Plato’s ideas about the eternal world of perfect Forms provided a template upon which Christian philosophers could build their vision of the eternal, transcendent realm of God. This concept integrated ancient Greek and Jewish mysticism and had an enormous influence not only on Christian beliefs but also on the whole Western tradition of thought, up to today’s Theosophy and even Waldorf schools and organic hand-creams.
Today, it’s sometimes seen as if religion was somehow opposed to the rational inquiry that is “proper” philosophy, but this was not always the case. Christian philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, Islamic thought – in their own time and place, they have all been (and still are) considered mainstream philosophy.
Philosophy also has never been confined to academic, analytic thought. Sartre and Camus wrote much of their philosophy into their works of fiction, their novels, literary essays and theatre plays. Philosophy has been expressed in poems (for example, in German Romanticism), in works of physics and mathematics (for example, the philosophy of quantum physics), in archery, painting and flower arrangements (in traditional Japanese culture). The contemporary blindness of academic philosophy to all these forms of wisdom is tragic and leads to a sterile, academic discipline that revolves only around itself, without interacting any more with the wider culture around it. Academic philosophers are quick to complain when philosophy departments in universities are closed down, but are they actually able to justify why society needs them if they never give anything valuable back?
“Philo-sophy,” the word, means the love (philia) for wisdom (sophia). Surely there are more places where sophia can be found than just metaontology and modal logic?
Religions have always told stories that were meant to educate, to shape the way people thought, and to create a common moral framework within which society could operate. And, historically, the splendid philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity have had a tremendous influence on human history and culture throughout the ages. Certainly more than the works of Frege, Wittgenstein or even Heidegger.
Plato and perfect circles
So let’s go back for a moment to the beginning of Western philosophy proper – which also is the beginning of much of what later would become Christian thought – and to Plato, originator of much of Western philosophy, but also of how we generally think of the Christian “beyond,” paradise, or the place where God resides.
To understand Plato, consider a circle drawn onto a piece of paper. This certainly will not be a true circle. It will be irregular at places, perhaps it will not even close properly. But that doesn’t matter. We can easily recognise that it is “supposed to be a circle.” Even mechanically drawn circles, or circles on a computer screen are never absolutely true and perfect circles. They may consist of square pixels, and, under a microscope, will look like stairs rather than smooth, curved lines. If we draw them in ink, the ink itself will be absorbed into the paper, creating all sorts of shapes that are not part of the “circle”: thicker and thinner portions of the drawn line, ink staining the paper’s fibres to some distance away from the circle itself, little smudges and splatters of ink.
So how do we know what a circle is if we have never really seen one? And we can ask the same question of every particular thing in our world. Nobody has ever seen a “generic tree” either. Every single tree is a unique individual, and no tree really looks like the “ideal tree”. Still, we are all able to recognise “trees”. But how do we do that if we’ve never seen a perfect tree?
Well, you might say, we compare the tree we see with an abstract image of what a tree looks like. And where is this abstract image? In our own minds. This abstract image of the “perfect X” (for any X) is what Plato calls the “Form (or Idea) of an X”. We’ll write Form and Idea in capital letters, to show that these are supposed to mean Plato’s perfect instance of X, where X can be anything. So, for Plato, there’s the Form of a tree, the Form of a house, the Form of a car, and so on; and each is a perfect image of what the corresponding thing would ideally look like. Plato would say: all those specific (imperfect) instances of circles partake in the Form of a perfect circle – and this is how we are able to recognise them as circles.
Plato, Christianity and the beyond
Now you could ask: where _are _these perfect Forms of things? Are they only constructs of the mind, or do they actually exist anywhere?
Plato thought that Forms actually did exist, but that they existed in a separate place that was outside of our normal universe – and in a time outside of normal time. This means that however far we travel into space, we won’t ever find the place where the Forms exist because this place is outside of space (perhaps we would say today: “in another dimension,” in the way scifi movies use the term). In the same way, Forms don’t exist in an eternity of time (understood as an endless amount of time); rather, they exist entirely outside of time.
God’s world and our world
Now you can see where this is going. Plato provided the early Christian philosophers with a perfect place for the residence of God. Until then, gods (for example the ancient Greek and Roman gods) were located in real places: living on Mount Olympos, being born in the waters outside Cyprus, and even Adam was supposed to have stepped down from heaven onto Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka. It was Plato who spelt out what the home of a true, transcendent God would look like: a place beyond space and time. God does not just live forever – He lives entirely outside of time, in an eternity that is something different than just stretched out time. Like the Forms, God is real, but He is somewhere else. God is perfection, just like Plato’s Forms, and mortals, as long as they live, cannot access His realm. Only a perfect being can get a glimpse of the true kingdom of God, in just the same way as only a perfect philosopher can perceive the Forms themselves.
In order to perceive the Forms, the philosopher (or the perfect Christian) must leave behind everything worldly. Worldly love must be transcended by the priest and the monk and become celibacy – in the same way, in which Plato’s wise man is supposed to replace his love for a particular person by an abstract love for wisdom. The body is too much of this world to be able to perceive the world of Forms – and so the Christian mystic will aim to be released from the prison of the body. Like the ascetics of other religions, the Christian mystic will fast, abstain from drink and sex, and focus his (or her) view wholly towards the realm of God.
The Platonic streak has been strong in Christianity all throughout its history, mingling with both Jewish mysticism and ancient Greek mystical cults, and giving birth to the fantastically diverse and long-lived tradition of Western mysticism: all the way from ancient Hermeticism and Gnosticism to Theosophy, Freemasonry and even some forms of modern Paganism. 19th and 20th century Theosophy has influenced both the early Western perception of Tibet and its Buddhism (via the work of Alexandra David-Neel) and the whole movement of Rudolf Steiner and his Anthroposophy, which is still powerfully going today, represented in wellness companies like Weleda or education systems like the Waldorf schools.
Plato and his transcendent realm of perfect things has never ceased to fascinate us. A 2,500-year-old idea, it has formed our world perhaps more than any other philosophical concept: from the celibate priest to the organic hand-cream, it all eventually goes back to the ancient Greek philosopher and his love for truly perfect things.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more articles on esoteric traditions and their philosophy!