Subject: Plato and Aristotle Philosophy
Professor: Dr Louis Caruana SJ PhD
Scholastic: Peter Lê Hoàng Nam, SJ
Born in Athens, in an aristocratic family, Plato (428/427 BC – 348/347 BC) is considered one of the greatest of Greek philosophers. He is an excellent student of Socrates whose life and death had tremendous impacts on him, and is the teacher of Aristotle who is also very famous in philosophical circle for his contributions.
Unlike his teacher who did not write any philosophical book, Plato wrote a lot of books which are dialogues, showing his thought about many different problems: epistemology, ethics, cosmology… Of all his ideas, I was strongly attracted by the idea of God which Plato presented in his theories under many different names. It is not easy to know who really is God, in the sense the Most High, in Plato’s view. The view of God in different ages will not be similar. To find out what this great philosopher thinks about God and to make a short comparison between God in Plato’s view and Christian view of God, I think, will help me a lot for my attempt to know Him more when He reveals Himself through history and in human intelligence. This is the reason why I choose this topic.
The following is the structure of this short essay. First, I will find out who is God in Plato’s works. Then, I will compare God in Plato’s view and God in Christianity to point out some similarities and differences between these two Gods.
I. Finding out the Most High of Plato
- The meaning of the word “God”
People through history have had many different ideas about what we call God. Some refuse the existence of God, while some think that there must be God. Those who believe in God’s existence all think that He is the Supreme Being or Ultimate Substance, or using the words of Saint Anselm, God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. He is infinite, perfect, eternal, all-power, all-good… But one thing that people are very easy to forget is that if there is God, there must be one God only, because if there are too many gods who are equal to each other, this god’s power will be limited by others, so he cannot be the best. Therefore, gods (plural form) are not God in the strict sense. God (“G” capitalized) must be understood as the Most High; he is the Highest One of all visible and invisible things.
- God in Plato’s view
Citizens of Athens in Plato’s time tended to worship many gods which was described in works of Homer and Heriod. Socrates, who believed that he himself was called by gods to have a special mission in this world, was also influenced by this tradition. When he was going to drink poison, he asked the servant whether he could make a libation to gods. He also asked Crito to pay a cock to Asclepius for him. However, he did not point out exactly who is the highest One. It seems that the idea of God, who is considered the highest One, was not so clear at that time.
Plato’s view of God seemed to be more prominent, but also had many vague details. At first, we have to acknowledge that Plato opposes atheism. This is the reason why he suggested that the government should have law to punish those who had the acts of impiety. These are those who do not believe in the existence of gods or believes but think that gods have no interest in human race or believes that gods can be won round by sacrifice and prayer. For Plato, gods are good, beauty, intelligence, possessing the virtues of wisdom, temperance, courage, not lazy or self-indulgent. They are also very just, no one can escape punishment for misdeeds, whether he flies to heaven or hides in hell.
It seems that Plato is a polytheist because he always talks about gods, not God. However, reading thoroughly his books, we will discover his intuition about one God, who is the highest One, beyond all the other gods. Let us try to ferret out Him.
- Finding out the Most High in Plato’s works
The center of Plato theories is in his theory of Ideas in which he claims that this visible world is only the shadow. For Plato, truth lies in the realm of the unchanging Forms. The visible realm of becoming only discloses truth insofar as it participates in the world of Forms. Therefore, God will be the One who belongs to the world of Ideas, because He is a reality, not a shadow. However, it is not easy to know who is the Most High (true God) of Plato because he uses many names that make us think of Him.
First, in Republic 509, he uses the word Good which cannot be identified with knowledge and truth because the Good hold a higher place of honour, although these two things could be regarded as like It. Plato also says that, “the objects of knowledge derive from the Good not only their power of being known, but their very being and reality, and Goodness is not the same thing as being, but even beyond being, surpassing it in dignity and power”. So, it seems that the Good dwells at a very high position which can be likened to the sun in visible world. Everything owns its being to this Absolute Goodness, which is itself beyond and superior to being. However, we are not clear that whether the Good here is the Most High because of the appearance of the second name in Symposium 210-212a: Absolute Beauty. Absolute Beauty is what if we want to come to, we have to start from beauties of earth, then come to the fair forms and fair practices, then to fair notions, and after all we will arrive at the notion of Absolute Beauty. So, Absolute Beauty is also at a very high place. Plato does not tell us the relationship between Absolute Good and Absolute Beauty. They are both beyond the Forms, but are they only one thing? Or are they the same thing with two names? Besides, Plato uses the third name in Timaeus: Demiurge or creator who is very good, free from all envy and selfishness. Plato calls that creator “father or maker of the universe”. Demiurge desires that all things should be good and nothing imperfect, so the god takes over all that is visible and brought it from disorder into order, since he judges that order was in every way the better. Plato presents the figurative Demiurge as ordering disordered elements which have already had in the world. In the process of creating, first of all, he creates gods, who are fixed stars, living beings, divine and eternal, so that these created gods can creates other creatures: birds, fish and animals.
