Platonism Explained: The Natural World is Separate from the Realm of God, Where Only Souls Can Reach
“Form is considered in relation to God, his thinking; in relation to us, the primary object of thought; in relation to matter, measure; in relation to the sensible world, its paradigm; and in relation to itself, essence.”- Alcinus
What is Platonism?
Platonist philosophy, the philosophy of Plato, at its core asserts that there are abstract objects that are separate from the natural world. In particular, it posits that there are separate worlds including the natural world and that of God or the divine. It also established the theory of forms which claimed that the qualities of the natural world are not real, and those that really exist are the divine and abstract foundations in the realm of God. Thus, it rejects nominalism which believes the abstract does not constitute what reality is.
The belief system was established near the time when The Academy was founded and was primarily influenced by Neo-Pythagoreanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism. It then split into two forms later in its history toward Middle Platonism and then afterward Neo-Platonism. Platonist thought became further influenced by stoics, academic skeptics, and Aristotle, so it can be difficult to nail down what exactly the philosophy truly meant to convey. So, in the below sections, we will go into more detail on what the types of philosophy are, the core beliefs of a Platonist, and the levels of reality within their system.
Types of Platonism
There are four distinct categories of Platonism:
Middle Platonism: the core defining characteristic of this type and era of Platonism is that it moved from a process of academic skepticism toward eclecticism. This just means that rigid assumptions and dogma were not held to strictly. They also held that the Platonic Forms did not transcend the natural world in all cases and that the World Soul was within the natural world as a living and encapsulating being.
Neo-platonism: This type of Platonist belief was fused with mysticism which allowed the creation of levels within the system of the natural and the divine worlds. It was the first to posit that reaching The One or the good was the fundamental function of humanity.
Renaissance Neo-platonism: These types of platonists carried the duality of matter being bad and spirit (soul and the divine) being good into Christianity. The particular group of these Platonists was called the Cambridge Platonists.
Mathematical Platonism: This form of philosophy argued that math was abstract at its core, carries the unchanging and eternal qualities of the divine, but is imperfect by nature. So in their view, it is both between natural reality and the Godly realm.
Below are the core beliefs that allow the system of Platonism to hold consistent:
What is good is that which is perfect, eternal, and unchangeable: Good within the system of Platonism is not our colloquial definition and instead describes all that is God, or what they consider to be the Form of the Good (the ideal). Thus, that which is not God, or the underlying reality of our world, is therefore bad or evil.
Our souls are separate from the natural world: The human soul, while connected to the natural world in our bodies is a part of the realm of God. So then what we are and our consciousness is derived from that separate realm or the basis of existence in the corporeal.
We can reach the real realm: In order for our souls to be derived from the God realm, they must be able to reach back up and become one with it. In other words, this along with the second belief establishes a streamlike system where our souls exist that can be cycled up and down.
Our soul bears the burden of life, thought, and morality: The soul is that which moves life so when you do any action it isn’t your thoughts, your body, or anything corporeal that seems to put you in motion. Your soul is then ultimately you and your consciousness. So, therefore all actions carry the weight of actions morally, good or bad, in pursuit of ultimately reaching the highest order of God from which it came.
Platonist Levels of Reality
There are six total levels involved in existence under the Platonist model and it is split into the natural and real/divine realms. The natural realm is made of matter (that is of no substance but holds the natural world), bodies, organisms, and elements which are what makeup living things, and the corporeal forms (mind, thoughts, surface identity, the soul). That which is the divine realm or God is made up of the World soul (the divine container of all abstractions and the all-encompassing nature of God), Nous (the thoughts and reason of God or the universe), and The One (the highest order of existence being goodness or perfection, eternality, what is unchangeable or the source).
The separations of both worlds are shown above, but there are always interconnected due to the presence of the soul. The soul binds us to the divine and allows us to pass from the natural realm (the less real and bad) to the divine realm (the real and good place). The soul may flow up and down the stream, as it acts and will, according to its nature, strive to reach the highest order of good (The One). In order to reach that state of fullness and perfection, Platonists ask us to pursue their core virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice (the binder of the previous three) in the pursuit of getting closer to the intellect (Nous) that are the reasoning of the universe.
One must first reach the intellect first before reaching the highest state of goodness however since the divine reason must be understood before applying moral descriptions (goodness) and moving to that state. So it is true that if a soul does not act and come to a state of understanding the reason of God it will fall back to the natural world. The reason that the word soul is ignored in the description of this process is that it is a given that when a soul removes itself from a body after death it will go back to the lowest level of the divine realm.
The Origin of Soul
The soul’s natural origination is within the state of The One and falls down to the Earth to give life to bodies according to Platonism. Though the exact qualities may vary for the soul itself among variations, it would be most probable that they would say that there are a set number of souls in the world that pass up and down the levels. However, much of this is not known for certain because even among platonists today the soul is a contentious debate.
Platonism vs. Aristotelianism
The big difference between Platonism and Aristotelianism is their assumptions of how we can derive information from the world. Plato and his philosophy took a generalist perspective and tried to create more idealistic universal concepts. However, Aristotle believed everything must be examined in its parts in an empirical manner to get to the heart of what is real.
A Brief History of Platonism
Platonism was founded around 387 BC at the Academy in Athens where Plato gave his lectures. It was originally expressed in fictional dialogues of Socrates made by Plato. This early form of Platonism had a mathematical basis similar to Pythagoreanism, but differing in core reasoning. The core principles of Platonic metaphysics are the One and the opposing Indefinite Dyad. The One is active and lays limits on the Indefinite Dyad, thereby allowing the creation of order in the cosmos. However, much of the reasoning on how these principles operate was left unwritten leading different sects of Platonism to vary wildly in even their core assumptions.
