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Platonism

An expanded version of this page appears in my book
"New Skins for Old Wine"

Contents

What is Platonism?

A "Platonist" is a follower of the Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 B.C.). Plato was the principle disciple of Socrates. His written accounts of his beloved teacher's thoughts are the only record we have of them. Plato was the mentor of Aristotle, with whom, however, he disagreed in several ways. Plato's surviving writings are voluminous. His prose style is accessible and attractive. He concerned himself mainly with matters of ethics, law, politics, ontology and epistemology. Unlike Aristotle, he had little interest in observational science: i.e. "Astronomy" and "Natural History". Plato is often presented as teaching that spirit is superior to matter, and that this physical world at once symbolizes and conceals a greater, spiritual one. I would prefer to say that Plato taught that principle was prior to actuality: so that "might" is not "right"; "law" is not "justice"; "possession" is not "ownership" and "obedience" is not "goodness". He also took great care to distinguish between empathic, intuitive knowledge: "episteme", based on a fundamental understanding of reality; and empirical belief: "doxa", based on conjecture and/or induction from observation. 

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (somewhat amended):

"[Plato] .... has in mind .... the problem of change. The Eleatics, following Parmenides, held that there is no real change or multiplicity in the world, that reality is one. Heraclitus, on the contrary, regarding motion and multiplicity as real, maintained that permanence is only apparent .....

Plato, then, supposes a world of Ideas apart from the world of our experience, and immeasurably superior to it....

The Eleatics, Plato said, are right in maintaining that reality does not change; for the ideas are immutable. Still, there is, as Heraclitus contended, change in the world of our experience, or, as Plato terms it, the world of phenomena.
[This is accounted for by a variation in the degree of participation of a phenomenon in the invariant Ideas.]

[Plato's epistemology is based on the notion] that all human souls dwelt at one time in [the world of Ideas]. When, therefore, we behold in the shadow world around us a phenomenon or appearance of anything, the mind is moved to a remembrance of the Idea (of that same phenomenal thing) which it formerly contemplated. In its delight it wonders at the contrast, and by wonder is led to recall as perfectly as possible the intuition it enjoyed in a previous existence. This is the task of philosophy. Philosophy, therefore, consists in the effort to rise from the knowledge of phenomena, or appearances, to the noumena, or realities. Of all the ideas, however, the Idea of the beautiful shines out through the phenomenal veil more clearly than any other; hence the beginning of all philosophical activity is the love and admiration of the Beautiful.

The full text of Plato's works can be found here, and the website of the International Plato Society here. My own brief (but expanding) guide to the dialogues can be found here.

Platonism and Christianity

In Plato's last work, "The Laws", he states:
"May I do to others as I would that they should do to me."
In harmony with this ideal is the commandment of Jesus Christ:
"So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them" [Mat 7:12]
Clearly, then, there are elements of Platonic thought that are consistent with Christianity. Just as clearly, an overlap of ideas does not guarantee that the two systems will agree on all points! Christianity directly conflicts with a few of Plato's more speculative ideas, so any Catholic Platonist has to exercise a degree of circumspection before adopting or adapting his teachings.

Plato himself did not disparage the flesh. He makes no secret of his admiration for comely young men. In the writing of his youth and middle age he was quite positive about romanto-erotic love [Symposium, Charmides]; though he consistently taught that the greatest and deepest form of love was intellectual: between intimate friends. Only in his old age did he become more suspicious of eroticism [Republic], perhaps as a result of his own bitter experience. He eventually counselled abstention from all physical intimacy, whether homo- or hetero-gender which was not directly and specifically intentioned to result in offspring that were needed by the State [Laws].

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

".... Plato took it for granted that the highest good of man, subjectively considered, is happiness (eudaimonia). Objectively, the highest good of man is the absolutely highest good in general, Goodness itself, or God. The means by which this highest good is to be attained is the practice of virtue and the acquisition of wisdom. So far as the body hinders these pursuits, it should be brought into subjection. Here, however, asceticism should be moderated in the interests of harmony and symmetry - Plato never went the length of condemning matter and the human body in particular, as the source of all evil - for wealth, health, art, and innocent pleasures are means of attaining happiness, though not indispensable, as virtue is. Virtue is order, harmony, the health of the soul; vice is disorder, discord, disease."

Did Plato have an occult or esoteric teaching which he never wrote down?

Esoteric has two meanings. 

  • First it simply means “inward”, “private”, “occult”, “hidden” or “mysterious”. On this basis, the Christian sacramental system is esoteric; or was originally so conceived.
  • Second, it means “of an elaborate and far-fetched character”. On this basis much of modern theoretical physics is thoroughly esoteric.
As to whether Plato had any interest in esoterica, I think that this depends on what is meant. The Theory of the Forms can be categorised as esoteric in the second sense, if one cares to do so; but I find it of practical help in understanding the theoretical structure of both physics and biology. Similarly, any discussion of the Immortality of the Human Spirit or the Transmigration of Souls can be said to be esoteric. Of course, in the first sense none of these teachings are at all esoteric, as they are plainly set forth in Plato's published – that is exoteric – works.

Moreover, Plato has Socrates insist that he is one of the few authentic followers of Bacchus, [“Phaedo” (69d)] whose worship was governed by an initiation and whose rites were secret. In Laws, Plato's mysterious “Visitor” recommends that one should “seek the rites that free a man from guilt.” [“Laws” (854b)]

Finally, Plato is mostly concerned with underlying and hidden reality and spiritual truth and less so with apparent physical contingency. 

All this being said, the Seventh Letter is important. It is not certain that the text as we have it is authentic, however I will take it to be so, for the sake of the argument. In it Plato writes that he has never written anything about “the problems with which I am concerned” [“Epistle VII” (341c)] and adds that he “never will do so”.

For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself. 
[“Epistle VII” (341c)]
He proceeds to argue much in the vein of the parallel Phaedrus passage [“Phaedrus” (274-277)] as to why he has not and will not write of philosophy – while, in effect, doing so.
If I thought that these matters could be put into written words adequate for the multitude, what nobler work could I do in my life than to compose something of such great benefit to mankind...? But I do not think that the “examination” as it is called of these questions would be of any benefit to men, except for a few – that is to those who could with a little guidance discover the truth for themselves. [“Epistle VII” (341d)]
He then says that “there is a true doctrine” – and proceeds to write it down at some length in contradiction to his promise never to do so! 
Because of the weakness of language… no sensible man will venture to express his deepest thoughts in words, especially in a form which is unchangeable, as is true of written outlines. [“Epistle VII” (343a)]

By the repeated use of all these instruments, [that is: names, definitions and perceptions] ascending and descending to each in turn, it is barely possible for knowledge to be engendered of an object naturally good, in a man naturally good; but… neither quickness of learning nor a good memory can make a man see when his nature is not akin to the object… the truth and error about any part of being must be learned together, though long and earnest labour… Only when… names, definitions and… perceptions have been rubbed against one another and tested, pupil and teacher asking and answering questions in good will and without envy – only then, when reason and knowledge are at the very extremity of human effort, can they illuminate the nature of any object.
[“Epistle VII” (344b)]

Now it might be argued that this “true doctrine” is distinct from “the problems with which I am concerned”; [“Epistle VII” (341c)] but this seems implausible as throughout the text Plato refers to “these matters” without any attempt to distinguish between the subject which he is expounding in the letter (the “true doctrine”) after having done so many times before, and “the problems with which I am concerned.” Moreover, Plato writes that the things that should not be written down are in fact “contained in the briefest of formulae” [“Epistle VII” (344e)] although he has previously said that this knowledge cannot be put into words! [“Epistle VII” (341c)]

How can all this be made sense of? The following possibilities occur to me: 

