Plato was a brilliant philosopher. And he almost got it right.
Clement of Alexandria understood the philosopher’s quest for truth. And he was able to connect the dots in Plato’s philosophy:
“Whence, O Plato, is that hint of the truth which thou givest? Whence this rich copiousness of diction, which proclaims piety with oracular utterance? The tribes of the barbarians, he says, are wiser than these; I know thy teachers, even if thou wouldst conceal them. You have learned geometry from the Egyptians, astronomy from the Babylonians; the charms of healing you have got from the Thracians; the Assyrians also have taught you many things; but for the laws that are consistent with truth, and your sentiments respecting God, you are indebted to the Hebrews.”
Clement saw a deep Jewish influence in Plato’s writings. The Greeks arrived at certain truths like monotheism, according to R.C. Sproul, much later than the Hebrews, illustrating that man’s search for meaning is hopelessly limited apart from revelation.
Consider “Plato’s Cave” in his famous work The Republic. The metaphor consists of a group of men chained inside of a cave. Their worldview was limited to shadows flickering across the back wall of the stone entrapment.
Plato suggested that if a man were to break free from the chains and the cave, he would be illuminated by the full light. Upon return to the cave, however, he would likely be beaten to death for proclaiming the truth.
Plato was so close.
The truth is that man’s freedom comes not from breaking out of the cave, but from God breaking in. Plato’s example represents the foundational error of man’s religious and philosophical quests for truth. We cannot pick ourselves up by the cosmic bootstraps. We cannot escape the cave. God must come in.
In a small cave, often used in those days as mangers, just a few centuries after Plato’s death, a baby was born in the City of David. He was the Truth incarnate: the Word in flesh. John’s gospel describes Jesus as the “True light which coming into the world enlightens every man.”
I like to think of Christ entering Plato’s cave filled with men enchained in their perrenial search for meaning. The men would hear the radical claims, “I am the Truth” and “I am the light of the world.” His words, as Plato predicted, would arouse their anger and seal his own destruction.
The biblical narrative reveals that after Jesus’ execution he was placed in a borrowed tomb: a cave. On the first glorious Easter Sunday, just three days later, he rose from the dead. And broke out of the cave: Defeating death, validating truth, and offering life.
The hope of Plato’s cave was escape.
The hope of Bethlehem’s cave was invasion.
The hope of Gethsemane’s cave was resurrection.
And the Word became flesh.