Saturday, 22 April 2017

Returning to Reality, by Paul Tyson

Paul Tyson, Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for our Times, 2015 The Lutterworth Press, Cambridge

Paul Tyson makes a case for a revival of Christian Platonism. I think I agree with Tyson that a Christianized form of Platonism is a good thing, though in a number of ways, I found this a frustrating book. I think it would have been helpful for readers for Tyson to have made some more direct comparison between Christian Platonism and other forms of Christian metaphysics, such as Thomism. Tyson spends a good deal of the book critiquing modernity. That is a worthy task, but well read Christians are likely to have read a number of books attacking both modernity and postmodernity, so it felt somewhat tedious.

Tyson makes reference a view times to John Milbank, but otherwise he does not make any mention of Radical Orthodoxy. This is somewhat disingenuous, as it is very clear that Tyson has been influenced by the Radical Orthodoxy school of theology. This is seen most clearly in his identification of Blessed Duns Scotus as the originator of modern thought with his advocacy of the univocity of being. Personally, I am not convinced of the univocity of being, but I am very uncomfortable with the way Radical Orthodoxy has turned Blesed Duns Scotus into a theological Darth Vader. Scotus made many wonderful contributions to theology. Might one not alternatively blame St. Thomas Aquinas' empiricism (and Tyson does hint at this as a root cause later in the book). Tyson does acknowledge that some scholars have questioned the approach he takes to Scotus, but it might have been better if he had avoided that whole avenue of controversial historiography.

What was most frustrating was the way our author connects adopting Christian Platonism with a left-wing anti-capitalist stance. I find it puzzling that he makes the connection between Christian Platonism and radical politics, as the Patristic Fathers did not share his politicized approach to the faith. Many of the anti-Nicene Fathers were positive in their views of the Roman empire and had no interest in political change. The post-Nicene Fathers were even more accepting of the Christianized empire.

I think Tyson is mostly on the right lines, but this book could have been better.


  1. Having read Plato's Republic through, it is actually fairly easy to see how a straight reading can lead one to impute to him 'radical' ideas on (to name just a few things) property, income distribution, and gender and racial equality. Of course, the straight reading is not always the most correct one, and in Plato's case one has to be truly careful to note where irony begins to creep in. Plato does say the 'city in speech', the city in which noesis reigns purely over the other parts of the soul, is possible. But it also becomes clear that Socrates does not advocate a violent revolution or anything of the sort to achieve it, except on the level of dialectic and the reassessed way of life it engenders.

    As to the Early Church Fathers, again, reading S. Basil the Great, S. Gregory of Nyssa, S. Gregory of Nazianzus and some of the other Greek Fathers most directly influenced by Plato, there is notable a consistent radical streak (even considering their own time as well as ours). They were supportive of the Emperor, but to say they had no interest in political change is, well, wrong (and a particular disservice to S. Augustine who wrote specifically on politics). Common to these Fathers is a rejection of private property as an absolute good (or even a good). Emphasis on the need for the rich to care for the poor. Strong critiques of slavery. Utter detestation of usury. Emphasis on Imperial property as common (notable in Basil and John Chrysostom especially). Calling them 'anti-capitalist' would be slightly anachronistic, but it's prohibitively difficult to see how, given how vested they were in truths they held to be timeless, they would view capitalism favourably at all.

    1. Good point. Thanks for dropping in and leaving that helpful comment.