The Necessity of Platonism for Christian Theology

Fr. Andrew Louth with “The Necessity of Platonism for Christian Theology.”
Delivered remotely to the King’s College Chapel, January 17, 2021.
Link to full video of this 2021 Robert Crouse Memorial Lecture.

Summary of the opening comments before my transcription picks up: Christianity is not an intellectual pursuit, and being a Platonist certainly is not required to be a Christian. Louth clarifies that he is not promoting Christian Platonism or interested in any such intellectual camps, as if we needed to opt between alternatives such as “Christian Platonism” or “Christian Aristoteliansim” or “Christian Existentialism.” Finally, Louth makes it clear that he does not consider Aristotle to be fundamentally at odds with Plato but instead to be within the Platonic tradition. What Louth does claim is that, in pursuing the intellectual work of Christian theology, we find that Platonism provided a necessary backdrop or framework—one that uniquely enables Christian thinkers to articulate the centrality of Christ in a way that preserves the mystery of Christ from being sucked up into transcendence or drawn down into imminence.

Transcription of select portions:

There is not doubt that among the fathers Plato could be held in very high regard. Saint Athanasius [d. 373] …refers to Plato as “great among the Greeks” (though in the context of attributing to him a false doctrine of creation from pre-existent matter). In Saint Anastasios of Sinai’s Questions and Answers [7th century], we find this story. There is handed down an ancient tradition that a certain learned man used often to curse Plato the philosopher. Plato appeared to him in his sleep and said to him, “Man stop cursing me, for you only harm yourself. For that I’ve been a sinful man, I do not deny. When Christ came down into Hades, truely, no one believed in him before I did.”

Plato then had a certain respect among all the fathers, at least in late antiquity. By the end of the first millennium, regard for Plato was more conflicted. Among the anathemas added to the Synodikon of Orthodoxy after the condemnation of John Italus in 1082, an anathema was pronounced on those who “pursued Hellenic learning”—which certainly included Plato—”and are formed by it not simply as an educational discipline but who follow their empty opinions and believe them to be true.”

Aristotle himself had less appeal to the fathers. In a famous phrase, often cited by others, Saint Gregory the Theologian recommended that Christians should present their theology …in the manner of fisherman (apostles) not in the manner of Aristotle. [This] quip that was capped by Saint John Damascene. When writing against John Philoponus, he commented that Philoponus’ problems, both trinitarian and christological, would not have arisen had he not introduced Saint Aristotle as the thirteenth apostle. In both these cases, it seems, that Aristotle meant his logical works which had, in fact, already been incorporated into a fundamentally Platonic context.

…Christian Platonism seems to me a category mistake. …The idea of Christian Platonism …sees these positions—Christianity, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism and so on—as collections of doctrines. But recent scholarship has retrieved a much more adequate understanding of what was meant by philosophy in late antiquity by insisting that such philosophies were not just a matter of doctrines, though they involved doctrines and the philosophers argued over them among themselves, but are primarily to be seen (to use part of a title of a book containing English translations of the most prominent scholar espousing this view, namely Pierre Hadot) as a “way of life.” In this sense, certainly, Christianity could be regarded, and sometimes presented itself, as a philosophical school. But to speak of Christian Platonism muddies the waters. This has been evident especially since Mark Edwards published his book with the provocative title Origen Against Plato in which Origen is presented not as a Christian Platonist (as he has often been) but as an explicit critic of Plato. The different philosophical schools in late antiquity could and did overlap in the doctrines they espoused, but what distinguished them was also quite clear. It was where they found their authority for the doctrines they maintained: the dialogs of Plato, the writings of Aristotle, the Christian scriptures. In late antiquity, in reaction against the Christian and Jewish appeal to their ancient scriptures, we find philosophical schools of a general Platonic color, appealing to the authority of supposed ancient oracles such as the Chaldean Oracles or the treatises ascribed to the thrice greatest Hermes (Hermes Trismegistus), oracles that were claimed as the ultimate source of the doctrines Plato, something that Plato had not exactly discourage in his own appeal in the Symposium to the teachings of Diotima the priestess of Manitea.

