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We’re all becoming Platonists now—and that’s not good

Under pressure from the “woke,” politically-correct culture, almost all of us automatically think in terms of generic categories and not in terms of individuals.

"Scuola di Atene" ("The School of Athens", 1510) by Raphael [Wikipedia]

One of the most fundamental divides in the history of philosophy is that between a more Platonic approach and a more Aristotelian approach. Plato, of course, saw the universal or formal level of being as more real, more noble, whereas Aristotle, while acknowledging the existence and importance of the abstract, favored the concrete and particular.

This differentiation was famously illustrated by Raphael in his masterpiece The School of Athens, the central figures of which are Plato, his finger pointing upward to the realm of the forms, and Aristotle, stretching his palm downward to the particular things of the earth. This archetypal demarcation had (and has) implications for how we think about religion, science, society, ethics, and politics. Just as most Beatles fans separate themselves rather naturally into Lennon or McCartney camps, so most philosophers can be, at least broadly speaking, characterized as either more Platonic or more Aristotelian in orientation. So far, so harmless, for each side complements and balances the other.

However, in the political arena, the option for a Platonic rather than an Aristotelian framework has more dangerous implications, and no one saw this more clearly than the twentieth-century theoretician Karl Popper. In his principal work, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper identified Plato as the father of modern totalitarianism, for Platonic political thought, he argued, subordinates the individual to a grandly abstract construal of justice. So as to attain the right balance between the three great divisions of society—guardians, auxiliaries, and workers—the guardians, Plato’s philosopher-kings, can utterly control the lives of those in his charge, even to the point of censoring music and poetry, regulating pregnancy and childbirth, eliminating private property, and annulling the individual family. Though he reverenced Plato, Aristotle departed from this conception of the good society and took as his point of departure the aspiration and freedom of the individual—though certainly by our standards he was far from ideal in this area.

Popper contended that the Platonic streak runs perilously through Western history, but manifested itself with particular destructiveness in the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century, which had their roots in Hegel and Marx. These highly influential Germans were, Popper held, basically Platonic in their tendency to subordinate the individual to the abstractions of “history” or “progress” or “the revolution,” and their practical political disciples in the twentieth century presided, predictably, over the piling up of corpses.

Why this little tour of the history of Plato’s influence on political thinking? I feel obligated to rehearse it because, in many senses, we are all becoming Platonists now—and this should worry us. Under pressure from the “woke,” politically-correct culture, almost all of us automatically think in terms of generic categories and not in terms of individuals. When considering, for example, an appointment or an election or the constitution of a board of directors, we hardly ever ask the question, “Well, who is the best-qualified person?” Rather, we wonder whether a candidate is African American, or Hispanic, or lesbian, or transgendered, or a woman, etc. Or we fret whether the right balance of minority groups will be met by hiring this or that man, or to what degree a given woman represents an intersectional crossing of generic traits.

In so doing, we are trying, in the Platonic manner, to satisfy an abstract norm of justice by subordinating the particular qualities of individuals to collective categories.

An upshot of this political and cultural Platonism is that we are tending to reverence equity of outcome over equality of opportunity. The former is a function of compelling conformity to pre-determined abstractions, while the latter, congruent with a much more Aristotelian mindset, is a determination to level the playing field as much as possible so as to give each individual a chance to achieve his or her goals. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed his dream that his “little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” he was extolling the value of equality of opportunity, not equity of outcome. And he was explicitly distancing himself from the view that we should look first to abstract categories of race and skin color when making determinations of social status.

The “woke” movement today is decidedly Platonist in orientation, and it carries with that Platonism the totalitarian attitude that Karl Popper identified. It thinks in relentlessly abstract terms, seeing individuals only as instances of racial, sexual, ethnic, and economic types, and hence it is altogether willing to reorganize society so as to conform to its conception of justice. Read a book such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility in order to see the “woke” program laid out with admirable clarity. All white people, she argues, simply by virtue of being white, are bearers of a privilege that they must acknowledge and are, without exception, racist. All black and brown people, again just by virtue of their ethnic heritage, belong to an oppressed class and must consider their white colleagues oppressive. An ethnically African American man who rejects the “woke” ideology is, on DiAngelo’s view, not truly “black”!

