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Platonic influence on Christianity

Plato’s Shadow over the Cross: A Brief History of Platonic Influence on Christianity

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“For what is Plato, but Moses speaking in Attic Greek.”
– Numenius

1. Introduction

When John the Apostle wrote his gospel the very first sentence was “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The original Greek “Word” was logos, a complex philosophical term that had been in discourse for some hundreds of years. It is uncertain to what degree John was educated on the meanings of the term, but he was not the first Jew to appropriate the term. The Hellenising scholar Philo, also active at this time, had identified Logos as the “Spirit of God” in Genesis. For him, Logos was to mean the intermediary divine being who bridged the gap between God and the material world. But continuing with John’s gospel, it is only afterwards that the Apostle writes his most significant line:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (1:14)

The Word is revealed to be none other than Jesus Christ. Here it shows that within the gospels themselves that Christianity had been in dialogue with Hellenic philosophy. Here, Hellenic philosophy merges with Jewish theism to create something new: the Christian deity, both heavenly king and earthly prophet, both creator and Logos.

While Christianity’s roots grew from Judaism, its inception had been intertwined with the intellectual movements prevalent in the Hellenic world at the time. This may not have been properly acknowledged earlier in history, but there is no doubt in retrospect that Hellenic philosophy and especially Platonism, as I will argue, had influenced Christianity throughout its existence, helping to define its essential doctrines and creeds.  

The purpose of the present essay is to elaborate on how, throughout history, Christian theologians engaged in dialogue with the Platonic schools and traditions, and thereby trace the major figures and doctrines of Christianity where we can the relationship with Platonism most clearly. Of course, Christianity’s defining has not been immediate, for following Jesus’s death the religion underwent centuries of debates and schisms before reaching the orthodoxy1 that is recognizable today. Therefore, I will offer a terse but substantial summary of ideas that Christianity had engaged with and developed on over the course of several hundreds of years, beginning with its early history and ending with the Renaissance. What follows merely scratches the surface. 

2. Background on Platonism

2.1 Assimilation by Christianity

One of the main consequences of Alexander’s conquests is that every intellectual who was engulfed by the Hellenic world had to learn to frame their arguments in terms of Greek philosophy, regardless of how much they dissented from it. Thus, the thinking of the Christians had been overwhelmingly Platonic between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, with Aristotelianism appearing in Western Christianity by the 12th century. The problems in absorbing the totality of a “pagan” philosophy were, of course, evident for the early Christians. For that reason, the attitude of theologians onwards through the Middle Ages was of changing significant philosophical points in the Platonic schemes in order to adapt them in coherence with Jewish theism.

However, Christianity ultimately gained from this Platonic language. An initial illustration of this can be the Alexandrian school becoming one of the main centers of Christianity, being able to assimilate the ancient Greek philosophical tradition, and to eliminate the gnostic movements that emerged later with proven arguments. After all, it is not implausible to interpret the demiurge of Timaeus as God, drawing parallels of a divine craftsman who fashions and maintains the universe, and thereby interpret Plato as a monotheist. The priority he gives to the form of the Good over the others in the Republic is also a similarity with the unbounded perfection of God. Furthermore, his esoteric doctrine in Parmenides, particularly regarding “the one” as the highest principle, has provided one of the central models for monotheism that we have. For the three hundred years Jews lived in the Hellenic world and were acquainted with these works, and over time Jewish scholars learned to read Plato in a manner that allowed for a plausible interpretation within their ethno-religious framework.

2.2 Clarifying Platonism and Neoplatonism
2.2.1 Succession of Tradition

Plato founded the Academy in Athens to succeed him in his teachings, and so it continued to be centre of his philosophy until its destruction in 86 B.C. Platonism therefore can be a broad category of several traditions that followed and built on Plato, which historians of philosophy divide as Middle Platonism and indeed Neoplatonism, less often called Late Platonism. However, these are all part of a single tradition according to the philosophers themselves, who saw their own teachings rather as adhering to and developing on their master’s teachings. The present essay, besides Plato’s own works, will also use the works of the Neoplatonists as the most prominent tradition after the Academy’s destruction, tracing its origins from Plotinus in the 3rd century A.D. and continuing through his successors Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus.

