship these insights might have to the faith we profess.

The nature of Plato’s approach to philosophy, by contrast, makes it is always no more than one or two steps removed from questions about morality, God, the afterlife, and the invisible realm. Furthermore, explicit answers to these questions are frequently being proposed, many of which will seem strange or even abhorrent to the person who finds a home in Christian doctrine. Early on, reading Plato can be a very unsettling experience for the religious reader. I speak from experience.

Now, I’ve touched on too many interesting controversies for me to try to give an account of them all in this one blog post. Instead, all I want to do is leave this reflection as a reminder of the perpetual imbalance in our philosophical heritage.

When we look to Greek philosophy, if we look to it at all, we do so with a bias against Plato, and toward Aristotle.

If we wish to approach the study of philosophy at all philosophically, we should seek to counterbalance that bias.

Let’s remember that Plato will feel more foreign to us than Aristotle, for historical reasons, and that we have more of a tendency to reject the strangeness of Plato’s philosophical mythmaking. Let’s just remember that truth, and respond to our bias with a renewed effort at being open to the instruction that proceeds from one of the most insightful and charming thinkers that the world has ever produced.

5 Replies to “Remembering Plato”

  1. Just yesterday, I was reading a book on marriage by Fulton Sheen (Three to Get Married). Fr. Sheen begins chapter nine by noting that the Catholic vision of marriage contains an exalted view of the human body. He blames “Plato and his followers” for downgrading the body, framing it as a mere appendage to the rational soul, a view he believes diminishes our potential as embodied beings. Meanwhile, earlier in the book, I recall Sheen framing Aristotle as the “wisest” of the Ancients.

    With Sheen in mind, I find your conclusion that in the West we have a bias against Plato to be very interesting. Has Sheen succumbed to the bias-against-Plato that you identify? But as I read Sheen, it seems as though he is implicitly saying that in the West we have a bias in *favour* of Plato.

    Enough about Sheen. But I find your post interesting because the narrative I have often heard is different from yours: That in the West, we have a Platonic bias. As a recent spokesperson for this view, Dr. Iain McGilchrist comes to mind.

    I am drifting from your point.

    I remember sitting in an undergraduate seminar, with a fervent Presbyterian, who told me he was unsettled by the weirdness of Plato’s philosophy. I was engaged reading, in your post, about how Plato takes the “invisible realm” more seriously. From my reading of the Republic, I agree Plato’s writing is “charming.” But charm can be a form of seduction. Is there merit to Sheen’s argument?

    For the record, I write this as someone who had a greater affinity for Plato than Aristotle when I studied them in undergrad. Insightful post, look forward to reading more.

    1. Patrick! Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

      You’re absolutely right that there is good precedent for claiming the West is deeply Platonic in a way that it’s not deeply Aristotelian. I think this claim mainly bases itself on a family resemblance between Platonism and Christian faith (a resemblance which would also extend to eg Greek mystery cults and Persia’s Zoroastrian beliefs), which some (like Nietzsche) see also faintly preserved in modern political egalitarianism.

      I don’t deny the resemblance, but still it hasn’t made the West or its philosophical legacy terribly affectionate toward Plato, who I’d say has been made a strawman of one sort or another far more often than he’s been genuinely admired.

      I suspect that Sheen would want to paint Plato as the reigning champion in large part because there’s no glory to be had in defeating the underdog – especially when the underdog isn’t even around to defend himself. 🙂

      In our day it sometimes feels like a sophisticated person doesn’t need any more justification for a view than to say that it’s incompatible with Platonism. Aristotle has somehow escaped that fate for the most part, except perhaps for the rumour that he was the original apologist for slavery.

      1. Well-said! I can see how there is a temptation to straw man Plato.

        You mention the “family resemblance” between Platonism and Christianity; I’d be curious to learn more about the key differences. From my Christian reading, I think I’ve been inclined to focus on the points of commonality rather than differences.

        E.g., recently, I was pondering the Scripture passage on Peter’s denial (in Luke 22). Peter follows Christ after he is arrested, but only at a distance, and then he bails to comfort himself by the fire while Christ is put in chains (he then denies Him thrice). This reminded me of Plato’s cave allegory: We sit mesmerized by the flames, in a sort of dazed comfort, finding it hard to ascend to the sunlight. How difficult it is to follow the Truth. Who can bear the suns rays? How much suffering is involved in following the Truth all the way where it leads? Are the noblest among us still only like Peter, fickle in their pursuit of Truth? To take another theme from your posts, are non-intellectuals, like the fisherman Peter, somehow able to get closer to the Truth? Just some musings from a bookish layman.

        Thanks for your reply, and look forward to learning more on Plato from your posts!

        1. Thank you for the beautiful reflection. Some of the major differences as I see them might be particularity vs universality, and the centrality in the Christian faith of things like the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and revelation. It’s true that the parable of the cave is applicable to many different ways of thinking, but I think this fact can be misleading. The same simile may mean very different things in different contexts; a flower and a bomb can both be like the sun. Certainly what Plato means by truth is not obviously the same as what the biblical writers have in mind.

          1. Appreciate your reply, next time I’ll ask you about Christian Platonism. Enjoying your site.

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