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Modern Atheism: Dragging Plato Along Aristotle’s Coattails

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In today's Catholic Church, Platonism and Aristotelianism are often considered equal. It is a dangerous error that hails all the way back to the first neo-Platonists in the third century. Simply put, the true description of reality, rightly recognized by the Catholic Church, is that account given by Aristotle (not Plato!) and confirmed by Thomas Aquinas.

But too many Catholics speak of Plato and Aristotle together, as if their metaphysics are identical. They are in fact nowhere near this. And when this error of conflation was combined with the the Enlightenment and the Reformation, the byproduct was a surge in atheism.

These two sixteenth century forces staged a joint revolt against the metaphysics of Aristotle. And the overly close association of Plato and Aristotle was and continues to be a major piece of the puzzle: in our day, Plato is either falsely held to be Aristotle’s equal, or even his philosophical better.

Even among Catholics, it hasn't been articulated commonly, plainly, or clearly enough: to abandon Aristotelian metaphysics and ethics is to veer toward atheism. Aristotelianism alone accounts for the close causal interaction of formal reality—"being qua being" or existence as it really is—and our day-to-day material lives. Platonism flatly rejects such an interaction.

Often, well-intentioned Catholic theologians have been all too ready to consider Plato a practical Aristotelian simply because St. Augustine was a sort of Platonist. (In fact, he was the precise sort—a neo-Platonist—who popularized the conflation. But more on that later.)

At present, suffice to affirm that Plato was not any sort of Aristotelian, proto- or otherwise, except in the very most mechanical sense: Plato first posited “form” and “matter,” and from there said perfectly opposite things (compared against Aristotle) about them. In fact, Plato divorced form from matter. The divorce of form and matter comprises the position of anti-realism to which the Modern world has predictably returned—following the anti-Aristotelian metaphysics of the two forces of Modernism, what I call “Prot-Enlight,” and also the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (the perfect vindication of both the Reformation and the Enlightenment).

And this is in turn due largely to the unhappy fact that neither ancient thinker, Plato nor Aristotle, has been studied with any consistent degree of seriousness, anytime following the Late Middle Ages.

Neo-Platonists and Straussians

As mentioned above, the first historical which equated Platonism with Aristotelianism were the neo-Platonists, who were the contemporaries (and in some cases, collaborators) of the Church Fathers, like Saint Augustine. Rather than emphasizing all of the plain errors in Plato's metaphysics, corrected by Aristotle, the neo-Platonists, especially those at Alexandria, highly exaggerated the few likenesses between Plato's and Aristotle's ontologies.

In other words, neo-Platonism generally regards Plato as an Aristotelian and vice versa. This falsity influenced many students in the early Roman empire, and continues to do so.

One factor that partly excuses neo-Platonism's false equivocation between Plato and Aristotle was the widespread disappearance and general unavailability of Aristotelian texts during this period (the third through the sixth century A.D.). The neo-Platonists wrongly but honestly assumed that Plato's student, Aristotle, had incorporated more of his teacher's system into his own metaphysics than he actually had. Where there existed a hole in Aristotelian scholarship, the neo-Platonists assumed (wrongly, most of the time) that Aristotle probably agreed with his teacher Plato.

And this is understandable enough.

But in today's academy, there is no longer any excuse for this equivocation. In any of today's colleges and universities willing to give Plato or Aristotle a read at all, which is far too few, the influence of cultish twentieth century thinker Leo Strauss prevails. What Strauss and the Straussians did to the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle was to re-bundle them, as neo-Platonism had, into a “package deal.” The Plato and Aristotle package.

And since none of the Straussians gave a sufficiently close or accurate read to either Plato or Aristotle, they tend(ed) to buy the neo-Platonist myth of the close lineage between the two metaphysics. (For whatever reason, Straussians studying the Medieval period in philosophy tend to focus on neo-Platonic-inclined Arab scholars like al-Farabi or Avicena instead of Aristotelian-leaning Averroes or Thomas Aquinas. And this tends to re-solidify the wrong impression inaugurated by the neo-Platonists.) The Straussians have not helped matters.

Prot-Enlight and Immanuel Kant

Naturally, it would require a much longer, drier article to enumerate fully all of the parties involved in the phenomenon of falsely aligning Plato and Aristotle—and what motivated each of these parties. Instead, what merits our attention is the Modern world, where the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant “undid” most of the corrections Aristotle made to Plato's thinking.