It should be minded that the term “Neoplatonism” is an anachronistic term used by modern scholars and the Neoplatonists in question would never refer to themselves as neo, which would seem to indicate that this was a new philosophy. For the Neoplatonists, there was no innovation in their philosophy which could be described as new. As previously stated, they understood their teachings to be simply an interpretation of ancient Platonic philosophy. Because of this anachronism, I find it appropriate to use adjectives such as “Neoplatonic” and “Platonic” interchangeably as well their counterpart nouns throughout this essay.

2.2.2 Explaining Neoplatonic Beliefs

For a brief introduction to Neoplatonism, I will summarize some of the most important concepts developed by Plotinus which despite its limits will not be inaccurate or misrepresentative.

Plotinus posited an elaborate theory of existence as that between the invisible world and the phenomenal world based on the concept of emanation. The phenomenal world, as he describes, is a reflection or overflow of the One or to the transcendent, absolute source of all existence, residing in the invisible world that we cannot understand or describe in any way. From the One there is a process of hierarchical emanation, with successive levels of reality or hypostasis, with each succeeding level being a less perfect reflection of the divine One. The One first emanates into the Nous, translated as mind or intellect, which is the archetype of all things in the phenomenal world and is where the Platonic forms reside. Nous then emanates into the soul, which in turn creates the phenomenal world where we reside.

Plotinus therefore envisions a journey away from the physicality of the phenomenal world through the ladders of reality, culminating in a return to the One. As all things emanate from the One, so must all things return to it. Thus, the purpose of human existence lies in contemplation and spiritual ascent in order to reconnect with the divine by transcending the limitations of the phenomenal world and returning to the source of all existence.. Through this inward journey, man reunites with the Nous, experiencing a mystical union with it, and ultimately with the One.

With that being said, here is my deduction of Neoplatonic themes into three points that we can use to trace its influence in Christian theology and history:

I. Emanation. The idea as previously described that reality emanates from the divine source, into the material world, and emanates back to the divine source.

II. Apophatic theology. Sometimes called negative theology. This is an approach to “defining” God by negation, i.e. to speak only in terms of what may not be said about God. For example, “God is not limited.”

III. Mystical union. Referring to an intimate connection between an individual and the divine. It is a direct and ineffable encounter with the divine presence, transcending both ordinary sensory experience and the intellect, characterized by a sense of oneness or unity with the divine.

3. Platonism in Christian Theologians

3.1 Origen

Origen of Alexandria, born in the 3rd century, was one person who had a complicated relationship with Christian orthodoxy. He was a towering figure in early Christianity, having written roughly 2’000 treatises on a vast array of topics, including scripture, homiletics, martyrdom, prayer, and some of the most influential apologetic works among other topics. Indeed, his paradigmatic approach to understanding the faith laid the base for Christian theology and was regarded for some time as a Church Father. In later periods, as the Church formulated orthodoxy, his ideas were more often criticized and built up to his condemnation in 543. Until then Origen remained a divisive but obligatory reading for succeeding theologians, including devoted followers who shaped Christian orthodoxy in their own right, as were Athanasius of Alexandria and the Cappadocian Fathers.

Origen was of course influenced by the Middle Platonism in his native city. Alexandria was the centre of Hellenistic culture and intellectual activity, having eclipsed Athens over the centuries. He attended the first Catechetical School in existence, founded in 170 in Alexandria, which was known for synthesizing Platonic philosophy with Biblical revelation, particularly under the leadership of Clement. Alexandria was also the home of a large Jewish diaspora which had its own Hellenising scholars like the aforementioned Philo. However, there may be a direct connection to Neoplatonism as it is possible that Origen had indeed personally known Plotinus. According to Eusebius, Origen was a student of a certain Ammonius. Porphyry, Plotinus’s student, recounts in the Life of Plotinus that during his studies under Ammonius Saccas in Alexandria, he was accompanied by a colleague named Origen. While academia doesn’t have consensus on whether this Origen was one in the same the possibility is openly considered. But if Origen and Plotinus did in fact share the same teacher it would explain why Origen had ideas that appear Neoplatonist, or at least are certainly Platonist.

