Saturday, January 21, 2012

Plato: Philosopher, Christian and a Gnostic!(?)

An ancient bust of Plato
located in the Vatican
If there is any figure in history that immediately invokes the images of libraries, scribes hunched over parchment, or bearded scholars intensely debating over points of logic, it is Plato. For many years my knowledge of this genius of philosophy was limited to what marble busts with features glaring blankly into space could reveal about him, which was only that he had a cool beard and looked smart. During high school readings on history his name would surface even amongst the lightest of descriptions of ancient Greek culture and its impact on history. My first real encounter with Plato and his ideas was after I had found a copy of his Apologia and Crito in Greek in a local used bookstore. Though I did not know enough Greek at the time to read this book in the original language, the introduction was very informative, setting forth the Socratic method of διαλεκτική, or dialectic. I was able to work through an english translation of Crito, a classic example of this style of dialogue between Socrates and his friend Crito. I could not help but be fascinated by the simplicity and rigor of this method of inquiry. Wanting to read more, Plato's Republic was next on the reading list (I don't really have a reading list). While jotting down notes in the margins, the dialogue quickly pulled me into the world of ancient Greece. Discussions about God were particularly enjoyable for me. One in particular, between Socrates and Adeimantus I found to be intriguing. They are discussing the ideal utopian State, in which Socrates argues that poets should only be allowed to write tales of virtue about God for the children to follow in example. Here is a small slice of this dialogue, Socrates is narrating; 
Very true, he said, but what are these forms of theology which you mean? Something of this kind, I replied: God is always to be represented as he truly is, whatever be the sort of poetry, epic, lyric, or tragic, in which the representation is given.
And is he not truly good? and must he not be represented as such? [Socrates is referring to God here]
And no good thing is hurtful?
No, indeed.
And that which is not hurtful hurts not?
Certainly not.
And that which hurts not does no evil?
And can that which does no evil be a cause of evil?
And the good is advantageous?
And therefore the cause of well being?
It follows therefore that the good is not the cause of all things, but of the good only?
Then God, if he be good, is not the author of all things, as the many assert, but he is the cause of a few things only, and not of most things that occur to men. For few are the goods of human life, and many are the evils, and the good is to be attributed to God alone; of the evils the causes are to be sought elsewhere and not in him. (Plato, Republic, Book II)
I know this was a lengthy quote, but it is an interesting one to show how Socrates uses the questions and responses in order to build up to a conclusion. His conclusions about God are interesting here, especially when compared with Christian theology. Compare Socrates' last paragraph above with James 1:17 "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow" (NASB), some striking similarities there. But wait there's more! A little further on in the Republic, Plato attributes to Socrates this conclusion about God, "Then it is impossible that God should ever be willing to change being, as is supposed, the fairest and best that is conceivable, every God remains absolutely and forever in his own form" (Book II). So here, in a roundabout way Plato (through the voice of Socrates) is saying that God is only good and that he doesn't change. Wow, definitely some common ground with Christian theology. But apparently I am not the only one to think so. The early second century Church apologist, Justin Martyr (died ca. 165 AD), thought the same thing. Before his conversion to Christianity, Justin was a wandering philosopher sage, until he met a Christian who witnessed to him and taught him the way of salvation. Justin, having extensive schooling in philosophy, understood and saw the many striking similarities between some of Plato and Socrates' understanding about God, and the immortality of the soul, (as well as other things) with Christian theology. It was with these similarities in mind that Justin responded to the Roman societies' dislike, and critic of Christianity. He argued in a round about way that Plato and Socrates had received this truth from Christ, the "logos," who is the giver of all truth, and thus in way, they were...Christians(!). A little strange for our 21st century ears, but it made sense to Justin, and it inevitably made sense to many of the ancient Church Fathers who were influenced heavily by various Platonist ideas....can someone say Origen!
But there were others in the ancient world who took a dislike to philosophy and Christianity touching shoulders so closely. It was just such a reaction that Tertullian (a Church figure from Carthage in north Africa, ca. 160-225 AD) expressed when he penned the now famous quote; "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? What does the Academy have to do with the Church?" (Prescriptions Against Heresies, 1.7). In this quote, Tertullian is showing how influential Plato really was in his day. Plato was from the Greek city of Athens, and the Academy was founded by Plato in Athens to teach his brand of philosophy.
The Nag Hammadi Gnostic Writings
Christian theologians were not the only religious thinkers to take a liking to Plato. A group, or religious sect that gained many converts during the Roman period and even a little after was Gnosticism. What it was (or is) exactly is hard to describe, and many scholars debate this fact. But essentially it was a melding of Platonic thinking and Christianity, and in some places, with Judaism. The Gnostics usually followed the notion that a person was "saved" by leaving the material world through some secret knowledge; γνῶσις means knowledge in Greek and is were the term Gnostic is derived. One aspect of Gnosticism was that there were many different lesser demigods which were responsible for creating all the evil in the world, which was essentially all material things. If you think back to the quote from the Republic above, you can see where this idea of demigods could spring board off of Plato's ideas about God. Strangely enough, in the mid 1940s a large hoard of buried Gnostic writings were found preserved in an ancient jar dating from the 3rd or 4th century AD. Amongst this collection of writings was a fragmented portion of Plato's Republic! The fact that Plato's Republic was included amongst other important Gnostic writings reveals just how influential Plato was on Gnostic thinking.
What can we learn from this example of Plato? Whether we like it or not, we are deeply indebted to past thinkers, much of what we know is based on, or built on the discoveries and knowledge of the past. This can be a blessing, and a curse. It can be a blessing, because we only have a short time in this world, and we cannot know everything, we have to work together. It can be a curse because it can set a precedent of thinking, a cultural paradigm in which we find ourselves and do not even realize we are being influenced by the past. Tertullian saw this danger, and the wide range of Gnostic melding of philosophy and Christianity shows how far this can go.
I have this example of Plato in the back of my mind each time I sit down and read my Bible, "How much of what I think about God is influenced in a negative way by some outside source, mindset or paradigm?" I want to make sure that my theology is taken from the word of God, and thus accurate. Philosophy can be a tool to better understand God, but I should be very careful not to force the Bible into a philosophical system.

