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Religion and Philosophy Appearance and Reality. The One and the Good. The Alexandrian Neo-Platonists. Is Christian theology a 'series of footnotes to Plato'?

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Professor Keith Ward


My lectures this year are not lectures in the philosophy of religion. They are lectures in philosophy insofar as its major concerns impinge upon religion. The connections are quite close, since some of the major philosophical questions are concerned with the ultimate nature of reality, the nature of the human person, questions of meaning, value, and purpose, and questions of responsibility, freedom, and morality.

Philosophers have something of a reputation for independence of mind and scepticism, and they usually dislike being thought of as defenders of any sort of orthodoxy. There are some notable defenders of orthodox belief, like Thomas Aquinas. But even he was banned from teaching for a while by the Bishop of Paris, and his views were thought to be very advanced in the thirteenth century.

Most major philosophers have inclined to a roughly Idealist view of the world - they have thought that there is something mind-like at the basis of things, or that values are in some sense objective. There has always been an anti-Idealist opposition, and it still exists today. Some of the best known philosophers of recent times have inclined to reductionist or materialist views of one sort or another, though they are in fact a minority among professional philosophers.

I intend to treat matters historically, moving from the ancient Greeks, by way of late medieval Christendom and the Enlightenment, to recent emphasis on problems of consciousness and artificial intelligence. It may seem an unduly European or 'Western' history. But it is in Europe that philosophy, understood as the pursuit of critical and independent thinking, has flourished. It may only be part of a rich and much more varied global heritage of thought. But the problems it has dealt with, and the way in which it has dealt with them, remain characteristic of a specific tradition of thought that was born in Greece and flourished conspicuously in Europe after the Enlightenment. So it may be seen as one important tradition of human thought. Whether that tradition has now come to an end, or whether it still has anything worth-while to contribute to human experience, are questions best resolved when we have considered its history as a whole.

All agree that philosophy really begins with Plato. He first formulated the two fundamental questions of philosophy: 'What do you mean?' and 'How do you know?' In his Dialogues he gets his hero, Socrates, to demonstrate to others that they do not really know exactly what they mean by most of the terms they use. And Socrates' victims are usually unable to explain how they know the things they claim to know. Perhaps the historical Socrates, who was condemned by the Athenian democracy for impiety and for corrupting the youth, had just annoyed too many people too much. And so philosophers continue to annoy today.

Plato, of course, was not Socrates. Plato was an aristocrat who wrote books, while Socrates was not. Plato, especially later in his life, developed some quite positive and dogmatic views, which probably did not originate with Socrates. And Plato made a rather feeble and unsuccessful attempt to construct a political system in Crete, and to draw up plans for a perfect state which are of quite Draconian strictness.

Partly for that reason, Plato has been demonised by some as a reactionary and repressive autocrat. Karl Popper's book, 'The Open Society and Its Enemies', depicts Plato as one of the great enemies of liberal democracy. And it is true that Plato presented democracy as the second worst of all political systems in his dialogue 'The Republic'. He depicts the perfect society as an aristocracy, but it is more like what we might call a meritocracy, government by the wise, by an aristocracy of the mind.

But Plato suggests that, even if such a society ever actually could exist, it would inevitably decline by successively worse stages. First would come timocracy, where the love of honour and military might, of pride and ambition, would predominate. Plato is looking at Athens great enemy, Sparta, which had just won a war against Athens, and was a strongly disciplined militaristic society, ruling over a society of virtual slaves.

This would in turn decline into plutocracy, the rule of the rich. After that would come democracy, which Plato characterises as 'the rule of the mob'. And finally would come the worst of all states, despotism, the rule of a dictator, when reason and justice have been almost wholly eradicated, and the will of the tyrant is the only law.

This is a rather gloomy prognosis, and it is interesting to see how Karl Marx used a very similar progression for his analysis of human history, though he gave it what was meant to be a much more positive interpretation. For Marx, aristocratic reason had never ruled. But the feudal system was, for him, a form of timocracy; capitalism succeeded it, and was in effect the rule of the rich. Democracy was the rule of the bourgeoisie, and was to be succeeded by the Dictatorship of the proletariat. Whereas for Plato this succession was a decline, for Marx it was a  historically inevitable and progressive liberation from ancient tyranny. It would all end, as Plato's had begun, with a perfect society. But for Marx the Communist society would be one in which all are equal and all take just what they need, and give to society what they are able.

Popper was in a sense correct in seeing in both Plato and Marx as historicists, seeing inevitable processes at work in history. But their attitudes to those processes were quite different. Plato, out of fear of them, adopted an attitude calculated to prevent any change. Marx, out of approval of them, called for constant revolution to overthrow the old and help bring in the new.