The problem becomes more complicated because of the appearance of other gods who are created by Demiurge. Are these gods equivalent to gods whom Plato mentioned many times in other places in his books, especially in Symposium and the Laws? If it is, the Demiurge may be the Most High. However, it seems not or not only. When talking about Absolute Good, Plato says that every thing owes its being to the Good, just as visible things owe their beings to the sun. Demiurge just forms the sensible world using matter as his raw material when looking Ideas as model. Therefore, things as we are seeing now does not owe their beings to Demiurge but just give thanks to Him for bringing them to the Good. Demiurge seems not to be the Highest for this reason. Besides, in Timaeus 92c, Plato says that “for having received in full its complement of living creatures, this world become a visible living creature… and an image of the intelligible … supreme in greatness and excellence, in beauty and perfection.” It will be unreasonable if one says that this visible world is the image of created gods or even Demiurge, for they are not the model of visible things but Forms. However, the Forms are not “supreme in greatness, excellent, in beauty and perfection” because in Republic 509, Plato orders Forms under the Good.
Turning back to Symposium 212a, Plato talks about the friendship between those who has already come to the Absolute Beauty and a certain Figure. The way he describes makes us think that this Figure is the final goal that one will meet at the end of the way of seeking for truth. There is nothing above Him. Here, we can guess that Plato seems to be speaking about the highest One in the world of Forms whose image is reflected by this visible world. This One has all superiorities, absolute good, absolute beauty. He is also the intelligible, supreme in greatness and excellence, in beauty and perfection. However, we cannot also draw out a clear face of this Most High. We can only use his attributes to name Him for He has no name.
In short, Plato did not tell us who the Most High in his belief is. However, our research of his works shows us that he seems to believe there is one God who is dwelling at the highest place, beyond all things and all gods.
II. God in Plato’s view and God in Christian’s view – short comparison
Let us consider some similarities and differences between God in Plato’s view and God in Christian’s view.
Plato’s view of God and Christian’s view of God have some similarities. First, both of them possess all kinds of superior and transcendent characteristics: absolute good, absolute beauty, be in the highest position. No one or nothing can be regarded as being equal or higher than them; they are the best. Second, Plato mentions about a relationship. For Plato, those who arrive at the notion of Absolute Beauty can be God’s friends and thanks to that, they become immortal. It somehow has a little similarity with Christianity. In Gospel according to John, Jesus the Lord called his disciples “friend”, and assured that people could not have the true or everlasting life unless being with Him as branch with the body of grape-vine.
However, there are also many differences between these two Gods. First, God in Plato’s view is too high for humans to reach. To be His friend, humans have to spend many steps of abstraction, from things on earth to the world of Ideas. It will be very difficult for those who do not have the ability to abstract. It seems that for Plato, only philosophers are possible to come to such a high place. Besides, to build this kind of friendship, the role of human beings is crucial. It is them who have to try their best to be His friend, while this God seems to do nothing, except stays there, on a high place and wait. The image of Christian God is quite different. Although God is too mystical and transcendent for people to understand him wholly, He himself makes the first step in building the relationship with human. Moreover, He himself has become flesh to save human from sins. In short, Christian’s view of God is much closer and friendlier than that of Plato. Second, we do not know whether God in Plato’s view is personal or not because we do not find anywhere in Plato’s texts any word or idea or thinking from God. Therefore, we do not know whether we should call that God “he” or “she” or “it”. Meanwhile, God in Christian’s view is the One who has been talking with his people many times, and He talks all things to human beings through His only Son, Jesus Christ. God in Christianity has feelings: compassionate, happy, and satisfied… He is really a living and active God, not an inert One. Third, one of conditions we must have if we want to come to God in Plato’s view is the eye of the mind. With the eye of the mind, we contemplate the Absolute Beauty, to bring forth reality and nourish virtue; and then we will become friends of God. The mind represents the intellect or the ability to abstract what we see on earth to the invisible world. It means that those who do not have the eye of mind or cannot open their minds, cannot reach God. So, it seems that in Plato’s view, workers or farmers, or labourers in general, would hardly have occasion to be God’s friends. The conditions in Christianity are different. Many times, in Old Testament and New Testament, we see Jesus always ask us to have faith in Him and love Him to have true life. Last but not least, God in Christianity is also the Creator while the Most High in Plato’s view is not. For Plato, the Figure who creates the universe as we are seeing now is Demiurge. However, the way this god creates the world is different from God in Christianity. Demiurge only shapes matter using the world of Ideas as his patters. He just brings order and structure into what was previous chaotic and shapeless while God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob creates the whole universe out of nothing. So, Christian’s God is more powerful than Demiurge or even the Most High of Plato.
