Today at the end of class I voiced my preference for Plato over Aristotle, prompting a fellow classmate to grinningly say, “That’s because you’re Eastern Orthodox”. Though the remark wasn’t meant too seriously it does betray a common characterization of Orthodoxy that deserves careful consideration. What do people mean when they say that the Orthodox are more “Platonic”; and how do the Orthodox feel about Aristotle?
My debt to Plato is immense, and this was the case far before Orthodoxy was on the radar in my life. Since I have been allowed into the Church Plato has become less important to me than before – not because of any realization of problems with Plato, but because of the tremendous treasure-house of the Saints which have become like the journals of my grandparents to me. Many of these Saints have been called “Platonic” or “Neo-Platonic”, though there is little meaning to this label, there are senses in which this is true. One must remember that Plato and Platonists are quite different characters – and that a real lover of Plato isn’t necessarily a “spooky” metaphysician so much as sincere and reflective Seeker of Truth.
What I would have reponded to my friend had I had the chance was that since I have become Orthodox that I have determined to give Aristotle a closer and kinder look. In fact many of the Saints were trained by the best Greek teachers available (St. Gregory Palamas comes to mind) the benchmark of which was of Aristotle. It was in the West that Aristotle was lost for centuries, and not in the East. As David Bradshaw points out, the distinctivley Orthodox teaching about the Divine Energies comes from The Philosopher; the same Philosopher that is so often thought of as Western.
So why do people keep thinking that Orthodoxy is allergic to Aristotle? I propose two main reasons, and want to bookmark another issue for another day.
The first reason is because Orthodox Christians frequently read and hold in high regard the early Christian texts from the Neo-Platonic era. The writings of St. Ireneaus, St. Dionysius, and the Cappadocian Fathers are held as more authoritative than they are in the Roman Catholic tradition. For the Latinists these men are overshadowed by the gigantic figure of Blessed Augustine, and their writings are often read through the lenses of St. Augustine’s thought. St. Augustine was himself Neo-Platonic (to use an unfortunate and almost meaningless label). St. Augustine, while being an impressive intellect and moving writer, derives much of his authority in turn from the Latin thinkers who were influenced by him, especially Boethius and Aquinas.
And as for most things in the Roman world, the whole thing revolves around Aquinas and the Middle Ages. The Roman Catholic philosopher and author Peter Kreeft says that the Middle Ages are the “pinnacle of Christian society”, a view that Orthodoxy raises its eyebrows at – and glances back at the Book of Acts to see what it thinks of that claim. What was it that made this time so special for Christianity, and Aquinas so special a figure? In a word, Aristotle.
As the works of Aristotle were rediscovered in the Latin speaking lands of Christendom a massive philosophical threat seemed to loom over Christianity. Aquinas defused the Aristotelian and Islamic bomb, both through his interpretation of Aristotle and by overshadowing Aristotle’s keen work with his own. In this the Romanists are right: we owe Thomas a huge debt. However, Aquinas’ tremendous effort does not justify recentering Christian intellectualism, philosophical and theological, from the Apostolic era and placing it at the University of Paris in the 13th century.
One of the reasons that Aristotle appears to be distinctive to the Latin church is because he is associated with Thomas Aquinas, who serves as the common doctor to the Latin mindset.
The other reason is because the Aristotelian prose and method of scientific inquiry is a better fit for the Latin Scholastic method. The disputato is the sort of thing that gets a lot of attention in the Latin speaking world. Both modernism and the modern University (both good and bad aspects) were born from the work of these carefully thinking churchmen. Aquinas died while working on a treatise on hearings for Pete’s sake – this commitment to “scientific” inquiry is accepted in the Orthodox world, but rarely emphasized enough to warrent much progress in these matters.
While the Latin monks were debating and teaching the Orthodox monks were praying and serving the community. This is not an argument for the superiority of one or the other, just a means to make the following observation: Platonic values and style of writing are more conducive to an thoughtful non-professional student, while the Aristotelian value and style of writing are more comfortable for the disputato and the Academic setting.
The issue that I wish to bookmark is that of “mysticism”. The common line of thinking says that the “mytical Eastern Church” is more influenced by the myth-telling Plato while the “rigorously analytic Western Church” is more influenced by the scientific Aristotle. I think that the terms “mysticism”, “East, and ” West” have become labels that frequently serve to caricature-ize things so grotesquely that they should only be used when they absolutely have to be.
Like in the title of this post.