Platonism for the People 

The Accusation Gnosticism
Early Church Fathers The Same God
Athens and Jerusalem Platonic Heresies
Influence The Politics of Socrates
Realism vs. Nominalism

LogoThe Accusation

Atheist Friedrich Nietzsche levelled the accusation against Christianity that it was 'Platonism for the People:'

  • “But the struggle against Plato, or—to speak plainer, and for the "people"—the struggle against the ecclesiastical oppression of millenniums of Christianity (FOR CHRISTIANITY IS PLATONISM FOR THE "PEOPLE"), produced in Europe a magnificent tension of soul, such as had not existed anywhere previously; with such a tensely strained bow one can now aim at the furthest goals.”

  • (Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm (2011-03-24). Beyond Good and Evil (p. 2). Kindle Edition).

What could this mean? If it were just a matter of the Founder commending His followers' attention to the spirit rather than the flesh, then who could quarrel:

"It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life." (John 6:63).

Neither Christians nor Platonists are materialists, believing there are no real existents but only atoms and the void. Both believe the most important things in the world are those things which are unseen. Nietzsche, an atheist who did not belong to the 'You Can be Good without God' school, may have borne a common grudge against both for devaluing the life of the animal flesh.

How does Nietzsche substantiate his own claim? He had just accused Plato, it would seem, of inventing God:

"Let us not be ungrateful to it, although it must certainly be confessed that the worst, the most tiresome, and the most dangerous of errors hitherto has been a dogmatist error—namely, Plato's invention of Pure Spirit and the Good in Itself." (Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm (2011-03-24). Beyond Good and Evil (pp. 1-2). Kindle Edition.)

What is "Good in Itself" but God? "And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God." (Luke 18:19). Who is Spirit but God?: "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." (John 4:24). Atheists react angrily when accused of hating God; but Nietzsche really does. If this is the accusation, then it is absurd and no further attention need be paid to it.

Or is there an influence of Plato on Christianity? By what transmission route?


Plato Home


There is certainly a Platonic influence on gnosticism, a heresy by Christian lights. Take for example the doctrine of reincarnation, the normal gnostic understanding of the after-life; at the present day, for instance, many Jews believe in this paradigm against the Bible because of the popularity of the Kabbalah, a medieval revival of Jewish gnosticism. Plato presents this paradigm several times, for example in the story, or 'myth,' of Er, which appears in the last book of the Republic. Along with the gnostics, the Christian theologian Origen was, apparently, so committed to this writer as nearly to accept this 'myth' as sober fact:

  • “When Er and the spirits arrived, their duty was to go at once to Lachesis; but first of all there came a prophet who arranged them in order; then he took from the knees of Lachesis lots and samples of lives, and having mounted a high pulpit, spoke as follows: `Hear the word of Lachesis, the daughter of Necessity. Mortal souls, behold a new cycle of life and mortality. Your genius will not be allotted to you, but you choose your genius; and let him who draws the first lot have the first choice, and the life which he chooses shall be his destiny. Virtue is free, and as a man honors or dishonors her he will have more or less of her; the responsibility is with the chooser—God is justified.' When the Interpreter had thus spoken he scattered lots indifferently among them all, and each of them took up the lot which fell near him, all but Er himself (he was not allowed), and each as he took his lot perceived the number which he had obtained. Then the Interpreter placed on the ground before them the samples of lives; and there were many more lives than the souls present, and they were of all sorts. There were lives of every animal and of man in every condition. And there were tyrannies among them, some lasting out the tyrant's life, others which broke off in the middle and came to an end in poverty and exile and beggary; and there were lives of famous men, some who were famous for their form and beauty as well as for their strength and success in games, or, again, for their birth and the qualities of their ancestors; and some who were the reverse of famous for the opposite qualities. And of women likewise; there was not, however, any definite character in them, because the soul, when choosing a new life, must of necessity become different. But there was every other quality, and they all mingled with one another, and also with elements of wealth and poverty, and disease and health; and there were mean states also. And here, my dear Glaucon, is the supreme peril of our human state; and therefore the utmost care should be taken.”

  • (The Myth of Er, from Plato's Republic, Book X).

