Plato and Imaginative Apologetics

In the apocryphal book of 1 Esdras 3-4, the author says that three bodyguards who guarded King Darius wanted to know: what is the strongest (or the most powerful)?

If Plato had answered this question, he would have included the arts in his answer, especially the work of poets or storytellers and musicians:

Then shall we carelessly allow the children to hear any old stories, told by just anyone, and to take beliefs into their souls that are for the most part opposite to the ones we think they should hold when they are grown up?[Republic 377b]

rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul more than anything else.[Republic 401d]

Plato’s conclusion of this is that “if someone is properly educated in music and poetry, it makes him graceful, but if not, then the opposite.”[Republic 401d]

Plato not only knew about the power of the arts, but also how they make such a deep impression on the young who are so impressionable. As the Roman poet Horace would say metaphorically of the young in his Epistulae (quoted in Augustine, City of God 1.3),

New vessels will for long retain the taste

Of what is first poured into them.

For this reason, those who have studied Plato’s aesthetics have concluded that he believed that Art is powerful, and therefore dangerous …. All of the arts move people powerfully. They can strongly influence our behavior, and even our character.”[1]

Of course, we still recognize this. That’s why we have film and music rating systems today. This is also why Plato engaged, however controversial, in a program of rigorous censorship of the arts for his ideal Republic.

Indeed, the arts are extraordinarily dangerous, and thus extraordinarily powerful. Even if partly confessional as in C. S. Lewis, Christian apologetics will convince non-Christians of Christian truth if and only if it “persuades through the force of an imaginary presentation of belief .“[2] In Milbank’s view, even the word apologia, technically, denotes “the primary narrative testament of faith,”[3] as St. Paul’s imaginatively conveyed self-defense in Acts 26:1ff indicates.

Hence, we need an imaginative apologetics, fired by the Holy Spirit. This would entail two things. First of all, it would mean the production of “works of the imagination” that such works of creativity should play in apologetics.  Write screenplays, in other words, or outstanding pop songs. Those who would seek to speak on behalf of Christianity (in either explaining or defending it) must become artistic, creative, and imaginative in developing and deploying works of the imagination, like Jesus himself did, or like the existentialists who wrote plays and novels to communicate their ideas, or like Plato himself who wrote his philosophy in dialog form.

Second, a Christian and imaginative understanding of human reason must be cultivated and utilized, since apologetics concerns the appeal of faith to reason.  But what is reason? Isn’t Christian reasoning, as the book Imaginative Apologetics asks, desiring, creative, imaginative, and beautiful, as well as analytic? Surely reason, regardless of modernity, is more than detached, scientific, cold, and calculative cogitation? Christian thoughtfulness is both right and left brained. According to Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, the failure to use both sides of the brain — the imaginative and the logical — is the major problem of the Western world. This re-evaluation of reason may also be especially needed in that some apologetically-minded Christians seem to share modern evidentialist assumptions of their (new and naturalistic) atheistic counterparts.[4] As Andrew Davison has stated, “Properly Christian apologetics requires a Christian understanding of reason.”[5]  Or as St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 1:5, “in everything you were enriched in Him [Christ Jesus], in all speech and all knowledge.”

By the way, according to 1 Esdras 4, “Truth” (or “True Truth” as Francis Schaeffer would have said), among the candidates of wine, the king and/or politics, and women, is the strongest and most powerful!

David K. Naugle (ThD, PhD) is chair and professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University and the author of Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans 2002); Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness (Eerdmans 2008); and Philosophy: A Student’s Guide (Crossway 2012).  Learn more here.


[1] Online: http://www.rowan.edu/open/philosop/clowney/aesthetics/philos_artists_onart/plato.htm.
[2] John Milbank, “Foreword,” in Imaginative Apologetics, xiv.
[3] Ibid.
[4] See Robert C. Bishop and Joshua Carr, “In Bondage to Reason: Evidential Atheism and Its Assumptions,” Christian Scholars Review 42:3 (Spring 2013): 221, 242.
[5] Andrew Davison, “Introduction,” in Imaginative Apologetics, xxv.

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