- ISBN: 9781108491983
- Published By: Cambridge University Press
- Published: January 2021
The long, tortuous, fruitful history of Christian Platonism is not an understudied topic. Christian Platonism: A History, edited by Alexander J. B. Hampton and John Peter Kenney, has set for itself an imposing task. Its goal is not to shed light upon a neglected corner of intellectual history, but to reaffirm the pedigree of Christian Platonism and make a case for its continued relevance as a way of thinking about humankind’s place in the cosmos.
The introductory chapter by Hampton and Kenney contends against Tertullian that Athens has “everything” to do with Jerusalem (3). Platonism provided Jesus-followers with the “conceptual language” they gradually came to use when explaining their own beliefs to themselves and outsiders (4). The editors gesture to “anti-materialism” and a “commitment to transcendence” as core features of the Platonism that came to animate the writings of Origen of Alexandria or Gregory of Nyssa (4-5). Wisely, they acknowledge that the status of material reality will become a contested issue in the history of Christian Platonism.
Gratitude is due to the editors for their attempts to weave the history of Christian Platonism into a larger tapestry depicting the history of Platonic thought within the Abrahamic traditions. Some of the strongest chapters in the volume are those, like Kevin Corrigan’s discussion of how philosophical dialogue played out across traditions or Lydia Schumacher’s Avicenna-based account of medieval Latin Platonism, which go further than simply nodding to Jewish and Muslim Platonists.
Lloyd Gerson’s chapter here sets a high bar, making the case for a systematic interpretation of Platonic philosophy on the basis of the dialogues themselves (13). As Gerson puts it: “what justifies us in calling Platonism a ‘system’ is the ordered array of intelligible entities at the apex of which is an absolutely simple principle which must be adduced for explanatory adequacy” (16). The One (or the Idea of the Good) becomes the unitary causal principle by which everything can be explained. It was this “unified theory” that appealed to ancient Christian thinkers.
Tensions remained. In addition to the problem of matter, Gerson notes the inextricability of Christianity from its “essential connection with history” (31). He admits that the full “system” of Platonism was not worked out in the dialogues but was instead a “collaborative project” unfolding over centuries (22). Later chapters make good on that suggestion.
A sense of long-term collaborative philosophizing helps explain the references to Aquinas as a key figure (8, 85, 122-142). Schumacher further cautions us to avoid neglecting the influence of Muslim authors on Franciscans like Alexander of Hales and John of La Rochelle, whom she identifies as conduits for the channeling of an Avicenna-influenced Platonism into medieval Christian thought (192). We cannot teleport from Augustine or Boethius to Aquinas or Bonaventure. Instead, we need to remember that the dearth of Platonic texts in medieval Latin Christian culture was made up for by an infusion of ideas from the Islamicate World, which reconfigured debates about issues like soul-body dualism and divine illumination (195-198, 202).
The chapter by Cecilia Muratori and Mario Meliadò takes us into the Humanist Renaissance. What, given the history of Christian Platonism, did the Humanists feel they were accomplishing by attempting some new harmonization of Christ with Plato? Gathering a range of exemplars, Muratori and Meliadò present Renaissance Platonism as an “eclectic” movement (247). It is in this eclecticism, with its notes of Kabbalistic and Hermetic influence, that the character of Renaissance Platonism (as opposed to the Platonism of the Cappadocians or Schumacher’s early Franciscans) resides.
Muratori and Meliadò argue that this eclectic strain of the tradition culminates in Jakob Böhme, who “leans on a traditional framework,” as they put it, “while at the same time transforming it from within: he appropriates the Platonic idea of the convergence of the opposites, but breaks with tradition in investing negativity with the role of motor in the action of divine revelation” (273). It was this reconfiguration of negativity within ‘mysticism’ that would find its rebirth in the Böhme-loving Idealists of the nineteenth century.
As the volume draws to a close, it gets more adventurous. Andrew Davison and Jacob Holsinger Sherman put the Platonists into conversation with modern natural science. Far from “motivating a flight in both attention and affection from the world,” they argue, “the Christian Platonist tradition has often been one of the primary motors for the rediscovery of the world in its intelligibility, beauty, and grandeur” (377). This claim dovetails with Douglas Hedley’s chapter on how the Platonists stirred the spirits of the Romantics or Hampton’s interpretation of Platonism as an ecological resource for those facing the crises of the Anthropocene. For Hampton, it is the “radically non-anthropocentric understanding of nature found in Christian Platonism” that can reawaken humankind to the fact that we are not the masters of the natural world, but an integral part of that world, to which we owe a debt of stewardship (403).
Near the end of the volume, a chapter from Catherine Pickstock on Christian love and Platonic friendship exonerates Platonism of any charges that it contaminated Christianity from the outside. She states that “Plato prepared the way for the gospel insofar as he tended to show that love and knowledge were inseparable” (450). Rooting her analysis in a reading of Plato’s dialogue Lysis, Pickstock discovers that “Plato may be read as anticipatory of St. John’s understanding of mutual love as persisting in the ultimate, as the content of truth” (470). This is because the Platonic approach to friendship strikes a balance between ‘friendship with the divine’ and ‘friendship with others.’
Taken as a whole, this volume’s goal is to map out the channels that have circulated back and forth between Platonism and Christianity, while not ignoring Jewish and Muslim authors along the way. Although this goal may not strike some as grippingly iconoclastic, we need not frame it as modest, since there are so many points of intersection one could explore. Insofar as this volume deals with concepts of such complexity and figures of such stature so deftly and exhaustively, we ought to deem it a success.
Sean Hannan is an associate professor in the Department of Humanities at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.Sean HannanDate Of Review:September 21, 2022