1 Mar 2017

Why St. Augustine rated Plato and the Platonists above other Greek philosophers


Jonathan Ekene Ifeanyi

Plato
It is common these days to hear the “educated” assert with arrogant pride that “Christianity arose from an ancient and ignorant people who didn’t have science.” Eric Hyde rightly responded to this:

“Indeed, those ancient, ignorant people who believed in the virgin birth of Christ must have believed it because they did not possess the knowledge of how babies were born. Goodness. The virgin birth of Christ was profound and of paramount concern to the ancients precisely because they understood that conception was impossible without intercourse. Ancient man considered the virgin birth miraculous, i.e., impossible without divine action (and at the time most people scorned the idea), and the same could be said with every miraculous story in Scripture.

“Indeed ancient people did not have the Hubble telescope, but they were able to see the night sky in full array, something almost no modern person can claim (thanks to modern lighting which distorts our ability to see the full night sky). On average, ancient people lived much closer to nature and to the realities of life and death than many of us moderners.

“In terms of a living relationship with these things the ancients were far more advanced than we are today, and this relationship is essentially the nature of religious inquiry. If people lack religious speculation today, maybe it is because they spend more time with their iphones and Macs than with nature. Maybe.

“But the claim that Christianity was viable in the ancient world because it was endorsed by wide spread ignorance is a profoundly ignorant idea. Christianity arose in one of the most highly advanced civilizations in human history. The Roman Empire was not known for its stupidity. It was the epicentre of innovation and philosophical giants. I WOULD WAGER THAT IF A COMMON PERSON OF TODAY FOUND HIMSELF IN A PHILOSOPHICAL DEBATE WITH A COMMON PERSON OF FIRST CENTURY ALEXANDRIA, THE MODERNER WOULD BE UTTERLY HUMILIATED IN THE EXCHANGE.”

A similar charge is sometimes brought against Plato by the pagan philosophers of our day. You wonder why? Because Plato’s philosophy—unlike that of Greek philosophers such as the Stoics, Epicurus and others—is said to “resemble” Christian doctrine! Voltaire, the celebrated atheist, ridiculed the Greek philosopher “who invented Christianity without knowing it”—meaning that what people like St. Augustine taught as Christian doctrine were “borrowed” from the works of Plato! In 1931, late American literary critic John Jah Chapman in his work Lucian, Plato and Greek Morals attacked Plato ferociously. Plato’s celebrated dialectic turns out to be merely a species of equivocation, a pretty and ingenious game of verbal shift and quibble, the object of which was, again, entertained (that is, by Christian thinkers).

The attacks against Christianity—coming from both atheists and freethinkers—are expected, of course. However, only a deaf and dumb “philosopher” or “critic” can deny the truly pre-eminence of Plato among virtually all western philosophers and indeed, that he is truly indisputably the “King of thought”, as some have rightly described him. As the English philosopher, Alfred Whitehead rightly puts it, “All philosophy is a footnote to Plato”.

“Platonism and anti-Platonism were matters exclusively determined by the disinterested decision of individual scholars, due allowance being made for their personal predilections and temperament. But without commitment to a throughgoing-deterministic theory of intellectual history, we must remind ourselves of the unblinkable fact that by no miracle of immunity has Platonic scholarship remained untouched by the deeper currents of historical change,” writes late Ronald Levinson, an internationally renowned American philosopher who focused in his work on Plato, Professor of philosophy in the University of Maine.

Plato’s philosophy contains two principal elements, moral and metaphysical. To the views of Socrates on the nature of virtue, he added certain metaphysical conceptions—on the nature of God (though explicit theology is never very prominent in Plato), the soul, and the relation of God to the world, with which Socrates did not concern himself. Below, taken from St. Augustine’s work De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos, Book VIII, Chapters 4-9, is Augustine’s judgement of Plato and the Platonists—the very reason why pagan thinkers of our days are ranting!  For some good reasons, Augustine ranked Plato and the Platonists above all the rest of Greek philosophers.

