Why Plato Helps Christians in the Real World

Christians today often proudly declare their love for Aristotle. Catholics and a number of Protestants might this as a means of declaring their love for the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Even if that were not the case, Christians would choose Aristotle over his teacher Plato. Judging from marking the many undergraduate essays marked, the most common reason cited for this Aristotelian bias was for its “realism”. Aristotelian realism is such that affirms and engages the world. On the other hand, so this narrative goes, Platonism has a first principle that ultimate reality lies in the forms which transcend what we may recognise as the real world. As such, Platonism is said to prescribe a running away from the real world in order to find reality.
Although writing with a particular reference to Augustine, Charles Mathewes’ The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times provides a different account of the capacities of a seemingly escapist Platonism (a tradition that Augustine carries on) to face real-world challenges (in this case, the post 9/11 political landscape). In the Introduction to his book, Mathewes suggests that Platonism’s emphasis on transcendence and by extension Augustine’s emphasis on one’s ultimate citizenship in a heavenly city, should not cause one to
disparage or flee from the world, but ot patiently endure its vicissitudes and rightly enjoy its transitory joys, in order to prepare ourselves for its transfiguration into the true creation it was mean to be all along.
Platonism, in other words, emphasises transcendence not as a distraction from reality, but as a means to more fully immerse oneself in it. It aids Christians because it qualifies pretensions that the world as we find it is the only world we can expect. Moreover, Christian Platonism, the kind that nourished the imagination of the ancient Church, provides the grounds from which one can hope for a transformation of the things around us, when the things around us threaten our aspirations and even existence.
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