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Calvin’s Plato

Mark Jones has a recent post on a subject long of interest on this site, viz. the use of Greek and Roman sources by Protestant theologians. As a case study that confirms Dr. Jones’ point, one might look at the way in which John Calvin makes use of Plato in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Below I have collected all references to Plato (to my knowledge) in the Institutes; these references occur in all four books, and thus touch on every major area of Christian teaching, from the doctrine of God to the civil magistrate. A quick perusal will show that Calvin’s view of Plato is almost uniformly favorable, and that he makes constructive use of him even in theological disputes with opponents within Christendom.

Book 1

The first time Calvin mentions Plato is in 1.3.3, on “The Knowledge of God Naturally Implanted in the Human Mind,” or the natural knowledge of God via the human mind or soul. Calvin says:

Moreover, if all are born and live for the express purpose of learning to know God, and if the knowledge of God, in so far as it fails to produce this effect, is fleeting and vain, it is clear that all those who do not direct the whole thoughts and actions of their lives to this end fail to fulfil the law of their being. This did not escape the observation even of philosophers. For it is the very thing which Plato meant (in Phœd. et Theact.) when he taught, as he often does, that the chief good of the soul consists in resemblance to God; i.e., when, by means of knowing him, she is wholly transformed into him. Thus Gryllus, also, in Plutarch (lib. guod bruta anim. ratione utantur), reasons most skilfully, when he affirms that, if once religion is banished from the lives of men, they not only in no respect excel, but are, in many respects, much more wretched than the brutes, since, being exposed to so many forms of evil, they continually drag on a troubled and restless existence: that the only thing, therefore, which makes them superior is the worship of God, through which alone they aspire to immortality.

Plato is helpful, that is, in thinking about man’s telos or end, his chief good: conformity to God. (We shall return to man’s chief good below.)

The Athenian philosopher is mentioned again in 1.5.11, again on the natural knowledge of God, but now in relation to creation (“The Knowledge of God Conspicuous in the Creation, and Continual Government of the World”). There Calvin says:

This far, indeed, we differ from each other, in that every one appropriates to himself some peculiar error; but we are all alike in this, that we substitute monstrous fictions for the one living and true God—a disease not confined to obtuse and vulgar minds, but affecting the noblest, and those who, in other respects, are singularly acute. How lavishly in this respect have the whole body of philosophers betrayed their stupidity and want of sense? To say nothing of the others whose absurdities are of a still grosser description, how completely does Plato, the soberest and most religious of them all, lose himself in his round globe? What must be the case with the rest, when the leaders, who ought to have set them an example, commit such blunders, and labour under such hallucinations? In like manner, while the government of the world places the doctrine of providence beyond dispute, the practical result is the same as if it were believed that all things were carried hither and thither at the caprice of chance; so prone are we to vanity and error. I am still referring to the most distinguished of the philosophers, and not to the common herd, whose madness in profaning the truth of God exceeds all bounds.

Though Calvin is critical of philosophers as a class for substituting “monstrous fictions for the one living and true God,” this is not a mistake unique to them, but rather is one shared by all men after the Fall. Still, Plato is singled out for praise as “the soberest and most religious of…all [of the philosophers]” despite his error.

Calvin refers to Plato again when defending Scripture. In 1.8.1, “The Credibility of Scripture Proved in so far as Natural Reason Admits,” Calvin notes a property of Scripture also remarked upon in the Westminster Confession of Faith–its peculiar ability to affect the reader in a way quite unlike other books. In that context he says the following:

Hence there was good ground for the Apostle’s declaration, that the faith of the Corinthians was founded not on “the wisdom of men,” but on “the power of God,” (1 Cor. 2:5), this speech and preaching among them having been “not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,” (1 Cor. 2:5). For the truth is vindicated in opposition to every doubt, when, unsupported by foreign aid, it has its sole sufficiency in itself. How peculiarly this property belongs to Scripture appears from this, that no human writings, however skilfully composed, are at all capable of affecting us in a similar way. Read Demosthenes or Cicero, read Plato, Aristotle, or any other of that class: you will, I admit, feel wonderfully allured, pleased, moved, enchanted; but turn from them to the reading of the Sacred Volume, and whether you will or not, it will so affect you, so pierce your heart, so work its way into your very marrow, that, in comparison of the impression so produced, that of orators and philosophers will almost disappear; making it manifest that in the Sacred Volume there is a truth divine, a something which makes it immeasurably superior to all the gifts and graces attainable by man.

Now, this can hardly be interpreted as a criticism of Plato, for any other book at all would suffer by this comparison. Rather, Demosthenes, Cicero, Plato, and Aristotle receive the highest praise that can be given for a merely human book; but the Bible is a book more than human.

The final reference to Plato in Book 1 occurs in 1.15.6 (“State in Which Man Was Created. The Faculties of the Soul–The Image of God–Free Will–Original Righteousness”), in which Calvin mentions him by name three times. First:

It were vain to seek a definition of the soul from philosophers, not one of whom, with the exception of Plato, distinctly maintained its immortality. Others of the school of Socrates, indeed, lean the same way, but still without teaching distinctly a doctrine of which they were not fully persuaded. Plato, however, advanced still further, and regarded the soul as an image of God.

