Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Plato and Platonism in the Philosophy Curriculum

Plato, from the "School of Athens" by Raphael

I have done much thinking recently on the place and importance of Plato and the Platonic tradition in courses on the history of philosophy. At most Catholic, liberal arts institutions, as far as I can tell, the philosophy of Plato is somewhat sidelined: Plato is read as a handy and thought-provoking introduction to the perennial tradition, as the philosopher who gets us asking the right questions, the profound questions, and who gives us a first attempt at the right answers - but who, nonetheless, fell short of the right answers. Plato's answers, his positive philosophical accounts of the world and human nature, are given an initial cursory consideration and then dismissed as a good but ultimately inadequate attempt at getting to the truth of things. 

Enter Aristotle, the Philosopher himself, who has all the answers to Plato's questions, and the corrections to Plato's answers. We read Aristotle as our primary teacher; we identify ourselves first and foremost as Aristotle's disciples; Aristotle is, for us, the dominating influence on the Catholic Thomist philosophy which we likewise claim as our own. Plato seems to be all but forgotten. We may fondly and condescendingly remember the days in Freshman year when we read his dialogues to discover the fundamental questions of philosophy; or we remember the naively esoteric, imprecise, and unsystematic answers which he attempted to give, in order  to know, by contrast with them, the more mature and reasonable solutions of Aristotle and St. Thomas. Plato's body of thought, considered on its own merits, is deemed finally wrong, incomplete, and lacking in systematic unity.

I submit that this is a rather unjust way to read Plato, as the brave but somewhat naive philosopher whose endeavors would later be surpassed by his successors. On the contrary, Plato' positive insights - not just his questions - deserve a more serious consideration, and often hit upon nobler and profounder truths of philosophy than many Aristotelian scholastics give him credit for. Despite the possible imprecision of their formulation, the Platonic doctrines of form, participation, of the soul and its embodiment, as well as the doctrines of love and the nature of philosophy in general, should be read for their profound hidden truths and the inner "spirit" which characterizes them. Hidden in these doctrines is the conception of philosophy as an inherently mystical and even religious pursuit - this is at least its trajectory. The pursuit of wisdom, which is the knowledge of the supreme Good, is much more than a scientific or academic specialization, but a spiritual transformation of the whole man, who detaches himself from what is merely partial in the realm of being, and becomes one with the whole, with the most universal, with what is unqualifiedly the best and noblest. Plato even described the seeds of an entire ascetical way of life that conduces to this mystical ascent to the Good. Likely drawing much influence from ancient Egyptian religious sources, Plato conceives of the philosophic life as a rite of purification by spiritual death and rebirth, in preparation for the final death after which one is free to gaze upon the universal truth of things completely unimpeded. Philosophic education is an education of the whole man, not something partial and constricted, but something which gradually opens the man to the actual intelligible and all-encompassing universality of Beauty or the Good.

Furthermore, Plato's thought has indeed given rise to a number of coherent "systems" of thought (though "system" is a dangerous word) in the Neoplatonic schools. Granted, these various systems do not always agree with one another; but this is true of any variety of offshoots from an original intellectual branch of thought - even that of Aristotle or St. Thomas. The ambiguity of the original master is not necessarily a condemnation of him; it may be a sign of the richness and inexhaustibility of this thought in the first place. (Sometimes, to be sure, there is an ambiguity which is almost deliberately non-committal, an ambiguity which is guilty of shying away from the truth; but this is not always the case. While, on the one hand, the philosopher should certainly not indulge in such muddiness of thought, nor, on the other hand, should he overrate clarity and distinction of thought, as is characteristic of the Cartesian rationalist.) Moreover, even in spite of the disagreement of Plato's many disciples, there are profound truths to be learnt from all of them, individually and as a group. To read Plato well, one must also be acquainted with his disciples and commentators - among whom Aristotle himself is in fact included! - so as to comprehend and penetrate the depth, riches, and yes, even the "systematic" unity of his teaching (again employing the term "systematic" with some reservation). The mark of the Neoplatonists was their inclination to organization, rooted in an intimate familiarity with the original texts of Plato. Though perhaps less so with Plotinus, who is described as the "father of Neoplatonism," his disciples, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, and Damascius were great organizers; philosophy, for them, was very much a science, as well as a quasi rite of transformation. This tendency to organize and systematize would have an immense influence on the later medieval scholastic period, in which the Summa would become one of the predominant forms of philosophical and theological composition.

