Why the Body Needs Plato (and Plato Needs the Body)
It’s all Plato’s fault. Once he was the power behind the throne of Christian theology, with his heavenly world of ideas/perfect forms and a Father God creator. The medieval Scholastics started to pull away when they adopted more down-to-earth Aristotle. But Aquinas continued to make use of Platonism (such as for his doctrine of participation), as did later Christian thinkers. It was only in the twentieth century that the rebellion really got going, and that partly due to pressure from outside Christian theology: Karl Popper famously argued that Plato’s Republic, with its disdain for democracy and idealisation of philosopher kings, provided intellectual support for the very kind of totalitarianism Plato claimed to oppose (Popper, pp. 260-261).
And more fundamentally, the body was only a vehicle for Plato: the real me, the soul, inhabited it as a sailor their ship. At death, the soul escaped to return to the stars (if it had lived well). Feminist theologian Denise Carmody, although endorsing Plato’s appreciation of the erotic, argues that Platonic as well as Gnostic sources contributed to “the fears of matter, the body, the flesh” in early Christianity, “working to the special disadvantage of women”, as bleeding and giving birth tended to mark women as unclean (Carmody, p. 135). This hardly promoted women’s participation in ministry and government of the Church.
But starting with the “theology of the body” of Karol Wojtyła (St. John Paul II), there has been a big shift. While it’s still very much work in progress, the Church is regaining a sense of the goodness of the body as temple of the Holy Spirit, the holiness of sexuality in God’s plan, and the equal dignity of men and women, made together in the image and likeness of God.
So modern Christians enthuse to the world about the goodness of the body. But I sometimes think the world is a bit bemused by this: ours is a world in which the body is already at the centre of personal and social life. As Regina Ammicht-Quinn says, “churches and museums have been superseded by fitness studios” (Ammicht-Quinn, p. 72). But she also points out that this has brought new problems: the body culture has engendered a body cult. Bodies can be successful or unsuccessful, and they can be enhanced, but a weak male body or a fat female body become causes for shame. “Saying no” is no longer about sex, but about food (Ibid. pp. 72-74). Small wonder that body dysmorphia abounds, only intensified by doctored “selfies” on social media that make us look “better” than we know we really are…
So the body is as problematic as ever, and we still seek after a world of ideals… What can Christians say to this? Should we blame Plato (again), or might he actually be able to help us?
Let’s look again at why Plato was so popular with early Christian theologians. In the Jewish Scriptures, just as in Plato, the model for humans was the heavenly forms: hence God told Moses to model the earthly Tabernacle on the heavenly vision he had seen on Mount Sinai. So Numenius of Apamaea’s famous saying, “What is Plato but Moses in Greek?” is maybe not so surprising. And in the New Testament we read (translating literally) that “Jesus has now obtained a more perfect liturgyfrom heaven” (Hebrews 8:6). He has entered once and for all into the Holy Place with his own blood, and, crucially, this is because God became human: “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me” (Hebr. 10:5, citing Septuagint Ps. 39 (40):6). This means not just that God has taken a body, but that God is manifested in the body, and especially in Jesus’ risen, glorified body. In Platonic terms, the ideal has been manifested in the particular.
This would be good news for early Christians inhabiting a world where poverty and illness, often chronic, was most people’s bodily experience. They would be longing, like St Paul, to leave this “tent” of the mortal, unglorified body, “so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:1-8). Of course, it’s also true that the “body of flesh” put off at baptism (Colossians 2:8, 11) was for Christians, as for the Platonists, a source of temptation and distraction because of its disordered appetites (perhaps what we would today call addictive behaviour). Yet the Platonists, just like key Christian spiritual teachers such St John of the Cross, suggest that while sin is experienced in addiction to bodily drive, the root of the problem is in the soul. And in fact some bodily activities, according to Plotinus, are spiritually elevating: not just the philosopher, but the lover and the musician/music lover are the most likely to return to Nous, the Cosmic Mind. This suggests that what the Platonists really object to is self-indulgence and lost weekends. To be delighted by the mystery of another person takes us out of ourselves; and to be a musician or music lover also necessarily involves us with the physical.
