Greek Philosophy in Christian Theology
(The Synthesis of Plato and Augustine’s Philosophies)
Plato’s philosophy is highly related with St. Augustine’s philosophy. While Plato’s approach to the nature of reality is highly metaphysical, Augustine approach is theological and to an extent moral. However, although Plato did not invent the term illumination, it was rooted from his earlier notions of reality and the concept of the immaterial to which Augustine based his philosophy. However, Augustine’s philosophy was also borne out of the theological debates of his time, and as such his philosophy may contain views divergent from that of Plato. Nevertheless, the emerging West did not hesitate to synthesize the two philosophies for theological purposes (to combat heresies) – sometimes called Christian Platonism.
Thesis Statement: Augustine’s philosophy was rooted (bearing some resemblance) to the philosophy of Plato, and such synthesis of the two philosophies was employed by the Church and the emerging Christian kingdoms to combat heresies.
On the Nature of Reality
For Plato, reality cannot be detected by the ordinary mind. Reality exists outside from this world; for this world of sensation is a world cloaked in shadow. The real world is found in the world of concepts; of which the world was shaped from, and whose existence does not depend on materiality. The material world is an illusion to which every human being must “see” and be liberated. Plato’s Analogy of the Cave (On Truth and Reality, http://www.spaceandmotion.com/Philosophy-Plato-Philosopher.htm) points out, “Then think what would happen to them if they were released from their bonds and cured of their delusions … all actions would be painful and he would be too dazzled to see properly the objects of which he used to see the shadows. So if he was told that what he used to see was mere illusion and that he was now nearer reality and seeing more correctly, because he was turned towards objects that were more real, and if on top of that he were compelled to say what each of the passing objects was when it was pointed out to him, don’t you think he would be at a loss, and think that what he used to see was more real than the objects now being pointed out to him.”
Reality is far removed from this material world. Sensation does not necessarily translate into reality; for sensation as modern philosophers would argue is the embodiment of what is plausible to the body, in short what the body dictates. The “real” reality exists in a world of ideas of which the material world was shaped; of which time was structured; of which the future of humanity depends. Herein, the material world is merely a shadow of the world of ideas; it is wrong to assume that the world of ideas is the shadow, for all things material were made from such ideas.
Augustine’s philosophy bears some resemblance to the concept of reality in Plato’s philosophy. For Augustine, the world was created by the Eternal Word, God, whose existence is not determined by time, space, and materiality. As such in this Word, is found the model concept of all things, of which they were created (The Philosophy of St. Augustine: General Ideas, http://www.radicalacademy.com/philaugustine1.htm#epistemology).
Augustine made John 1:1-3 as the formal basis of his concept of reality. It reads “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, He was with God in the beginning, through Him all things were made; without Him nothings was made that was made” (NIV, p. 778). The Word mentioned here is God; He holds the eternal concepts to which the world was structured. God is the source of concepts, for He was the being who has no beginning.
When the concepts were translated into material forms, this is called illumination. Human senses were barred from inquiring to the real world because of its inability to grasp the true nature of things. Nevertheless, the process of illumination was not taught or innate in human nature, and as such was alien. The purpose then of the human mind is to grasp the will of God that he may discover the essence of the Divine Being, and consequently, the world of reality.
It was evident that Augustine’s concept of illumination is highly rooted from Plato’s concept of reality. While Augustine posits a world of concept governed by a Divine Originator, Plato’s world of concept is free flowing. Both philosophies however subscribe to the process of illumination, although Plato did not use the term in his writings. Plato however in his masterpiece The Republic (360 B.C/1994:67) argued that there is this Divine Being that governs the world and to which all things were made, and that all things will be directed to pass.
On the Nature of God
God for Plato (Book II, p. 108) represents the good ordeals of the human species. God is the embodiment of what is good and desirable only to the extent that it does not contain evil. God however is not the source of all things, for there are certain things that God did not create. Evil is the procreation of men; the fruit of their proud nature. God also does not change. His nature is locked from time immemorial; He is always spirit, and as such defined as the Ultimate Spirit. God also is incapable of lying; if He is capable of lying, humanity then will have no genuine liberty from the bondage of shadow.
