Christianity and Platonism Part I: What is Platonism?

bridgeIn our day-to-day lives we constantly use numbers, refer to ideas such as truth or justice, and notice certain characteristics of objects in our surroundings. This may sound odd, but have you ever wondered what the number five looks like? Can you touch a five? Can you smell a five? How big is a five? Have you ever wondered what perfect justice would look like? Or have you ever wondered what makes something beautiful?

Although you may have never asked yourself these questions, one of the greatest thinkers to ever walk the earth was asking questions very similar to these a few thousand years ago. That thinker, of course, was Plato.

Plato’s ideas have long outlived him, and they have influenced the way that we think about everything around us. Many people do not realize the extent to which their ideology is based upon Plato’s thought, but today I hope to share one of his particular ideas that has fundamentally changed the way that people think about everyday things all around them.

Platonism is a philosophy that originated with Plato, was passed down to the Neoplatonist such as Plotinus and Porphyry, and then was introduced to some of the greatest Christian philosophers – St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas being the most prominent. But what is Platonism?

Platonism is the view that there exist such things as abstract objects — where an abstract object is an object that does not exist in space or time and which is therefore entirely non-physical and non-mental. (Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

I think that this is best understood by way of analogy. Imagine that you are in a geometry class and the teacher is explaining Pythagorean theorem to you. She draws a right triangle on the board and begins to prove that because the legs are three and four inches long respectively, the hypotenuse must be five inches long.

Now, as you are looking at the triangle, you notice that her right angle is a few degrees off, and each leg is somewhat shorter or longer than the supposed measurements. In fact, as you look, the lines that she has drawn are not even lines. They are not straight, they contain both width and depth, not just length, so what you are looking at is not actually even a triangle.

However, as you are listening to the teacher, you suddenly have an “aha!” moment. You leap from your chair and accidentally blurt out, “I get it now! I see! That makes sense! I understand it!”

The whole class then looks at you, you feel very awkward, then you finally shut up, and everyone thanks God that the nerd has been silenced. But think about this for a moment. There never was any triangle on the board for you to “get.” So how did you suddenly have this eureka moment?

Plato mulled this over and then came to the conclusion that you what you saw, what you “got,” was not the triangle on the board, but instead you saw the idea of the triangle with your minds eye, with your intellect. Plato then realized that we do this all the time. We see a robber getting imprisoned and we say that that is just. We see a tyrannical government slaughtering its citizens and we say that that is unjust.

But surely justice is more than just a robber being thrown into prison. Surely injustice is more that merely a tyrannical government. Plato knew this, and he realized that justice, or the lack thereof, was something that could be manifested in many different ways, but the idea was always the same.

Justice, for example, is perfect, unchanging, and exists outside of time or space. Therefore, Justice (uppercase) is eternal, and it is good. However, justice (lowercase) is only transitory and is incomplete. No matter how just your government, for example, is, there will always persist some injustice. And eventually your government will die, and then whatever justice it has will die as well.

Our world, at best, is simply broken representation of the perfect world. The world of perfect things is intangible, eternal, and unchanging. Our world, obviously, is tangible, within time, and changeable.

The perfect human, the Human, never gets sick, never dies, and is perfect. Interestingly, we say that it is good when we are healthy, alive, and striving to be as perfect as possible. Perfect things, ideals, what Plato called “Forms,” are good, and we are to strive to represent them, or so Plato thought.

On a side note, perhaps you have been wondering about the picture that I chose for this article. I hope that you now see why I chose it. Our world is like the reflection in the water. It is broken and it isn’t very clear. Yes, the reflection is of the bridge, but it isn’t the real bridge. The bridge is much more real than the reflection.

In the same way, Platonist believe that the Forms are much more real than their representations. Perfect, eternal, undying Love is much more real than selfish, impure, and fleeting love. Perfect Justice is much more real that our earthly representation of it. Early Christians thought so too, and that will be our topic for the next part of this series.

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