Plato (428-348 BC)
The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 39
Platonic thought strongly influenced Christian theology of the early church. He is quoted favorably in the works of the early church fathers, including Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and the Cappadocian Church Fathers, Basil the Great (c.330-379), bishop of Caesarea; Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa (c.332-395), bishop of Nyssa; and Gregory of Nazianzus (c.329-389), Patriarch of Constantinople. St. Augustine was heavily influenced by Platonism as well, which he encountered through the Latin translations of Marius Victorinus of the works of Prophyry and/or Plotinus. Augustine could scarcely withhold praise for Plato, the greatest philosopher.
But, among the disciples of Socrates, Plato was the one who shone with a glory which far excelled that of the others, and who not unjustly eclipsed them all… City of God, Book VIII, Chapter 4
How can Plato eclipse all the other philosophers? Augustine believes the Platonists are nearer to the real God than any other theologians or philosophers. These philosophers have demonstrated that God has transcended all bodies; God is beyond being and immutable. He writes:
If, then, Plato defined the wise man as one who imitates, knows, loves this God… It is evident that none come nearer to us than the Platonists… City of God, Book VIII, Chapter 5
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 they have transcended every soul and all changeable spirits in seeking the supreme. City of God, Book VIII, Chapter 6
Augustine would freely and unashamedly praise Plato. Contrast this with the Apostle Paul, who warned Christians about the pagan doctrines inherent in philosophy which Paul calls wisdom. Classical theologians (this term includes Catholic and Reformed traditions) have sought to minimize the Scriptural warnings about philosophy by limiting Paul’s injunctions to statements about Gnosticism. But Paul does not limit his criticism of philosophy to Gnosticism.
1 Corinthians 1:20 Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
Colossians 2:8 Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.
How close were Plato and Socrates to Christian teachings? Perhaps their personal lives could offer a glimpse at the answer. Were they “closet” Christians who “keep the righteous requirements of the law” even without hearing Scripture. Anyone who knows about their lives knows they were not. Many of their virtues were contrary to Christian morality. Not the least of these virtues is homosexuality which pervades the Platonic dialogues. So rampant is homosexuality in these discussions, the Old English philosophers invented the term “Platonic Love” to describe a sexless love between persons. But this does not describe Plato. Socrates, also, in one breath expresses his love for beautiful boys and philosophical discussions. A strange synergy exists between the two subjects in his works. In Lysis, Socrates advises and encourages Hippothales to practice the art of seduction with young boys. (203b6–204a3) Hippothales does not know the art of love and does not know how to talk to Lysis, the boy with whom he is in love. So Socrates advises him against singing love songs to the boy because if the seduction fails, the singer will be subject to ridicule.
Quite so, on my soul, said Ctesippus; and a ridiculous story it is too, Socrates. To be a lover, and to be singularly intent on one’s boy, Plato. Lysis. [205b]
Plato did not practice Christian virtues. His philosophical musing about God are equally suspect. He held neither any knowledge of the Scriptures nor any knowledge of the true God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is irresponsible to laud him with praises as Augustine and many of the early Church Fathers did. When Plato is read, he must be read with critical eye of a Christian examining Pagan philosophy.
Though we need to be wary of Platonic thinking and its follies, perhaps most surprising about Plato is how poorly he was read by the early Church Fathers. There remains an ambiguity about the nature of God in Plato’s works that later philosophers—particularly Plotinus—would need to ignore and even trample upon to develop their own notions of God, all the while calling themselves Platonists.
Rather than commit to one particular notion, Plato describes God in at least four different ways. Is God a form as described in Phaedrus? Is he the Good, a perfect, impersonal intellection described by The Republic? Is he the immutable head of the gods offered in The Republic? Is he the Deimiurge in Timaeus? Or is he the One in Parmenides? This is ripe territory for debate amongst scholars; Plato never seems to commit on exactly who god is. However, these examples became the archetypes for the whole of western theology, and continue to govern Christian theology up to the present day. To understand their influence and evolution in the Western tradition, they first must be understood in their original context.
