Thursday, 23 August 2012

Platonism versus Christianity


I am re-reading, for something like the fifth time, The Place of the Lion (PotL) by Charles Williams

Several previous re-readings - and yet I had the experience of reading the chapter The Two Camps as if I had not seen it before. It seemed to throw light, indirectly, on the distinction between Platonism and Christianity.


PotL is a spiritual thriller about the Platonic archetypes 'invading' this world, and reabsorbing all the entities, including people, over which they have primary influence.

For instance, a woman who is primarily snake-like gradually becomes a snake, and would be reabsorbed by the snake archetype.

If the process was to continue to completion then this world - a imperfect world of change, decay, corruption - a world of Time - would be reabsorbed by the eternal and unchanging world of forms.


In a chapter called The Two Camps there is a discussion between Foster who sees this resorption as 'a good thing' - and who is himself joyfully being reabsorbed by the lion archetype en route to complete assimilation; and the hero Anthony who wants to stop the destruction of 'this world' of Time and people.

Foster says that there is only one choice: to acknowledge, accept, and enjoy resorption into the archetypes, or misguidedly to resist it - in which case one will be hunted by the archetype, which will inevitably track you down and overpower you. (This almost happens to Quentin.)

The choice, for Forster, is therefore between enlightened cooperation, and an ignorant and futile resistance. He regards the archetypal world as obviously superior in its perfection, and - anyway - overwhelmingly stronger than any creature, any human.


Anthony understand this but he nonetheless intends to try and stop and reverse the archetypal takeover, and save this (corrupt, decaying, tragic) world.

Anthony's reason is essentially - but not at all explicitly - Christian: he wants to save the world essentially because of his love for his 'girlfriend' Damaris and his best friend Quentin.

Anthony wants to save the world because of love for specific individual persons and their individual consciousness - albeit these persons are temporary, flawed, corrupt and all the rest.

Anthony does not want these people absorbed-into and extinguished-by 'perfect' eternal archetypes of vast power - because that would be an end of that which he loves.

In essence Anthony perceives some necessary value in individual human life in this world of Time.


Christianity contains much Platonism, and Platonism is a wonderful thing - the best philosophy. But without Christianity, Platonism has no place for individual persons, no need for this world in Time.

For a Platonist, the soul is the person, the body a decaying encumbrance - there is no good reason to be alive in this world once one has understood reality and can agree to assimilation to it. This world in time is like a mistake - it is just a temporary delay en route to static eternal bliss.

Christianity is about incarnate God, God with a body, who came into this world of time and change as an individual Man: Christianity thus validates this world, and validates individual Man, and validates the body (without which Man is incomplete - hence Christians believe in the need and reality of  'the resurrection of the body' - restoring the body to the soul).

Christianity thus regards this world as vital, and as a forum for love of firstly the individually incarnate God and secondly other individual incarnate persons.


Thus Anthony's attitude is Christian, while Foster's is Platonist; and the contrast shows the problem with pure, non-Christian Platonism - that Platonism is inhuman, anti-human, anti-life-itself.

For a Platonist, the quicker we can get-out from individual conscious life in Time, and become absorbed into eternity with annihilation of consciousness, the better.

And what stands between us and this is firstly: love of God incarnate as a Man, on earth and in Time; and secondly love of neighbour, love of other specific individual persons.


NOTE: I am not against Platonism, far from it; I am myself a Platonist - because in the first place it is more-or-less built in to Christian theology; and also because when subordinated to Christian theology Platonism allows some kind of comprehensible and rational answer to many vexing pseudo-problems of theology such as prayers for the dead, salvation of ancient virtuous pagans, prophets, and children. In a nutshell, the Platonism of Boethius - to about that level and extent - is of great value to intellectuals who are better at coming-up with questions than answering them. It was and is, I think, the loss of Platonism from Christian theology that led to many of the worst aspects of the Reformation and the consequent continuing fragmentation of The Church. It is noteworthy that the greatest cross-denominational Christian apologist of the past century - C.S. Lewis - was himself very much a Platonist, as can be seen in his book The Discarded Image - indeed all through his work. 



  1. When you say that (non-Christian) Platonism is inhuman, anti-human, anti-life itself, you describe a strong tendency and temptation in Platonism, but you do not describe either its essence or what follows necessarily from that essence. Platonism is a broad clan, and Platonists (including Aristotelians!) have been battling one another over this tendency since the beginning. Corruptio optimi pessima.

  2. @D - Would it be possible for you to explain - briefly (or reference something) - why pure Platonists should *not* be as I describe?

    If a Platonist perspective were really believed and acted upon, I honestly don't see what is the point of this world, or of human life in this world, or of human life.

    Compared with eternal perfection'; what is the point of transitory change, ageing, decay, corruption, death etc?