Origen was famous for several ideas and teachings but most notable were his commentaries on Biblical scriptures which had strongly allegorical interpretations of events. While scripture was central to Origen it was still read in a Platonic context, drawing inspiration from Philo’s allegorical interpretations of the Torah. In Origen’s case he interprets Adam and Eve as a symbolic story, depicting how immaterial souls from the spiritual realm descend into the material world. Origen describes his thought in the treatise Against Celsus:

And the expulsion of the man and woman from paradise, and their being clothed with tunics of skins (which God, because of the transgression of men, made for those who had sinned), contain a certain secret and mystical doctrine (far transcending that of Plato) of the souls losing its wings, and being borne downwards to earth, until it can lay hold of some stable resting-place.2

This leads to another famous teaching from Origen that Christian orthodoxy rebuked: the pre-existence of souls and their universal salvation i.e. apokatastasis. In true Platonist fashion, the immaterial world of pure souls stands above the physical world and man’s existence on Earth is a descent downward, as represented by the fall of Adam and Eve. Furthermore the teaching of God’s mercy was interpreted to mean that eternal damnation was impossible, that hell is temporary and that every soul will saved and return to heaven, it being the origin of perfection. This parallels the doctrine in Neoplatonism that everything flows from the One and must return back to it, and Origen even took this as far to say that Satan himself will be saved, which became another point that he was condemned for.3

3.2 The Cappadocian Fathers and Pseudo-Dionysius

Despite all the condemnations, Origen’s work remained influential in forming Christian orthodoxy. Some of his most devoted followers in the 4th century became who we know as the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great, his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. These three Cappadocians developed their theological doctrines with Origen in consideration, even though they omitted or polished many of his heretical teachings4, and while their doctrines do resemble the Platonism of Plotinus or Porphyry it is uncertain whether they have read their works or they inherited these tendencies indirectly from Origen.  

With Gregory of Nyssa at the helm, who is often seen as the most philosophically adept, the Cappadocian Fathers sought to defend the doctrine of the Trinity against the Arianism dominant in the West. They did so by asserting the total unknowability of God. In contrast, while Origen did use apophatic language to describe God as infinite and boundless, thus beyond complete understanding due to sheer magnitude, no earlier figure articulated the idea as did Gregory of Nyssa who posited God’s transcendence beyond all human categories of knowledge. When he stated that God is infinite it was not in the sense that God is a being of infinite expanse, but infinite in his eternity and therefore beyond space, time and all human conceptions of limit.

The true vision and the true knowledge of what we seek consists precisely in not seeing, in an awareness that our goal transcends all knowledge and is everywhere cut off from us by the darkness of incomprehensibility. Thus that profound evangelist, John, who penetrated into this luminous darkness, tells us that no man hath seen God at any time (John 1:18), teaching us by this negation that no man – indeed, no created intellect – can attain knowledge of God.5

Besides the identification of God as the One there is the other aspect in Platonism concerning the divine: the identification of God as the intellect or nous. The fact that Plato described the intellect in different ways within different works, not offering a single comprehensive definition, reflects what he understood to be the need for multiple descriptions in order to grasp the concept of God. In Neoplatonic metaphysics, the nous represents the second hypostasis, or level of reality, emanating from the One. The use of nous by the Cappadocian Fathers to describe God is not in itself evidence of Neoplatonic influence, for scripture already had made such references to God. However, there appears to be Platonism in their cautious treatment of this and other descriptions of God. They explicitly address the inadequacy of human language and concepts in depicting the divine, highlighting the necessity for multiple descriptions to approach a more complete understanding of truth.

