Slowly Reading St Athanasius: From Epicurean Garden to the Academy of Plato

by John Stamps

Last week I read Lucretius De Rerum Natura so that you wouldn’t have to. This week I again followed the advice of C.S. Lewis to a “T.” It’s always better to read Plato himself than some dreary book about Plato. So I read Plato’s Timaeus, his classic work on how the cosmos came into being. Tonight we jump over the fence from the Garden of Epicurus into the Academy of Plato.1 We enter into a completely different thought world from Lucretius. For Plato, the cosmos is the handiwork of a Divine Mind at work.

Let me cover first things first, so that if we run out of time, we hit the important points. St Athanasius begins with a powerful concession about Plato — he is that giant among the Greeks:

Others, amongst whom is Plato, that giant among the Greeks, declare that God made the universe from preexistent and uncreated matter, as God is not able to make anything unless matter preexisted, just as a carpenter must already have wood so that it may be used. They do not realize that saying such things is to impute weakness to God: for if he is not himself the cause of matter, but simply makes things from pre-existent matter, then he is weak, not being able without matter to fashion any of the things that exist, just as the weakness of the carpenter is certainly his inability to make any required thing without wood. (De Inc. §2)

Did St Athanasius read Plato? Of course he did. St Athanasius isn’t an ignorant rube out of the North African Bible Belt.2 He lives in Alexandria, Egypt, the intellectual center of the world. If you live in Alexandria, you eat, drink, and breathe the world of ideas. And you read Plato.3

We’re going to unpack Plato for a bit. We’ll let you know when we return back to St Athanasius.

Question: According to Plato (or at least Timaeus4), who or what is God?
Answer: God is the Divine Craftsman (δημιουργός/Demiurge).

If you split the word into its component parts, Demi-urge simply means someone who works for the Demos, the People. Demiurge is a remarkable and truly humble description of God. God is the Cosmic Craftsman, the Carpenter of the Universe, the Handyman of Creation. The universe is the product of a wise and skilled Craftsman. Here is how Plato describes the Demiurge:

Now to discover the poet and father of this all is quite a task, and even if we discovered him, to speak of him to all men is impossible. (28C)

Plato concedes we can find God, our Maker and Father. It is possible. But the task is exceedingly difficult. But what Plato offers with the right hand, he takes away with the left. Even if we could find Him, we couldn’t talk about Him. Plato’s apophatic theology startles us: we cannot speak about what God is. If we can speak about God at all, we can only speak about what God is not. And after Plato drops this startling bombshell, he quickly picks up and moves on. But Clement of Alexandria, St Gregory Nazianzen, and of course, St Athana­sius loved this statement by Plato and pondered it deeply. Apophasis did not hamstring them or silence them. They also had a rich kataphatic theology of God’s revelation as part of their repertoire.

Obviously Plato is not an Epicurean. Unlike Lucretius, reason, not chaos, rules the universe. The universe is not random. The universe is glorious. Everywhere the universe displays grandeur and beauty. Design is everywhere but only if you understand geometry. Last week we mentioned the famous sign that hung over the entrance to Plato’s Academy, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter under my roof.”5

If you understand Euclid, the universe displays ingenious geometry everywhere. The universe skillfully designed by the Craftsman is built on triangles, triangles all the way down.6

  • The Craftsman skillfully used triangles to create the Platonic Solids:
  • Earth is made out of the Cube or the 6-faced Hexahedron.
  • Fire is made out of the Pyramid or the 4-faced Tetrahedron,
  • Air is made out of the 8-sided Octahedron.
  • Water is made out of the 20-sided Icosahedron.
  • The Aether (or the Constellations) look like a gigantic soccer ball. They are made out of 12-sided Dodecahedron. Socrates himself explained to Simmias that the true earth looks like “those twelve-piece leather balls.” (Phaedo, 110B)
  • The Craftsman god created each of these “beautiful bodies” (53e) as best he could and as far as it is possible for him, given the limitations of the materials, to be “the beautiful and the best (53c).”

But the universe is more than triangles. It tingles with life. This present universe is one single living animal (69c). The cosmos pulsates with energy and goodness and intelligence.

Perhaps the most startling image of all is that the cosmos and the stars dance (χορεία/chor­eia) in a magnificent array. The stars appear and then they disappear. The gods visible and begotten, with their juxtapositions and progressions, display a glorious folkdance. For Plato, a mechanistic explanation of the cosmos (such as you might find in Lucretius or Descartes) doesn’t explain anything at all. The universe the god designed is a festival, not a machine. We are as far away from Lucretius as you can imagine.