I meant to reference my sources, I will add that here;

Gonzales, Justo L.. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day. 2 Vols. Peabody: Prince Press, 2006, 1:53-56.

Plato. The Apology and Crito. Edited by Isaac Flagg. American Book Company, 1907.

____. Plato, Six Great Dialogues: Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, and the Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2007.

Robinson, James M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Revised edition. New York: HarperCollins Paperback, 1990.


  1. Glad you're posting some of your thoughts Tim!
    I miss our late night bachelor stomps down dark country roads discussing some of these same subjects!
    If I could suggest though, a clarifying of your position on such things as gnosticism, etc.
    It will make a response easier!
    It seemed to me though that at the end you were not endorsing gnosticism, but warning of it. In a broad sense warning of the dangers of interpreting scripture, and developing a view of God that is influenced by mans philosophies. Not that there is no value in philosophy, but that there is in fact danger.
    And I would agree, putting the weight of my own experiences with philosophy behind it.
    And it is certainly valuable to know what men have thought about the deeper things of the Word. To know and understand anothers perspective, and to be able to engage in an informed debate or discussion about beliefs.

    Im rambling now, keep it up!

    1. Grayson! Thank you for the suggestions. Writing for a blog is really tough. I kept running into snags like; What audience do I write for? How long do I make the entries...etc.? I came to the conclusion that I should keep it short and sweet. But it looks like I sacrificed for clarity. My point in bringing up the Gnostics was to show how their view of creation through demi-gods can be linked to the quote from the Republic that I included in the article. In the final paragraph Socrates concludes that good can only be attributed to God. Thus the Gnostic idea of lesser gods creating all of the evil matter fits well with the ideas about God put forth by Plato in the Republic. The fact that a copy of the Republic was found amongst other Gnostic writings butresses this notion, or at least Plato was seen as influential by the Gnostics in their theology. I think the Gnostics are the prime example of how far philosophy can influence theology negatively. Your point about philosophy being a danger is very true, and something to be wary of when form theological ideas. But really it is the philosophical "systems" that pose more of a threat than philosophy itself, which is a valuable science. I hope this explains a little better where I was going with the article. Any suggestions or comments you may have I welcome very much! I am a real nube at this. -Tim