How Christianity Became Platonism for the Masses, Ljiljana Radenovic

In the preface to Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche famously said Christianity is Platonism for the people. This was not meant to be a compliment to Plato or Christianity. On the contrary, Nietzsche thought philosophy had gone downhill since Plato, and civilization had become corrupted by Christianity. I will not follow his laments. I am more interested in finding the roots of his claim and understanding why some still find it appealing. … [please read below the rest of the article].

Depiction of Ancient Greek Philosophers in Orthodox Churches,

Article Citation:

Radenovic, Ljiljana. 2023. “How Christianity Became Platonism for the Masses.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (7): 1-6.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Articles in this dialogue:

❦ Radenovic, Ljiljana. 2023. “Alternative Modernity and Its Discontents.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (1): 32-38.

Christianity as Popular Platonism

The strategy for establishing or attacking the view of Christianity as popular Platonism has traditionally been to look for the similarities or dissimilarities between Plato’s philosophy and Christian teachings: their metaphysics and their ethics respectively. But once we start looking for similarities or dissimilarities, the options are endless, since we humans (especially intellectuals!) tend to be very good at finding them when our motivations are clear and our goals set. Let us explore briefly the question of a good life to see how hard or easy is to find similarities or differences. This particular question preoccupied both Plato and Christian philosophers of Late Antiquity, including St. Augustine. Their answers tie together their similar yet different moral philosophies, epistemologies, and metaphysics. The view they had in common despite apparent differences was that we cannot live a good life if we are not virtuous and we cannot be virtuous if we do not know the truth.

According to Plato, to become good, we require two things: we must have a good character developed via proper upbringing (techniques of which he nicely summarizes in the 7th book of the Laws), and we must use philosophy to learn the truth about the world. The truth thus revealed will help us see that the world we live in is transient; the eternal world that is higher and more perfect (the world of ideas) provides this one with its essence and existence, and the highest of all ideas encompassing all others is the idea of the Good. This truth will fortify our good character, and in Plato’s Republic we can read how.

The sage, a true philosopher, who acquires such knowledge, is moderate and restrained, precisely because he or she knows not to get invested in transient affairs of this world. In addition, those who know eternity are not afraid of death; this knowledge makes them brave and allows them to live a life without fear. Moreover, by knowing the ultimate Good, they cannot commit injustice. From this, Plato concludes the true philosopher should be the head of the state because this person possesses both the best character and the knowledge of the truth.

But aren’t philosophers, Plato wonders, very far from this world by the very nature of their knowledge and hence should not rule it? Wouldn’t philosophers who study the eternal world of ideas have doubts about what is best to do in real-life situations? In Plato’s time, just like in ours, a widespread belief was that being good in theory does not imply being good in practical matters. Plato says that even though such a view is common, it is wrong. If people knew that knowledge and virtues were one and the same, they would also know that those who possess the highest knowledge of the true reality (the Good) will necessarily be moderate, brave, just, and prudent and will know what is best to do and how to proceed in life and thus will have a good life.

Augustine and the Good Life

Now, let us turn to St. Augustine’s view of a good life. St. Augustine’s dialogue On the Happy Life, written shortly after his conversion to Christianity, contains some old Platonic themes in the new Christian setting. As Augustine, like Plato, understands it, we cannot lead a good life without having virtues, and we cannot have virtues without knowing the truth. The truth and the good are one and the same, so knowing the former implies being the latter. In accordance with Augustine’s Christian faith, the truth and the good acquire specific meaning: they come together in God. Only those who turn to God attain virtues, are given a glimpse of the truth (only partially possible in this life), start their ascent towards God, and are blessed. Due to God’s infinite mercy, they are given strong faith, hope, and love. This was a powerful message: eight centuries later, Thomas Aquinas still saw faith, hope, and love as the highest theological virtues without which a blessed life and moral virtues (such as moderation, justice, prudence, bravery and the like) are not possible.

From this brief overview of Plato’s and Augustine’s take on the nature of the good life, it is not hard to see how we can infer striking similarities or striking differences if we want to and depending on what our goals and intentions are. Plato’s idea of the Good can turn into God easily enough; the philosophical climb from the visible and transient world to the eternal one can become our ascent towards God. There is only a slight difference between valued virtues. More specifically, in addition to the cardinal ones adopted and routinely propagated by pagan philosophers, such as moderation, justice, prudence, and courage, we find a few new ones in Christian thinkers, such as compassion and humility.

