A handy reference for the background to early Christianity is coincidentally titled Backgrounds of Early Christianity. The author is Everett Ferguson. Since Doherty discusses Middle Platonism as one of the intellectual matrices to the New Testament epistles, and since relatively few nonspecialists know much if anything about Middle Platonism, here are some notes from Ferguson’s introductory explanation. (I tried to start out with John Dillon’s book but by far too detailed as a beginner’s reference.)
We all have heard of Plato, whose life spanned the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Plato was not as dominant as a philosopher in his own day as he came to be in the early centuries of the Christian era. Ferguson notes that the Church Fathers took their theology largely from the framework of Plato’s philosophy. (p. 335)
Middle Platonism is the name given to the philosophical ideas ultimately derived from Plato (Platonism) in the period from the first century BC to the second century AD. It stands between the original era of Plato and his followers, and the Neo-Platonism that dominated in the declining stages of paganism.
The first century B.C. saw a revival in the study of Plato and Aristotle, who returned to a position of predominance they have not lost since. (p. 387)
I cite common ideas running through Middle Platonic schools of thought as summed up by Ferguson.
Rather than discuss the names mentioned, I have given them all hyperlinks to Wikipedia articles. (The reason I often link to Wikipedia is given in this post.)
Prominent “Middle Platonic” thinkers included:
Prominent church thinkers influenced by their thought systems included:
The New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews is also a repository of Middle Platonic thought. (Ferguson cites here L. K. K. Dey, “The Intermediary World and Patterns of Perfection in Philo and Hebrews,” 1975; and James W. Thompson, “The Beginnings of Christian Philosophy: The Epistle to the Hebrews” 1982.)
Middle Platonism was not simply a revival of Plato’s original ideas. It was blended with:
- Stoic ethics,
- Aristotelian logic,
- Neopythagorean metaphysics, religion, and number symbolism,
- Xenocrates’ metaphysics.
“Neopythagorean” refers to the Pythagorean revival around the first century. Ferguson writes of them:
The Neopythagoreans continued Pythagoras’s interest in numbers and asceticism and his understanding of philosophy as religious. They were also interested in the stars and intermediary demons between the transcendent God and humankind, contributing to the concept of a “chain of beings.” In addition, they seem to be the principal philosophical source for the view that the material world is bad, an idea that colored Gnostic thinking and was influential in the general pessimism about the world that began to spread in the second century.
The Neopythagoreans speculated on the occult meaning of numbers, were vegetarians, . . . The rule of life — not philosophical speculation — was its chief attraction. The Pythagorean life-style became the ideal representation of the holy, wise man . . . (pp.383-4)
Given the wide mix of influences that went with the Platonic ideas, Middle Platonist philosophers evidence a wide range of different views on many issues. But Ferguson lists the following as being held in common:
Belief in the possibility that Plato’s and Aristotle’s views about the universe and divine things could be reconciled.
- Plato’s Good and Aristotle’s Mind
- Thus Alcinous identified Plato’s “Good” with Aristotle’s Supreme Mind (the Unmoved Mover).
- Plato’s Ideas or Forms (see Theory of Forms) became the thoughts in Aristotle’s divine mind.
- Thus Philo of Alexandria is the first extant author to explicitly give this equation of the two: “the ideas are the thoughts in the reason of the Supreme God of Judaism (On the Creation of the World 15-20). Given Philo’s otherwise lack of originality, it is conjectured that this reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle goes back to Antiochus.
Belief in the absolute transcendence of the Supreme Mind (God).
- This Supreme Mind could only be reached via intermediary powers, never directly.
- Direct knowledge of the Supreme Mind being impossible, it could only be reached indirectly via a ‘negative theology’
Soul and body
- Middle Platonism restored the idea of the distinction between the soul and the body.
- The immortality of the soul was emphasized.
A World Soul animates the universe.
- Middle Platonists influenced by the Neopythagoreans regarded matter as evil.
- Others (closer to Plato’s original thought) saw evil as the result of the embodiment of “Ideas/Forms”.
Middle Platonists derived from Plato (Theaet. 176B*) their doctrine that the goal of life as happiness consists in “likeness to God, so far as is possible.” (p. 388)
*and to escape [from earth to be with God] is to become like God, so far as this is possible; and to become like God is to become righteous and holy and wise.
Role of Religion
Philosophers had traditionally kept themselves apart from religion even though they often expressed sympathy and attachment to it. But from around the end of the first century that began to change. They started finding enlightenment in religion.
Cicero, Philo and Plutarch
These three figures, by virtue of the broad nature of their writings, are said to give us “a fairly complete picture of the state of philosophy (the major schools and issues) at the time of the beginning of Christianity.” (p. 388) This is because their writings “reflect the eclectic tendencies of the time and the capacity of Platonism to absorb many other elements and be the integrating framework for new syntheses.”
Middle Platonism is regarded as “the leading force in the last stages of paganism and the major philosophical influence in the formulation of patristic theology.”
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