Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

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Greek Philosophy for Bible Exegetes

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IT’S GOOD to see when a Christian is so consumed with zeal to understand the New Testament that he or she resolves to learn Greek to better understand its message. For some, this same kind of zeal might motivate an interest to learn about the Greek philosophy circulating at the time the New Testament was written.

St. Paul was well versed in Greek philosophy. He was raised in Tarsus (a philosophical center), studied in Jerusalem at Gamaliel’s rabbinical school, and when in Athens discoursed intelligently with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. The better-educated of those to whom he directed his letters would have been familiar with Greek philosophy and accustomed to thinking about morals and religion in such terms. St. Paul, who was willing to be “all things to all men, so that some might be saved,” would have found many ideas and principles of Greek philosophy helpful in approaching Gentiles and Hellenized Jews with the message of Christianity.

The writers of the Gospels, too, show every sign of being well-educated Greek-speakers, who might easily have been familiar with elements of Greek philosophy.

Jesus himself probably spoke Greek, and may have lived in the large community of Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria during his childhood, where he might have come into contact with Greek learning.

Therefore, for such practicing Christians as may feel inspired to plunge into Greek philosophy to further their Bible study, below is a list of suggested primary texts sufficient to give one a good understanding of the subject.

Diogenes Laërtius (180 – 240 AD), Lives of Eminent Philosophers selections.

Perhaps the best single resource on the lives of ancient Greek philosophers.  Much better than modern texts!  The main chapters (“Lives”) of interest are as follows:

Plato (428 − 347 BC), selected dialogues, in suggested reading order shown

It is widely believed today that St. Paul was influenced by Stoic thought. However, many of the ideas present in Stoicism are found earlier in Plato’s writings.  Stoicism, in fact, could be considered a branch of Platonism.

  • Charmides (an easy introduction to the writing of the greatest Greek philosopher)
  • Apology (background on the historical Socrates)
  • Phaedo (Socrates’ final conversations before his execution)
  • Symposium (On love)
  • Phaedrus (includes Plato’s famous chariot myth)
  • Republic (contrary to common opinion, this is not a literal treatise on civil politics, but an inspired allegory for the governance of ones soul; the subtitle is On the Righteous Man.)

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC)

Cicero (106 − 43 BC)

In Cicero (a Roman who wrote about Greek philosophy) we see a kind of humanism emerging that is almost Christian.  Also, Cicero transmits to us the philosophical ideas of Posidonius of Apamea (c. 135 – c. 51 BC) and Panaetius of Rhodes (c. 185 − c. 110 BC), whose versions of Stoicism would have likely influenced St. Paul and his contemporaries.

Seneca (Seneca the Younger; c. 4 BC – 65 AD), selections 

Seneca was the brother of Gallio, proconsul of Achaea, who handled St. Paul’s case in Corinth. It’s remotely possible that St. Paul met Seneca in Rome, or that among his contacts in Caesar’s household were some who knew Seneca well.

As an example of later Stoicism, one might read either Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius.

Epictetus (55 – 135 AD)

Marcus Aurelius (121 − 180 AD) 

Finally mention should be made of the great Platonic-Jewish exegete, Philo of Alexandria  (c. 20 BC – 50 AD).  The three books of Allegorical Interpretation supply an introduction to his sublime thought.  In some ways Philo is the most relevant of all these philosophers for Christians, but as his writing style is somewhat difficult, it’s perhaps better to first gain a solid foothold in Greek philosophy by reading the other authors.

John Uebersax
1st draft (sorry for any typos)

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The Platonic Triad

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platonictriad

There is confusion about the Platonic Triad of higher Forms. Let’s clear this up.