Furthermore, is was the Cappadocians Fathers and particularly Gregory of Nyssa who began to describe God as a darkness. The predecessors like Origen, who had seen God as leading the person out of darkness and into light, for Gregory the opposite was true. The spiritual life begins with light and goes deeper and deeper into darkness, as he points to a comparison in the Life of Moses.6 Indeed, Gregory was responsible for popularizing the idea of divine darkness in apophatic theology, although it would get its most full expression centuries later by Pseudo-Dionysius.

Among these aforementioned Neoplatonic elements, whether it’s apophatic theology, esotericism, emanation or mystical union, every single one is dramatically expressed in the works of Pseudo-Dionysius – the author who coined the term “mystical” in sense we have today, yet whose real name is unknown.7 Whoever the author was, he unmistakably thought within the Neoplatonic paradigm, and interpreted within this paradigm the Christian theology as he understood from scripture. In the Mystical Theology the author writes with strongly apophatic descriptions of God, who cannot be comprehended by the mind but must be experienced in the divine darkness:

Unto this Darkness which is beyond Light we pray that we may come, and may attain unto vision through the loss of sight and knowledge, and that in ceasing thus to see or to know we may learn to know that which is beyond all perception and understanding (for this emptying of our faculties is true sight and knowledge), and that we may offer Him that transcends all things the praises of a transcendent hymnody, which we shall do by denying or removing all things that are –like as men who, carving a statue out of marble, remove all the impediments that hinder the clear perspective of the latent image and by this mere removal display the hidden statue itself in its hidden beauty.8

God transcends all creation, including thought and language. The only path to know God is by abandoning all forms of knowing, where one enters into the darkness of unknowing within oneself and finds God there. Therefore the union of God is the process removing all things until that divine darkness is all that remains. As stated with Gregory of Nyssa, this association of God with darkness was an innovation not to be found in earlier Christian theologians or Neoplatonists. Pseudo-Dionysius, likely influenced by Gregory of Nyssa, uses Moses’ ascent to Mount Sinai in the Mystical Theology to depict the contemplative journey of one’s inner depth through the gradual process of unknowing.9

3.3 Gregory Palamas, Theosis and Hesychasm

A central theme in the teachings of the Cappadocians which persist in Eastern Orthodox theology is the concept of theosis. Though complex and often misunderstood, it comes down to the notion that humanity’s ultimate aim is to be in union with God. Athanasius of Alexandria, an esteemed elder of the Cappadocians, articulated this idea, “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.”10 In earlier centuries Clement of Alexandria elucidated the concept, “The Word of God became man so that you too may learn from a man how it is even possible for a man to become a god.”11 Although the Eastern Orthodox Church did not canonize Clement, his teachings endured through the Alexandrian School. While theologians interpret this union in various ways, it generally does not imply a literal merging with God’s essence but participation in the divine life. Gregory of Nazianzus states:

What God is in nature and essence, no man ever yet has discovered or can discover. Whether it will ever be discovered is a question which he who will may examine and decide. In my opinion it will be discovered when that within us which is godlike and divine, I mean our mind and reason, shall have mingled with its like, and the image shall have ascended to the Archetype, of which it has now the desire. And this seems to me to be the meaning of that great dictum, “we shall know then even as we are known.” (1 Cor. 13:12)12

In the 10-11th century, Symeon the New Theologian13 is recognized as the first Christian mystic to freely share his own mystical experiences. Symeon emphasizes in his writings and preaching the significance of directly, personally encountering the grace of God, and with that talks about his own experiences of God as an light. The strength with which he wrote his eccentric writings were unacceptable to many, to the point it lead to conflict with Constantinople’s church authorities, resulting in Symeon’s banishment from the city. He withdrew across the Bosphorus and settled in the ancient monastery of Saint Macrina, where he continued to recount his spiritual experiences:

