Head of Plato, Roman copy. The original was exhibited at the Academy after the death of the philosopher (348/347 BC).

Platonism is the philosophy of Plato and philosophical systems closely derived from it, though contemporary Platonists do not necessarily accept all doctrines of Plato.[1] Platonism has had a profound effect on Western thought. At the most fundamental level, Platonism affirms the existence of abstract objects, which are asserted to exist in a third realm distinct from both the sensible external world and from the internal world of consciousness, and is the opposite of nominalism.[1] This can apply to properties, types, propositions, meanings, numbers, sets, truth values, and so on (see abstract object theory). Philosophers who affirm the existence of abstract objects are sometimes called Platonists; those who deny their existence are sometimes called nominalists. The terms "Platonism" and "nominalism" also have established senses in the history of philosophy. They denote positions that have little to do with the modern notion of an abstract object.[2]

In a narrower sense, the term might indicate the doctrine of Platonic realism, a form of mysticism. The central concept of Platonism, a distinction essential to the Theory of Forms, is the distinction between the reality which is perceptible but unintelligible, associated with the flux of Heraclitus and studied by the likes of science, and the reality which is imperceptible but intelligible, associated with the unchanging being of Parmenides and studied by the likes of mathematics. Geometry was the main motivation of Plato, and this also shows the influence of Pythagoras. The Forms are typically described in dialogues such as the Phaedo, Symposium and Republic as perfect archetypes of which objects in the everyday world are imperfect copies. Aristotle's Third Man Argument is its most famous criticism in antiquity.

In the Republic the highest form is identified as the Form of the Good, the source of all other Forms, which could be known by reason. In the Sophist, a later work, the Forms being, sameness and difference are listed among the primordial "Great Kinds". Plato established the academy, and in the 3rd century BC, Arcesilaus adopted academic skepticism, which became a central tenet of the school until 90 BC when Antiochus added Stoic elements, rejected skepticism, and began a period known as Middle Platonism.

In the 3rd century AD, Plotinus added additional mystical elements, establishing Neoplatonism, in which the summit of existence was the One or the Good, the source of all things; in virtue and meditation the soul had the power to elevate itself to attain union with the One. Many Platonic notions were adopted by the Christian church which understood Plato's Forms as God's thoughts (a position also known as divine conceptualism), while Neoplatonism became a major influence on Christian mysticism in the West through Saint Augustine, Doctor of the Catholic Church, who was heavily influenced by Plotinus' Enneads,[3] and in turn were foundations for the whole of Western Christian thought.[4] Many ideas of Plato were incorporated by the Roman Catholic Church.[5]


Plato holding his Timaeus, detail from the Vatican fresco The School of Athens

The primary concept is the Theory of Forms. The only true being is founded upon the forms, the eternal, unchangeable, perfect types, of which particular objects of moral and responsible sense are imperfect copies. The multitude of objects of sense, being involved in perpetual change, are thereby deprived of all genuine existence.[6] The number of the forms is defined by the number of universal concepts which can be derived from the particular objects of sense.[6] The following excerpt may be representative of Plato's middle period metaphysics and epistemology:

[Socrates:] "Since the beautiful is opposite of the ugly, they are two."

[Glaucon:] "Of course."
"And since they are two, each is one?"
"I grant that also."
"And the same account is true of the just and unjust, the good and the bad, and all the forms. Each of them is itself one, but because they manifest themselves everywhere in association with actions, bodies, and one another, each of them appears to be many."
"That's right."
"So, I draw this distinction: On one side are those you just now called lovers of sights, lovers of crafts, and practical people; on the other side are those we are now arguing about and whom one would alone call philosophers."
"How do you mean?"
"The lovers of sights and sounds like beautiful sounds, colors, shapes, and everything fashioned out of them, but their thought is unable to see and embrace the nature of the beautiful itself."
"That's for sure."
"In fact, there are very few people who would be able to reach the beautiful itself and see it by itself. Isn't that so?"
"What about someone who believes in beautiful things, but doesn't believe in the beautiful itself and isn't able to follow anyone who could lead him to the knowledge of it? Don't you think he is living in a dream rather than a wakened state? Isn't this dreaming: whether asleep or awake, to think that a likeness is not a likeness but rather the thing itself that it is like?"
"I certainly think that someone who does that is dreaming."
"But someone who, to take the opposite case, believes in the beautiful itself, can see both it and the things that participate in it and doesn't believe that the participants are it or that it itself is the participants—is he living in a dream or is he awake?
"He's very much awake."