  1. Often the Triad is given as Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.   Because these are all Forms, it might be more technically accurate to refer here to the Form (meaning eternal essence or Ideal) of Truth, the Form of Beauty, and so on. But for simplicity, we simply say here Truth and not the Form of Truth, Beauty, and not its Form, etc.
  1. Within this formulation, naming the first two Truth and Beauty is fine, but calling the third Goodness is incorrect.
  1. The problem is that these three occupy only the second-highest tier in the realm of Platonic Forms. Above all three (and this is of central importance) is the Form of the Good. The very point is that by contemplation any of these second-tier forms (or all together), our minds are drawn upwards to contemplate or intuit the Form of the Good, or God. To call the third Form of the Triad “Goodness” therefore confounds levels. It places Goodness, or the Form of the Good on the second tier along with Truth and Beauty, yet also above Truth and Beauty. This is not only ambiguous, but contradicts what Plato actually wrote.
  1. The third Form of the Triad would be more properly called Moral Goodness. That is, it refers to the Goodness of the moral realm. Here ‘moral’ means something much greater than its colloquial use associated with ethical actions and choices; rather it encompasses everything that concerns meaning, value, and virtue in our life.
  1. Yet the term Moral Goodness is arguably not a prefect choice here. It might be misunderstood as suggesting that what it denotes has a greater or more direct connection to Goodness than Truth and Beauty. But such is not true; for we could as easily call the other two Truth Goodness and Beauty Goodness.The issue then is simply a limitation in vocabulary; we seem to lack a single word that means Moral Goodness.
  1. Now in truth we have such a word: Justice. So a faithful expression of the Platonic Triad could be Truth, Beauty, and Justice. However the word ‘justice’ in English carries certain connotations because of its other uses. For example, people today may associate justice with courts, laws, and retributive justice — associations which obscure the meaning of Justice here. What is meant in the present case is a Justice that is is inseparable from peace, harmony, moderation and right measure.  Perhaps we could call it ‘just rightness,’ as in the sense of that special satisfaction felt when we get something just rightness.
  1. Therefore, with the qualification that one understands this fuller and nobler meaning of Justice, we can give the Platonic Triad as (the Forms of ) Truth, Beauty, and Justice (or Measure, or Virtue, or Excellence).
  1. Plato describes three corresponding means of ascent to contemplation of the Form of the Good: i.e., via Truth (dialectical ascent in Book 7 of Republic), Beauty (Diotima’s Ladder of Love in the Symposium), and Moral Goodness (the Phaedrus Chariot Allegory).
  1. This Triad is not to be confused with the Neoplatonist “trinity” of the One, the Good, and Intellect or Mind (Nous). In the Neoplatonist model, as first described by Plotinus, the One is the ultimate level, from which proceed or emanate in a cascading sequence the Good, and then Intellect from the Good, then Soul from Intellect, then Body from Soul.

Update: Plato seems to come as close as anywhere in his writings to explicitly stating this triad in Philebus 61a–66b, especially 64d–65a: Beauty, Truth, and Measure (metriotes) or Proportion (symmetria). In view of this new information I would be less eager to call the third member of the triad Moral Goodness, as that seems to specific. Principles like Measure, Justice/Justness/’Just right’-ness, Excellence, Proportion and Moderation all seem to apply.  There is perhaps no single English term that expresses the essence of all these, which is perhaps what Plato means here.  The Egyptians elevated this cosmic principle to the status of a goddess, Ma’at (Measure), who also corresponds to the Greek goddess Themis.

Applying the Platonic Triad

Here’s how we put the Platonic Triad to practical use in our life.  When, say, one is struck with the beauty of some beautiful thing, (or the virtue of some virtuous person or action, or truth of some truth), one lets ones mind rise to consider Beauty (or Moral Goodness, or Truth) itself: How all things deemed beautiful must share some common essence, Beauty; how this essence, Form, or Ideal of Beauty is something real; how it is changeless and eternal; how it is more perfectly beautiful than any actual object.  For example, for any beautiful object, we see notice slight flaws or imperfections and can imagine how it could be still more beautiful.  The perfect beauty towards which our mind inclines is the Form of Beauty, or Beauty.

And then consider how Beauty itself is merely one species of Goodness.  Truth and Justice are also good.  So there must be some essence, Form, or Ideal which all have in common.  This is the Form of the Good.

Such considerations may enable the mind to rise, then, higher than Beauty itself, to glimpse with ones soul the Form of the Good.

Adepts in the art of contemplation may then dwell on this sight, or rise still higher, learning more of the Form of the Good.  And, it is said, a person’s mind can ascend still higher, beyond the Good — to the One beyond all differentiation.  That brings us to the subject of so-called apophatic mysticism.  This highest form of contemplation is called dark knowing, because it is beyond all concepts.

But others of us who are not contemplative monks and deal with the practicalities of daily social life may, alternatively, draw from a glimpse of the Form of the Good the immediate intuition of what it implies for practical affairs.  We may see a certain activity or task, for example, “in the light of” the Good; and this may help us to simplify problems, remove obstacles, pursue plans with much greater efficiency and effect, etc.