For Plato, the attributes of eternality and immutability are one step removed from god. These attributes describe the properties of unseen models of reality called the forms. The forms comprise the essential nature of any idea. Strip away all predicates of any particular thing, and all that remains is being. Without the color, the voice, the weight, etc. of a cow, only “cowness” remains, the essential quality of being a cow. Plato argued the form of cow (here dubbed “cowness”) exists apart from the cow. If a cow loses its “cowness” by death, the material that made a cow may no longer be a cow, but the form of cow continues. The forms cause the existence of all things and are the source of knowledge of all things.
The Greek words for form are εìδος (eidos) and ιδεα (idea). There is a form for every object in reality: dogs, cats, mountains, and also for abstract qualities such as courage, love, and goodness. How does a newborn child come to understanding something like a chair? The child remembers what a chair is because of an innate wealth of knowledge imbedded within the eternal soul. Maybe even from a soul in another reincarnation. The soul recovers understanding from the forms to answer the question, “What is that?”
A form is does not occupy space (omnipresent), but is unchangeable (Phaedrus 78c10-d9), eternal (Phaedrus 79d2), divine (Phaedrus 80a3, b1), incorporeal, and the cause of being. Whereas Parmenides before him identifies being and intelligibility, Plato continues by associating the Parmenidian concept of being (το ον) with form (ειδος). Although the forms never rise to the status of gods, the attributes of the form certainly resemble the incommunicable attributes of God proposed by classical theologians. In the same way, in the Republic, Plato will describe the good, which is one of Plato’s concepts of god, as beyond being.
Plato describes “The Form of the Good” in a simile. Paraphrased, it says as the sun which makes sensible objects visible, the Good makes Forms intelligible. This Good generates all other forms. What is implied is there are evil things which have existence and essence. The Good in Book VI gives existence and essence to all things. All things are good because goodness means that which contributes to having essence. This is different than treating goodness as a virtue of a certain relationship between people.
In The Republic, Plato argues the Good is beyond essence and transcends essence. For God to be personal, God must have essence. But this god is an impersonal god. The Universe is created by the Good who uses the forms as blueprints. This concept of transcending essence or being will be further developed by another Greek philosopher, Plotinus, in his description of his god, the One.
In like manner, then, you are to say that the objects of knowledge not only receive from the presence of the good their being known, but their very existence and essence (τὸ εἶναί τε καὶ τὴν οὐσίαν) is derived to them from it, though the good itself is not essence ( οὐκ οὐσίας ὄντος τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ) but still transcends essence (ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας) in dignity and surpassing power. Plato. Republic. 6.509b
The Good, Plato’s God, is not being but beyond being. God is beyond the forms but certainly not less than the forms. The highest being in the universe is over the forms. Using Parmenides as explicit source material for his arguments, Plato argues that the forms have the classical attributes of immutability and eternality.
In another section of The Republic, Plato conceives of God as an impersonal entity who does not cause all things but only good things. The good here seems to be what makes immaterial matter into matter that has form. This form is responsible for existence and essence. It is not clear if this good is the opposite of evil.
“How?” “The sun, I presume you will say, not only furnishes to visibles the power of visibility but it also provides for their generation and growth and nurture though it is not itself generation.” “Of course not.” “In like manner, then, you are to say that the objects of knowledge not only receive from the presence of the good their being known, but their very existence and essence is derived to them from it, though the good itself is not essence but still transcends essence2 in dignity and surpassing power.” Plato.Republic Book VI. [509b]
The Immutable God
A third discussion of God also appears in Book II of The Republic. In this epic dialogue, Socrates is challenged by Glaucon to prove that justice is desirable in and of itself. He believes there are two kinds of political justice: one for the city and one for the individual. He looks for justice at the city level and then see if any justice may be found in the virtue of the individual. He then proposes building a just city from scratch. In this healthy city, there are only workers who produce only what is necessary.
