In Defense of Christian Platonism

by Alexander Earl

“That it is especially with the Platonists that we must carry on our disputations on matters of theology, their opinions being preferable to those of all other philosophers.”
~ St Augustine of Hippo

I. Introductions

St Augustine is perhaps one of the most explicit Platonists in the Christian tradition. The first work he penned, Contra Academicos (Against the Academicians), relies heavily on Platonic arguments to refute the skepticism found in Cicero’s dialogue of the same theme, Academica. In fact, at the end of the dialogue, Augustine posits a “secret history” to explain how the Skeptical Academy was all along still committed to Platonism, but used skepticism as a tool to hide their true beliefs and purify potential initiates.1 It is no surprise that something like this transition occurred in Augustine’s own life. As he narrates in his Confessions, Augustine underwent a number of critical ‘conversions’: first to the naïve Manicheanism of his youth (Bks. I-IV), then to a skepticism that freed him from superstition, but failed to offer anything positive in return (Bk. V), from which he found solace in Platonist transcendence (Bk. VII), and only thereafter beheld Christianity as a consummative end to the journey, notably due to the incarnation (Bks. VIII-IX). Of course, there are numerous developmentalist scholars that read these conversions as hard breaks in Augustine’s intellectual and spiritual life, basically arguing that once he moved forward he never looked back.2 The story is rather quaint. As it goes, at his intellectual height, Augustine was an optimistic Platonist who finally read some Paul and realized he needed grace, and so became the ardent defender of dogma we know and love. But this view lacks any and all nuance. It hardly makes sense of the end of the Confessions itself. His discussions of memory (Bk. X) and time (Bk. XI) are indisputably Platonic, and the capstone books divulge Neoplatonic (Bk. XII) and ecclesial (Bk. XIII) readings of Genesis, and provide no indication that these readings are developmental or conflicting. This view neither accords with the material we find even in what is regarded as his most ‘Christian’ works, such as De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching) or Civitas Dei (City of God), where the insights from his dialogical and Platonic days are still in full view, for example, in his distinction between temporal and eternal law from De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Choice of the Will). How, after all, does one make sense of his final days as he meditated on a portion Plotinus’s Ennead I.4?3 I am yet to see a plausible alternative.

At any rate, I am not here to argue the specifics of Augustine’s commitment to Platonism. I merely use him as a litmus test for a kind of prevalent reading of the Fathers and the Church’s tradition in general. The narrative is simple: Christianity and Platonism are incompatible, the Fathers may have been enamored by Platonism for a time, or even formally trained in it, but eventually they abandon it for the Gospel, and their anti-Platonic rhetoric is proof. Let us be honest, the principles are insurmountable. Platonism offers us optimism about our rational and moral capacities to mystically ascend “alone to the alone,” that is, to the absolute simplicity of the One, of which we are all necessary emanations and to which we all must necessarily return.4 Christianity, on the other hand, offers us the grace of biblical revelation, which reveals God as a personal Tri-unity that creates ex nihilo in utter freedom and creativity, and even deigned to become incarnate in history, in flesh and blood, suffering death for our sakes. The two are so obviously irreconcilable. Augustine could not have thought otherwise, let alone anyone else; if they did, they were palpably wrong.

II. Reframing

Or so the rhetoric goes. On the contrary, one cannot separate Christianity from Hellenism any more than one can entirely separate Christianity from Judaism, and the Judaism from which Christianity emerges is already substantially Hellenized. In order to understand this point, we have to abandon strawman Platonism and answer the classical what is it question. Upon that investigation, we can begin to see how Platonism actually bolsters the Gospel, not hinders it, through the inheritance of a robust metaphysical vision of reality brought to perfection by the Church in Christ. In short, as Nicolás Gómez Dávila once remarked, “paganism is the other Old Testament of the Church.”5 A rejection of this view amounts to a vacuous notion of revelation, and so of God’s relation to the world. Before proceeding further, I need to make an almost obvious point, already intimated: the Christian tradition is infused with the Platonic, and any attempt to irrevocably disentangle the two inevitably leads to collapse. I do not intend to give a survey of that tradition, but I am not sure any other narrative quite makes sense of, say, St Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, the Cappadocian Fathers, St Dionysius the Areopagite, St Thomas Aquinas, and so on. In short, the tradition is overwhelmingly sympathetic to Platonism, often uses it rather explicitly, and even in those more rhetorically dismissive moments, continues to draw from the fruits of Platonic speculation.6 Does that mean Christianity is reducible to Platonism? Of course not. But, as the epigraph attests, I aver that the Fathers saw Platonism as the closest system to Christianity, and Christianity as the natural inheritor and perfector of its metaphysics, to which Augustine’s conversion exemplifies. Let me, therefore, begin to provide a defense of Christian Platonism, hopefully to inspire those who are unfamiliar, and perhaps give detractors pause for further reflection.