    Enlighten me!

  3. @D - btw, I can't get your link to open - indeed it crashes Explorer for me!

    IS THIS SIGNIFICANT I ask myself...?

  4. Because there is nothing in it to say that they should be as you describe! Platonism is basically a top-down understanding of the world, but all sorts of things can be found under its roof – including Christianity. I am not sure there has ever been such a thing as a bare Platonist, that is to say, one holding only to the essence of Platonism.

    From, say, the perfection and simplicity of God, as conceived also within traditional Christianity, it does not follow that traditional Christians must be against life and this world (Nietzsche, notwithstanding) or that one should treat this world as evil or not worth bothering about. Likewise, if a Platonist understands that there is another world of immutable forms, ultimately from God, the Good, “the One”, or however he puts it, it does not follow that this world is evil; on the contrary, he should recognise the essential goodness of being – that all emanates from or participates in the Good. There have been strong movements, however, within both Christianity and Platonism which have denigrated this world. This is an error. We might say that Nietzsche was partly right, but then we would be mostly wrong; for Nietzsche did not guard himself against what he asked others to guard against, namely, taking corrupt or decadent forms as paragons.

    Sorry about the link. It’s an essay by Lloyd P. Gerson – “What is Platonism?” Does the following help?

  5. IT IS SIGNIFICANT in that a man of your obvious internet expertise is still using Explorer. Corruptio optimi pessima.

  6. @Simon - there is a reason, Firefox has been ruined and crashes and freezes all the time. And I have never worked out how to do a word search on Chrome - plus I hate the way it displayes screenshots of frequent web pages. Which leaves Explorer (in an old version).

  7. @D - wait a minute! - I never said anything about this world being evil. I don't think that is implied by Platonism.

    But if the world of forms is perfect and eternal etc, then what is the point of humans living in this world of imperfect copies in time?

    I honestly don't see any reason why it should even exist. Not do I see any reason not to yearn for the world of forms - yet of course at the same time to enter that world would necessarily destroy individuality, as only forms exist in that world, not impercet copies like ourselves (presumably).

    Now, of course when Platonism is subordinated to Christianity, then the Christian framework provides a description of the meaning and purpose of life in time and on earth - but Platonism without Christianity doesn't have any such framework.

    My sense of the non-Christian Platonic view is of looking upwards transported by a transcendental meditative state, yearning to be taken away from thie earth to be absorbed into a better place...

    (Or maybe in darker moods, terror of such absorption, annihilation of individuality etc.)

  8. My sense of the non-Christian Platonic view is of looking upwards transported by a transcendental meditative state, yearning to be taken away from thie earth to be absorbed into a better place...

    For an ignorant like me, it sounds a lot like Buddhism... Maybe there were contacts between India and Greece during the Axial Age.


  9. @Imnobody - Platonism is distinct from at least *Zen* Buddhism - which has psychological objectives.

  10. Platonism does not imply that the world is evil, yet some Platonists have held it to be so. Likewise, Platonism does not imply absorption of the soul into an impersonal-abstract realm of forms, yet some Platonists (i.e., some Neoplatonists) have believed so. But no Platonist need believe such a thing. You’re a Platonist, and you don’t believe it. I’m a Platonist, and I don’t believe it. And Plato was a Platonist, and he didn’t believe it (so far as we know). That some Neoplatonists believed it is neither here nor there. Such a belief is not essentially Platonic. Platonism is not to be identified with the beliefs of some Neoplatonists. I’ll go further than saying no Platonist need believe such a thing: no Platonist should believe such a thing. Essential to Platonism is the view that the person is the soul and the soul is immortal. Absorption of the soul into an impersonal-abstract realm (i.e., personal annihilation of the soul) strikes me as essentially anti-Platonic.

    “But if the world of forms is perfect and eternal etc, then what is the point of humans living in this world of imperfect copies in time?”

    I do not understand what the objection is. If, say, perfect and eternal forms existing in their own realm, or in the divine intellect, or in God are a problem for non-Christian Platonism, then perfect and eternal forms existing in God are a problem for Christian Platonism.

    That Platonism has sometimes degenerated into some kind of pantheism or abstracting impersonalism does not strike against what Platonism essentially is. I hardly need to tell you about the dangers of intellectualism!

  11. @D - people believe all manner of things - the question is whether these things are coherent.

    I am saying that Platonism implies the above, if it is to be coherent.

    But I am also saying that if Platonism is subordinated to another overarching world view, then it is only used as a means to a limited end - and the individual therefore uses Platonism for that end, and then stops using it.

    This stopping following the implications of Platonism beyond such and such a point is principled and justified by the fact that when it is subordinated to a larger world view then there is no obligation upon Platonism to be coherent - it is merely a tool (although perhaps an extremely important tool, as I think it is).

