We depend on all our great readers to keep Salvo going!
Follow Salvo online
Certain old books stand out for both their intrinsic power and their longstanding influence upon Western civilization. Obviously the Bible is one of these, as are the epics of Homer, the Greek tragedies, and the plays of Shakespeare. On this short list the writings of Plato hold a high place. Plato's works are the literary fountain of our philosophical tradition; Alfred North Whitehead once characterized Western philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato. But Plato's influence reaches beyond philosophy; his writings have become part of Western religious thought as well.
Article originally appeared in
The integration of Platonic imagery and ideas into Christian thought has been significant. This influence has been both celebrated and deplored. From the time of the church fathers through the Renaissance to the days of C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and Charles Williams, themes and images from Plato have enriched Christian writing and contributed much to its beauty; yet in modern times some Christian writers have judged Plato harshly. They have objected, for example, to his "dualistic" presentation of the separation of soul from body, which they regard as incompatible with biblical teaching.
My purpose here is not to argue for the full compatibility of Plato's teaching with Christian doctrine. I have a more limited aim, which is to convey some idea of why Plato's writing has been perennially attractive to Christians.
Righteousness Above Life
Take, for example, this passage from The Apology of Socrates, in which Socrates, having been condemned by the Athenian jury, explains why he stood his ground when he could have saved his life by grovelling in repentance before his accusers and making emotional pleas for mercy:
I much prefer to die after such a defence [as I have given] than to live after a defence of the other sort. For neither in the court nor in war ought I or any other man to plan to escape death by every possible means. In battles it is often plain that a man might avoid death by throwing down his arms and begging mercy of his pursuers; and there are many other means of escaping death in dangers of various kinds if one is willing to do and say anything. But gentlemen, it is not hard to escape death; it is much harder to escape wickedness, for that runs faster than death. And now I, since I am slow and old, am caught by the slower runner, and my accusers, who are clever and quick, by the faster, wickedness. And now I shall go away convicted by you and sentenced to death, and they go convicted by truth of villainy and wrong. And I abide by my penalty, and they by theirs. (Apology, 38E–39B)
Socrates rises above the fear of death because he fears corrupting his soul still more. His priority is not to live at any cost, but to live only as long as he can live well; and living well for Socrates (and for Plato, whose teaching is frequently conveyed through Socrates) means living in accord with the virtues. The most prominent virtue in Plato's writing is justice (dikaiosune–)—which is the word translated as "righteousness" in traditional renderings of the Bible. The focus on justice or righteousness is one of the important links between Platonic thought and Christian thought.
The Just Man Condemned
The reverse side of living in accord with justice is never committing injustice. During his trial, Socrates says that he has never willingly committed injustice against any man (Apology, 37A). The commitment never to do injustice is a -principle that Socrates has impressed upon his followers, and of which he has to remind Crito: "Then we ought neither to requite wrong with wrong nor to do evil to anyone, no matter what he may have done to us" (Crito, 49C–D).
When we read this passage, we cannot help thinking of the biblical admonition to "turn the other cheek" to the one who has wronged us.
Socrates is presented by Plato as a just man who was legally condemned as unjust. It is a theme to which Plato returns, in the Republic, when Glaucon presents the hypothetical case of the man who is perfectly just, but in the eyes of the world has been made to seem unjust, and hence is bound to suffer juridical humiliation and punishment: "being thus situated, the just man will be whipped, stretched on the rack, bound in chains, have both eyes burnt out, and finally, having suffered every evil, he will be put up on a stake" (Republic, 361E–362A).
The judicial condemnation of the righteous man, followed by whipping and a humiliating public death on a stake (either by impalement or crucifixion—the Greek verb here could mean either), reminds us of the treatment of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels.
A Universe Ordered for Good
The passages examined so far reveal a certain kinship between Plato's presentation of justice or righteousness and that of Christian faith, but the similarity of themes extends to ideas about God and creation as well. While waiting to die, Socrates discusses his early disappointment with the claims of the natural science of his day:
I heard a man reading from a book . . . by Anaxagoras . . . saying that mind is the arranger and cause of all things . . . and I thought, "If this is so, the mind in arranging things establishes each thing as it is best for it to be" . . . [but] reading, I saw that the man made no use of mind . . . but mentioned as causes air and aether and water and many other irrelevancies. . . . [Thinkers like Anaxagoras] do not look for the power which causes things to be now placed as it is best for them to be placed, nor do they think it has any divine force, but suppose they can find an Atlas more powerful and immortal and all-embracing than this, and in truth they give no thought to the Good, which must embrace and hold together all things. (Phaedo, 97B–99C)
Socrates is dissatisfied with the materialistic natural science of his day; he is looking for an account of origins in which a mind orders the universe for good. Plato will later attempt to provide such an account for Socrates in the Timaeus, in which a Pythagorean philosopher instructs Socrates and his comrades regarding the creation of the world. Crucial in Socrates' eyes is God's motivation for creation:
Let me tell you then why the creator made this world. . . . He was good, and the good can never have any jealousy of anything. And being free of jealousy . . . God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable. (Timaeus, 29E–30A)
For the Christian, the creation story in Genesis 1 supplies the sort of account that Socrates seeks; in Genesis also, it is not blind natural forces, but the design of God, which arranges the world so that everything is placed where it is best for it to be placed; the whole is "very good" (Gen. 1.31).
Of course, there are differences between Plato's creation story and the one in Genesis, the most important of which is that in the Timaeus God does not create matter and therefore has to make compromises with its imperfections. Nonetheless, Plato offers an account of a good and orderly world arranged by the providence of a wise and powerful God, and for this reason, the Timaeus was regarded in medieval Europe as broadly in harmony with the Christian view. In contrast with Plato, Aristotle had no creation story, because he believed that the world was eternal and that God was aloof from the world; on that point, Aristotle's thought was difficult to harmonize with Christian truth. •
If you enjoy Salvo, please consider giving an online donation! Thanks for your continued support.