In the previous article, we saw how geometry set the standard for knowledge in the world of ancient Greek philosophy, and how Christian theology emerged out of an effort to harmonize the very different traditions of Greek and Hebraic thought. Plato’s theory of the forms is perhaps his most famous contribution to philosophy, and requires no extensive discussion. But, as Arthur O. Lovejoy has pointed out in his book The Great Chain of Being, there is another aspect to Plato’s thought that is less familiar, though it has been quite as influential.
According to Lovejoy, Plato’s thought was otherworldly, in the sense that it posited the permanent reality of the unseen, a-temporal, a-spatial realm of the “forms,” of which the world of sense experience is but a shadowy and often misleading reflection. To truly exist, for Plato, is to be changeless—for what comes into being may go out of being, hence is not permanent, hence does not have true being. What can change belongs to the realm of the merely apparent, the realm of sense experience, so what truly has being cannot change. It is like a triangle—it never began to have three sides, and it will never not have three sides. Eternally, of logical necessity, a triangle has three sides. That’s just what it means to be a triangle. Of course, we can object that triangles come in and out of being all the time—I can draw one on a sheet of paper, and thus bring it into being, and then rip up that sheet of paper, and thus bring it out of being, so in that sense, the triangle began to have three sides, and then ceased to have three sides. However, this perspective presumes that the real triangles are empirically available objects—this or that depiction of a triangle—and the idea a mere imagination, where Plato’s philosophy presumes that these empirically available objects are the imagination, and the idea of the triangle—that apprehended by the reason, not the senses—is the real object. The real triangle is the eternal, transcendent, abstract idea, or form, of the triangle, and that idea cannot be created, destroyed, or affected in any way by a human being, according to Plato.
So Plato’s philosophy identifies the real with the permanent, and the illusory with the mutable. Thus what has true being does not come into being, does not go out of being, does not change in any way. It simply is, always and necessarily. And since this, manifestly, is not the world of experience, that which is empirically available to us, it follows that this world of experience does not have true being, only the realm of the forms does. So Plato’s philosophy is otherworldly in the sense that it posits the superior and transcendent reality of a world other than that in which we find ourselves.
If modern philosophies speculate about the derivation of something from nothing, the opposite problem presented itself to Plato: how can nothing, so to speak, come from something?
So much, from Plato, is familiar. But Lovejoy pointed out that a philosophy of this type has a problem on its hands—namely, it has to give an account of the inferior order of reality in which we find ourselves. At least at first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it to exist since, as Plato has informed us, being is the fundamental category of existence, where our world of experience is constituted, primarily, of becoming. How can becoming come from being? How can unreality come from reality? If modern philosophies speculate about the derivation of something from nothing, the opposite problem presented itself to Plato: how can nothing, so to speak, come from something?
Here we must pause to discuss an issue that has been passed over up to now—the deliberate ambiguity with which Plato wrote his dialogues. For, since they are discussions that purport to represent the views of historical figures, and in which the character of Plato himself takes no part, it is never clear whose views are under discussion. When “Socrates” or “Alcibiades” speaks, are we to understand their views as those of the historical figure, of Plato, or of neither? Doubtless Plato puts words in the mouth of his protagonists. But this does not help us answer the question of where Plato’s views begin and end because the protagonists of Plato’s dialogues contradict each other, and much is left unsaid in the dialogues that might have been left implicit deliberately, or may not have ever occurred to Plato. So Plato’s views are not easy to get at, and have been subject to constant scholarly reinterpretation.
In the Timaeus, the titular character ascribes the creation of the world to the goodness of God. As we’ve seen, it’s not clear that Plato actually believed this, and in a sense it doesn’t matter whether he did or didn’t. But I’ve drawn attention to the ambiguity in the text in order to avoid imputing to Plato theological opinions that, for all we know, he didn’t have. At any rate, a character in his dialogue offers this opinion, and it has often been taken by later commentators to be Plato’s genuine view. The reason that the creation of the world is a display of God’s goodness, according to Timaeus, is that existence, even in the inferior orders of being, is a good, and God wants to bestow the good on all the forms by causing them to be manifest in the world of becoming. Or put negatively: God is not envious, so necessarily bestows every good thing that it is logically possible to bestow, and so too, manifestation in the world of becoming upon the forms. Whatever can exist, does, according to this view.
