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In the Preface to Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche declares (in capital letters) that CHRISTIANITY IS PLATONISM FOR THE "PEOPLE". There is something a little strange about this. In the area Nietzsche knows best, and where Platonism had the most influence - the area of Western Christianity - Plato's actual writings were for a long time almost unknown. (1) Aristotle only came on stream in the thirteenth century in the form of Latin translations of Arabic translations of the Greek originals. The writings of Plato and Aristotle that we possess now (together with the rest of what we have of the Greek classical heritage) were preserved in Eastern Christianity, but although a great deal of effort was put into finding and preserving good texts, and commentaries were written, there seems to have been very little interest in developing them as a living culture. N.G.Wilson finishes his book Scholars of Byzantium, quoting Gibbon: 'The Greeks of Constantinople ... held in their lifeless hands the riches of their fathers without inheriting the spirit which had created and improved that sacred patrimony; they read, they praised, they compiled, but their languid souls seemed alike incapable of thought and action.' Wilson continues; 'A closer look at what the byzantines wrote and the conditions in which they worked allows a more charitable version.' But actually his book gives little evidence for it. It is mostly a record of reading, praising and compiling.

(1) The Timaeus was available from, I think, the twelfth century. But this is an exceptionally stodgy example of Plato's work, a monologue spoken by Timaeus, expounding an existing body of 'knowledge' and completely lacking the playful 'gadfly' quality we associate with Socrates. It is interesting as giving an idea of what we might mean by 'Eternity'. In my view, which I hope to argue elsewhere, a 'static' view that renders a real experience of Eternity difficult or impossible.

The fact is that the Roman Empire continuing in Constantinople believed that the philosophical/religious problems raised by Plato had been largely resolved in Christianity, in particular through the development of the ascetic life, which provided a practical mans of coming to know God without having to go through a process of philosophical speculation. The masterpiece of eastern Christianity is the Philokalia, which is a compilation of texts on prayer and on the ascetic life. The emphasis throughout - and the literary style - is practical. 

Very crudely one could say that the problem facing Greek and Roman culture at the time of the conversion of Constantine was how to reconcile on the one hand the personal relationship that was possible with 'the gods', personifications of various natural and psychological forces that had to be appeased, with, on the other hand, the abstract, impersonal Unity, origin of all things, from which all things derive and to which they return, of the philosophers.

The particular obsession of all the tendencies outside Christianity (and within Christianity in the 'gnostic' tradition) was how the One becomes the many. It is a problem that goes back to Parmenides counterposing reality presented as an all-embracing unity with the constantly shifting appearances of the world of our everyday experience. It is easy to imagine that if Christianity hadn't got in the way, this line of thought would have produced something much closer to Hinduism or Buddhism. But Christianity, and in particular the doctrine of the Trinity, provided for a quite different approach. The changing world in time and space is not an emanation of an unchanging original Unity. It is a creation and therefore of a separate substance from the Creator but with its own distinct ontological reality. It isn't an illusion. The Trinity is of a separate substance from ourselves and so it is quite unknowable in its essence - but it can be known and experienced through its energies, as the Sun can be experienced through its light. A personal relationship is possible through Christ Who is the Union of God and Man, of the Uncreated and the created. The body - flesh, matter - is an integral part of the Creation, therefore assumed by Christ and brought into Eternity through the Ascension. Hence the Christian insistence - scandalous in the eyes of the NeoPlatonists - on the Resurrection of the body. We can also have direct experience of the energies of the Holy Spirit, Who 'spoke by the prophets' (in the words of the Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople), but the Father remains transcendent.

This body of thought is about as far removed from Platonism as one could wish. So why did Platonism assume importance in the Latin world, the world where Plato's own writings were  so completely unknown? And, we might add, given the importance of Greek as the language of the New Testament and of the Septuagint (the version of the Old Testament used by the apostles and early church fathers), not to mention the debates in which the basic doctrines were established, why was the knowledge of Greek so completely abandoned in the West?

My own views are influenced by the Greek theologian/historian John Romanides. (2) He argues that what is called the 'Roman Catholic Church' was actually a new church formed in the 8th/9th century in the court of Charlemagne, largely in reaction against the Church of the Roman Empire whose centre was now Constantinople. The Frankish church, as he would call it, was in a state of tension with the Pope who was their patriarch but who was still part of the Roman system, albeit claiming a position of superiority over the other Roman patriarchs. It was only with the Hildebrandian reforms of the late eleventh century that the papacy was fully incorporated into the German, or Frankish system.

(2) eg in John S. Romanides: Franks, Romans, Feudalism and Doctrine,  Brookline, Mass, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1981. A selection of his writings can be found at

The church which formed round Charlemagne was based on peoples - Irish, Germans, Goths, Franks, Anglo-Saxons - who had never been fully incorporated into the Roman Empire, who had indeed often been at war with it. The Goths had been converted in the fourth century from Constantinople at a time when Constantinople was Arian (or 'semi-Arian') and so, according to the eventual settlement at the council of Constantinople in 384, heretical. The Anglo-Saxons, Germans and Franks had largely been converted from Ireland at a time when Ireland was cut off from the Christian world through the collapse of the Western Empire. These peoples were still notionally part of the Roman Empire centred on Constantinople but, though this had very little practical effect, Charlemagne was anxious to break free of it. One way of doing this was to convict Constantinople of heresy - hence quarrels over the veneration of icons and over the double procession of the Holy Spirit. (3) Hence also the development of a distinctively Latin theology, heavily dependent on the voluminous writings of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. 

(3) The 'filioque' which the Latins had added to the authoritative Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople at the time when the Visigoths in Spain abandoned their Arianism. The original formula states that the Holy Spirit 'proceeds from the Father'. The Latin formula says 'proceeds from the Father and the Son'. Given that Arianism has the Son or Word of God as a created being, highest of created beings but still far below the uncreated Father, the original intention was probably to stress the equality of Father and Son (albeit at the expense of the Holy Spirit). I have written on the controversy over veneration of icons in 'The Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Council of Frankfurt and the Practice of Painting' Article originally published in Janet Rutherford (ed): The Beauty of God's Presence in the Fathers of the Church (Proceedings of the eighth International Patristic Conference, Maynooth, 2012), Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2014. Also on this website at