In Chapter 4 Augustine says that Plato’s opinions are sometimes favourable to the true religion, which our faith takes up and defends, and sometimes contrary to it, “as, for example, in the questions concerning the existence of one God or of many, as it relates to the truly blessed life which is to be after death.” Philosophers who followed Plato and who are said to have manifested the greatest acuteness in understanding him, did entertain such an idea of God as to admit that in Him are to be found the cause of existence, the ultimate reason for the understanding, and the end in reference to which the whole life is to be regulated. 

In Chapter 5 St. Augustine criticises ancient polytheism (polytheistic gods such as Jupiter, Juno, Saturn, were actually human beings who were later deified!) and those who championed it. (The main religious belief of the majority of people in today’s world—namely that all the world religions are equally true and are approved by God—is actually worse than ancient pagan belief). Theologies which championed polytheism, argues Augustine, must give place to the Platonic philosophers, who have recognised the true God as the author of all things, the source of the light of truth, and the bountiful bestower of all blessedness. So also must the philosophers who supposed the principles of all things to be material—such as Thales, Anaximenes, the Stoics, Epicurus and others—yield to the Platonists who recognised the one true God.

In chapter 6 he argues that the Platonists exalted above other philosophers in fame and glory because they saw that no material body is God, and therefore they transcended all bodies in seeking for God.  They saw that whatever is changeable is not the most high God, and therefore saw also that, in every changeable thing, the form which makes it that which it is, whatever be its mode or nature, can only be through Him who truly is, because He is unchangeable. The Platonists’ ability to think better about God ranks them above the rest of the philosophers.

The Stoics and especially the Epicureans—“who attributed to the bodily senses the faculty of discriminating truth...”—are indeed the predecessors of today’s materialists. In Chapter 7 Augustine writes: “I often wonder, with respect to this, how they can say that none are beautiful but the wise; for by what bodily sense have they perceived that beauty, by what eyes of the flesh have they seen wisdom’s comeliness of form?” The Platonists, on the contrary, were able to distinguish “those things which are conceived by the mind from those which are perceived by the senses, neither taking away from the senses anything to which they are competent, nor attributing to them anything beyond their competency.  And the light of our understandings, by which all things are learned by us, they have affirmed to be that selfsame God by whom all things were made.”

Diverse ancient philosophers held diverse opinions, both concerning the good of the body, and the good of the mind, and the good of both together.  In Chapter 8 Augustine argues that they must all give place to the Platonic philosophers who have not affirmed that a man is blessed by the enjoyment of the body, or by the enjoyment of the mind, but by the enjoyment of God. Plato also determined the final good to be to live according to virtue, and affirmed that he only can attain to virtue who knows and imitates God,—which knowledge and imitation are the only cause of blessedness.  “Therefore he did not doubt that to philosophize is to love God, whose nature is incorporeal.  Whence it certainly follows that the student of wisdom, that is, the philosopher, will then become blessed when he shall have begun to enjoy God.”

Finally, in Chapter 9 Augustine holds that philosophers who held that God is both the maker of all created things, the light by which things are known, and the good in reference to which things are to be done; that we have in Him the first principle of nature, the truth of doctrine, and the happiness of life—and they were the Platonists of course—represent “the closest approximation to our Christian position.”

Excerpts below:
             
               De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos
                              (Liber VIII)
                            S. Augustinus

Chapter 4: Concerning Plato, the chief among the disciples of Socrates, and his threefold division of philosophy

“Si ergo Plato Dei huius imitatorem cognitorem amatorem
dixit esse sapientem, cuius participationsit beatus, quid opus
 est excutere ceteros? Nulli nobis quam isti propius accesserunt.
—“If, then, Plato defined the wise man as one who imitates, knows,
loves this God, and who is rendered blessed through fellowship with
Him in His own blessedness, what need is there to examine the
other philosophers?” (Saint Augustine).
                                                             
