Of the Influence of Plato, Platonism and Neoplatonism on Christian Theology

I was wondering if anyone knew the extent of Plato’s influence on Christian/Catholic theology, especially medieval theology. I ask this because I have read much Plato in the previous moths and I thought that even though the philosopher was a pagan, it was very christian in its thinking.

Let me explain why:

In his dialogues Plato has Socrates say “Nothing bad can happen to a good man”, now to most materialist/atheist/agnostic, this seems very foolish, yet I think most Chrisitians would agree with it, if they understood what it meant. Basically what it is saying is, everything that happens in this life is a test and is insignificant compared to what happens after we take the test. No matter what bad happens to you, if you are a good man, you will be rewarded with the greatest good imaginable. Which is a misnomer, because as St. Paul informs us, we cannot imagine what it will be like, it will be so wonderful.
The most Christian of Plato’s dialogues(if I may call them that) would be Phaedo. In it, Socrates(at least according to plato) argues in an immortal soul, that will live on far beyong our death. While there is some contradictary ideas to Christianity in this dialogue, such as the idea of memory as recollection. What really strikes me as Christian in this essay is that Socrates last words are something along the lines of “We owe a rooster to Aesclipius” Aesclipius is the greek god of healing, in saying this, Socrates is informing us that he has found the cure for his soul, which is death. Offerings would be made to Aesclipius whenver someone would have been healed.

And of course, Plato’s most famous idea, other than the theory of forms would be the allegory of the cave. Since you proabably are already familiar with the concept I will not repeat it here, but I will say that through the allegory is about philosophers and non-philosophers it could easily be about believers and non-believers.

I read that St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas(god bless them both) were both influenced by Platonism, which is why I am asking this question, I was wonder what concepts exactly they used or burrowed or transformed in their theological works. I read the St. Augustine was more influenced by neo-platonism than Plato himself, and I was wondering as to whether the good doctors admit to the influence or if its just later scholars pushing it on them.

Having put up posts before and received no response I feel some emplathy for you. I have heard that Stoicism was far more influential than Platonism. But to answer you, the Greeks you refer to had some pretty heavy weight ideas that might have threatened to perpetrate an ensconcement of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus taught a very practical doctrine that was also imbued by God’s spirit with its own powerful philosophy. By giving a new ritual practice that began with the sacrfice of his own life (or with his birth, it might be argued) , he put his “ideas” on level with and above the sophists. I have heard it said that Christianity is a technology of the philosophers. Perhaps, but like any piece of technology, it serves no purpose and has no real utility if it remains a relic…and, even as a sentimental book of literature, of “made up stories” as some hard hearted people call his story, it draws the person to itself because the reality of life is that everyone experiences a cross. Socrates was most famous for saying “I know that I do not know”. The same could be said of the frank believer in/of Jesus. Yet if all he said begins to come together like pieces in a puzzle, then the saving conclusion, his Divinity as the son of God, is offered for the taking also. His Divinity follows not only from the significant precepts of Judaism (what the prophets said to look for), but from the philosophical tenets of the Greeks which would have predicted, perhaps, that such a “technology” of words and deeds could lead to a sharing of actual human experience if only it flowed from Spirit.

To say that Plato influenced is to say he was a Greek prophet. His ideas can be seen as a means of gathering people under a tent for the purpose of together testing out some words that promise to make you immortal. The words lead some to sacrament, the sacraments of Jesus to heaven. The end result is the same. Without Jesus, there is no salvation. Using technology as a metaphor kinds of for me makes sense of his command to evangelize where His spirit guides as always:

Luke 10:7

7Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you, for the laborer deserves his payment. Do not move about from one house to another.

Jesus and those who uphold the(ir) cross (i.e. build, preserve, and use the technology) deserve their spritual reward.
The parables show in part how counter intuitive and impossible to fathom is a social technology that equitably distributes limited or even plentiful resources of the world. When that scheme is compared to the distribution of Spirit, we are led to prayer in remembrance of the sacfrice he made as a daily offered payment for the nothing we have done to deserve it. This hopefully leads to the action of sharing whatever gifts there are. The easiest gift to share is the spiritual gift, because it is intangible and grows when given away. In fact, you really can’t do anything with a spiritual gift other than share it.