There is another major difference, too. Marx was primarily a political theorist and activist, whose purpose was to change the structures of society. The lives of individuals would change in consequence, he thought. Plato, on the other hand, ends Book 9 of 'The Republic' by conceding that the perfect society probably exists nowhere on earth. But, he says, 'Perhaps there is a pattern set up in the heavens for one who desires to see it, and, seeing it, to found one in himself. But whether it exists anywhere or will exist is no matter; for this is the only commonwealth in whose politics he can ever take part'.

These words were to be influential on both Stoics and Christians. Christians can hardly fail, reading them, to think of Jesus' words, 'Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven'. The pattern of the rule of the Good, perfectly instantiated in the intelligible world, can, at least to some extent, take form in human souls. And Plato hints, or more than hints, throughout 'The Republic', that the soul that is patterned on the commonwealth of the Good (verbally paralleled by talk of 'the kingdom of God') will find itself a stranger and a pilgrim on the earth, mocked by those still chained in and deluded by the shadows of the cave.

Plato's interest is quite different from that of Marx. Plato is concerned with the rule of justice in the hearts of men and women, with their ascent to the vision of the Good, and with their escape from the cave of ignorance. Marx regarded all that as a betrayal of the human responsibility to change society, and to stop the introspective heart-searching which would inevitably lead, he thought, to political apathy, and to the loss of any grip on reality.

And it is at just this point that Popper is not wholly fair to Plato.  For Plato was not primarily a political reactionary who used his philosophy as a support for his political views. Nor is there any intrinsic connection between Plato's metaphysics and his politics. Indeed, his metaphysics can be used equally plausibly to support a much more libertarian and reformist political agenda.

It has to be accepted that Plato's political views were non-libertarian. When he came to write 'The Laws', and sketch the nature of the ideal state in greater detail, it must strike most moderns as wholly repressive. His imagined state, Magnesia, is to be forcibly locked into resistance to all change. It is, after all, perfect, so all change would be for the worse. No young person under forty is allowed to travel abroad for any reason. Even after that age, they cannot travel for purely private reasons or just for pleasure. Moreover, since moral standards are absolute and unchangeable, and can be known with certainty, they must be taught and enforced without permitting dissent. This extends as far as requiring the death penalty for anyone who establishes a shrine on private land, or who sacrifices on public land to 'gods not included in the pantheon of the state' (Book Ten). No moral or religious reforms can every be countenanced, since everything is just perfect as it is. This is a rather ironic conclusion for an admirer of Socrates, who was condemned for impiety towards the established Athenian gods.

Plato would be proud to plead guilty to the charge that his ideal society is both rigidly conservative (not countenancing change) and repressive of dissent. It is fairly easy to find the root principle that gives rise to his views, as it gives rise to many illiberal views. It is that there exists one absolute truth; that it can be known with certainty, probably by a small minority; that knowledge of it will entail virtuous living (following the Socratic principle that 'virtue is knowledge', and that no-one who really knows what is right could ever do wrong); and that its principles can be successfully imposed by force, dissent being a form of culpable and dangerous ignorance.

This principle seems very widespread in human societies, whether they are religiously based or not. It is the principle, 'I know what is right, and I will brook no denial of it'. It is the complete opposite of the principle, 'It is very difficult to know what is right, and maybe I should listen to differing views to help me come to some decision, however provisional it may be'. But suppose we ask, which of these principles is really that of Plato?

The paradox is that he sometimes implies (in 'The Laws', for instance - in which, notably, Socrates does not appear) that he supports the first principle. But the form and content of his Dialogues, taken as a whole, is a very strong expression of the second principle. The Dialogues of Plato are the first major expression of critical thought and free enquiry in human history. And, being Dialogues, they do not all express one consistently upheld viewpoint - even the famous Theory of Forms is virtually refuted in the 'Parmenides'. They are arguments, conversations, and they by no means end with clear statements of absolute truth. In every case, we end with the feeling that there is more to be said, and that, when we have recovered from the long night's drinking, the discussions will continue. More than that, it is the process of argumentation, of enquiry and reflection that is of value, not just the presentation of a dogma.

We might try to explain this by saying that Plato was an aristocratic dogmatist trying to express the thoughts of a social gadfly (Socrates, a disturber of received opinions). That is probably true. But another suggestion is that even his most dogmatic statements may in truth be the statements of a gadfly, meant to spur us on to further reflection - as they have done for over two millennia. Perhaps his depiction of Magnesia, the perfect society, is ironic, the picture of an impossibility. It is the picture of a society of perfected individuals, for whom punishment is no longer needed, who gladly assent to the rule of the wise, who are also uncorruptible.

