Thursday, October 14, 2010

From Plato to Jesus

One of Augustine's claims to fame is that he presented the internal logic of Christianity to Rome's educated classes, who had previously dismissed the new faith as superstition. How did he get them to see the step-by-step rationality of this concept of God, which was new to Rome, but had a long heritage in the Ancient Near East? Augustine understood that the Roman reader could not penetrate the Hebraic style of the New Testament: Jesus was a Rabbi, who presented his ideas in a typically Jewish fashion. The New Testament was a book written by Jews, for Jews, about Jews - and Roman readers were used to Greek philosophy and Latin poetry, which have very different internal logical structures. Augustine repackaged the concepts of Jesus into the language and style of Classical philosophy, and this made them accessible to the Roman reader.

In particular, Augustine was able to make a close link between Platonism and Christianity. He found they had similar themes, like dualism, the theory of the soul, and anti-materialism. The Neo-Platonists, sometimes just called the Platonists, were a group of intellectuals in the 4th and 5th century who studied the works of Plato and believed themselves to be his intellectual heirs. To clearly make that tie between what they were doing and what Christianity was all about was one of the greatest accomplishments of Augustine. “As a Christian, he is sure that he will never depart from the authority of Christ; as a Platonist he is confident that reason will find in Platonism what agrees with Christianity,” writes Peter Brown. Plato believed that the world is broken in the physical and metaphysical realms. The physical realm could not to be trusted. The metaphysical realm contained the ideas of truth and beauty. It was full of goodness. It was a realm that’s beyond physical, so it denied materialism. Augustine saw a very similar link between the metaphysical realm and heaven.