  1. The Seventh Latter is spurious. If the letter is a fake, it is a very good one. Nothing it contains is out of character. Most modern scholarship accepts the Epistle as either being by Plato or a very close and well informed disciple.
  2. Plato was a fool and didn't realise that he was contradicting himself.
  3. Plato changed his mind and later put pen to paper about subjects that he originally thought it was unwise to give a written account of. Perhaps he decided that it was worthwhile to do so after all, for those few who he explicitly concedes could benefit from it. This doesn't explain how he came to write down statements that formally invalidate the very document that contain them – in particular, the Seventh Letter! Moreover, if the Letter is genuine it has to date from the last part of Plato's life; which would mean that most of his written work cannot be taken to represent this supposed change of mind.
  4. Plato indeed had an esoteric teaching and it was only this occult doctrine which he refused to write down. In Physics Aristotle contrasts Plato's teaching in the Timaeus regarding the Forms with what he says is Plato's unwritten account of the matter. On the one hand, this could represent nothing more than Aristotle's misunderstanding of Plato's writings – along the lines on which Plato feared this would happen. On the other hand, it could be that Plato had some positive teaching about the nature of Justice, Beauty or Goodness, or whatever, beyond what he articulates explicitly in his writings. However, this is not the tone of the Phaedrus passage, where the dangers inherent in all writing and oratory are emphasised; and hardly that of the Seventh Letter. The existence of such specific esoteric content seems to run against the idea that the it could be expressed or encapsulated in the briefest of formulae.
  5. The Seventh Letter itself is private. In which case Plato did have an esoteric doctrine, and we know pretty much what it is from the private record that he made of it, for the benefit of the few friends to whom he addressed this letter. This makes more sense, as both in the Letter and in the Phaedrus Plato builds in loop-holes to his general statement. In the Letter he allows that a few people would benefit from a written examination of the problems with which Plato is concerned. In the Phaedrus he allows that if someone writes or speaks only to communicate what is “just, noble and good” then this is commendable. On the other hand, the “true doctrine” which the Letter clearly expounds (which amounts to Plato's Theories of “the Forms” and of “the Dielectic” and of “Education”) is pretty much contained in various published dialogues, so it hardly counts as esoteric. Moreover, the Seventh Letter has more of the character of an “Open Letter” than a truly private communication.
  6. Plato means to put the actual dilemma that he faced forcefully before us; hoping that if he said that the written word – being dead and subject to subsequent spin and misinterpretation – was not to be trusted (and also that if he wrote in dramatic and dialogue form) he would mitigate the danger he saw so clearly. What he is really dead set against is writing an impersonal text book, academic monograph or set of lecture notes. 
The last is my preferred option. I think that Plato never writes as a logician, but always as a dramatist, poet and lover. This is not to say that he didn't have a healthy respect for logic, he did; but rather that his concern was that “heart should speak with heart” as Cardinal Newman puts it (quoting St Francis de Salles) and that logic should be the servant of the soul not its master. He wants to make philosophy intimate and personal, not dry and “academic” – what an irony, that his beloved Academy should have given rise to that epithet!

Long before Goedel, Plato intuited that logic was not “complete” and that the pursuit of definitions and formal rigour was at best a lost cause and at worst a distraction from the quest for enlightenment. I suppose that he chose to make this clear by inserting an explicit formal contradiction in the heart of his dialectical process; to make us aware of the danger of “delusions of certitude” and to try to prevent anyone from using his writings as an authoritative canon of positive teaching.

The successors of Plato

A central theme of Plato's teaching is that all presumptions should be subjected to criticism. While on occasion he proposed definite solutions to particular problems and clear answers to specific questions, it is fair to say that Platonism is more an attitude, approach and habit of thought than a dogmatic system. Nevertheless, over many centuries, followers of Plato amplified or elaborated his teachings. Plato wrote many of his dialogues in a vein of light-hearted, tentative enquiry. Some of his followers remained faithful to the central ethos of his philosophy, while others - especially the neo-Platonists - mistook slavish conformity to Plato's every word, no matter how speculative or ironic, for respect for his genius.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (slightly amended):

The Academy continued, with varying fortunes, to maintain its identity as a Platonic school, first at Athens, and later at Alexandria until the first century of the Christian era. It modified the Platonic system in the direction of mysticism and demonology, and underwent at least one period of scepticism. It ended in a loosely constructed eclecticism. With the advent of neo-Platonism founded by Ammonius and developed by Plotinus, Platonism definitely entered the cause of Paganism against Christianity. Nevertheless, the great majority of the [Church Fathers] down to St. Augustine [and beyond] were Platonists. They appreciated the uplifting influence of Plato's psychology and metaphysics, and recognized in that influence a powerful ally of Christianity in the warfare against materialism and naturalism. These Christian Platonists [disparaged] Aristotle, whom they generally referred to as an "acute" logician whose philosophy favoured the heretical opponents of orthodox Christianity.
The Church Fathers filtered Plato's teaching through the Apostolic Tradition. For example, they did not regard the flesh as evil, in the way that some pagan neo-Platonists came to; rather, although they found it inferior and often trying to the spirit, they knew that the body is destined to rise incorruptible on the Last Day.

Origen

Origen, was the first great Catholic speculative theologian. He was a student of pre-Christian philosophy and influenced by the Neoplatonist, Ammonius Saccas. He used various neo-Platonic theories in the construction of his theology. As pioneer in the enterprise of unifying secular and ecclesial traditions, there was always the danger that he would incorporate erroneous concepts into his theology.

Origen emphasized the pursuit of knowledge and self-knowledge as the only sound basis of virtue.

"For suppose a man has an affection for God, but is unaware that love must be "long-suffering, kind, envying not, not rash in action, not puffed up, not scheming for advantage, not seeking its own": if he lacks these or similar qualities in his love and loves God merely in feeling, to him too it will be appropriately said, that he has a love of God but not according to knowledge. In the same way it may be said of another that he has a faith in God, but not according to knowledge, if he is unaware that "faith apart from works is dead", and that faith in God does not lie in words alone, which are sometimes learned off after they have been put together or written by another, but in a spiritual experience like that of the woman who said within herself, "If I touch the hem of his garment, I shall be whole". Thus if a man does not have faith so as to make it manifest by his good deeds in whom he believes, to him too may it be said that he has faith in God but not according to knowledge. Of another it may be said that he has chastity before God, but not according to knowledge. Another has a care for the poor, but not according to knowledge: all he desires is to have the praise of men. Another may be called temperate, but not according to knowledge, if he only fasts to be seen of men.

So one by one with all our actions, unless we according to knowledge and understanding, it may said that we have the zeal for a good work, but not according to knowledge. On this account must we give special care to knowledge, lest we should find ourselves in the sorry situation of having our place in faith and yet being baulked of faith; of having a zeal for good things and yet falling away from goodness. Would you be assured that a man, if he has not knowledge, may grow weak in faith ? Hear Paul himself as he says to some "Except ye believed in vain". It is the case then that those who give no care to knowledge, so as to receive in their faith an understanding of the truth as well, have believed in vain. The Apostles for instance, perceiving there was this distinction between faith merely handed on and faith according to knowledge, said to the Saviour "Increase our faith". Having already, they mean, the faith which is not according to knowledge, may we have also the faith which is according to knowledge. [Origen: Commentary on Romans, in "Selections from the Commentaries and Homilies of Origen", p 254-255 translator: R.B. Tollinton]

As a Platonist, Origen believed that in addition to the visible world of physics: characterized by approximation; imperfection; change and decay, there is an invisible world of abstract perfection: which is unchanging and beyond time. The conscious person or ego or spiritual soul somehow straddles these worlds, while the body belongs entirely to the material world. Neo-Platonists taught that the physical world emanates from God. Such terminology did not imply that passible matter is itself made out of the impassible Being of God, which is not susceptible to any change: such as becoming matter. If it did have such a meaning, the division of the physical world from the realm of the forms that is crucial to the whole Platonic scheme would have been undermined.

Distinctive Features of Platonic Philosophy

The main characteristic of Platonism is not any particular positive doctrine, but rather an attitude of "devout scepticism", in which a suspicion of all easy and ready answers is combined with a conviction that the pursuit of truth and wisdom is not forlorn, but rather defines the life proper to anyone who would be fully human. Nevertheless, Plato - or his more prominent followers - tended to espouse the following positive teachings.
The Forms
Plato held that both abstract ideas like "love" and "truth" and concrete things like "horse" or "table" were manifestations of "ideals" or "archetypes" or "patterns" or "universals". He called these universals "forms". Thus, men are men because they all participate or share in the common form of Man.
"If you look at, say, two different chairs, or the same chair from different angles in different lights, the two will be completely different in shape, colour and size. How, then, do we immediately know they are both chairs? Plato would have it that the chairs participate in what he called the eidos of chairness; a word traditionally translated form .... Seeing the chair, we recollect the eidos which we already knew, and so recognize it."
[Daniel Copeland: 2004]

Using the famous "parable of the Cave" [The Republic], Plato taught that the forms subsist apart from the physical world, in which they are nevertheless manifested. Christian Neoplatonists, following St Augustine, tended to postulate that the forms exist as perfect abstractions in the mind of God. They are, so to speak, the patterns through which God continues to will the existence of the Cosmos. This position is called "Realism", the significance of the name being that the forms are real. It was rejected by Plato's most famous pupil, Aristotle.

