Christianity's Philosophical roots in Platonism

Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.

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7 Dec. 2002

Hadot makes a numer of important observations in regards to Christianity's  indebtedness to Greek Philosophical practices and procedures, noting the paramount importance of Plato's notion of the soul being trapped within a corrupt fleshly body and seeking release to rejoin God.


"...Philosophy continued to be linked closely to such categories as peace of mind, the absence of passions, and life in conformity with nature and reason. As in secular  philosophy, monastic life thereafter presented itself as the practice of spiritual excercises, some of which were specifically Christian, but many had been bequeated by secular philosophy. Thus we re-encounter attention to one's self, which was the fundamental attitude of the Stoics and of the Neoplatonists as well. For Athanasius of Alexandria, such was the very definition of monastic attitude. When, in his Life of Antony, he tells how the saint was converted to the monastic life, he simply says that Antony began to pay attention to himself. Athanasius also reports the words Antony addressed to his disciples on the day of his death: "Live as if you were going to die every day, devoting attention to yourselves and remembering my exhortations." (pp. 241-242. "Christianity as a Revealed Philosophy." Pierre Hadot. What is Ancient Philosophy? Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard University Press. 2002)

"To pay attention to one's self means to awaken the rational principles of thought and action which God has placed in our souls; it means to watch over the beauty of ourselves (that is to say, our spirit and our soul) and not over what is ours (that is, our body and possessions)...Attention to the self presupposes the practice of examination of the conscience...(p.243. Hadot)

"Ascetism was often conceived in a Platonic way, as the separation of body and soul, which was precondition for the vision of God. This theme appears in Clement of Alexandria, for whom, "true piety toward God consists in separating ourselves, irrevocably, from the body and its passions; perhaps this is why Socrates rightly calls Philosophy a 'training for death'- for we must renounce the senses in order to know reality." (p.246. Hadot)

"Gregory of Nazianzen reproached a friend for complaining about his illness as if it were something irremediable, and exhorted him as follows:

"On the contrary, you must do philosophy [that is to say, you must train yourself to live as a philosopher] in your suffering. Now more than ever, this is the moment to purify- your thoughts, and to reveal to yourself as superior to your bonds [which tie you to the body]. You must consider your illness a pedagogue which leads you to what is profitable to you- that is, teaches you to despise the body and corporeal things and all that flows away, is the source of worries, and is perishable, so that you may belong completely to the part above...making this life down below  -as Plato says-  a training for death, and liberating your soul in this way, as far as possible, from the body [soma] and from the tomb [sema], to use Plato's terms. If you philosophize in this will teach many people to philosophize in their suffering."

Gregory's disciple Evagrius of Pontus takes the same theme in clearly Neoplatonic terms: "To separate the body from the soul belongs only to Him who has united them, but to separate the soul from the body belongs to the person who tends toward virtue. For our fathers were called anachoresis [the monastic life] a training for death and a flight from the body.

Porphyry had written "What Nature has bound, she releases, but what the soul has bound, the soul releases. Nature has bound the body within the soul, but the soul has bound itself within the body. Thus, Nature releases the body from the soul, but the soul releases itself from the body." Porphyry thus opposed the body's natural bond to the soul, which makes it live, to the emotional bond which attaches the soul to the body. This latter bond can be so strong that the soul identifies itself with the body, and cares only about the satisfactions of the body. According to Evagrius, the death for which the philosopher-monk is in training is the complete uprooting of the passions which bind the soul to the body- an uprooting that will enable him to attain perfect detachment from the body through apatheia, or the absence of passion." (pp. 246-247. Hadot)

"The Christians adopted the Greek word philosophia to designate monasticism as the perfection of the Christian life, and were able to do so because the word philosophia designated a way of life. Thus, when they adopted the word, "Christian philosophers" they were led to bring to Christianity practices and attitudes inherited from secular philosophy. To be sure, ancient philosophers did not withdraw into the desert or into a cloister; on the contrary, they lived in the world, where they often took part in political activity. If they were genuine philosophers, however, they must have ben converted- that is, they had to profess philosophy, and make a choice of life which obligated them to change all aspects of their behavior in the world, and which, in a certain sense, separated them from the world. They entered into a community, under the direction of a spiritual master, in which they venerated the school's founder and often took meals in common with the other members of the school. They examined their conscience and perhaps confessed their misdeeds, as seems to have been the practice in the Epicurean school. They lived an ascetic life, and, if they were Cynics, renounced all comfort and wealth. If they belonged to a Pythagorean school or if they were Neoplatonists, they followed a vegetarian diet and devoted themselves to contemplation, seeking mystical union." (pp. 247-248. Hadot)

When Christian "I die every day," [1st Corinthians 15:31] they understood this as the model of the excercise of death." (p. 249. Hadot)

"In the years following his conversion, Augustine of Hippo confronted Platonism and Christianity in his book, On the True Religion. For Augustine, the essential part of Platonic doctrines overlapped with the essential part of Christian doctrines...Such, for Augustine, is the essence of Platonism, and such is also the essence of Christianity. As proof, he cites a number of passages from the New Testament, which oppose the visible and invisible world, the flesh and the spirit. What, however, one might ask, is the difference between Christianity and Pagan philosophy ? For Augustine, it consists in the fact that Platonism was not able to convert the masses and turn them away from earthly things, in order to orient them toward spiritual things; whereas, since the coming of Christ, people of all conditons have adopted the Christian way of life, so that a true transformation of humanity is under way. If Plato were to come back to earth, he would say "This is what I did not dare to preach to the crowd." Although "blinded by corporeal stains," souls have been able "without the help of philosophical discussions" to return within themselves and look toward their homeland" because God, through the Incarnation, has lowered the authority of divine reason down to the human body. From this Augustinian point of view, Christianity has the same content as Platonism: The key is to turn away from sensible reality in order to contemplate God and spiritual reality, but only Christianity has been able to make the masses adopt this way of life. Nietzsche could have used Augustine to confirm his formula "Christianity is Platonism for the people." (pp. 251-252. Hadot)

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