Plato Control Mechanism
The Bible Population Explosion
Memories The Christian Alternative
Father of Spirits Revival

LogoOrigen was also committed to the Platonic commonplace that the stars are ensouled, an idea which got him into posthumous trouble: "It is he likewise who conjoins each of the celestial spheres to the circulations of the soul, inserts in each of the stars a psychical and intellectual life, and produces in the sublunary elements leading Gods and souls, and in addition to all these things, constitutes the divisible genera of life, and imparts to the junior Gods the principle of mortal animals." (Proclus, Theology of Plato, Book V, Chapter XXII, p. 336). This particular author was like a man with one foot on the solid dock of scripture and one in the sliding row-boat of Neoplatonism; the life to come is not the only topic on which he is not on solid ground.

Nineteenth century liberalism tended to drift away from the Christian paradigm of resurrection in the flesh and toward the immortality of the unembodied soul, perhaps partly influenced by an arbitrary perception that Plato was more 'respectable' than Christianity. Tertullian was aware of where this all came from:

“Some suppose that they came down from heaven, with as firm a belief as they are apt to entertain, when they indulge in the prospect of an undoubted return thither. Saturninus, the disciple of Menander, who belonged to Simon’s sect, introduced this opinion: he affirmed that man was made by angels. . .I am sorry from my heart that Plato has been the caterer to all these heretics. For in the Phaedo he imagines that souls wander from this world to that, and thence back again hither; whilst in the Timaeus he supposes that the children of God, to whom had been assigned the production of mortal creatures, having taken for the soul the germ of immortality, congealed around it a mortal body, — thereby indicating that this world is the figure of some other. Now, to procure belief in all this — that the soul had formerly lived with God in the heavens above, sharing His ideas with Him, and afterwards came down to live with us on earth, and whilst here recollects the eternal patterns of things which it had learnt before — he elaborated his new formula, μαθησεις αναμνησεις, which means that 'learning is reminiscence;' implying that the souls which come to us from thence forget the things amongst which they formerly lived, but that they afterwards recall them,
instructed by the objects they see around them.” (Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 23, pp. 364-365).

One must share Tertullian's sorrow that this pagan author, instead of appearing solely as a precursor to Christianity, must also be perceived as one of the founts of heresy.


Early Church Fathers

Some of the early church authors, who are rather jarringly called 'Fathers,' were self-confessed Platonists. The spiritual journey of men like Justin Martyr led them first into a philosophical monotheism, and then secondly into Christianity, which with Judaism was one of only two revealed religions in the world that were consistent with monotheism. The old paganism was a 'revealed religion' of sorts, the 'gods' made contact with humanity through dreams and the like, but it was also a horror. The reader of Hesiod's Theogony wonders if the writer was confined to an asylum, as might be suggested by the contents. These men longed for a revealed religion that would be morally harmless and wholesome, unlike the old paganism. Once in the new fold, some of these authors, truth to tell, do not seem to have performed a total tear-down of their prior beliefs and commitments, but stood rather like a man with one foot on the dock and the other foot in his row-boat. Justin Martyr, for example, was a universalist, though the Bible does not teach universalism:

  • “But lest some should, without reason, and for the perversion of what we teach, maintain that we say that Christ was born one hundred and fifty years ago under Cyrenius, and subsequently, in the time of Pontius Pilate, taught what we say He taught; and should cry out against us as though all men who were born before Him were irresponsible — let us anticipate and solve the difficulty. We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious.”
  • (Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 46, Page 326 ECF).

  • “Our doctrines, then, appear to be greater than all human teaching; because Christ, who appeared for our sakes, became the whole rational being, both body, and reason, and soul. For whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word. But since they did not know the whole of the Word, which is Christ, they often contradicted themselves. And those who by human birth were more ancient than Christ, when they attempted to consider and prove things by reason, were brought before the tribunals as impious persons and busybodies. And Socrates, who was more zealous in this direction than all of them, was accused of the very same crimes as ourselves. For they said that he was introducing new divinities, and did not consider those to be gods whom the state recognized. But he cast out from the state both Homer and the rest of the poets, and taught men to reject the wicked demons and those who did the things which the poets related; and he exhorted them to become acquainted with the God who was to them unknown, by means of investigation of reason, saying, 'That it is neither easy to find the Father and Maker of all, nor, having found Him, is it safe to declare Him to all.' But these things our Christ did though His own power.”
  • (Justin Martyr, Second Apology, Chapter 10, p. 356 ECF).


