The works of Plato can be most profitably read on two simultaneous levels: as works of genius in their own right and as inspired writings used by the God of the Bible to prepare the ancient world for the coming of Christ and the New Testament. Plato, in my mind at least, is the greatest of all philosophers—the culmination of the best of pagan (pre-Christian) wisdom, a wisdom that challenges the mind as much as it fires the imagination and that leaves the soul yearning for more. Though he lacked the direct (or special) revelation afforded to Moses, David, Isaiah, John, and Paul, Plato was nevertheless inspired by something beyond the confines of our natural world. Along with such Greco-Roman sages as Aeschylus, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil, Plato glimpsed deep mysteries about the nature of God and man, the earth and the heavens, history and eternity, virtue and vice, and love and death that point forward to the fullness of the Judeo-Christian worldview.
I am aware that such a reading of Plato and his work may seem bizarre at best and anti-intellectual at worst to the modern, post-Enlightenment mind, but we should not forget that many of the finest thinkers of the past—men like Origen, Augustine, and Erasmus—held just such a view of Plato and his fellow proto-Christians. The very reason that Aristotle and Virgil could serve as forerunners and guides to the two greatest repositories of medieval Catholic learning (the Summa Theologiae and the Commedia) was because Aquinas and Dante understood that their pagan mentors had access to a wisdom that transcended their time and place. Though they believed that man was fallen both in body and in mind, they also believed that man was created in God’s image and still retained the mark of his Creator. True, our reason, conscience, and powers of observation were corrupted by the fall, but they still operated and could afford us limited knowledge of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
Indeed, so sure was Boethius that fallen man retained, under the wider umbrella of God’s grace, the capacity to grope after that which is real (see Acts 17:27) that he attempted, in his Consolation of Philosophy, to embody Christian ethical principles while yet strictly confining himself to the wisdom achieved by such pagan thinkers as Plato and Aristotle. Chaucer, author of the third great repository of medieval Catholic learning (Canterbury Tales), clearly believed Boethius’s attempt was successful, for his “Knight’s Tale” strikes the same literary-philosophical stance: pointing forward to the fuller Christian revelation while limiting its characters to beliefs accessible to the pre-Christian world. And most of those beliefs Chaucer borrowed directly from a book he translated into Middle English: the Consolation of Philosophy.
Let me be clear: I shall be treating Plato as a bona fide source of wisdom. Though I shall in no way abdicate my responsibility to measure, test, evaluate, and critique, my primary posture vis-à-vis Plato will be that of a student learning at a master’s feet. Plato was a genius, a vessel through whom much Beauty, Goodness, and Truth was ushered into our world. He was neither flawless nor free from error, but he shone a light that we would do well to attend to—especially if we desire to move up the rising path toward those things that are really real and truly true.
If we read Plato in this spirit, then I believe we will be changed by what we read. We will come to see our world and the next through different eyes; we will reevaluate the worth of things that we once thought dear and perhaps even alter the trajectory of our lives. Plato’s dialogues are fun, and the great master is not above tweaking the noses of his readers, but let no one think that they are mere pastimes for idle college students (or professors!). Plato is about serious business, and we should be as well.
Though Plato helped teach the Western world that knowledge is something that should be sought for its own sake rather than as a utilitarian method for achieving power and wealth—a teaching foundational to all liberal arts institutions—he did not consider philosophy to be merely an end in itself. Philosophy properly pursued and wrestled with should lead to a higher and greater end—the contemplation of what Plato called the Good and later Christian theologians called (after Plato) the Beatific Vision. The purpose of Plato’s dialectic is not to teach us to play mental games but to propel us forward on the road to greater wisdom and insight. Though Plato the pre-Christian did not know that Truth is ultimately a Person (see John 14:6), he sought it as tenaciously and passionately as Solomon or John or Paul. Let us do the same.