First, humor me with an anecdote: when I was first taking philosophy classes as an undergraduate, I was taught Plato by a rather analytic-minded German who was clearly enamored with Wittgenstein. It must be something of a penchant among that creed to not take Plato and his inheritors seriously, perhaps it is because they find him merely laughable, maybe dangerous. Who can say? I am no expert on the matter; I merely offer a consistency of experience. At any rate, the Plato I received from this fellow was wholly unimpressive. He gave us the standard narrative about the twin pillars of the Academy: immortal souls and forms, and tried to show how it was all glaringly gibberish, overflowing in logical error; you’re likely familiar with two-world theories and Aristotle’s third-man argument, that sort of stuff. Nonetheless, it is hard to engage Plato and walk away unchanged. Change the subject and emphasis of Heraclitus’s popular phrase—you cannot step twice in the same river—and you actually can have something prophetic and profound. It is not the river that cannot be stepped in twice, it is that one cannot engage Plato twice and come out unscathed. Plato is not liable to senescence, and he is not reducible to caricatures, no matter the prevalent delusions of impoverished narratives. Thus, despite this German’s emphatic dismissal, his view never persuaded me. My suspicions remained ever vigilant. How to refute that poor German, though? I did not know then, but I was certain we were not still reading Plato today because he was ultimately a dunce, even if a rather utilitarian dunce that instigated an impressive philosophical domino effect. But woe is me, persistent narratives can be vicious things, can’t they? By time I was in my junior year I was an obedient steward of the anti-Plato narrative—my resolve was clearly short-lived. I had read my N.T. Wright like any good budding Christian intellectual, and Wright had assured me in that little publication Surprised by Hope that Plato was to blame for a shallow Christian eschatology (the negation of an eschatology consisting of harps, clouds, and angel-fied grandmas is not too hard a sell).7 Therefore, if we wanted to save Christianity from its contemporary ills, we had to axe Plato. Except not long after that Wrightian rendezvous I met a rather eccentric and gregarious Augustinian—or rather a scholar of Augustine, as he would have it—who was keen to interpret Augustine Platonically, and was persuasive in arguing that such a reading was a more plausible account than what was on offer, and, more importantly, he showed how such a reading had real world implications, positive implications in fact, for pedagogy, for evangelism, and ultimately even for theology; that is a story for another time. My point is that after I had moved from Platonic interest, to dismissal, to renewal, I continued my quest to make sense of this enigmatic figure well into my graduate years. My question was almost always the same: what, pray tell, are the hell are these things called forms? That must be the key. Is that not what is at stake? Is that not the running joke? Plato wants to hang out with ethereal hexagons, and you can too? It was not until a little later into my graduate school moorings that I found my answer: to be is to be intelligible.8 And here we have the root of the matter. Hitherto then the quest was misguided. You cannot make sense of the forms within a metaphysics dominated by epistemology, or probably better to say a metaphysics of epistemology, and such is the prevailing tendency of Anglophone philosophy. We have to do our best to think with the ancients, to see things how they saw them, in hopes that we too might come to see things differently, maybe more clearly, or even perhaps as they really are. This view was one of the most enduring contributions of Pierre Hadot: we need to return to the roots of philosophy as coming to possess a certain vision of the world, instead of strip-mining it for arguments, and then trying to contort those arguments to fit our epistemological assumptions.9 As has been frequently professed by others, let our metaphysics influence our epistemology, not vice versa. In which case, how might this central metaphysical assumption change the way we see the cosmos? What does it mean to say being is intelligibility and intelligibility is being? Contrary to the ways of manual philosophy, we should not start at the top of the metaphysical hierarchy, we can only do that once we understand how we got there. We must start with ourselves, as the enduring dictum demands: know thyself.

