Platonism: An Atrium to Christianity
ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
One of the marks of a truly great philosopher is his or her concern with crucial questions. Many a thinker is tempted to devote his or her talents to problems that—although interesting and challenging—have no bearing on the meaning of human existence. They evade questions that, to quote the French philosopher Jacques Chevalier, "every man raises when he faces death": what is the meaning of human life, is there a God, do I have an immortal soul, what is truth, can we attain it? C.S. Lewis remarked that many modern scholars show little interest in the question of truth; they put the emphasis on "interesting," "new," and "challenging."
Independently of the answers that Plato gives us, he stands out as a thinker whose exclusive concern was to shed some light on metaphysical questions of "life and death." That he had a passion for truth is something that no one can deny. He puts the following words in Socrates' mouth: ''I am interested in nothing but the truth."
Analytic philosophy (the philosophical coqueluche of the twentieth century) certainly has made valuable contributions to human thought, but cannot quiet the human longing for truth, as expressed by St. Augustine in his confessions: "Truth, truth how did the very marrow of my bones yearn for thee." But the thinkers who limit their intellectual horizons to such “interesting” questions will find out on their deathbeds that they have concentrated on the accidental and missed the essential. Intellectual greatness calls for more.
That Christianity opened up totally new horizons in philosophy cannot be denied. We are not referring to Christian mysteries that are beyond the pale of human reason (such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, Redemption, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and so forth), but rather, to truths that our minds, in principle, could have perceived but de facto did not, our minds being obscured by original sin. Once perceived, however, man is bound to marvel at the fact that he did not see them before; they were luminous, but his eyesight, blinded by light, was too weak to perceive them. How right Plato was when he claimed that some sort of purification is needed in order for man to see what is there to be seen, but is overlooked because of prejudice or fear of truth. There are truths that man could not perceive without revelation; there are truths that are unpalatable to man's fallen nature, and that he does not want to perceive, or rejects and opposes when perceived.
In this light, it is illuminating to study key insights of a philosopher who has been called a precursor of Christ—a "pagan,” whose paganism did not prevent him from loving truth and longing for its possession, and from having an exclusive concern about classical questions. Whether he has succeeded in answering them satisfactorily is not our concern here. His greatness lies in his knowing that they were key issues. There are errors that are caused by stupidity; there are accidental errors (when a truth-loving thinker falls into error); there are errors that are the result of a basically wrong philosophical posture—that is, to quote Plato, "to prefer oneself to truth." Yet, he also remarks that such thinkers can—accidentally—give us some valuable insights. In his Phaedrus, he tells us that in the worst of authors, there can be something to the point. In the modest framework of this article, I shall limit myself to examining some key ideas of Plato on God, the immortality of the soul, good and evil, truth and error, real evils (immorality) and relative evils.
The superficial mind, for whom to philosophize is an amusing game, enjoys flirting with ideas, carefully avoiding committing himself to any one position, and drawing consequences from his theses. To be human, to deserve to be called a man, a person must turn his attention to issues that will give his life meaning. The key issue for Plato is God's existence, for the answer given to that question will give human life an orientation that is decisive. In his last work, Laws, Plato sadly remarks that we pay much attention to what is secondary or unimportant and very little to what is essential. He writes, "To ignore what is highest is to court disaster." That led to the ruin of the Dorian power. There is a sad irony in the fact that so many of us devote all our time and energy to questions that—although "interesting"—have no eternal resonance.
The crucial questions are relegated to the domain of "opinions," which, being only opinions, can have no claim to absolute truth and cannot lead to certainty. This opens the path to the modern virtue par excellence: tolerance, which tacitly eliminates the question of true and false, morally good and morally bad, and is bound to lead to indifference. In our society kids can graduate from college with summa cum laude, be wizards in computer sciences, but be totally ignorant of whether God exists, of the true nature of morality, and moral obligation. To be ignorant of the nature of God is the worst type of ignorance because it is what matters most. "If we strain every nerve to reach precision and clearness in things of little moment, how absurd not to demand the highest degree of exactness in the things that matter most.'' That Plato was firmly convinced of the existence of God (or the gods) cannot be doubted by anyone who has read his works. At times, he speaks as a philosopher and says "God"; at times, he speaks a Greek, and refers to the gods. But he makes it absolutely clear that he is convinced not only that God exists, but also that he is essentially good ("The divine nature must be perfect in every way"), and perfection excludes change. As a result, it should be clear that God is responsible only for what is good in this world. "God, then is not responsible for everything, but only for what is as it should be. God is not responsible for evil.'' To blame God for what is evil is blasphemy. Instead of putting the blame on God (or neighbor, tua culpa), man should acknowledge his own guilt: ''When a man thinks that others are to be blamed, and not himself, for the errors which he has committed ... and is always fancying himself to be exempt and innocent ... he is really injuring her [the soul]" (Laws 727). "Another divine perfection asserted by Plato is God's simplicity"—a perfection that St. Thomas will develop in his Summa, centuries later. Furthermore, Plato stresses repeatedly in his writings that man's attitude toward the gods should be dictated by the virtue of reverence. Irreverence has a blinding effect on us, and makes us prefer ourselves to truth (Laws 732).