(Republic Bk. V, 475e-476d, translation G. M. A. Grube)

Book VI of the Republic identifies the highest form as the Form of the Good, the cause of all other Ideas, and that on which the being and knowing of all other Forms is contingent. Conceptions derived from the impressions of sense can never give us the knowledge of true being, i.e., of the forms.[6] It can only be obtained by the soul's activity within itself, apart from the troubles and disturbances of sense; that is to say, by the exercise of reason.[6] Dialectic, as the instrument in this process, leading us to knowledge of the forms, and finally to the highest form of the Good, is the first of sciences.[6] Later Neoplatonism, beginning with Plotinus, identified the Good of the Republic with the transcendent, absolute One[7] of the first hypothesis of the Parmenides (137c-142a).

Platonist ethics is based on the Form of the Good. Virtue is knowledge, the recognition of the supreme form of the good.[6] And, since in this cognition, the three parts of the soul, which are reason, spirit, and appetite, all have their share, we get the three virtues, Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation.[6] The bond which unites the other virtues is the virtue of Justice, by which each part of the soul is confined to the performance of its proper function.[6]

Platonism had a profound effect on Western thought. In many interpretations of the Timaeus Platonism,[8] like Aristotelianism, poses an eternal universe, as opposed to the nearby Judaic tradition that the universe had been created in historical time, with its continuous history recorded. Unlike Aristotelianism, Platonism describes idea as prior to matter and identifies the person with the soul. Many Platonic notions secured a permanent place in Christianity.[9]

At the heart of Plato's philosophy is the theory of the soul. Francis Cornford described the twin pillars of Platonism as being the theory of the Forms, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.[10] Indeed, Plato was the first person in the history of philosophy to believe that the soul was both the source of life and the mind.[11] In Plato's dialogues, the soul plays many disparate roles. Among other things, Plato believes that the soul is what gives life to the body (which was articulated most of all in the Laws and Phaedrus) in terms of self-motion: to be alive is to be capable of moving oneself; the soul is a self-mover. He also thinks that the soul is the bearer of moral properties (i.e., when I am virtuous, it is my soul that is virtuous as opposed to, say, my body). The soul is also the mind: it is that which thinks in us.

This casual oscillation between different roles of the soul is seen in many dialogues. First of all, in the Republic:

Is there any function of the soul that you could not accomplish with anything else, such as taking care of something (epimeleisthai), ruling, and deliberating, and other such things? Could we correctly assign these things to anything besides the soul, and say that they are characteristic (idia) of it?

No, to nothing else.

What about living? Will we deny that this is a function of the soul?

That absolutely is.[12]

The Phaedo most famously caused problems to scholars who were trying to make sense of this aspect of Plato's theory of the soul, such as Broadie[13] and Dorothea Frede.[14]

More-recent scholarship has overturned this accusation arguing that part of the novelty of Plato's theory of the soul is that it was the first to unite the different features and powers of the soul that became commonplace in later ancient and medieval philosophy.[11] For Plato, the soul moves things by means of its thoughts, as one scholar puts it, and accordingly, the soul is both a mover (i.e., the principle of life, where life is conceived of as self-motion) and a thinker.[11]


Ancient philosophy

The Academy

Main article: Platonic Academy

Site of Plato's Academy in Athens

Platonism was originally expressed in the dialogues of Plato, in which the figure of Socrates is used to expound certain doctrines, that may or may not be similar to the thought of the historical Socrates, Plato's master. Plato delivered his lectures at the Platonic Academy, a precinct containing a sacred grove outside the walls of Athens. The school continued there long after Plato's death. There were three periods: the Old, Middle, and New Academy. The chief figures in the Old Academy were Speusippus (Plato's nephew), who succeeded him as the head of the school (until 339 BC), and Xenocrates (until 313 BC). Both of them sought to fuse Pythagorean speculations on number with Plato's theory of forms.

