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Catholic Platonism

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Catholic Platonism and Pope Benedict XVI

Here are links to two articles by Pope Benedict XVI (Cardinal Ratzinger), which illustrate a definite Platonic dimension to his thinking.

The title of the first, ‘The Contemplation of Beauty‘ (2002; alternative link), leaves no doubt about its reference to Plato and, in particular, to the speech of Diotima in Plato’s dialogue, the Symposium (the most important work in Western literature on the contemplation of Beauty).398px-Simmler-Diotima

The essay affirms the connection between Beauty and Truth, an important Platonic theme.  For example, he mentions and cites the 14th century Byzantine theologian and Orthodox Church Saint, Nicholas Cabasila (1319/1323 – 1391):

“True knowledge is being struck by the arrow of Beauty that wounds man, moved by reality, ‘how it is Christ himself who is present and in an ineffable way disposes and forms the souls of men (The Life in Christ, Second book, § 15)’ ”.

In a personal anecdote, he (Pope Benedict/Cardinal Ratzinger) relates his experience at a Bach concert in Munich conducted by Leonard Bernstein.  At one point he turned to the Lutheran bishop seated next to him, and they both shared an intense aesthetic experience, each saying to the other:

“ ‘Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.’

The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of Rublëv? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared.”

The essay is quite accessible and profitable reading for all.trinity_rublov

The second example is an essay titled, “Conscience and Truth“, from a speech presented at the 10th Workshop for Bishops, February 1991, in Dallas, Texas.

This is a very sophisticated analysis of the subject of conscience — not very long, and best appreciated by reading it.  It suffices to say the analysis involves an important distinction between two different levels of conscience; this distinction is reflected in the Latin and Greek , which each have two separate terms for these two levels, whereas English only has the one word, ‘conscience’.  The third section is titled, “Conscience as anamnesis”, the term anamnesis, or Greek for un-forgetting, being a clear allusion to Plato’s philosophy.  Plato believed that we have pre-existing knowledge of divine truths, and that this latent understanding need only be re-awakened.


Written by John Uebersax

September 8, 2009 at 1:28 am

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