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Carlos Steel on Platonism and Christianity

April 18, 2013

Carlos Steel is a highly respected scholar and specialist in the history of Platonism from antiquity to the Renaissance. This lecture is a great introduction to the topic of Platonism and its historic relationship to the Christian faith given at the Lumen Christi Institute in 2011. Like any general overview of a topic, however, the way in which the details fit together to form the general narrative is precisely where the problematic questions emerge.

Steel does not shy away from asking difficult questions. Some Platonists joined philosophy to religious ritual (Iamblichus, Proclus, et al.), yet were these philosophers distorting the original message of Plato? Steel replies that these represent “creative developments” of Plato rather than outright distortions, esp. since Plato tended to emphasize the use of prayer in philosophy.

Another difficulty in relation to a Christianized Platonism: Does Augustine’s platonizing of the Gospels represent a corruption of the original message of Christianity? Again, Steel points to elements in the teachings of Jesus and Paul that seem quite commensurable with Plato’s teachings.

Perhaps the most conspicuous difficulty regarding the relationship between these two “philosophies” has to do with authority. Though the Platonists considered Plato to be a divine prophet and he was held in highest authority over other philosophers, he did not hold the authority and claim to divinity which Christians claimed of Jesus. How, then, can Christianity be wedded to a philosophy that promotes a certain freedom of inquiry that seems incompatible with the comparably rigid and authoritative doctrines of the church? The church after all merely uses philosophy to guard its own theology from the aberrant teachings of heresy. Steel merely hints at a solution to this by way of Boethius, noting the latter proposed a better way, a way that permitted the study of philosophy as an exercise detached from the strict sequestering of free thought apparent in theology. One can see at this point in Steel’s argument a particular political theology that denotes a rather strict separation between religion and philosophy, one that a Protestant following the “two Kingdoms” formulation of the Reformers would read rather differently. But alas, this is just an introduction.

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