We could maintain that this is just a Christian flavour given to the old moral philosophy of Plato and nothing substantially new. However, if we are inclined to spot differences, we can easily find profound ones between the two and say that these additional Christian virtues, particularly theological virtues of faith, love, and hope, are not just colourful and welcome additions that improve on the standard list. On the contrary, we can argue that they are the foundation of the good life, with all other virtues depending on them. We could also insist that Plato’s idea of the highest Good is nothing like the personal Christian God who became flesh and walked among us so that we too could become God. Philosophical ascent from the observable world of temporary things to the eternal world of ideas is nothing like theosis: i.e., our path to become godlike and reunite with God.

It is worth nothing that Augustine, like many early Christian thinkers, searched for signs of God in the practices of the pagans who lived before Christ. As he saw it, there are many proper ways to worship God. Augustine believed that he found in Plato’s philosophy the God of the Old Testament and “in the Scriptures [there is] an idea consonant with Plato’s definition of a philosopher as one who loves God” (Helm 1976, p. 21). For Augustine, the main danger of embracing a Platonic description of the philosophical ascent from the visible and perishable world to the higher eternal spheres of true existence is not so much that it is wrong; rather, the main danger is that it may mislead us into believing that on our own and of our own will without God’s help, we can embark upon eternity (Harrison 2020). The Christian practice of worship is the pinnacle of worship and the right way to worship. For Christian practice to be shaped the way it is, Christ needed to dwell among us, and we needed to see the truth in an unobstructed way. This truth was spoken to all, was not confined to elite philosophers’ schools or local/ethnic rituals of worship, and was truly universal. Many were drawn to Christianity because of its accessibility, and this was a good thing.

However, something else is going on in Nietzsche’s often cited comment. He acknowledges the wide acceptance of Christianity (much wider than Plato’s philosophy, of course) but seems to think this is nothing to be proud of and simply signals its low quality. For Nietzsche, Plato’s decadent philosophy was transformed by Christianity into its worst self: popular religion. Now, it is interesting to note that even those who disagree with Nietzsche’s qualifications of Platonism and Christianity and who think highly of both often agree that some kind of downgrade of Platonism was necessary to teach ordinary people to be moral under Christianity.

What kind of downgrade can suit this purpose? Well, it has to replace abstract concepts of the highest Good, i.e., the world of ideas, the intellectual climb from the temporary to the eternal, and so on, with the personal story of God who became man so that humanity can repent, forgive, and ascend to God. The personal story is suitable for the masses, while the philosophical one is mostly for the elite.  In other words, we often take for granted that the sophisticated truth is told via abstraction while the lower truth is told via story. It is this tacit assumption that makes Nietzsche’s comment appealing, even to those who disagree with his disparaging remarks about Plato and Christianity. But is this really the case?

Hume and Vulgar Religion

When Peter Brown (1981) became interested in the cults of the saints in Late Antiquity, he noticed they were reluctantly addressed in the scholarship and treated almost as an embarrassment in the history of Christianity. They were often tied to popular religion suited for the masses, a form of superstition rather than proper faith. In his book on the topic, Brown argues this did not have to do anything with the superstition of the people of time and explains it through our attachment to David Hume’s Natural History of Religion (1750).

For Hume, vulgar religion (the religion of the masses) inevitably sinks into superstition because most people are unable to develop a rational, theistic worldview. They always fall back on a kind of polytheism and personify the natural forces they fear the most. According to this view, the martyr saints took the place of the good Daimons and gods of the pagans and were supposed to help people and protect them from the evils of this world. Brown identifies Hume’s distinction between proper faith and popular faith (i.e., superstition) as the origin of our current two-tier model of faith, according to which there is a rational, reasonable faith for the elite and a lower, superstitious belief for the common people. Brown says, “The views of the potentially enlightened few are thought of as being subject to continuous upward pressure from habitual ways of thinking current among ‘the vulgar’” (1981, 17).

The same Humean way of thinking about proper natural religion and its primitive popular forms is imported to Nietzsche’s claim and is often endorsed even by those who do not share Nietzsche’s dislike for Plato or Christianity. Christianity is held to be a vulgar version of Plato that the masses need because they are neither capable of understanding the truth in its proper form, i.e., philosophical abstraction, nor able to live moral lives according to it.

But why are we inclined to think philosophical abstractions capture metaphysical or moral truths better? Why do we think truths delivered in stories have less value, that they are  appropriate for children until they grow up and are ready to understand how the world works for real? The reason lies in a modern worldview that we (implicitly or explicitly) embrace; this worldview presupposes that impersonal forces operating in nature are expressed (and expressible) in math equations and are known via experimentation. A simplified narrative of how this modern view became second nature to us goes as follows. With modernity, many old-fashioned ways of understanding the world were replaced by new experimental methods. Aristotelian methods were old-fashioned, using teleological, material, formal, and efficient causes to make sense of reality. But with modernity, all of these except efficient causation were dropped, and the search for the meaning behind natural phenomena was replaced by the search for the covering natural laws (Harrison, 2020). This is how modern science was born.

