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Richard J. Mouw


Being Fair to Plato

About that "white grandfatherly God."

In a past life, before migrating into the world of graduate theological education, I spent 17 years teaching undergraduate philosophy courses. I gave many lectures in those courses on Plato, focusing primarily on The Republic, Meno, Crito, and Phaedo. Those are dialogues mainly from Plato's early and middle period, but in graduate school I had also enrolled in a full-year seminar on his later period, working through his Sophist, Laws, and Timaeus line-by-line in the Greek.

None of that makes me an expert on Plato. It does mean, however, that I once had—and continue to have to some degree—a more than superficial grasp of some his main themes. Indeed, I continue to have an intellectual affection of sorts for Plato. He made a profound contribution to Western thought in general, and to Christian thought in particular. To be sure, not all of that was positive. But neither was it all purely negative. When I was teaching undergraduates about how Christian thinkers appropriated themes from Plato, I tried to encourage nuanced assessments of his influence.

Take the much bandied about phrase, "Platonistic dualism," typically spoken with a disdainful tone. I still think that Plato was pointing us in the right direction when he distinguished between two metaphysical realms, the corporeal and the incorporeal. I even think he had it right when he said that the latter is more "real" than the former. C. S. Lewis employs this very distinction in explaining the difference between heaven and hell—the more we move away from God, Lewis observes, the more we enter into a realm of being that is only a "shadow" of the real. I find that insightful. My main complaint against Plato 's metaphysical dualism has to do with his insistence on a rigid "higher-lower" distinction between souls and bodies, with souls being more valuable than things physical. To buy into that perspective wholesale—adopting, say, Plato's view that "the body is the prison-house of the soul"—fosters ...

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