Jesus and Plato

Hey everybody, sorry for the long absence. I have been working as a counselor in the middle of the wilderness, so there was no chance for me to post a blog entry. However, I’m back now and that’s all that counts.

I opened the admin page today for the first time in a while and I noticed that one of the most recent searches was “was Jesus a Platonist?” For the record, you opened the doorway to me speaking about Christianity this time, so I must oblige. Of course, I must make a few comments on the phrasing of the question before I give my two cents about it. I have a problem with using the verb “was.” At some point, one of my philosophy professors gave a pop quiz (it did not end up being graded) which asked to list the ten greatest men alive. The point of the quiz was not to really find out which ten men students found most worthy of recognition, but whether they would remember that Jesus Christ is, in fact, a living man alive even today. So, that being said, I will set out to answer whether Jesus is a Platonist or not.

Of course, in order to answer this question, we must first define our terms. Namely, we must explain what we mean by “Platonist” and what we mean by “Jesus.” Among these terms, the first is way easier to answer than the second. In the most rudimentary sense, a Platonist is a person (a philosopher if we want to be technical) who aligns himself with Plato’s philosophy/metaphysics/ontology/psychology. In other words, a Platonist is a follower of Plato (getting right to the heavy stuff, aren’t we?). What that means in a deeper sense is far more difficult. Those familiar with the Platonic corpus would know that there is a very obviously missing dialogue to the Statesman and Sophist duo, namely a dialogue about the philosopher. Unless we want to say that either Plato died before he could finish up the trio or otherwise that the third dialogue is mysteriously lost to us (in the same way the “Holy Grail” is lost), there is only one solution to where the third dialogue of the set must be, that is, the whole corpus. The idea is, “What makes a sophist a sophist?-Let me look at that dialogue,” and so on and so forth, but, hopefully, what makes one a (Platonist) philosopher is the whole Platonic corpus, otherwise Plato owes me many wasted hours.

Of course, as is true of any profound work, there is a very stark difference between reading it and understanding/living it. I have met people that have a much more detailed knowledge of everything that Plato wrote and can readily quote things that I need a little bit of time to find in Plato’s writing, but who have not even begun to understand him. This is not to say, but the way, that I am the end all be all of understanding Plato, but I am not “out there” either. I have always found (and I have an earlier post on this) the section in Phaedrus where Socrates talks about the dangers of writing very intriguing and believe that it is one of the points to understand in order to understand Plato. Esentially, one of the points made is that writing, unless the living, breathing Socrates, cannot defend itself, so it can be used incorrectly. The obvious question then is why Plato would put that in his writing. The answer which I offer to the table is that the Platonist reader is to not simply read the text the same way they read most other books, but to have Socrates talk to them. I believe the overall goal of the Platonic corpus is to make the reader into a little Socrates. That is why the dialogues move from Socrates disproving the arguments of his opponent and not coming to a definition (the dialogue ends with negative knowledge), to Socrates coming up with a definition of the thing being examined in the dialogue, to Socrates appearing as a minor character to not at all in the dialogue. By the end, at the third stage of the dialogues, the reader himself is invited to step into Socrates’ shoes and evaluate each speaker’s arguments.Then, a Platonist must be a person who has read and understood the Platonic dialogues, which have not only taught him Platonic philosophy but also the ability to form and evaluate logical arguments.

Now, the hard part. Who is Jesus? For myself, I can guarantee you that I am by no means qualified to answer that question. I wonder whether whoever was looking for an answer took Jesus at His word for who He was, but I, for my part, will. For the purpose of this post, we will define Jesus Christ (that is, to distinguish from any other Jesus, I hope that the person who search was looking for an answer regarding this Jesus and not any other) as the Son of God, (begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, true God of True God, of one essence with the Father…), and as “the Way, the Truth, the Life.” (John 14:6) This second addition may be surprising to some, but it is absolutely necessary to answering the question before us. The first shocking thing that Christ points out in this quote is that He is “the Way.” What does He mean by “way?” The only logical conclusion is that He is the Way to Salvation (which Plato defines as riding in harmony with the chariots of the gods). Second, He says He is “the Truth.” It is rather shocking to see here that truth is identified as a person rather than an abstraction. Plato may have argued that this was a category confusion, since truth is not a living being but an act (congruency with ultimate reality), but in the Timaeus, there is a puzzling point made about a God that existed before all else (the Alpha and the Omega principle) and that created everything, called the Demiurge in that dialogue, but “the Good” in the Kaliopolis, where all Forms (and thereby all truth) are rooted. So, it is not unreasonable that (after much dialogue) Plato may agree that Truth could be a living Being. Finally, “the Light.” If one is familiar at all with the Gospel of John they will realize that the light is often a metaphor for Christ as wisdom and revelation, so we will take “Light” to mean just that.

Having defined those terms in that way, it is clear that Jesus cannot be a Platonist. That would be like asking whether an ocean was a puddle. However, it seems that there could be a connection between the two nonetheless.

Let us reverse the question. Was Plato a Christian?

In the direct sense, obviously not. Seeing how Christ was to be born three centuries later, Plato would need a lot of foresight to be a Christian. Clearly, there is no line in all the Platonic corpus which says, “I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior,” but then, there is no such line in the Old Testament. In a deeper sense, I would argue the positive position. Is Plato a Christian? Sure, he did not know it, but if we are to believe that Plato sought the truth in earnest and had being in harmony with the Divine as the goal of his life and Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, the Light, though Plato was most certainly blindfolded, he was walking down that Way, sharing in that Truth, and being enlightened by that Light.

That being said, the fact that there is a very deep connection between Platonism and Christianity is not that surprising. Of all ancient philosophies, Platonism shares the most things with Christianity, while Christianity reveals points which make philosophy as a whole far more important and meaningful (for example, in the Phaedo, where Socrates identifies rebirth as the act opposite to death, which means that we get unlimited tries to becoming one with the Divine, Jesus Christ reveals that the opposite of death is, in fact, the resurrection of the body, whether for eternal bliss in Heaven or eternal punishment in Hell being the result of how well one has joined with the Divine). It is quite easy to call Platonism (among other things) natural theology, i.e. a science which discovers what can be found out about the Divine through reason alone, not through revelation, to be completed and expanded by revelation, or “the unveiling of the veil” as St. Paul puts it. The combined power of Christianity and Platonism has produced some of the most beautiful works of the Fathers of the Church, starting with St. Justin the Philosopher (known in the West as Justin Martyr), to St. Augustine, to the Cappadocian Fathers, and so on and so forth.


6 comments on “Jesus and Plato

  1. […] Jesus and Plato ( Post By Joel (8,468 Posts)Joel Landon Watts is a Masters of Theological Studies student with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. His interests include exploring the role of mimesis in human civilization, specifically in the study of religion and media, as well as science fiction and the way in which it has allowed mythology to be explored in light of scientific ideals of the past century. His first book, Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary, is expected to be published by Wipf and Stock early next year. He is currently co-editing a book on moving from Fear to Faith (Energion, 2013).Website: > Connect […]

  2. Ray says:

    Thank you for your thoughts. John 14:6, “I am… the life.” (not light)

  3. Of course Plato wasn’t a Christian. Jesus wasn’t a Christian, Himself. 🙂

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