What would be foolish would be to try to build such a society out of weak and corruptible human beings. As Plato said in the dialogue, 'Meno', virtue can neither be taught, nor is it natural. It is, where it exists, 'a divine dispensation' (Meno, 100B). It is a gift of the gods. Though knowledge of the Good may engender virtue, because evil becomes unthinkable for one who truly knows the Good, such knowledge is rare, and is liable to be mocked by most humans, imprisoned as they are in the cave of ignorance.

Indeed, insofar as Plato really is a historicist, he is bound to think that a perfect society cannot resist change and degeneration, however much the ruling class tries to prevent it. So, as Karl Popper says, it is more important, in building a human society, to seek the best means of avoiding tyranny rather than to try to establish an unchanging Utopia. Out of the crooked timber of humanity, as Immanuel Kant what to say, nothing perfect can be built. Plato should have realised this more clearly; but the truth is that politics was not hi strong suit, or his primary concern.

What Plato places before us, especially in 'The Republic', is a picture of human life in which the passions and desires are ruled by Reason, and Reason is ruled by knowledge of that which is absolutely and flawlessly good. This knowledge is described by Socrates' great speech in the 'Symposium', which I cannot resist quoting at length:

'The man who has been guided thus far in the mysteries of love, and who has directed his thoughts towards examples of beauty in due and orderly succession, will suddenly have revealed to him as he approaches the end of his initiation a beauty whose nature is marvellous indeed, the final goal of all his previous efforts. This beauty is first of all eternal; it neither comes into being nor passes away, neither waxes nor wanes; next, it is not beautiful in part and ugly in part, nor beautiful at one time and ugly at another, nor beautiful in this relation and ugly in that, nor beautiful here and ugly there, as varying according to its beholders; nor again will this beauty appear to him like the beauty of a face or hands or anything else corporeal, or like the beauty of a thought or a science, or like the beauty which has its seat in something other than itself, be it a living thing or the earth or the sky or anything else whatever; he will see it as absolute, existing alone with itself, unique, eternal, and all other beautiful things as partaking of it, yet in such a manner that, while they come into being and pass away, it neither undergoes any increase or diminution nor suffers any change...a man's life should be spent in the contemplation of absolute beauty...and he will be able to bring forth not mere reflected images of goodness but true goodness, because he will be in contact not with a reflection but with the truth. And having brought forth and nurtured true goodness he will have the privilege of being beloved of God, and becoming, if ever a man can, immortal himself' (Symposium, 211).

Whether or not Socrates ever said such a thing as this, it is the foundation of much of Augustine's thought and of the tradition of neo-Platonism which flourished in Alexandria, where early Christian theology most fruitfully developed. Plato makes Socrates ascribe this teaching to a woman, Diotima, and Socrates does not claim to have achieved such knowledge himself. Thus again there is a stress on the difficulty and rarity of such absolute knowledge, which makes it very unlikely that it could be institutionalised in any social class, like the Philosopher-Kings of the Republic. Political thought for the shadow-world in which we live calls for much more compromise and adjustment that Plato gave it. But to make such adjustments is in fact called for by Plato's deepest philosophical stance, which places the Republic of the Good in the realm of the eternal, and always beyond this transient world, which can only ever partly and dimly partake of it.

The doctrine of the 'participation' of the temporal in the eternal is one that also places in question a common view of Plato as a hater of the world and of material bodies. It is true that he in one place calls the body the 'tomb' of the soul, and that he looks for the final destiny of all souls far beyond this embodied world. He is, in a sense that Descartes never was, a fully-fledged dualist. Yet in the 'Timaeus' - the only text of Plato generally known in Europe in the early Middle Ages - he decribes time as 'the moving image of eternity' ('Timaeus', 7). And he holds that the created universe is so perfect that it is indeed 'a blessed god' (Timaeus 5).

These are not the words of a world-hater. The world is the finite image of eternal beauty. Again Christians must be reminded of the statement of Paul, or of a follower of his, about the person of Jesus Christ: 'he is the visible image of the invisible God' (Colossians 1, 15). If there ever was a being that could be a clear image of eternity, then it would be united in being to the Eternal, and would mediate its beauty and goodness to the world. It would be the image and the mediator of the Good in the darkness of the cave - though, Plato remarks, it would probably be mocked and killed by those who take darkness rather than light to be the ultimate reality.

Plato's overall view expresses a dialectic between two extremes - one that the world is evil and to be escaped from, and the other that the world is a 'blessed god', a perfect finite image of divine Beauty. There is actually no 'final system' in Plato's works. The Dialogues present differing viewpoints - even the much-maligned Sophists of ancient Greece are accorded a mixture of respect and contempt, in the 'Protagoras', for example. It was left to later thinkers like Plotinus, to systematise some of the central themes of Plato's works, and to connect them to a religious, or at least a mystical, way of life.

