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C. Stephen Evans
Plato Was Right All Along
Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics, by Robert Adams, Oxford University Press, 1999, 424 pp.; $45
Alfred North Whitehead memorably described the history of Western philosophy as "a series of footnotes to Plato." Perhaps this is even more apt as a description of the history of Christian philosophy. Christian Platonism is a venerable tradition indeed, with St. Augustine himself as its most distinguished exemplar. In the seventeenth century, the Cambridge Platonists, including such stalwarts as Benjamin Whitecote and Ralph Cudworth, used Platonism to defend Christianity against the emerging mechanistic atheism linked to the scientific revolution. "Plato was right all along," exclaims the old professor in C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle, when the true Narnia has been discovered and it has been realized that all that was good in the old Narnia was merely a copy of the real thing.
Despite this distinguished heritage, Platonism has not been popular for the last century, since the demise of Absolute Idealism (F. H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet) at the hands of the "new realists" (Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, though, oddly enough, Moore's own theory of "good" as a "non-natural property" certainly looks like Platonism). I still remember very well one of my graduate seminars at Yale, in which my professor (Casimir Lewy, a Polish logician who had been a student of Moore's) defended the claim that propositions exist as ideal objects, independent of their expression in human languages. (The argument in favor of this of course rests on the fact that it seems we can express the same proposition in different languages.) Another professor of mine who was auditing the class protested incredulously that this position "amounted to Platonism." A more damning indictment could hardly have been made. Lewy's response was equally revealing: "My dear sir, of course no one wants to be a Platonist. It's like believing in God—a great intellectual sin in the eyes of the academic ...