At once I perceived a divine warmth. Then a small radiance that shone forth. Then a divine breath from his words. Then a fire kindled in my heart, which caused constant streams of tears to flow. After that a fine beam went through my mind more quickly than lightning.14

It is from this combination, of apophaticism and theosis, that the mystical traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church originate. Perhaps what is the most famous of the traditions is hesychasm. It comes from the Greek hesychia meaning “inner stillness”, and describes the form of meditation dating from the High Middle Ages which involved monks living in solitude, performing certain postures, breathing techniques and reciting the Jesus Prayer repeatedly. The purpose was to direct one’s focus inward, to purify the soul from external distractions, and embark on a journey into the apophatic darkness were, paradoxically, God’s light is experienced.  

This tradition indeed became a point of controversy in 14th century Byzantium when a Calabrian monk named Barlaam was outraged by the hesychast practices he saw during his visit to Mount Athos. In his interpretation of the hesychasts, claiming that God’s light could be seen with the worldly eye is nothing short of heresy for man can only see and experience the created light rather than the divine one. It was in response to Barlaam that Eastern Orthodoxy had gained one of its most prominent theologians in the form of Gregory Palamas, a monk from Mount Athos whose teachings became dogma and his person canonized. Gregory Palamas defended hesychasm against Barlaam’s theological attacks by drawing the distinction between God’s essence (ousia) and His energies. In doing so the term essence was not used as it was in Greek philosophy, relating to the definable inner reality of things, but with a Christian and specifically apophatic meaning of God in his absolute unknowable reality that transcends all human comprehension or experience. As Gregory Palamas says:

Every created nature is far removed from and completely foreign to the divine nature. For if God is nature, other things are not nature; but if every other thing is nature, He is not a nature, just as He is not a being if all other things are beings. And if He is a being, then all other things are not beings.15

In other words, there is no analogy between created and uncreated natures as much as there is no analogy between the divine essence and created essences, yet there is a connection between creation and the divine energies. The energies as he defined them are the means through which God interacts with the created world, communicating with and manifesting himself to creatures. He continued stating, “God both is and is said to be the nature of all beings, in so far as all partake of Him and subsist by means of this participation: not, however, by participation in His nature – far from it – but by participation in His energy.”16 Importantly, these energies are not created and remain identical to God while differing from the essence. The drawing of such distinctions has been acknowledged within the Eastern Orthodox tradition since the earliest church fathers however it was Gregory Palamas who definitively and clearly formulated this concept for the first time. Because of his doctrinal defence the hesychast tradition persists within the Eastern Church to this day.

3.4 Augustine

While the Catholic and Orthodox churches generally share the same church fathers, different ones often play different roles. While the Cappadocian Fathers are emphasized in the Orthodox Church, even though they are considered important in the Roman Church, a parallel figure that is foundational for Catholicism but not so much for Orthodoxy is Augustine of Hippo, who laid the groundwork for the Roman Church’s doctrine for the rest of history. Indeed, Augustine is regarded as Western Christianity’s first systematic theologian and is equated to the Cappadocians for that reason, alongside their common Platonic influences.

Augustine in his youth was an admirer of Manicheanism but upon some disappointments he turned to Neoplatonist philosophy before converting to Christianity. Despite his rejection of “pagan” philosophy as a Christian, Augustine’s Neoplatonic influence can be seen in how his theological framework integrated Neoplatonic language. Indeed in his Confessions Augustine acknowledged the role of Platonism in leading him to Christianity, thus affirming that figures like Plotinus had reached certain truths about divinity though he never converted.17 One example of that influence is how Augustine in his exploration of the human mind draws parallels between it and the Holy Trinity, in a way similar to Plotinus but whereas the latter conceives the mind as dualistic – both contemplating and being contemplated – Augustine adapts this concept within a three-fold Christian context. Since God made man in His image, this means that a semblance of the Holy Trinity can be found in the makeup of the human mind, and Augustine therefore posited a tripartite human mind divided into Memory, Understanding, and Will. He dedicated an extensive work, On the Holy Trinity, in which he explains, “These three, memory, understanding, will, are not three lives, but one life; nor three minds, but one mind; it follows certainly that neither are they three substances, but one substance.”18 Like the three Persons of the Holy Trinity who are one God, so are these three categories one mind, and are related to one another just as the three Persons are distinguished by their common relation.

