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The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium
John DuffyJohn Duffy, Alexander KazhdanAlexander Kazhdan


ancient Greek philosopher; born ca.429 b.c., died 347.

He was, along with Aristotle, one of the pillars of Greek philosophy whose works the Byz. carefully transmitted, despite occasional lapses in interest and some hostility to his thought. Numerous papyri of Plato survive from late antique Egypt. Approximately 260 MSS of Plato, about a quarter of the number for Aristotle, are preserved from the 9th to the 16th C. The difference is partly owing to the more controversial nature of Plato's philosophy and to the fact that Aristotelian logic, a neutral and useful subject, became a cornerstone of Byz. higher education. Highly esteemed as a stylist, Plato is one of the most frequently quoted classical authors in Byz. belles lettres.

Through the 6th C., interest in Plato was mainly centered in the Platonic schools of Athens and Alexandria, where the standard curriculum, inherited from Iamblichos, consisted of 12 dialogues. An edict of Justinian I in 529 had a serious effect on the Academy of Athens, but in Alexandria the pagan Olympiodoros was still lecturing on Plato 40 years later, thanks to a compromise philosophical approach that avoided a clash with Christian monotheism, and the Alexandrian Monophysite John Philoponos commented on the Phaedrus. Thereafter the fate of Plato's texts and of interest in them lay principally in the hands of learned individuals, most of whom were careful to keep a certain distance from the pagan philosopher. In the 9th–10th C., such men were Leo the Mathematician, Photios, and Arethas of Caesarea. Photios (probably) and Arethas (certainly) commissioned copies of Plato that must have played a pivotal role in the transmission. In the 11th C., Psellos and John Italos caused a renewed interest in Plato; later he received the attention of Theodore Metochites. In the 15th C. Plethon reintroduced Plato to Italy where Platonism began a whole new life.

Plato and the Church Fathers

Neoplatonism flourished at the same time that the church fathers were elaborating Christian doctrine. Modern scholarship is strongly divided on the question of their interrelationship: on the one hand, H. Dörrie (Platonica minora [Munich 1976] 508–23; Theologie und Philosophie 56 [1981] 1–46) considers Platonism a “different religion,” completely distinct from Christianity and therefore unable to influence it; on the other hand, von Ivánka (infra) admits that some Christian theologians had accepted substantial elements of Platonic teaching, whereas others transformed Platonic tenets in accordance with Christian views. This discrepancy is built in part on the ambiguity of the patristic approach to Plato: Epiphanios of Salamis proclaimed Platonism a heresy originating from pagan philosophy and Eastern mystery religions, whereas Eusebios of Caesarea saw in Plato a follower of Moses, and in the 11th C. John Mauropous prayed for the salvation of Plato as a forerunner of Christianity.

Byz. theologians through Gregory Palamas used Platonic vocabulary, and not only the vocabulary. They shared with Platonism some basic views, such as the idea that the things of the visible world do not exist by and through themselves, but depend on a primary, perfect, and absolute reality; this supreme being is of an infinitely higher value than visible things. There is, however, a cardinal difference between Platonism and Christian doctrine: the Platonic supreme being reveals himself through logical (dialectical) operations, descending through a series of intermediary stages to the preexisting material world, whereas the equal and consubstantial hypostaseis of the Trinity are divided from the world of things by a gap that can be bridged only by a mystery—Christ who mysteriously combined in himself the perfect divine and the perfect human natures is a phenomenon forming the core of Christianity, but is absolutely alien to Platonism. Also unacceptable to the church fathers was Plato's thesis of the existence of eternal Ideas that presupposed the preexistence of souls and metempsychosis.


lit.Find this resource:

Westerink, Prolegomena x–xxxviii.Find this resource:

M. Sicherl, Platonismus und Textüberlieferung, in Harlfinger, Kodikologie 535–76.Find this resource:

R. Arnou, DTC 12 (1935) 2294–2392.Find this resource:

E. von Ivánka, Plato Christianus: Übernahme und Umgestaltung des Platonismus durch die Väter (Einsiedeln 1964).Find this resource:

C.J. de Vogel, Platonism and Christianity: a Mere Antagonism or a Profound Common Ground? VigChr 39 (1985) 1–62.Find this resource:

C. Andresen, The Integration of Platonism into Early Christian Theology, StP 15 (1984) 399–413.Find this resource:

John Duffy, Alexander Kazhdan