Saturday, 25 October 2014

Is Platonism a religion? Yes: it has been the secret religion of most serious intellectuals for more than two millenia

What I call Platonism is often impilict and may even be denied by its believers - but I think it is a religion, and it does affects people's lives and behaviours, albeit in an individualistic manner (since there is no church of Platonism).


By Platonism, I mean the belief that behind the everyday, up-front and obvious world of differences and changes and incomprehensible complexity; there is a world of simpler, eternal and unchanging 'forms' - and this world of forms is more real than the everyday world because we can have genuine knowledge of it (whereas the everyday world of change lacks pattern, and is unknowable).

By such a definition, Platonism has been the implicit religion of many of the greatest mathematicians and scientists, of many artists and scholars - and in general many of those who inhabit the world of the mind.


Platonism may be Christian, or non-Christian - in fact, Platonism has been the basic world view of the majority of Christian intellectuals since at least the middle second century AD (although there is very little evidence it in the Old or New Testament - and none of that evidence is clear or explicit).

But Platonism has been,  in fact, the secret religion of the majority of intellectuals full stop.

Whether this has anything to do with the specific lineage of Plato, or whether Platonism is a basic archetypal pattern of thinking into-which intellectuals tend to fall (a 'strong attractor' as it were) - I am not sure.

And although Platonism has been probably dominant religion of serious intellectuals, it is not necessary nor inevitable as the religion of real intellectuals - there are other equally coherent and motivating alternatives; such as Aristotelianism (a significant modification of Platonism - focused on the primacy of universal forms, rather than a separate world of forms).


But Platonism is dominant among serious intellectuals, probably because if a serious intellectual is not a Platonist, the philosophy will probably not be strong enough to work as a real religion. So an Aristotelian must be primarily a Christian (or some other type of monotheist) if he is to stay honest and true.

And the same would apply to a pragmatist pluralist such as myself - we could only stay honest if our pragmatism is underpinned by strong, binding, personal monotheism. I think it is too easy for non-Platonists to become corrupted by worldly-things unless they (we) are underpinned by monotheism.

In this sense, Platonism is the strongest of all philosophies

Platonism is the only philosophy which can serve as a way of life, as the bottom-line for living


Even nowadays, and even among those rare and few real scientists who self-describe as non-religious, Platonism is a strong, bottom line, metaphysical religion - as is most obvious when top-notch mathematicians (such as Roger Penrose^) discuss their basic stance and the meaning of their work.

This basic conviction about the nature of reality is - for such people - an important motivation and source of strength and honesty; because it enables then to resist the usually- irresistible worldly considerations of money, career, awards, peer status etc: the Platonist intellectuals regard themselves as working for eternity - their 'reward' for unworldly disinterestedness will be in Platonic Heaven, and will endure long after the expediencies and corruptions of everyday life have been swept away in this world of constant change.

And what is Platonic Heaven? The emphasis is impersonal; the Platonic God is not, primarily, a personal God with whom one has a personal relationship; he is an abstract God of abstract properties such as reality itself and the self-contemplation of reality; so Platonic Heaven is not a relationship but a state of being - some kind of bliss-full absorption in pure knowledge.

The Heavenly reward of the faithful Platonist is eternally to participate-in pure conscious awareness of exactly that eternal and unchanging reality which he has revered, and which he has served.

This is the hope which makes him brave, steadfast and honest in his dealings.


Yes, Platonism is a real religion, although rarer now in The West than at any time in the past 2000 years: Platonism is a real religion because Platonism makes a real difference.

^Here is a modern Platonist - perhaps the greatest living mathematical physicist - being explicit about his beliefs, convictions and motivations:



sykes.1 said...

Both Christianity and Judaism are deeply influenced by Platonism and, since Aquinas, Christians are also influenced by Aristotle. It seems to me that the Greek philosophers in fact replaced Yahweh. Certainly Yahweh is not omnipotent, omniscient, ubiquitous or benevolent, although he can be forgiving. The Trinity, of course, is purely Greek:

AlexT said...

Platonism, as you describe it, sounds a lot like the ending of '2001 a space odyssey' in both movie and book form. Do you think that's what Clarke describing? If so, was it conscious?

Bruce Charlton said...

@AT - I agree it sounds similar - conscious? Seems unlikely, but of course Clarke will have known all about Plato.

Bonald said...