Many of the early Christians were very Platonist in their views. Origen is probably the most prominent Christian Platonist. There have been books written about his Platonist tendencies. All of Greek Christian thought was heavily influenced by Origen. And it was the Greeks who gave us the basic understanding of christology and Trinitarian theology. Clement of Alexandria, Gregory nyssa, Maximus the confessor, psuedo Dionysius, and many other major figures were all platonists. Alexandria, the center of all theological discussion in the early church, had a large Platonist school that influenced many Christians. Origen studied in Alexandria under amonius saccus, who was also the teacher of Plotinus.

In the Latin world Augustine was a Platonist, and consequently everyone was influenced by it to a degree. Augustine writes in his confessions about how important the neoplatonist authors were in his conversion to the catholic church. It was Plotinus who convinced him that the catholic notion of God was the truth.

Many of the fathers speak of Plato as a Christian before Christ. Some speak of him learning from the Torah. Some fathers condemned philosophy, even though they were heavily influenced by Plato and Neoplatonism.

It has also been argued (sorry, I can’t recall the source, it’s been a while) that the development of doctrine was a process of deplatonizing. Many of the early heretics were basing their arguments on platonic or Neoplatonic understandings of the world. Arianism is one example of this, and they were called out on it.

St Augustine, Origen and Boethius were probably the most influenced by platonic and neo-platonic thought, Augustine’s theory of divine illumination is probably the most obvious and influential theory based on platonic thought(think platonic re-collection in the meno) also influential as was the platonic focus on the highest genera and the concept of the one(they would have been influenced mainly by neo-platonic interpretations of Plato). Obviously the platonic doctrine of reincarnation was problematic but you can’t have everything! from what I’ve read I don’t think they were shy about using Plato. St Thomas was influenced to a far lesser extent, (he had Aristotle running through him like a stick of Rock) and severely criticised the theory of ideas on several occasions, but he developed the notion of participation of being partially based on plato(mostly based on Aristotle).

Sorry to bust in on this thread. But the thought occured to me. What are the ramifications of this for Catholicism and Christianity in general.

Did Christianity just hijack Plato and Greek Philosophy and make it its own? Is Christianity really a Divine Revelation if it essentially is just reworked Greek Philosophy?

No. The use of greek philosophy shows that certain aspects of God and his existence can be know by natural human reason alone, and it allows us to expand our knowledge of God. it uses our God given intellect to find God. revelation kicks in then and shows us the rest. we don’t have to rely on fideism but we can argue for God’s existence using the tools he left us via nature. Fantastic! It shows the intrinsic unity of faith and reason whose truths flow from the same divine source.

But not all greek philosophy is compatible with Christianity. Plato was strong on the reincarnation of the soul, Aristotle on the eternity of the world(no creator God), and most importantly the crucifixion would be considered a complete failure of the virtuous life by both plato and Aristotle(on a purely greek philosophy level it wasn’t dignified like Socrates, not did it contribute to mans natural end as Aristotle would have wanted.) so while they are compatible they are not identical.

Aristotle and Plato were Pagans who came before Christ, it is quite difficult to cast them as heretics. Reincarnation was never taught by Christ, resurrection was. Can you truly ask for something non-Christian or even something sinful in Jesus’ name and receive it from Christ? I don’t think so.(Besides if you get to gaze on the beatific vision once you die, you won’t want to be separated from it by something like reincarnation) You can certainly seek these things but not in the name of Jesus.

The virtuous life according to the ancient greeks, esp. Aristotle, would have seen the crucifixion simply in terms of injustice and failure of man to reach his natural end. Sure jesus may have borne this injustice with some magnanimity, but his death did not benefit the polis, that jesus did not fight or evade this injustice even though he tells us he had the power to do so speaks less of fortitude and more of cowardice(in greek terms) meaningless self-sacrifice was not looked upon favourably by the greeks. Socrates death was considered a great crime and embarrassment to athens by later generations even though Socrates believed he was teaching athens to the end(please note this is not my view but how i read ancient greek virtue ethics, Jesus would also likely have been tried for impiety and corrupting the youth if he were in Athens then). Finally the fact that jesus did not marry and have children is yet another failure to fulfil mans natural end, to live the virtuous life and become as close to the divine as possible(taking part in the production of new life and so in a certain sense imitating immortality was highly prised by the greeks) was another ‘failure’ on the part of Jesus.