What is arguably Augustine’s most important contribution to Christian doctrine, in terms of what even the Eastern Church having accepted it, is his explanation of the problem of evil. Augustine in his Confessions reflects on the nature of evil, the origin of sin, and the theological implications. He wrestles with questions about the existence of evil in a world supposed to be created by a benevolent God, exploring the complex relationship between free will and divine providence. He also struggles with the fact that, from his Platonic presuppostions, the soul is always yearning for God, as corrupt or evil as it may be. “For thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.”19 Ultimately he comes to the conclusion of privatio boni, the absence or privation of good. He argues that evil is the corruption of the good, that it cannot have a separate existence (as it did for the Manicheans), but can only exist insofar it maintains a parasitical relationship with the good. Evil sucks the existence out of everything it attaches itself to and leaves behind nothing. As Augustine put it:

And it was made clear to me that all things are good even if they are corrupted. They could not be corrupted if they were supremely good; but unless they were good they could not be corrupted. If they were supremely good, they would be incorruptible; if they were not good at all, there would be nothing in them to be corrupted…Therefore, whatsoever is, is good. Evil, then, the origin of which I had been seeking, has no substance at all; for if it were a substance, it would be good.20

Concerning on how to obtain the knowledge of God and the good, Augustine posits that all true knowledge originates from God in a concept that he called divine illumination. Human intellect alone as he argued is insufficient to grasp life’s truths, especially those concerning God and the spiritual realm, thus true knowledge requires divine illumination wherein God imparts knowledge directly to the human mind21. According to him, the soul is able to distinguish between truth and falsehood without sense experience. This resonates with Plato’s theory of recollection which presupposes that the mind has in itself an understanding of the Forms. The pre-existence of souls had been thoroughly and repeatedly critiqued by that time and Augustine did not accept that idea as Origen did, but instead emphasized the uniqueness of each individual soul as created in conception or birth and its personal relationship with and dependency on God for knowledge.

However, beginning from the 12th century, the rise of scholasticism in the Catholic West saw a move away from Platonism and more strongly towards a rationalizing Aristotelianism. The authority of Aristotle was established effectively by Peter Abelard, among others, who translated Aristotle into Latin and used his works to rationally explain Christian dogma of transubstantiation. From then on the Catholic Church embraced Aristotelian logic, and thereby the scholastic method came to be and culminated in the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. Any equivalent cannot be seen with the Eastern Orthodox Church which always preserved mysticism as essential in its tradition. But whereas the Catholic Church had less emphasis, it was the later Protestant churches that abandoned mysticism almost entirely, likely because it was historically so strongly associated with the monastic tradition that they rejected.

3.5 Mystical Revival and Meister Eckhart

Although the course of history has it that the Roman Church would weigh in favour of Aristotle and rationality, there still had been vestiges of mysticism continuing to the High Middle Ages that flourished once Scholasticism had reached its zenith in the 13th century. The Franciscan and Dominican orders, founded in 1209 and 1216 respectively, emphasized a life of apostolic poverty, preaching, and direct engagement with the laity. These two orders were called mendicant from the Latin mendicans “begging,” as their monastic vows required them to rely on charity for sustenance and thus attracted many to a radical expression of Christian spirituality. A monk of the Franciscan order named Bonaventure rose to prominence in his calling back to the Augustinian roots of the Church, becoming a representative of early Franciscan thought. However, as much as Bonaventure was important in own right, he was neglected to the extent of being overshadowed by his Dominican contemporary Thomas Aquinas and by his great Franciscan successor, John Duns Scotus.

