Plato (429–347 B.C.) was a student of Socrates and probably the most important writer of ancient Greece. In addition to being a Philosopher he was mathematician and is credited with providing the foundation for what has become modern science. Most think he was born in Athens, but it is clear is that he was an Athenian citizen of high status. He wrote in the polished Greek of that part of society. His impact is so great that in practically every age since his time there have been philosophers who count themselves Platonists.

Many people associate Plato with a few central doctrines that are advanced in his writings, especially The Republic:

  • The world that appears to our senses is in some way defective and filled with error, but there is a more real and perfect realm, populated by entities (called “forms” or “ideas”) that are eternal, changeless, and in some sense paradigmatic for the structure and character of our world. Among the most important of these abstract objects (as they are now called, because they are not located in space or time) are goodness, beauty, equality, bigness, likeness, unity, being, sameness, difference, change, and changelessness. (These terms—“goodness”, “beauty”, and so on—are often capitalized by those who write about Plato, in order to call attention to their use as technical terms; similarly for “Forms” and “Ideas.”)

  • The most fundamental distinction in Plato's philosophy is between the many observable objects that appear beautiful (good, just, unified, equal, big) and the one object that is what beauty (goodness, justice, unity) really is, from which those many beautiful (good, just, unified, equal, big) things receive their names and their corresponding characteristics. Nearly every major work of Plato is, in some way, devoted to or dependent on this distinction. Many of them explore the ethical and practical consequences of conceiving of reality in this bifurcated way. We are urged to transform our values by taking to heart the greater reality of the forms and the defectiveness of the corporeal world.

  • We must recognize that the soul is a different sort of object from the body—so much so that it does not depend on the existence of the body for its functioning, and can in fact grasp the nature of the forms far more easily when it is not encumbered by its attachment to anything corporeal. In a few of Plato's works, we are told that the soul always retains the ability to recollect what it once grasped of the forms, when it was disembodied (see especially Meno), and that the lives we lead are to some extent a punishment or reward for choices we made in a previous existence (see especially the final pages of Republic).

  • But in many of Plato's writings, it is asserted or assumed that true philosophers—those who recognize how important it is to distinguish the one (the one thing that goodness is, or virtue is, or courage is) from the many (the many things that are called good or virtuous or courageous )—are in a position to become ethically superior to unenlightened human beings, because of the greater degree of insight they can acquire. To understand which things are good and why they are good (and if we are not interested in such questions, how can we become good?), we must investigate the form of good.

So is the Good what the Christian would call God? Probably not. The Good is impersonal and is really the ultimate reality. The primary notion of Plato; that the world is more than what we see with our eyes does find a home in Christianity.  The Simile of the Divided Line, which I have rendered as more a box, illustrates Platonic thought as the progression of the intellect towards the Good as the ultimate goal. The student starts at the bottom, progressing from A to D as he approaches the knowledge of the Good. The other observation is that as humans we operate on the left side of the figure--in the world of knowing rather than the reality of Metaphysics.

Knowing (Epistemology) The Good Reality (Metaphysics)
Contemplative Reason D The Forms
Science C Concepts
Belief B Physical Objects
Opinion A Shadows


In Platonic thought there is also the notion of this hierarchy of objects. The world is seen as Emanations from the Good, rather like concentric circles.  We see a similar sort of cosmology with the Gnostics. Here again we must contrast the notion of Creation by a God who is entirely other and outside of creation, with emanation from the Good as the center of reality.  Christians believe in a Personal God, that can relate to His creation and opposed to an impersonal force that is at the center of all emanations. Christians agree with Plato that, as the apostle Paul says, now we see in a glass dimly (I Corinthians 13.12), but disagree as to what the ultimate reality is.  Plato posits an impersonal force and the Christian experiences a personal God. 

Platonic dualism can be represented like this:


Eternal Reason



Eternal Formless Flux 12/17/11