The Old Academy
Plato’s nephew, Speusippus built upon Platonism by revising it so that the One is considered greater than intellect. This resulted in the Dyad being considered the sole productive source of multiplicity, from which all other levels of reality derive. He went on to create a multilayered grading of being which places the Good at the end of an emanative process. Doing so was meant as a recognition of its necessity as the cause of goodness in all things. In a more concrete sense this means that happiness can be understood as leading a moral life as this will allow you to become closer to the Good.
Xenocrates succeeded Speusippus as headmaster of the Academy. He broke with his predecessor by laying out his ideas of metaphysics in detail. He viewed the One as Intellect and called it “Father,” which was contrasted by the disorderly Dyad which he named “Mother.” He went on to lay out sections of the known universe and even categorize the gods into differing types. Xenocrates’s greatest contribution to the history of Platonism is the doctrine that the Ideas are thoughts in the mind of the One.
Polemo contributed little to the metaphysics of platonism, instead developing the ethics of the philosophy. His first contribution was the idea of self-sufficiency, which he identified as key to happiness. He understood it in respect to virtue, teaching that even in the absence of all material comforts good people can achieve happiness. The second is the concept that all living things stove for conciliation with their environment. This necessitates an existence in accordance with nature, which he considered to be inherently virtuous.
The New Academy
Antiochus of Ascalon rejected Skepticism, and propounded a fusion of Platonism with some Aristotelian and Stoic dogmas.
Neo-Platonism is a Hellenistic school of philosophy founded by Plotinus in the 3rd Century A.D. The term "neo-platonism" itself was not used in ancient times (it was in fact not coined until the early 19th Century), and Neo-Platonists would have considered themselves simply Platonists, although their beliefs demonstrate significant differences from those of Plato.
Philo of Larissa broke with his predecessors by not considering true knowledge to be impossible. This led him to seek a middle course between knowledge and mere probability. He believed there were obvious truths that forced skepticism to give way to conviction, but that this must not be regarded as absolute knowledge.
Antiochus of Ascalon believed that there existed fundamental agreement between Platonic, Stoic, and Peripatetic philosophy. Because of this, he focused on interpreting Plato’s dialogues to create a systematic approach that came to define later Middle Platonists. Antiochus stood out for denying that the Platonic Ideas or Forms transcend the cosmos, asserting instead that they are conceptions common to all humanity. He held that they were constructed as analogies and existed only within the mind of each rational being, originating as thought in the mind of God.
Timaeus Locrus was a scholar who attempted to use Neopythagorean philosophy to uncover new meaning behind Plato’s dialogue. Timaeus believed the universe has two causes: Mind, governing rational beings, and Necessity, governing bodies and all irrational beings. Each soul, he believed, received a portion of the principle of Sameness, which was the basis for reason. A soul who received more Sameness would have a happier fate than one receiving less, thus requiring taming of passions and the moderation of bodily pleasures.
The Egyptian philosopher Plotinus, is widely considered the founder of Neoplatonism. He was influenced by the teachings of classical Greek philosophy, but also by Persian and Indian philosophy and Egyptian theology. Although his original intention was merely to preserve the teachings of Plato and Socrates, he effectively fused Middle Platonism with oriental mysticism. Plotinus believed in the existence of a transcendent One, from which emanates the rest of the universe as a sequence of lesser beings.
Iamblichus Chalcidensis was a student of Porphyry. He departed from his teacher on more than a few points, most notably in his insistence on demoting Plotinus’ One to the level of kosmos noêtos, which he believed to generate the intellectual realm. This view led Iamblichus to posit a Supreme One even higher than the One of Plotinus, which generates the Intellectual Cosmos, and yet remains beyond all predication and determinacy. This somewhat gratuitous skewing of the Plotinian noetic realm also led Iamblichus to posit an array of intermediate spiritual beings between the lower souls and the intelligible realm such as angels, daemons, and the souls of heroes.
Proclus was an accomplished academic and religious universalist in Athens who presented a logical and precise expression of Neoplatonism. Proclus posits the Intellect as the culmination of the productive act of the One. This is in opposition to Plotinus, who described the Intellect as proceeding directly from the One, thereby placing Mind before Thought, and so making thought the process by which the Intellect becomes alienated from itself.
Platonism: Key Takeaways
Platonism while inherently against how we usually think of the world, has its merits to learn from. Below are a couple of key takeaways to apply to your own life:
There is more than what we can directly see: While it can be tempting to dismiss what we cannot see, much of what constitutes our lives and scientific disciplines requires abstract concepts. These intangible things such as laws, generalisms, and theories are the backbone of how we come to understand the world. However, this does not mean using them as a crutch. A balance between using general concepts and examining the why of specific things allows us to further our understanding of others, ourselves, and the world around us.
The world is not limited to our perceptions of it: Just because we say something is true and have some evidence for it, does not mean we should accept it as truth. Oftentimes, we let our own experiences, emotions, and presuppositions gain control of us and accept the first account that supports what we believe. However, the world is much more complex than this and we each have our own little worlds inside of us, that is our thoughts of the world. So, we should remove our arrogant impulses to act as if we know everything and seek to understand the worlds of others, our own, and ultimately how the world works in this realm or possibly other levels inside or outside of it.
Platonism: Additional Resources
Below are some extra resources for you to learn more about Platonist philosophy:
Videos on Platonism
Books on Platonism
A few book resources to learn more are listed:
The Republic by Plato
Plato’s Individuals by Margaret Mccabe
Clarendon Later Ancient Philosophers by Jonathan Barnes and A.A. Long