So according to Lovejoy, there is a transition in Plato’s thought between, on the one hand, the conception of God as pure being, pure existence, and hence self-contained, perfect, and utterly remote, and on the other hand, the necessity of God creating all the things that logically can exist, because God is not envious and does not begrudge the privilege of existence to anything that can have it. On the first conception, the world of becoming seems inexplicable; on the second, it is seen to be necessary and inevitable. According to Lovejoy, this is simple contradiction. One cannot have it both ways. If God is self-contained, there is no reason to create; if God must create, God is not self-contained. Further, not only must God create, on the second view, but God must create exactly everything that exists, and cannot do otherwise since everything that can exist must exist, else God is envious, and hence not God, which would be an absurdity. So the world of becoming is “filled up,” so to speak, with every spot in the hierarchy of being occupied, every link in the “great chain of being” interconnected with the others—God at the top, and the most transitory, imperfect, lowly things at the bottom.
Evil is thus a necessary component of the world, since it contributes to its fullness, and hence also to its perfection.
The fullness of being principle also offered a ready-made explanation for evil, first invoked by the Alexandrian philosopher Plotinus. Since all things that can exist do exist, and whatever happens does so of logical necessity, only one world is possible, and it is foolish to protest at the shape in which we find it. Modified somewhat by Leibniz fifteen centuries later, this became the principle of “the best of all possible worlds.” Although many worlds were possible, according to Leibniz, a perfectly good world was not, else the principle of fullness would have been violated, and an absurdity would result. Evil is thus a necessary component of the world, since it contributes to its fullness, and hence also to its perfection. Voltaire was to poke much fun of this philosophy in his book Candide, and it seems transparently false today. The reason has as much to do with us, and our changing conception of knowledge, as it does with Leibniz.
Despite the incompatibility of Plato’s two concepts of God, as self-contained perfection and as overflowing creative abundance, according to Lovejoy, they coexisted in Western intellectual life until quite recently. When we come to Darwin, we will see him working against a background that assumed the reality of species, and the impossibility of extinction, on just these grounds. On the one hand, species were understood to be real entities—“thoughts in the mind of God,” or in other words, manifestations of Platonic forms—on just these grounds. Where Darwin taught us to think of the term “species” as a label, indicating only a breeding population with a historical, not a transcendent, existence, the biological science of his time, and which his theory displaced, regarded those species as real, permanent, fixed archetypes, and did so on essentially Platonic grounds. On the other hand, they also tended to view fossils with suspicion, and to dismiss them as “sports of nature”—i.e., mineralization patterns that looked like animals, but really were not. Incredible as it seems, the reason had to do with Plato’s other great principle, the principle of fullness. If a species could exist, then it did exist; if it ever stopped existing, then a link in the great chain of being would have been missing. But since the fullness of nature had already been established on strict, logically necessary grounds, and hence with as much certainty as the three-sidedness of a triangle, this would be an absurdity. Thus fossils were not the remains of extinct animals, and some other explanation had to be found. Like clouds passing in the sky, in which one thinks one sees a face, an airplane, a house, etc., so too, the appearance of organic patterns in the rocks was only that—an appearance.
Darwinian biology is sometimes framed—especially by advocates of the conflict model—as an advance in knowledge that was carried out in the teeth of Christian, theologically motivated opposition. It is certainly true that Darwinian biology faced opposition on theological grounds when it was first presented, although the extent of this should not be exaggerated. Modern battles over young earth creationism and intelligent design are products of the twentieth, not the nineteenth, century. Perhaps in future articles there will be an opportunity to explore this strange and fascinating history. But what I hope to have drawn attention to, in this and the preceding article, is the extent to which Christian theology succeeded, not by opposing, but by absorbing, prior bodies of knowledge—especially the Platonic conception of knowledge, and of reality. It is in a sense true that the success of science has undercut the credibility of Christian theology, not so much by refuting the authority of Genesis, but by changing the conception of knowledge generally.
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.