The Hierarchy of Being
There is a hierarchy of created being. All created being is temporal and is subject to change. Higher being is composed of "Subtle Matter". The most sublime created being is the "Divine Energies", manifested in the Hebrew Tabernacle and Temple as the Sheckaniah and before Moses on the Mountain of God. The Divine Energies are a nexus of created being that is entirely proper to God HimSelves: God's Robes of Glory, as it were. Next to this is the hierarchy of Angelic Being, from the sublime Seraphim down to the Angels proper. Next to this is Human Being, which fuses the Subtle Matter of Spirit with the Physical Matter of the Body. All matter, subtle or physical comes from the Divine Mind: it is called into existence by the Divine Word.
The Logos
When the Apostle John calls Jesus "the Word," he refers to the Greek tradition of the Logos: the action of God in the world. Philo called the Logos "God's Likeness, by whom the whole cosmos was fashioned". Origen called the Logos "the soul that holds the universe together". St Paul uses similar language of Jesus, who is the first-born (template) for all creation [Col 1:15] and in which all created being coheres [Col 1:17]. Philo believed that great human beings like Moses could participate in the Logos to a high degree and so manifest it in the Physical World. The sages who wrote much of the deuterocanon taught this of "The Divine Wisdom", which they personified as a female emanation of God: anticipating the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity.
The Spiritual Soul
The Apostle John says that the Logos "enlightens every man" [Jn 1:9]. The early Church Fathers taught that everyone has the capacity for holiness and divinization. St. Clement of Alexandria tells us that each human has the "image of the Word" within him and that it is for this reason that Genesis says that humanity is made "in the image and likeness of God". He goes on to say that humanity is "of celestial birth, being a plant of heavenly origin". Origen taught that man, having been made after the "image and likeness of God," has "a kind of blood relationship with God". The spiritual soul was created immortal and that though it fell, it still has the potential for justification. "The will of this soul is something intermediate between the flesh and the spirit, undoubtedly serving and obeying one of the two, whichever it has chosen to obey". If the will is conformed to justice, Origen wrote, "the spirit will become one with it".
The Rational Soul
Another view grew up in the Church. This linked the word soul with the body. It used the word soul to mean not the person,  consciousness or ego of a (wo)man, but rather his/her personality, will and mind. This "rational soul" is physical. Gregory of Nyssa wrote: "Neither does the soul exist before the body, nor the body apart from the soul, but ... there is only a single origin for both of them."  "God is daily making souls", wrote St. Jerome. The Church has defined that the "rational soul" is created at the same time as the body and that the body and "rational soul" constitute one whole: a human nature.

Neither the spiritual nor the rational soul is or ever was "a part of God". This is simply because God cannot have parts! Even the spiritual soul belongs to the created world, and is made out of nothing. The fact that the spiritual soul, ego, hypostasis or person is created from nothing does not mean that it has no participation in divinity. Neither does it mean that it has a beginning in time. Every person is a created image and reflection of the Divine Being, foreknown and foreloved before all time by the Holy Trinity as a precious and unique expression of HimSelves. The spiritual soul is destined to be united with God, its creator, in the Beatific Vision. Then it will be united with a resurrection body and rational soul free from all sin and aligned with Justice, so that it can be said to "partake in the Divine Nature" [2Pet 1:4].

Divinization
Origen taught that the human and divine can be woven together day by day. He wrote that in Jesus "the divine and human nature interpenetrated in such a way that the human nature, by its communion with the divine, itself become divine." Incidentally, the seeds of what might be condemned as Monophysitism can be recognized here. Origen taught that the option for divinization is available for "all who take up in faith the life which Jesus taught." Origen described the relationship of human beings to the Son thus: "We, therefore, having been made according to the image, have the Son, the original, as the truth of the noble qualities that are within us. And what we are to the Son, such is the Son to the Father, who is the truth."
Pre-existentianism
The concept of pre-existentianism had a place in Platonic philosophy. Its main role was as a means of explaining the learning process in terms of a "remembering of what had been forgotten".
"Pre-existentianism, which was proposed by Plato, and which in the early Christian era was accepted by Origen and individual members of his disciples (Didymus of Alexandria, Evagrius Ponticus, Nemesius of Emesa), as well as by the Priscillianists, teaches that souls exist even before their connection with the bodies - according to Plato and Origen, from all eternity - and are exiled in bodies, as a punishment for moral defect. This doctrine was rejected by a Synod at Constantinople (543) against the Origenists, and by a Synod at Braga (561) against the Priscillianists... The Fathers, with very few exceptions, are opponents of the doctrine of pre-existence upheld by Origen."[Ott: "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma" II.15.1]
As far as I am aware the notion of souls being imprisoned in bodies for reason of moral defect is foreign to Plato's own writings.
Reincarnation
In "The Laws", Plato took the doctrine of pre-existentianism further and developed a theory of reincarnation:
"And seeing that a soul, in its successive conjunction first with one body and then with another, runs the whole gamut of change through its own action or that of some other soul, no labour is left for the mover of the pieces but this: to shift the character that is becoming better to a better place, and that which is growing worse to a worser, each according to its due, that each may meet with its proper doom."

The attack on Origen and his theology

Toward the end of the fourth century, some theologians again began to attack Origen. Their chief difficulty with Origen's thought was his speculative teaching regarding the pre-existence of the soul, but some went further in their criticism. The Origenist controversy spread to monasteries in the Egyptian desert. There were two kinds of monks in Egypt: the uneducated majority; and the educated minority, familiar with Origen's theology. The controversy solidified around the question of whether God had a body that could be seen and touched. The simple monks believed that he did. The educated monks knew very well that God was invisible and transcendent. In 399 AD Patriarch Theophilus wrote a letter defending the orthodox position. At this, the simple monks flocked to Alexandria, rioted in the streets and even threatened to kill Theophilus. The bishop quickly reversed himself, telling the monks: "In seeing you, I behold the face of God." Theophilus' sudden switch was the catalyst for a series of events that led to the condemnation of Origen.

According to "The Encyclopedia of Catholic History":

"Origen was accused by St. Jerome and others of certain heretical tendencies. Others defended him, however, and the majority of the Eastern bishops considered him a defender of the faith. His name nevertheless became attached to a doctrinal system, Origenism, incorporating various unorthodox elements of his teaching. Widely read in the years after his death, Origen attracted many adherents who propagated some of his more extreme theories, ultimately causing the Origenist controversy of the fourth century. The chief enemy of Origenism was St. Jerome, who helped secure the condemnation of Origen's radical teachings by Pope Anastasius I in 400."
The Fifth Oecumenical Council
Around 543 AD, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian took the side of the anti-Origenists. He issued an edict condemning ten principles of Origenism, including the pre-existence of the soul. It declared "anathema to Origen ...and to whomsoever there is who thinks thus." A local council at Constantinople ratified the edict.

In 553 AD, Justinian convoked what became the Fifth Oecumenical Council to discuss the controversy over the so-called "Three Chapters." These were writings of three theologians whose views bordered on Nestorianism. Justinian wanted the writings condemned and he expected the council to oblige him. He had been trying to coerce Pope Vigilius into agreeing with him since 545 AD, when he had kidnapped the Pope and brought him to Constantinople. The Emperor held the Pope captive for four years. When Vigilius escaped and later refused to attend the council, Justinian went ahead and convened it without him.

According to some authorities (but not Denzinger or Ott), this council produced fourteen new anathemas against the authors of the Three Chapters and other theologians.

"A subsequent condemnation was made at the Fifth General Council in 553 (Constantinople II, Pope Vigilius), in reference to certain writings in which Origen supported heretical doctrines such as the pre-existence of souls and the final salvation of all men." [Fr. John Laux, "Church History" (1989)]
The first of these reads: "If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema."

What is certain is that the eleventh anathema of the second undisputed list included Origen's name in a list of heretics.

Of course, the fact that a few of a man's hypotheses, speculations or metaphors are problematic by no means invalidates the huge preponderance of his thought. This applies equally to Plato and Origen, both of whom, I believe to have been brave, wise and holy men. It is only the fool who thinks that he is right about everything!