Very much in the Platonist manner, everyone in the society must accept the new ideology or be seen as an opponent of justice. Appeals, such as Martin Luther King’s, to a color-blind society and equality of opportunity are pilloried as reactionary and supportive of the racist status quo.

The bottom line is this: any political program that subordinates the individual to collective categories and ideals is dangerous and will conduce, in short order, to oppression and profound injustice. I would suggest that we all take a good, hard look at the Platonic road down which we are heading—and head back the other way.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 195 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

26 Comments

  1. I’ve been saying the same thing for years, and been called a “dissenter” for standing by Aristotle and Aquinas against rampant fideism, the foundation of the “new things” of socialism, modernism, and the New Age, that shift the focus from God and man created by God, to a private image of God based on faith alone, and the abstraction of humanity created by man, not God. Fortunately, the Thomistic personalism of Pope Saint John Paul II can correct this error . . . if people would only bother to look at it:
    https://www.cesj.org/economic-personalism-book/

    • Totally agree. All one need do is read “Plato’s Republic” and not far into the book one can see the progressive movement laid out. I frequently complained that Saul Alinsky stole his premise from that very book. Plato’s Republic was mandatory reading in private HSs, at least in NYC, in the 60s. How far back that went, or how many years thereafter, I don’t know. I was just a HS kid trying to pass my classes. But, as I think back, I realize how the minds of future leaders were being shaped and directed. That was and remains the essence of Progressivism, shaping minds and slowly advancing an objective to a stage, perhaps generations later, of fruition.

  2. Policy prescriptions from the USCCB and calls for restrictions of political liberty by Catholic intellectuals and clerics in the name of the “common good” could also be called “PLatonic.”

  3. The Year and Feast of St.Joseph , may same help to bring forth greater devotion to him as the Head of the Holy Family and Light of Patriarchs , to also be one good remedy given for our times – to help undo ? the generational spirits in the wisdom of Plato and related Greek philosophers with possible blood lines to Solomon who had fallen into idolatry and its effects …

    Plato’s bio with mention of a G. father named Solon on the maternal side .
    ‘ Call no man earth as your father ‘ – humanity as a whole , invited to see its origin , in the Divine Will , with Adam , clothed in light and splendor …
    and to anticipate the Coming of The Kingdom , after the birth pangs and the purification .

    https://www.comingofthekingdom.org/ – Thank God that The Church is there to ever uphold the truth , in spite of the torrents spewed forth against her .

    Thank you and God bless !

  4. Thank you for this – it helps to put into context the current societal move to Marxism and socialism. Socialism requires that we remove (by force if necessary) the advantages of another in order to equalize the outcomes for all. This never ends well and I am grateful to Bishop Barron for his willingness to show the origins of such thinking.

  5. Is it Platonism, or instead is Ptirim Sorokin as much on the mark when he detects Western culture descending from the Spiritual into the Sensate? No abstract categories at all, just a hands-on grab bag of collective stimuli?

  6. Regarding “the road down which we are heading,” among the questions might be “Whi is we?”

    I am not heading down the road of totalitarianism.

    Is Bishop Barron admonishing his fellow Bishops, because he is concerned with their political behavior via the USCCB?

    Is Bishop Barron also admonishing the Pontiff Francis and his Secretariat of State Parolin and his spokesman Archbishop Sorondo (“Chancellor” of the “Pontifical Academy of Sciences”), who collectively (1) have allied themselves with the most brutal totalitarian state on earth, Communist China, by forging their secret accord with the Chinese Communist Party (confected and completed by their hand-picked agent the criminal sociopath McCarrick, who astonishingly was somehow able to travel back-and-forth freely to China for some 25 years in his “international role” as a Bishop in Metuchen and Newark and Washington); and (2) in 2018 declared, “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese” ?

    https://www.ncregister.com/commentaries/praise-of-china-s-adherence-to-catholic-social-doctrine-flies-in-the-face-of-facts

    Who is “we” Bishop Barron?

  7. Regarding “the road down which we are heading,” among the questions might be “Who is we?”

    I am not heading down the road of totalitarianism.

    Is Bishop Barron admonishing his fellow Bishops, because he is concerned with their political behavior via the USCCB?

