Augustine and Plato

When I wrote “Digging Deeper Into Van Til and His Apologetic” a while back I commented that Plato had a huge influence on Augustine of Hippo who in turn had a huge influence on John Calvin. As I have continued to study this topic it has become clearer and clearer to me that Calvinism is Augustinianism with some fine tuning to fit John Calvin’s personal tastes.

This sort of thing is not something I would usually care about except that I listened to Charlie Clough’s Bible Framework series a few years back. Pastor Clough’s teaching is clear and powerful but it is based on Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics which I have begun to have serious reservations about. Van Til held to the Westminster Confession of Faith (he was ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) which is the most thorough systematic exposition of Calvinism that I know of. Of course this is also why I question Van Til’s apologetics being taught by Pastor Clough at dispensational seminaries. I believe that if Pastor Clough was explicit about the Augustinianism/Calvinism contained in Van Til’s apologetics that it might take some of the shine off of the Bible Framework.

Just to be clear I believe that the relationship in this graphic is true:

I have continued to look into this and I think that I can provide a bit of insight into how Plato influenced Augustine’s theology or, at the very least, how Augustine used a form of logic that can only be called Platonic. It also explains why Van Til and Clough hate any kind of “Aristotelian” logic (Aristotle has always been Plato’s biggest philosophical rival).

The first concept that you must become familiar with is Plato’s Theory of Forms. Once you become familiar with it then Augustine becomes much more understandable. I have found a very good summary of Plato’s theory of Forms (link here) which I am going to now quote from liberally:

A form is an abstract property or quality. Take any property of an object; separate it from that object and consider it by itself, and you are contemplating a form. For example, if you separate the roundness of a basketball from its color, its weight, etc. and consider just roundness by itself, you are thinking of the from of roundness. Plato held that this property existed apart from the basketball, in a different mode of existence than the basketball. The form is not just the idea of roundness you have in your mind. It exists independently of the basketball and independently of whether someone thinks of it. All round objects, not just this basketball, participate or copy this same form of roundness.

In order to see exactly what a form is and how it differs from a material object, we need to look at the first two of the properties that characterize the forms. The forms are transcendent. This means that they do not exist in space and time. A material object, a basketball, exists at a particular place at a particular time. A form, roundness, does not exist at any place or time. The forms exist, or subsist, in a different way. This is especially important because it explains why the forms are unchanging. A form such as roundness will never change; it does not even exist in time. It is the same at all times or places in which it might be instantiated. A form does not exist in space in that it can be instantiated in many places at once and need not be instantiated anywhere in order for the form to exist. The form of roundness can be found in many particular spatial locations, and even if all round objects were destroyed, the property of roundness would still exist.

The forms are also pure. This means that they are pure properties separated from all other properties. A material object, such as a basketball, has many properties: roundness, ballness, orangeness, elasticity, etc. These are all put together to make up this individual basketball. A form is just one of these properties, existing by itself apart from space and time. Roundness is just pure roundness, without any other properties mixed in. The forms differ from material objects, then, in that they are transcendent and pure, while material objects are complex conglomerations of properties located in space and time.

To see how forms are related to material objects, we need to look at the other four properties that characterized the forms. The forms are the archetypes or perfect models for all of the properties that are present in material objects. The forms are the perfect examples of the properties they instantiate. The material world is really similar to the more real world of forms. The form of roundness, for example, is the perfect model of roundness. All round material objects are merely copies or imitations of this most real form. Thus it is the forms that are ultimately real. Material objects are images or copies of these more real objects. The cave metaphor illustrates these properties of the forms well. The shadows on the wall represent material objects, while the real objects passing before the fire are the forms.

In virtue of the fact that all objects in this world are copies of the forms, the forms are the causes of all that exists in this world. In general, whenever you want to explain why something is the way that it is, you point to some properties that the object has. That is, you explain what forms the object is a copy of. The forms are causes in two closely related ways: (1) The forms are the causes of all our knowledge of all objects. The forms contribute all order and intelligibility to objects. Since we can only know something insofar as it has some order or form, the forms are the source of the intelligibility of all material objects. (2) The forms are also the cause of the existence of all objects. Things are only said to exist insofar as they have order or structure or form. Hence, the forms are the causes of the existence of all objects as well as of their intelligibility. Plato uses the sun metaphor to explain how the forms in general, and the form of the Good in particular, are causes in these two ways. Just as the sun gives light which allows us to see objects, the form of the Good provides order and intelligibility to allow us to know objects. Just as the sun provides the energy for the nourishment and growth of all living things, so the form of the Good provides the order and structure which is the source of the existence of all things.

The forms are also systematically interconnected. They are connected to each other and to material objects in an intricate system that reflects both the way they flow down from the form of the good and the process that we must go through in working our way up to knowledge of the forms. The forms fit together with each other and material objects in a hierarchical system, whose structure is reflected in the dialectic process one goes through to gain knowledge of the forms. Dialectic involves putting together two subjective points of view to form a more objective concept. So the forms flow down form of the Good going from most general, abstract, and objective (the Good) to most particular and subjective. All particular forms are subsumed under more general forms, and all forms are finally subsumed under the form of the Good. In dialectic, we work in the opposite direction and start from subjective concepts of the more particular things and work our way towards more objective concepts of the general, abstract forms. The divided line represents the systematic interconnectedness of the forms and how the advance of our knowledge reflects this system. The structure of the relationships between forms and material objects might be represented in a diagram such as this, which is merely an expanded version of the divided line set on its end:

Properties of the Forms

I know that is a lot of information but pay particular attention to that graphic, it really helps. Basically what Augustine did was to “Christianize” the forms by replacing the “Form of the Good” with God and working out from there.