In such a mechanized world, there is little space for God. In the early days of modernity, God’s job was to impose laws on the world he created, but soon enough, he vanished from the picture. Goodness and beauty have struggled to remain, and even when they are acknowledged as important for our human affairs, they cease to be a part of nature. The nature we live in has become a cold, soulless, indifferent place. Of course, we may supply it with sense and meaning, beauty and goodness because that is the kind of creature we are, and our need to do so is something that an evolutionary psychologist could explain to us in evolutionary terms.

Finally, in our world of mechanized nature, what counts as a good explanation is the explanation that subsumes a particular phenomenon under a covering law of nature (or gets close to it). This is where our love of and preference for the impersonal and abstract come from. In the indifferent world of dead matter and efficient causes, the stories of good and evil, the salvation of the soul and the drama of our existence, are acceptable only as human coping mechanisms. Such stories are assigned their place, of course, but this place is far from what is real.

Yet this modern world of ours is nothing like the world of Late Antiquity. The world of Late Antiquity was a moral world with real moral forces populating it. It was metaphysically ordered as well. A debate between pagans and Christians of the time centred on the details of this order. For instance, when we look at a 2nd century exchange between Celsus (a pagan) and Origen (a Christian), we can see that their disagreement is basically about whether ontologically higher beings than humans (such as Daimons) can be morally more deviant than humans. Origen says they can be.

Human beings have a lesser ontological status (i.e., more imperfect) but can become morally superior if they follow Christ. For Celsus, a pagan philosopher, this is simply not so. Daimons are morally and ontologically superior to humans, and to believe otherwise is nothing but superstition (for details of the debate, see Martin 2009). In this world, the truth captured in abstract philosophical concepts is not necessarily superior to the one conveyed in narrative, because the natural world is part of this narrative and makes its own sense and has its own meaning.

Now, I can already hear objections: “But their world is far more primitive! We grew out of their world of good and evil for a reason. The world we live in is indifferent to our destinies for a reason!” The reason? Our metaphysics is closer to the truth. And how do we know this? Well, we know our metaphysics “works.” We can see it work in our sciences and our progressively better technology. Whether our metaphysics drives our sciences and technology is a question I have addressed at greater length elsewhere ( ), but to be brief, I do not believe it necessarily does. Metaphysics goes somewhat orthogonally to our technological progress, but I will not elaborate these points further. Instead, let me return to the world of Late Antiquity.

A World of Meaning and Purpose

The world of the pagans and early Christians was ordered, meaningful, and populated with all kinds of beings that had a soul. Their world was the place where personal dramas unfolded, and our temporary human life was all about finding the way to be virtuous and fulfil the purpose of being human. As Harrison (2020) notices, most of the pagan-Christian disagreements were not purely doctrinal but focused on how to proceed, what to do, and how to behave to live a good life. While pagans held on to their own ways, Christians offered a new one. But they shared the same world: a world filled with meaning and purpose.

Now, this common worldview is the main reason why Christian philosophers of Late Antiquity could go back in time and look for signs of God in pre-Christian philosophers, including Plato. More importantly, this explains why they could see Christianity as the pinnacle of wisdom, as the right way of life and salvation, not some lesser version of Plato’s philosophy. In fact, for Augustine, it was just the opposite: according to him, Plato’s philosophy captured God’s truth but in a less perfect, less straightforward way. This stands in striking contrast to the treatment of Christianity as downgraded Platonism for the masses that has taken hold in the last several centuries equally among those who dislike and those who like Plato and Christianity.

Today, we are accustomed to an indifferent nature, but for the Christians of Late Antiquity, an abstracted and impersonal truth was a lesser truth than the one delivered to humanity through a crucified and resurrected Christ. They lived in a world in which God planted meaning in all creatures and things; for them, philosophical abstractions could never replace, let alone improve, the truth of Jesus Christ who says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). In our secular, materialist, “scientifically” oriented 21st century, this sounds naive at best and superstitious at worst, but the time might be ripe to reconsider the old ways and some less austere metaphysics.

Author Information:

Ljiljana Radenovic,, is Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy, University of Belgrade. Her main research interests fall into the field of philosophy and history of cognitive science, history of emotions, developmental psychology, and philosophy of biology.


Brown, Peter. 1981. The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity. University of Chicago Press.

Harrison, Peter. 2020. The Territories of Science and Religion. University of Chicago Press.

Helm, Robert M. 1976. “Plato in the Thought of Nietzsche and Augustine.” In Studies in Nietzsche and the Classical Tradition edited by James C. O’Flaherty, Timothy F. Sellner and Robert M. Helm, 16-32. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Martin, Dale B. 2009. Inventing Superstition: from the Hippocratics to the Christians. Harvard University Press.

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