    Is Bishop Barron also admonishing the Pontiff Francis and his Secretariat of State Parolin and his spokesman Archbishop Sorondo (“Chancellor” of the “Pontifical Academy of Sciences”), who collectively (1) have allied themselves with the most brutal totalitarian state on earth, Communist China, by forging their secret accord with the Chinese Communist Party (confected and completed by their hand-picked agent the criminal sociopath McCarrick, who astonishingly was somehow able to travel back-and-forth freely to China for some 25 years in his “international role” as a Bishop in Metuchen and Newark and Washington); and (2) in 2018 declared, “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese” ?

    https://www.ncregister.com/commentaries/praise-of-china-s-adherence-to-catholic-social-doctrine-flies-in-the-face-of-facts

    Who is “we” Bishop Barron?

  8. The problem with Bishop Barron’s analysis here is that it engages in the same practice that it decries. He properly identifies the dangers of valorizing the general at the expense of the particular but then engages in that very practice by labeling such an act ‘Platonic’ or ‘Platonizing’. In other words, the various other dimensions to Plato’s thought should not be reduced to and subsumed under this one characteristic. The counter-cultural tendency of the life of Socrates and the degree to which the leaders of his society feared and hated him exemplify these other dimensions. They are antithetical to the attitudes of our current woke cultural hegemons, and in this sense that latter are in no way ‘Platonic’ (and should not be dignified by being identified as such). Plato’s willingness to write about the most basic questions of existence – questions that the woke hegemons refuse to entertain, and which generate ruthless punishment at their instigation – shows how far they are from Platonism.

    • Agreed. Intellectuals will still attempt to intellectualize what ails us, and will miss the abysmal Evil that now opens up beneath us.

      When Europe drifted toward World War I, the British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey remarked: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” Grey did not launch into an address on the merits of electricity over gas lighting.

      The pre- and post-cognitive cancel- and woke-culture of today–and the malignant and absolute spiritual void that it reveals and imposes—these know nothing of the difference between Plato and Playdough…

      We need a more perceptive article based more on St. Augustine (who wrote the City of God during the collapse of the cosmos under the fading Roman Empire), and maybe St. Bonaventure whose spiritual insight was based less on a series of rational arguments (as with Aquinas) than on God’s direct imprint on each soul, whereby true “knowledge” is more a matter of direct SEEING. To see with the eyes of the heart.

      On whether there is no God as under radical Secularism in the West, or whether we prostrate before an ever-distant God as Islam believes, or whether a God of infinite love chooses to live in us as Christian Faith affirms, St. John proclaims: “We have seen and testify that the Father sent his Son as savior of the world. Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains [both] in him and he in God” (1 Jn 4:14-15).

      In a “world” shaken to the core and with all the lights going out, finally, the stable ground is our SEEING the sacramental Real Presence, both within and above fickle history—finally a Gift rather than any passing construct.

    • A question is: was Plato correct or was Aristotle?

      The Catholic Church through St. Thomas Aquinas appears to support Aristotle.

      There is no doubt that Plato was the first in intellectual history to advocate for a planned society. If that is an aspect of totalitarianism, then this characterization of Plato is correct, and certainly is to be avoided.

      “In other words, the various other dimensions to Plato’s thought should not be reduced to and subsumed under this one characteristic. The counter-cultural tendency of the life of Socrates and the degree to which the leaders of his society feared and hated him exemplify these other dimensions. They are antithetical to the attitudes of our current woke cultural hegemons, and in this sense that latter are in no way ‘Platonic’ (and should not be dignified by being identified as such).”

      Socrates was presumably a real person, while Plato’s ideal state was Plato’s own intellectual creation. This is the difference between describing a state of affairs, and prescribing how things ought to be done. The latter is a moralizing – loosely understood – and political project.

    • I disagree. The Bishop is correct in identifying Platonic idealism as a threat to society and a promoter of totalitarianism. Haven’t you noticed that all mass-murderers were Utopians who were driven by abstract ideas rather than realists who recognized the world as it was?

      I suggest that you may wish to look at Arthur Herman’s, The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization. The paperback is not very good but the hardcover is much better quality. If you like digital books, the audible version is wonderful.

    • You are right. What Barron fails to mention is that in The Republic Plato specifically says that his is a city in words and that it would exist nowhere, meaning that it was more of a thought experiment than a blueprint for a heaven in earth. The essence of his book is not political but ethical, that is the question of Justice in the human soul.