III. Platonist Metaphysics

Surprisingly, Plotinus takes it all rather seriously, almost always starting with our basic experience. It is important to understand that Plotinus reasons from empirical experience to the soul; the soul is not a premise, but a conclusion to rigorous philosophical reasoning. As a preliminary, despite countless misconceptions, the soul is not a foreign homunculus inhabiting a machine for a joy ride. It is the principle of life for a body. To be horribly tautological, soul (animus) is that which makes a body animated: alive, self-moving, and so on. When looking out into the world, we ask what distinguishes this body from that body. Why is this body motionless and that one capable of self-motion? Why do rocks remain still and squirrels happily gallivant? It cannot be body per se that accounts for the difference, and so there must be some additional principle to account for the differentia, and that difference Plotinus calls soul. However, since we encounter different kinds of animated bodies, there must also be different kinds of soul. For example, some are only capable of nourishment, others of locomotion, and still others rationality. We can ask the same question: what accounts for these differing activities? Again, it cannot be soul per se that does the differentiating. For this reason, Plotinus argues that it is Intellect that is ‘above’ soul, which provides soul the condition for its discursive thought. For rational souls go to and fro in their reasoning, running from premises to conclusions and back again. Intellect, on the other hand, is thought-thinking-itself; it is the all-at-once possession of the content of thought, a union between the subject that thinks and the object of its thinking. But the intellect is itself conditioned, not in terms of a differentia question (for there can only be one intellect), but in terms of a more precise causal question regarding its unity. Intellect is not simply one, but, as we said, the unity of thought-thinking-itself. Therefore, the principle of unity above intellect is what Plotinus calls ‘the One,’ the source of all things and the condition for all unity. It is this kind of rationale that leads Plotinus to posit his three primary hypostases: The One, Intellect (Nous), and Soul (Psyche). Again, they are conclusions, not assumptions.10

Now hopefully you can see that the whole system is governed by metaphysical causal questions. Plotinus looks out into the world and is intent to discover how things come-to-be in their plenitude and complexity, and, like all of the ancients, is especially concerned to know what grounds all of reality. Like any science, it is the question of aitia, of causes and their corresponding principles. To use Aristotelean language, if anything moves from potency to act, then it must be moved, or changed, by something already actual, what is known as the principle of causality. So, in the example above, when we ask what-is-it that gives some beings the activity of self-motion, we have to find some being that is actually, full-stop, self-moving in the relevant sense, and in this case that is soul. Of course, soul is not pure actuality, it need not be actual in every way, it only needs to be actual in its way of being. In other words, its proper activity is what accounts for what-it-is, and this activity is self-motion, or life. Now the soul may have other features, it may ‘participate’ in other kinds of actuality, but those participated realities are not what-it-is. So, for example, one important feature of soul is its rationality, but rationality is a ‘lower’ kind of intellection. Why? Because to be rational is in some sense to be divided. Not only does rationality move linearly—or discursively, as said above—but it comes-to-know things. It is an actualized intellection; it does not possess within itself the object of its thought. Therefore, reason can admit non-thinking and falsity. There can be moments where it forgets, or does not even possess the content of its knowing. Here is how the perennial problem of skepticism arises. For skepticism can only emerge when there is a dichotomy between the subject that thinks and the object of its thinking. Only then can the meaningful question be raised of how we have adequate access to the objects of knowledge, or how we can even know when we have attained adequate access.11

Thus, since soul qua rational is an actualized intellect, there must be something that is properly intellectual. It must be thought-thinking-itself, which is the same conclusion Aristotle arrives at with his Unmoved Mover. If that is so, this reality will not be an actualized intellect but simply be intellect. It can never admit falsity or non-thinking, otherwise we would have to push the causal question further until we discovered that which is truly intellect. In short, if we are to have any meaningful hope that we do in fact know things, there must be a reality which is already that union between thought and thinkable in its very being. Skepticism may be a reality for us, but it is not indicative of reality as such. Our reason may be divided, but the fact that we reason at all presumes we participate in a purely intellectual reality, otherwise all our reasoning’s are illusions. If we are to avoid nihilism, there must be some primordial union, or communion, between being and thought. Intelligibility is reality, nihilism is not.

IV. The Stakes

This chasm between intelligibility and nihilism is precisely what is at stake. Platonism is the bastion of intelligibility; that is its core metaphysical maxim. To say so is to take seriously the question of causality. Inasmuch as things come-to-be, they demand an explanation for their being at every level. Since our entire world and experience is one of becoming (to use the Platonic language), if we are to have any hope of coherence we must posit a reality ‘above’ this one where being and thought are united. This vision is how Plato, and Plotinus after him, posit a theory of forms. Forms are not ethereal hexagons. There is not some ‘second world,’ abstracted and inert, floating above this one. Au contraire, that other reality is more real than this one, not less.12 In which case, how should we think of our level of reality? Forms are ideas, or the ‘look’ of things (in Greek, eidos). They are a thing’s intelligible content. They are what is most real about the things here ‘below.’ Since the things of our experience are a mix of form and matter, of potentiality and actuality, and hence are in a constant state of becoming, these things below are derivative ‘images’ of those ‘above,’ and it is this image-paradigm relationship that governs the Platonic language of ‘participation.’