However, as impressive as Plato’s God is — a Craftsman is not a Creator. Yes, the cosmos is the handiwork of a Divine Mind at work. But the Father Craftsman did not create his blue­prints, the Forms that comprise the Intelligible Realm. In the Platonic universe, there are two Realms:

  • The Intelligible or the Spiritual Realm. For Plato, the Intelligible, Spiritual Realm is the really real. It is the realm of true Being and true Life. Most startling of all, Plato calls it “the eternal Living Creature” or, perhaps better yet, the Everlasting Animal Itself. (37c-d)7
  • The Physical Realm. This realm consists of the material stuff we see and interact with on a daily basis. This physical realm is changing and imperfect. The physical realm is only a shadow, or image, of the true reality of the Realm of Forms. It is the realm of appearance, of Becoming.

Wilfrid Sellars (updated with the Craftsman and the Platonic Solids) drew a helpful diagram to illustrate the dividing line between the Realm of Forms and True Being (the Animal Itself) versus the Realm of Becoming (the Living World).8 Scroll back up to the top image.

And our Mother (yes, we have a Mother) is a Giant Bowl or Receptacle (41D) or Space in which he mixes up the universe (50D). The Craftsman did not create the Receptacle either. The Craftsman is limited by the materials he starts out with. But most of all He is limited by Necessity.

For mixed indeed was the birth of this cosmos here, and begotten from a standing-together of necessity and intellect (νοῦς/Nous). Intellect (νοῦς/Nous) was ruling over necessity by persuading her to lead most of what comes to be toward what’s best… So if anyone is to declare how the all was in this way genuinely born, he must also mix in the form of the wandering [JS: or “variable”] cause and say how it is its nature to sweep things around. (48A)

Matter places severe limits on the divine Craftsman. He copies the invisible forms to the best of his ability. But no matter how hard the Craftsman tries, at bottom matter is irrational and recalcitrant. Matter by itself has no purpose. At this point, Epicurus and Plato are in startling agreement. The Craftsman can only try to “persuade necessity” — by forcing limits on its motions. This is what turning chaos into an ordered cosmos means. The problem is, the Craftsman cannot fully reduce irrational matter to perfect order. If you asked Plato why evil existed, he’d say it is the fault of the materials that the Craftsman had to start out with. As my former philosophy professor remarked, “the evils and imperfec­tions of the physical world are the result of matter. The Bible, on the other hand, affirms the goodness of the material world” (Diogenes Allen).

OK, now we return to St Athanasius.

Here is the nub of St Athanasius’s critique of Plato, indeed of any philosopher who cannot bring themselves to ask the question, Why is there something rather than nothing at all?

According to the argument, unless there were matter, God would not have made anything. How would he then still be called “Maker” and “Creator,” if he had his ability to make from something else, I mean from the matter? And if this is so, as they thus have it, according to them God is only a craftsman and not the Creator of being, if he fashions underlying matter but is not himself the cause of matter. He could in no way be called “Creator,” if he does not create matter, from which created things come into being (§2).

St Athanasius here kickstarts Christian theology 101 — the universe had a beginning. It never occurred to Plato, Aristotle, or Epicurus to ask why the universe existed. For them, the universe is simply a brute fact. But for Christian theology, we insist that God created all things, visible and invisible, out of nothing (ex nihilo). You all know the word annihilatean-nihil-ate means to cause something to cease to exist, to dissolve into nothing. Christian theology causes us to make up a new word — ex-nihil-ate — to create something out of nothing. Here St Athanasius insists we must say that God ex-nihil-ated the universe. The universe is not eternal. The cosmos is not ultimate. Only God is ultimate. To say that God did not create the universe out of nothing imputes severe weakness to Him. Such a God Who is not a Creator of all things visible and invisible is not even a Designer, but only a Carpenter, and quite a limited one at that.

What kind of God is Plato’s Craftsman? Plato postulates the Craftsman deity to explain the order of the universe. And that’s it. That’s as much God as he really needs. Plato repeatedly dramatizes one “likely story” after another about how order is displayed in the cosmos. The Craftsman looks at the eternal forms — he doesn’t create them, they preexist — and then he makes a copy. This cosmos that he fashions is gorgeous beyond words. But it’s still only a copy. It’s beautiful. But it’s not perfect. It’s only as perfect as the Craftsman could make it based on the limitations of matter and necessity.

When Christians read Genesis, we might ask ourselves, is the universe God created perfect? I’d argue no. It is a cosmos. It is beautiful, indeed very beautiful. But is it perfect?

Think about the structure of Genesis 1 and the six days of creation. God creates, without a blueprint I might add, heaven, earth, sun, moon, stars, plants, animals, and human beings. On Days 1 through 5, God looks at what He has made and He pronounced His verdict: it is καλός — that is, it is good, it is fine, it is beautiful. When He created humans on the six days, He realizes He outdid Himself and He looks at the universe and pronounced, Behold, it is very good (ἰδοὺ καλὰ λίαν), exceedingly beautiful.

