Before we descend into the Medieval debate between Realists and Nominalists, I want to write a brief overview of Plato & Aristotle’s understanding of something called universals. Due to length, I suspect it will take about two posts.
A universal is, more or less, an abstract idea of a quality or property shared by a group of things. For example, three cans of coke are all probably red. That is, they share the common property of redness. Folks in the Medieval period are in constant debate whether those abstract properties – redness, for example – exist on a universal plane, or if they are simply arbitrarily labeled into categories.
We derive our understanding of Plato’s sense of Realism from the Republic, which I described in an earlier post. Succinctly stated, the physical world, because it is fleeting and changing, is less real, less true than the realm of universals. Universals do not change – that is, they are eternal inasmuch as they do not change. The physical world is in constant flux, and our perception of things in them is subjective and relative. We have mere opinions about physical objects; we know truths about the abstract and universal.
If you’re scratching your head a bit, I’ll try to take a stab at how to explain this concept. Mathematical concepts like, say, a triangle, are eternally true in the abstract. We might define a triangle as a three sided figure whose angles add up to 180 degrees. That abstract triangle is true, unchanging, universal. Now, if I were to draw a triangle, it would be limited by my skill and subject to change. I could have crooked lines or tear the piece of paper up. In that sense, it is less real than the abstract triangle.
So, here’s a key distinction about platonic realism. A given object’s realism is not based on my ability to interact with it using my various senses. Rather, a given object’s realism is based on how closely it adheres to the abstract idea of that object and how much it is affected by time and change.
To return to our red coke cans, if you’ve ever seen really old coke cans that have been left out in the sun, the redness will often fade until it appears more pink than red. It is not, therefore, as truly red as the idea of redness, which does not change. The allegory of the Cave in The Republic is probably the most famous way of thinking about this concept. In that allegory, several people are chained to a wall, and they may only see the shadows of objects passing in front of a fire behind them. The shadows are not the objects themselves, and they are fleeting and subject to change. We might consider the things which you and I see as similar to these shadows on the wall – not the objects themselves, but rather, imperfect manifestations of the true object. To borrow the language so often found in the New Testament, “If a shadow is less real than the object which creates it, how much more real are the unchanging ideas of those objects!” As I mentioned in an earlier post, Christians have asserted that these universals reside in the mind of God. That is, they exist in the transcendent, eternal plane where God is.
Now, let’s think about Platonic Realism as regards Biblical thought. Hebrews 8:1-6a is one classic sort of passage which requires knowledge of Hellenistic philosophy for it to make any real sense.
"Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man. For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer.For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount. But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises."
There are two concepts at play here. First, there is a temple with its sanctuary, and second there is the High Priest. As the passage makes clear, the heavenly temple is more real than a physical temple; likewise, the sacrifices of the high priest in the heavenly temple are more real than the sacrifices of a high priest in an earthly temple. Put simply, let us think of the earthly temple at Jerusalem. It was destroyed multiple times and rebuilt. The sacrifices there had to be repeated because they were not permanent and not unchanging.
Our true high priest is, of course, Jesus Christ. His sacrifice of himself, made at the Heavenly Temple and manifested here in time on earth, was more true, more real, more perfect than any earthly sacrifice. It was so real, so perfect, so true that it did not need to be repeated. Christ’s sacrifice of himself was an eternal and unchanging sacrifice; it was therefore in strictly Platonic terms more real than any sacrifice we might accomplish here.
This Realism applies to us on a regular basis whenever we celebrate communion. When the Christian Platonists say that the Bread and Wine are now the Body and Blood of Christ, they are not suggesting that the bread molecules and the wine molecules (if you’ll pardon my imprecision with regard to chemistry) are now Body molecules and Blood molecules. Rather, what they are – their essence, the abstract universal which they now indicate – what they are – are the Body and Blood of Christ. The Body and Blood of Communion do what Christ’s Body and Blood do because in their innermost being, they are the Body and Blood of Christ. What Body and Blood are made out of never enters into the argument, nor does the process by which bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood. It simply is. Platonic Realism, unlike Aristotelian Realism, isn’t especially concerned about what a physical manifestation of an object or idea is made out of, but rather what they are in their form and essence.
As I’ve said before, and which others may like to confirm, the Eastern Orthodox have favored this Platonic view of Realism over the Aristotelian view which has dominated the Western Church (but notably not St Augustine’s own writings on the Eucharist, for example). The Platonic view has a number of immediate benefits. We obviate entirely any sort of discussion about transubstantiation, consubstantiation, virtualism, spiritual presence, etc. We also do not get into a morass of semantic debate about what things are made out of.
My next post, on Aristotelianism, will address those very concerns at length.