Between Athens and Jerusalem: Plato for Adventists

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Plato is often the philosophical whipping boy of the Adventist community. We’re well aware of the evils of “Platonic dualism” and how Plato’s faulty anthropology has polluted the originally holistic view of humans found in Scripture and led to the development of problematic doctrines like purgatory and hell. In this post, however, I want to examine the wider aspects of Plato’s dualism, suggesting that Christians, and especially Adventists, still continue to struggle with the ethical vestiges of this dualism.

One place the dualism I want to explore is explained is in a powerful (and popular) analogy found in one of Plato’s later works, The Republic. You can watch/listen to a shortened rendition of it here:

Plato’s imagery of captive prisoners, unaware of their captivity or blindness, with one of them coming to gradual enlightenment has seen numerous rebirths in movies like The Truman Show (1998), The Matrix (1999), and The Village (2004). In these films, the cave is depicted as the constraints one’s society or community. The images on the wall of the cave represent the simulacra or propaganda twice removed from the realities they, unknown to the captives, represent. The puppeteers, sinisterly, are the leaders of these communities, who manipulate the puppets to keep their captives entertained.

With his analogy, however, Plato is going beyond social commentary; he is illustrating his understanding of both knowledge and reality. The ascent out of the cave, for Plato, is not a physical ascent, but an intellectual one. Using their reasoning (not their senses), humans move can from a state of illusion, i.e. looking at shadows on a wall, to a state of true knowing, i.e. looking into the sun.

Plato’s epistemological views correlate with his view of reality. Simply put, the cave represents the physical world, and the regions outside the cave, a higher, invisible realm. The physical world is temporal and changing. In contrast, the invisible realm is timeless and constant.

What many might dismiss today it as metaphysical speculation was Plato’s attempt to address a pressing intellectual question of his day: how to explain both one’s observation of particular instances (which are singular and unique) and his or her understanding of universal constants (which seem to unify particular instances). For example, we observe a physical object, like an apple. This apple is unique in its shape, color, weight, etc; it is particular. At the same time, I can grasp its similarity with other apples and this similarity is something I continue to understand after the apple is consumed. Apples are particular and changing; the concept or idea of apple, however, is universal and constant.

According to Plato, this concept or idea exists independently of the human mind; beyond the realm of physical objects, there is an invisible realm of entities that must order the visible realm. He called these entities “Forms.” According to Plato, material objects “participate” in these Forms; it’s the intellectual grasping of these Forms, not just observation of an object, that constitutes real knowing.

Plato’s two-tiered understanding of knowledge and reality wasn’t invented in a vacuum. It was actually a reconciliation of the views of his intellectual predecessors, who individually emphasized one pole of this dichotomy—observation/physical world/change vs. reasoning/concepts/constancy. Heraclitus, based on his observations, induced that reality was in a constant state of flux within time, and Parmenides, on the basis of reasoning, maintained that reality was ultimately unified, timeless, and unchanging.

We see the ideas, when combined with Plato’s dualistic anthropology, that would later develop into the Neo-Platonism that greatly influenced Christian thought. According to the Neo-Platonists, the goal of life was to escape from an inferior material existence, with the soul purifying itself of the body to be reunited with its immaterial source, i.e. the One. In Plato’s thought are the philosophical roots, at least in the West, of the otherworldly religious attitude that is suspicious of the body and sees it, as well as the physical world, as something to be escaped.

Certain understandings of Christian soteriology, unfortunately, have been influenced by this line of thinking. On such models, salvation is ultimately understood to be an individual release from physical existence. I am saved from the earth to go to heaven after I die. While sojourning on earth, I attempt to preserve personal purity by careful avoidance of everything that is physically pleasurable and by withdrawing from the hoi polloi who live their lives according to “the pleasures of the flesh.”

Such an understanding of salvation has negative practical/ethical consequences, leading toward an understanding of spirituality as physical and social ascectism.

To combat this view, the Biblically literate individual will point out that in Scripture material creation is affirmed as being “very good” (Gen. 1:31) and one that humans are to care for (Gen. 1:28). Secondly, she might point out the numerous passages of Scripture that support a non-dualistic understanding of human beings (Gen. 2:7, Eccl. 3:19ff). Furthermore, against understandings of salvation as an egoistic personal escape plan, she will point to the example and teachings of the incarnate Jesus, who, along with other New Testament writers, instructs us to love by caring for the very real and embodied needs of people (Matt. 25:35-46). Lastly, she will point out that at the eschaton the dead are physically resurrected, the earth is recreated, and “heaven” comes to earth (Rev. 21:1ff).

With this said, after reading Plato, and the historical appropriation of his thought, she will be wary of the same practical dangers that can continue to infect her own thinking. Even a Biblically-faithful anthropology, soteriology, and eschatology can be prone to a form of dualistic thinking, i.e. a temporal one, that has similarly negative ethical effects.

Instead of escape from a physical realm to an alternate, invisible one, this kind of dualistic thinking makes a sharp distinction between the present and future, and salvation is still understood primarily as an escape, albeit from the hardships and sufferings of the present age. Jesus’ own proclamation of the in-breaking kingdom, in contrast, blurred the lines between present and future and was a call to engage the world, not to escape from it.

All too often, however, belief in the parousia functions as the deus ex machina of ancient Greek tragedies.

Belief in the second coming doesn’t have to result in an ethical passivism or escapism. Rather, it can serve as a catalyst for increased and consistent faithfulness and loving action in this life. When faced with odds that make cynicism and despair the most “reasonable” response, belief in the return of Christ and the restoration of all things can bring optimism and hope.

In other words, faith in the second Advent of Jesus can make a positive, practical difference today.

This actually parallels Plato’s thought. To be fair to him, it’s important to point out that the ultimate concern of his philosophical system was a practical one, with epistemological and metaphysical views addressing ethical concerns. Philosophy, for Plato, along with the ancients, was as Pierre Hadot puts it, “a way of life.”

Plato believed grasping the intellectual Form of the Good would enable the individual to live a moral life; using reason to understand reality would enable the individual to order his or her life with all its disparate drives and desires. In The Republic, Plato envisions a philosopher king, a leader who would have such a knowledge of the Good, thus enabling him to justly lead his society.

In other words, Plato can be interpreted to have cared greatly about the material world and temporal existence. Returning to the cave analogy, Plato has his enlightened prisoner come back into the cave to share the good news of the Form of the Good with the other captives. Needless to say, this imagery, is ripe for Christian appropriation, and certainly more Biblically faithful than Neo-Platonic understandings of salvation simply as escape. __

Zane Yi is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University, where he’s trying his best to both appreciate and overcome his Platonic heritage.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at