The Christian Platonist Tradition


When considering the philosophers of antiquity, perhaps no group has come closer to attaining the truth of the Christian faith than the Platonists. While this philosophical tradition predates the Incarnation of Jesus Christ by centuries and is firmly rooted in ancient paganism, Platonism is saturated with many of the same metaphysical assumptions as Christianity, revealing a deep concord between these two seemingly incompatible schools of thought. In fact, a distinct tradition of Christian Platonism emerged in the early Church as a way better to understand Christ’s teachings with the aid of Platonist philosophy. Platonism has been especially influential in the development of Christian theology regarding the natures of the human person and the divine, and many aspects of this dogmatic tradition actually strengthen Church doctrine. In this paper, I will advocate for Christian Platonism as an orthodox, coherent tradition that is the fruit of the mutual enrichment between Platonism and scriptural exegesis.

In The City of God, Saint Augustine praises the Platonists over all other secular philosophers because the Platonists have come closest to an understanding of the one true God through their doctrine of the Forms. According to Augustine, the Platonists, “coming to a knowledge of God, have found the cause of the organized universe, the light by which truth is perceived, and the spring which offers the drink of felicity.”1 For the Platonists, this cause of the organized universe is the form of the Good, which gives all of creation its existence and intelligibility, and therefore is our ultimate source of being. The Platonic Forms are intelligible and eternal, and provide us with a light through which we can interpret the world. This relationship between human perception and the light of truth is best illustrated by Plato’s “Analogy of the Cave.” 

In Plato’s cave, the shackled prisoners are unaware that the objects in front of them aren’t objects at all; rather, they are shadows of artifacts cast upon the wall by a fire. For the prisoners to see these shadows and artifacts for what they truly are, they must be released from their chains and dragged out of the cave into the light of day, where the sun can illuminate these objects and allow for right sight. The sun in Plato’s analogy represents the form of the Good, as this is “the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty.”2 Much like the Christian God, Plato’s form of the Good is a divine source of being for all of the world. It is only by the light of the sun that the prisoners can see the world around them, and therefore it is only by the light of the Good that we can attain true knowledge. This rule of perception applies to both material and immaterial things, as the form of the Good is “the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything.”3 Just as the Christian God is truth and goodness himself, the Platonic Forms are the ultimate source of “truth and understanding” for all things, making the corruptible and divine realms intelligible for those who are able to escape the cave.4

These similarities between the nature of God and the Good allow Christianity and Platonism to share a very similar understanding of the human person. According to Platonist anthropology, humans are inherently spiritual creatures possessing both a material body and an immaterial soul. While the body makes us fallible and riddled by animal and vegetable desires, the soul is responsible for channeling man’s intellect toward his higher capacities, such as the pursuit of wisdom and virtue. It is for this reason that Platonists believe the soul to be superior to the body, because man would be unable to perceive the divine by the body alone. Furthermore, because the divine is intelligible only to intelligent souls, the Platonists assert that the human soul must share some of the same characteristics of the divine, namely immortality, intelligibility, and simplicity. This is the affinity argument set forth by Socrates in the Phaedo, as he makes the distinction between that which is visible and that which is unseen — or the distinction between the mortal body and the immortal soul.5 From these distinctions, the Platonists conclude that the soul cannot be destroyed in death and will live on even after the dissolution of the body.6

Christianity also understands men to be endowed with immortal souls because we have been made in God’s own image.7 Although our connection to the divine has been wounded by sin, Christ’s promises of redemption and resurrection alert us to the reality that our souls will live on even after the earth has passed away, which sets us apart from the rest of the material cosmos. From the Christian perspective, the very existence of our soul and intellect signifies our need for God, as we have been brought into existence for the purpose of communion with Him. This is why individuals, including the Platonists, are so motivated to pursue wisdom: We are trying to find true peace that can be found only in God. As Augustine observes in his Confessions, this longing for communion with the divine is a universal human struggle, and “our heart is restless until it comes to rest in [God].”8

