2.1 Greek philosophical foundations
The Greek philosophers wanted to know how the changeable world they saw around
them was related to the world of knowledge which contained immutable and eternal
truths. Plato (c.27-347 BC) thought that what we knew truly were the forms
of things, since these eternally existed whether or not physical objects existed
to embody the forms. The contemplation of forms as such, Plato thought, was the
proper intellectual activity. In particular, the contemplation of the ‘form of the
good’, which he took as the ‘good itself’, was an experience akin to uplifting mystical
insights. This kind of quasi-religious experience lead Plato to place greater emphasis
on forms rather than on the physical world.
The result of Plato’s emphasis on the pure forms as being what were absolutely
real was an implication that the physical world was a ‘poor shadow’ of what was
real. This shadow is what we would see on a cave wall when we are not facing the
light. The physical universe is perhaps created by a subsidiary god or demiurge,
not by the Absolute itself. Our task in life, according to Plato, is to love wisdom
in order to raise ourselves out of immersion with everyday concerns. Philosophy
enables us to live properly in our souls, which are ‘self-moving’ and hence have
life in themselves and are capable of perceiving rational and transcendent forms.
Our souls are certainly not the ‘harmony of our body’, Plato insists, since sometimes
they act contrary to bodily inclinations.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a student of Plato but took the opposite down-to-earth
approach to philosophy and knowledge. He directly examined physical objects, biological
creatures, and human beings, which are all beings with potentialities for change
and function. He said that each of these has a ‘soul’ which enables it to function
in its proper manner. Plants, for example, have vegetative souls, animals have animal
souls, and humans have rational souls. All these souls, according to Aristotle,
should be conceived as the form or essential function of their respective organisms.
That form is the form of the matter of those creatures, and the matter is that material
out of which they are made. He was insisting on the reality of the natural world
as that which has its sources of change within itself. Forms themselves do not exist
externally to the beings that embody them. They may be intellectually distinguished--in
the mind of the knower--but this does not mean that we can ever (as Plato thought)
see forms as existing in a world of their own. Aristotle did develop the idea of
a Divine Intellect which we share when we perceive rational truths, but in general
his emphasis was on particular existing beings, not on absolute forms in some kind
of intellectual or ‘Platonic’ heaven.
Although neither Plato nor Aristotle was a theist as we now understand the term,
their agreements and disagreements set the stage for many long-running debates.
One tension has continued for millennia: the tension between emphasizing some eternal
source (or ‘firsts’) as what is most real and active (as Plato did), in contrast
to emphasizing everyday objects in our physical universe (or ‘lasts’) as what are
most real and active (as Aristotle did). A full account of theism has to integrate
these two approaches, I believe, so that both God and the world have significant