The Eighth Oecumenical Council
The eleventh Canon of the Eighth Oecumenical council reads:
"While the Old and New Testaments teach that man has one rational and intellectual soul, and this is the teaching also of all the fathers and doctors of the Church, some persons, nevertheless, blasphemously maintain that he has two souls. This holy and general council, therefore, anathematizes the authors and adherents of that false teaching. Anyone presuming to act contrary to the decision of this great council, shall be anathematized and cut off from the faith and society of Christians." [Canon 11]
This text is out of the ordinary, as all the other twenty-six canons are disciplinary in character. It is generally interpreted as an attack on Plato's anthropology. Clearly it wishes to identify man as having a single soul and that the "rational and intellectual soul". It doesn't quite succeed in excluding the position that I hold, namely that the "rational and intellectual soul" is not spiritual, but rather physical; and that the "spiritual soul" is to be identified with the person or ego or identity. It does not do so, because it only anathematizes the (unspecified) authors and adherents of some (unspecified) teaching that blasphemously maintains that man has two souls. I would contend that the position I take is in no way blasphemous, and suppose that the anathema is directed at persons who tried to divide the physical "rational and intellectual soul" into parts. It can easily be argued that Plato did just that: after all, why shouldn't he; he wasn't a Catholic! Equally, it could be argued that Plato didn't intend his tripartite analysis of the soul to be taken as meaning that man had three separate souls, each independent of the other; but only that the activity of the soul can conveniently be categorized into three aspects.

Aristotle and Aquinas


Plato's student Aristotle was a materialist and empiricist. He was the first to misinterpret Plato as having proposed a definitive comprehensive system of philosophy, rather than a method and ethic of philosophical enquiry. In this very limited sense, Aristotle was the first neo-Platonist.

He was fascinated by Astronomy and Natural History. He came to believe that matter itself was self existent, with neither beginning nor end, and to disbelieve in any personal God. He taught that  although Universals are real in a sense, they derive their reality only from their physical manifestations. In other words, where Plato taught that horses are horses because they participate in the archetypal form Horse, Aristotle held that Horse is Horse because it captures the reality of horses: it is nothing more than a summary statement of what makes a thing a horse. Hence for Plato horses take their reality from Horse, but for Aristotle Horse takes its reality from horses.

Aristotle tended to speak of universals in terms of "substances", and to conceive of any object as being constituted of a substance proper (essential) to itself: for example the substance of bread or wine; or the substance of snail or that of quill-pen.

When Aristotle was re-discovered in the 13th century, and popularized by St. Thomas Aquinas, his view of the Universals came to be called "Moderate Realism," as opposed to the older view, which then received in its turn the title of "Ultra Realism." The two "Realist" titles refer to only one aspect of either body of teaching, and in fact there have been Moderate Realists who were Neoplatonists in most other areas.

A thorough but dry, obscure and partisan introduction to Thomism can be found in the ill-named Opus Dei publication "Christian Philosophy" [J.M. de Torre Vera-Reyes (1980)]. An altogether more accessible (but no less partisan) review of Aristotelian metaphysics can be found in "From Physics to Metaphysics", written by my own one-time mentor Fr Francis Selman [St Austen Press (2001)].

Prior to St. Thomas, there were twelve centuries of Church life without Thomism. The Church's doctrinal definitions, her liturgies, all her official acts up to that point were originated without Thomist or Aristotelian influence. When such influence arose, its adherents were called "Moderns". Several of St. Thomas' philosophical teachings were condemned in the 1270s by the Archbishops of Paris and Canterbury, and by the Universities of Paris and Oxford. Although the condemnations were lifted after St. Thomas' canonization in 1313, the Franciscans and Augustinians did not accept Thomism, preferring in the case of the former St. Bonaventure and Bl. Duns Scotus, and in that of the latter amplifications of St. Augustine.

Theorems, Genes and Utilities
From a modern perspective, truth can be seen to be on both sides.
  • Fairly clearly, the form Horse can be associated with the horse genome.
    • This is not just a summary of or abstraction from a set of things that we first recognize as horses, but rather itself delineates what can possibly be put into that set.
    • The form is prior to and is definitive of those material things that participate in it, not the other way round.
  • On the other hand, if there were no such things as horses then (apart from a memory of Horse in the mind of God) there would be no form of horse.
    • The form of the Dodo is not presently existent in some spiritual realm only awaiting a trigger to leap as Fire from Heaven to incarnate itself as a flightless bird!
    • That God may choose to resurrect Dodos and/or Triceratops in the New Earth promised in the Apocalypse is neither here nor there.
    • The forms of these extinct creatures do not exist in the way that the form Horse does.
    • Nevertheless, it could, in principle, be reconstructed from archaeological-genetic evidence.
  • Moreover, horseness is largely determined by the question of species interbreeding. This is
    • implicitly a property of the genome and
    • explicitly an aspect of the behaviour of the entities participating in that form.
  • Finally, the form of horse is not something that has a fixed, spiritual, absolute and a priori inevitability.
    • Rather it is a pattern of existence that has come into being via a process of evolution.
    • Nevertheless, it has an existence (for example, in every gamete) apart from, but not independent, of its instantiations.
Simpler forms, such as that of the Triangle, have a more robust existence. Clearly the forms of mathematical entities do not rely for their existence on being materially exemplified. They are adequately defined and so substantiated within abstract axiomatic systems. Such is their proper context, just as the evolutionary play of life is the substantiating context for the forms of living creatures. They do not come into being when some mathematician discovers them: they exist prior to our knowledge of them. It is because they pre-exist that we notice them.

Intermediate forms, such as the Chair, have an intermediate kind of reality. They only exist relative to a subject able to conceive of and make use of them. So, if the only form of intelligent life in the Cosmos was the Dalek, there would be no chairs or stairs, and the Chair and Staircase would be fleeting possibilities among a myriad of others in the inscrutable mind of God.

Hence, different forms participate in reality to different extents; just as any real object participates imperfectly and variously in all those forms that characterize its existence. The role of the forms is to give significance, intelligibility, coherence, order, actuality and particularity to inchoate being: matter-energy, which is of itself pure potentiality.

According to the web author Daniel Copeland, Platonist epistemology is fatally flawed. He argues that, according to Plato:

"Knowledge consists of recollecting our prior knowledge of the eidoi. What did that knowledge consist of? Plato maintained that we knew the eidoi in a previous existence, but so what? We have merely shifted the question back a step, not answered it. Here begins an infinite regress."
This is inaccurate. Episteme would consist of the attainment of an intuitive knowledge of the eidoi (forms). We cannot say exactly what this intuitive knowledge is or might be, as we do not have it. The fact that we do not have it does not matter, however. What matters is that our doxa (opinion) is continually being conformed to the truth of the matter: by a process of successive approximation based on trial and error.
"Plato would perhaps have replied that, just as all chairs take part in the eidos of chairness, so all eidoi in their turn have the eidos of eidosity, the Absolute Truth - the buck stops here."
Whereas Plato might indeed have agreed that all the forms share the form of being forms, I do not think that he would have suggested that "the buck" stopped anywhere. He was not concerned to produce knock-down arguments of the type targeted by Mr Copeland. For Plato, philosophy was the pursuit rather than the attainment of knowledge. The fact that we can intuit that reality is objective does not mean that we can possess certain knowledge of it.
"We get into trouble fairly quickly going that way. Not only do we recognize those two chairs as chairs; we also notice all the differences between them, in shape, colour, size, materials, and construction. If all knowledge is from the eidoi, then each of those features must have its own eidos. There must be an eidos of blueness and an eidos of redness, an eidos of wood and an eidos of plastic, and so on. And in our hypothetical prior existence, we must have been able to tell the eidoi apart somehow. So each eidos must have had its own distinct features, and each distinct feature must have had its own separate meta-eidos so we could tell them apart, and so ad infinitum."
Mr Copeland's critique is based on an Aristotelian essentialist misinterpretation of the Platonic doctrine. A simple counter example will serve to clarify the point. Blueness and Redness are distinguished by nothing more than the wavelengths of light to which they correspond. A number, that is all. Plato came to favour the Pythagorean notion that at root all the intelligibility of the world (all the forms) was geometric and numeric: so the forms make up a hierarchy: at the summit of which would be the form of "Absolute One", or God. This is the path that Physics adopted until Neils Bohr adopted Logical Positivism as a means of rationalizing Quantum Mechanics in the Twentieth Century.

