Plato’s Unwritten Doctrines and Christianity, Part 1: Introduction

By November 29, 2016

Early modern Christian Platonists argued that Plato essentially was a precursor to Christianity and such individuals pointed to a few particular passages to make their case.  Many of these passages relate to what is call “Plato’s unwritten doctrines” or ideas that Plato did not write down but only taught orally.

Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, refers to Plato’s “so called unwritten doctrines” in his Physics. In Plato’s seventh letter, Plato says, “There is a true doctrine that confutes anyone who presumes to write anything whatever on such subjects” and that “anyone who is seriously studying high matters will be the last to write about them. Whenever we see a book … we can be sure that if the author is really serious, this book does not contain his best thoughts; they are stored away with his fairest possessions.  And if he has committed these serious thoughts to writing, it is because men, not the gods, ‘have taken his wits away’” (Letter 7, 342a, 344c-d, quotes from the 1997 Hackett edition).

Many question the validity of all of Plato’s letters (letter 7 is viewed as the mostly likely to be authentic), but Plato says very similar things in the Phaedrus, one of his most important works. “When it has once been written down,” Socrates tells Phaedrus, “every discourse rolls about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not” (275e). Better is the “man who thinks that a written discourse on any subject can only be a great amusement, that no discourse worth serious attention has ever been written in verse or prose … that at their very best they can only serve as reminders to those who already know” (278a). The best way to “write” is “in the soul of the listener” (276a).

John Dillon, when looking at Plato’s intellectual legacy among his first followers argues that Plato did indeed have an oral tradition and that his dialogues “which, literary masterpieces though many of them are, were for Plato only ‘entertainments’—by no means devoid of substance, but certainly not straightforward presentation of his most serious speculation.” However, Dillon argues, bits and pieces of his followers’ philosophy hint at what Plato’s secret doctrine might have been.[1]

I’m no expert on this esoteric and long debated topic, but in the posts that follow, I’m going to put up some musings on Plato’s secret teaching and some interesting similarities to Christianity, ones that Joseph Smith may have been aware of.

 

[1] John Dillon, The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy (347-274 BC) (Oxford: Clarendon, 2003), 16-17.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. I’m a bit uncomfortable saying that the dialogues aren’t “straightforward presentations.” It all depends upon what you think was important. Certainly some of Plato’s dialogs are more straightforward arguments — also the dialogues usually seen as more from Plato and less from Socrates. If the importance was inquiry rather than dogma then that changes how one looks at the dialogues. Certainly by the period of late antiquity Plato had largely become dogma (often certain readings informed as much by Aristotle and the Stoics as Plato’s writings themselves).

    Because philosophy was affected by the success of science as well as these later treatments of Plato, I think there’s an intrinsic bias to think of platonic philosophy as doctrines rather than methods. However definitely in the early dialogues that’s just not how Plato saw things.

    Comment by Clark — December 2, 2016 @ 10:56 am

  2. I should note in saying that I’m not taking a stance on whether the later neo-Platonic conceptions of Plato are accurate or merely reflect adaption to Aristotle and other philosophers. As the link you gave notes that seems unresolvable with plenty of ink spilled on the subject. Just that I think we should note a distinction between method and doctrine.

    Comment by Clark — December 2, 2016 @ 11:05 am

  3. While method is certainly important, keep in mind that the Protestant scholars who worked to remove the religious aspects of Plato also worked to suppress the notion of the unwritten doctrine (despite the overwhelming evidence), and that this is the notion that dominates the academy.

    That is, Plato explicitly made those statement in Phaedrus and Aristotle confirmed the idea.

    I’ll post more about this, but the Tubingen school (who argues for the unwritten doctrine) notes several tendencies such as ending dialogues right when he seems like he’s about to make a bigger point (I’ve now noticed that too).

    I’m particularly interested in what Plato says about God. More on that in the next post.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 2, 2016 @ 12:47 pm

  4. Right, and I think even in the early dialogs there’s a certain negative theology at work. So I definitely believe there’s a religious aspect although I’m skeptical what we get in the neoPlatonists hundreds of years later isn’t highly distorted.

    Comment by Clark — December 5, 2016 @ 10:01 am

  5. In terms of my other post, if I understand, some of the Tubingen scholars argue that Plato’s unwritten doctrine dealt with issues related to the One. That doesn’t seem to far fetched to me. Also keep in mind that a long attack on Neoplatonism by Protestant scholars was part of what I would see as a problematic agenda. The “unitarian” reading of Plato that I mention in footnote 2 of post 2 strikes me as even more problematic than the Neoplatonic reading.

    I still like Stephen Webb’s take: “Plato is the West’s greatest thinker, and to associate him with someone like Iamblichus is to impugn his reputation…. Opening the door of Platonist studies to Iamblichus would have the same effect on philosophy that opening the door to Joseph Smith would have on theology.” Stephen W. Webb, Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 68-69.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 5, 2016 @ 2:58 pm

  6. […] has very striking similarities to passages from Plato’s Phaedrus and Theages.  In the Phaedrus, in the same passages that Socrates says that writing is problematic and higher truths need to be tau… he compares teaching to a farmer planting seeds: “Now what about the man who knows what is just, […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity: pt. 5: The Parable of the Sower — December 10, 2016 @ 9:27 am

  7. […] doctrine. Or they may have been authentic because, one way or the other, they match closely what Plato said about his unwritten doctrine: what you write is only to remind you about the really important stuff. In letter two, Plato […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity 8: Plato’s “new Gods” — December 16, 2016 @ 1:12 pm


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