Long after the neo-Platonists, but long before the Straussians, two distinct sixteenth century groups wanted not necessarily to characterize Aristotle as a Platonist (or vice versa) but rather to kill Aristotelianism outright. In the main, Aristotelianism stands for reality’s incipient freedom and morality, its intelligibility, and its teleology. These three prongs not coincidentally characterize the Catholic view of reality. The Protestant reformers and the Enlightenment secularists wanted to depart from Aristotelianism for quite differing, even opposite, reasons.

But they shared at least one common goal: to unyoke the Modern world from the “thralldom” of Rome. Doing so involved the development of a Prot-Enlight ontology which viewed man’s nature as unfree (determinism), nature as unintelligible, and reality as purposeless (random or “non-teleological”). Perhaps a follow-up article, explaining how each they achieved this, and how a German philosopher would vindicate both 150 years later, is warranted.

That German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, vindicated both the Enlightenment and the Reformation by returning (in non-Platonic language) to Plato’s divorce of matter and form. In other words, what is knowable about this world constitutes practical knowledge, but is unimportant; what is knowable about reality constitutes pure knowledge, is important, but unknowable from this world. Such Kantianism falsely claimed to justify the overturn of Aristotle. Even into our age, this claim has fooled most of the world.

Jacques Maritain and the Way Forward

To date, the clearest and most definite argument put forth against the equation of Platonism with Aristotelianism was that of twentieth century Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. Maritain appraised Plato’s metaphysics as both vastly important for its undeniable contributions to the truth, and yet vastly wrong where it became too specific. (Plato was certainly the “big picture thinker” par excellence!) Such specific calculations about reality required Aristotle’s corrective hand, Maritain reasons.1

The only metaphysics sufficient to explain this intuitive truth of existence would have to be capable of positing a much closer causal connection between ideal reality—what Plato called the “really real”—and our material existence. Aristotle’s did this, and Thomas Aquinas’ perfected upon it by use of the concept of analogia.

The practical aspect of Maritain’s philosophy, aside from its bright distinction between Plato and Aristotle, was its popularity among non-philosopher Catholics.  Readers of Maritain among the Catholic laity are able, en masse, to understand, from a truly Aristotelian perspective, just

how are we to explain the relationship between [material] things and their forms? Plato replied by calling them likenesses or participations of the forms. But these terms, which later will receive in Scholasticism a profound significance, are in Plato’s system nothing more than metaphors devoid of any strictly intelligible content…[which is] a pregnant conception which, in Aristotle’s hands, was to be purged of all internal contradiction, but which, as presented by Plato, seems self-contradictory…

By rightly pointing out the self-contradiction in Plato’s metaphysics of divorce—divorce between the world and meaning, between material objects and their forms, between reality and semblance—Maritain points us away from Kant, and back to the truth—that is, back to Aristotle and St. Thomas.


When the world embraces anti-realism, a divorce between form and matter, Aristotelian realism is abandoned and atheism naturally follows. The view of a rational, causal, meaningful universe requiring a God drops away…and you wind up with irrational, anti-philosophical worldviews, like the self-contradictory scientism of Laurence Krauss.

Now, this is truly a "strange notion," that the apparent winning philosophy has lost. In the hearts and minds of the West, the philosophia perennis has been passed over in favor of dozens of differing strains of Modernist alternatives over the last five centuries. In truth, only part of this blame can be attributed to the usual suspect one finds beneath popular falsities and behind the executioners of priests and philosophers: old-fashioned, prophet-slaying mobbishness.

In this particular case, the killers and deniers of the truth have been aided—and in that sense exculpated—by confused Modern philosophers themselves, who ought to know better, and who long ago popularized the supposed "closeness" of Plato and Aristotle.


  1. For example, Plato could never solve the so-called “problem of the universals,” meaning that although he was certain the following could be done, he could never say quite how any substance could be predicated of more than one category at a time. How could a cow belong at the same time to the class “bovary” and to “four-legged animal,” for instance? Plato’s theory of the forms would not accommodate this most basic fact of reality, however intuitive. His metaphysics—aside from its correct positing of form and matter—was simply wrong. Aristotle’s wasn’t.
Timothy Gordon

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Timothy J. Gordon studied philosophy in Pontifical graduate universities in Europe (Gregoriana and Angelicum), taught it at Southern Californian community colleges, and then went on to law school. Currently, he resides in central California with his wife and four daughters, where he writes and teaches philosophy and theology. His forthcoming book from Catholic Answers Press is titled Why America Will Perish without Rome. Follow Tim on Twitter at @catoandbrutus, for one-lined musings on politics, philosophy, culture, and the NBA.

