Elements of Platonism

∼ General Platonistic Thinking ∼

Gerald Press gives a succinct overview of Plato's thought: "The core of his philosophy is a vision of reality as having two levels or aspects: we register the lower level of change and materiality via sensations that derive a shadow of reality and value from the higher, unchanging, immaterial level; that ideal or formal level is the more truly valuable, knowable, and real and is, therefore, the proper focus of human life and activity" ("Plato", 32).

Platonism is not a monolithic system of set doctrines. Each generation of Platonists adds and advances upon the knowledge that has been gathered by those before, and this process has allowed the tradition to develop and improve, and in so doing, has generated a variety of positions on singular issues. If anyone compares the ideas of any two Platonists, she would sometimes not believe they belonged to the same school of thought. Having said this, someone may ask, if they differ on their ideas, what then is does it mean to be a Platonist?

One might say that what makes a philosopher a "traditional" Platonist is that he uses the Platonic corpus as the canon by which all philosophical doctrines are to be evaluated. The Platonic tradition is the evolution of the ideas found in Plato, worked out, and brought to their various conclusions and possibilities. Overall, the emphasis of Platonism is essentially on principles of thought and being, resulting in a certain way of seeing the universe, and of living the philosophic life. The specific doctrines are auxiliary to this.

∼ Seven Basic Elements ∼

About these general principles, Lloyd Gerson (Aristotle and Other Platonists, 32-34) identified seven essential elements of Platonism that takes into account the varieties of individual positions: The viewpoint of the Platonic universe is that its logical and ontological structure is "top-down", meaning that the transcendent and divine realities are prior to and explains the physical world we see around us. (A "bottom-up" philosophy like materialism, on the other hand, would take the visible and physical world as being starting point of explaining reality, and that incorporeal things like the mind and consciousness somehow emerge from it.) In the Platonic "top-down" approach, Gerson identifies seven basic features:

  1. The universe is a unity, a unity in which all things are interconnected with laws that can be understood.
  2. The world is understood as a "hierarchy" in which the more simple and intellectual at the top is prior to and explains the existence and characteristics of the more complex and physical towards the bottom.
  3. The Divine, at the top of the hierarchy, explains all things.
  4. The Soul is the principle, coming between the Divine and the corporeal world, which explains all life, including the life of the universe itself.
  5. The happiness and salvation of man's soul is by re-establishing its lost place within this hierarchy.
  6. Aesthetics and morality follows the hierarchy, meaning that the closer something participates in the higher simplicity of the divine, the more beautiful and good it is.
  7. The soul possessed modes of cognition that reflect the world hierarchy, meaning that the soul possesses intuitive noesis to apprehend divine objects, sensation to apprehend physical objects, etc.

Even though Platonists may differ on particular issues, the same general outlook and disposition unifies them. By using Gerson's overview above, we would label and describe the elements so:

1. The Principle of Unity

The universe is a whole and is unified, in which all things are connected in such a way that no one part exists without some relationship to the other parts. This unity however is not simply a collection of parts, but exists as a whole because it is unified by a single Absolute, which the Platonists call the One and the Good. This One is the foundation of being for all that exists and can exist.

Because of this Unity, there exists a holism to the universe, which simply means that the universe is has an organic wholeness. Its parts are connected to each other in a logical and effectual way, a way that can be understood and intuited by the faculties of the trained mind.

This principle also underpins another very significant aspect of later Platonic thought called Cosmic Sympathy, by which if one part of the universe is affected or manipulated, this causes an isomorphic effect to another part. It is the Neoplatonic theory that helps to explain the effectiveness of magic, astrology, and theurgy; and it is behind some interpretations of quantum effects, in which the altering of physical or mental objects in one location brings about a measurable change elsewhere in the universe.

2. The Principle of Hierarchy

The universe possesses a "top-down" hierarchy of being, in which the most simple and intelligible is logically and metaphysically prior to, above, and gives reality to the more complex physical world we experience with our material senses. This higher intelligible realm gives meaning and support for the apparent flux of change we notice in our daily lives. This hierarchy has been described as a series of multiplying illuminations emanating from the most transcendent light of the Absolute.

3. The Principle of Divinity

At the top of this hierarchy exists a single divine Absolute. Plato called it the Good, and later Platonists call the One. As it is the fount of all goodness and all unity and form, it is call Divine. Because it is most unique and transcendent, so essentially simple and transcendent, the mind collapses when attempting to contemplate it. This gives it the mystical quality that characterises Divinity.

4. The Principle of Soul

In addition to the One, most important aspect of reality is the Soul, the principle that animates and gives life to the universe and to the individual living things within it.

The soul holds a centre place. It touches on the realm of the divine above, from which it receives its being and understanding, and it touches on the physical realm below, into which it gives live and motion. Soul is therefore the bridge that ties these two aspects of reality together.

The soul is considered eternal, though its state is not constant. It undergoes countless reincarnations through the ages. It should be noted that there is a distinction between personality and soul. While the soul is eternal, the personality, the memories, the personal identity we have in this life, ends at death, or shortly afterwards (lost at the Pool of Forgetfulness, as Plato describes it at Republic 621a). This has implications for how we live our lives and what we should value.

5. The Principle of Knowledge

The soul, holding the middle place in this hierarchy, possesses faculties capable of seeing into both the intelligible realms above it and the material realms below it. There are four such faculties: the intellect (intuition), reason (discursive thought), imagination (judgement), and sensation (physical perception).

Each of these has a proper place and use. Individuals succeed or fail depending on how and where they use each of these faculties. For instance, if you use the faculty of imagining to understand divinity, your knowledge will be deficient. Reason is better, but intellection is most proper.

6. The Principle of Value

Since the Divine is prior and gives existence to what comes below, the closer a thing participates in its divine source, the more divine it is, the more beautiful and good it is.

The more we participate in the good and beauty that radiates from the divine One, the more sacred and whole our lives become. All acts are called beautiful or good when they are in light of or in imitation of the Divine; and all acts are ugly or evil when they are out of harmony with or done without regards to the Divine.

The beautiful aspects of our souls, those which are inherited from the Divine, are called virtues or excellences. These are wisdom, courage, temperance, faith, love, truth, piety, friendship, and justice. These are considered the most beautiful adornments that can be had, because these are not material, but rather divine, gifts.

7. The Principle of Salvation

Individual souls, our souls, have for some reason or other lost their original place in the great hierarchy of being. They have become attached to the physical world and things distant from their divine source. They are seduced or drawn from their native land to abide in this physical realm of turbulence and decay. In this current state of attachment or seduction, a soul's vision becomes clouded and she becomes subject to foolish beliefs and self-detrimental behaviour.

Here she becomes less than is her potential, by chasing pleasure or power instead of abiding in her own divine nature. The goal of philosophy is to re-establish the soul's original place in the hierarchy. This is accomplished through the contemplation of truth and beauty and the regaining of her innate virtues and divine nature.