Thus while some forms of the vision of the Good (the famous visio beatifica) are immensely profound and exceedingly rare, others are within our reach on a daily basis and can be of great value in ordering our practical affairs and lives. This is the goal of a good Platonic or Christian (or other religious) life. A personality built on this principle is the real meaning of Plato’s Republic: a city of soul where all the citizens — our numerous subpersonalities, passions, and dispositions — are ruled by love of Wisdom and love of the Good. Then our personality is a harmonious, integrated whole, and not an unruly mob of conflicting subpersonalities, each ruled by its own narrow desires and schemes.

Further Reading

Plotinus.  Enneads 1.3. On Dialectic.  Trans.: Stephen MacKenna, London, 1917–1930 (4rd. ed.  revised by B. S. Page, 1969).

Summary of Plotinus, Enneads 1.3: On Dialectic, or the Upward Way.

Platonism as Psychotherapy

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Portrait of Plato. Luni marble. Roman copy after a Greek original of Silanion. Inv. No. MC 1377. Rome, Capitoline Museums, Museum Montemartini.

Question: I have heard that Platonism ought to be approached as a ‘therapy of the soul’, or literally as psychotherapy? Can you explain this?

Answer: Yes. A central premise of Plato’s writings is that human beings customarily operate at a ‘fallen’ level of mental functioning. Platonism aims to correct this problem.

To avoid getting too mired in the modern medical model, we could alternatively think of this fallen state not as a disease, but as immaturity. Seen this way, Platonism’s purpose is to assist human beings in developing their full, natural capacity as intellectual, moral, and spiritual beings.

Q: What are the characteristics of this ‘fallen’ state of mental functioning?

Anxiety and worry, negative thinking, distraction, unhappiness, to name a few. The list is almost endless. A simpler way of looking at things is by analogy to attention deficit disorder (ADD): our habitual condition of mind is, relative to our ideal or intended state, what ADD is relative to our habitual state. That is, many of the same cognitive abilities that are impaired in ADD are also impaired in our ordinary fallen state — to a lesser, but still to a very serious degree.

Another analogy is to intoxication.   If one can achieve the higher level of mental function Platonism aims for, one’s ordinary state of mind may seem as one of comparative drunkenness.

But rather than list the problems of our ordinary state, which are only too evident and familiar, it is better to examine the nature of the healed, ‘saved’, or ‘redeemed’ state.

Q: What are qualities of this healed or ‘saved’ mental condition?

In answering this question we are helped considerably by the writings of humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow noted that many people have, either through meditation or other spiritual practices, or else sometimes spontaneously in connection with love, nature, or art, certain heightened experiences. Sometimes these are very brief and intense (peak experiences), and sometimes less intense but of longer duration (plateau experiences). For details, interested readers may consult Maslow’s works (especially Maslow, 1968; 1971). It suffices here to note that peak and plateau experiences are associated with increased sensory and mental clarity, aesthetic appreciation, bliss, insight, and absence of disturbing thoughts or emotions. Maslow summarized this condition by calling it one of Being, as contrasted with our usual condition of becoming. [Note: Few people realize that these terms are explicit references to Platonism, the source of the Being–becoming distinction.]

While peak and plateau experiences are of limited duration, Maslow also noted that over time a person may become more adept at bringing them about. As they become a more common feature in one’s life a general positive transformation of personality may occur.

Maslow, however, operating in the scientific-positivistic climate of the 1950’s and 1960’s, did not sufficiently emphasize the moral or spiritual aspects of the Being state.

Q: Can you elaborate on the moral aspects?

Yes, and this is very important. There is an unfortunate tendency today to confuse morality with moralism. The latter is a rigid frame of mind which seeks to conform all behavior to fixed rules, largely proscriptive (“thou shalt not…”). This legalistic approach does little to develop ones innate moral sense. Rather, it is often yet another manifestation of the fallen condition of the mind.

Morality is something different, something positive. It affirms that human beings are designed to be moral; and that moral actions and virtue come naturally and instinctively, and are essential to ones happiness, well-being, and integrity of personality.