Among the disciples of Socrates, Plato was the one who deservedly achieved the most outstanding reputation; and he quite overshadowed all the rest.  By birth, an Athenian of honourable parentage, he far surpassed his fellow-disciples in natural endowments, of which he was possessed in a wonderful degree.  Yet, deeming himself and the Socratic discipline far from sufficient for bringing philosophy to perfection, he travelled as extensively as he was able, going to every place famed for the cultivation of any science of which he could make himself master.  Thus he learned from the Egyptians whatever they held and taught as important; and from Egypt, passing into those parts of Italy which were filled with the fame of the Pythagoreans, he mastered, with the greatest facility, and under the most eminent teachers, all the Italic philosophy which was then in vogue.  And, as he had a peculiar love for his master Socrates, he made him the speaker in all his dialogues, putting into his mouth whatever he had learned, either from others, or from the efforts of his own powerful intellect, tempering even his moral disputations with the grace and politeness of the Socratic style.  And, as the study of wisdom consists in action and contemplation, so that one part of it may be called active, and the other contemplative,—the active part having reference to the conduct of life, that is, to the regulation of morals, and the contemplative part to the investigation into the causes of nature and into pure truth,—Socrates is said to have excelled in the active part of that study, while Pythagoras gave more attention to its contemplative part, on which he brought to bear all the force of his great intellect.  To Plato is given the praise of having perfected philosophy by combining both parts into one. He then divides it into three parts,—the first moral, which is chiefly occupied with action; the second natural, of which the object is contemplation; and the third rational, which discriminates between the true and the false.  And though this last is necessary both to action and contemplation, it is contemplation, nevertheless, which lays peculiar claim to the office of investigating the nature of truth.  Thus this tripartite division is not contrary to that which made the study of wisdom to consist in action and contemplation.  Now, as to what Plato thought with respect to each of these parts,—that is, what he believed to be the end of all actions, the cause of all natures, and the light of all intelligences,—it would be a question too long to discuss, and about which we ought not to make any rash affirmation.  For, as Plato liked and constantly affected the well-known method of his master Socrates, namely, that of dissimulating his knowledge or his opinions, it is not easy to discover clearly what he himself thought on various matters, any more than it is to discover what were the real opinions of Socrates.  We must, nevertheless, insert into our work certain of those opinions which he expresses in his writings, whether he himself uttered them, or narrates them as expressed by others, and seems himself to approve of,—opinions sometimes favourable to the true religion, which our faith takes up and defends, and sometimes contrary to it, as, for example, in the questions concerning the existence of one God or of many, as it relates to the truly blessed life which is to be after death.  For those who are praised as having most closely followed Plato, who is justly preferred to all the other philosophers of the Gentiles, and who are said to have manifested the greatest acuteness in understanding him, do perhaps entertain such an idea of God as to admit that in Him are to be found the cause of existence, the ultimate reason for the understanding, and the end in reference to which the whole life is to be regulated.  Of which three things, the first is understood to pertain to the natural, the second to the rational, and the third to the moral part of philosophy.  For if man has been so created as to attain, through that which is most excellent in him, to that which excels all things,—that is, to the one true and absolutely good God, without whom no nature exists, no doctrine instructs, no exercise profits,—let Him be sought in whom all things are secure to us, let Him be discovered in whom all truth becomes certain to us, let Him be loved in whom all becomes right to us.

Chapter 5.—Theological Questions are to be discussed with the Platonists rather than with any other philosophers, whose opinions must be counted inferior.

