Can Platonism Save Us?

Upon hearing that I am a graduate student in philosophy, new acquaintances often ask what I intend to do with my education. Apart from displaying the modern tendency to view knowledge as only valuable in terms of its potential productivity, this sort of question often belies another presumption. This presumption is that philosophy is somehow fundamentally different than and separated from human life. Too often, ‘philosophy’ is understood as nothing more than highfalutin and long-winded books disagreeing with each other, books whose contents have been largely rendered irrelevant by the marching advance of modern science and engineering. 

This view is one which University of Toronto professor Lloyd P. Gerson takes to task in his recent scholarly work, Platonism and Naturalism: The Possibility of Philosophy. In this text, he pits Platonism, which he identifies with philosophy itself, against naturalism. Gerson argues that these two positions are the only two possible consistent worldviews, and others are simply compromises between the two. He stakes a minority position here, but one which the famous naturalist Richard Rorty advanced as well. 

If this all feels a bit too academic, perhaps it is worth considering the real-world implications intellectual positions have. For instance, Rorty, the naturalist just mentioned, is cited at the beginning of Platonism and Naturalism explaining that much of his own writing in favor of naturalism consisted of “attempts to tie my social hopes—hopes for a global, cosmopolitan, democratic, egalitarian, classless, casteless society—with my antagonism towards Platonism.” If intellectual heavyweights like Rorty and Gerson are correct in believing Platonism and naturalism to be the only two consistent worldviews, it certainly behooves us to understand them both and to consider which one is the more compelling basis for our lives and Western civilization at large.

Naturalism: In Science We Trust

The term ‘naturalism,’ as Gerson recognizes, is used in different (and at times conflicting) ways, but he focuses on perhaps the most common. The position that Gerson focuses on holds that “there exists no realm or subject matter that is unreachable by the natural sciences, specifically the realm of the immaterial.” In other words, naturalism is the belief that natural science is the only way to understand reality, and thus that immaterial things do not exist, or are at least unknowable. Naturalism, then, can be contrasted with a firm belief or openness to the existence of beings that cannot be studied by the scientific method. It is sometimes popularly referred to as ‘scientism,’ or, more popularly now, ‘physicalism.’ A naturalist holds that questions about, for instance, God, the human soul, and beauty, being irreducible to the modern scientific method, are fundamentally nonsensical or at least not worth asking in a serious intellectual discussion. The naturalist believes that reality (or, at the very least, man’s understanding of it) is limited to whatever can be empirically disclosed and studied. In the naturalist’s account, everything, including interior human experiences such as love and religious ecstasy, can be reduced to physical phenomena.

Even those readers who have not previously encountered the term ‘naturalism’ are sure to have met, or at least read about, many who ascribe to its major tenets. One need think only of anyone possessed by the ideas of the ‘New Atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens to get a good sense of naturalism’s vision of reality. Gerson, to his credit, carefully strikes the balance between a general account of naturalism and meticulous engagement with each conceivable form of naturalism. A glance at the book’s bibliography makes clear how thoroughly the author responds to the literature of contemporary academic naturalism, but he keeps much of the engagement with these works to the footnotes. This means that the main body of the text mainly consists of arguments against the naturalist position from another position, that of ‘Platonism.’

Platonism and the Five ‘Antis’

Bust of Plato, print from a series of twelve prints depicting ancient busts by Lucas Vorsterman I.


What, then, is Platonism? The most straightforward answer one might give is that Platonism is the philosophy espoused by Plato, the ancient Greek writer. Gerson would certainly agree that this is a legitimate use of the term, but he goes much farther, arguing that Platonism is ultimately synonymous with philosophy itself. 

How could this be? We are used to speaking of many competing ‘philosophies.’ You have your philosophy of life and I have mine, to say nothing of Hegel’s, Heidegger’s, or Aristotle’s. However, as Gerson argues, when looked at in contrast to naturalism, philosophy is naturalism’s opposite, and Platonism is the only form of it that makes no concessions to naturalism. Thus, any position taken in the history of philosophy can be seen as existing somewhere on the spectrum between Platonism and naturalism. 