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  • Modern scholarship on Aristotle and Plato is dominated by Straussians? That doesn't seem true at all. In fact, not a single one of the leading scholars I can think of off the top of my head--M.M. McCabe, Jennifer Whiting, S. Marc Cohen, Terence Irwin, Jonathan Lear, Gail Fine, Lloyd Gerson, etc.--is a Straussian.

    Moreover, this whole argument seems to turn on an account of Plato's notion of separation that has been more or less ruled out by modern scholarship--that Plato thought of the forms as divorced from the things that participate in them, as though they exist in some other realm. See, for example, Gail Fine's essay "Separation" for a demonstration that this view is not actually grounded in Plato's texts.

    It is quite odd to regard everyone who is not an Aristotelian as an atheist. Even odder to regard Christian thought as necessarily Aristotelian. For one thing Aristotle thought of God as finite, and did not (in all likelihood) regard God as an efficient cause of sublunary things. Aquinas was right to opt against Aristotle and for Plato by placing real participation at the center of his ontology, asserting transcendental ideal archetypes, and arguing for a real distinction between thing and being (which Aristotle actually denied).

    Finally, to as the notion that if one is not an Aristotelian, one is headed down the road to atheism, then almost all of the Christian theologians of the first millennia were pseudo-atheists, and even Aquinas cannot be considered to entirely escape the charge.

    • Aquinas was right to opt against Aristotle and for Plato by placing real participation at the center of his ontology, asserting transcendental ideal archetypes, and arguing for a real distinction between thing and being (which Aristotle actually denied).

      I would very much like to see the author of the OP address these matters.

      • timothygordon

        Thomas and Luke: you’ve gone and proven my point, I'm afraid. Against very clear impossibilities, the Catholic world is trying to bring Plato back to life.
        As regards Thomas's charge about the first millennium of Catholicism and its Platonism, the reason I stated (about four times) that it did not lead nearly so directly to atheism was because it was not yet blended with Prot-Enlight Modernism! That combination—not Platonism alone—is what proved deadly for Christianity and all the West. I can only state it clearly and then repeat it as my thesis. The rest lies with the reader.
        Ontological participation does NOT happen for Thomas in the Platonic sense at all; ontological participation does not even happen for Plato in the Platonic sense. With no Platonic version of Aristotle’s posterior analytics, hylomorphism (intelligible form within material existence) is disabled and ontological divorce-absurdity is all that is conceivable. Whether or not the contemporary Plato scholarship “papers over” this fundamental chasm in Plato’s thought, it remains so and it also remains so that Aristotle led the way forward in the history of thought.
        For you to simply say that modern Platonists have—25 centuries after Plato’s death—conjured a sort of “philosopher’s stone” in Plato’s dialogues--read one into the dialogues, more like it--is not at all compelling. Such loose adherence to original text is what is so uncompelling about the modern academy.
        As described by Plato, there is no distinction between first and second order categories of existence. There is no doctrine of quiddity, because Plato scarcely if at all acknowledges such a thing as substances. The color “red” is not predicated of a substance (e.g. a shirt) for Plato, but rather “red” must have its own independent subsistence. Plato simply cannot say how or why or even that lower categories are predicated of higher ones. Or, for another example (as stated in the footnote to my article), Plato could never articulate how a cow participated in more than more category/genus at a time: "bovary," and "brown," and "mammal," and "four-legged creature." No Platonist can solve this problem, because a) it’s insoluble b) within the confines of Platonism.
        Here is the answer to Luke's question. Real participation happens, for Thomas Aquinas, through the analogia entis. And the basis of the analogia entis is utterly, 99.9% Aristotelian. Thomas’s concept of analogy is constructed entirely around Aristotle’s solution to the problem of the universals, pros hen equivocity: substances can participate in a single way in a variety of categories of existence. Once a person accepts pros hen equivocity, by definition, he is an Aristotelian, contradicting the centermost point of Plato’s theory of the forms. Thomas's analogia is just a more nuanced, more correct form of pros hen equivocity.
        Most of the thinkers you, Thomas, listed respond to Straussian conceptions about Plato and Aristotle: e.g. Terrence Irwin. In that sense, most American scholarship at least buys too many Straussian/neo-Platonic premises, even if every ancient philosophy scholar in America is not a card-carrying Straussian. Anyway, like I said, I was simply offering some cursory guesses as to why Plato has been corpulently dragged along with Aristotle; it's not central to the thesis.