Plato, then, is praised for his defense of the soul’s immortality and–even more surprisingly–for approximating the Judeo-Christian idea of man as created according to the imago dei.

Then, a little later, regarding the faculties of the soul, Calvin says:

But I leave it to philosophers to discourse more subtilely of these faculties. For the edification of the pious, a simple definition will be sufficient. I admit, indeed, that what they ingeniously teach on the subject is true, and not only pleasant, but also useful to be known; nor do I forbid any who are inclined to prosecute the study.First, I admit that there are five senses, which Plato (in Theæteto) prefers calling organs, by which all objects are brought into a common sensorium, as into a kind of receptacle: Next comes the imagination (phantasia), which distinguishes between the objects brought into the sensorium: Next, reason, to which the general power of Judgment belongs: And, lastly, intellect, which contemplates with fixed and quiet look whatever reason discursively revolves. In like manner, to intellect, fancy, and reason, the three cognitive faculties of the soul, correspond three appetite faculties—viz. will—whose office is to choose whatever reason and intellect propound; irascibility, which seizes on what is set before it by reason and fancy; and concupiscence, which lays hold of the objects presented by sense and fancy.

In this passage Calvin takes on board without qualification one version of classical psychology. He does not appear to think that one needs a distinctively “Christian” view of how the mind works when it comes to the relation of sense-perception to cognition; the ancients, including Plato in the Theaetetus, are perfectly serviceable.

Book 2

The first reference to Plato in Book 2 comes in 2.2.3 and regards the question of the bondage of the will (“Man Deprived of Freedom of Will, and Miserable Enslaved”). Everyone would acknowledge that we are often in conflict with ourselves and that we do not do the good we know we ought to do. Plato was no different, as the Laws testify:

Sometimes, indeed, convinced by their own experience, they do not deny how difficult it is for man to establish the supremacy of reason in himself, inasmuch as he is at one time enticed by the allurements of pleasure; at another, deluded by a false semblance of good; and, at another, impelled by unruly passions, and pulled away (to use Plato’s expression) as by ropes or sinews (Plato, De Legibus, lib. 1).

Nevertheless, all are endowed with reason and therefore have the capacity to learn things. Thus later in the same section Calvin writes:

Next come manual and liberal arts, in learning which, as all have some degree of aptitude, the full force of human acuteness is displayed. But though all are not equally able to learn all the arts, we have sufficient evidence of a common capacity in the fact, that there is scarcely an individual who does not display intelligence in some particular art. And this capacity extends not merely to the learning of the art, but to the devising of something new, or the improving of what had been previously learned. This led Plato to adopt the erroneous idea, that such knowledge was nothing but recollection. So cogently does it oblige us to acknowledge that its principle is naturally implanted in the human mind. But while these proofs openly attest the fact of a universal reason and intelligence naturally implanted, this universality is of a kind which should lead every individual for himself to recognise it as a special gift of God.

Plato, according to Calvin, was led astray in his doctrine of recollection, or anamnesis. However, his error is understandable: “universal reason and intelligence” demand some kind of accounting for themselves, and Plato did not quite know where to find it; and so the incredible capacities of the human mind led him to say that we must have learned what we know in the heavens before birth. Instead, Calvin says, it is the principle of such knowledge in the “manual and liberal arts” that is the “special gift of God” rather than the knowledge itself.

In 2.3.4 (“Everything Proceeding from the Corrupt Nature of Man Damnable”), Calvin discusses whether we can call some men “good,” given that all are under sin. In some respects, Calvin says, “Yes, of course we can.”

For which reason, we hesitate not, in common language, to say, that one is of a good, another of a vicious nature; though we cease not to hold that both are placed under the universal condition of human depravity. All we mean is that God has conferred on the one a special grace which he has not seen it meet to confer on the other. When he was pleased to set Saul over the kingdom, he made him as it were a new man. This is the thing meant by Plato, when, alluding to a passage in the Iliad, he says, that the children of kings are distinguished at their birth by some special qualities—God, in kindness to the human race, often giving a spirit of heroism to those whom he destines for empire. In this way, the great leaders celebrated in history were formed. The same judgment must be given in the case of private individuals. But as those endued with the greatest talents were always impelled by the greatest ambitions (a stain which defiles all virtues and makes them lose all favour in the sight of God), so we cannot set any value on anything that seems praiseworthy in ungodly men. We may add, that the principal part of rectitude is wanting, when there is no zeal for the glory of God, and there is no such zeal in those whom he has not regenerated by his Spirit.