The notion of Christian Platonism confuses the issue, suggesting that Christianity is, as it were, adjectival to Platonism, whereas the reverse was the case for all of those claimed as Christian Platonists. They supported their doctrines by appeal to the scriptures, so at best they could be regarded as Platonic Christians. The only thinker of late antiquity I can think of who might reasonably be regarded as a Christian Platonist was Synesius of Cyrene, the Platonist and neoplatonist who became a Christian, indeed a Christina bishop, but made it clear in a letter to his brother that truth was something he had learned from Plato while what he was to preach as a Christian bishop were no more to him than popular myths. But Synesius is pretty well a unique case.

…So I am not making a case for Christian Platonism. What might seem a more fruitful line could be to note the overlap in doctrines between Christianity and Platonism. There is genuine and important overlap in the doctrines Platonists and Christians embraced. Both believed in the existence of the divine (God or gods), in divine providence (God’s care for the universe), that humans are responsible for their deeds and will be rewarded or punished in an afterlife. In other words, both Platonists and Christians maintained a belief in a moral universe which required that divine providence held sway but did not override human free will. Now to talk of free will is already to use later Christian terminology. Earlier philosophers, both pagan and Chistian, spoke rather of human responsibility. Other philosophical schools had different doctrines, believing that the cosmos was either the result of chance (as Aristotelians were held to belief) at least in the sublunary regions. In the celestial realm, the movement of the stars and planets was indeed predictable or governed by an ineluctable fate (as the Stoics were held to maintain). Christian thinkers drew on an established body of their arguments that had been developed by earlier thinkers (mostly Platonists), but there were Platonic doctrines that Christians rejected. For example, Platonists believed that the soul was immortal—that is, it had existed from eternity and that it would continue to exist to eternity. For Christians, the soul had only an immortal future. Christians believed in the resurrection of the body, a doctrine incomprehensible to most non-Chrsitian philosophers in late antiquity as the Apostle Paul discovered at Athens. Nevertheless, Chistians responded warmly to the idea that, in virtue of possessing a soul, there was a certain affinity between the human and the divine, something expressed in a distinctively Chrsitian way by their doctrine of the human created in the image of God, a doctrine based on the Bible.

…Nevertheless, this overlap or assimilation of Platonic and Christian theology in the patristic period is not what I have in mind in speaking of the necessity of Platonism for Christian theology.

…[Walter] Pater’s expositions begins: “Platonism is not a formal theory or body of theories but a tendency or a group of tendencies, a tendency to think or feel and to speak about certain things in a particular way, discernible in Plato’s dialogs as reflecting the particularities of himself and his own mental complexion.” And he goes on to show how an appeal to the general is not intended to detract from our attention to the particular but rather enables us to notice what is particular about the particular. For it is only when we compare one particular with another of the same kind that we notice the particularity of the particular. Later on in this chapter, Pater puts it like this: “By its juxtaposition and coordination with what is ever more and more not it—the contrast of its very imperfection at this point or that with its own proper and perfect type—this concrete and particular thing has in fact been enriched by the whole color and expression of the whole circomplacent world concentrated upon or, as it were, at focus in it by a kind of shorthand now and, as if in a single moment of vision, all that which only a long experience, moving patiently from part to part could exhaust, its manifold alliance with the entire world of nature is legible upon it as it lies there in one’s hand.”

What seems to me important about this procedure of understanding is that it is not a procedure in which, as it where, by applying a certain method we pass from ignorance to knowledge. It is rather a process by which the knowledge we already have, knowledge both of the world around us as well as knowledge of forms of human excellence is clarified and deepened. The process is one of clarification in the light of experience rather that appeal to some empirical observation that adds in some way to our knowledge understood as a collection of information. This growing understanding is, however, a matter of long experience, an experience that is itself central to a way of life.

…This means that any meaning we find in the world in which we live is, in some sense, received from, even given by something (not yet someone to Plato) beyond understanding. This transcendent reality, bestoying meaning, is glimpsed beyond the good and the beautiful. For Plato himself, this was something untheorizeable. It remains an intuition thought it almost imperceptibly tips over into religious, even theological, intuition.

I remind you at this point about a quotation from C.C.J. Webb that my revered mentor, Professor Donald MacKinnon, used to growl forth in his lectures in Cambridge half a century ago, “We could not allow the name of God to a being on whose privacy an Actaeon could intrude or whose secrets a Prometheus could snatch form him without his assent.”

Plotinus, as we shall see, takes a step beyond Plato but does not take away the sense of transcendence as beyond meaning yet the source of meaning. In this, Plotinus finds a sense of something that would make possible the continuing fruitfulness of meditation on Plato in the Christian tradition that indeed lent the Christian vision the intellectual coherence it needed to articulate its own vision of reality, a vision opened up by revelation, though because it is the revelation of God—ineffable, incomprehensible—it is a revelation that remains a mystery unknown and unknowable.