Both Platonism and Christianity understand the human soul as naturally calibrated for pursuing questions of the divine. Platonism is especially adept at explaining man’s inclination toward divine things through its discussion of the immaterial nature of the Good — an idea that has not always been reflected in Christian descriptions of God. Especially in the Old Testament, God is often portrayed in anthropomorphic terms as a changeable deity who walks and talks alongside man. Many of the Old Testament’s descriptions of God also seem to limit God’s wisdom, describing him as a deity who needs to be reminded of his covenants or who can be swayed by human negotiations. The Platonic doctrine of the Forms helps develop an understanding of God as a transcendent and omniscient being because it reinforces the idea that everything which exists must receive its being and intelligence through the divine. The works of the Platonists were integral to Augustine’s own conversion to Christianity, as these writers helped him better understand God’s immaterial nature through which “souls are renewed so that they become wise.”9 By reading the Platonists, Augustine also realizes that any attempt by men to conceptualize God will inevitably limit his power and goodness, because God cannot be contained within the bounds of space, time, or (therefore) human imagination. Platonism thus helps anchor the Christian understanding of God as a necessarily all-powerful and allknowing deity, too great for the human intellect to compass. Without a firm grasp of these truths, Christian theology would be vulnerable to incoherence and arbitrariness because we wouldn’t actually be able to know anything enduring about the immaterial God.

However, one area where Christianity and Platonism diverge is in their account of human morality. While Christian teachings provide an account of original sin and humanity’s fall, the Platonists do not provide a clear etiology for why men live in a state of separation from the Good. Christianity understands that human beings are imperfect because of the first sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This deficiency has been passed down to every subsequent generation, which is why man’s ability to commune with God is fundamentally inhibited and why the unification of one’s desires to God takes a lifetime of perseverance in the faith. Platonist philosophy, on the other hand, does not provide an account of original sin and contains no explanation as to why human souls are not naturally attuned to the wisdom of the Good. Even though the Good is the source of the soul’s immortality, the Platonists still maintain that a proper orientation of oneself to the Good takes a lifetime of conscious habituation.

Contrasted against the framework of sin and holiness that the Christian God uses to judge humanity, Platonists rely on virtue and vice to determine man’s goodness. The cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude are of the utmost importance to Platonist philosophers, and the harmony of these virtues reflects the divine ordering and unity of the Forms themselves. Cultivating these virtues requires wisdom, but in the Platonist tradition this is a rare achievement that only a select few will achieve in their lifetimes. Socrates provides an account of judgment in the Platonic afterlife in the Phaedo, where “there is no escape from evil nor any salvation [for souls] except by becoming as good and wise as possible [in life], for the soul goes to the underworld possessing nothing but its education and upbringing, which are said to bring the greatest benefit or harm to the dead.”10 The cultivation of virtue is an important task in the Christian tradition as well, but Christianity recognizes that virtue alone cannot save us (or that we are unable to achieve the virtue necessary for salvation). Original sin has compromised humanity in such a way that our only hope of redemption is through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, because no amount of good works or righteous living can reconcile us with God. 

“Platonism thus helps

anchor the Christian

understanding of God

as a necessarily

all-powerful and


deity, too great for the

human intellect to compass.”

While Platonist conceptions of redemption and the afterlife are unattainable for most/all when based only on the cardinal virtues, Christianity can enrich Platonist philosophy through its understanding of the relationship between man and God. For Platonists, the divine is something to order one’s soul toward. Although the ancient Platonists did not identify this divine entity as a triune God, they understood that the divine was the source of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and that pursuing these Forms was the only way to attain true happiness. Christianity also requires that one order their soul toward God; although the Christian God is far more personal than the Good proposed by the Platonists. Additionally, this ascent to truth cannot be done on our own by being mysteriously “cured of [our] ignorance,” as is the case for those in the cave.11 Indeed, Socrates is never clear as to how we know we have made it out of the cave and are truly seeing the form of the Good. Christianity offers a much more tangible form, literally and figuratively, of deliverance for humanity. For Christians, ordering one’s life to God can only be done through his grace and through a relationship with Jesus Christ as our human-divine mediator. Herein lies another strength of Christian Platonism — the integration of the Christ figure into a philosophy that is already highly dogmatic.