Plato's remarks about a supreme reality include remarks about a personal Demiurge, or Intelligent Designer of the universe, a more impersonal principle of the Good and Beautiful, which is 'beyond even being', and a world of Forms or Ideas, which is the archetype for every material being. The third century thinker Plotinus (204 - 270), or his teacher Ammonius Saccas, systematised many of these remarks, and devised the idea of a Divine Triad - the One, beyond all conceptual thought; the Logos, or intellectual principle, in which all the essential natures of things, all possible states of affairs and ideals, exist; and the World-Soul, which gives actuality and life to particular entities that comprise the universe. 

The One generates from itself, without being changed or diminished, the Logos, which in turn generates the World-Soul. From that divine Triad, the whole finite universe flows by necessity. At each level beings both continue to generate fainter, more remote images of the Divine Triad, and also strive to reflect more perfectly their divine source. Every possible degree of being is generated, until at last being runs out into its last and most imperfect forms, the forms of darkness we call, by contrast with higher modes of being, 'evil'. Within this world, human souls, fallen into an alien material realm, strive to return to the One source, in what Plotinus calls 'the flight of the alone to the Alone', the return of the separated soul to the completed fulness of that which needs no companion.

One of Plotinus' fellow-pupils was, it is reported, the Christian theologian Origen, and the Christian doctrine of God as Trinity is clearly influenced by this form of Platonism. Throughout the Bible there is talk of the Spirit of God 'hovering over' creation, of the Wisdom of God delighting in the created world, and of the transcendence of God, of which no image can be made. In the New Testament Jesus is identified by John with the Wisdom or Logos, and the Spirit that overshadowed the disciples at Pentecost was formally defined as divine by the first Council of Consantinople in 381 AD. Platonism provided the concepts in terms of which Christian orthodoxy was defined, and enshrined the Trinitarian nature of God at the heart of its the new religion.

There are also marked differences between this neo-Platonism and what became Christian orthodoxy. It is more a matter of influence than of straightforward borrowing. For example, Plotinus' One is beyond consciousness and intention. The Logos flows from it without conscious desire or intention, as does everything else, and it might have been better for the universe not to exist - it just necessarily does exist. There is not one Father of all who consciously and freely wills to create a universe, when there were other possibilities available.

For Christians, souls do not seek to return by their own ascetic efforts to an undifferentiated unity in which any sense of individual separateness or social relationship is lost. Plotinus regarded the idea of the resurrection of the body as a barbaric superstition, and the idea of a Saviour as just a refusal to take responsibility for your own fate.

Yet the basic Platonic idea that the whole sensory and material world is the appearance of an underlying spiritual reality, which is rational and intelligible, and which ultimately flows from a being of supreme beauty and goodness - that idea became central to Christian orthodoxy. And, despite the misgivings of Plotinus and of the later Platonist Porphyry, who also opposed Christianity, the basic Christian belief in a God who creates the universe intentionally, and who is incarnate in the world, is a natural development of Platonism.

Plotinus also opposed Gnosticism, partly because of its fantastic beliefs in a huge number of spiritual beings and powers who 'channelled' their messages to earth, and partly because they taught that matter is evil. Belief in one God who creates this universe for the sake of the beauty and value that can only exist within it, and belief that the cosmos is an image of eternal beauty and wisdom, can be found in Plato, especially in the 'Timaeus'. Even belief that God becomes incarnate is deeply consonant with Plato's doctrine that a good being will never do harm, but will seek to help those who suffer; and that finite things can be greater or lesser images of the infinite God. We might think, then, that a supremely good God might seek to help humans who are (as Plotinus says) lost in ignorance and darkness, and might do so by providing a finite image of the divine in a perfected human life.  And we might also think that a good God would seek to share its goodness in conscious relationship to finite persons, who might find the fulfillment of their personal and social lives, not its ending, in God.

It is not quite right to say that Christianity is just a series of footnotes to Plato. But Plato lived four centuries before Jesus. Greek temples have been discovered in Galilee, and some mystical strands of Jewish thought, and maybe quite a lot of John's Gospel, undoubtedly show Greek influence. Perhaps the teaching of Jesus himself about the Kingdom of God, although phrased in terms of the mythology of Jewish apocalyptic thought, embodied the secret teaching that the Kingdom is the rule of perfect Beauty, inscribed by divine dispensation in the hearts of men and women who hunger and thirst for true goodness. Perhaps Plato was, at least to some extent, as Augustine said, 'a Christian before Christ'.



©Professor Keith Ward, Gresham College, 22 November 2007


This event was on Thu, 22 Nov 2007

keith ward

Professor Keith Ward DD FBA

Professor of Divinity

Professor Keith Ward was the Gresham Professor of Divinity between 2004 and 2008.  He has a BA from the University of Wales, an MA from...

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