The Skeptical Academy

Main article: Academic skepticism

Around 266 BC, Arcesilaus became head of the academy. This phase, known as the Middle Academy, strongly emphasized philosophical skepticism. It was characterized by its attacks on the Stoics and their assertion of the certainty of truth and our knowledge of it. The New Academy began with Carneades in 155 BC, the fourth head in succession from Arcesilaus. It was still largely skeptical, denying the possibility of knowing an absolute truth; both Arcesilaus and Carneades argued that they were maintaining a genuine tenet of Plato.

Middle Platonism

Main article: Middle Platonism

Around 90 BC, Antiochus of Ascalon rejected skepticism, making way for the period known as Middle Platonism, in which Platonism was fused with certain Peripatetic and many Stoic dogmas. In Middle Platonism, the Platonic Forms were not transcendent but immanent to rational minds, and the physical world was a living, ensouled being, the World-Soul. Pre-eminence in this period belongs to Plutarch. The eclectic nature of Platonism during this time is shown by its incorporation into Pythagoreanism (Numenius of Apamea) and into Jewish philosophy[15] (Philo of Alexandria).


Main article: Neoplatonism

Many Western churchmen, including Augustine of Hippo, have been influenced by Platonism.

In the third century, Plotinus recast Plato's system, establishing Neoplatonism, in which Middle Platonism was fused with mysticism. At the summit of existence stands the One or the Good, as the source of all things.[16] It generates from itself, as if from the reflection of its own being, reason, the nous, wherein is contained the infinite store of ideas.[16] The world-soul, the copy of the nous, is generated by and contained in it, as the nous is in the One, and, by informing matter in itself nonexistent, constitutes bodies whose existence is contained in the world-soul.[16] Nature therefore is a whole, endowed with life and soul. Soul, being chained to matter, longs to escape from the bondage of the body and return to its original source.[16] In virtue and philosophical thought it has the power to elevate itself above the reason into a state of ecstasy, where it can behold, or ascend to, that one good primary Being whom reason cannot know.[16] To attain this union with the Good, or the One is the true function of human beings.[16]

Plotinus' disciple, Porphyry, followed by Iamblichus, developed the system in conscious opposition to Christianity. The Platonic Academy was re-established during this period; its most renowned head was Proclus (died 485), a celebrated commentator on Plato's writings. The academy persisted until Roman emperor Justinian closed it in 529.

Medieval philosophy

Christianity and Platonism

Main article: Neoplatonism and Christianity

Platonism has had some influence on Christianity through Clement of Alexandria and Origen,[9] and the Cappadocian Fathers.[17] St. Augustine was heavily influenced by Platonism as well, which he encountered through the Latin translations of Marius Victorinus of the works of Porphyry and/or Plotinus.[9]

Platonism was considered authoritative in the Middle Ages.[9] Platonism also influenced both Eastern and Western mysticism.[9][18] Meanwhile, Platonism influenced various philosophers.[9] While Aristotle became more influential than Plato in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas's philosophy was still in certain respects fundamentally Platonic.[9]

Modern philosophy


The Renaissance also saw a renewed interest in Platonic thought, including more interest in Plato himself.[9] In 16th-, 17th-, and 19th-century England, Plato's ideas influenced many religious thinkers including the Cambridge Platonists.[9] Orthodox Protestantism in continental Europe, however, distrusts natural reason and has often been critical of Platonism.[9] An issue in the reception of Plato in early modern Europe was how to deal with the same-sex elements of his corpus.[19]

Christoplatonism is a term used to refer to a dualism opined by Plato, which holds spirit is good but matter is evil,[20] which influenced some Christian churches, though the Bible's teaching directly contradicts this philosophy and thus it receives constant criticism from many teachers in the Christian Church today. According to the Methodist Church, Christoplatonism directly "contradicts the Biblical record of God calling everything He created good."[20]

Contemporary philosophy

Modern Platonism

See also: Mathematical Platonism, Abstractionist Platonism, Abstract structuralism, and Platonized naturalism

Apart from historical Platonism originating from thinkers such as Plato and Plotinus, we also encounter the theory of abstract objects in the modern sense.

Platonism is the view that there exist such things as abstract objects — where an abstract object is an object that does not exist in space or time and which is therefore entirely non-physical and non-mental. Platonism in this sense is a contemporary view.[21]

Most contemporary Platonists trace their views to those of Gottlob Frege.

This modern Platonism has been endorsed in one way or another at one time or another by numerous philosophers, such as Bernard Bolzano, who argue for anti-psychologism. Plato's works have been decisively influential for 20th century philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead and his Process Philosophy; and for the critical realism and metaphysics of Nicolai Hartmann.


In contemporary philosophy, most Platonists trace their ideas to Gottlob Frege's influential paper "Thought", which argues for Platonism with respect to propositions, and his influential book, The Foundations of Arithmetic, which argues for Platonism with respect to numbers and is a seminal text of the logicist project.[21] Contemporary analytic philosophers who espoused Platonism in metaphysics include Bertrand Russell,[21] Alonzo Church,[21] Kurt Gödel,[21] W. V. O. Quine,[21] David Kaplan,[21] Saul Kripke,[21] Edward Zalta[22] and Peter van Inwagen.[23] Iris Murdoch espoused Platonism in moral philosophy in her 1970 book The Sovereignty of Good.

Paul Benacerraf's epistemological challenge to contemporary Platonism has proved its most influential criticism.


In contemporary Continental philosophy, Edmund Husserl's arguments against psychologism are believed to derive from a Platonist conception of logic, influenced by Frege and his mentor Bolzano.[24]—Husserl explicitly mentioned Bolzano, G. W. Leibniz and Hermann Lotze as inspirations for his position in his Logical Investigations (1900–1). Other prominent contemporary Continental philosophers interested in Platonism in a general sense include Leo Strauss,[25] Simone Weil,[26] and Alain Badiou.[27]

Influence on religions

Platonism not only influenced Christianity[28] and Islam, but also gnostic former major world religion Manichaeism[29][30] and gnostic Mandaeism.[31]