        • Terence Irwin is a Straussian? The same Terence Irwin who wrote that Strauss' interpretation of Plato and Xenophon's Socrates "is almost valueless for anyone who wants to learn more about Socrates"? It's pretty clear that not only is Irwin not a follower of Strauss, he has a low view of the quality of Strauss' scholarship.

          And with respect to the Gail Fine essay I mentioned, no-one who has actually read Fine's work would say of it that it has only a "loose adherence to original text ...." It's like criticizing Derrida for being a slave to formal logic, or WVO Quine for writing poetry rather than analytic philosophy.

          As to Aristotle and Aquinas, Aristotle rejected all forms of real participation. All of it. Aquinas classifies some of what Plato (might) regard as real participation as merely logical participation (e.g., man participates in animal not really but only logically). However, Aquinas does make participation foundational to his ontology: all created things participate in being. This is not logical but real participation, and Aquinas accepts it where Aristotle rejects it.

          This also explains why Aquinas asserts there to be a real distinction between being and substance, where Aristotle does not. And it explains why God is an efficient cause of all things, including material things, for Aquinas; whereas for Aristotle, God is not an efficient but a final cause. The centrality of participation in Aquinas also helps to explain other differences between Aquinas and Aristotle, such as the fact that Aristotle regarded God as finite, whereas Aquinas (under the influence of neo-Platonists like Dionysius) regarded God as infinite. And so on.

          Not to mention all the other differences, such as Aquinas' belief in the divine Ideas, which are the archetypes for created things.

          I'll provide citations if you like. But all of this is well known in Thomist scholarship, especially after the work of Fabro and Geiger, and is in the standard works on Aquinas (e.g,. that of John Wippel and Joseph Owens).

          • timothygordon

            You wrote: “As to Aristotle and Aquinas, Aristotle rejected all forms of real participation. All of it.”
            Obviously, Thomas’s idea of theo-onto-logical participation is a point of departure from Aristotle, not because Aristotle rejects participation flatly like you say, but rather because as Joseph Owens says in the Foreword to the Second Edition of The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics: “the whole of the Metaphysics, with the exception of Book K, contains the genuine Aristotelian science of Being qua Being, a science that treats universally of all Beings. But this science is not an ontology [because] it has as its subject a definite nature.” This remark might otherwise seem to bulwark your claim, except, just above this, Owens makes a helpful clarifying remark to the effect that “being is definitely found in sensible things, not as their own nature but as an imitation of absolutely immobile Entity. Being is accordingly studied in sensible things throughout nearly all the Metaphysics. Being is the nature of the separate Entities, yet it is present in all sensible things through reference to a primary substance, a reference by way of final causality.” So…Aristotle does not reject participation.
            In other words of yours, there IS a real distinction between being and substance in Aristotle, which you seek to deny. Such a denial is absolutely wrong since the Metaphysics is both a theology and an ousiology, a study of theology and of Being qua Being at once. Arguably, this conflation led Thomas Aquinas to formulate the analogia and the doctrine of participation more directly than anything in Plato. Also arguably, you seem to be misled by this conflation into a related but false second conflation: that the subjects of these simultaneous investigations are conflated by Aristotle simply because the Metaphysics treats of both.
            We are back to the problem of the universals: its solubility in Aristotelianism and insolubility in Platonism. This solution belies the doctrine of the pros hen equivocals, a sine qua non for participation so abjectly lacking in Plato as to contradict your assertion that Plato can ontologically affirm participation without logically affirming it. (Naturally, I agree that Plato wants to affirm something not unlike participation; but his metaphysical calculus disables it.) By the same token, what you aver above about Aristotle rejecting ‘all forms of real participation’ would only be true if Aristotelian equivocity happened not at all, or merely efficiently. But, as Owens insinuates time and again, Aristotle moves throughout the Metaphysics from a logical affirmation of participation (enabled by the P.H.E.s) toward an incomplete ontological affirmation thereof. (That is more or less accepted as a given in Aristotelian scholarship.)
            So yes, traditionally, participation is an idea said to be lifted from Plato, not Aristotle. No one disagrees. But as the Maritain passage in my article highlights, participation in the quasi-mystical, proto-Gnostic sense in Plato is vastly different from the Scholastic notion embraced by Thomas. At most, Thomas lifted the big idea from Plato, but with none of his categorically null mechanics, which comprise THE giant fail of Platonism. As insinuated above, participation cannot happen ontologically if it does not first happen first categorically or logically; so again, Plato’s own theory of the forms disables what he wants to do metaphysically. Same old story.
            Finally, I said quite clearly that Terence Irwin reacts to Straussianism, not that he was one. Obviously.

          • You are citing Joseph Owens for the proposition that Aristotle does distinguish between essence and existence? The very work you cited, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, is famous for demonstrating the very opposite.

            Owens is clear, in that work and others, that Aristotle does not recognize a real distinction between essence and existence, whereas Aquinas does. Aristotle's science of being (as Owens correctly points out) leave out the act of existence. On page 309 of the work you cite, Owens says:

            "From the viewpoint of the much later distinction between essence and the act of existing, this treatment [i.e., Aristotle's Metaphysics] must mean that Aristotle is leaving the act of existence entirely outside the scope of his philosophy."

            Owens later says, on p. 466 of the same work:

            "In a philosophy conditioned by this fundamental doctrine of being, [i.e., Aristotle's doctrine set forth in the Metaphysics], the absence of any treatment of existence is inevitable. But this deficiency becomes apparent only when Aristotelian thought is viewed is regarded from a later historical viewpoint."

            And which viewpoint is that? Owens clarifies in footnote 41: "ie., the viewpoint of Thomas Aquinas."

          • timothygordon

            You cite page 309 to state exactly what I cited in the post you responded to: "But this science is not an ontology [because] it has as its subject a definite nature.” (Owens). Are you not understanding the point? Maritain calls this a "pregnant conception," Owens holds that "in Aristotle an ontology is impossible" but also that "certainly wrong and not at all indicated by the findings of this

          • timothygordon

            ...Investigation are the conclusions that in the Metaphysics there is only preliminary research and not metaphysics proper, that the philosophy contained in the Metaphysics is only a dialectic, that the Metaphysics is not concerned with dependence in Being..." I am suggesting something relatively obvious to Albertus Magnus and Thomas: Aristotle is interested in ontology even if the Metaphysics was not itself one. Such a concept could be coaxed OUT of Aristotle, but not Plato (to get back to the point and out of the weeds).

          • Timothy:

            Let's back up. You said "there IS a real distinction between being and substance in Aristotle, which you seek to deny." You cited Joseph Owens "Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics" in support of that proposition. I pointed out that Owens actually, quite explicitly says the opposite: there is not a real distinction of being and essence in Aristotle.

            Now you are claiming that the Metaphysics is not an ontology, an account of being. Then you say one can be "coaxed out of" the Metaphysics. But you cite Owens saying that "in Aristotle an ontology is impossible."

            This makes about as much sense as claiming that the fact that prominent scholars of philosophy reject Strauss is somehow proof that "influence of cultish twentieth century thinker Leo Strauss prevails." (Strauss only "prevails" in the sense that creationism prevails among contemporary biologists.)

            Anyway, Aristotle himself is clear that the question of being is nothing more to the question of substance: "the question which was raised of old and is raised now and always is the subject of doubt, name what being is, is just the question: what is substance?" 1082b2-8. And: "among the many meanings of being, the first is the one where it means that which is and where it signifies the substance." 1028a13. It is actually precisely this pros hen reduction of being to substance, and derivatively to accidental being that renders Aristotle unable to accept anything like the real distinction.

            For a Thomist, the question of being is not the question of substance, but the question of the act of being, which is really other than substance. Aristotle misses the point, as Owens points out. And Aquinas, by positing an infinite act of being beyond any finite mode, which is the source of all being, and in which all things participate, is much closer to the views of Plotinus than to Aristotle. (Remember, for Aristotle an actual infinity is incoherent--see Physics III.)

            I'm not saying that Aristotle is not a strong influence on Aquinas. Of course he is. But Aquinas was also strongly influence by neo-platonism, not only through Augustine, but also the Liber de Causis, the pseudo-Dionysius, and John Damascene. He cites all of these sources approvingly and copiously. And the influence shows up elsewhere, as for instance in his insistence on the divine ideas, which are archetypes for the created world. And because of these platonic streams, Aquinas is able to go far beyond Aristotle.

          • timothygordon

            Let’s back up further: I wrote an article on Modernist anti-realism prefigured in Plato’s difficulties with the categories of existence, solved by Aristotle through the pros hen equivocals. Given my endorsements of Thomas Aquinas and Catholicism writ large, it should have been clear that I don’t share Aristotle’s finite notion of God, or his pre-Thomistic ousiology. (In the draft I sent to SN, an excised portion read: “Of course, the approximate sort of corrective distance popularly presumed between Plato and Aristotle should more rightly be applied to the relation borne between Aristotle and Saint Thomas, the latter of whom corrected the few errors remaining in Aristotle's philosophy by the Late Middle Ages.”)
            But you chose to focus instead on something evidently appertinent to your own “wheelhouse”: the theological and ousiological deficiencies in Aristotle (corrected by Thomas) that in my article I failed to speak to. Since my first reply to you, I have been expressing or trying to express the following propositions, however off-topic from my article:
            Yes, obviously Owens notes a deficiency in Aristotle’s treatment of being, but as Owens ALSO states, that “Aristotle does not for an instant deny existence” (page 309), indicating inchoate distinctions that Thomas would subsequently develop. Instead Aristotle errantly circumscribes existence within his treatment of accidental being;
            Owens insinuates—contrary to some of your assertions—that while Aristotle is indeed precluded “inevitably” from getting to the act of existence, there is enough pith in the Metaphysics to cue later readers to his omission: “Although the per accidens expression of Being is summarily dismissed from the scope of the Primary Philosophy, it nevertheless raises by its very presence the question of eternal and necessary things…being per accidens necessarily presupposes being per se”;
            Owens repeatedly cites Book Kappa as a point of departure, where Aristotle MIGHT HAVE (but did not) develop a more robust doctrine of being per se…and you seem unwilling to cede this.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Timothy and Thomas,

            I am learning a good bit from your exchanges here, which I have re-read a couple times now. Timothy, thanks to you especially for getting the ball rolling with your post.

            Based on your exchanges and a small amount of supplemental reading, I now have some dim understanding of what analogia entis and pros hen equivocity refer to, and some dim appreciation of why these are decisive issues. Insofar as I understand these principles, I find they correspond closely to (unarticulated, implicit) "principles" that I use to interpret reality (and they especially resonate with what I consider to be some of the "take home messages" of incarnational theology). However, before going out and buying T-shirts and bumper stickers emblazoned with "pros hen equivocity", I would benefit from a more in-depth understanding of these concepts.

            I wonder if a future post could expand on these specific concepts, clarifying in layman's terms what exactly is at stake?

          • timothygordon

            Jim, I will respond to this inquiry later this evening or tomorrow. Ill just say for now that generally, pros hen equivocity denotes *just why Aristotle is the Plato that Plato should have been.*

          • timothygordon

            Jim, equivocity corresponds with the basic Heraclitean view of being as infinite multiplicity, change, and meaninglessness. Univocity on the other hand designates the Parmenidean averment that all being is one, unchanging, and undifferentiable. While Plato mediated these in a cursory way with the form/matter dichotomy, his binary remained just that-- too dichotomous. As such, he never got around the problem, b/c form and matter remained causally divorced. Pros hen equivocity was Aristotle's solution: beings are unlike one another in all ways (equivocity) except one single way which confers their "beingness."

          • Jim (hillclimber)


            I am a bit surprised that the meaning of the phrase breaks down in that way. Based on the meaning of the word "equivocity", I would have expected it to be doing the work of negotiating between the extremes you mention, rather than referring to the Heraclitean extreme? E.g. because of the equivocal meaning of "the river", it is both true (in one sense) that "you can't step in the same river twice" and also (in a different sense) true that you can step in the same river twice. The river is what it is now in a unique and irreproducible way and yet also has continuity of being with what it will be in the future.

            In any case, I think I get the general gist, and I agree with it insofar as I understand it. You can sign me up for the pros hen equivocity club. If that makes me an Aristotelian, you can sign me up for that club as well.

          • timothygordon

            Yes, Jim, there is also a special capacity pros hen equivocity bears for language. Aristotle gives the example of "health" presented in a number of different relations: we call a man "healthy in a different sense than "healthy" foods, or activities or postures or frames of mind or even "healthy" urine. These each relate to health in different ways---but they all derive from ONE conception of health. This solves Plato's problem of the universals because it shows how any given substance can be predicated of multiple categories at once. Thomas Aquinas's conception of analogy is more or less a wider, improved version.

  • Jim (hillclimber)

    "Simply put, the true description of reality, rightly recognized by the Catholic Church, is that account given by Aristotle (not Plato!) and confirmed by Thomas Aquinas."

    In what sense does the Church "recognize" this? Contrast with:

    "The Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others." John Paul II, Fides et Ratio

    • GCBill

      John Paul II may have said that, but it remains true that Aristotle is necessary to make sense of certain Catholic doctrines (e.g. regarding the soul and transubstantiation). I think JPII failed to account for the ways in which a particular philosophy can be implicitly canonized.

      EDIT: I should probably have said "Aristotle as read by Aquinas."

      • Jim (hillclimber)

        I'm going out on a limb without doing my homework on this topic, but I think transubstantiation per se is "just a theory" that explains the dogmatic "data" that Christ's body becomes extended through the Eucharist at the consecration. I think that, in principle, other metaphysical systems could conceivably accommodate that "data" equally well without invoking the concept of "substance". However, not knowing philosophy very well myself, I accept your verdict that there are no tenable "alternative hypotheses" that are currently on offer.

        What I want to emphasize, in any case (unless someone can convince me otherwise) is that dogma asserts "data". Dogma per se does not engage in attempts to "model the data".

        • GCBill

          WRT plausible alternative explanations, I admit that my opinion has been heavily colored by Thomists. And it seems like Thomists tend not to think there are plausible alternatives to their views in general. :p

          Your idea that dogma is restricted to "data" is interesting, but TBH I think it runs into a classic problem from philosophy of science. This is, of course, the issue of how one can even have "data" independent of any background model.

  • David Hardy

    I have little to say about this article, and its effort to distinguish Plato and Aristotle (I accept they held differing positions, and have both influenced later schools of thought in different ways) but I do have two thoughts --

    By rightly pointing out the self-contradiction in Plato’s metaphysics of
    divorce—divorce between the world and meaning, between material objects
    and their forms, between reality and semblance

    1) Studies regarding perception support at least one valid form of separation of world and meaning as well as reality and semblance. We intake inputs and the brain generates sensory images. However, sense data can be wrong (holograms or similar phenomena that produce misleading sense data, the brain can generate sense data without an actual external object {hallucinate} or a person might initially mistake on thing for another). Meaning, in addition, is strongly influenced by prior experiences, to the point that two people can be looking at the same world and infer vastly difference meanings both in general and in regards to specific objects of focus. Of course, at another level, the person doing the sensing and inferring is a part of the world, and certainly matter takes specific forms, so in that sense a divorce would not make sense. I realize this is not how Plato distinguished form and matter, but the author did then connect this to Kant and modern viewpoints, so it seems a valid point to make.

    When the world embraces anti-realism, a divorce between form and matter,
    Aristotelian realism is abandoned and atheism naturally follows.

    2) I did not see where the author of this OP presented any support that atheism, and specifically modern atheistic perspectives, necessarily depend on anything that could be described as "anti-realism", nor how these positions actually do depend on this, if they do. Could someone either point me to where he did so if I missed it, or perhaps explain what supports this position?

    • Rob Abney

      He doesn't specifically support that position but seems to imply that building upon Plato without using the further refinement of Aristotle leads to positions that cannot be supported metaphysically. He then claims that the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment philosophy built upon Plato while disregarding Aristotle which allows antirealism to be foundational in their theories. The theories are then easily refuted and those that refute them can claim they've refuted theism. But to refute theism the atheist should refute Aristotle and Aquinas' philosophy. Some of the modern atheistic perspectives that disregard Aristotle and Aquinas seem to be univocality, nominalism, and rejection of final and formal causes.

      • David Hardy

        Thank you for the clarification!

        He doesn't specifically support that position

        Okay, I am glad I did not miss it.

        But to refute theism the atheist should refute Aristotle and
        Aquinas' philosophy.

        I would certainly accept that, for those who rest their theism on these philosophers, this is the case.

        Some of the modern atheistic perspectives that disregard Aristotle and
        Aquinas seem to be univocality, nominalism, and rejection of final and
        formal causes.

        I would, to an extent, fall into those perspectives (I do not fully accept some of them, but enough that I can accept the point). However, I believe that they are valid for a variety of reasons. Since this article did not focus on refuting them, however, I will leave those discussions for another time.

      • timothygordon

        Rob, this a great and helpful synopsis! Stated very well..,

  • Peter

    Atheists deny the order and intelligibility of the universe. They are at pains to portray it as a chaotic and unintelligible place. They cite the uncertainty principle as a prime example. But what they fail to realise is that, as a principle, it is anything but uncertain. In fact it's the complete opposite.

    This principle is very certain indeed, in that it applies equally and with certainty at all points and at all times within the cosmos. If it's application were haphazard, then it could truly be called uncertain. But then, in that case, it wouldn't be a principle. The fact that even atheists call it a principle implies that it is not uncertain, but part of a highly ordered system.

  • Regarding Plato vs. Aristotle, check out Materialism Denigrates Matter at CatholicStand. http://www.catholicstand.com/materialism-denigrates-matter/

  • OldSearcher

    In regards on the current conversation on Aristotle, Plato and Aquinas, perhaps you can find interesting this comment from the philosopher Daniel Linford.

