Review: The Platonic Tradition Lecture Series by Dr. Peter Kreeft

“It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?” ~Digory Kirke, from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia

I can’t recommend this lecture series enough! In them, Dr. Peter Kreeft gives an excellent introduction to Western thought that’s both accessible and delightful to listen to. Kreeft is perhaps one of the best popularizers of philosophy today. He helps us see the discipline along the beam, in fact. As an admirer of C.S. Lewis, Kreeft frequently makes use of his metaphor of looking both at and along something (the namesake of this blog). He has written an entire book series in which he creates illuminating dialogues between Socrates and various modern philosophers – from Hume, to Kant, to Freud, and more. The best philosophy, after all, is done in dialogue or along the beam. 

In the lecture series, Kreeft’s main thesis is that Western philosophy stands on the shoulders of Plato (whose name means broad shoulders) and his idea of a transcendent Logos, or Good, as the ultimate reality. Kreeft is not the only one to make this observation. Modern mathematician and philosopher Lord A. N. Whitehead said that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Plato is philosophy.”

Kreeft demonstrates that where modern philosophy tries to detract from Plato, it ends in meaninglessness and absurdity.

Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” 

Or, as G.K. Chesterton wrote, “we cannot enjoy thoroughly even a pas-de-quatre at a subscription dance unless we believe that the stars are dancing to the same tune.”

Kreeft traces how early, pre-modern philosophy added to and completed Plato’s system beginning with his student Aristotle, and continuing on with Christian thinkers such as St. John the Apostle (who identified Plato’s Logos as Jesus – the One through Whom and for Whom the world was created), Justin Martyr, Augustine, Aquinas, and Bonaventure.

He then discusses how modern thinkers began the ill-fated and ultimately self-defeating task of trying to subtract from Plato. Starting with the nominalism of Ockham and ending with the nihilism of Nietzsche, modern philosophy is best described as a retreat back into the darkness of the cave, away from Logos – the bright, shining sun of Plato’s allegory. Ideals are always judges, aren’t they? They make us uncomfortable because they reveal to us who we really are. We’d rather withdraw into the darkness of Plato’s cave, than stand in the revealing light of the risen sun (Son!).

Christianity tells us that Plato’s Ideals are ultimately a Person, and though the Logos is our Judge, He is also our Redeemer Who is Love Himself. This is how Christianity completes Platonism; it reveals to us that the Ideal, the Good, is infinitely Personal and Merciful.

The last lectures on modern philosophy are particularly fascinating as they help us understand the world in which we find ourselves. Even as Christians, we often unconsciously adopt the premises of the cave. The surface of our lives may have improved since the time of Plato, but just below the veneer, we are as darkened and empty as our models of Space. Kreeft covers thinkers such as Ockham, Hume, Descartes, Pascal, Kant, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Comte, and more.

My recommendation: buy these lectures and listen to them slowly. Kreeft is one of the best living teachers in Christendom today. This series would be excellent for advanced high school students, too.

Warning: If this is your first exposure to the philosophy of Plato, the first few lectures might seem heavy. Again, I suggest listening to these slowly and several times through. That said, Kreeft does repeat the heart of Plato’s philosophy many times throughout the entire series and in different ways. If you do not understand him the first time, he will repeat it and perhaps in a new form that makes more sense to you. That’s what makes him such a stellar teacher!

Here is Dr. Kreeft’s website:

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