Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene Philosophy

“Especially the Platonists”: Plato Owning Aristotle in Late Antiquity

The following passage is so over-quoted that I hesitate to quote it again (I discuss the general idea in an essay in this book), but I’m going to do it anyway to make just one tiny little point. That point is this: though Aristotle is enjoying something of a renaissance among “conservative” Christian theologians these days (nothing against him, of course; he’s the life of any Stag[irite] party worthy of the name), in late antiquity the philosophy that mattered was not Aristotle’s but that of Plato in its various iterations.

This is clear, for example, from (and here is the over-quoted bit) Augustine’s sketch of what it means to “plunder the Egyptians” in On Christian Teaching 2.40.60. When talking of Christians borrowing what is true and useful from pagan thinkers, Augustine primarily has in mind Plato and his followers as those who will be most amenable to the faith:

Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists [maxime Platonici], have said anything that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also — that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life — we must take and turn to a Christian use.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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