Outside of the broad religious orders there was a rise of mystic groups spattered throughout Europe between the 13th and 14th centuries: the Beguines in the Low Countries; English mystics led by Julian of Norwich; and the Italian city-states where mystics like Catherine of Siena were active. However, the group that arguably had been the most influential on Christianity outside of their own region were the Rhineland mystics, headed by one Dominican friar Eckhart von Hochheim, immortalized as Meister Eckhart.

Although he was an accomplished theologian within the church, having been a lecturer in the university of Paris, Meister Eckhart’s most imprinting works are his highly unusual sermons in the vernacular of Middle High German (MHG). As a friar, Eckhart shepherded his congregation and clergy with sermons which are as practical as they are esoteric, delving into spiritual transformation by detaching from this world. At the core of all his sermons is the concept of God as “the Ground.” This is an English translation from its etymological cognate and original MHG term used, Grunt. However there are nuances in meaning that exist in MHG and Modern German (which would render the term Grund) that are not found in English. As one leading scholar of Eckhart explained:

Grunt can, first of all, be understood as physical ground, that is, the earth. Grunt can also mean the bottom or lowest side of a body, surface, or structure. Abstractly, grunt is employed to indicate the origin, cause, beginning, reason, or proof of something. Finally, grunt is employed as what is inmost, hidden, most proper to a being – that is, its essence (essentia).22

The Ground for Eckhat is God in his absolute essence, beyond even the persons of the trinity. All the theological questions concerning the nature of God, the soul, and the universe, are answered by Eckhart in a mystical and Neoplatonic fashion. Indeed, Eckhart references Pseudo-Dionysius and his writings throughout his sermons23 and resembles him especially in describing the Ground as niht or intensely nihtes niht, “nothingness,”24 or further on when he compares God as a boundless, dark, silent desert. In addition, Eckhart preaches that there is only one Ground, meaning that The Ground of the soul, at its deepest end, and the Ground of God, is the one in the same Ground without distinction. In his remarkable provocative but simple statements, like “God’s ground and the soul’s ground are one ground,”25and “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me,”26 Eckhart identifies God’s essence with being itself, thus any existence that a human may have is really God’s being.

Since for Eckhart God is really all that there is, he builds his metaphysics on Platonic emanation, the outflow and inflow of God.27 Eckhart views everything as flowing from the divine Ground and flowing back to it, and it is with this flowing or emanation that all things, including the Trinity, come to be. The outflow refers to the emanation of the Ground into the world or into the individual soul, where God’s essence pours forth into creation, manifesting in various forms. In in this sense, it is the divine reaching outwards, expressing itself in the diversity and multiplicity of existence. The inflow is individual soul returning to the Ground, where Eckhart emphasizes that man is to penetrate back into God, to detach from the world of distinction and individualism, and return to the divine source:

What is it that God ‘tells’ us? That is God’s work, and that work is so noble, so sublime, that God alone performs it. Understand: all our perfection and all our bliss depends on our traversing and transcending all creatureliness, all being and getting into the ground that is groundless.28

Eckhart preaches that the further man reaches for his divine source, he will eventually transcend God and all notions of the Holy Trinity and reach the Ground, the “silent desert” as he describes, where God and man merge into an indistinctive oneness:

This spark is opposed to all creatures: it wants nothing but God, naked, just as He is. It is not satisfied with the Father or the Son or the Holy Ghost, or all three Persons so far as they preserve their several properties… I declare in all truth, by the eternal and everlasting truth, that this light is not content with the simple changeless divine being which neither gives nor takes: rather it seeks to know whence this being comes, it wants to get into its simple ground, into the silent desert into which no distinction ever peeped, of Father, Son or Holy Ghost.29

Meister Eckhart is today regarded as the most profound of Catholic mystics, but he was controversial. By the end of his life, Pope John XXII accused him of heresy and brought him before the local inquisition where he was tried with a papal bull to seal it, but Eckhart died before his verdict was received. The inquisition concluded posthumously that he was not a heretic, rather twenty-eight sections of his sermons were picked out and deemed as heretical, which did leave a black mark on his reputation for the following centuries. Regardless, he would have a lasting influence in later thinkers in the Catholic West from his immediate admirers like Henry Suso and Johannes Tauler to Nicholas of Cusa, who is regarded as the last theologian before the advent of the Renaissance.

