PORTRAITS FROM THE PAST

Plato

Plato (c. 427-347 B.C.E.) was a pagan Greek philosopher. He was born in Athens to an aristocratic family and received the customary education of a well-to-do Greek youth. He was greatly influenced by the celebrated philosopher Socrates and by the followers of Pythagoras, a philosopher and mathematician.

AFTER traveling about in the Mediterranean basin and engaging in the politics of Syracuse, a Greek city in Sicily, Plato returned to Athens, where he founded the Academy. Often referred to as Europe’s first university, the Academy became a focal point for mathematical and philosophical research.

WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?

The teachings of Plato have profoundly influenced the religious beliefs of millions of people, including professed Christians, many of whom wrongly assume that these beliefs are based on the Bible. Foremost among Plato’s teachings is the concept that humans have an immortal soul that survives the death of the physical body.

Plato had a deep interest in life after death. The book Body and Soul in Ancient Philosophy says that “the immortality of the soul is one of Plato’s favourite topics.” He was firmly convinced that “the soul outlives its present incarnation, to be duly rewarded or punished” in the afterlife, based on how the person lived while on earth.*

HOW DID PLATO’S TEACHINGS SPREAD?

During the nine centuries that Plato’s Academy functioned, from 387 B.C.E. to 529 C.E., it was highly influential. Platonic thought became popular in lands dominated by Greece and Rome. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria adopted Platonism, as did many religious leaders within Christendom. As a result, pagan philosophical concepts, including the immortality of the soul, crept into the teachings of Judaism and Christianity.

“All Christian theology is dependent, to an extent at least, on contemporary Greek philosophy, primarily Platonism,” says The Anchor Bible Dictionary, “but some Christian thinkers . . . merit the title of Christian Platonists.” Compare what the following sources say.

What Plato said: “[At death,] that which is the real self of each of us, and which we term the immortal soul, departs to the presence of other gods, there . . . to render its account,—a prospect to be faced with courage by the good, but with uttermost dread by the evil.”—Plato—Laws, Book XII.

What the Bible says: The soul is the person himself or the life that he enjoys. Even animals are souls. At death, the soul ceases to exist.* Consider the following scriptures:

▪ “The first man Adam became a living soul.”—1 Corinthians 15:45.

▪ “God went on to say: ‘Let the earth put forth living souls according to their kinds, domestic animal and moving animal and wild beast of the earth.’”—Genesis 1:24.

▪ “Let my soul die.”—Numbers 23:10.

▪ “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.”—Ezekiel 18:4.

Clearly, the Bible does not teach that the soul survives the death of the physical body. So ask yourself, ‘Are my beliefs based on the Bible or the philosophy of Plato?’

[Footnotes]

Although Plato popularized the notion of the immortal soul, he was not the first to adopt it. In its various forms, the concept had long permeated pagan religion, including that of Egypt and Babylon.

The Bible teaches that the dead are asleep, as it were, awaiting a resurrection. (Ecclesiastes 9:5; John 11:11-14; Acts 24:15) In contrast, so-called immortal souls cannot die and would need no resurrection.

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“The immortality of the soul is one of Plato’s favourite topics.”—Body and Soul in Ancient Philosophy

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“The notion of the soul surviving after death is not readily discernible in the Bible.”New Catholic Encyclopedia.

Only in the post-biblical period did a clear and firm belief in the immortality of the soul take hold . . . and become one of the cornerstones of the Jewish and Christian faiths.” (Italics ours.)Encyclopaedia Judaica.

“The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is a matter of philosophical or theological speculation . . . and is accordingly nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture.”The Jewish Encyclopedia.

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QUICK FACTS

▶ Plato is considered one of the most influential thinkers in the history of Western culture.

▶ As a young man, he took an interest in politics but became deeply disillusioned.

▶ He later wrote on such topics as ethics, justice, knowledge, moderation, piety, the soul, and valor.

▶ Plato’s most distinguished pupil was Aristotle, who became an educator, philosopher, and scientist.