Dispositions

As when asked which the best Bible translation is (the reply I give is to ask: Best for what?), the question might be made of philosophers. Best for what?

To me Plato is a philosopher of wonder. I can never set aside his concerns. But he is not a philosopher for such a flexible and far reaching system as Aristotle provides. If you ask which is the best philosopher for the 4th century, I’d say Plato, or more specifically, Plotinus; no question. If you ask about the 13th century, with the new endeavor of systematic theology and the need to make fine, nearly myopic distinctions, then Aristotle, clearly.

One of the things that marked a constant failure in the Reformation was an impulse to reach for Plato when the problem was one of developing theological distinctions. Erasmus at one end and the Cambridge Platonists at the other end of the two centuries of the Reformation show this clearly. It was a failure because a regression toward doctrinal minimalism was all it achieved, and probably not accidentally, but certainly misguidedly.

But there is another moment when Platonism was successfully invoked. It involved German Romanticism, it came through George MacDonald, and was best employed by C. S. Lewis. What was needed was not minute theological arguments, but a clear vision of a stark, far reaching contrast. It was the contrast between supernaturalism and anti-supernaturalism, and one which imbued the former with wonder and magic, and the latter with all the opposite.

Clearly, to be pre-modern is on the other side of a chasm from modernity, and in that sense to set Plato against Aristotle is to quibble. But they represent different dispositions and each brings different sets of concerns and problems. I prefer one, and it is more than temperament and personal history. But the historian must recognize, specially the Church Historian, that good may come even of an evil moment.

One thinks of that nadir in the life of the sons of Jacob. They were indifferent to having the blood of Joseph their brother on their hands, but the will inclined slightly more to having silver in their pockets, so they sold him into slavery rather than abandon him in the pit. And in that very action God was saving these wicked men. So it is with history: nominalism, Scotism, and even Aristotle. Evil is done, but good results can still be described.

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