However, that discussion will have to wait, for here is where we must stop for now. I admit that what I have said thus far is only a vision, and due to its brevity it must inevitably leave out important features, but I have tried to provide some of the basic philosophical contours that ground that vision. If we are to think more carefully about the relationship between Christianity and Platonism, it is here we must begin. That is the core of Platonism, the central postulate that holds together everything else. I may sum it up like this: it is a certain causal insistence that grounds the ‘twin pillars’ of the Academy, that of the immortal soul and the forms (though I’ve focused on the latter). That causal insistence, in turn, demands that the principle of being be pure Intellect, or thought-thinking-itself, the level of reality that grounds the maxim that to be is to be intelligible. Since what it is is thinking, and what it thinks is itself, the intelligibles are its own being, and since the intelligibles are what is given to thought and what is thinkable, being is intelligibility and intelligibility is being. They are simply convertible. We could say much more about this principle, and in fact we must. For once we begin to unpack it, we will see that Intellect, too, as eluded above, is conditioned, and that same causal insistence must take us further to the infamous Plotinian One. Therefore, we raise the mind by causal insistence, we find the meaning of being to be intelligibility, we see that intelligibility inevitably points beyond itself, and so when we return back to being, inspired and renewed, we must rethink our language, rethink ourselves, and come to see things as they truly are—charged with the grandeur of God.13

Endnotes

[1] For a detailed treatment, see Erik Kenyon’s ‘Platonic Pedagogy in Augustine’s Dialogues’ in the journal Ancient Philosophy, pp. 151-168, volume 34 (2014). Kenyon also has a book on the same topic, Augustine and the Dialogue, recently released from Cambridge Press (April 2018).

[2] Peter Brown is perhaps the most popular developmentalist. See his Augustine: A Biography.

[3] A.H. Armstrong points out this fact in his translation, citing Possidius’s Vita Augustini XXVIII, which says, “Amid these calamities [the Vandals besieging Hippo] he was consoled by the thought of a certain wise man who said ‘he is not to be thought great who thinks it strange that wood and stones should fall and mortals die.'”

[4] Plotinus, Ennead VI.9.11

[5] Escolios a un Texto Implícito, 1.206

[6] Consider as an example someone like Gregory of Nyssa in his masterful work, On the Soul and the Resurrection, where in Chapter 3 he claims he’s turning away from “secular philosophy” and relying solely on Scripture, but then goes on to present a clearly Platonic reading of scripture scaffolded by Greek logic.

[7] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, especially Part II.

[8] Eric Perl is the only scholar I know of that puts an unrelenting and explicit emphasis on this maxim. To see its implications in the thought of Dionysius, see his short book Theophany, but for a more sustained introduction to its use throughout the classical tradition, see his book Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition. Of course, Perl picks up its centrality from Plotinus himself, which he in turn gets from Parmenides (Fragment B3), which says that “thinking and being are the same thing” (V.1.8; V.9.5). Finally, you can find similar ways of thinking in some 20th c. Thomists, such as Jacque Maritain’s Approaches to God and Norris Clarke’s The One and Many.

[9] See Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life for his general view. But I would highly recommend Plotinus: Or the Simplicity of Vision for an application to Plotinus, which I’ve personally found more edifying due to that same focused application.

[10] While these kinds of ‘ascents’ from soul to the One are all over Plotinus’s Enneads, the most systematic presentation can be found in Ennead V.1.

[11] Ennead V.3.5; c.f. V.5

[12] Denys Turner has a helpful discussion on the difference between John Locke and Thomas Aquinas’s theories of abstraction in his work Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. While he is discussing Thomas Aquinas, and not Platonism per se, I think the same distinction applies. For Locke, abstraction is a kind of ‘thinning out’ of the content, hence how we get the idea of the forms being lifeless and inert, stripped of their concreteness, so to speak. For Aquinas, on the other hand, abstraction is in fact the opposite. It provides more depth and meaning to otherwise ‘lifeless and inert’ matter. As Turner explains, it is the difference between thinking of a space filled with various pieces of matter, material and texture, having no governing or unifying principle, to seeing that same room as a living room, and all of the mental content that follows from that meaning: a place where you read, socialize, play games, etc.

[13] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur.”

* * *

Alexander Earl currently teaches Theology and History at a college-preparatory school in Santa Monica, California. He holds a Masters of Religion in Philosophical Theology from Yale Divinity School.

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2 Responses to In Defense of Christian Platonism

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I’d like to welcome Alexander to Eclectic Orthodoxy and thank him for his first contribution to the blog. I look forward to more such articles. Thanks, Alex!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. rdstreeter says:

    Thank you, Alex, for this compelling case for Christian Platonism. Given my interest in early modern alchemy, I couldn’t help but chuckle at your apt assertion that the soul “… is not a foreign homunculus inhabiting a machine for a joy ride. It is the principle of life for a body.” Well put!

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