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.

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