A Vision of Christian Platonism

I saw a writer I admire recently claim that book reviews only serve two purposes: they either provide the reviewer with an opportunity to preen, or else they are the occasion for the reviewer to protect his territory. The upshot: do not trust a review, just read the book. Good common sense, I’m sure, but somewhat cynical and slightly colored by the kind of insouciance only a leisured academic can afford.

A review that offers the outline of a book’s argument is useful to readers who want to think carefully about how to spend their money and the most precious of commodities in this life: their time. Reviews are also useful for people who want to know what people in a given subject area are spilling their ink over, or what writers they admire think important.

For James Matthew Wilson’s Vision of the Soul, I’m delighted to risk both preening and being territorial for the sake of reflecting on this rich and stimulating series of essays that defend the vision of Christian Platonism, which Wilson sees as the essence of the Western tradition.

My purpose, however, is not to rehearse the arguments in detail. Let Wilson’s own propositional summary of what he counts as the Christian Platonic tradition in the ‘broadest possible sense’ suffice:

  1. that man is an intellectual animal;
  2. that his nature is founded on a prior or foundational intelligibility in the world and that he is intellectually and erotically oriented toward a transcendent knowledge of it;
  3. that this dual orientation proceeds by way of reason toward an intellectual vision preceptive of Beauty Itself, which is the splendor of truth;
  4. that the world is itself ordered by and to Beauty;
  5. that human dignity specifically consists in our capacity to perceive and contemplate that splendorous order, and, thus, the most excellent form of human life is that which is given over to such contemplation; and finally,
  6. that this contemplation realizes itself in what we may call happiness or salvation, and it is characterized by an activity that resembles passivity, that is to say, not simply the absence of motion but a fulness of activity that is called peace and freedom.

The defense of the Western tradition, Wilson says, hinges on the ‘strength of their value,’ interestingly a kind of Nietzschean qualification.

One can and should read this book if you’re interested in the vitality and viability of Christian Platonism in contemporary American culture, and especially if you’re interested in how this tradition might make the currently fraught and often coarse cultural conversation a ‘more fully human’ enterprise, as Wilson puts it.

As a fellow Christian Platonist, I want to engage critically with Wilson’s arguments for the sake of the conversational energy the Platonic tradition itself has prized since its inception. I preface this critical engagement by saying that when the revolution comes – perhaps it’s here already? – I would happily have Wilson watch my back in the proverbial foxhole. While reading this book, it was clear to me it was written by a man of deep seriousness and integrity.

When I wasn’t happily nodding along to the beat of Wilson’s challenging prose – masterfully manneristic in style – I found myself distracted by something hesitant in the argument of the book; it was constantly starting over and announcing its purpose. This meant that it was much longer than it needed to be. Neither Plato nor Aristotle wrote anything so long. I would attribute its length and hesitance in large part to the mediated nature of the enterprise, made necessary by the book’s ambitions to capture the essence of the Western tradition from Plato to Russell Kirk. Aside from some stray allusions to Aristotle, Aquinas, and Plotinus, Wilson does not engage the titans of the tradition directly. A chapter on Dante, for example, says very little about the argument or beauty of Dante’s writings. Instead, Wilson approaches the western canon by way of neo-thomists like Jacques Maritain and Joseph Pieper, critics like Adorno and Santanya, and Burkeans like Kirk.

The other factor that distracts from a direct engagement with Christian Platonists themselves is the explicit political agenda in service of a ressourcement of Burkean conservatism. Burkean conservatism is, of course, a response to the French Revolution. If Burke is your starting point for a conservative world view, your conservatism is at least in part reactionary – it is not a return ad fontes for its own sake. Plato, Aristotle, and Dante are in any case not perfectly suited for such an enterprise, and they may be just as easily recruited in service of left-wing politics or accused of providing cover for fascism, as considered allies of the tradition of Burkean liberalism that Wilson situates himself in.

One of the ironies here is that Wilson allies himself with ‘crunchy cons’ like Rod Dreher and Patrick Deneen (both missing from the book’s index) whose complaint about post-war conservatism is its narrow economic focus and neglect of the broader cultural argument – it went with William H. Buckley, not Russell Kirk. Something similar may be going on here in Wilson’s project. The reason this book cannot really serve as a persuasive argument for the tradition of Christian Platonism as such is that it does not treat members of the canon on their own terms. It seems to me that you must already share Wilson’s views to accept his story.

