Platonism for the Masses (except not quite)

So there’s a famous Nietzsche quote where he describes Christianity as “Platonism for the masses” – which is funny, because Augustine describes Plato as “Moses in Attic Greek”. Today I’d like to look at Platonism and how Augustine deals with it – because there are a number of similarities between Platonism and Christianity, but there’s also some pretty significant points of difference – namely, for this essay, the value attached to the physical world.

I’m drawing exclusively on Augustine’s City of God here, because it’s his biggest work (and, more importantly, it’s the thing I’m reading at the moment, so it’s the thing I’m thinking about). In Book VIII, Augustine takes on the Greek philosophers, and he starts off by saying he’s only going to bother talking about the best philosophers – in his opinion, the Platonists.

So Augustine’s talking about the Platonists and their conception of God, who exists on a transcendent plane. Plato talks about this in his Republic: he basically argues that if you’ve got something that’s good, it’s good, but it’s not Goodness Itself. In the same way, if you’ve got something beautiful, it’s beautiful, but it’s not Beauty Itself. Plato suggests that there’s a plane of existence – the transcendent spiritual realm – where Goodness Itself and Beauty Itself exist.

Our existence in this physical reality is thus like looking at shadows on the wall of a cave. We can see the outlines of things, but never the things themselves – we can see beautiful books and flowers and whatever, but we can’t see Beauty Itself. Following from that, this is how Augustine describes Socrates and the illumination of the soul:

“That is why he [Socrates] thought it essential to insist on the need to cleanse one’s life by accepting a high moral standard, so that the soul should be relieved of the weight of lust that held it down, and then by its natural vigour should rise up to the sphere of the eternal and behold, thanks to its pure intelligence, the essence of the immaterial and unchangeable light where dwell the causes of all created things in undisturbed tranquility.”

You can see Plato’s realm of Forms in here – the transcendent realm where the “causes of all created things” hang out. So our souls are spiritual eternal entities enclosed in physical mortal bodies, and according to the Platonists, it’s those physical bodies that cause all the problems. Once we transcend them, we’ll be happily on our way to the ‘real’ reality, the transcendent plane where “the essence of the immaterial and unchangeable light” exists.

You’ll find similar sentiments in the Bible: Paul writes in 1 Corinthians “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away… For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” It’s pretty clear. You hit transcendence, you get pure unmediated knowledge of reality. At least, that’s the plan.

So there’s a pretty clear attitude towards the limits placed on knowledge by the nature of physical reality. In both Platonism and Christianity, physical reality gets in the way. However, for the Platonist, we only win when we hit transcendence and get away from this physical body. Augustine notes the story of Theombrotus, who read Plato’s discussion of the immortality of the soul and promptly chucked himself off a wall, “and so passed away from this life to a life which he believed to be better”. There’s this kind of hierarchy where the transcendent realm is good, and the physical realm is bad. If you return to the Socrates quote, you’ll notice that, according to Socrates, the only thing keeping us here in the physical realm is the weight of our imperfections. If we get morally good, we shed the weight of this imperfection, and naturally our souls rise up into the transcendent realm because we’re not weighed down by our iniquity any more.

By contrast, the Christians don’t really have this approach, basically because of Jesus. The idea is that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate, God in a physical human body. He was entirely perfect and without sin, and He was both entirely human and fully divine. There’s a bunch of various heresies that disagree with this position in the early Church, and all of them get expelled – it’s a kind of “You can believe that, but go and believe it somewhere else” sort of thing. For example, the Marcionites maintained that Jesus didn’t have a physical body, because the physical realm is beneath God. The Manichees believed that Jesus wasn’t really a proper human being – he wasn’t born, because that would involve birth, and birth is messy and sinful or something. We can broadly refer to the belief that Jesus wasn’t fully human as ‘docetism’.

Anyway, Christianity pushes back against this docetism, and in doing so it affirms the validity and importance of the physical world. Jesus was fully human, because there’s nothing wrong with being fully human (albeit being perfectly human, as opposed to our fallen humanity). There’s this insistence that the physical world is a good thing, and is only bad to the extent that we fucked it up. This is why Augustine spends most of Book VIII ragging on the Platonist notion that the gods don’t have any direct contact with humans.

The Platonic idea is that the gods are transcendent and perfect and any contact with humanity would corrupt them. The Platonists thus posit demons as intermediaries (but without the pejorative sense Christians attached to ‘demons’ – think of them more like messengers, angels) between the gods and humans. Augustine spends a book or two poking holes in the theory, and affirms that Jesus was fully divine and fully human and really had no trouble running around in the physical plane.

Now, proceeding from this there’s a really interesting discussion of good and evil, but this is long enough, so I’d better cut it off here. The point is that the Platonists imposed a strict moral and ontological hierarchy between the transcendent realm and the physical realm. The Christian approach would probably be better described using the nature of Christ, who is fully divine and fully human. In Christ, the Christian finds a redemption of the fallen physical realm. Of course, the physical realm is not inherently bad, but it is contested – and that’s where we’ll pick up next time.


  1. Isn’t this precisely what “for the masses” would look like? You could view Platonism as Christian esotericism, reserved knowledge for the more enlightened who could deal with it without throwing themselves off walls.


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