The Bible does not offer a rival 'Philosopher's Salvation Plan;' there is only one salvation plan, and that isn't it. It is odd but true that Roman Catholic thinkers have tried to envision locales like 'Limbo' in which to situate all these 'saved' pagans who don't quite fit anywhere else. To be sure these philosophers were trending towards monotheism. They had not yet arrived, because as a general rule they considered the sun, moon and stars to be legitimate gods, only of a lesser rank: but the direction was favorable. However, even if they had been perfect monotheists, this would not have saved them, because, "Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble." (James 2:19).

Clement of Alexandria goes so far as to assign Greek philosophy status as another "covenant" of God:

"And in general terms, we shall not err in alleging that all things necessary and profitable for life came to us from God, and that philosophy more especially was given to the Greeks, as a covenant peculiar to them — being, as it is, a stepping-stone to the philosophy which is according to Christ — although those who applied themselves to the philosophy of the Greeks shut their ears voluntarily to the truth, despising the voice of Barbarians, or also dreading the danger suspended over the believer, by the law of the state." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book VI, Chapter VIII).

One can understand why missionaries to China might play up affinities between the gospel and the teachings of Confucius, which do contain some positive, pro-social features. In a similar vein, there is much good in Greek philosophy, and all good comes from God. But to make Greek philosophy into a "covenant" unknown to scripture is a daring departure from Biblical theology. Clement is embarrassed also by the fact that students of Greek philosophy numbered in their ranks the most notorious critics of Christianity; if there really is such an affinity as he claims, why was it perceived by one side only? This is an unanswerable question, and the uncritical enthusiasm of these early writers for Greek philosophy is not shared by many Christians in the modern era.

At the time when the Christian gospel went out into the world, philosophical thinkers had reached this point: there is a mind behind this world; this much is certain. This changing world does not stand on its own, it was created, it was designed. Who is this creator? Can He have established communication with man, His creation? Why would He not? So where will we find the memoranda? If we shuffle through the various 'revelations' of the world's 'prophets,' some are grossly immoral or even psychotic, like Hesiod's Theogony. These cannot be revelations of the true and living God, who, as we already know, is wholly good. Yet the God who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ is good. Can this be He whom we seek? Some of these early church writers, unfortunately, seem to get 'stuck' upon answering 'yes' to this question; they sought confirmation of what they already knew, not new information. Nevertheless, 'yes' is still the right answer.

There is undeniably a real influence here: Justin is a Platonist and he is a Christian. (For that matter, the far more influential Augustine was likewise a Neoplatonist and also a Christian.) Their allegiance to these man-made philosophical systems is not minimal nor unobtrusive. While modern readers will find fault and set about 'subtracting' Justin's Platonism from whatever evidence he has to offer on the thinking of the early church, these Christian Platonists would not stand tongue-tied before their detractors, any more than they stood tongue-tied before their pagan murderers. They would say: 'You moderns are at heart materialists, who believe there is naught but atoms and void. But you spread a layer of icing on top, from a stand-point of exceptionalism: you say, 'we believe in naught but atoms and the void, but then besides that we also believe in God, angels, and the persistence of the human soul.' How, pray tell, is that consistent? We at least confess a self-consistent world-view; you do not.' And, dear reader, you must admit they have a point.

It is on this point alone that Nietzsche's zinger draws blood: the early apologists were, indeed, Platonists as well as Christians, and the triumph of one was at the same time the triumph of the other:

"The only really important consideration in Christianity is that it is revelation, real revelation. The Apologists had no doubt as to what it reveals, and therefore any investigation was unnecessary. The result of Greek philosophy, the philosophy of Plato and Zeno, as it had further developed in the empires of Alexander the Great and the Romans, was to attain victory and permanence by the aid of Christianity." (Harnack, Adolf von (2011-04-14). History of Dogma, Volume 2 (pp. 217-218). Kindle Edition.)