The above is short comparison between God is Plato’s view with Christian’s view of God. Taking an overall view, we see that when talking about God, people always talk firmly about his transcendence. Only those who are revealed by God can regard Him as being very close to them. And only Christians in Christ dare to call the Most High “Father”. This is really a big gift.
Plato’s attempt to reflect on God is clearer than his ancestors but still has some mistakes. We can say that Plato had an intuition about the highest One as true God, but he could not have escaped out of the view of polytheism at that time yet. There are many things about God that Plato did not know: Trinity, incarnation, sanctification… The limits in Plato’s thought about God show the limits of human intelligence in trying to know of God because God in Plato’s view is philosophical God while God in Christian’s view is revealed God. Only reason is not enough to know God. We also need faith as well.
All the time, people have tendency to find God for He attracts all creatures to come to Him. Therefore, the searching of God will never stop, but people can only come to the perfect knowledge of God when they ask for the help of faith, through revelation from God Himself. Imitating Saint Augustine, we all should affirm to ourselves that we will never satisfy in searching of God until we rest in God who created us for Him.
- BENSON, HUGH H, A Companion to Plato, Blackwell Publishing, Singapore, 2006.
- IRWIN, TERENCE, A History of Western Philosophy Classical Thought, Oxford University Press, New York, 1989.
- GRAHAM, DANIEL W., Studies in Greek Philosophy- Volume II- Socrates, Plato And Their Tradition, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1995.
- KENNY, ANTHONY, An Illustrated Brief History of Western Philosophy, Blackwell Publishing, India, 2006.
- KENNY, ANTHONY, Ancient Philosophy – A new History of Western Philosophy, Volume 1, Clarendon Press, Oxford, the United State, 2004.
- GALE, THOMSON, New Catholic Encyclopedia, second edition 6, the Catholic University of America, Washington D.C, 2003.
- OLIVER, SIMON, Philosophy, God & Motion, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London & New York, 2005.
- PLATO, Timaeus, translated by Francis Mac Donald Cornford, the Bobbs-Merrill Company., INC, Indian Apolis New York.
- SHIELDS, CHRISTOPHER, Aristotle, Routledge Taylor And France Group, London and New York, 2001.
- WALSH, MARTIN J., A history of Philosophy, Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1987.
- YARZA, IGNATIUS, History of Ancient Philosophy, Sinag-Tala Publishers, INC., Manila, 1994.
 GALE, THOMSON, New Catholic Encyclopedia, second edition 6, the Catholic University of America, Washington D.C, 2003, p. 307
 Phaedo, 117b
 Phaedo, 118a
 Cf. KENNY, ANTHONY, Ancient Philosophy – A New History of Western Philosophy, Volume 1, Clarendon Press, Oxford, the United State, 2004, p. 294 & Republic 907e, 909c.
 The Laws 885b
 Republic 379b 1-2
 Cf. KENNY, ANTHONY, Ancient Philosophy – A new History of Western Philosophy, Volume 1, Clarendon Press, Oxford, the United State, 2004, p. 294
 Republic 905a
 OLIVER SIMON, Philosophy, God & Motion, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London & New York, 2005, p 9.
 Republic 509a
 Republic 509b
 Republic 508c-e, 509
 Cf. KENNY ANTHONY, Ibid, p. 293
 Timaeus, 29d
 Timaeus, 28c
 Timaeus, 30a
 s.WALSH MARTIN J. A history of Philosophy, Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1987, p 35.
 Timaeus, 40a
 s.YARZA, IGNATIUS, Ibid, p 96
 s. Jn 15,12-15.
 s. Jn 15,1.
 s. Hebrew 1.
 s. Genesis 3,7; Mk 6,34.
 s. Lk 10,21.
 s. Genesis 1.
 Symposium 212a.
 s.Hebrew 11
 s. Jn 15,9 & Mt 22,37
 s.YARZA, IGNATIUS, History of Ancient Philosophy, Sinag-Tala Publishers, INC., Manila, 1994, p 96