Atheism was rampant in fourth-century B.C. Athens and in Laws, Plato—distressed by this fact—conjures young people to reconsider their position. He reminds them that belief in God is almost universal, and that to reject his existence is a clear sign of immaturity. How many grown men have previously fallen into this error, he tells them, and abandoned their position when mature. But Plato's main concern is not so much to prove God's existence (to his mind, it is fairly evident for the one who has escaped from the dark den of ignorance and prejudice). His problem is to investigate the causes that bring men to endorsing this grave error. He mentions the "insolence of youth," for when insolence steps in shamelessness, arrogance and lawlessness follow. Man's basic attitude toward the divinity should be one of awe and reverence. Plato writes, "The awe which I always feel... about the names of the gods is more than human." With gentle irony, he reminds us that we are "creatures of a day" in whom metaphysical insolence is truly out of place (Laws 921). There is something ludicrous when man—standing on the stilts of his pride—"considers, foolish fellow, that he is his own God" (ibid.). Once man is in the grips of this metaphysical arrogance and believes that he has no need of any guide or help, "he is left deserted by the gods" (Laws 716). Man is clearly "his own worst enemy" (Laws 626).
When insolence is a person's basic attitude, it is bound to lead to atheism. This irreverent attitude is, alas, furthered by famous people who propagate these disastrous ideas and infect the masses. "We hear such things said of them [the gods] by those who are esteemed to be the best of poets, and orators, and prophets and priests and innumerable others" (Laws 891). In his great dialogue Theaetetus, Plato had refuted Protagoras's claim that "man is the measure of all things." Now this pernicious doctrine is extended to the religious sphere. Plato does not hesitate to respond: No. "God is the measure of all things" (Laws 4, 716). Consequently, the purpose and meaning of human life is to resemble him as far as it is humanly possible.
Those who do not deny God's existence accuse him of neglect (Laws 903) or claim that he can be placated by bribery. Others claim that "religion is a cooking up of words and a make-believe" (Laws 886). All these claims are perverse, and Plato insists that God exercises providence over human beings. Prayers and sacrifices are due to God. However, man should also honor him by good deeds: of particular interest is Plato's mention that he who honors his mother pleases the gods. He clearly indicates that honoring the gods should not be limited to cultic services that, though meaningful, when isolated from moral questions, will end in sheer formalism. It is also noteworthy that he stresses the obligation to protect the weak, orphans, and strangers. By the very fact that they are helpless, they call for special care, and the guardians of the state should provide for them and protect them. Plato clearly perceives the link existing between morality and religion, for to honor one's mother is pleasing to the gods, as is to show kindness to orphans and strangers who, because of their helplessness, should be pitied by gods and men (Laws 731). Plato has perceived that man's moral conduct should be in conformity with the divine.
How tragic that this truth was rejected by Aristotle who, assuming erroneously that an awareness of the universe would taint God's perfection, denies that he knows of our existence. By a stroke of his pen, he buries religion, for to pay tribute and pray to a being who does not know and cannot know that we exist is nonsensical. For the same reason he is bound to limit his ethics to a secularistic perimeter, where what is good for man takes precedence over the intrinsic Platonic perfection of the Good. Inevitably Aristotle must place his ethics in a secular framework. In spite of valuable insights, his moral teaching is definitely not open to transcendence.
That man has an immortal soul is a thesis that Plato defends in his Phaedo. Even though his arguments are unsatisfactory, his position is unambiguous. Socrates' calmness toward imminent death is an existential testimony of his peaceful certainty that—in leaving his body—he was turning to a fuller life. Once the soul is liberated from the dark den of ignorance and prejudice, it will be blessed to contemplate the Good itself.
That Plato had a high idea of man is clearly expressed in The Republic where he tells us that "man is worth educating." While observing that this task is arduous, he adds that all great things are difficult to attain. On the other hand, he is keenly conscious of man's weakness and frailty. This is why, in Laws, one of the speakers in the dialogue remarks that he seems to hold men in low esteem. To which the following answer is given: "I was comparing them with the gods" (804).