Platonism is a dogmatic philosophy in the sense that it affirms that there are universal truths about life and the world that are intelligible to human beings. However, without Christ orienting these truths the dogmatism of Platonism makes for an elitist, solitary philosophy wherein only a select few persons can actually attain wisdom. Whereas the body of Christ is for everyone and offers redemption to all no matter one’s level of intellectual prowess, ancient Platonism was accessible only to the educated minority of individuals who had the leisure and ability to fully devote their lives to studying the Forms. Platonism could never achieve the same universality and diversity that the Christian Church can because for the Christian it is Wisdom himself who seeks man first; Christians start with more than the inherent craving for wisdom12 that Platonist philosophers and sages identify.

On this chasm between Christianity and secular philosophies like Platonism, John Henry Newman speaks in his 1830 Easter sermon, “The Influence of Natural and Revealed Religion Respectively.” Newman addresses the insufficiencies of natural religion as philosophies derived from human reason alone rather than divine revelation. It should be noted that Newman uses the term “natural religion” throughout his sermon to refer to all secular moral philosophies, including Platonism, that are used as a substitute for formalized revealed religion. Natural religion is, as Newman calls it, “the actual state of religious belief of pious men in the heathen world.”13

According to Newman’s perspective, natural religions like Platonism are helpful for promulgating a moral code among their followers and creating standards for good citizenship, but are ultimately insufficient in allowing for real, transformative encounters between man and God. It is through natural religion that men are able to cultivate an “expertness in the science of Morals,” but Newman is careful not to equate this science of morals with actual virtue.14 Ultimately, humanity needs a teacher that can properly instruct us according to the will of God. For Newman, that teacher can only be Jesus Christ. It is Christ, and the story of his life found in the Scriptures, which are “the great instruments (under God’s blessing) of fixing and instructing our minds.”15 Natural religion will always fall short when compared to revealed religion, no matter how close to Christianity its teachings may be, because it cannot provide an infallible, effective teacher who is both fully man and fully God. 

The Platonists realized the importance of teachers and relied on the wisdom of teachers to encourage the next generation of philosophers in their pursuit of wisdom. This is demonstrated by the following of devout students Socrates attracted in his lifetime, including Plato. We also learn more about Socrates’ reverence for his own teacher, Diotima, in the Symposium. However, these teachers are not immune to error and correction. Thus in the Phaedo Socrates critiques one of his teachers, Anaxagoras, for the latter’s false understanding of the intellect, desire, and action.16 While there are a number of good teachers in the Platonist tradition, these individuals will always be fallible because they are mere human beings. Humans require human teachers, but mere humans are naturally imperfect.

Newman is correct in evaluating natural religion as inherently deficient, because Platonism simply cannot provide the same depth of connection as the personal God that is offered by Christianity, nor can it provide an infallible teacher for its students who is both fully man and fully God. Newman summarizes this issue well when he states that “the God of philosophy [is] infinitely great, but an abstraction; the God of paganism [is] intelligible, but degraded by human conceptions.”17 Christian Platonism replaces this abstraction with the one true God who seeks an intimate relationship with mankind and even sent his Son to become one of us so that we may learn how to find true wisdom and happiness in him.

With this in mind, it may seem that Platonism is just a pre-Incarnation form of Christianity. If that were the case, ‘Christian Platonism’ could easily be misinterpreted as an almost redundant term because the only thing separating these two respective traditions would be a “historical ignorance of Christ.”18 However, to label Christian Platonism as effectively redundant would be to trivialize the role of Jesus Christ in Christian theology, and the major philosophical shifts that occur when Christian revelation elevates Platonist philosophy. It is the role of Christian Platonism to “[interpret] Platonic philosophy through the lens of Christian doctrine.”19 Thus, the significance of Christ within Christian Platonism cannot be dismissed, as he is, in the order of being and knowing, the true source and summit of the entire tradition.

Furthermore, it is important to understand Christian Platonism as a lens for examining philosophy because some of the greatest challenges facing this tradition are the charges of heresy levied against its members for associating too closely with a pagan philosophy, such as in the case of Origen. We must remember that Christian Platonists are Christians first, and Christian Platonist philosophy is always done in light of the Scriptures and Church teachings. We need not look far into the historical record to find numerous theologians who have virtuously integrated Platonism into their religious and philosophical pursuits as Christians. Saint Augustine, as has been demonstrated throughout this essay, is only one example of a pious theologian who believed Platonism still had a great deal to offer the Church, but recognized that it had insufficient conceptions of God and man that needed to be corrected by Christ.

