Systematizing

Name and Place for Tuesday, October 21 (’14)


plato-1

Did Plato invent Play-doh? Most certainly.

I’m having to read up on ancient Greece for the history class I teach. For my own background study I’ve been using The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World. The chapters are arranged more along thematic than chronological lines, so one of the chapters is entirely devoted to Greek philosophy. In the section on Plato, the author of this chapter (Julia Annas, of the University of Arizona), describes the nature and purpose of Plato’s writing method, which was pretty much all dialogue. He doesn’t write essays about philosophical topics, but frames them in the context of discussions between individuals. Annas suggests that one reason Plato used this format is because it allowed him to avoid having to systematize his positions. And so, on that point, Annas says this (emphasis mine):

[Plato’s] followers and interpreters . . . have mostly displayed a different spirit. The dialogue form has usually been taken as a way of communicating different parts of a single system of ideas, a purely literary device which [modern] philosophers can safely ignore. Such an approach is unsubtle and risks insensitivity to differences between different dialogues each of which is self-contained. We can readily find in Plato continuing preoccupation with certain themes; but to build a system of Platonic doctrines is to do what he never did. He never commits himself [in his own person] to any of the doctrines commonly thought of as Platonic; still less does he tell us which of the ideas he discusses are most basic for him and what their relationships are.

Annas’ contention stood out to me because it’s a similar concern often raised against systematic theology, and perhaps particularly the effort to systematize Pauline theology. All the writing we have from Paul is occasional and pastoral in nature, and so some see it as impossible, if not perverse, to try to lay out an orderly Pauline system of doctrine. Even the epistle to the Romans, usually considered the most systematically theological of Paul’s letters is a pastoral letter, the shape of which is determined by objections raised in the synagogues against Paul’s gospel. Of course, there are some differences: unlike Plato, Paul does speak in his own person and is explicit about what his own views are. Paul is not out to explore philosophical questions but to apply the revealed truth to congregations of Christians. The question of whether we can discern an orderly framework of doctrine behind Paul’s letters is worth asking (and it has been asked a lot in recent years and received varying answers. I think the answer is yes – if for no other reason than the truth is necessarily a unified whole). But for now, I just wanted to note the parallel with “Platonism”. So there you have it.

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