The practical Glaucon calls this city the “city of pigs.” People want more than necessities; they want rich food and luxurious accommodations. Socrates explains how only the right people with the right ideas will be allowed into the city. The leaders of the people are called the guardians and their education requires a process of purification. After the guardians are purified, the city can be purified by the guardians. Part of the education of the guardians is to protect their concept of god.
Because they must fiercely protect god, the stories about the gods must be changed. Only the right ideas about god will be permitted. One of these right ideas is that god is only the cause of Good things. Is this the Good mentioned in the previous section? This is debatable. The Good from Book VI causes all things, makes all things good, and is responsible for all things. Here, god is only responsible for good things.
“This, then,” said I “will be one of the laws and patterns concerning the gods to which speakers and poets will be required to conform, that God is not the cause of all things, but only of the good.” “And an entirely satisfactory one,” he said. Plato. Republic, Book II, [380c]
For the citizens to be good, they must conceive of god as good. A good God is good all the time and so must be immutable. The concept of immutability, the heart of the Greek philosophical conception of god, is explained in the following passage of the Republic:
“But God, surely, and everything that belongs to God is in every way in the best possible state.” “Of course.” “From this point of view, then, it would be least of all likely that there would be many forms in God.” “Least indeed.”
“But would he transform and alter himself? (μεταβάλλοι ἂν καὶ ἀλλοιοῖ);” “Obviously,” he said, “if he is altered.” “Then does he change himself (μεταβάλλει) for the better and to something fairer, or for the worse and to something uglier than himself?” Plato. Republic, Book II, [381b]
This simple syllogism is referred to as the static conception of perfection: God is perfect. Any change in God would make him less than perfect. Therefore God does not change. Does Plato believe God is immutable or does Plato believe the citizens should believe God is immutable?
It is not clear whether Plato really believes in this God or whether he suggests this conceptual God serves as a role model for propaganda in his vision of a utopian republic. Unlike the God of John Calvin and Augustine, this god of Plato is not responsible for evil. Calvin and Augustine will struggle greatly with the problems of theodicy: Is God responsible for evil? Plato does not need to struggle like later Christian theologians. But here, Plato simply defines the Good as that which is responsible for good. He makes no attempt to combine this notion of the Good with the Primary Cause of all things. Calvin and Augustine never fully resolve this question in their theology, although they and countless other classical theologians have unsuccessfully made the attempt.
This ultimate quest for changeless perfection ripples through every other facet of theology. For example, what does perfection indicate about God’s knowledge? For classical theology, God know must know everything that has existed in the past, everything in the present, and everything that will happen in the future. This has to be true, because if future events could add to God’s knowledge, then “God, surely, and everything that belongs to God” changes. Since God cannot change, then the future must be unalterable as well so that God never learns any new thing. Of course, this reasoning to omniscience both ignores Scripture and repudiates the attribute of omnipotence: God can do everything.
God’s knowledge of the future is not immutable; God must deal with free willing creatures whose actions are not fully predictable. When God interacts with people in the Scriptures, He regularly considers several alternatives. He can punish the wicked, which is in accordance with His perfect justice, or delay judgment, which is accordance with His perfect mercy.
One example of weighing the options can be seen in Hosea:
8 “How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I set you like Zeboiim?
My heart churns within Me;
My sympathy is stirred.
9 I will not execute the fierceness of My anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim.
For I am God, and not man,
Here God is deliberating among two perfect paths of action. Does he destroy Ephraim or delay judgment in the hope that Ephraim will repent and turn to God? God makes the initial decision to delay action in accordance with his perfect mercy. However, Scripture is clear. Eventually God destroys Ephraim. He changes his mind. The God of Scripture does not fit the Platonic model of God.