What I just expressed is something that I only found the means to articulate through having to reread, recently, Hans Urs von Balthasar in order to write a chapter commissioned for the forthcoming Oxford handbook on Hans Urs von Balthasar on the influence on the great Swiss theologian of Plato and the Platonic tradition. In the long section on Plato, in The Realm of Metaphysics in Antiquity, Balthasar presents Plato as the supreme witness to philosophy in antiquity while at the same time recognizing inherent limitations. Sternly shaking himself free from poetry and myth, as from an old passion, Plato devotes himself to the quest for truth discovered by reason. But this quest is for him a religious quest, seeking true divinity that transcends the gods—the spurious divinity of the myths. And he does this by occupying himself with becoming like God so far as is possible, by becoming righteous and holy with wisdom. This is, however, a quest, that though pursued by reason cannot be represented solely by transparently rational procedures. The slave in the Meno is shown already to be aware of truths that he had not been taught and of which he is unaware, and this because learning is for Plato a matter of recalling what the soul has already experienced. The myth of the rebirth of the immortal soul in this life in this body is evoked to explain something that reason can reveal but cannot explain.

Other attempts to explore what is involved in the rational pursuit of truth, for instance in the Symposium or the Phaedrus, invoke themes of inspiration, the longing for eros (understood as a dymo, neither god nor human, immortal nor mortal)—themes that seem to transcend or undermine reason. Myth for Plato is to be found and belongs where the lines drawn by philosophical reflection stretch beyond its grasp, and in telling these myths, Plato demonstrates a literary power to evoke and persuade in a way very different than the demonstration of truth by rational argument.

…Heraclitus’ system of pure being is rejected, and Plato seems to be following Parmenides in the pursuit of pure being in the sense that “…only becomes more demanding since now it must take becoming with it up into being, the half up into the whole. This whole is the soundest, the most honorable. Inspiration, eros, myth can point to nothing higher.

…Now is born that philosophic aesthetic of the grand style to which even Plotinus will be able to make no significant alteration and which will lay down the pattern for all Western forms of humanism, of antiquity, the middle ages, and right into modern times—an aesthetic which seeks to draw out the glory of God which breaks in upon the human scene in the direction of the human of what for the moment is the same cosmic sublime.

…Though for Balthasar it is Plotinus who sees what the final implications of Plato’s intuition really amount to. He starts a paragraph like this: “Plotinus stands in awe and wonder before the glory of the cosmos.” Here I suggest, Balthasar reaches for his touch stone for understanding of Platonism, in this case that of Plotinus. The cosmos—manifestly a vast ensouled organism in which individual souls, rational and irrational, have their share—throughout this glorious world radiates the presence of an eternal and intelligent spirit in which noesis and noema, the action of thought and the object of thought are one. …And in the ultimate ground of this spirit, there is an unutterable generative mystery at work which in all the splendor of the cosmos simultaneously reveals and hides itself, present everywhere and yet unapproachable. All intellectual activity in heaven and earth circles round this unattainable generative mystery—all longings, love, struggles upwards towards it. All the beauty of the world is only a sign coming from it and pointing to it, so that as he contemplates and seeks to understand the things of the world, the philosopher is compelled at a deeper level to run away, to let go, to turn again to the uniqueness of absolute unity.

On the one hand, the irreferable wonder of the world around us and on the other, stemming from this, a sense of being touched by knowledge in which wonder seems to dissolve any sense of distance between the known and the knower. Wonder before the cosmos does not, at first step, highlight a contrast with our everyday experience (as with the gnostic to whom he was radically opposed and with whom he may indeed include Christians) but reveals a hidden sense of oneness. To Plotinus, in contrast, the vision of the starry heavens directly reveals the certainty of the world’s divinity and an awed reticence fills the soul. It is the manifest and glorious image of an unimaginable wisdom, a wondrous intellectual power reveals itself in this vision. How can the stars be anything other than the divinity manifest? Why should we rob this world, springing forth from God’s spirit, of it Maker and seek to confine him to a meager beyond?