To take the enterprise seriously – to heed the call for a return to the fonts of our tradition – we should follow the advice of our book review skeptic and roll up our sleeves and read the books. Wilson is clearly more than capable. He engages with a dizzying array of thinkers. But he is at his most compelling when he offers his reading of some of the major Platonic dialogues. I found his reading of the Symposium particularly attractive because he sees – as surprisingly few commentators do – that the dramatic argument of the dialogue is that Socrates himself is the very embodiment of eros. Given the high metaphysical register Wilson writes in, it stood out that the more dialectically challenging dialogues like the Parmenides and Alcibiades were passed over. But Wilson’s focus on the Republic, Phaedrus, and especially the Symposium is justified by his interest in bringing logos and mythos closer together. As great scholars of Plato like Luc Brisson have shown, Plato’s intention was not the banish the poets from his ideal city, but to save the myths from the predations of a skeptical elite. Wilson sets himself firmly in this line of commentary.

As in Plato’s day, we face a similar challenge from skeptical elites who have accepted uncritically the triumphalism of Enlightenment rationalism and have relegated our culture’s foundational myths to the category of lore. Lore that has nothing to do with ‘real’ knowledge, real knowledge being shorthand for the positive knowledge offered by the natural sciences. Add to this the postmodern reaction that relativizes knowledge at the expense of the very idea of truth and you have the toxic brew that Christian Platonic conservatives lament, the world view that sees all as the clamor for, or else abuse of, power.

This is really the heart of Wilson’s story. He is less concerned in this book with the transmission of the tradition of Christian Platonism itself, than he is with understanding why this tradition has been so marginalized in our time. Because this is Wilson’s central mission – that he’s diagnosing a sickness – he’s looking for the cause of the patient’s woes. Intellectual history now becomes at least as much a story about villains as one about its heroes.

The heroes and villains approach to appraisals of the West has become fashionable recently – here we can place Wilson with the likes of Dreher, Deneen, and John Milbank, all of whom he draws on – and they tend to accept a certain narrative of decline. Wilson’s story is no exception to this rule. He locates, as his Anglo-American compatriots do, the beginning of the end in medieval nominalism, a central claim of Christian postmodern theorists. The narrative then proceeds to strawman modernity, with Hobbes, Descartes, Hume, and Kant trotted out as the usual suspects.

In the interest of dialectical balance – the kind of balance the Platonic tradition calls for – I shall offer a word of defense for each of the accused.

Wilson lambastes Hobbes for his anthropological pessimism and materialist account of reality. Hobbes, in fact, is not engaged in a grand metaphysical enterprise – he believes in God and his revelation and does not believe he is reducible to the material; in fact, he is clear he transcends nature as its cause. Hobbes is merely calling it as he sees it. Hobbes’ psychological materialism – really a psychological hedonism – is not a vision of the soul he particularly relishes. He’s horrified by human behavior and lived through a time that we who have grown up in post-war Western Europe or North America cannot imagine.

Hobbes was a man of profound learning and integrity. Aristotle and scripture were perhaps his most important authorities, and before writing Leviathan, the great political treatise of the age, he had englished Thucydides. It should not surprise us – and it should appeal to Wilson’s aesthetic sensibilities – that he was a brilliant stylist. Did it make sense for Platonists of his day like the Cambridge Platonists to attack him – his intellectual equals and contemporaries? Very much so. Is he a sensible target for a narrative about the spiritual decline of the West? Not really. In fact, it makes much more sense for us as Christian Platonists to engage the perennial truth of Hobbes’ message, namely the necessity of political order as a check against the excesses of unbridled human passion.

A similar defense can be mounted for learned men like Descartes, Hume, and Kant. Descartes’ project was self-consciously dedicated to preserving many of the achievements of Christian Platonism, not least the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. Descartes could be seen as at the vanguard, nay, as a prophet of the cultural predicament reactionary modern intellectuals like Wilson find themselves in. Descartes was trying to preserve the tradition of Christian Platonism against the rising tide of the New Science.

Proof of the Frenchman’s sincerity can be found in the enthusiasm with which his self-consciously Christian Platonist contemporaries embraced the Cartesian project, including one of the greatest Christian Platonists of the age in Henry More, who coined the term ‘Cartesianism’, and who saw his own work as the fusion of Platonism and Cartesianism. Whether Descartes’ project had unintended consequences or was simply mistaken, there was a nobility in his aims, as More saw. Descartes anticipated an atheistic world view in the wake of mechanistic science. One of the reasons Descartes was prophetic in this respect was that he was a student of ancient philosophy and he knew that the old atomistic arguments would be revived when the implications of Galilean and Copernican revolution became widely, if imperfectly, understood.

