Friday, June 18, 2010

Philosophy For The Theologian, Part III: Distinguishing Platonist and Aristotelian Philosophy

Just what exactly is “Neo-Platonism,” anyway? That is one of my tasks in this post: to give a succinct definition of the term itself and how it relates to my current discussion on Augustine.

To find the answer to this question, I began to search for an old philosophy book that served as required reading for me in my Introduction to Philosophy course back some two and a half years ago here at seminary. Picking up the book again, I found a definition that was accurate and to-the-point. Platonism comes from Plato’s “theory of Forms or Ideas,” which states that

“total reality...[is] divided into two realms. There is the visible world, the world as it is presented to our senses, our ordinary everyday world, in which nothing lasts and nothing stays the same--- as Plato liked to put it, EVERYTHING IN THIS WORLD IS ALWAYS BECOMING SOMETHING ELSE, BUT NOTHING EVER JUST PERMANENTLY IS. (This formulation became shortened to ‘everything is becoming, nothing is.’) Everything comes into existence and passes away, everything is imperfect, everything decays. This world in space and time is the only world that our human sensory apparatus can apprehend. But THEN THERE IS ANOTHER REALM WHICH IS NOT IN SPACE OR TIME, AND NOT ACCESSIBLE TO OUR SENSES, AND IN WHICH THERE IS PERMANENCE AND PERFECT ORDER. THIS OTHER WORLD IS THE TIMELESS AND UNCHANGING REALITY of which our everyday world offers us only brief and unsatisfactory glimpses. BUT THAT IS WHAT ONE MIGHT CALL REAL REALITY, because it alone is stable, unshakeable---it alone just is, and is not always in the process of sliding into something else” (Bryan Magee, “The Story of Philosophy: A Concise Introduction to the World’s Greatest Thinkers and Their Ideas.” New York: DK Publishing, 2001, page 28).

If the invisible world is the “real reality,” then what is the visible world? The visible world is “a figment of our imagination,” as my friend Tammy said [although she really doesn’t believe that (smile)!]. In other words, life as we know it here is nothing more than “virtual reality,” like a toy truck instead of the Chevrolet F-150! Life here is nothing short of an illusion.

But if this life is an illusion, how can we have the smallest idea of what the OTHER life, the one beyond this one, is like? If, as Bryan Magee says, “our everyday world offers us only brief and unsatisfactory glimpses” of the other world, how can we even know which “glimpses” are reliable and trustworthy (if life itself is an illusion)? Basically, humanity is being “deceived by the deception.” This last statement, in and of itself, is self-defeating.

In addition, if the “other,” unchanging world is truth, and our glimpses of this “other” world are deceiving, how can we even know what truth is? How can we distinguish between truth and error here on earth? We can’t. We have no way of knowing truth, according to Platonist philosophy. In other words, we live in a world of complete, utter deception and mystery. We can’t even know if “we live in a world of complete, utter deception and mystery”!!!

Now, on to Aristotelian philosophy. First, though, a little bit about Aristotle himself:

“Aristotle himself was born in the city of Stagira in 384 BC. His father died when he was still a boy, so he was brought up by a guardian, who sent him to Athens when he was about 17 to be educated at Plato’s Academy” (Bryan Magee, “The Story of Philosophy,” page 32).

As Magee tells us, Aristotle, then, was a student of Plato. However, Aristotle disagreed with his teacher in regards to philosophical thought:

“he [Aristotle] rejected something fundamental to Plato’s philosophy, namely THE IDEA THAT THERE ARE TWO WORLDS. As we have seen, Plato taught that there can be no such thing as reliable knowledge of this ever-changing world that is presented to our senses. The objects of true knowledge inhabit, he said, another world, an abstract far as Aristotle was concerned, THERE IS ONLY ONE WORLD THAT WE CAN DO ANY PHILOSOPHIZING ABOUT, AND THAT IS THIS WORLD WE LIVE IN AND EXPERIENCE...furthermore, Aristotle did not believe that we could find any firm ground outside this world on which to stand, and from which to pursue philosophical enquiries. WHATEVER IS OUTSIDE ALL POSSIBILITY OF EXPERIENCE FOR US CAN BE NOTHING FOR US. We have no validatable way of referring to it, or talking about it, and therefore it cannot enter into our discourse in any reliable way; IF WE STRAY BEYOND THE GROUND COVERED BY EXPERIENCE WE WANDER INTO EMPTY TALK” (Magee, “The Story of Philosophy,” page 32).