Mr Copeland continues his attack on Platonism (which he insists on calling "Essentialism"!) as follows:

"We're not finished with the problems of Essentialism yet. The distinctions between objects are defined by our conceptual capacity, not vice versa. Put it this way: one grain of sand all by itself is not a heap. Two grains right next to each other are not a heap. But three thousand grains all together are a heap. If I drop sand grains, one by one, onto a table, at which precise number do they acquire the Essence of heapness? Clearly, there is no such exact number. I would answer that sand grains may be described as a heap when there are too many all piled together for us to see how many. But in that case, heapness appears earlier for someone with poor eyesight, and later for, say, an autistic savant who can see larger numbers. So if the Essence of a heap exists at all, it is in the mind, not the sand. Similarly, the distinctions between colours differ from one language to another. In English, grass is green and the sky and sea are blue. In Gaelic, grass and the sea are both gorm, but the sky is liath. Philosophers today have relocated Essences to the human consciousness, where they are called qualia."
This is mistaken. The fact that the degree to which a grouping of sand-grains participates in the form "heap" (which, as Mr Copeland defines it) is relative to the perceptual capabilities of an observer, does not in any way establish that even this form exists in the human consciousness. Moreover, it is not at all clear whether "heap" should be defined or used  (either only or preferentially) in this way. A "heap" of objects might be any contiguous grouping (even a conveniently countable grouping) of objects that maintain their relative positions in a gravitational field by reactive contact forces. This definition entirely removes the subjective appreciation of "heapness" from its definition. Amusingly, it seems to me that it is easier to argue that such an objectivised definition of "heapness" is a subjective construct that could only exist in human consciousness: not that I would wish to do so. As soon as any person attempts to express their intuition of a form in terms of a definition, then that definition can be mistaken for the form - in which it merely participates - and this mistake become the basis for the assertion that the form (really its approximate linguistic definition!) exists (only) in the human consciousness.
Plurality of Forms
This is the teaching that every thing is made an individual by virtue of its sharing in a particular combination of various forms, which are real in themselves. For example, a certain thing is: male; four limbed; warm-blooded; blue-eyed; breathing; sentient; wise; Greek and so on. It is the man called Socrates. So it is for every thing. It is moot whether there is an irreducible Form of Man at all, as opposed to a regularly recurring Great Form (or combination) of Lesser Forms. The forms are hierarchical. As no two human beings have exactly the same participation in those Forms that might be thought to be elemental: so their participation in whatever "Human Nature" that may be conceived as a "standard  form" or "essence", will differ: not just quantitatively but qualitatively.

Aristotle and St. Thomas taught, however, that an individual is simply as it is: a substance unto itself [Selman (2001), p36]. Some of its aspects are "essential" as inevitably associated with it being what it is (so, part of the essential form "human nature" is to be rational or have eyes and ears [Selman (2001), p 62 ]). Others of its aspects, such as having brown eyes or being left-handed or musically gifted are accidental. Similarly, one presumes that it is supposed to be part of the essence of a snail to have a shell. Sometimes, the essential form of a substance is determined by its purpose, such as in the case of a knife [Selman (2001), p39]. Moreover, some things such as a cog, leaf, finger or feather do not have an essence or "substantial form": a self-identity or principle of unity [Selman (2001), p38], being only parts of something greater than themselves (i.e. clock, tree, baboon and ostrich), without which context they do not cohere or persist, but only decay [Selman (2001), p41].

The questions that occur to me, as a Platonist are:

  • Why is a slug not a species of snail?
    • Why is "the shell" part of the essential form of a snail?
    • Why isn't the ability to breath under water essential to being a snail, but only to being a water snail?
    • Is a water snail essentially a snail or essentially a water snail?
    • Is there an essential form of "mollusc" as well as that of snail?
    • If so, how about "invertebrate" or "animal" or "living thing"?
    • Is a slug essentially a snail, a mollusc or both?
    • Is a snail essentially a slug, a mollusc or both?
    • Can anything simultaneously have two essences?
    • What makes some aspects of a thing's being essential while others are accidental?
    • Is this not all just about categorization: as characteristic of a Natural Historian such as Aristotle?
  • Why does a feather or finger not have an essential form, when a quill-pen does have?
    • How can something with no principle of unity (a feather) gain one (in becoming a quill-pen) by being pared back slightly with a pen-knife?
    • An ostrich cut off from its natural environment will die.
    • Does this mean that it has no principle of unity?
    • Is not the substance that one should be concerned with: "ostrich in environment" rather than "ostrich by itself"?
  • Is not substance an "unintelligible chimera" [David Hulme: "A Treatise of Human Nature" I iv 5]
While seemingly arcane, this difference has all sorts of implications regarding sin and salvation. It was on this point that St. Thomas' teaching was condemned by the academic and religious authorities of his day.

As a physicist, I am inclined to the view that the most elementary particles (e.g. photons, electrons, neutrinos, quarks and gluons) may not only have but actually be substantial forms: but that at all higher levels of material hierarchy there is no such thing as substantial form or essential nature, but only recurring patterns of organization.

Seminal Reasons
This idea refers to the potentialities locked within each individual which allow for change, given the right stimulus. For instance, the acorn has the potential to develop into an oak tree; the wood has the potential to degrade to ash; liquid water can become steam or ice. This is a foreshadowing of both genetic and atomic theory. One pattern or organization of matter can become another with which it is related by a continuous transformation. Hence:
  • "Body centred cubic" crystals of iron can be sheared into "face centred cubic" crystals.
  • The graphite form of carbon can be transformed by heat and pressure into its diamond form.
  • A neutron can decay to a proton by the change of "colour" of one of its three constitutive quarks.
    • This involves the emission of an electron and antineutrino.
  • Normal matter can be compressed into ultra dense neutronium.
  • The crystal structure of ammonium nitrate can explosively (but continuously) dissipate into gaseous water and nitrogen oxides.
  • A parrot can suddenly cease breathing:
    • it becomes a "dead parrot" [Monty Python]
    • its body cells slowly stop metabolizing due to oxygen starvation,
    • its immune systems cease to be operative
    • and so various decay bacteria and fungi take hold, feeding off the nutrients of which the bird is made without themselves being subject to attack by the body's defences.
This too Aristotle and St. Thomas denied, teaching that substantial change was impossible and one thing becoming another involved the immediate and abrupt annihilation of the first substance and the coming into existence of a second [Selman (2001), p 77-78]. According to Aristotle, all "essential change" is "transubstantiation".
Subtle Matter
This is the assertion that angels and spirits are made of a matter similar to but different from that of the physical world. Subtle matter is unlike ordinary matter in that it can be invisible, has low gravitational and inertial densities. It is like ordinary matter in that beings composed of it can interact with mundane objects, and so can be measured and perceived to some degree. Holders of this belief argue that only God can be absolutely immaterial, for He alone is unchangeable. Angels, while now enjoying the Beatific Vision and so of Immovable Will, did have the opportunity to change at least once, when they took up sides at Satan's revolt. Following Aristotle, St. Thomas denied it, teaching that angels are entirely immaterial [Selman (2001), p 66-68].

For a Platonist, the question "how many Angels can stand on the head of a pin" is a real question, as each (being composed of subtle matter) occupies space: for an Aristotelian it is not, as an Angel (contrary to all human testimony) occupies no space whatsoever.

What is so good about Platonism?


To live the Gospel we must deal with the world we find around us. Philosophy is one's basis for looking at and interpreting reality. In order to apply the Catholic Faith to living, it is necessary to become a philosopher. One can either muddle along adopting philosophical positions ad hoc and even unconsciously, or one can address the issues directly and explicitly. As soon as the choice is made to do the latter, the question of what school of philosophical analysis is to be used must be faced.

The criteria are simple: is the given philosophy consonant with the Faith and do its tenets correspond to objective reality? These are not two different criteria, but sometimes one question is more applicable than the other. By the first yardstick, Aristotelianism and its derivatives are wanting, because of their materialism. Aristotelianism is ill fitted for Catholics, because it denies the very basis of Catholicism, though some of its derivatives are forced into superficial conformance with the Faith. Aristotelianism fails even more dramatically by the second yardstick. Many of Aristotle's conclusions are in dramatic conflict with Physics. In fact, Physics was held back for centuries by the Church's adoption, promotion and imposition of Aristotelian theory. This is seen most dramatically in the Galileo controversy.