Platonism sees an integral connection between intellectual and moral life. Moral development comes from intellectual or illuminative insights into ones own nature. Platonism seeks to cultivate the life of ones higher mind, the source of these intellectual and moral insights. This has two components, the purgative and the illuminative. The purgative part of Platonism seeks to correct our habitual forms of negative thought and emotions, which impair our ability to consult our higher mind. The illuminative part is concerned with actually accessing the higher mind.

Q: And the spiritual aspect?

The spiritual aspect of Platonism is what some writers call the unitive life. It is, of course, something understood by experience, not description. However certain leading principles of this state can be noted.

In general, we could describe this state as a form of humility, in which the ego no longer seeks to be ruler of ones psyche, but rather is content in the role of helper to something greater than itself. Now as to what this other entity is, opinions vary. The traditional view, of course, is that it is God. Some, however, such as Jungian psychologists, understand this other as a higher self or Self. To some extent this distinction doesn’t matter — provided that the ego has sufficient respect for this ‘other’ that it relates to it as something holy and sacred. The proper relationship of the ego to this entity, whatever it is, is one of piety and trust.

In this way a person is no longer constrained by the limitations of egoistic over-control, and the various forms of mischief the ego can create. One is more creative and spontaneous, and, in a word, more happy. Various names given to this condition are self-actualization, self-realization, and individuation.

Another way of seeing things is that Platonism is a form of yoga. Etymologically, the word yoga is related to the word yoke. It refers to establishing an ongoing connection or yoke between the ego and this higher ‘thing’ which is God or a higher Self. Note that the word religion has the same meaning of re-connection, as the stem ligio means to connect or bind, and is related to the word ligament.

So we see that, despite certain differences, Platonism, yoga, and traditional religion all aim to restore a kind of natural state or harmony of soul in which the ego finds its proper role. All of these traditions express a kind of instinctive knowledge human beings have that their ordinary state, where the ego is out of control, is unnatural, but can be corrected.

Q: What then is the relationship between Platonism and religion?

Platonism overlaps with that part of traditional religion concerned with Wisdom. Wisdom is an important part of religion, but it is not the only part.

Nevertheless, Platonism complements and may enhance ones experience as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. Many of the greatest Christian thinkers throughout the centuries were also Platonists — for example St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas in the West, and St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus Confessor in the East. Traditionally, Greek philosophy has been called the handmaid of theology, and this is an apt description of Platonism.

Q: Is Platonism for everybody?

Each person is a unique individual, with their own preferred ‘yoga’. For some a yoga of the heart (e.g., charity and service) is best; for others a yoga of Wisdom such as Platonism is more suitable. In general Platonism will appeal most to people who already have a strong intellectual inclination. It is my observation that in modern times people are overall becoming more intellectual, so that Platonism may have broader appeal today than in earlier centuries.

Q: Very well. How does one go about learning Platonism?

First you should know that most of what is written about Platonism, especially in modern times, is of dubious value. Modern philosophers, generally speaking, no longer understand philosophy as a form of psychotherapy, but see it only as an arena for abstract speculation, controversy, and other forms of self-aggrandizement.

For this and other reasons, there is no substitute for reading Plato’s own works. This is made easier by the fact that Plato was great literary genius as well as a philosopher. Once you get accustomed to them, Plato’s dialogues are very easy and enjoyable to read.

I would recommend starting with one or two of Plato’s early dialogues, such as Charmides or Lysis. These make for pleasant reading and, while they are not his greatest works, help one get a ‘feel’ for Plato.

Eventually one will want to work up to his more significant works: Phaedrus, Symposium, Phaedo, and of course what is perhaps his greatest, The Republic.

After reading one or two of his dialogues, you might want to read some of the myths which Plato placed in several of his works. This may help give you an appreciation of Plato’s mystical and intuitive side, which complements the more analytical style found in his prose.

Not all translations of Plato’s works are of equal value. While some modern translations are excellent, others are not. I generally find older translations, especially those of Benjamin Jowett, and those the Loeb Classical Library, more than satisfactory. The Jowett translations, all in the public domain, can be readily be found online. Many of the Loeb editions are also in the public domain and can be found at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu.

I have also provided short explanations of certain key terms found in Plato’s works which may assist you.

Related:  Reading Plato’s Republic as Psychology

 

References

Cushman, Robert Earl. Therapeia: Plato’s Conception of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Westport, CT, 1976.

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. New York: Van Nostrand, 1968.

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971.