Plato’s works and Aristotle’s ethics are certainly compatible with Christian life lived in the natural world, but they require the supernatural dimension to come into there own, they must ultimately be ordered to divine revelation to allow a complete living out of the Christian life.

Another point, virtue is the mean between two extremes for the greeks, but while this is true for the most part for christians, a christian can never love too much. God’s grace takes this mean and pulls it beyond anything we can achieve in this life. The Nicomachean Ethics tells us how to be happy as a man can be happy in action, that is in this life; revelation and the crucifixion promises a far greater happiness in the triune God

Socrates’ death was very noble in my opinion, the situations were very similar if you ask me. Both were killed without good reason, and in both cases it was contreversial to execute them. Both of them faced death bravely knowing much greater things were ahead of them. If you do have to compare them though, Jesus’ sacrafice means much more, and meant more coming from him, what I mean when I say this is, Socrates was killed by his peers, and could accept it maybe if they were coming from him, But Christ was killed by his lessers, I’m not sure how to put this, but it is something like if a man turned into an animal, and he were to do entirely good things for the animals while he was temporarily one of them and they in turn mocked, denied, totured and killed him simply because of their own sin.

And on another note, I always thought it was bizarre when I heard Christians say we all killed Jesus, but it actually makes sense when you know that his love is wounded in every sin, so we can make up for his death by ceasing to sin. I also hope Aquinas was right about the harrowing of hell, because I do believe Socrates and Plato were ritcheous men and would have been devout Christians had they lived in the right time period.

It doesn’t seem that way to me, Christ taught the truth, and we can use the theories of Plato to demonstrate that truth logically. If it is simply a matter of how old it is, Judaism is much older than greek philosophy and the truths of New Testament(500 years after Plato roughly) come from the truths in the Old Testament(much older than greek philosphy, not quite sure by how much, since the beggining of humanity if you ask me).

If you ask me, if Plato’s work never survived or he never lived or something like that, Augustine, Boethius and Aquinas would all still have made brilliant theological works, it would just have used different logic based on different sources, perhaps they only used hellenistic philosophy because that was all there was to build on during the medieval ages.

I don’t think it is possible to underestimate the influence of hellenic theology in the ancient world, and I think it would be unwise to forget the time when it arose.

The Old Testament ends with the Book of Malachi, somewhere between 445 and 515 BC if Wikipedia is to be believed. Socrates was born in 469BC, and even if the older 515BC date is used, Socrates was born within a generation of the end of the Old Testament. He was executed 399BC for “not believing in the gods of the state”. His method of reasoning uses ideas like the Good or Justice, rather than the traditional civic gods.

Plato lived c. 427-347BC and most of what we know of Socrates is from his dialogues and letters. Plato codified Socrates’ theology, expanded upon it, and wrote it down. Note that I call it theology. The Good, Justice, Truth, etc correspond to those idols listed in s.2113 of the catechism. It is my contention that Plato’s forms – aside from the mathematical – were a new form of idolatry, and that to the extent that the dialectic consisted of weighing the interests of competing idols, it was garbage in, garbage out.

Aristotle (384-322BC) further refined this new theology by introducing the golden mean as a means of balancing the demands of these new idols. He also introduced the idea that we study philosophy to be happy. He uses self-interest to limit the self harm caused by this new theology. In 343 BC Aristotle takes work as a tutor teaching the child of a northern king, Philip of Macedon. The child is Alexander the Great (356-323BC), who went on to conquer the known world and spread this new hellenic theology wherever he went.

What does this have to do with Christ?


When Socrates was born the second temple had been built, the walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt, and Isreal was ruled by its priesthood. After Alexander the Great, the Jews fought a series of civil wars, over the course of centuries, over the hellenization of their religion; and suffered a series of invasions as well. On the one hand, you had those who turned their backs on God for the sake of false idols like Truth and Reason, and on the other hand those who clung to the old laws without understanding that the primary purpose of the old laws was to keep them from idolatry. It was in the midst of this conflict that Christ was born, and taught.

Platonism had as enormous an influence on early Christianity as Marxism and Hegelian theology do today. Christianity is that gift by which we can overcome either form of idolatry. I’m not trying to take anything away from Plato here, or Aristotle for that matter, but please keep all this in mind as you are reading Plato.