However these two great forces need not always walk on together hand in hand.


The Same God

Is the God of the philosophers the same God as the God of the Bible? This might seem an odd question,— how many Almighties can there be,— except that some people deny it:

"The character "Yahweh" in the Hebrew Bible should not be confused with the god of western theological speculation (generally referred to as "God"). The attributes assigned to "God" by post-biblical theologians -- such as omniscience and immutability -- are simply not attributes possessed by the character Yahweh as drawn in biblical narratives. Indeed, on several occasions Yahweh is explicitly described as changing his mind, because when it comes to human beings his learning curve is steep. Humans have free will; they act in ways that surprise him and he must change tack and respond. One of the greatest challenges for modern readers of the Hebrew Bible is to allow the text to mean what it says, when what is says flies in the face of doctrines that emerged centuries later from philosophical debates about the abstract category "God." (Christine Hayes, 5 Common Misconceptions About the Bible, Posted: 11/26/2012, Huffington Post).

Is this reasonable? It must be realized, that if the living God is to communicate with His creatures, He must be willing to come down to our level and speak in finite, time-bound categories. While His people must realize that such categories cannot hold Him, His willingness to use this language of accommodation is not a point against Him, but a tribute to His love and compassion:


LogoAthens and Jerusalem

While Justin was happy to usher the pagan philosopher Socrates into the kingdom feast, even though he was not wearing a wedding garment, Tertullian took the opposite view:

  • “Writing to the Colossians, he [Paul] says, “See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.” He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!”
  • (Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 7, pp. 442-443 ECF)

LogoThis approach seems safer. The reader of the Platonic dialogues is familiar with tendencies far from Christian morality, for instance in the Symposium. The proper interpretation of Plato's dialogues is subject to dispute. The reader's first, naive, expectation that the 'Socrates' of the dialogues serves as Plato's mouth-piece, who will triumph over all foes and scatter them in confusion, is defeated in dialogues like the Theatetus and Sophist which end in stasis and bewilderment. Some interpreters thought Plato was trying to impart skepticism; the 'New Academy' took that tack, and Cicero was influenced by them; Augustine's treatise, 'Against the Academicians,' refutes their views. If this was Plato's aim, that would explain the 'failed' dialogues; however, it seems likelier he fundamentally did believe, and sought to convince others, of the truth of the theory of ideas, of reincarnation, and the other elements of the system expounded in these writings. The very best you can get out of this situation is that he was 'soft' on child molestation.

So this special vestibule set aside for these 'Christians before Christ,' the philosophers, is also a place of refuge for child molesters! Maybe it is just better not to go down this road.


LogoPlatonic Heresies

As noted, Christians including the influential Augustine have been Platonists and Neoplatonists; as a rule these people ignore and discard those aspects of the system which are incompatible with Christianity, retaining only the useful and compatible. Are there heretics who have been enticed out of the fold through these considerations? It seems so; the gnostics of old were dualists, who assigned a positive value to spirit and a strongly negative value to matter. . .just like Plato. This value-assignment does not derive so much from the Bible as from this pagan teacher, and so when it is found, it is suspect. See an extreme case:

"I mean the infinite and divine Principle of all being, the ever-present I AM, filling all space, including in itself all Mind, the one Father-Mother God. Life, Truth, and Love are this trinity in unity, and their universe is spiritual, peopled with perfect beings, harmonious and eternal, of which our material universe and men are the counterfeits.
". . .Is there no matter?
"All is Mind. According to the Scriptures and Christian Science, all is God, and there is naught beside Him. 'God is Spirit;' and we can only learn and love Him through His spirit. . .The five material senses testify to the existence of matter. The spiritual senses afford no such evidence, but deny the testimony of the material senses. Which testimony is correct? The Bible says: 'Let God be true, and every man a liar.' If , as the Scriptures imply, God is All-in-all, then all must be Mind, since God is Mind." (Mary Baker Eddy, Rudimental Divine Science, Kindle location 46-64).

