Lloyd P. Gerson ties platonism to five negations and one affirmation. Platonism denies nominalism, materialism, mechanism, skepticism, and relativism (18-19). Positively, it affirms the first principle of all, the Good or the One (19–20). It affirms the reality of intellectual objects like truth, justice, and God. Platonism then, for Gerson, zeroes in on the affirmation that the world goes beyond nature, and that there is stable truth that grounds our life.
I suppose the average appraisal of Platonism might differ. Some may say that Platonism is a full system of thought (and religion) from a bygone era. Others might say it is a secular and therefore anti-religious position. If Gerson is right, such critiques make no sense. Platonism basically affirms that immaterial objects, something beyond rocks, atoms, and quarks exist: things like consciousness, the soul, love, truth, God, and more besides.
Put in simple (and not particularly accurate) terms, Platonism is anti-post-modernism, a nebulous term that basically describes a post-truth era. Yes, post-modern theorists will roll their eyes at me. But I am here trying to make simple an idea that, as Gerson’s book shows, is complicated.
Part of the complication involves the density, ambiguity, and irony of the platonic dialogues and writings that Gerson studies. Irony in the ancient sense means that one hides what they know to some degree. Plato’s Second Letter shows this irony in action, as he attempts to speak in riddles so that his meaning won’t be clear to outsiders. The dialogues, I think, do something similar because they lead us on a journey of thought through dialogue.
Plato does not always give an answer to the questions he asks, nor can we always know what is his opinion and what is not in these dialogues. Sometimes Plato makes curious claims like finding something sufficient to explain the Forms (Phaedo 101e). Gerson believes Plato here talks about the unhypothetical first principle, the Good, the One. I suppose he is right, especially if we take—as Gerson does—the testimony of Aristotle seriously who sees Plato focusing on the One.
Now, this agrees with the Platonism of Justin Martyr (c. 100–c. 165) who in his Dialogue with Trypho admits that seeking God was the point of platonism. That is why Scripture, which reveals God, made such an impact. He was seeking God, and platonism could not tell him who God was. The prophets could.
This accords with Gerson’s argument that “The hallmarks of Platonism are its rejection of the elements of Naturalism and its derivation of the cosmos and everything in it from a unique absolutely simple first principle of all” (261). Christians call that first principle God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Even the possibility or the logical necessity of a first principle shows a rejection of naturalism. Platonism’s subject matter, in fact, requires a renunciation of naturalism. Gerson writes, “This subject matter is the intelligible world or what is available to thought as opposed to sense-perception” (261). There is some overlap between thought and sense-perception, he admits (261). But the basic point is that Platonism’s primary subject matter includes that which naturalism rejects and which requires the Platonist must reject.
On this definition, I am happy to be called a Platonist. I reject naturalism and affirm happily that God is the first cause of all, the principle of everything. Plato asks good questions; like Justin, I am interested in pursuing this questions. (Incidentally, I agree with Justin that only revelation can tell you who this first principle is).
Gerson’s thesis may not persuade everyone, but his argument deals directly with the texts. Occasionally, I think he assumes too much of the reader. Unless someone already knows much about Plato and Aristotle, they might at a loss in the detailed exegesis. Perhaps adding more block texts and moving from a simple exegesis to a more detailed one would have helped.
No book is perfect, and this somewhat opaque writing style will prevent it from being easily accessible to an audience who loves philosophy but has little experience in the texts of the platonists.
Who should buy this? Experts, students, and thoes who simply want to know. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and Gerson points us to wisdom, even if that only means understanding what Plato, or Aristotle, or Plotinus, then that is worth it. Knowing is better than not knowing. Ignorance is not a virtue.
Buy Platonism and Naturalism to read a compelling argument for Platonism, which is anti-naturalism and pro-first principle of all things.
Disclaimer: the publisher provided me a review copy.
Ben MacGown says
It seems clear that Christianity sprung on the world at an ideal time for its widespread acceptance. The revelation of Jesus Christ provided answers to questions Greeks had been wrestling with for centuries. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a very different time. Post-modernism is antichristian by designed and seeks to refute the faith by posing questions that the Bible doesn’t answer. As much as we may be nostalgic for a former time when people listened more readily, we have to face the reality in front of us.
Fortunately, if we get past the questions posed by intellectuals, everyone in our modern era is still struggling with concrete realities that the Bible can speak to. We need to avoid being sucked into meaningless debates that are rigged against us and instead look for opportunities to show God’s grace tangibly. That doesn’t mean that we refrain from engaging with intellectuals entirely, but we need to realize that God will grant us success only on His terms.