What Platonic teachings influenced Christian theology
Soul in the history of philosophy "The soul is a divine element of the human being"
Susanne Fritz: Mr. Precht, in your new book you write that the Christian religion in late antiquity flooded the entire culture of the West like a tsunami. Ancient philosophy cannot withstand this, but many thinkers in the centuries around the birth of Christ plundered Plato's philosophy. Countless so-called Neoplatonic structures of thought arise. To what extent do Christian ideas mix with Platonic philosophy?
Richard David Precht: Christianity would probably never have been successful if it had not started to cannibalize Platonic philosophy at an early stage. Because one must not forget that Jesus was an oriental in an oriental world. And Judaism was an ancient oriental religion. The Greeks had a completely different philosophy in the meantime, a philosophy of reason, a philosophy of logos, a philosophy of the abstract. And now we have on the one hand the world of ideas of the ancient oriental, on the other hand the much more modern-looking Greek philosophy. And already at the earliest possible point in time, Paul, who forges Greek philosophy together from several sources, makes use of, among other things, borrowings from Hellenism. In history it will be even more significant that Platonism seeps in because the newest variant of Platonism, Neoplatonism, already had something very religious about it. It is the idea that we know from Plotinus, from his pupil Proclus, for example, that there is one thing. One is all. Everything, so everything that I can't even say what the one is. I can't even say the one is kind or the one is merciful, kind, merciful, perfect and so on. Everything together in such a way that every human language slips away from it. Our soul has a share in this one because it actually strives towards this sphere of the one, because it actually belongs there. There is something in us humans that strives for this total one. That was a very common thought occurring in many varieties. It infiltrates very strongly into Christianity. Now one could almost be close to the Father, the God the Father - defined in Greek as the soul's longing for the One. This made Christianity acceptable to intellectuals.
Fritz: What does this one have to do with Plato?
Precht: With Plato there is the idea of the good, which is supposed to enthrone these ideas beyond all the other ideas. In Plotinus, this idea of the good is made into something much more general and greater. That is, he adopts the idea of a sphere above all other ideas, but he does not call it the good, it is something so absolute that there are no words for it. This will later be called negative theology. It is, as it were, a divine principle for which there are no words, i.e. negative, because it is indescribable.
Fritz: To what extent did Plotin's idea have an impact on his successors?
Precht: Neoplatonism was the most powerful philosophical current in the third and fourth centuries AD. And many Christian thinkers came into contact with Neoplatonism. A very famous example: the most important thinker of this time in Christianity, Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, who as a young man dealt intensively with Neoplatonism. He now mixes the longing of the soul for the One from Neoplatonism with the idea of the benevolent father and the longing of man to come closer to God. He fuses Neoplatonism and Christianity - not as the only one, but as the most powerful.
Fritz: What is the soul in Augustine?
Precht: The soul of Augustine is actually very Neoplatonic. It is a spiritual something that originates from a higher sphere, now not from the sphere of the One, but from closeness to God. The soul is a divine element of the human being, which longs to return to its divine origin. And through the soul we can come close to God. We can get close to God because the soul is actually the divine in us.
Fritz: So the soul is the place where the truth is anchored and the truth is God.
Precht: Yes, because God and truth coincide, it means to get close to God, not just to be a nice person and to pray often, but of course also means to search the mind for the absolute, for the true, for the great, to focus on the infinite and also to work continually on oneself.
Fritz: And this continuous work is practically an intensive self-reflection of the human being. Through this intense self-reflection one can approach the truth, so one can approach God.
Precht: Yes. So listening to oneself and immersing the soul in itself, the soul preoccupying itself with itself is a way to come to higher knowledge. That is what distinguishes this Absolute, and of course distinguishes Augustine from many other attempts to come closer to the truth. If Aristotle examined animal carcasses to understand what the principle of life is, then Augustine had nothing to do with it at all. Any form of scientific or pre-scientific research is rejected, but the exploration of the truth is immersed in one's soul.
Fritz: Later as bishop, Augustine shifted the focus of his theology to the church as an institution. What are his ideas?
Precht: One can really say that Augustine falls into at least two great halves. The young Augustine, who read the Neoplatonic scriptures and in this way developed a conception of the soul that every human being has the chance to come close to the divine by dealing with his or her soul. He turns into a functionary of the church, who makes the question of immortality a means of pressure and also puts people in fear and terror by saying whether the soul will now go to heaven and whether it will come close to God is not given to man himself alone, but God has already established this in his grace beforehand. Before a person is born, at the moment when he is born, it is already certain whether he will go to heaven or not - the so-called doctrine of grace, which all in all raged and worked terribly across the Christian Middle Ages.
Fritz: So the fate of the soul is no longer dependent on the way of life as it was the case with the ancient philosophers, but from now on only depends on God's grace.
Precht: Yes, Augustine even fought massively all religious groups who said that I can come close to God through a good lifestyle. He did this because he feared for the power of the church. If everyone, regardless of whether they go to church or not, comes close to God through a morally good lifestyle, what do I need the church for? And he as the advocate of the church in difficult times - the Roman Empire was just falling, Alaric had just conquered Rome, the Goths were in Rome, later the Vandals were at the doors - in those times it was about when the Roman Empire was already going under so the church should be preserved. That is why the only way to salvation is through the institution of the church. This is a radical turning away from the old Augustine towards the young.
Fritz: Then in the sixth century the unbelievable happens. In the Christian West, the 700-year-old tradition of Greek philosophy is almost completely torn down. The Platonic dialogues and the Aristotelian writings are almost forgotten. What are the consequences for Western culture?
Precht: Disastrous! We are experiencing an absolute step backwards. In the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries in the newly emerging Germanic empires, the Goths and the Franks, there was hardly anyone who wrote in Greek at all. And even in the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman world, that is, in the world of Byzantium, the study of the learned scriptures is decreasing more and more. The tradition is almost completely broken down. So there are the writings of Cicero, there are those of Seneca. But actually that's almost all. Without exception, the logical writings of Aristotle remain because a very important scholar of the very late Roman period, namely Boethius, tried to translate the entire Aristotle, but unfortunately, due to a fateful entanglement, he was unable to do so. He was still able to translate the logical scriptures. That is, three quarters of Aristotle are completely lost and it will take centuries to rediscover them.
Fritz: So there is such a thing as intellectual desertification, you could say. Instead of philosophy in the western world, simple and emphatically church-ideological writings predominate. Was it entirely up to the Church that it came to pass?
Precht: Well, the church was the only one that still came into question for a form of spiritual debate. We are not talking about civil societies as we got to know them in classical Greece and partly in Rome, but we are talking about Germania. We are talking about a Germania that consists of 90 percent forests. And if a small monastery library had 200 volumes, then that was huge, it was really huge. And for comparison: the library of Alexandria is said to have had between 400 and 700 thousand scrolls in its possession. And now suddenly in the eighth century, 200 scrolls or 200 parchment books are an incredible achievement. This shows that basically there was only a very, very small matt glow left of the great sheen of antiquity, which fell somewhere through a crack in the door.
Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.
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