Instead of offering much-needed context required for any serious critique of one of the most significant minds – and at least partly a Christian Platonist mind – of the western tradition, Wilson’s heuristic, instead, resorts to the ad hominem. Surprisingly he adopts the dehumanizing tactics of modern liberals and their craven appeals to the judgment of ‘history.’ In what is surely only a momentary lapse of rhetorical judgment, Wilson writes ‘we can appreciate history’s cruel sense of humor regarding the end of Descartes’ life. The man who promised to give us dominion over nature…came to be viewed as someone not quite human. He would die thinking himself a dispeller of rational mysteries, but in fact as something like a court jester fated only to amuse a queen.’ Descartes and Christian Platonism deserve better than this level of analysis.

Even the much-maligned Hume read, learned – even if he did not inwardly digest – the doctrine of neo-platonism before opting for a skeptical epistemology as the safest intellectual play. He adopted the Platonic medium of the dialogue to do so. Would that the denizens of the modern university could read Greek, that they had read Plotinus, or sought to defend the immortality of the soul against the overawing power of scientism and the self-important excesses of bureaucratic technocracy.

For a brief defense of Kant, one might turn to Coleridge, one of the figures Wilson rightly holds up as an example of the modern return to the contemplative ideal as practiced in the ancient academy and medieval cloister and university. Coleridge offers a paradigm for how Christian Platonists can engage the towering figures of intellectual modernity. Coleridge was happy to accept Kant’s classification of the transcendental categories necessary for knowledge, but with the caveat that they should not be understood as regulative for the human subject, as Kant concludes they should be, but as constitutive of reality itself as intelligible, one of the pillars of Wilson’s argument.

The three critiques, after all, offer a kind of relief from the drudgery of Enlightenment rationalism and the relentless and superficial criticism of religion by the Encyclopedists, by reposing the old Platonic questions. What can I know, what should I do, and what can I hope for, Kant asks. A Christian Platonist like Coleridge is delighted by these questions. Truth, goodness, and beauty is his reply. Kant was also part of the pietist tradition that set out to limit reason to make room for faith. Given what counted for reason at that time, you can see why Kant might want to protect religion from having anything to do with the totalitarian ambitions of the rational mind.

Wilson makes a point of criticizing Kantian ‘disinterestedness,’ a virtue, he tells us, you will not find in Aristotle. What of it? As it happens, you will not find faith, hope, and charity in Stagarite’s corpus either, at least not explicitly. For Kant, disinterest was an aesthetic not a moral value, a way of perceiving beauty in the world. Again, this is something of a Platonizing move, the contemplation of a work of art say for its own sake. You do not want to ‘do’ anything with a painting, you simply want to look at it and think about what it means – an exercise that holds no obvious worldly interest. Surely this is a pursuit that we who pine for the Christian Platonist worldview should hope our culture might revisit?

Kant sharpens the great questions of modernity. Great minds like Hegel answer the call. The problem with our culture is not that there a bunch of Kantians running around living according to the precepts of the categorical imperative, inquiring into the conditions of knowledge, or attempting to understand the nature of beauty. Again, would that it were so! It is a mistake to lay the shortcomings of our cultural moment at the feet of these giants.

This brings me to my second major criticism of Wilson’s project. What exactly is especially Christian about his story?

There are many cultural traditions and iterations of Platonism, even in the Christian tradition itself. Wilson is clear that he’s not making a historical argument, so that, for example, he simply sees Plato as a Christian Platonist, or at least absorbs him uncritically into this tradition because he shares an intellectual vision with his Christian successors. I have very little problem with this construct, but it is not simply a matter of historical pedantry to point out that there are many iterations or ‘moments’ that constitute the Platonic tradition, especially since Wilson’s story is about ‘Christian’ Platonism, even though he includes ancient Greek philosophers in it.

Islamic Platonists like Avicenna valued beauty too. There is nothing in the six points listed above that Islamic or Jewish Platonism could not accept. The source texts are also largely shared and much of, say, medieval Christian Platonism is mediated by Islamic commentators, and even many of their sacred texts overlap; medieval Christians and Muslims, for example, prized the Psalms for their literary and spiritual beauty and insisted upon their importance for effective prayer. Even Jesus and Mary are far from absent in the Islamic tradition. In a word, Jews and Muslims are Christian Platonists too in Wilson’s construct. The difference, if there is one, must lie elsewhere.

It strikes me that what is distinct about Christian Platonism is the emphasis it places on seeing the world in sacramental terms. There is no altar on which God himself is sacrificed in a mosque or synagogue. This is the beating heart of Christian Platonism: an altar is a testament to the abiding pagan presence in the Christian religion. This completely transforms the speculative character of Christian Platonism, which is essentially trinitarian because first, it is incarnational. The fact of Christ and him crucified gave the church its spiritual essence and distinctiveness. Greek philosophy offered Christians a metaphysical vocabulary to make sense of the deep mystery of a God who became fully human, so human that he could be betrayed, humiliated, and sacrificed on an altar erected by human hands.

Metaphysical claims are the condition of the metanoia, the turning of the mind, the Christian religion requires. The greatest of the Christian Platonists of the western tradition made this much explicit in his spiritual autobiography. The turning point for Augustine away from a dualistic world view towards a positive vision of the integrated goodness of creation was the notion of spiritual substance, a doctrine that he read in the ‘books of the Platonists’ (Libri Platonicorum). Although he did not read in those books that the word was made flesh, it is to be understood that he could not have seen how unique this Gospel claim was, had he not been given the metaphysical eyes to see it by his pagan forebearers.

Christian Platonists à la Augustine have been perennially committed to seeing the work of providence in Greek metaphysics. For them, it is no accident that Socrates was a Christ type. Sacramental participation in a fallen world, in the end, means a willing confrontation with death. And it is this sacramental vision that Burke echoes by asking us that we see the human community as a covenant between the living, dead and unborn, or as Wilson says, that helps us to see the world as a cosmic liturgy. I would hasten to add that this is to see the cosmos in mystical terms, another staple of the Christian Platonic tradition. The Christian religion is a mystical religion that does not eschew the fruits of the mind but it is not content to rest there either: what it seeks is an encounter with the God who became man, so that we might become God. Ours is a religion of theosis.

Returning to the critique I see at the heart of Wilson’s project, a word of warning to the Christian Platonist reactionary when embarking upon a history of ideas. Pure intellectual history – embodied in the work of theory that is the hallmark of the modern English department, as Wilson well knows – often risks what it seeks to oppose. A philosophy insensitive to the context and motivations of the argument is not incarnate thought, but abstract and alienating.

The giants of modern thought that postmodern criticism paints as villains bear very little resemblance to the contemporary cynics in the university and wider culture that Wilson targets. The spiritual malaise that Wilson rightly diagnoses and seeks to remedy by calling for a return to Christian Platonism is a much more recent phenomenon, and blame cannot be laid entirely at the feet of Enlightenment modernity.

Utopianism goes both ways and it’s dangerous to idealize a past without remembering its warts. Medieval Christians, to say nothing of Greek or Roman pagans, were equally capable of extraordinary acts of barbarism and irrational behavior that enlightened Platonists, pagan or Christian, endorsed or else did nothing about. Jews, for example, could be thought responsible for plague and burnt at the stake; sins could be forgiven if you were wealthy enough; Popes and Christian Princes could rationalize many mistresses; slavery was part of the furniture.

Conversely, within living memory, the British Empire went to war against Nazism when it was not in her interests in any clear way to have done so. She paid for it with the dismantling of her Empire and the Americans made sure that pay she did. A generation of young men with excellent prospects volunteered for service in the First World War. How many aristocrats die for their country now? A better question might be: how many need to? In 1776, Adam Smith, a figure of the Enlightenment in many ways, took pride in the fact that slavery had been abolished in Western Europe at a time when everywhere else in the world it remained common practice.

These were and are real achievements. If we don’t tell the whole story in this way – or at least attempt to do so – we risk forgetfulness, a cardinal sin for Platonists of all stripes.

Wilson’s compelling story is a part of proxy war in American culture between liberal and catholic Christianity, largely fought unawares in the public square and across the west, with only a very few intellectual elites being aware of what fuels it, including historians Wilson cites like Brad Gregory and theologians like John Milbank. It is an age of competing narratives, perhaps as it ever was.

I sympathize with Wilson’s hope to bring reason and myth closer together, but they should not be allowed to overlap. Plato was right about this. The reason we ought not to get carried away by our stories is that stories cannot save. Only the truth can do that, or better, or only a true story will do the trick. Bearing this in mind, Christian Platonists can turn seeming antagonists into conservation partners or even allies – it is, or ought to be, one of our great strengths. The winning hand is not in out-narration but in the recognition of the co-inherence of things, of that fact that we are neighbors who are counting on one another.

