I’m now four weeks into year ten of my ten-year plan to read classic literature. So I’ve been passing important milestones that were only tiny dots on an abstract map ten years ago. A couple weeks ago, for instance, I finished reading all the extant dramas from ancient Greece. At dinner on Thursday evening, I told my wife that I would finish the works of Plato the next day; she asked me if I had any profound conclusions. It was the question I should have expected; but I didn’t, so I was stumped for a while. I finally said something about how it appears that Plato eventually moved beyond his mentor’s thought and so replaced Socrates in the later dialogs with various other characters identified only as “Strangers.” But a different, better answer occurred to me the next morning as I was actually reading the last few pages.
At the beginning of this past December, I noticed a note I had written in the margin of my 2015 schedule next to Augustine’s name: “+ De vera religione.” I hadn’t remembered writing it; I certainly didn’t remember where I picked up the tip to read that treatise by the Bishop of Hippo. But I looked the title up and read it online, a few pages each morning over the holiday break. In that book, Augustine lays out the clearest explanation I’ve come across of the Platonism in his theology, with much more detail than the few words in his Confessions. He says that in reading Plato, he learned the basics of the religion that Jesus revealed openly. “You have persuaded me,” he says, apostrophizing the philosopher, “that truth is seen not with the bodily eyes but by the pure mind,” that lust for the perishable things of this world hinders our perception of truth, that the mind therefore needs healing in order to behold the Eternal, and that all existing things have their being from the eternal God, Who created the world by Truth. He goes to say that he believes Plato would have admitted if asked that the necessary healing of the soul could only come about if God Himself endued a man with divine wisdom from the cradle and gave him the majesty and authority to convert the human race.
So here’s my conclusion – maybe not original, but profound if only in that I now understand the profound conclusions of others. Plato was special. There’s a reason Augustine credits Plato with pointing him toward Christianity. There’s a reason Dante placed Plato in the highest, least hellish circle of hell. Plato saw what so many others in the educated, religious culture of his ancient Athens could not see. In the Laws (the book I finished yesterday, completing my decade-long journey through all of Plato’s writings), he confesses very clearly that the stories of the gods told by the poets and dramatists could not possibly be true and that the Creator, the Mind that moves the heavens in such an orderly way, the Author of the human soul, must be all-wise, all-knowing, all-good, and a righteous Judge. There’s no room here for Zeus wresting power from his father, no room for Hera toying with humans like a cat with a cricket, no room for Aphrodite demanding worship. Yes, Plato tosses in a line about the existence of at least one evil god and the possibility of yet more gods, but his argument focuses on and supports only the one eternal, good, true, wise, loving Ruler of existence. So Augustine didn’t just teach Christianity in Platonic terms; he saw Plato as having received glimpses of the true Light of Heaven and so believed that Plato himself, to the extent of his limited ability, taught elements of Christianity.
So, in more than one sense of the word, I’ve reached conclusions. Plato himself, however, did not come to any solid conclusion that I could find. He approached the end of the Laws saying that the chief guardians of his ideal city should rule by contemplating the one thing that binds all virtues, the one commonality among wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. And the Stranger that leads the dialog says he will not end the discussion until he and his companions have found that common aspect. But I read the last three or four pages several times trying to find it without success. I guess I really should say that I finished reading the works of Plato three times yesterday.