Saturday, February 2, 2008

Plato, Redeemed

From Fr Andrew Louth's excellent new book, Greek East and Latin West: The Church AD 681-1071 (The Church in History, Vol III):
A further anathema [of the Fifth Ecumenical Council] makes clear the acceptable limits of philosophical training:

"On those who pursue Hellenic learning and are formed by it not simply as an educational discipline, but follow their empty opinions, and believe them to be true, and thus become involved in them, as possessing certainty, so that they introduce others to them, whether secretly or openly, and teach them as indubitable: Anathema!"

The reminiscences of the condemnation of Origenism make clear that this condemnation was in part the recrudescence of an ancient antagonism between the heritage of classical philosophy and the tradition of the gospel. It is important to realize, however, that this antagonism is much less clear-cut than it might seem. The anathemas cited envisage a form of Platonism, and make specific mention of it. John Mauropous, the teacher of Michael Psellos, is famed among other things for poems beseeching God's mercy on Plato (and Plutarch), because "both of them in word and character adhere closely to your laws." But it was not only representatives of the "outer wisdom" like Mauropous who revered Plato: St Athanasius had called him "that great one among the Greeks," while among the writings ascribed to the seventh-century abbot of Sinai, Anastasios, there is a story which relates that it was the custom of a certain learned Christ to curse Plato daily, until eventually Plato himself appeared to him and said, "Man, stop cursing me; for you are merely harming yourself. I do not deny that I was a sinner, but, when Christ descended into hell, no one believed in Him sooner than I did."

The above fresco, from the Sucevita monastery in Romania, depicts the Hebrew prophets and Greek philosophers together; Plato is the second from the right.

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