According to Rebecca GoldStein (

"There was apparently a survey done by the American Mathematical Association and something like 98 per cent of mathematicians described themselves as 'Platonists'."

When I first read about Roger Penrose being an open Platonist, I really admired him for coming out and admitting to it--he was one of my intellectual heroes anyway--while the philosophy majors I knew just sort of rolled their eyes at him. ("Hasn't he heard? Nobody is a Platonist anymore!") It turns out most mathematicians agree with him.

Nicholas Fulford said...

I suppose if what one means by Platonism is that there is some set of primitive or primary properties which lie behind what we see and experience in the physical universe, that I would concur. There are a number of universal constants and the universe acts in complete accord with them.

My favourite bit of mind-candy is the idea that our universe is an instantiation of a particular combination of properties and initial values, and that the number of universes is the set of all such properties and initial values. An easy example to relate to is a fractal equation and what one sees when an equation is instantiated through a fractal graphics program. There are a very large number of starting values that one can use and a very large number of equations. They do not intersect each other, and hence each is its own universe. That is my way of thinking about the multiverse and our universe.

If that is Platonism then I suppose you could call me one.

pyrrhus said...

Platonism is a search for metaphysical purity in the Universe, making it obviously attractive to mathematicians. That is probably why Einstein hated quantum mechanics, which is probabilistic and prevents humans from knowing everything.
The reality is that quantum mechanics and the wide spread phenomenon of superposition have destroyed Platonism, and clinging to such beliefs is childish.

Bruce Charlton said...

@p - Platonism is a metaphysical assumption , which cannot in principle be affected by any new scientific facts of theories - so if quantum theory etc had destroyed Platonism that could only be by an error of understanding.

"clinging to such beliefs is childish" is a truly adolescent kind of thing to say - childishness (or rather child-like-ness) is always to be preferred to sophomoric pseudo-sophistication.

AlexT said...

Is freemasonry an organized form of Platonist religion? In structure it is fairly reminiscent of the old Greek mysteries. This idea struck me while reading your other posts on Platonism. Completely off base?

Bruce Charlton said...

@AT - I have no idea about Freemasonry; but most religions devised by intellectuals are heavily Platonic.

For example both ancient and modern gnostics, and people interested in ritual magic such as the Cambridge Platonists and the Golden Dawn types (including Charles Williams). CS Lewis was strongly Platonist, and it form a big (and very appealing) element in the Narnian books.

Pretty much anything which contrasts a superficial and changeable surface with a profound and permanent reality behind it - so esoteric mysteries tend to be of that kind.

Interestingly, I do not think the real life Socrates was a Platonist - he had a personal relationship with his god/ daemon (presumably some Apollo) although the fictional character of Socrates in the late dialogues obviously was.

pyrrhus said...

Bruce, everyone else takes Platonism as a metaphysic that describes the Universe, otherwise these otherwise atheistic intellectuals would not subscribe to it. And one reason that many scientists--I emphasize that--avoid even discussing the weirder aspects of quantum mechanics is that it disturbs these assumptions.
"Childish" is rhetoric, but I consider people who avoid understanding such disruptive things, as immature.
My older son, a mathematician, just sent me a note that he agrees, Platonism is a nerd way of avoiding reality.
My father was a nuclear physicist, and I can assure you that scientists are not always objective.

pyrrhus said...

To those few individuals out there for whom Platonism is a purely metaphysical belief system with no relationship to the actual Universe, I apologize for any offense caused by my comments!

Bruce Charlton said...

@pyrrus - If you are prepared to modify 'immature' and 'childish' to *child-like* then I will agree with you 100 percent; most of the greatest minds of history, the top notch creative geniuses, were childlike. But I would regard that as a feature, not a bug - and something I strive for myself, and something the loss of which poisons our culture.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Hi Bruce,
Catching up after four months of not having much time alone...

There were many good things in Plato's thinking, but it was a work in progress, and as such certainly not the strongest of philosophies. The strongest one was Aristotelianism, especially after it was recapitulated, completed and corrected by St Thomas Aquinas.

Modern idealism certainly takes its source in Platonism or Neo-Platonism, but it is very different. Maritain calls it ideosophy, and Descartes and his successors ideosophers. He often remarked that those bad philosophers generally did not care about common sense. Their present leftist-nihilist heirs have completely abandoned reason for a few generations now. They believe they are above common sense, and beyond good and evil; and they feel superior to others for that very reason.