It is interesting that Plato’s concept of God fits well to the Christian concept of God. Augustine assumes that God is everlasting and unchanging. He argues that God is the forbearance of things which are really good, for God declared during the time of creation that all things are good. God is also spirit; God is spirit because a spirit is capable of creating things material and to a great extent spiritual things.
God is capable of doing all things except evil. For Augustine, evil is the act contrary to the will of God. If God is the highest form of existence, and represents the highest point of authority, who is capable of doing acts contrary to him? Human beings are the only ones capable of doing evil acts; for evil is borne out of human free will. Divine free will bears good but human free will sometimes bears evil.
Plato however did not envision a God composed of Three Persons; this development took place during the 2nd century A.D. when the Church Fathers were making a staunch battle against the heretics of the East. Augustine defended the doctrine of Trinity to ensure that the Platonist doctrine of a universal world of concept be retained in the Christian doctrine, albeit with some modifications. This world of concept was predicated by God in the beginning, in short it was in God, and as such became the foundation of things.
On the Nature of Soul
The human soul for Plato is incapable of grasping the truth (in short reality). Although the soul is inanimate, it cannot grasp the inanimate nature of the world of ideas, because it is locked in an animate body. Herein, the human soul seeks liberation from the lies of this material world, and thus is digressed by the realities of pain and death. Death is the liberation from this great lie, although for Plato the human soul passes away when the body dies.
Augustine (410 A.D./ 2005) made some modifications on Plato’s concept of soul. He argued that the soul is incapable of grasping the Eternal Truth because it is capable of sinning. Although a spirit, the human soul cannot understand the real nature of the world of ideas because it is blinded by the material world to which his/her body desires. Liberation is only possible through the teachings of Jesus Christ, God’s Incarnate Word. To be able to reach to the Ultimate Truth, one should possess a mind genuine enough to lead a life of holiness and truth. In this way, the lies of the world, represented by sin, would be made naked. Truth about the nature of God and reality would be made present. Death is also a form of liberation because the human soul would see the true nature of things, although for the soul filled with sin, this corresponds to a reality in hell – the pit of shadow and despair.
It is highly evident that Plato’s philosophy became the foundation of Augustine’s philosophy although the former was modified to suit the emerging Christian religion. Plato’s concept of illusion, God, and human soul, became more or less the major tenets of Christianity to which is termed Christian Platonism.
Necessity of Synthesizing Platonism with Christianity
The rise of Christianity as the official religion during the time of Theodosius the Great was coupled by the rise of several sects, often with diverging views on the nature of God and the Trinity. To unify the Christian faith, the Church Fathers need a formal philosophy to be the base of attack to these “heresies.” Platonism found favor to the emerging Catholic Church in the 4th century A.D. due perhaps to the similarity of the concepts employed and the complexity of the arguments in Plato’s philosophy. This mixture of similarity and complexity became a sort of a mechanism of the Church to defeat the proponents of the “heresies” in public debates and forums. It was also the way for the Church to convince political leaders to crush “heresies” in their areas of responsibility so as to enable the Christian Church to be self-unifying and abject of false teachings. Platonism was also utilized by the Church because of its popularity in the 2nd century A.D. It was a formal philosophy, mixed with some form of mysticism and practicality. This was no alternative to the Church but to adopt the philosophy to its general thinking, although with many modifications.
Powerful forces were behind the synthesis of Platonism and Christianity. Although the synthesis of the two world views are clearly imbibed in Augustine’s philosophy, there is always the tendency to assume that the concepts used maybe of different senses, for they were structured on different time frames.
———- Analogy of the Cave. On Truth and Reality. URL http://www.spaceandmotion.com/Philosophy-Plato-Philosopher.htm. Retrieved August 4, 2007.
Augustine. 2005. The City of God. Trans. By Rev. Marcus Dods, D.D. URL http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf102.iv.i.html. Retrieved August 4, 2007.
New International Bible. 1978. Bible Scholars Association Inc.
Plato. The Republic. Book II. URL http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.3.ii.html. Retrieved August 4, 2007.
———–The Philosophy of St. Augustine. The Great Thinkers of Western Philosophy. Radical Academy. URL http://www.radicalacademy.com/philaugustine1.htm#epistemology. Retrieved August 4, 2007.