The Ethics of Plato & the Christian Worldview

By Elias Ayala (M.A.T. & Mdiv)

I have been currently reading through Plato’s ethical philosophy and happen to think it is very interesting. Reading it through the lens of a Christian worldview has made things even more interesting as I have been caused to reflect on the importance of one’s intellectual starting point. Allow me to explain some of my observations. First, on Plato’s ethical philosophy, he believed that evil is due to lack of knowledge. If people just had the adequate knowledge of what the “good” is, then people will always choose the good over the evil. Thus ignorance is the reason why people make morally wrong and evil choices in life. The cure to this problem for Plato, was that man be trained by those who have had the intellectual capacity to discover the “good”. For the “good” can be discovered only through intellectual training. Man must, through training, develop virtuous habits, and develop their mental capacities through the study of various disciplines, (i.e. mathematics, philosophy, etc).

It seems however, that Plato assumed without argumentation (at least to my knowledge), that man is inherently good. And so, it is only through ignorance that man acts in evil ways. This seems to run roughshod against the Christian understanding of anthropology. On the scriptural view, man is born inherently sinful: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). It was through Adam that sin entered the world, and so, in virtue of the fact that we are sons and daughters of Adam, we are born in sin. Just as David declares, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). But if man is born in sin, and our very character reflects that which is consistent with our nature, namely, sinfulness, then at least on the Christian conception of man, Plato’s intellectual starting point, begins at an unbiblical juncture. Of course, this is not surprising because Plato was not a Christian, he was an ancient Greek philosopher, born hundreds of years prior to Christ. But it was an interesting observation nonetheless. For in beginning from a non-Christian starting point, which includes the proper view of man’s nature as inherently sinful, Plato, and those like him, and those who adopt the inherent goodness of man, as opposed to his sinfulness, will run into some philosophical difficulties in trying to explain their respective ethical philosophies.

As has been observed, one strong and I think relevant criticism of Plato’s moral philosophy can be found in our everyday experience. First, we normally observe people who know precisely the right course of action to take in a given situation, yet still choose the morally reprehensible option. Thus, it seems, that evil is not due to ignorance because people who are not ignorant of the right course of action still choose the wrong course of action or the evil course of action. Plato’s disciple, the great Aristotle recognized this fact. I think the Christian perspective is quite illuminating on this point. Man, who is born in sin, and naturally inclined to act in ways contrary to God’s Law as inscribed in the heart of man and in the Word of God act in ways that are consistent with their nature. We act evilly because our nature is evil and sinful. And while the natural man can do good, in a horizontal fashion (that is, in regards to the perception of man), no one apart from God’s grace can do good, in a vertical fashion (that is, in the eyes of God); for the scriptures say, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). And again, it says, “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one…” (Romans 3:11-12). So from the scriptural perspective, Plato starts with an incorrect assumption of man’s inherent goodness. Furthermore, while Plato’s view can be seen through experience to be incorrect, I think we have good ground through experience to see the correctness of the biblical view of man. We see this through the sin we observe all around us. Even apart from observing the actions of individuals, we observe that the world as a whole is not as it should be; not because man is inherently good, as some suppose, but because man is inherently sinful and in need of the transformative power of God’s grace.

Another issue that comes to mind also, is the problem of defining the “good”. How does Plato define the good? Plato discusses how one can come to know the good; (i.e. one must learn to the develop the virtuous habits, and their mental capacities). But how does he define it? Furthermore, when he defines the “good”, how does he derive this definition. Surely, the God of Platonism is not one of revelation in the Christian sense. Perhaps, goodness is defined by natural law. But how does Plato know this natural law, and does he provide a worldview context in which this natural law may be correctly interpreted? An interesting twist in Platonic thinking is that goodness exists independently of God. That is to say, that on Platonism, God is only good if in fact he acts in conformity with that which is good. But apart from God, what is “good”? Well, I believe it is here where Plato appeals to his famous realm of the “forms” or ideals. For Plato, there were two levels of reality: there is the physical realm of particulars, and the non-physical realm of universals, or the forms or ideals. The physical realm was the imperfect representation of the perfect forms. In regards to Platonic ethics, the “good” or the ideal virtues such as love, justice, loyalty etc. just exist in the realm of ideas (forms). Thus, these virtues are not part of the physical and ever changing reality. They exist as it were, “out there” in the realm of ideas, independent from God. As I reflect on this fact, I asked myself, as have others who have studied Plato: How does he make the connection between the physical realm and the realm of the perfect forms which include these virtues to which man must live accordingly? There is no personal God imposing these virtues. What makes them obligatory? Furthermore, if the realm of ideals contain the virtues of love, justice, loyalty, etc.; what about the ideal forms of greed, conceit, and hate? If there is no personal God who imposes the good virtues, and these concepts just exist independently from a personal God, then why can’t someone choose which ideal/form to act out in their everyday affairs? It seems here that Platonic ethics breaks down. Apart from this incongruity, it is even quite confusing to envision what it means for the “good” to exist apart from God.

At least on the Christian view, good does not exist apart from God, nor does God create the “good”; rather, goodness is a reflection of His eternal nature, and because the God of Christian theism is personal, He can reveal the good thus bridging the gap that Platonism has failed to bridge, namely the gap between the ideal and the physical or natural realm. At any rate, these are my thoughts on what I have read thus far on Plato, and how it relates to the Christian conception of goodness and ethics. Hope this was somewhat interesting and informative.

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