Sunday 26 October 2014

Why I am not, personally, a Platonist

I hope that in yesterday's post I was able to demonstrate my immense respect for Platonism, and for the achievements of Platonist intellectuals

I regard Platonism as the only philosophy with power to motivate good work, and make sense of life; nonetheless I am not now a Platonist - although I have been, at various times in the past including quite recently:


Platonism was never quite natural for me, and I always responded most instinctively and spontaneously to the Pragmatism of William James, which I first encountered in Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. However, this pluralism does seem shallow, unspiritual and incomplete, especially in comparison with Platonism, so I would vacillate and oscillate.

It was only after re-reading and second-time-round grasping Sterling McMurrin's The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion that I saw the bigger picture; which was the Christianity was primary and the foundation and the framework; and pluralist pragmatism was the metaphysical philosophy secondary, built-on and located-within that framework.

From this perspective, I perceive that Platonism is so strong a philosophy (for serious intellectuals, at least - it is incomprehensible or silly for 'normal people') that it had (very early in the history of the Christian church) usurped the primacy of Christianity, and had slotted-Christianity-into the Platonic framework which Greco-Roman intellectuals already had in place before they were Christians.

(In the above and what follows, I regard Aristotelian philosophy, and Thomism, as being a sub-set of the broad category of Platonism. It is different, but the difference in in detail; Aristotle was a modification, not replacement, of Plato; and the basic assumptions of Aristotelianism are within Platonism.) 


Platonism is so strong, so satisfying - including spiritually satisfying, and so nearly-complete a metaphysical system; that it almost cannot-help but become a rival to plain, storytelling, personal relations-based Christianity as revealed in the New Testament (and the Old).

Thus, Christian theologians have generally defended Platonism as if it was Christianity, and regarded non-Platonic philosophy as heretical - failing to see that in doing so they are putting philosophy before theology.

I am NOT saying that one cannot be both a Platonist and a Christian - that would be utterly ludicrous since so many great Christians (including church Fathers and Saints and people of high holiness) have been Platonists. What I am saying is that it is hard to be this and not to put the Platonism first.

So while I, as a pluralist pragmatist, freely and happily acknowledge the real and high Christianity of Christian Platonists; Christian Platonists cannot return the compliment! Or at least they do not, but indeed do the opposite - they deny the validity of non-Platonic (pluralist, pragmatist) Christians.


The focus of disagreement between Platonism and what might be termed plain Christianity is the nature of God.

For Platonism God is primarily - and in reality - abstract, has attributes and properties; and the person-hood of God is a kind of interactive software designed for our convenience and benefit - but not the core of the matter. God is, really, a God of the Philosophers; and God as Father is seen as a metaphor, a help for weaker vessels, but not really correct. Thus the philosopher has a better (deeper, truer) understanding of the nature of God than is possible for children and simple people.

For the pragmatist pluralist, who rests on Biblical revelation, the bottom-line nature of God is that He is Our Father; a person; and the way to describe Him and the Human Condition is properly to use the language of relationships. The philosophical descriptions of God, his abstract properties, are relatively shallow compared to this; and when philosophy comes into conflict with the personal and relational understanding - it is philosophy that must yield.

Since it is children and simple people (that are Christian) who most naturally perceive God as a person with whom we have a relationship, then it is children and simple people of faith who have a better (deeper, truer) understanding of the nature of God than the philosophical description.


So this is why, despite my enormous respect for Platonism, and my experience of its gravitational attraction, I am not myself a Platonist.



Heaviside said...

"Plato and his philosophy had the greatest share in obtaining for Christianity its rational organization, and in bringing it into the kingdom of the supernatural, for it was Plato who made the first advance in this direction." --

Bruce Charlton said...

@H I wonder what Hegel meant by this: "bringing it into the kingdom of the supernatural".

Obviously Christianity did not need to be *brought* into the supernatural - so there must be some special meaning to 'the kingdom of'.

Hegel is a prime example of a philosophy in which abstractions are primary. CS Lewis was a Hegelian first, of an Deist type, before he became a Theist, then a Christian.

This was also pretty much my own trajectory (except for the Hegel bit) although I paused, but did not stop, at Christian Platonism.

Adam G. said...

*I wonder what Hegel meant by this: "bringing it into the kingdom of the supernatural". *

Many platonist Christians say that a personal, embodied conception of God is 'not even a God.' It isn't outside the universal scheme of things enough to qualify. Which may be what Hegel meant: the anterior Christian conception of its religion wasn't 'supernatural' because it wasn't sufficiently extra-universal.

Anonymous said...

I'm just some guy, neither theologian nor philosopher, but I wonder if this isn't something of a straw man. Theology has always for Christians taken primacy over philosophy (the Catholic Church for example explicitly disclaims having any particular philosophy), and our theology is indeed of a personal God.

In any event, for whatever reason I don't feel at all conflicted about being both Platonist and Christian. That the former is subordinate to the latter doesn't invalidate it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@zippy - It isn't a straw man from the pluralist, pragmatist, plain-sense and Mormon perspective - as becomes obvious when putting forward metaphysical perspective view and having it labelled as not-Christian.

The Platonic perspective has been embedded in various creeds and formal doctrines of most of the Catholic and Protestant churches - to dissenting from Platonism is regarded as gross heresy at best or simply not Christian.

For example, the Westminster Confession (Protestant) has God without body, parts or passions - which eliminates and strong form of anthropomorphism, and discards the common sense (naive, child-like) 'anthropomorphic' interpretation of scripture.

The Platonic concept of God being outside of Time - introduced e.g. by Boethius to 'explain' prescience and omniscience - is often argued to be a core doctrine - and a simple linear and sequential view of Time therefore labelled incompatible with Christianity.

Also, it wasn't a straw man for me when I was entranced by and immersed in the most Platonic of all Christian denominations, Eastern Orthodoxy; in which the gulf between mortal life on earth as an incomplete, changeable, corrupt, decaying 'copy' of Heaven seems to stand staring across a gulf in blissful contemplation of a vision of the utter glowing timeless perfection of Heaven. The Orthodox picture of Heaven is losing-oneself and track of Time in the ritual, music, colour and movements of the liturgy - a literal taste of Heaven upon Earth (that was the reality of Byzantium, at its best, for its devout inhabitants).

As you can tell, this has great appeal to me - and yet I have come to regard it as a lesser form of Christian faith than a much simpler and more straightforward humble, trusting family-like devotion and friendship with God and with Jesus Christ - reciprocating something of this vast affection they have for us, which (as it were) beats steadily down upon us; and to which we must simply open our hearts to experience.

I do not think the gulf is real, or rather it is not necessary (although God allows us to feel this way if we wish; and will grant us this Heaven if that is what we most deeply want).

The really astonishing thing is that Jesus Christ is our brother, literally our brother - as well as being everything else - Son of God, creator of Heaven and Earth, our Saviour and Lord.

Mike said...

I think Santayana was both a pragmatist, sort of, and an admirer of Plato--I don't know if he would have anything interesting to say about the potential antagonisms between platonism and pragmatism--I can't remember from my browsing of him a while back.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mike - I found Santayana a bit of a poseur when I tried reading him a couple of decades ago - didn't take to him.

josh said...

I regard the simultaneity Greek philosophy spreading throughout the Mediterranean world via Alex the Great and the Roman Empire and the advent of Christianity as God working in history.