In contrast, Platonist theory has a natural compatibility with Quantum Theory (participation in forms: mixed quantum Eigen-States), General Relativity (the form of Gravity is the Space-Time Metric), Biology (Life is the organizing pattern of the body, determined by its genes), and Evolutionary Genetics (the genome is the form of a species).

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (somewhat amended):

"The Idea [informed] in the phenomenon is less real than the Idea in its own world .... Physics .... is, therefore, inferior in dignity and importance to [Metaphysics] and Ethics. In fact, the world of  phenomena has no scientific interest for Plato. The knowledge of it is not [episteme] ....  but only [doxa, which nevertheless may be the] occasion of true knowledge. The phenomena stimulate our minds to a recollection of the intuition of Ideas, and with that intuition [episteme] begins. Moreover, Plato's interest in nature is dominated by a teleological view of the world as animated with a World Soul, which, conscious of its process, does all things for a useful purpose, or, rather, for "the best", morally, intellectually, and aesthetically. This conviction is apparent especially in the Platonic account of the origin of the universe, contained in the "Timaeus", although the details regarding the activity of the demiurgos and the created gods should not, perhaps, be taken seriously."
The "teleological" aspect of causality, as in "The Principle of Least Action" and "Natural Selection of the Fittest" is now well established. Though these are not defined aesthetically, nor are they obviously conscious processes, they are certainly motivated by "the best", evaluated in terms of persistence, durability, coherence and adaptability.

The Immortality of the Soul

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (somewhat amended):
".... the account of the origin of the soul, in [the "Timaeus"], is a combination of philosophy and myth .... It is clear, however, that Plato holds the spiritual nature of the soul as against the materialistic Atomists, and that he believes the soul to have existed before its union with the body. [Plato's epistemology, which I do not share:] .... "All knowledge is recollection" has no meaning except on the hypothesis of the soul's pre-natal intuition of Ideas.

It is equally incontrovertible that Plato held the soul to be immortal..... the considerations which he offers in favour of immortality, in the "Phaedo", have helped to strengthen all subsequent generations in the belief in a future life. His description of the future state of the soul is dominated by the Pythagorean doctrine of transmigration. Here, again, the details are not to be taken as seriously as the main fact, and we can well imagine that the account of the soul condemned to return in the body of a fox or a wolf is introduced chiefly because it accentuates the doctrine of rewards and punishments, which is part of Plato's ethical system."

The Fall and Baptism

One key area where the question of the Universals affects Catholic dogma is in understanding the Fall of Man. The typical neo-Platonist sees this as quite simple. The human race all participate in a single form. At first, this was found in only the First Ones. These sinned, and being the entire substantiation of the form of "mankind", this form was vitiated by their sin. Hence Original Sin is transmitted by natural necessity to all (wo)mankind as each individual new human being participates in the now  flawed form of Humanity. By the same token, Baptism can be seen as terminating an individual's participation in the form of Fallen Humanity, replacing this with a participation in the form of Redeemed Humanity.

The Aristotelian can be represented by a neo-Platonist as having difficulty in giving an account of original sin. This is because the Universal "Man" is for an Aristotelian defined by all its exemplars, so how could a change in only two (even the first two) of these change it?

From a more authentically Platonic (rather than neo-Platonic) point of view, this view of the Fall is problematic.

  • Changing all those things that at any one time happen to participate in a form does not change the form.
    • The opposite contention is Aristotelian.
    • The form of the Circle is defined by mathematics, not by abstraction from a set of examples.
    • Squashing all the circles that currently exist into triangles would not affect the form of the Circle.
    • Their participation in Circleness would decrease and their participation in Triangleness would increase.
  • When the First Ones fell, they ceased to participate in the form of "Friends of God".
    • This was a matter of extrinsic status, not intrinsic constitution: essence, essential form or substance.
    • It was easily put right by sorrow, repentance and forgiveness.
  • However, eating the Fruit of Knowledge somehow changed forever what it was to be Human.
    • It could not affect the form of Original Man, as such.
    • Nevertheless, it gave the First Ones participation in a form beyond their Original Humanity (para phusin).
  • Because the First Ones were the only humans, they defined what it was to be Human.
    • This is similar to the way in which the breeding species of horses defines what it is to be Horse.
    • Such a species definition is necessarily subject to evolutionary change.
    • It is as if the Fruit of Knowledge was infected with a retro-virus which infected (for weal and woe) their genome.
    • This should not be viewed as their participation in Original Humanity being supplanted by a participation in Fallen Humanity.
    • Why would such a second distinct and defective form be waiting ready made in the wings?
    • I prefer to view the change as the gaining of a participation in an additional form: Conscientiousness.
  • If the First Ones had not fallen, their pristine condition would have been inherited by default by their offspring.
    • Once they fell and repented, their status before God became a matter of their individual personal relationships with God, not of their species.
    • This result was, of course, exactly what God wished to bring about.

    • This status could not be inherited by offspring.

Will and Intellect

Another key teaching of most neo-Platonists is that (in contradiction to Aristotle) the Will precedes the Intellect. That is, the Will is the basic motive force which dominates and controls the Intellect: the faculty which receives and processes information. Central to understanding the significance of this teaching is the notion of Good Will versus Bad Will. Good Will is love of objective Truth; Bad Will is love of self, or better: subjective conceit. To the degree that an individual is Good Willed, his intellect will discern the Truth. To the degree that a man is Bad Willed, his intellect will perceive reality according to what fulfils his prejudices.

My reader will find reflections of such attitudes in some of my writings. In particular, where I discuss freewill and ethical judgement. However, I am unhappy with some of the language of the last paragraph:

  • I do not know what it means to say that the Will "dominates and controls the Intellect".
  • I suppose this might be understood in terms of the decision metric that I have proposed elsewhere,
  • I acknowledge that love is prime for Plato, and that love of Wisdom rather than mere knowledge (as in the accumulation of facts, which is more characteristic of Aristotle) is the force behind and basis for wholeness and holiness.
  • I believe that true "love of self" is a good thing: in fact the basis of all ethically good actions!
  • True love of self is an aspect of the love of Wisdom!
  • Lying to one-self, taking easy options, conforming to conventional expectations etc etc is the real basis of wickedness.
  • Wickedness is essentially a psychosis or illness: to be cured by education, reformative punishment and therapy.
  • To my knowledge, Plato did not teach that the way to reform a man was to mortify his lower nature, as is suggested in the idea that "Bad Will is love of self".
  • Rightly or wrongly, I find this to be more characteristic of Aristotle.

Platonism features in Scripture.

Platonist language is used throughout Scripture. The Old Testament's Wisdom books, with their formalization of Wisdom as a Holy Woman are Platonist in tone. Throughout the New Testament, we are told of the importance of "Good Will". St. John tells us that The Divine Logos "enlightens every man" [Jn 1:9]. The angels proclaim at the Nativity of Our Lord that there is peace "for men of Good Will" [Lk 2:14], according to one reading.

The Church is treated like a Platonic Universal (the mystical Body of Christ) in the Epistles [1Cor 12:14-30; Eph 1:23], rather than the sum of its members.

St Paul describes the Christian as becoming a new creature at baptism [2 Cor 5:17, Gal 6:15].  Whereas he bore the image of the man of dust, he comes to bear the image of the Man of Heaven [1 Cor 15:49].  He is embossed with the divine form by the Holy Spirit [Eph 1:13, 4:30];  is indwelt by [Eph 3:17], puts on [Gal 3:27] and shares in [Heb 3:14] Christ; and is filled with the fullness of God [Eph 3:19]. He is to exchange the old Nature for the New [Eph 4:24, Col 2:11-12; 3:9-10] and is not to participate in the Works of Darkness [Eph 5:11] but rather to participate in Grace [Phil 1:7].

Jesus, who is said to be "in the form of God" [Phil 2:6], the "image of the invisible God", bearing the stamp of his nature [Heb 1:3] and the first-born (template) for all creation [Col 1:15] in which all created being coheres [Col 1:17] took on the "form of Man" [Phil 2:7-8], and the fullness of Divinity so came to inhere in material being [Col 1:19, 2:9] and partake in human nature [Heb 2:14].

The Gospel is described as "the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God's mysteries" [Col 2:2]. The Christian is exhorted to look to a glorious but hidden spiritual destiny "the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal" [2 Cor 4:18].

The Jerusalem Temple is described as a "shadow of the heavenly sanctuary", which was the pattern revealed to Moses on Sinai [Heb 8:5; 9:23-24] and the Mosaic Law as a shadow of the Gospel [Heb 10:1].

