Platonism refers to beliefs and theories based on the metaphysical ideas expressed in Plato‘s dialogues.
These usually include Plato’s division of
- an ideal realm of the Forms that is unchanging eternal truth
- an ordinary realm of the so-called external world of change
Neoplatonist thinkers like Plotinus argued for the “One” from which all else proceeds, and which is comprehended only through mystical union. This is linked to the term “world soul” or anima mundi which depth psychologists and occultists tend to mention.¹
Platonism takes many different forms. It spans from the early Church Fathers (especially those inclined toward gnosticism like Origen and Clement of Alexandria) to the European Middles Ages² and 17th century theologians (known as the Cambridge Platonists), right into New Age philosophies, academic philosophy and maths.
In contrast to works directly linked to Plato’s ideas, small-p platonism refers to any theory that affirms the existence of abstract concepts, as opposed to nominalism.
Small-p platonists may or may not believe in Plato’s general outlook.
It should be noted, however, that the distinction between small-p platonism and large-p Platonism is not universally applied. A bit confusing but, considering the vast and varied influence of Plato, not surprising.
Plato’s ideas have been so incredibly influential that A. N. Whitehead said all of European philosophy is a “footnote to Plato.”³
A modern example of platonism can be found in the notion that mathematical truths have an independent existence, as opposed to being mere products of the human mind. According to this view, “Mathematical truths are…discovered, not invented.”4
¹ Sometimes in arguably muddled, undifferentiated theories about spirituality.
² S. G. F. Brandon notes that Platonism in the Middle Ages was temporarily “eclipsed” by the ideas of Aristotle. See Dictionary of Comparative Religion, New York: Scribner’s, 1970, p. 505.
However, some like the Anglican A. E. Taylor maintain that St. Thomas Aquinas’ work, which adapts Aristotelian arguments to Christianity, is fundamentally based on Platonism. See “Platonism.” Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 1300.
Whether or not Plato’s idea of eternity is on par with Aquinas’ is open to debate. Is an ancient Greek view of eternal truth, beauty and justice equivalent to the Christian understanding of heaven? For that matter, do all Christians agree on what the word heaven means? And what about hell? How would Plato and Aquinas stack up there?
³ For more, see my highlights at LINER http://lnr.li/HTRX8/