4. Conclusion

To summarize, the platonising doctrines of figures like the Cappadocian Fathers continue remain foundational for the Eastern Orthodox Church, whose mysticism and apophatic theology persist. In the Western Catholic Church its presence is not as explicit, however even in it’s most Aristotelian scholastic proponents there are Platonic presuppositions.

This essay, though brief and limited in scope, has aimed to illuminate the interaction between Platonism and Christianity, particularly in the early period of Christianity’s development. Of course many of the topics discussed, including the enigmatic Pseudo-Dionysius, remain unexplored. A comprehensive understanding of everything that has been presented would require its own study, of course. I hope that everything written to this point has piqued the reader’s interest and will contribute to the discourse over Western religious and intellectual heritage.

  1. There should be no confusion between miniscule “o” orthodoxy in the broad sense and capital “O” Orthodoxy, which relates to the Eastern Orthodox Church.  ↩︎
  2. Against Celsus, Book IV Chapter XL. ↩︎
  3. The Church accused Origen of holding this stance, which he denied. ↩︎
  4. Gregory of Nyssa followed Origen into some of his controversial teachings, like apokatastasis and allegorical interpretations. ↩︎
  5. From Glory to Glory, Gregory of Nyssa, p23. ↩︎
  6. The Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa, Book I Paragraph 20 ↩︎
  7. The author claimed to be Dionysius the Areopagite, an obscure figure in the Bible (Acts 17:34) mentioned once in passing that became a Christian when Paul visited Athens. It is accepted that Pseudo-Dionysius wrote his works hundreds of years after the fact, particularly around 500. The author borrowed heavily from Proclus who died in 485, and the earliest mention of Pseudo-Dionysius by others was in 528. ↩︎
  8. Dionysius the Areopagite; The Divine Names; and The Mystical Theology, C.E. Rolt. Chapter 2. ↩︎
  9. ibid., Chapter 1 ↩︎
  10. On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria, Paragraph 54 ↩︎
  11. Exhortation to the Greeks, Clement of Alexandria, Chapter 1 ↩︎
  12. Orations, Oration 28 XVII, trans. C.G. Browne. ↩︎
  13. Symeon is the last of the three Orthodox saints to gain the title of “Theologian”, after John the Apostle and Gregory of Nazianzus. The title was not applied in the modern sense, rather it designated only to someone who spoke from personal experience of the vision of God.  ↩︎
  14. Discourses, Symeon the New Theologian, trans. de Catanzaro, p363. ↩︎
  15. Philokalia, Volume IV, Kallistos Ware, p382. ↩︎
  16. ibid., p527. ↩︎
  17. City of God, Book Eight ↩︎
  18. On the Holy Trinity, trans. Rev. A.W. Haddan, Book X Chapter 11. ↩︎
  19. Confessions, Book One Chapter I ↩︎
  20. ibid., Book Seven Chapter XII ↩︎
  21. ibid., Book Four Chapter XV ↩︎
  22. The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart, Bernard McGinn, p38-39 ↩︎
  23. The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, O’C Walshe, p34, p44, p140, p168, p175, p198, p209, etc… ↩︎
  24. ibid., p69. ↩︎
  25. ibid., p273. ↩︎
  26. ibid., p298. ↩︎
  27. Respectively, the original terms are exitus and reditus in Latin, uzganc and inganc in MHG. ↩︎
  28. ibid., p400. ↩︎
  29. ibid., p311. ↩︎

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