More on Platonism

More on Platonism:

Platonism is the school of Greek philosophy that follows the teachings of Plato. It is held that, while still new in the body, that is, as a child, Platothe soul still remembers fragments of its prior existence. However, the material world and its cares and sins soon clog up these memories, and the soul loses its innocence. The way back to heaven is not automatic.The soul can only regain heaven by putting aside human passions, and rekindling the divine love it once had.

Platonism and love

Plato's views on love have sometimes been misunderstood. He believed it almost impossible to move immediately back into divine love. The soul had to ascend to it, as if up a series of steps. The first few steps are experiences of good human love, culminating in sexual love. That love gives individuals glimpses of the pure, selfless love that is divine love and makes them long for something outside themselves. But sexual love can also lead people downward into lust and the physical appetites. So ‘Platonic love' is a high form of sexual love that seeks expression not physically, but in intimate friendship, a sharing of one soul with another, in selfless giving to the other. That will then awaken divine love.

Platonism and 'forms'

Another important concept is Plato's idea of ‘forms'. Each entity on earth is only a copy of the ideal form, which is both to be found in heaven, and in an intuitive knowledgehumans have of it in their minds. Because things are copies, they are never perfect in themselves. People are always, therefore, full of a sense of unattainable perfection and of loss. This is part of their restlessness here on earth.

Platonism and Christian theology

It is easy to see how Platonic philosophy was attractive to Christian theology - as propounded by the fourth century theologian, St Augustine, for example. For him, restlessness was a sign of humankind's separation from God. He declared that individuals would find their peace as they found God.

Jesus asserts in the New Testament (for example in John 16:1-33) that pure love is the highest state of the soul, which Paul expands on in the well known chapter about love (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

However, Platonism is fundamentally opposed to orthodox Christian doctrine, which asserts that the material world was validated and made holy, not only by God's creation of it, but by his participation in it at the incarnation. Christianity has always taught the resurrection of the body, not just of the soul as in Platonism (see Big Ideas > Death and resurrection).

Nonetheless for some Christians the material world is seen as a place of temptation, which will get in the way of the spiritual life. The idealism of Christianity is different from that of Platonism, but there are enough similarities for one to meld with the other in particular historical eras. This blending was particularly strong in England in the seventeenth century, and a number of metaphysical poets were influenced by it, including George Herbert's brother, Lord Herbert of Cherbury; also Marvell and Henry Vaughan. The term often used for types of Platonism that were established later is neoplatonism (new Platonism).

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