‘Platonism’ is not simply a series of propositions that must be accepted in order to be let into the club of philosophers. Instead, Gerson argues that there are many forms of Platonism, but each one is fundamentally opposed to five ideas. He calls this the five ‘antis’ of Platonism. The five ideas Platonism opposes are materialism, relativism, skepticism, mechanism, and nominalism. Some of these terms are commonplace, but some are unusual outside of the philosophy classroom, so it is worth having at least a basic grasp of each to understand Gerson’s argument better.

Materialism is the belief that matter is the only thing that exists. Mechanism follows materialism, and is also known as ‘materialist (total-) determinism.’ It holds that all things can be explained in terms of natural causes. The mechanist rejects belief in a God who intervenes in the world, as well as any account of life that is not purely the result of the interaction between material things. Crucially, then, mechanism denies any meaningful kind of free agency. Relativism amounts to the claim that there is no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ other than the purely subjective preferences of any given person, while skepticism is the belief that objective knowledge is impossible. 

The final idea which Platonism opposes, nominalism, is less easily summarized. In its most basic form, it is the claim that any two things we call by the same name do not share a common nature. For instance, just because we use the phrase “human being” to refer to 8 billion items, it does not actually mean that we are all the same kind of thing. Indeed, the nominalist believes that the idea of a ‘kind’ or ‘sort’ or ‘genus’ of thing is something in the mind only and corresponds to nothing out there in the world. (While this may seem quite abstract, think for a moment of some ethical possible implications of the idea that human beings do not share a common nature for debates about issues like abortion and transgenderism.)

With a basic idea of each of the five philosophical claims that all forms of Platonism reject, we can now return to Platonism itself. In opposing these five ideas, each Platonist philosopher constructs his own positive system. These systems tend—generally speaking—to have many things in common (the immortality of the soul, for instance, is present in many formulations of Platonism), but they are distinguished from naturalism by their “five antis,” as Gerson calls them. Because (to take some well-known examples) Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and St. Thomas Aquinas all base their respective systems on the rejection of these five errors, they may each be called ‘Platonists.’

Crucially, Platonism is distinguished from naturalism in holding that philosophy has a distinct subject matter. For the naturalist, ‘philosophy’ is at most a way of explaining of what scientists do. The practices of natural science are what yield understanding of reality, and the reality we know is the physical world. Platonists, on the other hand, believe that man is not limited to the physical world, for we are ultimately made to know that which is most real: the immaterial world. For the committed Platonist, the only way to ensure philosophy’s rightful place and avoid the errors of naturalism is by fully rejecting materialism, relativism, skepticism, mechanism, and nominalism. Rigorously following through this rejection ultimately leads the philosopher to posit the existence of something that is immaterial. Something that serves as the point where the buck stops. Something that makes all knowledge possible. Something all things naturally desire, albeit differently. Something that makes universality possible. 

This something is found in Plato’s Idea of the Good.

The Good (or the ‘One’)

Plato’s Republic, one of the foundational texts of Western civilization, is a rather tough nut to crack. Over the course of ten books, the Republic (in Greek “Politeia”) provides an account of an extremely wide-ranging fictional conversation which Plato’s teacher, Socrates, has with nine young men (as well as with the elderly Cephalus, who appears only briefly). This dialogue, like so many of Plato’s works, aims at answering a question, namely, “what is justice?” However, justice is defined in book four, and there are six more books. Why in the world does Plato feel the need to include discussions on topics as diverse as the constitution of the city, the place of poetry and art in education, and the best way to organize the practices of marriage? 

