This is an excerpt from Boston College Professor of Philosophy Peter Kreeft’s audiobook The Platonic Tradition: Understanding Plato’s Impact Through the Ages in which he gives a brief account of the “Plato’s Big idea,” or “the heart of Platonism”:
The American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, even more simply, “Plato is philosophy, and philosophy Plato.” And a third great thinker, the old professor in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia said, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato! Dear me, what do they teach them in the schools nowadays anyway?” That’s a pretty good summary of the point of these lectures. The Platonic tradition in Western philosophy is not just one of many equally central traditions; it is so much the central one that the very existence and survival of Western civilization depends on it. It is like the Confucian tradition in Chinese culture. Or the monotheistic tradition in religion. Or the human rights tradition in politics ….
Any philosophy is a work of art. Every great work of art must have a central unity. That’s why almost every great philosopher has one Big Idea, on great central idea, a kind of hub from which all the other idea radiate like spokes ….
This single Big Idea that defines Platonism could be called the Theory of Big Ideas, because the Platonic ideas are bigger than any ideas inside of minds and also they are bigger than concrete material things outside of minds. They are bigger than both of us. Bigger, or realer, than either concepts or things. They are the standards or patterns of for all concepts and all things. And they account for the unity between concepts and things. For instance, our ideas of justice or squareness or humanness can correspond to just things or square things or human things only because both our ideas and those things participate in the same Platonic form: justice, or squareness, or humanness.
This Big Idea of Plato’s is most famously expressed in the Republic, the single most famous book in the history of philosophy. Books become famous, and remembered, because they are loved. And the Republic is loved, I think, not for its politics—which are absurd—but for its psychology, which is the world’s first, by the way. And above all for one short passage, the most famous in the history of philosophy: the parable of the Cave, in which Plato invites us to come with him out of our small comfortable conventional little shadowland into a startlingly larger world outside this cave and see those realities of which these shadows are shadows. When we do that, we will at first certainly be confused, and blink when we first see the sunlight. The reaction of my students to Plato’s theory of ideas is typically that of Horatio to Hamlet when he first sees the ghost whom he did not previously believe in. While Horatio is in this amazed state of mind, Hamlet says to him “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”
That’s the essential point of Platonism: moreness, transcendence, another kind of reality outside our cave. The tendency of typically modern thought is just the opposite: reductionism, debunking, demythologizing, that there are fewer things in heaven and earth, that is, in objective reality, than in our philosophy. The modern tendency is to contract, to reduce, and I think the reason for this is clear: only when we reduce the complex to the simple, and the mysterious to the clear, can we comprehend it scientifically and conquer it technologically. That’s our essential modern project, our main claim to fame, our great success story.
Plato’s project is the opposite. Not to conquer things by making them smaller, but to let ourselves be conquered by something greater. Modern scientific truths are like poker chips with which we can calculate and win. Our mind encloses such truths and uses them. They work, and they work very well. But Plato’s truth is like a cathedral, which we humbly bow to enter. It encloses us; we do not enclose it. But when we bow, we become taller, and we feel we are in a larger world when we are in a cathedral. Or in Plato’s philosophy. The Platonic ideas are not in our mind; we are in them. They are not our servants; they are our masters. That’s why we experience awe and wonder at them. Most philosophies don’t have that power over our souls. When we speak of awe and wonder we don’t usually think of modern philosophers.
But I’ve described only the psychological effect of the idea I’ve labeled the heart of Platonism. Can we be a little more specific about what it means? We can define it in three different ways, either very broadly, very narrowly, or somewhere in between. Very broadly it means what the Greeks called λόγος, and what we might translate as “order.” That reality has an internal order, an intelligibility, a system, that it makes sense; that order is not just our invention, our minds imposing structure and meaning, but that it’s really there, in everything. It’s discovered rather than invented. Things are ordered because they have intelligible natures, or essences. That primary question: WHAT IS IT? has real answers. Reality is intelligible to mind. Being is open to reason and reason is open to being.
I recommend Dr. Kreeft’s lecture on Platonism very highly as an introduction to Plato, Platonism, and Plato’s influence throughout history, which is ongoing. Nietzsche was not insane when, in his attempt to overcome the entirety of the Western tradition in his transvaluation of all values, he knew his main opponent was Plato. Not Christianity, which he called “Platonism for the people,” but Plato and everything Plato stood and stands for. I know this intimately, as I speak from experience. I was a Nietzschean for many years, and Nietzsche taught me well. One thing Nietzsche taught me is to despise the idea of holding one’s beliefs according to a personality—if Nietzsche and Plato were opposed forces, to be honest, to show Nietzschean Redlichkeit, I had to undertake a serious, ruthlessly honest study of Plato. Learning Greek was merely a delay—a philosopher needs that in any case.
And, to make the story of over a decade into a sentence: Plato won and Nietzsche lost. Not even Nietzsche could withstand him.
Because Platonism is unstoppable.