But He didn’t pronounce that it was perfect or the best of all possible worlds. For God didn’t stop creating on Day 6. Every day and night, every hour, every second, God continues to create the universe and to sustain it. Every vespers service, we chant and celebrate God’s non-stop creative activity:

How great are thy works, O Lord! in wisdom hast thou wrought them all: the earth is filled with thy creation. [So is] this great and wide sea: there are things creeping innumerable, small animals and great. There go the ships; [and] this dragon whom thou hast made to play in it. All wait upon thee, to give them [their] food in due season. When thou hast given [it] them, they will gather [it]; and when thou hast opened thine hand, they shall all be filled with good. But when thou hast turned away thy face, they shall be troubled: thou wilt take away their breath, and they shall fail, and return to their dust. (Psalm 103 LXX)

God did not stop creating the universe on Day 6.

Let’s take stock of where we are. Please don’t misunderstand me wrong about Plato and Orthodoxy. The early church fathers dearly loved Plato’s Timaeus. They were convinced that Plato had read and digested Moses, or else Plato was divinely inspired. Either way, the Timaeus absolutely delighted the Church Fathers. They saw no necessary conflict between Christian truth and the Greeks. But they didn’t regard Plato’s Timaeus as a genuine story of creation. It is not, for all these reasons St Athanasius argued.

But why do ancient Jews and Christians believe in God? Ultimately it’s not a likely philo­soph­ical story, it’s a salvation story. The basis of faith in God is not us seeking order in the universe and then postulating a God to account for that design. Ancient Jews and Christians believed in God — and we believe in God — because He promises us salvation and He has delivered on that promise. We have tasted and we have seen that the Lord is good. The Bible is not the story of man’s search for God; instead it is God’s search for men and women. It’s the story of God’s creation of us and Him searching for us. We only know God because of His self-revelation to us. God takes the initiative in our salvation. God always takes the initiative in our salvation.

  • God promises to make Abraham a great nation, and so He does.
  • God calls Moses from a burning bush, and promises deliverance to God’s people from an evil tyrant. And so He does.
  • God promises in His Holy Writings to save us from our sins by sending a Messiah, indeed His own Son. And so He does. He wants to repair broken and corrupted human beings in a broken and shattered world. He wants to fix us so that we can bear His image with beauty and grace.

Perhaps I’m too hasty here. For if intransigent matter is the source of evil, then the God who created this material universe isn’t the Christian God. The true God is not the Creator of this world. The God who created this cosmos, this material universe, is an evil God. This leads us to the Dualists. Yes, we’re still in §2.

 

Footnotes

[1] If you mastered Euclid’s geometry, you’re allowed to stroll through the gate into the Academy. Me, I had to hop the fence.

[2] As characterized by Peter Brown in his magisterial biography of St Augustine of Hippo.

[3] Right now, my favorite book on St Athanasius is Orthodoxy and Platonism in Athanasius: Synthesis or Antithesis? by E.P. Meijering.

[4] For the Christian West, the Timaeus was the only book by Plato that survived the collapse of the West. The Timaeus was Plato, not the Plato of the Socratic dialogues you and I know and love. The charming story in the Meno about Socrates teaching geometry to a slave boy, we Westerners didn’t know that story. But at least we knew the Timaeus.

[5] Μηδείς ἀγεωμέτρητος εἰσίτω μου τὴν στέγην

[6] There once was a crotchety old woman who argued with William James that the cosmos was built on the back of a giant turtle. The good professor asked her what was underneath that turtle. She replied there was another turtle. He repeated his question. She famously replied, “It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down.”

[7] Shame on us if we ever considered Plato’s ideas as abstract and lifeless entities.

[8] Wilfrid Sellars, “The Soul as Craftsman: an Interpretation of Plato on the Good.”

(cont)

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John Stamps is currently Senior Technical Writer at Guidewire Software in San Jose, California. He holds a BA in Greek from Abilene Christian University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and did work towards an STM in philosophy of religion at Yale University. He is married to Shelly Houston Stamps and attends St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Campbell, California.

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2 Responses to Slowly Reading St Athanasius: From Epicurean Garden to the Academy of Plato

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Did Plato himself, then, not have the equivalent of the neo-Platonists “One” (which, as I understand it, a lot of Christian ideas about God kean heavily on)?

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      Hey Iain, I just saw your question here. I apologize for not replying. Let me look into The Timaeus (at least as a start) and get back to you. I’ll also review Meijering, my current resource on all things Athanasian and Platonic.

      Like

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