The Blessed Sacrament is described as a participation in the Body and Blood of Christ [1 Cor 9:16-17].

Why did Platonism go out of style?

As the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment succeeded each other, the physical world loomed ever larger into view, and the spiritual receded into the background. Moreover, the canonization of St. Thomas, and the employment of more or less distorted versions of his teachings in the Counter-Reformation, made Thomism the de-facto official Catholic philosophy in the Western Church. It was given a special status of sorts, thanks to Leo XIII's endorsement of it in his encyclical "Aeterni Patris". But that same encyclical gave equal status to the work of St. Bonaventure. Subsequently, Thomism went out of style. Like any revolutionary idea, it was left behind by more radical developments. Conceptualism arose, which held that the Universals are subjective concepts; then came Nominalism, which held that they were names. Thomism was neither "spiritual" enough to satisfy believers, nor materialistic enough to satisfy non-believers.

A Conservative Critique of Platonism answered

According to a highly conservative Web Author:
It should be clearly understood that St. Thomas was right regarding universals and Plato, as commonly understood, was wrong. What is called "Neo-Platonism" is actually Thomism: universals only exist in the Mind of God, in the individual creature and in the human mind. However, according to St. Augustine, Plato himself held the same position, saying that the forms all exist in the One, which is the Good, which is identified with God. Rather "Platonism" is the error of the "Platonists", those followers of Plato who failed to grasp the subtleties of their master's doctrine. Finally, was St. Thomas an Aristotelian? Absolutely so. If some of his works appear "neo-Platonic" that is for the aforesaid reasons.
This is hilarious. First this author says that "neo-Platonism" and Thomism are the same and then that Plato was a Neo-Platonist (and so a Thomist). This would easier be expressed as saying that St Thomas was a neo-Platonist, as being in agreement with Plato. He than apparently contradicts this by saying that St Thomas was an Aristotelian and explains that some of his works appear "neo-Platonic" because ..... St Thomas agreed with Plato while not being a Platonist - a failed follower of Plato! The only rationale to this is that the author believes that Aristotle was himself a neo-Platonist! He focuses on some supposed difficulty with the "Reality of the Forms" and ignores the greater difficulty inherent in the very notion of Aristotelian "substance".
Soul and Body
The Church has endorsed the teaching of St. Thomas over that of any other school and has largely made it its own. Indeed, some of the points for which St. Thomas argued have been defined ex cathedra, such as that the rational soul is the form of the human body, which he maintained in opposition to "Platonist" reactionaries who held the soul to be like a man in a boat.
Pope Clement Vth, taught in Oecumenical Council at Vienne:
[We teach that] .... that the .... Son of God .... assumed .... the parts of our nature .... namely the human, passible body and the intellectual or rational soul truly of itself and essentially informing the body .....
we reject .... every doctrine .... rashly asserting that the substance of the rational or intellectual soul is not of itself and essentially the form of the human body, or casting doubt on this matter ....
we define that anyone who presumes henceforth to assert defend or hold stubbornly that the rational or intellectual soul is not the form of the human body of itself and essentially, is to be considered a heretic. [First Decree of the Council of Vienne 1311-1312 AD]
This has every appearance of an ex-Cathedra definition. The word "define" is used by the Pope. The decision is taken in explicit communion with and with the formal acquiescence of an Oecumenical Council. The definition is in the form of an anathema of a counter proposition. Note that the definition specifies that the "intellectual or rational soul" is one of the two "parts of our human nature".

According to Ott:

Body and Soul are connected with each other, not merely externally like a vessel and its contents, a ship and its pilot, but as an intrinsic natural unit, so that the spiritual soul is itself and essentially the form of the body .... This decision was directed against .... Johannis Olivi who taught that the rational soul was not of itself (immediately) the essential form of the body, but only mediately .... this would destroy the essential unity of human nature replacing it by a dynamic unity of operations. The decision of the Council of Vienne does not imply a dogmatic recognition of the Thomistic teaching of the uniqueness of the substantial form .... [Ott II.14].
The only real difficulty here is in determining what is meant by "the substance of the rational or intellectual soul" and "form". In particular, we have seen that the significance of the word "form" differs in Platonist and Aristotelian philosophy. The use of the latter is suggested by the phrases "substance of the .... soul" and "truly of itself and essentially the form of the human body". It should be noted that the very next year, Thomas Aquinas was canonized, so there is little doubt but that the language of this definition should be taken as Aristotelian, or at least Thomist. Given this, a Platonist has the task of making whatever sense (s)he may from it. A similar and more pressing formal difficulty presents itself in the teaching on Eucharistic "transubstantiation".

I have no difficulty in accepting Ott's gloss of the definition. I doubt that Plato believed that "the soul" was in any way a stranger to or extrinsic to the body. Amusingly, in the Science Fiction series "Farscape", the "pilot" of a "Leviathan" living spaceship is grafted on to the "ship" and takes up a symbiotic relationship with his/her "host", which is so intimate that the death of the ship necessarily results in that of its pilot. I can't help but wonder whether the creator of "Farscape" was familiar with this controversy.

I suppose that Plato's doctrine of pre-existentianism would have inclined him to the view that the body and soul were only a close alliance rather than "one thing altogether". Obviously, the Catholic belief in the perseverance of "the spiritual soul" after the death of the body has a similar implication. Neither doctrine requires either kind of "soul" to be disjoint with the body. I have argued elsewhere that the "rational and intellectual soul" (i.e. the mind as opposed to the consciousness, ego, person or "spiritual soul") is derivative of the body, and is physical rather spiritual in nature and mortal. The human person, ego, understanding, hypostasis, substance or "spiritual soul" is not part of human nature, but rather is the possessor of an instance of human nature of which the "rational and intellectual soul" is part of the patterning.

Human Nature
The patterning of a particular human nature is first of all genetic (of this fact the Council of Vienne was entirely ignorant, through no fault of its own) and secondly mental. The first aspect is almost unique: with the exception of identical twins and, in the future, clones. The second is absolutely unique. Both aspects are physical patternings: the first corresponds roughly to the hardware specification and design of a computer, the second to its (self-redactive and evolving) programming. The Council of Vienne is quite right in saying that the "rational or intellectual soul" (understood as I have just elucidated it) directly and of itself informs or patterns the body: via the brain and nervous system. On the other hand, if the decree is taken to mean that either the mind or ego (the two being entirely dissimilar) is identical to (co-extensive with and exhaustive of) the Platonic form of the body, then it is mistaken.

It should be noted that a good deal of this controversy can be tracked down to confusion as to what is meant by "soul". It seems to me that conventional Aristotelianism and Thomism takes it for granted that the mind and consciousness are either the same thing or at least closely related, whereas I dispute this. When a Platonist says that "the soul is immortal" and when a Catholic says that "the soul is created by God at the moment of conception" they refer to the ego, person, self or consciousness. This "spiritual soul" is not in any sense the form (essential or otherwise) of the body! When a Thomist such as Pope Clement Vth says that "the intellectual or rational soul is the form of the body", it seems to me that he is referring (imprecisely and inaccurately) to the mind, and not to the spirit. Ott adds to the confusion by referring to this mental soul as spiritual.

How has Aristotelianism contributed to the decline of Society and the Church?

