Christian Platonism: An Introduction

Christian Platonism: An Introduction

Antonio: It seems to me that “Christian Platonism” today names a thorny problem, one as thorny as the problem of understanding the Church’s claim to be the New Israel. For recent scholarship has brought out that many non-Christian elements of Plato or the Platonists – say, their polytheism or the theory of homoerotic love – are not accidental features, but essential components of their philosophy, so that the claim for a continuity and fulfillment of Platonism in Christianity has to be argued for and defended today in new, more complicated ways. 

Conor: That seems right, it definitely needs to be argued for. But first one needs to know what the position is. How should we define Christian Platonism, given that it’s such a large tradition? After all, everyone from Origen to Ficino would be included, with many others in between. Taking a page from St. Thomas, who defines theology as the science of God and everything insofar as it is related to God, one might define Christian Platonism as any philosophical or theological inquiry into intelligible being insofar as it is dependent on the One or the Good, who has disclosed Himself fully in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Socrates (ὁ ἕλλην Σωκράτης)

Jonathan: So of course I’m curious at the outset of how most describe or define “Christian Platonism”—there’s also the question just what it is, in itself, but for now maybe it’s better to talk about common impressions behind the notion. What would the essential traits be behind the term “Platonism”, and in turn what would we mean by the addition of “Christian” with “Platonism”?

Antonio: Right, this reminds me of Heidegger’s remark that there is no such thing as “Christian Philosophy”. But anyway, go on.

Jonathan: I think Conor’s definition is on to something, if we have in mind the idea that “Platonism” involves the notion that intelligible being and the principles of all beings have their ontological origination in a transcendent source—the first cause, so at least Intellect/the One for us Christians. (That should at least rule out, say, a pure Aristotelian view of intelligible being/forms. But that’s an aside.) But I wonder if Antonio’s idea is going beyond this rather focused definition, following up Conor’s own. Are there other elements to consider? For instance, one might claim that participation of forms/properties coming from their transcendent cause, however specified, leads to a necessary distinction between God/Gods, as in late Neoplatonists. Of course, there are other counter-arguments to this (e.g. Olympiodorus doesn’t seem to think the essence of Platonism necessitates separate Gods—differing attributes of one God, or first cause, would suffice), but that’s just to put forward one additional possible trait for “Platonism”.

There’s also another question following on how we define “Christian Platonism”: does “Platonism” necessitate a strong adherence to the school of Plato/Platonists, whether or not that means recognizing it in name? For instance, it’s disputed how much Origen could be described as a “Platonist” in current debates, but it seems relatively uncontroversial to say Ficino is a “Platonist”—given his own explicit sanction of Plato and the Platonists he read, in addition to his adopting various doctrinal points from them.

Pythagoras (ὁ ἕλλην Πυθαγόρας)

Antonio: I’m also broadly on board with Conor’s definition, insofar as it contains the historical claim that “philosophy was given through Plato, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”, vel sim. I don’t think the idea of Christian Platonism needs to commit itself to a particular account of Platonism as a set of theses or to some historical continuity with Plato. I mean, even the Theory of the Forms hasn’t always been seen as the classic Platonist thesis. 

Conor: Lloyd Gerson, in his book Platonism and Naturalism,1 lists several global theses that Platonists historically have rejected. This seems consistent with what Antonio has just said, since a Christian Platonist need not commit himself to a particular Platonic dispute, like whether the soul has two or three parts, but to more fundamental assumptions about being. Hence, while there may be particular philosophical disputes between Platonists, φιλοσοφούμενα so to speak, all Platonists ought to reject mechanism, materialism, skepticism, and moral relativism. These might be quasi de fide platonica statements that are non-negotiable, which the Christian Platonist ought to embrace wholeheartedly.

Antonio: Right, that’s useful, that let’s me articulate the problem I started with in a clearer way. Because a Platonist like Edward Butler would argue against us Christian Platonists that, say, polytheism is de fide platonica, and a Christian Platonist would have to explain why not, or why Christian Platonism can actually be as polytheist as need be (like by admitting a plurality of divine powers, maybe).  

Jonathan: Yes, so I think the Christian, Pseudo-Dionysius, alongside the pagan Platonist, Olympiodorus, could probably push back on a claim like Butler’s in asserting that it suffices to maintain that divine plurality could map on to aspects of one principle—God—rather than a plurality of principles, like the henads. As a result, it would seem even historically in the late period of school Platonism, there were positions that distanced themselves from a hard polytheist reading of Plato.

Conor: Going through what we’ve said, we might try to propose a tentative definition of Christian Platonism. Tentative not only because the historical record is nuanced, but because it names a live philosophical project. That being said, it seems like the Christian Platonist is one who seeks the principles of being in the Good/the One, and thus is a Platonist, but one who recognizes that the Highest has become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, and is thus a Christian. Thus he receives from Plato a direction of inquiry that rejects a number of false theses about being (à la Gerson) and from Christ he receives the fullness and definiteness of Truth. The Christian Platonist’s project thus makes the claim that the promises of Plato are fulfilled in Christian revelation.

Monastery of Meteora: the Philosophers' Icons with Christ

The header image and pictures in this post comes from the famous set of icons of the ancient philosophers, paired alongside the theologians, at the Monastery of Great Meteoron (Ιερά Μονή Mεγάλου Μετέωρου), one of the famous set of monasteries in Meteora (Greece). Credit for the header image (full version here) and picture in this post goes to Kristen Leigh Mitchell of the blog, As the Kroe Flies.

  1. Gerson, Lloyd P. Platonism and Naturalism: The Possibility of Philosophy. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2020. Accessed May 31, 2020. doi:10.7591/j.ctvq2w0zh

Antonio Vargas
Antonio Vargas

Antonio is a postdoctoral researcher at the Martin Buber Society for the Humanities and the Social Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Conor Stark
Conor Stark

Conor is a PhD student at the Catholic University of America (Washington, DC, US).

Jonathan Greig
Jonathan Greig

Jonathan is a postdoctoral researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, Austria.


christian-platonism dialogue

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