    • “The problem with Bishop Barron’s analysis here is that it engages in the same practice that it decries.”

      Spot on, Matthew. This seems to be a common trait in his writings.

  9. Thank you, Bishop Barron.

    Karl Popper became Sir Karl Popper when Queen Elizabeth knighted him for “services to humanity”.

    His other famous book is
    The Logic of Scientific Discovery, which explains why Albert Einstein was a scientist, and Freud and Marx were quacks. If you need the answer in a hurry, search for “criterion of falsifiability”.

  10. Did Plato imagine his abstracts, or “forms”, to be universals that resided above man, or that man himself fabricated? I believe it was the former.

    If I am right, this would seem to distance these so-called “Platonists” from the actual thought of Plato.

  11. Debased materialism and progressive collectivism in the name of abstract “human rights” invented 5 minutes or even 5 decades ago, is not Platonism.

    Catholics – all Christians really – should be metaphysical Platonists (and if they were, proper social and political order would derive from that). Get the metaphysics wrong, and you get everything else wrong. After all, what are the first lines of John’s Gospel but baptized Platonism?

    “But whereas both viewpoints undoubtedly have their place and their validity, it is undeniable that, qua ontology, the Platonist takes precedence over the Aristotelian. And let us, at the same time, note that the Platonist ontology comes within a “hair’s breadth” of the Christian, which perceives the visible cosmos as a theophany.” (Wolfgang Smith, “The Vertical Ascent”)

  12. Jordan Peterson, the courageous, secular prophet of our age, has been warning about this for years. But he was and is maligned by the universities, mainstream media, and high tech. The entire Bishop’s Conference should have been on top of this woeful development years ago. Instead Trump became the boogeyman, thereby distracting from looking at the real ideological danger. It may be too late to halt the progression of this insidious trend.

  13. Woke ideology, with its breathtakingly dismissive attitude to human biology, is distinctly Platonic. Its epistemological obsession with artificial abstractions that have no foundation in reality call to mind Kierkegaard’s pointed criticism of Hegel: “And in your globe-girdling system, is there room for me, the individual?” – High time ‘woke’ woke up to itself. But this won’t happen until curriculum in schools and universities recover their philosophical and theological basis.

  14. The supernatural world of God is abstract. In the Nicene Creed we say that God is the “Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” The visible is our concrete reality of God’s incarnate created universe that we live in. The invisible is the abstract supernatural realm of God that we can only know by means of God’s Own Self-revelation through faith. The visible is the concrete natural horizontal dimension of the Church. The invisible is the abstract supernatural vertical dimension of the Church. A purely horizontal Church without a supernatural vertical dimension is spiritually flatline, having cut herself off from her Creator, the source of her life.
    *
    You need both the abstract and concrete realities. There is no way to understand the concrete realities without having an abstract framework by which to evaluate them. This is the work that reason plays in the faith. The spiritual realm is the realm that cannot be perceived by our bodily senses. Creation is an incarnated reality. We see the hand of God in His creation. The Bible starts out with the description of humans as being in the image and likeness of God. This is an abstract assertion. The concrete reality was to be found in the second creation story. God created the animals and Adam named them. None of them were a suitable partner for Adam. The only suitable partner was Eve. Being bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh Eve was the only partner that shared in God’s and Adam’s image and likeness. Eve was consubstantial with Adam, foreshadowing the Nicene Creed. This was a process of discovery and education where Adam was learning about his, and Eve’s, place in the order of God’s creation.

  15. This is a simplified and laughable caricature of Platonism. Adopting gullibly and uncritically Popper’s interpretation of Platonism is the first mistake. Tracings totalitarian Nazism to Plato is as ridiculous as comparing MEIN KAMPF to the sublime Plato’s dialogues. Barron should start to learn something about Plato by reading Kreeft’s “The Platonic Vision” instead of firing tired cliches and simplistic analogies connecting demented woke mobs to it.

  16. I think it would be proper for bishop Barron not to treat Platonism so simplistically (just look at the title of the article), especially in the light of the fact how the Christian thought has been informed by the both Greek greats and who both influenced our own Augustine and Aquinas. Perhaps His Excellency adheres too firmly to the Chestertonian distrust of Plato 🙂

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