About Me

My photo
Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Monday, 13 February 2012

Did Plato Reject the Material World?

I regularly read about the evils of "Platonic dualism" with its claimed rejection of materiality and particularity. But is this reading of Plato fair?

Arguably, for Plato the material world participates in the world of the Forms and the transcendant realm thus invests the particular with value and meaning.

As Catherine Pickstock notes,

As well as demonstrating that Plato did not wish to drive a wedge between form and appearance, the strongly positive view of methexis (participation) in Phaedrus frees him from the charge of otherworldliness and total withdrawal from physicality, for the philosophic ascent does not result in a “loss” of love for particular beautiful things, since the particular participates in Beauty itself. Thus the philosopher is synonymous with the lover of beauty, as also with one of a musical or loving nature (248d). Although, as Socrates acknowledges, the philosopher separates himself from human interests, turning his attention toward the divine, and is often thought to be insane, it is precisely within the physical world that he recognizes a likeness to the realities, and then is “stricken with amazement and cannot control himself” (241a).

Catherine Pickstock, After Writing, 14.

Perhaps we need a revival of Christian Platonism.

8 comments:

Terry Wright said...

Why?

Robin Parry said...

Because it is a major thread in the Christian theological tradition too quickly rejected. When we kick it out unthinkingly we end up losing the baby with the bathwater.

Because even the bathwater we throw out is not as mucky as we thought but nice and clean and bubbly.

Terry Wright said...

What are the features of this major thread of Christian theological tradition, and what's being rejected?

I'm probably alone in believing something's missing between the Pickstock quotation and your call for a revival of Christian Platonism. Spell it out, please! :)

Robin Parry said...

Something is indeed missing.

In terms of a formal argument it could be represented like this

1. Theologians often reject "Platonism" on the gounds that Platonism denegrates the physical and the particular.
2. Platonism need not denegrate the physical and the particular.
3. Therefore, the grounds for rejecting Platonism are inadequate.

Now, of course,

a) there may be other grounds for rejecting Platonism
b) it may be that the kinder interpretation of Plato is not right in which case premise 2 is perhaps suspect.

Also, it does not follow from the fact that Platonism has been dismissed on the basis of misunderstandings that we ought to retrieve it.

So one would need to spell out what Platonism contributed to historic Christian theology and how we still have much to learn from it.

One thinks of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, Boethius, Dionysius, Anselm, Aquinas, and on through to C. S. Lewis and the like.

The whole Christian mystical tradition had platonic metaphysics underlying it.

To take just one example of a Christian theological idea born of Christian Platonism — Augustine's theology of evil as a privation of the good. I think that this is a rich anaysis of evil.

Or take another Christian Platonist idea — Aquinas' doctrine of analogy.

These are rich ideas. Worth holding on to.

I am just reacting against the regular quips I hear along the lines of "but that's all Greek thinking and not biblical" or "too Hellenistic and not Hebrew enough."

As most biblical scholars will tell you: the neat division between Greek and Hebrew thinking does not reflect the reality of second temple Judaism (which had assimilated a lot of Greek ideas).

But this is a vast topic and I wes only looking to offer a brief thought.

Anonymous said...

What if Plato was right and ideas are what is most profoundly real? If so, then myth, being closer to pure idea, is more real than history. That has implications for Biblical hermeneutics where even events grounded in history are transformed into myth.

Terry Wright said...

But this is a vast topic and I wes only looking to offer a brief thought.

That's the problem with blogging. You offer a brief thought, and someone else (me, in this case!) wants your entire thesis!

John Bonnett said...

This is a very late reply but I just came across it. It seems to me that a return to Platonism is indicated not only by tradition and scripture, but also the Book of Nature, and more specifically, ironically enough, the reading of that book provided by evolutionary biologists such as Simon Conway Morris. He and others point to studies that indicate that multiple species share common behavioral attributes , particularly in the expression of syntax and music. Those commonalities cannot be explained by reference to common neural architectures or evolutionary niches, a situation that has led Conway Morris and others to suggest that we need to give Platonism another look. See Conway Morris' Life's Solution and his Boyle Lecture Darwin's Compass.

Robin Parry said...

John,

Interesting. I too had wondered about Conway Morris' views and Platonism (though I was unaware that he himself made that link).

Do you refer to his 2005 Boyle lecture, "Darwin's Compass"?

Robin