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The Platonism of the Early Church Fathers

November 7, 2008

I may add that from among the fathers of our religion who accepted the theory of Ideas, as did Augustine, none introduced them so that the craftsmen might turn to them and learn how to perform their tasks, but rather as the Ideas toward which God himself looked when he formed the natures of different things. (Peter Martyr, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p. 172)

Platonism as articulated by Aristotle was utterly impractical.  He demonstrates (in I.6) that if an artist or a craftsman must look to a univocal separate Form in order to know their craft rather than the concrete image that knowledge is useless. Aristotle asks: “How is a man a better doctor or a better soldier by studying the idea itself?”  He continues, “A doctor surely is not intent on health so understood but on the health of man in the concrete, or even better perhaps, on the health of this man.” (Ibid)

Vermigli notes that this does not mean that Aristotle deplored the a priori reasoning used by an artist to better know the principles of his/her craft.  Aristotle argued against the principle that a doctor should begin with an eternal separate Idea of Health without first investigating health as it comes through the experience of healthy things.  The Fathers must have also seen the impractical nature of Platonic philosophy when ministering in their local churches. Theology would have no use for ideas that have no heuristic applicability to Christian holiness. Neither would Aristotle have a use for such impractical ideas in divine science.

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