This nineteenth century author goes so far as to deny the real existence of matter, taking the spirit/matter split even beyond Plato! She seems to reach out to Socrates (Plato's sock puppet, though a real person) as a fellow believer: "Because he understood the superiority and immortality of good, Socrates feared not the hemlock poison. . .Having sought man's spiritual state, he recognized the immortality of man. The ignorance and malice of the age would have killed the venerable philosopher because of his faith in Soul and his indifference to the body." (Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health, with Keys to the Scriptures, Chapter VIII, Kindle location 2751). Dazed on exiting Plato's cave, she reports, "The visible universe and material man are the poor counterfeits of the invisible universe and spiritual man. Eternal things (verities) are God's thoughts as they exist in the spiritual realm of the real." (Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health, with Keys to the Scriptures, Chapter X, Kindle location 4279).

All in all, while it cannot be denied that the gnostic heretics were retailing Plato for the people, the same accusation cannot fairly be made against orthodoxy, or against the Bible which generates orthodoxy. Other gnosticizing tendencies both ancient and modern may be traced back to Plato, not directly perhaps but mediated through other things:



There was a time,— not so very long ago, no more than a century,— when most people were generally familiar with the literary landmarks of antiquity. That personal acquaintance is mostly a thing of the past, unfortunately. In consequence, a wide gulf of gullibility has opened up; many of today's young people are willing to believe, for example, that Jesus is very much like the pagan construct 'Dionysus,' so much so that He is likely to have been modeled upon him. So what was Dionysus like?:

 The Bacchae 

Logo Instead of being very much like Jesus, Dionysus was the kind of 'god' you might encounter in your nightmares; he rewards his devoted acolyte Agave by causing her to rip her son Pentheus to pieces with her bare hands. The more you know about Dionysus, the less resemblance you see between the two.

But not all cases of resemblance between the things of God and the existing worldly, pagan culture into which the gospel proclamation went forth are equally spurious. In some cases, the inspired authors do seem almost to be quoting. Take, for example, Paul's analogy between the church and the human body:

"For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness." (Romans 12:4-8).

"For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be? But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues." (1 Corinthians 12:12-28).

Is Paul's imagery of Christ's commonwealth as a body wholly without precedent? Not really. The Romans were the people who gave Karl Marx his vocabulary for class struggle; their history recounted many pitched battles, almost, amongst the various social orders. On one occasion, the plebeians departed from the city and encamped outside, proposing either to return if their demand for debt forgiveness was met, or to move on to greener pastures if not. They were enticed back to the city by Menenius Agrippa's simile, that the commonwealth is like a human body, reported in Livy and Dionysius:

"'A commonwealth resembles in some measure a human body. For each of them is composite and consists of many parts; and no one of their parts either has the same function or performs the same services as the others. If, now, these parts of the human body should be endowed, each for itself, with perception and a voice of its own and a sedition should then arise among them, all of them uniting against the belly alone, and the feet should say that the whole body rests on them; the hands, that they ply the crafts, secure provisions, fight with enemies, and contribute many other advantages toward the common good; the shoulders, that they bear all the burdens; the mouth, that it speaks; the head, that it sees and hears and, comprehending the other senses, possesses all those by which the thing is preserved; and then all these should say to the belly, "And you, good creature, which of these things do you do? What return do you make and of what use are you to us? Indeed, you are so far from doing anything for us or assisting us in accomplishing anything useful for the common good that you are actually a hindrance and a trouble to us and — a thing intolerable — compel us to serve you and to bring things to you from everywhere for the gratification of your desires. Come now, why do we not assert our liberty and free ourselves from the many troubles we undergo for the sake of this creature?" If, I say, they should decide upon this course and none of the parts should any longer perform its office, could the body possibly exist for any considerable time, and not rather be destroyed within a few days by the worst of all deaths, starvation? No one can deny it. Now consider the same condition existing in a commonwealth. For this also is composed of many classes of people not at all resembling one another, every one of which contributes some particular service to the common good, just as its members do to the body.'" (Dionysius of Hallicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Book VI, Chapter LXXXVI, pp. 109-111 Loeb Volume 4).