:confused: :confused: :confused: :confused:

1: The forms are not gods, they are thoughts or the perfect prototype of something before it become physical, they are merely thoughts in the “mind” of the demiurge(not the gnostic demiurge this on simply created the universe), If we are christianizing platonism, the forms would be thoughts inside the mind of God
2: I can believe you called Plato’s ideas garbage :confused:
3: I have no idea how you can connect the golden mean with the forms
4: Aristotle’s philosophy was sharply different than Plato’s, it should not be seen as a continuation of Plato’s ideas(hint hint Aristotle thought to focus on the practical, Plato sought to focus on the perfect forms and perhaps the gods)
5: Marxism has an influence on modern church theology?(besides the oh so bogus Liberaton theology that our new pope stands against)
6: Hegel=Theology? :confused:

On points 5&6
Marxism had had a negative impact on Christianity the false notions of liberal or progressive Christianity the presumed dichotomy between christian ‘left and right’ and the struggle against the establishment you see even within the Catholic church. Notions of ‘loyal dissent’ and struggle to change the “praxis” of Catholicism have become common since the middle of the 20th century. However these movements reached their peak with the so called ‘liberation theology’ of the 1970’s and have been declining ever since(at least within Catholicism, I can’t speak for other christian bodies) as there adherents have died out without leaving credible successors.

The influence of Hegel’s spiritual philosophical system on catholic theology is most evident in the works of Fr. Karl Rahner, but even there it is not as extreme as it is found elsewhere, (where the notions of the emptying of the Hegelian spirit into the natural world in order to be negated and become the absolute spirit have been applied to God, the Trinity and the incarnation (cf Philippians 2:6-11) to the point where God needed to empty himself into the the world in order to become fully himself. This is a point Catholics could never accept.

Sorry posted accidently

Thank you for the clarification, I guess I was just suprised with his way of putting it, it made sense the way you put it.

Plato believed and argued not only for the existence of God, but also for both the existence and immortality of the soul. When he makes Socrates defend these truths in a rational way, he was no doubt seen by the early Christians as an ally, even though he had not the benefit of revealed truth in the scriptures. Remember that Greece was still in thrall to Plato at the time Paul was teaching, and that a fertile area of conversions was among the Greeks because they had been well taught by Plato to believe in the actuality of metaphysical knowledge and the grounding of all morality in a spiritual source which Plato, like the apostle John, had traced back to the metaphor of the Light that shines in the darkness (the myth of the cave).

In the 3rd Century the philosopher Plotinus, who was very much influenced by Plato, fed into the early Christian theology a number of his thoughts. As Bertrand Russell points out in his History of Philosophy, “To the Christian, the Other World was the Kingdom of Heaven, to be enjoyed after death; to the Platonist, it was the eternal world of ideas, the real world as opposed to that of illusory appearance. Christian theologians combined these points of view, and embodied much of the philosophy of Plotinus. …] Plotinus, accordingly, is historically important as an influence in molding the Christianity of the Middle Ages and of Catholic theology."

@Charlemagne – quite true! Without him, we Gentiles would have been far less receptive to Christ’s message. Credit where it is due. Thank God for Plato!

@Sampson - The rest turn on point 1, so it is that which I shall address. I can easily understand your confusion. I was educated in the British tradition, and deliberately chose the oldest of the old-school. Amongst the elder High Anglicans and Scots Catholics I knew as a youngster, what I am telling you was implicitly understood if rarely stated. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. These are idols. Anywhere else it seems unknown. If you live in one of those faddish and fundamentally unstable republics built on the blood-stained idols of the revolutionaries, then what I am telling you amounts to treason.

I did not call the forms gods. Leaving aside the mathematical, I called them idols. I will try to be more precise. Hard to do in 6,000 chars. Section 2112 of the catechism gives the definition of the familiar false gods of antiquity: “idols of silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.” Section 2113 gives a list of idols which are not antique gods, and gives an all-too-obscure definition:

Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honours and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. Jesus says “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Many martyrs died for not adoring “the Beast” refusing even to simulate such worship. Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of god; it is therefore incompatible with communion with God.