Augustine was able to reconcile his respect for Platonist principles with the Christian faith by using Christian Platonism as a lens for his works. In The Teacher, for example, Augustine explains explicitly Platonic principles of learning and recollection through a Christian understanding of truth and wisdom. From his perspective, it is through our ability to perceive Christ that we are able to perceive any truth at all, because Christ is Truth himself. It is for this reason that Augustine claims when one person speaks truths to another, the hearer of truth is “taught not by [the speaker’s] words but by the things themselves made manifest within when God discloses them.”20 This is a more comprehensive understanding of how man comes to know truth, and it bolsters the Platonist theory of recollection. Our souls come to knowledge not because of a process of reincarnation or because our souls have already experienced this truth in time,21 but because God has allowed us to perceive it in his light. Because of this, the pursuit of true wisdom is inextricably linked to the pursuit of God.

This understanding of truth helps further protect Christian Platonism from charges of unorthodoxy even if a number of Christians, both Platonist and otherwise, hold that any form of truth is revealed truth, whether supernaturally or not, and must ultimately come from God. This idea is not foreign to the faith, and because Christ as Logos transcends time one may believe that “there is no other true Reason than Christ” and therefore that “everyone who ever heeded reason heeded Christ.”22 In this sense, Platonism should not be fully rejected by Christianity regardless of its shortcomings because it does contain some transcendental truths about the human person and the nature of the soul. This is not to give credit to paganism qua pagan, because the knowledge contained within Platonism still comes from Christ. Christian Platonism is simply a further perfection of this.

“Platonism should not be

fully rejected by Christianity

regardless of its shortcomings

because it does contain

some transcendental truths

about the human person

and the nature of the soul.”

Christian Platonism arose out of a need to reconcile important Platonist concepts with revealed Christian doctrine and that synthesis bore a tradition that is still relevant in the modern era, as seen, for example, in the writings of Iris Murdoch and Josef Pieper. The philosophical truths within Platonism have remained salient over time because they contain glimpses of God’s revealed truth to man, and this is brought to fruition by the assimilation of Platonism into the Christian tradition. Christian Platonism is therefore an orthodox tradition that should be preserved because it allows for the further study of virtue and the relationship between God and the cosmos, both of which are inevitably theological endeavors regardless of whether or not they are pursued with a Christian lens.

Faith Brown ‘21 majored in Political Science and Philosophy and minored in Religion. She lives in Washington, DC. We thank Dr. Kevin M. Kambo (Philosophy) for his involvement with Faith’s piece.

1  Augustine, Concerning The City of God Against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 313.

2  Plato, “Analogy of the Cave.” Republic (Book VII). Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Revised by C.D.C. (Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), 186–190.

3  Plato, “Analogy of the Cave,” 3.

4  Plato, “Analogy of the Cave,” 3.

5  Plato, Phaedo, trans. Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 1998), 79b.

6  Plato, Phaedo, 80b.

7  Gen. 1:26–27

8  Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2019). 1.1.1.

9  Augustine, Confessions, 7.9.14.

10  Plato, Phaedo, 107d.

11  Plato, “Analogy of the Cave,” 2.

12  Plato, Symposium, trans. Even Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2017). 204a.

13  John Henry Newman. “The Influence of Natural and Revealed Religion Respectively.” Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford Between A.D. 1826 and 1843. (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1997). 16–36. JSTOR,

14  Newman, “The Influence of Natural and Revealed Religion Respectively,” 20.

15  Newman, “The Influence of Natural and Revealed Religion Respectively,” 34.

16  Plato, Phaedo, 98c.

17  Newman, “The Influence of Natural and Revealed Religion Respectively,” 24.

18  Paul Tyson, “How Christian Is Christian Platonism?” Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for Our Times (The Lutterworth Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2014), 90–124. 19  Tyson, “How Christian Is Christian Platonism?,” 99.

20  Augustine, Against the Academicians and The Teacher, trans. Peter King. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995). 95–146. 12.40.

21  Plato, Phaedo, 73c.

22  Tyson, “How Christian Is Christian Platonism?,” 113.

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