This imagery, of the commonwealth as a complex whole made up of mutually inter-dependent parts, was so compelling as to induce the plebeians to give up their secession on the spot. Martin Luther returned to the original in his analysis of Paul's simile: ". . .because Christ and all saints are one spiritual body, just as the inhabitants of a city are one community and body, each citizen being a member of the other and a member of the entire city. All the saints, therefore, are members of Christ and of the Church, which is a spiritual and eternal city of God. . ." (Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther, A Treatise Concerning the Blessed Sacrament, Section 4. Volume II, Kindle location 68). Luther continues his analysis: "To receive the bread and wine of this sacrament, then, is nothing else than to receive a sure sign of this fellowship and incorporation with Christ and all saints. As though a citizen were given a sign, a document, or some other token as a proof that he is a citizen of the city, a member of the community. . .To carry out our homely figure: it is like a city where every citizen shares with all the others the name, honor, freedom, trade, customs, usages, help, support, protection and the like, of that city, and on the other hand shares all the danger of fire and flood, enemies and death, losses, imposts and the like. . .Here we see that whoever wrongs a citizen wrongs the entire city and all the citizens; whoever benefits one deserves favor and thanks from all the others." (Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther, A Treatise Concerning the Blessed Sacrament, Section 4-5. Volume II, Kindle location 79-81). Now, Paul said believers made up the body of Christ, he said nothing about any 'city;' and yet Luther is willing to make a connection that runs through Livy.

Should the devil have all the good metaphors? Living up to the atheists' demand, that every single statement in scripture be sui generis, said only then for the first time, puts impossible pressure upon the Holy Spirit and the human authors He inspires, who are left wishing to say something, and perfectly well able to say it, but not allowed to do so because someone has said it before. What strange prison of the mind have these unfortunate men found their way into, to be unable to say '2 plus 2 equals 4,' because it's already been said?

The world of classical antiquity is like a country-side flooded by rising sea levels. Once there were mountains and plains connected by roads and rivers, yet the rising tide has left only isolated mountain-tops, the few texts surviving. It can look like one author is quoting another, when he is only quoting a common-place, something he heard in school; and who knows where the first author heard it, anyway? An example:

"Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God." (James 4:1-4).

Is this theory of the origin of war altogether original? Not really; the pagan philosopher Plato says, in the Phaedo,

"Whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body. . ." (Plato, Phaedo, 66).

There being no real evidence of an interest in Plato on the part of James, it seems more likely this was a common-place he heard in school, than that he had the 'Phaedo' opened on his desk to this passage. Plenty of other authors say much the same thing; this trope of 'war comes from desire' is far from uncommon: "For, both among the Greeks and barbarians, the wars between one another, and between their own different tribes, which have been so celebrated by tragedians, have all flowed from one source, namely, desire of money, or glory, or pleasure; for it is on such subjects as these that the race of mankind goes mad." (Philo Judaeus, The Decalogue, Chapter XXVIII.) The truth of the diagnosis is apparent; it is not those whose treasure is stored up in heaven who start fights, whether wars for conquest or bar-room brawls. Since it is true, why not say it, even if someone,— probably many people, though it remains, isolated, here and there,— said it before?

The Emperor Claudius TriumphantThe reader familiar with classical literature comes to the gospel as a traveller through the desert to a cooling stream. That the good news sounds a novel note, in that society devoted to one-upsmanship, cannot be denied. There is extant a certain relief depicting the emperor Claudius kneeing in the back the conquered peoples of Gaul, or Britannia; this was their understanding of empire, 'I've got my boot resting upon your neck.' After a while they didn't make statues like that anymore, though perhaps the cynic may object that the reality didn't change so much as did their way of talking about it. The young people who are willing to be persuaded that the Bible is derivative and other things original, ought to study those other things diligently,— they are worth reading on their own merits, and richly repay the effort invested in studying them. But once having done so, the conviction that the gospel is derivative must fall by the way-side.


