Plato and Paul by Joshua Gulley
As a diversion lately I’ve been reading a textbook I kept from college: Philosophy: History and Problems. In a chapter about Plato the authors describe his theory of “Forms.” Basically, forms are the essence of a thing—you and I, being humans, are copies, imitations, or manifestations of the form called “humanness.” Perhaps a better example would be the form called “Beauty,” of which there are many diverse expressions. A rose, for example, displays characteristics of the form “Beauty.” It doesn’t exhaust the characteristics of beauty, because beauty can be manifested in other things—a sunset, for example, or an attractive person, or a relationship that works properly. The things that display the form “beauty” are almost endless. The point is that these individual things are only manifestations of the “form,” which is said to exist independently of the things which are copies of it. In support of this idea is the fact that we make value judgments about the quality of things. We say that one particular “car” is better than another car, implying that there is a standard—an “ultimate car”—by which we measure the quality of a particular car—and one model is closer to that standard than another.
Like other philosophies, I suppose this one has weaknesses, but that’s not the reason I brought this one up. I find this philosophy of “forms” intriguing because it suggests there are two worlds—one that is made up of the things we see and handle, which are, as Plato suggests, copies of the true “forms” that exist separately from our experience. The analogies could be pushed to the extreme, but I think this aligns perfectly with what we understand from reading the Bible. There is a physical world—a world of the flesh, the things we experience. Then there is a spiritual world—a world of the “forms” or virtues that find expression in the physical world. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” All these we can imagine as “forms” which find expression in the actions we portray in everyday life. I’m ninth in line at Wal-Mart at the only register that is open despite the fact that it’s Wednesday night and they should know there will be an onslaught of customers, but instead of huffing, puffing, and describing the managers using creative adjectives, I make use of the time by saying a silent prayer, getting to know someone in line next to me, or thinking of all the things God has done for me today that I don’t deserve. My doing so is not the ultimate picture of “patience,” but it is a reflection of that “form” which exists separately from my individual demonstration of it.
I believe the apostle Paul has Plato’s back here. “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). Lord, may our lives be filled with demonstrations of those “forms” You call us to pursue; and by so doing, help us reflect Jesus, who is our life.
Josh is a teacher of music at the High School level and is a member among the saints who belong to the Smithville Church of Christ