Man is a torn being, called upon to follow the lead of the Good and yet tempted by evil. No pagan has come as close to the Judeo-Christian idea of original sin as Plato. In his Phaedrus, he presents his readers with a striking analogy: a charioteer has two horses; one is mild mannered and obedient, the other kicks and rebels against the orders of the charioteer, who has a difficult time controlling him. No better parallel could be given of the human soul. As St. Paul expresses it, we do not do the good we want to do, and do the evil that we know to be evil. Clearly man is in need of redemption, and this is something that is powerfully highlighted in Platonic philosophy.
It is man's greatness to know the Good and to strive to follow its dictates. It is man’s misfortune that he often fails to do what he ought to do. Plato has, however, given us an image of what a truth-loving and reverent pagan can achieve, in the figure of Socrates. He incarnates both man's greatness and the nearsightedness of someone who—without any fault of his own—has not received the blessings of the Judeo-Christian revelation. He is the good pagan par excellence, animated by a burning love of truth, and conscious of his limitations (I know that I know not), he is conscious that there is a bad horse in him (there is a typho in me), and that he has the duty to tame it. (In Greek mythology typho was a one-hundred-headed monster.)
Man's great task is to achieve inner unification—this is one of the main purposes of education: to be unified in the Good—for we are all split beings. The aim and purpose of life is to resemble God as much as it is humanly possible to do so, and this is achieved by this inner purification. "This work of reformation is the great business of every man while he lives" (Laws 644). Man is made for the Good, is capable of perceiving it, but through a tragic perversion, he looks in the wrong direction and turns to the service of evil. Education should aim at teaching the child "to love what should be loved, and hate what should be hated" (Laws 653). Against this background, the words that Plato put in Socrates' mouth in Gorgias gain their full value: "It is better for man to suffer injustice than to inflict it on others." Suffering is what men fear most. That it should be considered "better" is, to say the least, paradoxical; but in the light of what he has taught us, it should be clear that to commit an injustice is so great an evil; and it dwarfs the horror of suffering. Moral evil is ultimately the one fully real evil—the only one that has eternal resonance—and it is offensive to the gods. Other evils are time bound; they are the loss of "human goods," not divine goods, such as justice and wisdom (Laws). Not only is injustice a major impediment to our "resembling the Gods as much as it is humanly possible" but moreover, as a consequence, it harms the soul that is our most precious possession. Once again, we see that we are our own worst enemy; for no person can harm us as much as we can harm ourselves. Others can hurt us by depriving us of property and even life. But no one has the power to "kill our own soul”; we alone can do it. This Platonic insight is an ethical gem and, justifies once again the title attributed to Plato: a precursor of Christ. He has perceived how threatening the appeal is that pleasure constitutes for man. This passing enjoyment tempts us to trample upon what is most precious: our moral integrity.
In light of what has just been said, the Platonic condemnation of homosexuality gains its full value. Tempted by the attraction of powerful physical enjoyment, those who fall into the practice of this tragic vice lose sight of what matters and trample upon the warnings of "nature" taken as directed toward what is right. Plato condemns homosexuality (see Laws, Book 1, 3, and especially Book 8) not only as being the defeat of the good horse, dominated by the kicks of the bad one, but also as harmful to society at large. He sees it as a sort of cancer that, if not held in check, will inevitably lead a society to its ruin, and he urges men to "fly from the company of the wicked" (Laws 854). Conscious of man's crippled resistance to evil, he urges those who are defeated by vice to hide their evil deeds so that others will not be infected by them.
Another remarkable Platonic insight is, once again, found in his last work. As we have seen, Plato is conscious of the moral relevance of the intimate sphere; this is why he condemns both homosexuality and adultery. That be has not fully perceived the sublime beauty of the virtue of purity is to be explained by noting that this Christian virtue—par excellence—was revealed in its full splendor only through the Holy Virgin. But it is remarkable that Plato places such emphasis on the moral impact of this sphere. This is also highlighted by his reference to procreation: "[Man] should leave behind his children's children to be servants of God in his place for ever" (Laws 773). Once again, Plato is fully entitled to the noble title: precursor of Christ.
We can see, then, why Plato thought so highly of man that he insists, as he expressed in The Republic, that man is worth educating. Arduous as the task will be—Plato knows but too well the rebelliousness of the human heart— it is worth doing. Plato's ethics is noble and is clearly open to Christian ethics. We might have expected that Christian revelation would have been required to establish that the only real evil (an evil that has eternal resonance) is moral evil. But Plato profoundly understood this. The Platonic reasoning, put in Socrates’ mouth, is convincing: he who murders another or steals his property gains a fragile advantage—a passing “good” that is loaded with guilt. The one who suffers (while not choosing suffering) is an innocent victim; he has lost his property, but his soul remains unspotted. As our soul is our most precious possession, it should be clear that the “loser” (that is, the one who is the victim of an injustice) is the winner: the one who has kept his integrity. This insight is no doubt one of the most precious contributions that Plato has made to ethics.