And Plato was in fact very keen on art. While better known for his criticism of art insofar as it just reproduces this lower world (Republic, X.595-608), in the Timaeus, the Father God creates the universe as a potter, mixing, dividing and shaping clay, and the stars dance. In the Laws, dance is invoked for its pedagogical value.
Plotinus would also speak of dance around a leader as a symbol (or actual means?) of raising the mind (Enneads VI.9.8). This is more than just a lovely metaphor. In the medieval French cathedrals, there was a dance on Easter Sunday. Some years ago I revived this in a retreat context. We added the hand-over-wrist gesture of Jesus from the great Icon of the Resurrection (see illustration), raising up Adam and Eve. As we danced, on the starlit lawn of a Benedictine convent, we had a sense of rising up together, with our feet still on the ground – so the earth was taken up with us. We and the rest of fallen creation had, in the words of Gregory of Nyssa about the Resurrection, been restored to the dance of the angels. As Catherine Pickstock says, in Platonism there is no resurrection of the body: the body being given up for the sake of greater spiritual gain. Whereas in Christianity spirit and body are sacrificed together in order that both “might be received back again on the eschatological morning” (Pickstock, p. 273).
In art, whether dance, pottery, music, or photography, physical materials, sound, the body itself are the material: not a material to be prettified, “improved”, but rather taken up so that its inner beauty is revealed for our contemplation. Earth in a clay pot, wood and metal in a clarinet, the body in a photograph or dance. To create this takes ascesis, or training – an overcoming of weakness, ignorance and impatience for the sake of realising the vision we have received.
“Jesus has now obtained a more perfect liturgy from heaven” (Hebrews 8:6). When we celebrate the liturgy, we use physical things. We no longer mistreat physical things, which includes our own and other’s bodies: “I fell upon the lovely things of your creation,” said St. Augustine of his life before conversion (Confessions,X.27/p. 231f.). Nor do we punish them to conform to an impossible, human-made ideal. Bread and wine, wood and stone, cloth and incense, musical instruments. Rather, as they and the bodies which hold, eat, drink, play and move with them are restored to their dignity, becoming vehicles of wonder. In Platonic terms, their form is revealed in them; in Christian terms, they are becoming divinised.
But herein lies also the temptation of liturgy. What we see and hear in liturgy ismore real than the world around us, because this is the liturgy of heaven, which John saw in Revelation, and of which the earthly liturgy is a participation. The material objects, are, as we have seen, given a greater reality than in the everyday life. We are lifted up, we feast. How easy to ignore, then, the person in the pew next to us, maybe the most marginal. We are not at a concert hall or a gallery. True, we need uplifting worship. Charitable activism is not enough: the very facts of fitness culture and even lost weekends are evidence that the search for human happiness needs to go beyond food and shelter. But if, after the liturgy, people are left feeling lonely and unloved, then the beautiful liturgy is no different from the gym or the lost weekend. Platonism helps us see our need for uplift, but its heights are chilly. We need God’s grace to see the divine light in the face of the other, becoming the body of the Divine Liturgy, rising together.
Ammicht-Quinn, Regina, “Cult, Culture and Ambivalence: Images and Imaginations of the Body in Christian Traditions and Contemporary Lifestyles”, in Barbara Baert (ed.), Fluid Flesh: The Body, Religion and the Visual Arts (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2009), pp. 67-81.
Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961)
Carmody, Denise,Christian Feminist Theology: a Constructive Interpretation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995)
Pickstock, Catherine, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998)
Popper, Karl, The Open Society and its Enemies, vol. 1, The Spell of Plato (London: Routledge, 2002 )
Wojtyła, Karol (St. John Paul II), Love and Responsibility, trans. H.T. Willets(San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993 )
Wojtyła, Karol (St. John Paul II) Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006 )
Written by Dominic White OP, a Research Associate at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology.