Essay / Philosophy

Joshua Claybourn's Domain: Plato v Aristotle, part II

Joshua Claybourn’s Domain: Plato v Aristotle, part II: “I would note that Dr. Reynolds is only able to make the arguments he does by focusing on the first half of the Timaeus. They’re quite reasonable if one is willing to accept an argument based on half of one dialogue and minor bits and pieces (‘clues’) taken out of context in a few others (out of 25 or so) as representative of Plato as a whole. The biggest issue with his interpretation lies with his decision to equate Plato’s Form of the Good with the Christian God and the doctrine of Creation. Given that God created everything but himself and that God created of his own free will (i.e., he was free to create or not as he saw fit), there is no way that the Form of the Good could be equivalent to God because the Form of the Good has no freedom to be or do anything other that what it is or does. (not to mention that it’s a stretch to imply that the Form of the Good creates anything at all and isn’t just a template as such)Other complications? It’s a stretch to assume that the Form of the Good could be provident. Plato’s concept of Being/Becoming with respect to the Forms would make most of the Old Testament impossible. Plato’s concept of evil makes it necessary (in a Christian interpretation) that God created evil.My question: when Augustine, Boethius, etc were writing, it was necessary for them to use the ancient Greeks as ‘backup’ for their ideas in order to lend them strength and to help them convince people to convert from paganism (as well as philosophy itself!) to Christianity. Why should anyone today care rather or not Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, or anyone else is compatible with Christianity? The argument that they seem to have gotten so much right (with respect to Christian doctrine) seems to fail given how much they obviously got wrong. . .”——————End of Quote. . . I respond:My arguments do not depend on reading only the first half of the “Timaeus,” but in reading both creation accounts and assuming they form a unified whole. There are three (in my opinion) major sections to Timaeus. There are two creation accounts. I believe they can be harmonized and that the best means to do so is to see the Craftsman of the first account as being the Form of the second account. Of course, this is not the omnipotent god of the Old Testament, but can be made, and was made, compatible with Him by a development of some parts of Platonism and a rejection of other parts. This is not a view unique to me. I would love to be pointed to specific passages in Plato that falsify my view. (See Taylor’s Commentary for a more indepth discussion. . . I should note that Taylor thinks Timaeus a conflation of Empedoles and Pythagoras and that not all of it is Plato’s view. I don’t follow Taylor on this point, but that is another story.) Plato is not Moses, and the Timaeus is not Genesis, however, Timaeus does contain useful ideas that may help a Christian make better sense of Moses and Genesis. Or not. Recall: the argument was that Christian Platonism is impossible from a Biblical point of view. I showed it was possible, but now the question seems to be: have I misread Plato. Assume I have misread Plato. We are not discussing Plato’s actual views, broadly, but views that can be derived from Plato and still be justifiably called Platonism. My views seem to fit that category on even a pessimistic reading. Platonism can be fruitful and be adopted by Christians. As I pointed out, almost nothing in Plato scholarship is “for sure.” I think Timaeus is the most relevant dialogue on this topic, it is my own specialty, and so I focused on it. I could have looked at the arguments for a Creator in Laws, some of the earliest Intelligent Design arguments ever made, or from the myth of Er in Republic. Plato has several discussions of Creation, but he does not have an infinite number. I don’t see any reason that my interpretation cannot work with any of the accounts in the canonical dialogues. Much of recent scholarship (post 1920) in Plato is intent of getting rid of the “Christian” Plato. There is some good to that, if it causes us just to see his “soul” as the Jewish “soul” for example. However, some of it is motivated by a dislike of Christianity. Plato sounds Christian at times. . . so we must be sure no thinks that he is very much like Christians at all. I advocate a “middle way” that sees Plato as a person very much like Christian philosophers on important points, a sort of great pre-Christian, the way Dante saw Virgil. Did Plato hold these views I atrribute to him? I don’t know. Could he have held them and maintained his essential doctrines? I think so. Put it this way: Plato believed in transmigration of souls, a doctrine I reject as a Christian. However, this doctrine does not seem to me to be necessary for larger doctrines he thought it aided (recollection, immortality of the soul). So I think it acceptable to modify Platonism in this direction, reject transmigration, and still call myself a Platonist. The project was to see if some form of Platonism was compatible with Christianity. It was not to argue that Plato was a Christian or that his Form of the Good just is the Christian God. I think “Timaeus” can be understood in a way somewhat congenial to Christian theism. The writer quoted complains that the Form of the Good has “has no freedom to be or do anything other than what it is or does.” I am not sure the writer meant the first part of the disjunct, perhaps I have misunderstood. Surely God along with every other being lacks the freedom to be anything other than what He is. What He is, is what He is. The second part of the disjunct is more complicated. Does God have “freedom” in terms of what He does? Does He “choose?” If He is outside of time, then isn’t our human term choice just a metaphor? What does it mean for God to be free? Is it possible to imagine God willing something other than what He willed? If God created the cosmos, then it must have been best for God to create the cosmos. God always acts to do what is best. So how could God will not to create the cosmos? Does God have sequential wants that change? We know He has no needs. If God exists in some Eternal Now (Boethius), then He has but one will and one desire. He does not do things, but has done one Thing which we relate to in different manners.Christian Platonists have argued that God is outside of time. He experiences the cosmos as a “now.” His creative act is a piece of His one great act. As a simple being, His will and action are one. His eternal disposition toward us is love. We may receive this love as wrath due to our sinfulness. Given papers to grade, I would just urge insertion of some Christian neo-Platonist here. What does it mean for God to create? Can the Good be personal? I am not sure that anyone has anything “perfect” to say about the nature of God’s personality. As I pointed out, the problem for any Christian Platonism is understanding what it means for God to be a person. Since this would be a very long discussion, I would simply point out that Christian Platonists have tried to deal with this problem. If Plato believes anything, it is that evil is the result of ignorance. I do not see how his God needs to create ignorance. Plato can (and does account) for ignorance on other grounds. For example, humans may be educated badly (by accident or design) and so become ignorant. Two important notes: 1. Plato’s god is not omnipotent. He does the best he can with recalcitrant matter. This is not necessary (in my opinion) to Platonism as a movement, but seems to be Plato’s view.2. Plato’s god is not triune. That matters too!3. Plato may, may, also view evil as partly a result of willful/irrational (not evil in the Christian sense) matter. Why care about this issue? For two reasons: First, I think Plato continue
s to give us fruitful ideas as we think about difficult questions. Assuming idealism cannot help is not justified without long reflection. I think some forms of Platonic idealism are helpful in dealing with some kinds of questions. (See Taylor.) Second, there is historic interest since many great Christian thinkers and possibly some Christian ideas have been influenced by Platonism. This influence for good or bad should be studied. This is great fun. I am sorry for the brevity that blogging demands! Let’s argue about a specific text and my meta-reading, yes?

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