…The stress on individuality [is] wholly positive, divined from above where it is found in the realm of the ideas not from below by material difference. …Poltinas speaks of procession [from the One] as risk but also daring, temerity. An entailment of this is that the One is not separated from anything. Because God is absolutely transcendent, therefore He can be absolutely imminent in all things. Thus does Plotinus reject the utter beyondness of Aristotle’s God (reposing in Himself) but also the Platonic karismas(sp?), separation. Intellection itself reflects the inexpressible unity of the One as the realm of one-many.

This, Balthasar continues, leaves nothing except the One in its moment of eternal self-identity to define what the intellect stretches out towards. God is nothing other than the inner depth of things, the center of that circle whose periphery or circumference they constitute. …The real Plotinus could never rest content with speculation in the modern sense. Throughout his life, he was to stand speechless before the miracle of being that transcends all reason.

…Balthasar concludes his chapter by making the following comment: “Plotinus draws together the various strands of the Greek heritage in his vision of being as beauty because it is the revelation of the divine. Beauty is thus characterized by an inner differentiation between radiance and form, light and harmony. It is in the fact that his formal ontology and aesthetics leaves the way open to pure philosophy and self-conscious theology that Plotinus represents a moment of kairos. It is in this that both the risks and the fruitfulness of his thought for future ages lie.

For Balthasar, Plotinus is clearly the apogee of Platonism, surpassing even the one that he regards as his master. Transcendence, which for both is only fully sensed in the beautiful, is less as with Plato the subject of meditations then a sense of wonder before the transcendent, a raw wonder not to be themetized or theorized, but speechlessness before the miracle of being and its source. This transcendent is absolute and therefore absolutely imminent, experienced as presence, as immediate, palpable but intangible, felt but never understood.

It is this intuition of Plato’s, an intuition that determined the very being of Plotinus, that I want to claim is necessary for Christian theology—necessary in the sense that without it the Christian thinker will find it impossible to articulate the centrality of Christ, the centrality of the cross for Christian theology. It is this sense of speechlessness before the miracle of being and its source that ensures both the acknowledgement of the reality of God (transcendent and immanent—transcendent because immanent and immanent because transcendent) and a sense of the wonder of creation. Now both of these are necessary if the mystery of Christ is not to be sucked up into the transcendent God or drawn down into the mystery of created being.

Plato’s and Plotinus’ intuition remained for them unfulfilled and unfulfilling. The sense behind this intuition that meaning is always received, always being given cannot be ultimately sustained if there is no giver, no God who bestows meaning. For the sovereign reality that must be recognized in the supreme giver, the giver of being itself, cannot rest on the acknowledgement of the creature. This is the mystery of grace which cannot itself demand or require what can only be freely given.

So I leave you with a paradox that Christian theology stands in need of an intuition of the radical givenness of meaning, an intuition that forms the heart of Plato’s metaphysics, an intuition that might even be said to have rendered speechless before the mystery of being its greatest interpreter Plotinus, but which for both Plato and Plotinus could not but remain beyond fulfillment.

Thank you for your attention.

From the Q & A:

…It is this intuition that the meaning of things is not something that we read into them, is not …simply our way of negotiating them, but in fact is something that ultimately is found, not even in the things themselves, but beyond the things themselves and requires from us attention, a contemplative gaze if you like—this is the fundamental issue as I see it.

…What is essential about Platonism for Christianity is that …the truth of things is not something that we confect. It is something that is in some way disclosed and disclosed as a process of refining vision, refining love. It is not something that can be read off from events or even read off from texts.

…Even when they don’t come to a conclusion, the process of the dialog leaves Plato and his interlocutors with a sense that, well, “We know that this is because that isn’t it.” And it’s that sort of intuition that it seems to me is fundamental if our response to the world is a response to the miracle of being rather than just an attempt to make some sense of it.

…In the liturgy, we open ourselves to an experience of being that can be gestured at, that can be reflected in various ways of praising God. …The unwritten traditions are all liturgical acts. …These liturgical acts reach out towards meaning even if we don’t understand why we are doing them because what we are doing is we are standing within a community and drawing on the resources of that community …in order to deepen our sense of openness to the mystery of being which is also the mystery of recreation, …the mystery of everything that is involved in the divine economy.