If, then, Plato defined the wise man as one who imitates, knows, loves this God, and who is rendered blessed through fellowship with Him in His own blessedness, what need is there to examine the other philosophers? It is evident that none come nearer to us than the Platonists.  To them, therefore, let that fabulous theology give place which delights the minds of men with the crimes of the gods; and that civil theology also, in which impure demons, under the name of gods, have seduced the peoples of the earth given up to earthly pleasures, desiring to be honoured by the errors of men, and by filling the minds of their worshippers with impure desires, exciting them to make the representation of their crimes one of the rites of their worship, whilst they themselves found in the spectators of these exhibitions a most pleasing spectacle,—a theology in which, whatever was honourable in the temple, was defiled by its mixture with the obscenity of the theatre, and whatever was base in the theatre was vindicated by the abominations of the temples.  To these philosophers also the interpretations of Varro must give place, in which he explains the sacred rites as having reference to heaven and earth, and to the seeds and operations of perishable things; for, in the first place, those rites have not the signification which he would have men believe is attached to them, and therefore truth does not follow him in his attempt so to interpret them; and even if they had this signification, still those things ought not to be worshipped by the rational soul as its god which are placed below it in the scale of nature, nor ought the soul to prefer to itself as gods things to which the true God has given it the preference.  The same must be said of those writings pertaining to the sacred rites, which Numa Pompilius took care to conceal by causing them to be buried along with himself, and which, when they were afterwards turned up by the plough, were burned by order of the senate.  And, to treat Numa with all honour, let us mention as belonging to the same rank as these writings that which Alexander of Macedon wrote to his mother as communicated to him by Leo, an Egyptian high priest.  In this letter not only Picus and Faunus, and Æneas and Romulus or even Hercules, and Æsculapius and Liber, born of Semele, and the twin sons of Tyndareus, or any other mortals who have been deified, but even the principal gods themselves, to whom Cicero, in his Tusculan questions, alludes without mentioning their names, Jupiter, Juno, Saturn, Vulcan, Vesta, and many others whom Varro attempts to identify with the parts or the elements of the world, are shown to have been men.  There is, as we have said, a similarity between this case and that of Numa; for the priest being afraid because he had revealed a mystery, earnestly begged of Alexander to command his mother to burn the letter which conveyed these communications to her.  Let these two theologies, then, the fabulous and the civil, give place to the Platonic philosophers, who have recognised the true God as the author of all things, the source of the light of truth, and the bountiful bestower of all blessedness.  And not these only, but to these great acknowledgers of so great a God, those philosophers must yield who, having their mind enslaved to their body, supposed the principles of all things to be material; as Thales, who held that the first principle of all things was water; Anaximenes, that it was air; the Stoics, that it was fire; Epicurus, who affirmed that it consisted of atoms, that is to say, of minute corpuscules; and many others whom it is needless to enumerate, but who believed that bodies, simple or compound, animate or inanimate, but nevertheless bodies, were the cause and principle of all things.  For some of them—as, for instance, the Epicureans—believed that living things could originate from things without life; others held that all things living or without life spring from a living principle, but that, nevertheless, all things, being material, spring from a material principle.  For the Stoics thought that fire, that is, one of the four material elements of which this visible world is composed, was both living and intelligent, the maker of the world and of all things contained in it,—that it was in fact God.  These and others like them have only been able to suppose that which their hearts enslaved to sense have vainly suggested to them.  And yet they have within themselves something which they could not see:  they represented to themselves inwardly things which they had seen without, even when they were not seeing them, but only thinking of them.  But this representation in thought is no longer a body, but only the similitude of a body; and that faculty of the mind by which this similitude of a body is seen is neither a body nor the similitude of a body; and the faculty which judges whether the representation is beautiful or ugly is without doubt superior to the object judged of.  This principle is the understanding of man, the rational soul; and it is certainly not a body, since that similitude of a body which it beholds and judges of is itself not a body.  The soul is neither earth, nor water, nor air, nor fire, of which four bodies, called the four elements, we see that this world is composed.  And if the soul is not a body, how should God, its Creator, be a body?  Let all those philosophers, then, give place, as we have said, to the Platonists, and those also who have been ashamed to say that God is a body, but yet have thought that our souls are of the same nature as God.  They have not been staggered by the great changeableness of the soul,—an attribute which it would be impious to ascribe to the divine nature,—but they say it is the body which changes the soul, for in itself it is unchangeable.  As well might they say, “Flesh is wounded by some body, for in itself it is invulnerable.”  In a word, that which is unchangeable can be changed by nothing, so that that which can be changed by the body cannot properly be said to be immutable.