LogoThe Politics of Socrates

One must be grateful to I. F. Stone for focusing in his work on the politics of Socrates, which are execrable. While this man ended his life, in a sense, as a martyr to freedom of expression, he himself wasn't for it. Nor were his major disciples. Plato's Republic, for example, is a project for a totalitarian police state:

 The Republic 

LogoIt's a shame, really, that we don't have more than fragments from Solon, who freed many of the Athenian slaves from bondage to debt, and guided the ship of state toward the direction of democracy, whereas we possess in fullness the writings of the enemies of democracy. It is remarkable that Socrates spent his whole political life praising Sparta and Crete, the two most unfree states in the Greek world, while his own society was locked in a death struggle with Sparta which would ultimately lead to the victorious Spartans imposing the thirty tyrants, including in their number, not by accident, names familiar from the Platonic dialogues. It's as if the literature surviving from America in the 1950's were, most it, written by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and their closest personal friends! When Aristotle's pupil Alexander submerged the Greek world in hereditary monarchy, a system the democrats had thought long left behind, their defeat was complete. So all we hear, in the writings of anti-democracy partisans like Plato, is about the stupidity and ineptitude of the "many." (Resolutions passed in the Athenian assembly began with the preface, "the many have decided. . .").

People who read a lot of atheist blather will have encountered this type of information,

". . .yet the impulse to human thought given by these great masters [Plato and Socrates] was of inestimable value to our race, and one legacy from them was especially precious — the idea that a science of Nature is possible, and that the highest occupation of man is the discovery of its laws. Still another gift from them was greatest of all, for they gave scientific freedom. They laid no interdict upon new paths; they interposed no barriers to the extension of knowledge; they threatened no doom in this life or in the next against investigators on new lines; they left the world free to seek any new methods and to follow any new paths which thinking men could find. . .The establishment of Christianity, beginning a new evolution of theology, arrested the normal development of the physical sciences for over fifteen hundred years." (Andrew D. White, A History of the Warfare between Science and Theology, p. 357).

The problem isn't in the details; it's not clear whether Plato believed a "science of Nature" was possible, certainly the 'Socrates' of his dialogues does not think so. The problem is that the winners get to write history. Athenian democracy was defeated, and the people who celebrated its demise and watched it go down with glee explained that democracy is futile, unavailing, and ever doomed to be a temporary, unstable phase of government. We continue to read the works of these authors, and should continue doing so. But just imagine if you had to live in Plato's Republic, or the society planned in his Laws! As a Myrmidon, not as a philosopher-king; the rulers, in this slave-state, are arguably free men. Breakout time, rebellion time! Plato's ideal society actually involves a caste system, like the Hindus have.

The writers of the various histories of the warfare of science and religion claimed a very wide liberty to make stuff up out of whole cloth. Those who do not share this impulse should realize Plato was no friend of freedom. It is a touch inconsistent that they can't make up their minds whether they want to condemn the church for following Aristotle, as some did with spontaneous generation, geocentricity, and denying a vacuum, or chide the church for not following more closely, as with his not otherwise known commitment to freedom. In the political sphere, they did follow too closely; the free, democratic elections of the early bishops gave way to a top-down hierarchy, no doubt comprised of the very best and wisest, just as instructed.


LogoRealism vs. Nominalism

The Middle Ages were the battleground for a dispute between realists, who thought that ideas like 'tiger' describe something real, and nominalists, who thought that 'tiger' is a category in the human mind, not describing anything belonging to the world 'out there.' The realists were the heirs of Plato, though indirectly through the Christian Neoplatonists like Augustine. Platonism in its original form posits many eternal, self-subsistent entities, like beauty itself, justice itself, etc., though monotheism can know only one. But reconfiguring these paradigms as ideas in the mind of God, according to which He created our world, works fine with monotheism. Some people come away from studying this conflict imagining that the nominalists must have won, because the realists seem a touch mystical. But they really did not. Plato's perception that the very structure of reality is noetic: first comes the blueprint, then its instantiation,— is solid.

Few people today would be able to recover the mind-set of the medieval nominalists who theorized that one tiger actually has very little to do with another tiger, except that we find it convenient to lump them together. People today take it for granted that it is the blueprint 'tiger,' encoded in a decipherable language, which has made these things to be what they are; the fact that people today think they have a materialistic explanation for this gives them an 'out,' permission to acknowledge the obvious. There is no way to talk about why living things are the way they are without using noetic, intentional terms like 'code;' like all languages, this code has a 'meaning:' "These instructions can be effective only in a molecular environment capable of interpreting the meaning in the genetic code. The origin question rises to the top at this point. 'The problem of how meaningful or semantic information can emerge spontaneously from a collection of mindless molecules subject to blind and purposeless forces presents a deep conceptual challenge.'" (Anthony Flew, There is a God, quotation of Paul Davies, pp. 128-129). Codes, languages, plans and blue-prints are mental entities before they find any physical instantiation, yet they are fundamental to our world. The world cannot be understood without decoding and reverse engineering, because our world was a sparkle in the mind of God, a plan, a conception, before it was here. Understanding why things are what they are is impossible without recovery of the original idea which inspired their creation. What is basic and what is secondary? The idea is basic, its expression secondary.