See also



  1. ^ a b " Philosophers who affirm the existence of abstract objects are sometimes called platonists; those who deny their existence are sometimes called nominalists. The terms "platonism" and "nominalism" have established senses in the history of philosophy, where they denote positions that have little to do with the modern notion of an abstract object. In this connection, it is essential to bear in mind that modern platonists (with a small 'p') need not accept any of the doctrines of Plato, just as modern nominalists need not accept the doctrines of medieval Nominalists." "Abstract Objects" Archived 2013-12-02 at the Wayback Machine, Gideon Rosen, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  2. ^ Rosen, Gideon (2012), "Abstract Objects", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2023-09-29
  3. ^ O'Connell SJ, RJ, The Enneads and St Augustine's Vision of Happiness. Vigiliae Christianae 17 (1963) 129–164 (JSTOR)
  4. ^ Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Vol 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition 100–600; Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Vol 3: The Growth of Mediaeval Theology 600–1300, section, "The Augustinian Synthesis".
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Oskar Seyffert, (1894), Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, p. 481
  7. ^ Brenk, Frederick (January 2016). "Pagan Monotheism and Pagan Cult". "Theism" and Related Categories in the Study of Ancient Religions. SCS/AIA Annual Meeting. Vol. 75. Philadelphia: Society for Classical Studies (University of Pennsylvania). Archived from the original on 6 May 2017. Retrieved 14 October 2020. Historical authors generally refer to "the divine" (to theion) or "the supernatural" (to daimonion) rather than simply "God." [...] The Stoics, believed in a God identifiable with the logos or hegemonikon (reason or leading principle) of the universe and downgraded the traditional gods, who even disappear during the conflagration (ekpyrosis). Yet, the Stoics apparently did not practice a cult to this God. Middle and Later Platonists, who spoke of a supreme God, in philosophical discourse, generally speak of this God, not the gods, as responsible for the creation and providence of the universe. They, too, however, do not seem to have directly practiced a religious cult to their God.
  8. ^ cf. Proclus' commentary on the Timaeus; Cornford 1937
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Platonism." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  10. ^ Cornford, Francis (1941). The Republic of Plato. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. xxv.
  11. ^ a b c Campbell, Douglas (2021). "Self‐Motion and Cognition: Plato's Theory of the Soul". The Southern Journal of Philosophy. 59: 523–544.
  12. ^ Plato, Republic, Book 1, 353d. Translation found in Campbell 2021: 523.
  13. ^ Broadie, Sarah. 2001. “Soul and Body in Plato and Descartes.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 101: 295–308. Quotation from page 301.
  14. ^ Frede, Dorothea. 1978. "The Final Proof of the Immortality of the Soul in Plato’s Phaedo 102a–107a". Phronesis, 23.1: 27–41. Quotation from page 38.
  15. ^ "Platonism – Medieval Platonism". Archived from the original on 2020-07-21. Retrieved 2020-04-22.
  16. ^ a b c d e f Oskar Seyffert, (1894), Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, page 484
  17. ^ Armstrong, A. H., ed., The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, Cambridge, 1970.
  18. ^ Louth, Andrew. The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
  19. ^ Reeser, Todd W. 2016. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  20. ^ a b Robin Russell (6 April 2009). "Heavenly minded: It's time to get our eschatology right, say scholars, authors". UM Portal. Archived from the original on 22 July 2011. Retrieved 10 March 2011. Greek philosophers—who believed that spirit is good but matter is evil—also influenced the church, says Randy Alcorn, author of Heaven (Tyndale, 2004). He coined the term "Christoplatonism" to describe that kind of dualism, which directly contradicts God's biblical record calling everything he created "good."
  21. ^ a b c d e f g h Balaguer, Mark (2016), "Platonism in Metaphysics", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, archived from the original on 2022-06-18, retrieved 2022-07-10.
  22. ^ Linsky, B., and Zalta, E., 1995, "Naturalized Platonism vs. Platonized Naturalism", The Journal of Philosophy, 92(10): 525–555.
  23. ^ Van Inwagen, Peter (2009). "God and Other Uncreated Things", in Kevin Timpe & Eleonore Stump (eds.), Metaphysics and God: Essays in Honor of Eleonore Stump. Routledge.
  24. ^ Alfred Schramm, Meinongian Issues in Contemporary Italian Philosophy, Walter de Gruyter, 2009, p. 28.
  25. ^ Peter Graf Kielmansegg, Horst Mewes, Elisabeth Glaser-Schmidt (eds.), Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss: German Émigrés and American Political Thought After World War II, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 97: "Many commentators think that [Strauss's] exposition of the true Platonist was meant as a self-description of Strauss."
  26. ^ Doering, E. Jane, and Eric O. Springsted, eds. (2004) The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil. University of Notre Dame Press. p. 29.
  27. ^ Sean Bowden, Badiou and Philosophy, Edinburgh University Press, 2012, p. 63.
  28. ^ Hampton, Alexander J. B.; Kenney, John Peter, eds. (2021). Christian Platonism: a history. Cambridge, United Kingdom ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-49198-3.
  29. ^ Corrigan, Kevin; Rasimus, Tuomas (2013). Gnosticism, Platonism and the late ancient world: essays in honour of John D. Turner. Nag Hammadi and Manichaean studies. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-22383-7.
  30. ^ Dardagan, Amer (2017-05-13). "Neoplatonism, The Response on Gnostic and Manichean ctiticism of Platonism". dx.doi.org. Retrieved 2024-06-04.
  31. ^ Nasoraia, Brikha H. S. (2021). Trompf, Garry (ed.). The Mandaean gnostic religion: worship practice and deep thought. Studies in world religions. New Delhi: Sterling. ISBN 978-81-950824-1-4.

Further reading