Book 3

When treating of election in Book 3, Calvin engages in a polemic against the idea of “absolute power” or potentia absoluta. In 3.23.2 (“Refutation of the Calumnies by Which This Doctrine [of Election] Is Always Unjustly Assailed”), Calvin says:

Against the audacity of the wicked, who hesitate not openly to blaspheme, God will sufficiently defend himself by his own righteousness, without our assistance, when depriving their consciences of all means of evasion, he shall hold them under conviction, and make them feel their guilt. We, however, give no countenance to the fiction of absolute power, which, as it is heathenish, so it ought justly to be held in detestation by us. We do not imagine God to be lawless. He is a law to himself; because, as Plato says, men laboring under the influence of concupiscence need law; but the will of God is not only free from all vice, but is the supreme standard of perfection, the law of all laws. But we deny that he is bound to give an account of his procedure; and we moreover deny that we are fit of our own ability to give judgment in such a case. Wherefore, when we are tempted to go farther than we ought, let this consideration deter us, Thou shalt be “justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judges,” (Ps. 51:4).

The point here is not a voluntarist one; rather, God is such that he needs no law to restrain him from doing evil. It is implicit that the perfection of the will of God is correlated to the perfection of the nature of God. It is noteworthy that he claims that the “fiction of absolute power” is “heathenish” and therefore must be rejected by Christians, and then brings in a “heathen” philosopher for support. Clearly what Calvin means by “heathenish” is “not in accord with Christian truth”–but that label is evidently not extended to every utterance of pagan philosophers, who are often, as it turns out, not “heathenish.”

Plato is next cited in 3.25.2, “Of the Last Resurrection.” Once again, Plato is introduced as a favorable witness, this time with respect to the “chief good” of man. Plato alone, Calvin claims, recognized what man’s chief good actually is: union with God. This is so, even though he “could not…form even an imperfect idea of its true nature.” Why? Because he did not have the benefit of God’s saving revelation. Despite that fact, however, he recognized what that good ought to be.

In ancient times philosophers discoursed, and even debated with each other, concerning the chief good: none, however, except Plato acknowledged that it consisted in union with God. He could not, however, form even an imperfect idea of its true nature; nor is this strange, as he had learned nothing of the sacred bond of that union. We even in this our earthly pilgrimage know wherein our perfect and only felicity consists,—a felicity which, while we long for it, daily inflames our hearts more and more, until we attain to full fruition. Therefore I said, that none participate in the benefits of Christ save those who raise their minds to the resurrection.

Book 4

Plato is called upon twice in Book 4. First, in 4.18.15 (“Of the Popish Mass. How It Not Only Profanes, but Annihilates the Lord’s Supper”), Calvin browbeats those who think ritual action in and of itself, without reference to internal cleansing, can please God or place them in his favor. Plato’s Republic forms part of the proof.

There is a most elegant passage in the second book of Plato’s Republic. Speaking of ancient expiations, and deriding the foolish confidence of wicked and iniquitous men, who thought that by them, as a kind of veils, they concealed their crimes from the gods; and, as if they had made a paction with the gods, indulged themselves more securely, he seems accurately to describe the use of the expiation of the mass, as it exists in the world in the present day. All know that it is unlawful to defraud and circumvent another. To do injustice to widows, to pillage pupils, to molest the poor, to seize the goods of others by wicked arts, to get possession of any man’s succession by fraud and perjury, to oppress by violence and tyrannical terror, all admit to be impious. How then do so many, as if assured of impunity, dare to do all those things? Undoubtedly, if we duly consider, we will find that the only thing which gives them so much courage is, that by the sacrifice of the mass as a price paid, they trust that they will satisfy God, or at least will easily find a means of transacting with him.

Calvin next connects the idea to expiation for postmortem punishment for sin, and yet again draws on Plato for support:

Plato next proceeds to deride the gross stupidity of those who think by such expiations to redeem the punishments which they must otherwise suffer after death. And what is meant by anniversaries and the greater part of masses in the present day, but just that those who through life have been the most cruel tyrants, or most rapacious plunderers, or adepts in all kinds of wickedness, may, as if redeemed at this price, escape the fire of purgatory?

In sum, he finds analogues for Plato’s targets in the practice of the Mass in his own day.

The final reference to Plato is found in the final section of the Institutes. In 4.20.15 (“Of Civil Government”), he remarks upon Cicero’s description of the significance of the law in a properly ordered commonwealth, and points out that Cicero, in the metaphor he employed to draw attention to this fundamental significance, was borrowing from Plato. He writes:

In states, the thing next in importance to the magistrates is laws, the strongest sinews of government, or, as Cicero calls them after Plato, the soul, without which, the office of the magistrate cannot exist; just as, on the other hand, laws have no vigour without the magistrate. Hence nothing could be said more truly than that the law is a dumb magistrate, the magistrate a living law. As I have undertaken to describe the laws by which Christian polity is to be governed, there is no reason to expect from me a long discussion on the best kind of laws. The subject is of vast extent, and belongs not to this place. I will only briefly observe, in passing, what the laws are which may be piously used with reference to God, and duly administered among men. This I would rather have passed in silence, were I not aware that many dangerous errors are here committed.


In conclusion, Calvin makes regular use of Plato’s philosophy both in philosophical and in theological contexts. Far from being mere window-dressing, he often finds in Plato an argumentative ally against his contemporary opponents. Plato was, in other words, a living source of truth for Calvin. Finally, even when Calvin criticizes Plato, one notes the respect with which he does so–a fact that demonstrates, perhaps even more than his positive and constructive use of the founder of the Academy, the extremely high regard in which he held him.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.