    But when Platonism is *not* subordinated to larger scheme (such as Christianity) then it does, I believe, have the anti-this world anti-individuality implications described above; and indeed very *obviously* so - at a common sense level of analysis.

    (if the world of forms is perfect and this world is not, then what's the point of this world? What's the point of imperfection? Why isn't everything in the world of forms?)

    So - if you do not follow the implications of Platonism to this point - then to what larger, over-arching scheme are you subordinating Platonism?

    (Because if there is none, then I suspect that you may simply be being incoherent, and failing to follow P to its conclusions. Which is no bad thing! since to follow it through would probably be harmful. On the other hand, if the stopping-short is incoherent and unjustified, then it is not respectworthy as a philosophical system - for what it's worth.)

  12. And I am saying that Platonism per se does not imply anti-this-worldism or anti-individuality --- and that a coherent Platonism need not imply such things. There are beliefs essential to Platonism, and there are beliefs inessential to it. There are beliefs that can cohere with it and there are beliefs which cannot cohere with it. Any person who holds the essential beliefs of Platonism is a Platonist, and he may hold any number of beliefs inessential to it. In the case that he holds inessential beliefs which are coherent with it, he is coherent in his Platonism. In the case that he holds inessential beliefs which are incoherent with it, he is an incoherent Platonist, though a Platonist nonetheless so long as he holds the beliefs essential to it. There are many ways of being a Platonist. Platonism at a bare minimum does not imply what you think it implies; whereas some kind of Platonism linked with some beliefs coherent with, but inessential, to it, does imply what you ascribe to Platonism per se. In other words, there is a coherent kind of Platonism which implies what you say Platonism per se implies; and there is a coherent kind of Platonism (including Platonism per se) which does not imply what you say Platonism per se implies.

    “if the world of forms is perfect and this world is not, then what's the point of this world? What's the point of imperfection? Why isn't everything in the world of forms?”

    That is a difficult technical question to answer – and I am probably not competent to answer it. But so is the question: If God is perfect, and this world is not, then what’s the point of this world? What’s the point of imperfection? Why isn’t everything in God? – Or rather: why did God (perfect being) create something (imperfect) outside of himself? Platonists, Neoplatonists, medieval Christian theologians (i.e., also Platonists) have discussed just such a question, and given their answers, at length. If the question is a problem for Platonism, it is a problem for Christianity too.

  13. @D "If God is perfect, and this world is not, then what’s the point of this world? What’s the point of imperfection? Why isn’t everything in God? – Or rather: why did God (perfect being) create something (imperfect) outside of himself? "

    But there *are* answers to this, within Christianity - in Pascal for example.

    Of course we can't answer questions about why God specifically did this or that from His divine perspective (since we are not God) but all this is clearly and explicitly laid out in traditional Christianity - although to understand it requires that one be a Christian.

    It cannot be understood by a skeptic who challenges each statement and step of the argument.

    I think it has to be accepted that God 'wanted' to create creatures with free will - creatures of at least two types - e.g. angels and men.

    Of these types one is immaterial and lives eternally in time, the other is embodied and lives in time, then undergoes a transition to eternity (which, at present, is via death then resurrection - then judgement).

    (But Christianity is somewhat complex in order to make sense - there are quite a number of elements which must be in place - summarized in the Creeds.)

    The point of this-world is to be the place where embodied creatures with free will live, before their transition to eternity (via death).

    Men just are creatures that have this dual experience - I don't think that we can answer why, but that is what we are, so says revelation (not reason).

  14. I don’t mean it is an insuperable problem. I mean it is a very tough question to answer. As you say: “we can't answer questions about why God specifically did this or that from His divine perspective.” From the perspective of finite minds behind a veil of (not-total) ignorance, Christian and non-Christian Platonists have come up with answers. I do not think much of the Neoplatonic answer: that the world is a mere emanation, or an overspill, if you like, of the One. I am in close agreement with your answer.

  15. Today, however, I have been more exercised with the not insignificant problem of trying to prove to blogger that I am not a robot.

  16. @D - Apologies for using that anti-Robot thing. I also find it extremely annoying and hard to decipher. But without it I am inundated with spam. Even with it I get about three robot messages per day.

  17. Have you ever read "Voyage To Arcturus"?

  18. @GR - no I haven't yet. I ought to, considering the book's influence, but I find it very hard to read fiction these days. (With the exception of the stuff I blog about.)

    Most of my general fiction reading was between ages about 13-30.

  19. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, but since I've read it I've been asking around places when an opportunity presents itself. It is a gnostic fairy tale, and it gives an answer to the why discussed here that haunted me for weeks.

    I haven't seen any explanation of why Tolkien liked it, but Lewis described it as diabolical and crudely written, yet succeeding powerfully in communicating its dark vision.