The Medieval Settlement

Science
The central dogma of the Incarnation governed the social perceptions of medieval people. They were preconditioned by the dogma of the Incarnation, and the philosophy of "realism" which underlies it, to find the ideal within the material, the beautiful within the ugly, the moral and peaceful in the midst of violence and disorder. "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth." Since everything was of divine creation, medieval intellectuals had no doubt that all the pieces would ultimately fit together in an idealistic, morally committed structure. Whatever they saw or experienced was part of a divine manifestation.
Politics
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (somewhat amended):
"....  for Plato, [the State] ....  should have for its aim the  ....  cultivation of virtue  ....  In order  ....  that virtue may be established systematically  ....  education is necessary, and without a social organization education is impossible. In his [dialogue "The] Republic" he sketches an ideal state  ....  It consists of three orders: rulers, producers, and warriors. The characteristic virtue of the producers is thrift, that of the soldiers bravery, and that of the rulers [whom he names "guardians"] wisdom. Since philosophy is the love of wisdom, it is to be the dominant power in the state:
'Unless philosophers become rulers or rulers become true and thorough students of philosophy, there shall be no end to the troubles of states and of humanity' ["The Republic" V]
....  Neither private property nor family institutions have any place in the Platonic state. The children belong to the state as soon as they are born, and should be taken in charge  ....  from the beginning, for the purpose of education  ....  by [wise teachers]  ....  and, according to [their aptitudes] be assigned by the [guardians] to the order [conducive to the exercise of  their characteristic excellence. This blue print reflects both Plato's hatred of] the demagogy then prevalent in Athens [it should be remembered that it was "the Democrats" that vilified and then executed Socrates, and his own] aristocratic [parentage. It] advocates government by the [wise]. The unreality of it all, and the remoteness of its chance to be tested by practice, must have been evident to Plato himself. For in his [last work "The] Laws" he sketches a modified scheme  ....  nearer [to what a real state might practically aspire]."
This Platonic political theory had repercussions as well. If a given Pope or Emperor was wicked, this was not held to diminish the legitimacy of the Institutions which they headed. Moreover, resistance to perceived evils committed by Pope or Emperor did not  imply disloyalty to the Church or Empire. Similarly, the doctrine grew up on the national level of the "King's Two Bodies", The Body Politic was the King as embodiment of the State. He never died, nor could do any wrong. He was crowned and anointed by God, and in some places was held to have miraculous powers. Loyalty to the King was a holy obligation.

But there also subsisted in the King the Body Natural. This was the human being who wore the Crown at the moment. He was a sinner; he made mistakes; he would die. If he broke the law, then loyalty to the State demanded he be compelled to step back within its bounds. Hence Magna Carta is couched in terms of the gracious confirmation by the King of the rights of his beloved Bishops and Barons. We might consider this an exercise in hypocrisy, since we know that King John was forced to sign the Charter, but it would not have been seen that way by either the King or the Magnates: it was an act of the Body Politic.

Jurisprudence
For the Medievals, Justice was seen as something self existent: it bound King and subjects alike. It could not be created, and legislation in our sense did not exist. Rather, it was something to be discovered and concretely applied to any given situation.

The medieval world distinguished between authority and power. Authority, which came from God, was the right to say what ought to be done: power was the ability to make it happen. In a word, it was the difference between a doctor's skill to prescribe, and his patient's freedom to frustrate that prescription. Power was widely diffused among the Church, nobility, and guilds, but the King's authority, subject to the law, was unlimited. When private citizens or groups suppressed banditry, they did not enforce peace on their own account, but in the name of the King. If His Majesty wanted to bring a restive city or great lord to heel, he must declare them outside his protection: outlawed. The Medieval state rested upon an act of collective Faith, a product of Neoplatonism.

Theology
The Catholic Church does not merely aim to be an aggregation of local Christian communities and of the believers composing them. She regards herself as a reality distinct from and independent of the individuals belonging to the fold. "Church" is not a collective noun. She is informed by the Mystical Body of Christ. It is not true that only particular churches, still less the individuals composing them, are the only realities.

Kings and Emperors alike owed their allegiance and their authority to the Church. Indeed, Catholicism; expressed in Neoplatonist terminology, was the animating spirit of all sectors of society, high and low. The Church was perceived as a living thing, a Universal bound about and nourished by the Seven Sacraments, through which She rescued those who entered Her through Baptism from the fallen world. Outside her portals lay only death and the dominion of the devil; inside her bosom alone could (wo)men find hope.

The Brave New World

The Medieval synthesis in Church and State began to unravel early in the Thirteenth Century. This was due, in large part, to the growth of Aristotelian philosophy. Aristotle did not believe in a transcendent world of spirit, by which actions in this material world must be gauged. He held that the Universals derived their reality only as the sum total of their material manifestations. Although initially condemned by Church authorities, the synthesis of Aristotelianism with Catholicism attempted by St Thomas had far reaching effects upon a society based in large degree upon the unseen.

It took time for the Aristotelian world view to percolate through society, but the notion of Christendom as an invisible yet tangible organization with an anima of its own began to break down almost immediately. The trans-national effort needed to establish and maintain the Crusader States in Palestine and Syria withered as national rulers looked more to their own affairs. By 1291 AD, the last posts in the East had fallen. From that time until 1571 AD, when an international force defeated the Turks at the battle of Lepanto, militant Islam swept through Asia Minor and up into the Balkans.

Princes ever more considered themselves independent of the Holy Roman Empire, while the struggles between supporters of the Pope and the Emperor, reduced Germany and Italy to anarchy. The Church itself suffered the "Great Schism". As the Fifteenth century progressed, rulers attempted to tame the chaos with a new order, based not upon Platonic political theory, but expediency. The nobles had to be tamed, the Church controlled, the provinces unified.

All of this was merely external, however. The internal effects upon Church belief were more devastating. The problem with Original Sin boiled and bubbled along. Then the obvious contradictions between Catholic teaching and Aristotelian philosophy led some philosophers to the "Double Truth," the notion that something can be true in philosophy and false in theology, or vice versa. Thus, as in Orwell's 1984, a Churchman could hold two mutually contradictory positions with equal fervour.

The Orthodox East never espoused Aristotelianism, so the Catholic West's adoption of Thomism formed a wedge that makes reconciliation much more difficult.

Rome's commitment to Aristotle's flawed philosophy flowed over into an uncritical defence of his entirely erroneous physics. This led Church authorities to attempt to curtail scientific investigation and theorizing, culminating in the damaging conflict with Galileo. The fact that the Church had to back down in the end in the face of the evidence resulted in a great loss in credibility. The same story is being repeated now as the Church fights to maintain recognizably Aristotelian positions in sexual ethics.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The Renaissance brought a revival of Platonism, due to the influence of men like Bessarion, Plethon, Ficino, and the two Mirandolas. The Cambridge Platonists of the seventeenth century, such as Cudworth, Henry More, Cumberland, and Glanville, reacting against humanistic naturalism, "spiritualized Puritanism" by restoring the foundations of conduct to principles intuitionally known and independent of self-interest.

Radical Orthodoxy

Recently an exciting new theological movement has emerged within Anglo-Catholicism ["Radical Orthodoxy", John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock & Graham Ward, editors: Routledge 1999]. It contends, roughly as I have argued, that Christian thought started to go off the rails as Aristotelianism supplanted Platonism. In particular it contends that no aspect of the natural world or of human experience or endeavour can be divorced from God and so from theology, because all created being is a participation in the Being that is "the God Who IS". It holds that the empiricism, secularism and relativism that became common-place following the "renascence" are not morally neutral phenomena to be embraced by the Church (as was to en extent done in and through the recent Vatican Synod, in particular in its decrees on "Religious Liberty" and on "The Church in the Modern World") but rather forces of dissolution.

On the other hand, the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy, contend that Thomas Aquinas did not so much attempt to replace Platonism by Aristotelianism as to reconcile the two philosophies. They point out that Aquinas draws more frequently on the teachings of the Fifth Century Neoplatonist thinker "Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite" than any other theologian. Only the followers of Aquinas championed the notion that Aristotle should supplant Plato in the Church's philosophisings ["Truth in Aquinas", John Milbank & Catherine Pickstock: Routledge 2001].

To declare "UDI" for physics or ontology: to say that certain aspects of human culture are autonomous, is to set up ghettos of darkness where the light of the Gospel has no business! In politics this means rejecting the idea that all authority comes from God, with the corollary that it is to be used to defend the weak and confound the mighty: replacing this with the doctrine that it is the force of arms or votes that defines what is right. In aesthetics it means rejecting the idea that art is essentially the celebration of beauty and goodness (and secondly the confrontation and execration of ugliness and wickedness): countenancing a revelling in depravity and the proposal of discord and disorder as of "equally validity" with harmony and pattern. In physics it means rejecting the idea that theory should be intelligible: allowing contradictory ideas to be simultaneously held, so long as they are effectively organized to produce usable answers so "saving the appearances".

Theology is not supreme in the sense that only the Queen of the Sciences deals with objective truth and all other aspects of human endeavour are subservient, taking their lead from a tyrannical despot! Theology has things to learn from other disciplines, just as they have things to learn from her. Truth is a whole and dialogue is characteristic of the pursuit of wisdom and understanding. However, the fact cannot be avoided that if God is; then all else depends on God and this must be be expected to be reflected overtly or covertly in the order of things! No academic discipline can be autonomous. No area of human life is truly secular. Theology is the context of human life, just as God is He in whom we live and move and have our being.

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