I am not the only person who has come to that conclusion. If you read the transcript of the lecture “Augustine and the Platonists” given by Thomas Williams he develops the idea in an accessible manner (if philosophy is ever really accessible). I do want to share this quote with you:

My view is that even though Augustine read Plotinus and Porphyry rather than Plato, his version of Platonism is actually much closer to Plato himself than it is to Plotinus and Porphyry. So knowing the details of Plotinus and Porphyry doesn’t really matter much for understanding Augustine, because Augustine’s kind of Platonism doesn’t really depend on those details. In spirit, it’s much closer to the real Plato, because it adopts the overall outlook of Plato without a lot of the additions and complications of later Platonists.

If you want to do more research on this entire books have been written on the topic. A search of should yield some good candidates.

At this point I suppose someone could argue that if Augustine “Christianized” Plato’s logic then so be it, Augustine’s theology is still Christian and by extension so is Calvin’s. You can believe what you like but I think this is a form of syncretism which destroys any value to the Christian.

I would now like to share with you an article I found on Augustine’s theory of why evil exists (theodicy). While reading these quotes I would recommend occasionally referring back to the graphic on Plato’s forms, the similarity is impossible to miss.

From “Augustine On Evil: What Is Evil and How Does It Arise?”:

Augustine’s world, in the best Platonic fashion, is hierarchically arranged. The principle of ordering in this hierarchy is based on intrinsic value. That is, the higher on the scheme of things, the better or more worthy. Once again, note the Platonic concern with values.

Things higher on the hierarchy are thus better than things lower on the hierarchy. You can guess in advance how in general this is going to look:

Human Souls

Don’t worry about the positioning of angels and devils on this scheme. I simply stick them in for the sake of completeness. I think I have them where Augustine would put them.

Then later on there is this discussion of Augustine’s theory of evil. You may want to read the whole thing if you find this of interest:

Now the lower things on the Augustinian hierarchy are not as good as the higher ones [see Plato’s forms]. There is an absence of high-degree good in their case. But they are not on that account evil, because this absence is not an absence of a good they ought to have. If it were, this would amount to saying that lower goods ought to be higher goods. And that is ridiculous. One might just as well blame the moon because it is not the sun. Augustine argues forcefully against this kind of thinking in On Free Choice of the Will, III, 5.

How then are we to account for the fact that people do what they ought not to do? Why do things happen that ought not to happen?

This is basically the problem of Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Will. I will not here give you a play by play account of what goes on there; read it for yourself. Rather, I will try to systematize (very tentatively) what he does there and elsewhere.

The main link between the notion of good (the hierarchy) and the notion of ought that seems to be operative in Augustine is this:

The higher things on the hierarchy ought to govern and rule the lower. That is, they ought to have power over them. The lower things ought not to govern and rule the higher. They ought not to have power over the higher.

When things are as they ought to be – the higher ruling the lower – then that is just. Otherwise, it is unjust. When things are as they ought to be, then they are ordinatus, ordered or well-ordered (not of course in the mathematical sense). Otherwise, they are disordered.

Evil then is injustice or disorder, when lower things have power over the higher, reversing the proper arrangement of things.

This notion of order is absolutely central in Augustine. At Cassiciacum, shortly after his conversion, he wrote a tract De ordine. (On this see the Confessions.)

To summarize, the analysis of the notion of evil led us to the notion of “ought”. That in turn led us to the notions of justice and order and their correlatives injustice and disorder. To ask how evil arises then is to ask how we account for disorder or injustice. That is, how does it come about that lower things on the hierarchy come to have power over the higher ones? What gives them that power?

Does God give lower things power over the higher? Certainly not. Why not? Because God is just, in the sense we have just learned. That is, God has arranged things so that the higher have power over the lower, just as they ought, not the other way around. (Notice, incidentally, the metaphysical implications of this claim. Causality runs down Augustine’s hierarchy, but not up. The lower does not have power over the higher.)

Once again, how do we account for injustice or disorder? Who upsets the just hierarchical order that God has established? The answer: Men do, and they do it through free will. Now I will look later at Augustine’s notion of free will – exactly what he thinks it is and why he thinks men have it. For the present suffice it to say that it is by free will that men give lower things power over the higher.

So here is the situation. God gives higher things power over the lower; the lower is subject to the higher. God is just and not evil. On the other hand, men sometimes give lower things power over the higher – and in particular, over them. They are unjust and evil.

Now you may very well object at this point: Which is it? You can’t have it both ways! Either higher things have power over the lower or they don’t. If God gives them that power, then how can men take it away, upset the order and give lower things power over the higher?

The answer, paradoxically, is that for Augustine you can in a sense have it both ways. Lower things can be given a power over higher things, a power that nevertheless they don’t really have even after they are given it!

Can any theology that reasons like this be called Biblical Christianity?

Explore posts in the same categories: Apologetics

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