"The Nobel Prize-winning physiologist George Wald once famously argued that 'we choose to believe the impossible: that life arose spontaneously by chance.' In later years, he concluded that a preexisting mind, which he posits as the matrix of physical teality, composed a physical universe that breeds life:
'How is it that, with so many other apparent options, we are in a universe that possesses just that peculiar nexus of properties that breeds life? It has occurred to me lately — I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities — that both questions might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality — that the stuff of which physical reality is constructed is mind stuff. . .'

"This, too, is my conclusion. The only satisfactory explanation for the origin of such 'end-directed, self-replicating' life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind." (Anthony Flew, There is a God, pp. 130-131).

Plato believed that children are born into this world possessed of innate ideas, which can be elicited by experience but are not records or reports of any experience. A rival theory, popular for a time, posited that children were born as blank slates, who learned everything they know by sense experience. The association theory of learning collapsed because in practice it just doesn't work; no one today believes that an infant is a blank slate, not even atheists: "Such a blueprint has been widely assumed ever since the linguist Noam Chomsky argued that the structure of human language is far too complex for a child to learn within just a few years, in the absence of any hard-wired instructions. . .Such difficulties convinced Chomsky that children learning their first language would face an impossible task unless much of language's structure was already preprogrammed into them. Chomsky concluded that we are born with a 'universal grammar' already wired into our brains to give us a spectrum of grammatical models encompassing the range of grammars in actual languages." (Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee, p. 163). Plato's explanation for these innate ideas, namely reincarnation, is distinctly unhelpful. Plato himself, however, described this paradigm as a myth, a story. While seeming to break away from the useless theory of learning by association, in practice, in his theory of reminiscence, he fell right back into it. He could not get away from the assumption that we learn by forming associations, and if we did not form these associations in this life, we must have done so in a prior life. In this computer age, it has become familiar and uncontroversial to suppose that information can be hard-wired into the system.

So a balanced evaluation of this man, and also Aristotle who later came to be of great importance, although both exerted a distorting impress upon the Christian message, must recognize that both also made real contributions to human understanding. As ever, it is best to chew the meat and spit out the bones. Accusing those Christians whom one dislikes of 'Platonism' is not original to the open theists, it is a very old diversion:

Logo Is first century Jewish author Philo Judaeus a bridge figure between Greek philosophy and Christianity? Some people seem to think that he is, although he was a non-Messianic Jew who held no such opinion as that the Word had become incarnate. His voluminous literary output falls into the category of Bible exposition; he plainly is, however, a neoplatonist. He will tell you he learned everything he knows from Moses, but some folks just plain don't believe him.

He may well be a bridge figure between Judaism and Christianity. In reading modern authors like Amy-Jill Levine and Shmuley Boteach, the reader will note how naively and unself-consciously they inject their own personal opinions into the minds of first century Jews. If this were so, then first century Jews believed in a theology of 'Father-onlyism.' There is however no documentary evidence that first century Jews believed anything like what these modern authors believe, whereas there is plenty of first century evidence flowing from the voluble Philo. But Philo's God is not the Father only. Philo's Judaic theology would ultimately prove a snare for the church, because it tended toward semi-Arianism and probably gave aid and comfort to that faction. He was abandoned altogether by the synagogue. When people say that the trinity is a New Testament doctrine, that is not quite true; rather, the orthodox trinity is a New Testament doctrine, whose understanding awaited the revelation of God in Christ. Lacking such revelation as John 5:23, "That all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father," the Bible-believer would be committed to some form of subordinationism. He would not, however, be a Unitarian; Philo wasn't. As to how the man knows what he knows, he's just taking God at His word: