Why you (a hip, twenty-something, Jesus-loving, well-adjusted, cardigan-wearing Christian) should read Plato

Published 27 December 2013  |  
You've probably heard of Plato. I don't know which image you have of him in your mind. Is it the image from Raphael's School of Athens? Or the more popular idea of a 'philosophical ninja'? Perhaps you know him from theological studies: no doubt for those of you studying theology, there is almost an aversion to Plato. All the bad ideas in church history can, apparently, be blamed on Greek philosophy.

I want to suggest here that you, conventional Christian man/woman/child, should take the time to read Plato. Quite apart from the fact that he has had an inordinate impact on theology, there are very good reasons to take his works seriously. On top of all this, the vast majority of his books are short, readable, and fun! This may seem strange, but seriously, they are fun!

I think I have three good reasons why you may be interested in reading Plato: First, Plato kind of sets the scene for Western thought. Second, he's a key player in how we imagine freedom in our world. Finally, reading him will raise your own awareness of the world around you, and hopefully allow you to engage with it more fruitfully.

Western thought

Everything you think about most of the time, can be fairly well traced back to Ancient Greece and her cultural impact on Rome and through that, the rest of the world. For a start, the basic narrative of East verses West was pretty much generated by Herodotus when he wrote about the Persian invasions of Greece (which you may be aware of through movies, such as the stellar example of historical realism which is 300).

But, more importantly, our current modes of thought can be traced back to the writings of Plato. Influential 20th century philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, described all of Western philosophy as 'Footnotes to Plato'. That's a potent image, as footnotes are the part of the article that most people never read. That is not to say, mind you, that everyone agrees with Plato. In fact, you would be hard pressed, I think, to find a person who mostly agrees with Plato in a university.

It is important to mention here that Whitehead's thought diverged radically from Plato's. He was trying to almost rewrite the whole way that we think about existence since Plato. This tells us something really important: Even in the 20th Century we are still wrestling with the heritage of Plato's thoughts. His ideas will not be put to bed but are continually being picked up again and again to re-examine them in the light of a sun that first saw Plato's work over 2000 years ago.

The history of Western philosophy may seem like a bit of a stretch for you, maybe you think that you're not to keen on engaging with that whole body of work (and it is a large body of work!) and it may seem irrelevant to you. Let me tell you why it isn't irrelevant:

Freedom

Plato gave a lasting contribution to our Western conversation about freedom and emancipation. In his Republic, Socrates (All of Plato's famous books are dialogues with Socrates as the main character, there are a few others which are not dialogues, although their authorship is disputed) asks 'What is it better for a man to live a just life?' Socrates chooses to answer the question by zooming out and asking 'what will a just society look like?'

Socrates ideal society, as portrayed in the Republic seems to me to be basically fascist. He has a rigid class structure with no place for social mobility. There are various other things in his discussion that you would also find distasteful, no doubt. So how did he contribute to freedom? Plato was someone who did not let people talk about 'nature' the way we normally do. In the last few hundred years appeals to 'nature' have lead people to legitimatise slavery, subjugation of women and all manner of other injustices.

Plato said that 'nature' was a lie. Sorry, but there is nothing very original about the movie The Matrix, Plato said it first. In his famous allegory of the cave, Plato describes humans as being enchanted by the shadows of reality, and not reality itself. The result of this is that all the 'common sense' observations about human nature are put to question by the mind. It is this move in Plato's philosophy that allows him to create a new vision of society, one that is not tied to apparent realities that can be used to oppress, but rather to create a new society.

Now, obviously Plato did not go far enough, but this resource has definitely been used since then to push the west towards greater and greater senses of freedom. In order to disagree with Plato's new society, his student, a man known as Aristotle, appealed to nature itself yet again to justify slavery and for women to stay at home in the kitchen etc. So, while you celebrate women's suffrage or the (at least better) equality of the races, remember that Plato started that conversation.

The Early church Father Tertullian asked a very important question: "what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" Perhaps all I have written leaves you with that question. Perhaps you feel 'well that's all well and good, but did I really need to know that?' In conversation with that question then I want to finally propose to you why you ought to consider Plato:

Raising your awareness

The Platonic Socrates said: "know yourself" and perhaps he could also have said, "Know your society". Plato helped to shape the Western world, as I hope I have already shown, and as a Christian you do not get to live here and ignore that shouts and cries of people who come from a radically difficult position to you.

Knowing Plato will go a long way towards knowing the world around you, and knowing the world around you will go a long way towards loving those around you. So perhaps we can help answer Tertullian's with a missionary zeal: from the very basic rule of 'love your neighbour' to the commitment to read a bit of Plato when you get the time.

So, if you've been convinced, if you want to feel conversant in the great big discussion that is philosophy in the west since Plato, if you want to mine his works for a way to combat inequality today, or if you simply want to begin to learn what is happening in the world today, then I highly recommend you read Plato.

Start perhaps with something simple: His Meno discusses knowledge and produces a basic educational theory that you may recognize today (it also has a basic example of the 'Socratic method' of learning). His Phaedrus details theories about love and about the very act of writing. His Symposium (my personal favourite) is about love entirely.

It contains some great speeches on love (some incredibly touching, others laughable) and produces some great conversation. When you have read those shorter dialogues (all possible in one hour long sitting perhaps) you can then tackle his Republic or the Apology; two founding monuments of Western thought.

If you remain unpersuaded though, forgive my brief apology for pagan philosophy, and carry on, but know this: You have taken your finger off the pulse of Western society in order to plug your own ears from it's loudest cry.

Dale Wang (22) is studying his final year of a BA(hons) in Classical Studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. He has been heavily involved in the Christian Union on campus, being their communications officer and leading bible studies.

Dale Wang's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/dale-wang.html

Reprints

More News in Comment

  • Movement

    Recently there has been a lot of movement. In the last six weeks I have been in the USA, Mexico, Australia and I am currently writing this in Cambodia.
  • You've been lying (again)

    Yes. You've been lying. Deep down inside, lurking away in the depths of your being is the knowledge that you haven't been telling the truth. Yuck, isn't it?