"Will there be chocolate in Heaven?"
Plato, Aristotle and Catholics
by James Hitchcock
June 30, 2002
When small children are told about the joys of heaven they are likely to ask at some point, "Will there be chocolate there?" A conscientious teacher then replies, with some unease, "Well, not exactly, but you won't miss it." "Yes, I will," the child wails, "If there isn't any chocolate I won't be happy." There is in fact a profound theological and philosophical truth behind this story, one which encapsulates a good deal of Western intellectual history.
Plato and Aristotle are the first major philosophers, if we except Socrates, who left little record of his thought. But Plato and Aristotle are in many ways almost polar opposites of one another, insofar as their view of reality is concerned.
Aristotle could be called the philosopher of the mundane, someone whose slogan might be "What you see is what you get." Although Aristotle believed in transcendent truths -- love, justice, beauty -- he was also a philosophical realist who held that the senses give us an essentially accurate picture of the world. In fact, according to a famous Aristotelian formula, nothing is in the mind unless it was first in the senses. We have to start with the mundane in order to reach the levels of transcendence. There are no short cuts.
Plato, on the other hand, taught people to be suspicious of the world of experience. Not only do the senses often lie, even at their most reliable they can tell us nothing about what is truly important. Instead we stall on the sense level. One of Plato's most famous passages is a story in which people who have spent their entire lives in a cave see shadows on the wall projected by beings outside the cave and mistake those shadows for reality.
Which of these theories is true? Although it may not be possible to reconcile their differences, it seems to me that both are true in their own way, because they address different aspects of reality.
Aristotle teaches us to take the world seriously, to recognize that most of reality is indeed mundane (worldly) in the literal sense, as well as in the sense of being undramatic. Aristotle's philosophy justifies building the city of man, which is not eternal but which nonetheless has to last for a long time.
Plato on the other hand points to something which even Aristotelians have to admit -- that the world of experience can lead away from truth. The simplest way to see it is in terms of the "rat race" -- it is possible to become so immersed in worldly affairs that one loses sight of the meaning of it all. The great religions teach that it is necessary to draw back from mundane reality in order to see it in perspective and to discern what is or is not real. For all their differences, Jesus Christ, Plato, and Buddha recognize that human nature is powerfully drawn toward "the flesh" and must make a special effort to rise up to the spirit.
Christians are Aristotelians because Aristotelianism affirms the reality, the essential goodness, of God's creation and recognizes the ability of the human mind to grasp objective reality, thereby precluding a merely subjective or relativistic view of truth.
But the question of whether there will be chocolate in heaven shows how Christians must also be Platonists. Chocolate does not exist for all eternity. Rather the "good" of chocolate -- whatever it is which delights us -- is present in heaven in the perfect being of God. Improbable though it may sound, we experience the delights of chocolate in contemplating God Himself.
Christians are Platonists because we have some ineradicable sense that somewhere there exists perfection, pure goodness, the fullness of being, and manifestly these do not exist in our experience. We expect to encounter truth, goodness, and beauty united in one, and we are disappointed when that proves illusory.
Aristotle's reality is then perhaps like previews on television, tantalizing samples of things yet to come.
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James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock
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