Simply put, Aristotle disagreed with Plato because Plato, while referencing this “other” world beyond human experience, gave the intellect NOTHING by which to compare this world and the “other.” How can one distinguish two worlds if there is nothing by which one can compare one world to another?

As believers, let’s take the Bible. If there is NOTHING in this world that testifies to the “other” world, and the Bible is in this world, then the conclusion follows--- The Bible cannot be trusted. It cannot tell us what the “other” world is like. The words on the pages of Holy Writ would be like the rest of the world in which we live: fleeting.

As I mentioned in my last post on “Augustine’s Encounter With Biblical Interpretation,” Augustine himself held to Neo-Platonism. I’ve covered Platonist philosophy; but what exactly does it mean to be “Neo-“ Platonist? It was Plotinus who prepared Platonist philosophy for its entrance into Christianity:

“Plotinus taught that since ultimate reality consists of Plato’s Ideal Forms, what exists is ultimately mental, and therefore for something to be created is for it to be thought. There are, he believed, three ascending levels of being. The lowest, on which human beings are, is SOUL. The next level up, ON WHICH THE IDEAL FORMS ARE APPREHENDED, is the intellect. The highest level is the good. Reflective human beings are engaged in an attempted ascent towards one-ness with the good. Christians translated this into their doctrines that the world has been created in the mind of God, and that human beings are aspiring to one-ness with God, who is perfect goodness” (Magee, “The Story of Philosophy,” 30).

Earlier, when I attempted to describe Platonism, I made mention of Plato’s view of the “other” world that is permanent and unchanging. This world is really just a temporary reality to get to the next (the changing for the unchanging). However, if we place this into our discussion of Augustine and hermeneutics, what becomes clear is that Augustine, a Neo-Platonist, believed that man is striving to “apprehend the Ideal Forms” of life, which lay in his mind (intellect). If this be the case, then, doesn’t it make sense that Augustine believed in allegorical interpretation?

“This accent upon the spiritual value of the text (2 Cor. 3:6) emphasized the underlying truth...that could be unpacked through MULTIPLE MEANINGS IN THE TEXT given by the Spirit and DISCERNED BY THE SPIRITUAL EXEGETE” (Peterson, from John S. Feinberg, “Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments.” Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1988, page 23).

In other words, “reaching for the Ideal Forms” in the text required Augustine to “go beyond” the world of “words” and see the “unchanging reality” behind them. Now, does it all make sense? Can you see why Augustine argued so heavily for spiritual interpretations of the biblical text? His philosophy advocated it! And embracing Neo-Platonism, Aurelius Augustine made it his philosophy of everything, INCLUDING hermeneutics. This explains why he interpreted the words of Scripture as not significant in and of themselves, but “pointing” to something beyond them. And that is why his view of the Millennium (Rev. 20) turned into the “present reign of Christ in the hearts of His people.” With enough diligence and hard work, man could find the “ideal forms”---if only he would engage his intellect, which contained them. Since striving for the ideal forms would lead towards the destination of “oneness with the Divine,” then man’s exercise in spiritual interpretation was a worthy one, a noble one, a more spiritual one than just reading the words and understanding what lay on the page.

We can now put many things together about this mini-series. After today’s post, you can understand why it is that I began the small series with discussion of the two schools of theology, the Alexandrian (allegorical) and the Antiochene (typological). I did this because I wanted to show that, in the same way there have been two approaches to theology, there have also been two approaches to philosophy, as this post reveals (Platonist and Aristotelian). And the two theologies and philosophies have dominated the philosophical and theological worlds ever since.

In my next post, I will discuss the implications of Platonist and Aristotelian philosophy upon theology, with regards to the issue of Dispensationalism vs. Covenant Theology.

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