Gerson provides part of the answer to this question of the unity of the dialogue. In his account (which constitutes chapter six, perhaps the meatiest of Platonism and Naturalism), Gerson argues that ethics (and, we may infer, politics) cannot be given a firm basis without what Socrates calls “the Idea of the Good.” Thus, justice cannot be understood (indeed, no human excellence can) without understanding this transcendent and “unhypothetical” Idea. 

The Good is the source and summit of all reality. Also called “the One,” particularly by third century Platonist philosopher Plotinus, the Good can be roughly understood as a philosophical notion of the creator God. In Gerson’s reading of Plato (and Plotinus’s), everything that exists comes into being because the Good brings it about. The Good, however, is also the goal of all striving. The Good and everything it brings about are characterized (in the language of later Platonisms) by three things: procession, remaining, and return. ‘Procession’ refers to the way that all that exists comes from the Good, ‘remaining’ expresses how the Good is undiminished by giving being to all things, and ‘return’ indicates how all beings long to reunite with the One who is their origin and, in Plotinus’s terminology, their “father.” For Gerson, the Idea of the Good, as well as the related notions of procession, remaining, and return, are necessary for philosophy to stand against naturalism. 

Without the Idea of the Good, Gerson argues, a person cannot argue coherently against materialism, relativism, skepticism, mechanism, and nominalism. The Good is unequivocally immaterial, though it provides the metaphysical basis for everything that exists in matter. The Good serves as the ultimate criterion of ethical choice and the ultimate basis of knowledge, as well as providing for the possibility of a non-mechanistic cosmos. Finally, the Good (along with the forms) exclude nominalism of all kinds. Thus, attempting to oppose naturalism without embracing the Idea of the Good will fall back into a naturalistic framework.  As Gerson puts it, absolutely “nothing short of [the Idea of the Good] can provide a coherent alternative to naturalism.” 

What’s the Payoff? 

Gerson’s book is undeniably an academic one. The casual lay reader may be put off by the lengthy exegesis of passages of Plato and other philosophers, and many of the shorter arguments encountered along the way are difficult to understand without a sense of the works of Plato and some of the contemporary academic secondary literature on his writings. However, its central claims are invaluable, not least to readers who fear the “global, cosmopolitan, democratic, egalitarian, classless, casteless society” that the naturalist Rorty aimed to bring about. 

While the book is not an explicitly political one, the above discussion should be enough to remind ourselves that the contemporary political climate is not simply one of competing political parties but of differing accounts of reality. Ideas have consequences, as Richard Weaver wrote. Gerson argues (along with many others) that ethics and politics are inseparable from metaphysics; if he is right, understanding our social world involves understanding the philosophical and naturalistic frameworks people have in the background of all their thinking.

To the extent that ancient Western philosophy is seen as valuable today, it is most often Stoicism, not Platonism, that people reach for. Podcasts like The Daily Stoic and books with titles like The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient boast impressive sales. For this reason, it is worth taking note of Gerson’s argument (in chapter 8) that Stoicism is an attempted reconciliation between Platonism and naturalism, and thus it, like all other attempted reconciliations between the two, is doomed to fail. Stoicism, in both its ancient and modern forms, attempts to have an ascetic ethic and a robust understanding of human knowledge while still maintaining a strict materialism with a mechanistic and nominalistic account of reality, including human life. Without a transcendent, eternal, universal Good, Stoicism cannot stand, and must either accept logical incoherence or reduce itself to naturalism. 

If we find Gerson’s arguments convincing, we owe it to ourselves (and our civilization) to recognize where we have fallen into the errors of naturalistic thinking; we should identify where we have taken in those errors, so common in post-modernity, that Platonism explicitly opposes: materialism, relativism, skepticism, mechanism, and nominalism. For, as Plato continues to teach us, we must look to know ourselves first, and only then can we understand our place in relation to our nation, our world, and our God.

Felix James Miller serves as senior editor at The European Conservative and is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the Catholic University of America. He recently moved with his wife and son to his boyhood home, a farmhouse in northern New York state.


Leave a Reply