Chapter 6.—The Platonists’ conception of natural philosophy.

These philosophers, then, whom we see not undeservedly exalted above the rest in fame and glory, have seen that no material body is God, and therefore they have transcended all bodies in seeking for God.  They have seen that whatever is changeable is not the most high God, and therefore have seen also that, in every changeable thing, the form which makes it that which it is, whatever be its mode or nature, can only be through Him who truly is, because He is unchangeable. They have transcended every soul and all changeable spirits in seeking the supreme.  And therefore, whether we consider the whole body of the world, its figure, qualities, and orderly movement, and also all the bodies which are in it; or whether we consider all life, either that which nourishes and maintains, as the life of trees, or that which, besides this, has also sensation, as the life of beasts; or that which adds to all these intelligence, as the life of man; or that which does not need the support of nutriment, but only maintains, feels, understands, as the life of angels,—all can only be through Him who absolutely is.  For to Him it is not one thing to be, and another to live, as though He could be, not living; nor is it to Him one thing to live, and another thing to understand, as though He could live, not understanding; nor is it to Him one thing to understand, another thing to be blessed, as though He could understand and not be blessed.  But to Him to live, to understand, to be blessed, are to be.  They have understood, from this unchangeableness and this simplicity, that all things must have been made by Him, and that He could Himself have been made by none.  For they have considered that whatever is is either body or life, and that life is something better than body, and that the nature of body is sensible, and that of life intelligible.  Therefore they have preferred the intelligible nature to the sensible.  We mean by sensible things such things as can be perceived by the sight and touch of the body; by intelligible things, such as can be understood by the sight of the mind.  For there is no corporeal beauty, whether in the condition of a body, as figure, or in its movement, as in music, of which it is not the mind that judges.  But this could never have been, had there not existed in the mind itself a superior form of these things, without bulk, without noise of voice, without space and time.  But even in respect of these things, had the mind not been mutable, it would not have been possible for one to judge better than another with regard to sensible forms.  He who is clever, judges better than he who is slow, he who is skilled than he who is unskillful, he who is practised than he who is unpractised; and the same person judges better after he has gained experience than he did before.  But that which is capable of more and less is mutable; whence able men, who have thought deeply on these things, have gathered that the first form is not to be found in those things whose form is changeable.  Since, therefore, they saw that body and mind might be more or less beautiful in form, and that, if they wanted form, they could have no existence, they saw that there is some existence in which is the first form, unchangeable, and therefore not admitting of degrees of comparison, and in that they most rightly believed was the first principle of things which was not made, and by which all things were made.  Therefore that which is known of God He manifested to them when His invisible things were seen by them, being understood by those things which have been made; also His eternal power and Godhead by whom all visible and temporal things have been created. We have said enough upon that part of theology which they call physical, that is, natural.

Chapter 7.—The pre-eminence of the Platonists in rational philosophy, or logic.

Then, again, as far as regards the doctrine which treats of that which they call logic, that is, rational philosophy, far be it from us to compare them with those who attributed to the bodily senses the faculty of discriminating truth, and thought, that all we learn is to be measured by their untrustworthy and fallacious rules.  Such were the Epicureans, and all of the same school.  Such also were the Stoics, who ascribed to the bodily senses that expertness in disputation which they so ardently love, called by them dialectic, asserting that from the senses the mind conceives the notions (ἒννοιαι) of those things which they explicate by definition.  And hence is developed the whole plan and connection of their learning and teaching.  I often wonder, with respect to this, how they can say that none are beautiful but the wise; for by what bodily sense have they perceived that beauty, by what eyes of the flesh have they seen wisdom’s comeliness of form?  Those, however, whom we justly rank before all others, have distinguished those things which are conceived by the mind from those which are perceived by the senses, neither taking away from the senses anything to which they are competent, nor attributing to them anything beyond their competency.  And the light of our understandings, by which all things are learned by us, they have affirmed to be that selfsame God by whom all things were made.