Much hinges on what is meant by “divinizing what is not God.” In my books, the forms are not “thoughts inside the mind of God,” they are instead (if I may borrow from Edmund Burke) abstract ideas and generalities, the work of men’s minds. Abstract ideas and generalities are not necessarily idols. Mathematical forms, for instance, are not idols. Neither is a statue of necessity an idol of the older sort. I have been looking for a better definition, and a test, of the sort used in law courts, to determine what is and is not an idol. To paraphrase St. Augustine, from On Christian Doctrine, Value nothing for its own sake, except for God. To divinise something then is to value it for its own sake. Plato and Aristotle both make extensive use of abstract ideas and generalities which are valued for their own sake. These I call idols. These idols are not the whole of classical philosophy. They are merely the foundation.

I have found many things which support this theory in scripture, in the history of relations between Platonism and Christianity, and in the works of St. Augustine.

There is the critique of Varro in Books 6 & 7 of The City of God, which gives Varro’s division of the idols into three categories: “they call that kind mythical which the poets chiefly use; physical, that which the philosophers use; civil, that which the people use.” (Bk6Ch5) St. Augustine’s arguments against Athena (or any other pagan god) are no more or less sound if we substitute Wisdom for Athena. I say this because so many of the older gods represent an idea, and to the philosophers it was the idea that mattered, and not the local name and likeness of its representation which varied from place to place. The idea was the thing, the god its shadow. I’ll venture that the association between these ideas and thier representative gods was so close that they were used interchangably.

There is the effect of Platonism on the Jews after Alexander, and on the Christians of western Europe after the re-discovery and translation of Proclus’ The Elements of Theology in the 13th century. “Endless disintegration.” (Catechism 2114)

There is the readiness with which the Hellenes took to Christ’s message. I don’t think it is a coincidence that so many of his followers were Greeks. There are lines like “I am the Truth”, “A man cannot serve God and mammon”, “a man cannot serve two masters”, “Love God with all your heart”, and so on.

There is the relationship between Good and Evil – the fruit of the original sin – and these other Ideas which we value for their own sake, or despise for their own sake. In short, these ideas which we have invented and decided for ourselves are good or evil, and which we value in error, when we should only value God.

I could go on. It is a fairly simple thing, easy to understand but hard to practice. These ideas are everywhere and deeply ingrained. I’ve been suspicious of these ideas since I was a wee lad, and have had decades of practice in thinking without them. To someone raised with them, educated and trained in their use, it is hard to figure on anything without them. But understanding it, it’s like spinning the lens on a telescope. What was once obscure becomes crystal clear. Much of scripture, Christ’s message, the timing of his birth, the relationship between Christian and Platonist (then and now), the “invincible ignorance” of the Protestants, the bloody human sacrifices of the Humanists and Socialists.

I’m a cab driver. Not an academic. I haven’t set foot in a school in… I think it’s about twenty years. Been busy. With a few days and more sleep I might make a better argument, but I hope for now you get the gist of it.

Whether or not you think of Platonism as a polytheistic theology…

The influence of Platonism or Hellenism generally began with the Jews, especially in Alexandria and Antioch. Since I hold Platonism to be a form of idolatry, I will describe the effects as “endless disintegration” – sectarian conflict and so on. The effect was largely an effort by the Jewish minority to adapt to the Hellenistic majority around them, an effort which ceased when Hellenism was no longer dominant.


Whether or not you accept the theory that Christ’s teachings were specifically intended to help us overcome this new form of idolatry is up to you.

As with the Jews the early Christians were a minority surrounded by a Hellenistic majority. The majority of new Christians were coming to Christianity from Hellenism, Augustine among them. They often used Hellenistic words and ideas in their new-found faith and some of them stuck. The chief difference here is that their Christianity slowly overcame Hellenism, whereas with the Jews it had been the other way around.


Late in antiquity, the roles were reversed, and the Platonists were surrounded by a Christian majority. It could be argued that this fact had some influence on Proclus (for instance), who had in turn a large influence on contemporary Christians.


In the medieval period, and especially after the Academy was closed, I would suggest that Platonism’s influence on Christianity was a remnant, a left-over from antiquity more than an active influence. This seems especially true in the west, for instance at Iona, where few of these works survived or existed in the first place.

I have long dated the re-birth of idolatry (or if you prefer, an active Platonism) in the west to the translation of Proclus’ The Elements of Theology which as of 1268 did not exist in latin.


Hope this helps.


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