…There is something in Platonism that we have to take on board if we are going to be able to become Chrisitan theologians. But I don’t believe for a minute that this is done by becoming Platonists, not in the sense of adopting various Platonic doctrines. …There is one thing in which there is no parallel between Christianity and Platonism. …It is only in the Jewish and Christian tradition, in Philo particularly, that God is understood as one who speaks, and what he speaks is the Logos. This is very different from an understanding of the logos that is a meaning that we find in things, a meaning that we think runs through everything. A lot of discussion of what we think is going on in the second century gets completely off the rails because it doesn’t realize how Philo’s idea of talking of God as one who speaks …is something that Platonists could take on but they didn’t really understand what it is about. They didn’t see the idea of God as one who speaks is a way of summing up Genesis one. He is the one who speaks, and his speech comes into effect and is created. …Mark Edwards in his book Origen against Plato …says that all of these people were interpreting text. It was not a free standing discussion of various doctrines which we might or might not share with one another.

…In my experience, most people who are non-philosophers get this point quite easily. They don’t expect to be able to read off from scripture some sort of human wisdom that they are in control of. They are very often very deeply conscious of the fact that listening to the scriptures, trying to understand the scripture, is an encounter, an encounter with God, and that in that encounter what takes place is not, as it were, scripted. …This way of understanding scripture, not as a collection of doctrines or arguments or whatever, …became inevitable at the time of the Reformation and thereafter where people read scripture and understood very different doctrines in it and then saw scripture not as a source of wisdom but rather as a source of argument and knowledge, an arsenal instead of as a treasury. …Trying to understand scripture as a way of mediating an encounter with God is going to make much more sense …rather than trying to see scripture as some sort of textbook. The use of scripture in a kind of frightened way, from the 18th century on, as a way of rejecting what we don’t want to understand about the world in which we live …that is not even thought of by people who argue like that. They think that what they are doing is going back to a way in which the scriptures were understood before all these scientists came along. …That, just as a matter of history, is just wrong. The Genesis account wasn’t read before the eighteenth century as if it was a descriptive account of the way that the world was made. It was understood as a story which was told which helped us to see in what way it was God’s and in what way it was a world in which God was active. …We’ve lost a lot of being able to stand before sacred text and allowing them to help us to understand ourselves and our relationship to God and to other people and have treated them as textbooks, as primitive textbooks of primitive science.

…You know Otto’s idea of the mysterium tremendum et fascinosum. The tremendum is alright, but what is more important is the idea of mystery that draws one into itself, that wants us to go further, to understand more deeply, not to lose this sense of wonder. Attentiveness is absolutely crucial. Certainly in the Eastern tradition it’s a point often made, particularly with the ascetic fathers, that the Greek words for prayer and attention are very similar. There is a sense that they involve one another.

Head in white marble. Ostia Antica, Museo, inv. 436. One of four replicas which were all discovered in Ostia. The identification as Plotinus is plausible but not proven.

on whose branches (dogmas) birds (sublime souls) may safely alight

Borrowing from the opening lines of Origen’s Exodus homilies, Gregory likens the scriptural word to a seed: its proper exegesis is the resulting tree, on whose branches (viz., dogmas) birds (viz., sublime souls) may safely alight (In Hex. 64AB).

From Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives by Peter C. Bouteneff.
Amazing to compare with “The Book on the Windowsill” by Elena Shvarts.

do not easily leave

Third saying of Abba Anthony:

Someone asked Abba Anthony, “What must one do in order to please God?” The old man replied, “Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes, whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.”

after this cruel analysis

“Remember, young man, unceasingly,” Father Païssy began, without preface, “that the science of this world, which has become a great power, has, especially in the last century, analysed everything divine handed down to us in the holy books. After this cruel analysis the learned of this world have nothing left of all that was sacred of old. But they have only analysed the parts and overlooked the whole, and indeed their blindness is marvellous. Yet the whole still stands steadfast before their eyes, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Has it not lasted nineteen centuries, is it not still a living, a moving power in the individual soul and in the masses of people? It is still as strong and living even in the souls of atheists, who have destroyed everything! For even those who have renounced Christianity and attack it, in their inmost being still follow the Christian ideal, for hitherto neither their subtlety nor the ardour of their hearts has been able to create a higher ideal of man and of virtue than the ideal given by Christ of old. When it has been attempted, the result has been only grotesque.”

…The philosophic reflections he had just heard so unexpectedly testified to the warmth of Father Païssy’s heart. He was in haste to arm the boy’s mind for conflict with temptation and to guard the young soul left in his charge with the strongest defence he could imagine.

From The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (p. 116), book IV (“Lacerations”), chapter 1 (“Father Ferapont”).