Chapter 8.—The Platonists’ superiority in moral philosophy.

The remaining part of philosophy is morals, or what is called by the Greeks ἠθική, in which is discussed the question concerning the chief good,—that which will leave us nothing further to seek in order to be blessed, if only we make all our actions refer to it, and seek it not for the sake of something else, but for its own sake.  Therefore it is called the end, because we wish other things on account of it, but itself only for its own sake.  This beatific good, therefore, according to some, comes to a man from the body, according to others, from the mind, and, according to others, from both together.  For they saw that man himself consists of soul and body; and therefore they believed that from either of these two, or from both together, their well-being must proceed, consisting in a certain final good, which could render them blessed, and to which they might refer all their actions, not requiring anything ulterior to which to refer that good itself.  This is why those who have added a third kind of good things, which they call extrinsic,—as honour, glory, wealth, and the like,—have not regarded them as part of the final good, that is, to be sought after for their own sake, but as things which are to be sought for the sake of something else, affirming that this kind of good is good to the good, and evil to the evil.  Wherefore, whether they have sought the good of man from the mind or from the body, or from both together, it is still only from man they have supposed that it must be sought.  But they who have sought it from the body have sought it from the inferior part of man; they who have sought it from the mind, from the superior part; and they who have sought it from both, from the whole man.  Whether therefore, they have sought it from any part, or from the whole man, still they have only sought it from man; nor have these differences, being three, given rise only to three dissentient sects of philosophers, but to many.  For diverse philosophers have held diverse opinions, both concerning the good of the body, and the good of the mind, and the good of both together.  Let, therefore, all these give place to those philosophers who have not affirmed that a man is blessed by the enjoyment of the body, or by the enjoyment of the mind, but by the enjoyment of God,—enjoying Him, however, not as the mind does the body or itself, or as one friend enjoys another, but as the eye enjoys light, if, indeed, we may draw any comparison between these things.  But what the nature of this comparison is, will, if God help me, be shown in another place, to the best of my ability.  At present, it is sufficient to mention that Plato determined the final good to be to live according to virtue, and affirmed that he only can attain to virtue who knows and imitates God,—which knowledge and imitation are the only cause of blessedness.  Therefore he did not doubt that to philosophize is to love God, whose nature is incorporeal.  Whence it certainly follows that the student of wisdom, that is, the philosopher, will then become blessed when he shall have begun to enjoy God.  For though he is not necessarily blessed who enjoys that which he loves (for many are miserable by loving that which ought not to be loved, and still more miserable when they enjoy it), nevertheless no one is blessed who does not enjoy that which he loves.  For even they who love things which ought not to be loved do not count themselves blessed by loving merely, but by enjoying them.  Who, then, but the most miserable will deny that he is blessed, who enjoys that which he loves, and loves the true and highest good?  But the true and highest good, according to Plato, is God, and therefore he would call him a philosopher who loves God; for philosophy is directed to the obtaining of the blessed life, and he who loves God is blessed in the enjoyment of God.

Chapter 9.—Concerning that Philosophy Which Has Come Nearest to the Christian Faith.


Whatever philosophers, therefore, thought concerning the supreme God, that He is both the maker of all created things, the light by which things are known, and the good in reference to which things are to be done; that we have in Him the first principle of nature, the truth of doctrine, and the happiness of life,—whether these philosophers may be more suitably called Platonists, or whether they may give some other name to their sect; whether, we say, that only the chief men of the Ionic school, such as Plato himself, and they who have well understood him, have thought thus; or whether we also include the Italic school, on account of Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, and all who may have held like opinions; and, lastly, whether also we include all who have been held wise men and philosophers among all nations who are discovered to have seen and taught this, be they Atlantics, Libyans, Egyptians, Indians, Persians, Chaldeans, Scythians, Gauls, Spaniards, or of other nations,—we rank such thinkers above all others, and acknowledge them as representing the closest approximation to our Christian position. 

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