    EDIT: Sorry. I see that Luc Regis had previously posted the same link.

  • I became atheist without any knowledge of any church's position on metaphysics or, indeed without any real metaphysical position. I was aware of Plato's metaphysics and rejected them then and continue to. I never thought theists held to Platonic idealism.

    Platonic Idealism is a metaphysical position I have never heard any atheist advance. The only idealist I am familiar with is YouTuber Johanan Ratz, a Christian apologist.

    Most atheists I encounter seem to adopt a form of substance dualism as advanced by Rene Descartes. A metaphysics that is entirely conpatible with Catholic theism.

    If you are looking for the source of atheism, I suggest that a misunderstanding of Aristotle is the wrong place to look.

    • Rob Abney

      "Most atheists I encounter seem to adopt a form of substance dualism as advanced by Rene Descartes"

      I would like to read your explanation here, because it seems to me that you are supporting Gordon's premise about platonism by supporting dualism.

      "A metaphysics that is entirely conpatible with Catholic theism"

      Can you give more details? How do Catholic theologians support dualism.

      • David Nickol

        How do Catholic theologians support dualism.

        The belief that human beings have a physical body and a spiritual soul is an absolute fundamental in Catholic thought. From the Catechism:

        366 The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God—it is not "produced" by the parents—and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.

      • I don't know, are you saying that Aristotle and Catholicism are monists? Materialists or idealists? I had understood from people like Feser that a distinct immaterial reality and a real material reality are fundamental to Catholic belief.

  • dippu dixit

    one is headed down the road to atheism, then almost all of the Christian theologians of the first millennia were pseudo-atheists, and even Aquinas cannot be considered to entirely escape the charge.


  • DLink

    One side note: The early dissenters (14th century forward) knew they had first to destroy what was already present and accepted before being able to successfully put forth their own philosophies. This continued for over five hundred years and is still attempted today. The "death of God" movement in the 1960's was one of the last manifestations that had any sort of following. Today, to avoid direct confrontation with Aristotle et al, a number of philosophers have turned to eastern thought as a vehicle for their posits, apparently without much success as their publications are often found in quantity in the markdown remainder section of bookstores. Sometimes, when truth has been adequately set out, attempting to find new directions simply leads one further away.

  • Thomas J. Ryan

    No less a Thomist than Etienne Gilson said that Thomas' philosophy was more in tune with and drew more heavily from Plato than Aristotle

  • mango

    I find that this post doesn't do justice to Plato. The following is a modest series of thoughts on the matter.

    While Plato may have been wrong about many things, he was often profoundly right in raising the correct questions and introducing most of the necessary elements needed to resolve those questions. That he couldn't put the pieces together perfectly and that his best student was the one who would do so should not be held against him. We also have to remember that we only have his dialogues and not his lectures (and the reverse with Aristotle). You call Plato a big-picture thinker but that may simply be due to the genre that his surviving works are written in. Aristotle was writing lectures for students, of course he is going to be more focused on the details and technical ideas. But the question remains: Would Aristotle have been able to achieve what he did if he were not first a Platonist? (And the fact that Aristotle's thought matured over the years seems to be quite certain, starting from a more Platonist conception in his early days and eventually being able to break free from the limitations of Plato in his later life.)

    I'll just give one example of something that Plato got profoundly right but that you seem to dismiss. His dualism, if taken in a literal sense, can seem to be the biggest flaw in his philosophy. And indeed, Aquinas shows that Plato was mistaken. But Aquinas does not dismiss the insights of Plato's dualism all together. The realm of the forms is correct if we mean that the ideas are in the Mind of God in the sense that God knows how His Essence, which is identical with His Existence, can be participated in. So in a sense Plato was right: that which is outside the realm of the forms is less "real" in the sense that it does not have being of its own but merely participates in Being. Sin, then, is a turning away from the Creator towards the creature; a turning from the real to mere shadows. Sin is a movement into the cave of lesser beings, of lesser goods. But the way out of the cave leads us to the theology of grace and to rebuke Plato for not being a Christian theologian seems silly.

    None of the above would be possible without Plato's incorrect dualism. Just because something is incorrect in one sense does not mean that it has no use in other senses. Aquinas, especially through Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius was very much influenced by Plato. Aquinas was as much of an Augustinian-Platonist as he was an Aristotelian.

  • Tom More

    Excellent. I buy it with my undergraduate philosophy courses. A brilliant synthesis of our culture. I would love to read more on the particulars and more specifically on Kant. I am perhaps just too lazy to do the work myself. Many thanks for an excellent article.