Plato offers radically different depiction of god in his Timaeus. Contrary to the other representations of god, this god, called the Demiurge, rules the lesser gods of Greek mythology. Is Plato a polytheist or is this symbolic? Plato will describe the Demiurge as a personal god who addresses other gods and arranges the world. The word “Demiurge” derives from the Greek (δημιουργός), meaning a “public or skilled worker.” This is a compound of demos meaning “common people” and ergos meaning “work”. The term was later adapted by the Gnostics for their conception of God. As a result, this term holds a lasting negative connotation in Christian circles.
Plato will describe the Demiurge as a creator deity, responsible for the creation of the physical universe. Technically not the sole deity, the Demiurge is said to have created the other gods and goddesses. This is said explicitly in Timaeus:
and of Cronos and Rhea were born Zeus and Hera and all those who are, as we know, called their brethren; and of these again, other descendants.
Now when all the gods, both those who revolve manifestly and those who manifest themselves so far as they choose, had come to birth, He that generated this All addressed them thus:
“Gods of gods, those works whereof I am framer(δημιουργὸς) and father are indissoluble save by my will. Plato. Timaeus, [41a]
The Demiurge is good and benevent, who makes the world as good as possible. The world is not entirely good, because the Demiurge created the world from chaos. That unworked, chaos which remains persists as evil in the world. Thus, in Timaeus, Plato makes an unusual attempt to bridge the gap between Hesiod’s cosmology, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and his own philosophical musings on the nature of god.
Naturally, this work is atypical of Plato’s other works, and later Platonic thinkers such as Plotinus would struggle to defend this characterization of God against the Gnostic conceptions of god this inspired. The difficulty for Platonist and Neoplatonists thinkers arises because they could not recognize Plato offers many, contrary notions of God. Rather, they lay claim to all Platonic characterizations and create contradictions Plato never addressed.
Parmenides is a dialogue of a fictitious conversation between Parmenides, a young Socrates, and a person named Aristotle (not the famous philosopher but a politician). Parmenides has two parts. In the first part, Socrates proposes a theory of forms found in the Platonic dialogues. The second part consists of a series of eight hypotheses concerning the One (another name for God). The first hypothesis has the most significance in the western tradition. This hypothesis attempts to answer whether the One is or is not (Parmenides 137b3-4). In other words, does the One exist?
In the first hypothesis, Parmenides declares he will speak concerning the One itself, and whether the One is or is not. This first hypothesis will later become the basis of the Neoplatonic One in the Enneads of Plotinus. Parmenides proposes the existence of the One and offers a number of conditions the One must have: simplicity, infinite, eternal, apophatic, immutable.
Here Plato conceives God as beyond being, above all worldly things. It was impossible to say anything about God or to express any accidental predicates of God. Predicates, after all, are an expression of the world. Nonetheless, Plato arrives at a surprising conclusion from these conditions: perplexity. If the One exists, then it does not exist. He offers no further answer, and it remains unclear as to what Plato really believed. Many of his arguments in Parmenides result in logical contradictions which imply Plato is not favoring one hypothesis above another.
Plotinus will later attempt to answer the first hypothesis and resolve its perplexity. He will adopt these listed attributes as the critical characteristics for Plotinus’ description of the One. In Plotinus each attribute will be expanded and woven into a systematic theology.
What is Plato’s conception of God? Is he the Good of the Republic who can do no evil, or the Immutable God of the Republic, the Demiurge of the Timaeus, or the One of Parmenides? While the One in Plotinus’ Enneads is closest to the One in Parmenides, the other concepts of God have a common thread, namely, immutability and the primary cause. Perhaps just as important, Plato, the founder of the metaphysics of the Good, became the founder of negative theology.
Alfred Whitehead’s commentary on Plato was truly apt. After Plato, philosophy becomes a means of restating similar notions of God in new ways. His pupil Aristotle will tackle the question of change and describe God purely in terms of change. A later Neoplatonist named Plotinus will work to both answer the first hypothesis in Parmenides and to harmonize the many concepts of God.
City of God. Translated by Marcus Dods. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 2. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.
Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 8 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1955.