Plato Platonism

Early Christian thought was permeated by a diffuse Platonism. Platonism was itself a living and creative philosophical tradition during the first Christian centuries, and coincidences of thinking were plain to Christian readers. Augustine, who had never, as far as we know, gone to the trouble of making any special study of Cicero's translation of part of Plato's Timaeus, or to seek out Calcidius' fourth-century commentary on it, or to look for the other dialogues he could have found at Carthage or Rome, was captivated

PHILOSOPHICAL SOURCES when an acquaintance showed him Marius Victorinus' recent renderings of Plotinus and Porphyry. He read there, he says, of the Word of God, who was in the beginning with God, and by whom all things were made (Confessions VII.ix). This and much more showed him hints of a truth beyond sense-perception and began to satisfy at last the intellectual and spiritual hunger which had kept him searching for a decade and more for a philosophical and religious system which would not fail him (Confessions VII.xx). Thus was the ground laid for his conversion to a Christianity which was for Augustine always to be in sympathy with much Platonist teaching. It was Platonism, for example, which taught him the principle that sin and evil create darkness in the mind, and gave him some understanding of an omnipresent, unchanging God (Confessions VII.xx). There was much that Platonism could not do for him, as he explains. He discovered in Scripture truths beyond the understanding of the philosophers (Confessions VII.xxi). But there was a comforting amount of common ground for Augustine, and others before him who had wanted to make use of the most sophisticated philosophical works of their time in trying to understand express Christian truth. Platonism encouraged an emphasis on the spiritual and aspiring, where the clear air of the knowledge of God was attained by self-denial, subjugation of the flesh and the cultivation of intellectual purity, and a man's soul could rise above his baser nature. Christ could be seen as the highest Reason, God's Wisdom. It seemed to Augustine not only an appropriate but a natural move to go into 'philosophical retirement' at Cassiciacum for a time after his conversion, to discuss with friends such questions as the nature of the happy life (De Beata Vita) and the order of the universe (De Ordine).

It was in practice largely through Augustine's writings that much of Platonism's system of thought came to enter so fully and deeply into the Western Christian tradition. But the Pseudo-Dionysian tradition also played a part. In the fifth century Proclus wrote an Elements of Theology which was to prove controversial among contemporaries.20 It provoked among other writings a series of works by an author who has become known as Ps.-Dionysius the Areopagite, in which the hierarchy of the universe under God is worked out in some detail, as an ascent towards union with God is set before man as his goal. Because these were held to be the writings of the Dionysius who was converted by St Paul they carried an almost apostolic authority in the centuries which followed, and through Ps.-Dionysius Proclus had a considerable influence in both Western and Eastern Christendom in the Middle Ages. The Elements of Theology itself was used by Michael Psellus in eleventh-century Byzantium, but in the West it did not

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES become available in Latin until William of Moerbeke made his translation in 1268.

Plato's Timaeus, with Chalcidius' commentary, was in circulation in Latin in the West well before any other work of Plato was widely available. It was of particular interest in the twelfth century because it deals with creation, and challenges orthodox Christian teaching both in what it says about the question of creation ex nihilo and in its treatment of the anima mundi. Peter Abelard attempts to explain the difference of usage between Christian and 'philosopher' which makes it possible for 'the philosophers' to speak of a 'begetting of the world' (genitura mundi) and of God as Genitor universitatis, without meaning any more than that the world is 'from' (ab) God; while for the Christian 'begetting' is restricted to the relationship of Father to Son in the Trinity (CCCM XII, p. 82). Thierry of Chartres writes on the six days of creation with a sideways eye on Chalcidius (TC, pp. 555ff). Gilbert of Poitiers has Plato's ideas about the first matter in the forefront of his mind in writing about the way natural science studies matter and form (on Boethius' De Trinitate, GP, p. 80).

In the later twelfth century Henricus Aristippus translated the Phaedo and the Meno. But for the most part Plato's writings remained inaccessible to the mediaeval West. We find William of Auvergne speculating on what Plato himself might have said on a particular point,21 and Guy of Rimini in the fourteenth century able only to speak of Aristotle's criticisms of Plato, without being in a position to say how Plato might have answered for himself.22 It remained the case that the profound influence exercised by Plato upon mediaeval thought found its way for the most part indirectly through the works of later Platonists, and the Christian Fathers who had made use of their thought.

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