I’ve been asked and given permission to publish this week a series of chapters from the new A Faith and Culture Devotional: Daily Readings on Art, Science, and Life
Plato: Lover of Truth,
Beauty, and the Good
By John Mark Reynolds, PhD, professor of philosophy, Biola University. Reynolds
makes frequent “study” trips to Disneyland with his students at the Torrey Honors
Institute, of which he is founder and director; www.johnmarkreynolds.com.
Plato (ca 428 – 348/7 BC) was the philosopher of love. He wrote to cajole the
thoughtless into falling in love with wisdom. His dialogues are both art and
philosophy, containing some of the greatest stories ever written (such as the
Atlantis myth from Timaeus) and ideas that still intrigue even the most analytic
of modern thinkers. His influence on the church has been remarkable
and ranges from Saint Augustine to The Inklings, the Oxford literary discussion
group that included J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
It is no accident that in The Last Battle, Narnia’s Professor Kirk “added
under his breath, ‘It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach
them in these schools.’ “3 Professor Kirk was right. There is no understanding
Christendom without considering the writings of that noblest of pagans,
Plato lived in a dark time that was dominated by the polytheistic religion
of Homer and Hesiod. The love of a god in this twisted system was a prelude
to destruction or rape, not to a beatific vision.
The cultural establishment killed his great teacher Socrates to defend itself
from reason, and Plato waged a clever war against it using both reason and
He used the yearning of the human heart for something more to challenge
the powerful. There is a desire for justice in every human, from the decadent
aristocrat to members of the mob, but justice is hard to find. There is a hunger
for truth, but if the truth is out there, then it is difficult to uncover. This longing
for something “other” Plato calls “love.”
Plato knows love is dangerous. So many men in his culture, as in our own,
limit love to physical passion. Dangerously few see it as the quest for a soul
mate. Only a remnant recognize reality and love the physical, the soul, and
ideas on their way to a greater love for the Good.
In the Symposium, Plato examines this unsatisfactory state of affairs. In
a brief dialogue at the very center of the book, he has his master, Socrates,
discover a great truth:
“Now tell me about love,” he [Socrates] said, “Is Love the love of nothing
or of something?”
“Of something, surely!” he said.
Plato realizes that love is of something. He cannot believe that any common
and natural desire is ultimately incapable of finding its proper fulfillment.
The deep longing for justice, beauty, and truth must have an end. Contrary to
the religion of Homer, the cosmos is not fundamentally chaotic but contains
a great and good order.
Plato believed, based on best reason and best human experience, that there
was more to the cosmos than empty desire and death.
This great Good is unknown to Socrates in Symposium. It is known to
exist, but its nature is unknown. The vision of this known Unknown is the
proper end of the philosophical life.
At the end of his life, Plato would defend the idea of a Creator God, the
mysterious known Unknown, but he did not discern the name of that God.
The truth Plato could not see, Saint Paul revealed to the Greeks in his great
sermon of Acts 17 in Plato’s city of Athens. The ancient world finally received
the good news its brightest and best had longed to hear.
In space and time, not just in the world of ideas, the known Unknown took
flesh and dwelt among us. The incarnation was the mystery that even Plato’s
great vision could not penetrate.
Plato desperately wanted knowledge of the judgment beyond death. In Republic
X, he invented a story of a man who died and came back to life again.
He told a story about justice in the afterlife, and Socrates said:
His story wasn’t lost but preserved, and it would save us, if we were persuaded
by it, for we would then make a good crossing of the River of Forgetfulness,
and our souls wouldn’t be defiled.
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We stand on the other side of the incarnation where a God-Man died and
came to life again. He came not just to tell us of the far country but also to live
within us. The simplest Chris tian knows what Plato could not know. This is
sufficient reason for both profound humility and great joy.
God did not stand beyond us. There was no reason to think he would love
us and good reason to think he would not, but love needs no reason. God condescended
to love humanity. This love is not merely mental but put on flesh
so that we could behold “his glory, the glory of the one and only [Son], who
came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
We are driven by love to God, who is good, truth, and beauty, a love that
is not just an abstraction but which, as Dante said, “moves the sun and the
For reflection and discussion
? What do the good, the true, and the beautiful look like today? How do you
experience your longings for this?
? Are these longings just wishful thinking? How may God be speaking to
you through your desires?
? How can our longings take us to God and his Word? What would that
? Is it possible that you love God’s truth — the precepts, the poetry, the
prophecy — more than you love God as a person? Would you rather read
books about God than spend face time with him?