Let me offer one important example of how this might be done. Take Nietzsche – he of ubermensch, beyond good and evil fame. Here is a man whose ideas could be put in service of Wilson’s Catholic vision. Nietzsche, like Wilson, has a narrow, liberal Protestantism in his sights, a tradition, as Nietzsche saw it, that was a mixture of a craven Kantianism and an intellectually barren, pearl-clutching Christian pietism that had disavowed the legacy of Greek thought and culture that had once been the beating heart of Christian civilization.

Christianity, Nietzsche thought, could no longer justify itself since it now sought refuge in a blend of feeling and morality that it mistook for faith. Scripture without theology now supplied the content and Christian Platonists as much as the Nietzsches and Wagners of the world rose up in rebellion against such an impoverished world view. But, again, one must bear in mind that there were real historical reasons pietism came on the scene, not least because Prussian Lutheranism had become so concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy that it overlooked the pastoral needs of ordinary Christians. Even if it is not intellectually ideal, human cultural circumstances and arguments must be engaged with charity and dialectically. One is reminded of the old joke: well that’s fine in practice, but does it work in theory? The triumphal rush to judgment, a perennial temptation of the Catholic tradition, will be fatal for all.

Platonism is a middle way, not a triumphalist way. Platonists know that our true home is not in this world, which is but an image. Platonism has much salutary pessimism about it. The body is a tomb, we are surrounded by sensory images that are deceiving, death is inevitable and may be the end. Even your heroes and loved ones will die.

In one sense, the Christian Platonist knows that we must get back to seeing the world as our forebearers did – Wilson is right about this – but we cannot do so by overlooking the goodness of our own cultural achievements that the sacrifices of those same forebearers, perhaps mistaken about this or that, made possible. Few if any want to go back to an age before the advent of modern science, to a world before the fundamental Christian assumptions of the West – of a universal humanity – stood in judgment over every nation on this earth.

One of the great Christian Platonists of our time, C.S. Lewis, saw this clearly. In That Hideous Strength Lewis makes the point in his sensitive portrayal of Merlin who has been called back to 20th century England to take part in the great spiritual battle of the age against technocratic scientism:

[Merlin] is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead – a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases… In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way. Do you know that he is forbidden by the rules of his order to use any edged tool on any growing thing?

If we followed the aesthetically pleasing precepts of Merlin’s order in the modern world there would be mass starvation. This absurdity of a return to a medieval Eden is apparent when we think about it, but it remains a temptation when arguing in the natural law tradition that Wilson stands in by way of Maritain. The notion that there is such a thing as a pre-political, natural set of immanent, positive human rights or liberties is patently absurd seen from the point of view of the Anglo-Saxon common law tradition.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not natural human pursuits, they are liberties guaranteed by a constitution. There is nothing ‘natural’ about them at all, even if we concede they may be somehow teleologically immanent for the individual human person. But all you’re really saying calling them immanent is that they exist as a possibility which is to say almost nothing about them at all. To Abraham, polygamy was natural, but is abhorrent to us. For Aristotle, slavery was the way of things. Hobbes, I’m afraid, understood fallen human nature better than Maritain. I find it more intellectually pleasingly to read Maritain, but I agree with Hobbes. Ironically, the Hobbesian world view makes it easier to appreciate the goods we have and those that our culture has achieved. Things could be and have been much worse.

Christian Platonism at its best is that middle way that would avoid the extremes of stiffness of refusing and easiness in admitting variation. Christian Platonists are merciful and grateful. We turn over tables when we must, but our wrath must be targeted and our joy supervening. The winning argument is not in the critique, although it may serve as a preface to the real work of pointing to and re-presenting truth, goodness, and beauty themselves. Wilson’s book does something of both. We can be immensely grateful that Christian Platonism has found such an able and committed advocate.

James Bryson

James Bryson is a Humboldt Fellow in the Catholic Theology Faculty at the Ludwig Maximilian's University in Munich where he is writing a history of love in the tradition of Christian Platonism. Previously Dr. Bryson has held positions at McGill and Cambridge. He is the author of The Christian Platonism of Thomas Jackson (Peeters, 2016) and editor of The Religious Philosophy of Roger Scruton (Bloomsbury, 2016).

'A Vision of Christian Platonism' has no comments

Be the first to comment this post!

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

(c) 2024 North American Anglican