I recently met a a whisper of disapproval for asserting that if one was to take Plato out of the writings of St Paul, all that you would have left would be a few greetings and helpful advice about flower arranging rosters. A fairly obvious point, one would have thought, but clearly not.
“Ok,” came the voice of God himself being transmitted through the mouth of a chartered accountant from Rhyl, “can you point out exactly where in Plato he talks about Christ dying for sin?”
You have to admit that was a bit of a blinder there. I didn’t see that one coming at all. My God, I was certainly on the ropes on that one I can tell you.
“Ok,” I replied with great weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth ” If one was to take Plato out of St Paul there would be nothing left aside from a few greetings, some flower arranging tips and a number of visionary passages involving Paul seeing the figure of somebody he never actually met but who, he felt, made a nice little peg to dangle his Platonism from. He might just as well have been seeing visions of Elijah for all it brings to the table.”
But there is a more serious point here. The world of Plato could not be any more different from the world of Christ if it tried. Plato is essentially (at least in books like “The Republic” and “The Laws”) an aristocratic elite thinking themselves more eligible to govern than anybody else and designing and laying out their plans for an ideal society over bottles of expensive wine at numerous dinner parties.
Christ was (it would seem) an itinerant hermit wandering around the middle east saying things about how people should treat each other as they would wish to be treated, how one should be careful about caring about the speck of grit in another person’s eye when you have a plank in your own etc. etc. The morality springs naturally from a change of heart through the embrace of holiness and humility and is mutualist. Irrespective of how the outside world changed, these self abnegating values would remain an interpersonal constant.
Plato’s aristocrats are more concerned with the shaping of society itself. Humanity are like sheep that have to be controlled and herded into barns in order for the stability of society as a whole to prosper. The idea here is not interpersonal but top down and authoritarian. When Plato declares in the “Laws” that all sex outside marriage should be made illegal and that it should be written into the state constitution that it constitutes an abomination in the sight of the gods, he is not advancing any form of interpersonal, mutualist outlook here, he is declaring that the subjects of his imaginary country should be made to bow the knee to dogmas he has created to stabilize his nation, irrespective of the human cost or human objections. We are no longer in the realms of “treat others as they would treat you”, we are into the realms of “stability at all costs.”
This is why, it seems to me, the Pauline gospel is so different to the actual pronouncements of Christ himself. Paul appeals to authority and makes absolutist ethical judgements on various questions. Christ’s way would lead to societies evils being abolished naturally through mutualist behaviour, Paul assumes the Platonist mantle in seeking to control the behaviour of others.
The notion of divine authority over-ruling all else is also the chief mainstay of the O.T deity “Yahweh”. Mankind must submit to the whims of this God or face his wrath. The chasm between O.T and St. Paul is not very wide, whereas between it and Christ it is almost unlimited in distance. That is probably why Christians usually rely on the OT and Paul for guidance and have barely scratched the surface of the person they claim to be the center of their faith. Or have conveniently twisted what he said to suit their materialist outlook. The number of them, for example, who deny that the parable of Dives and Lazarus is about a wealthy person being consigned to hell simply on the grounds that his earthly life was more than comfortable, wheras the beggar at his gate who had to fight the dogs for meat was awarded a place in heaven because his earthly existence was so hard is astonishing. Yet that is the clear unambiguous message. Nothing to do with the wealthy man ignoring the poor man’s plight but simply a further condemnation of the pursuit of materialist ends.
It is also why, presumably, Bertrand Russell called the religion “Platonism for the masses.” Personally I would have no issue with that Platonist establishment calling itself “Christianity” vanishing into the desert (as indeed it will do now). It will leave time for mankind to recover the core values of its founder stripped of all the authoritarianism that currently blights it.
There is far more going on in the Parables like that of the unforgiving servant than in any nonsense about nuclear families being the sole ethical intention of the divine for society at large. In time, it is to be hoped, we will rediscover that.