In this vein, I think there is a serious case to be made for a harmony rather than the conventional dichotomy between the thought of Plato and Aristotle. In the famous painting by Raphael of the School of Athens, Plato is depicted as gesturing towards the heavens, while Aristotle points to the earth, signifying the loftiness and almost other-worldliness of Plato's philosophy in contrast to Aristotle's rootedness in the earth and sensible reality. There is indeed a contrast between emphases here; but I would put forward that these two figures represent two necessary elements of philosophy as a whole: philosophy has an upward trajectory toward the heaven of divine Ideas, but it discovers these Ideas only in their earthly reflection, which is the form identified by Aristotle as one of the principles of natural beings. The mystical direction of philosophy is preserved by a necessary element of Platonism, and the grounded, "down-to-earth" character of Aristotelianism is necessary for keeping this Platonism in touch with reality. I think it would not be unfair to say that, ultimately, one cannot be a good philosopher without being a Platonist, nor a good Platonist without being an Aristotelian. Moreover, it would be simply naive to read Aristotle while ignoring the evidently Platonic and upward trajectory of even his philosophy, which is exemplified in the tenth book of the Nicomachean Ethics, where he defines the essence of happiness as the philosophic contemplation of the best and noblest things. This is not far off from Plato's own conception of wisdom, which is the contemplation of the supreme form of the Good. 

Again along similar lines, I think there is a case to be made for the heavy influence of Platonic thought on St. Thomas Aquinas. Much of this influence was certainly unknown to himself, but St. Thomas was a devoted disciple of St. Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who were unabashed Platonists; and Thomas himself later in life became well-acquainted with a couple of crucial texts of Neoplatonism, namely the Liber de Causis by an anonymous author (whom most at the time thought to be Aristotle, but Thomas himself showed otherwise), and also the Elements of Theology of Proclus. Too often we suppose that St. Thomas as a philosopher was simply an Aristotelian; but in fact, as Josef Pieper argues, it is impossible to situate the Angelic Doctor within one single and exclusive school of thought. St. Thomas was a synthesizer, in the best sense, of a multitude of traditions which he inherited from many different sources. Certainly, St. Thomas played a large role in bringing Aristotle to the table, in the context of a medieval academic world which was perhaps more influenced by Platonism at the time; but St. Thomas was no outsider to his time, and it is mistaken to suppose that the primary struggle of that period in the history of philosophy was between Platonism and Aristotelianism as competing philosophies. St. Thomas is proof, not of the competition between them, but of their wonderful compatibility.

In short, I think that the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, developed in the doctrine of St. Thomas, yields an important and profound insight into the nature and direction of the world, principally its incarnational character: divine forms making themselves present and known in sensible, material beings. The trajectory of philosophy is towards the divine, and this is only completed and fulfilled finally by something supernatural: the self-revelation of God. But God reveals Himself in the flesh, that is, in Jesus Christ. For Christians especially, it is important therefore to maintain a visionary disposition that is ever looking for God, but looking at things in the world; and it is precisely such a disposition that I think emerges from the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle together. The disposition of soul that such a philosophy fosters is precisely what is needed for the true reception and welcoming of the Word of God, who became flesh.

I do not claim to have all the solutions to the questions of how Plato and Aristotle and St. Thomas harmonize together; but there is already good work being done on this question by various renowned scholars. Among such scholars are Dr. Wayne Hankey of Dalhousie University, Dr. Lloyd Gerson of the University of Toronto, Dr. Eric Perl of Loyola Marymount, and others, have written extensively on this and related subjects. Moreover, there is a whole host of other recent publications which delve into these questions, which I hope to utilize in my own researches. This blog will hopefully include a slow record of my own eventual and gradual discoveries...

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