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Plato and the Spirit of Modernity

In C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle the world of Narnia begins to dissolve and disappear.  The Pevensie children are confused and frightened, but Professor Kirke, now Lord Digory, reassures them that the Narnia and the England they had known were only shadows compared to the reality they were about to experience.  Then he mumbles to himself: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them in these schools?”  The Professor’s irritation is understandable, but Plato did play an important role in 20th-century literature, science, mathematics, philosophy, and even politics.  Yet the standard picture of that century—indeed, of the modern world as usually conceived—is un-Platonic.  For German classicist Arbogast Schmitt in his recently translated book Modernity and Plato: Two Paradigms of Reality, “modernity since its earliest beginnings in the fourteenth century can be described as an anti-Platonic age.”

Schmitt’s book is part of a German debate on “modernity,” which is supposedly characterized by a belief in experience or sensation, the individual, the empirical world, and science, as opposed to abstract thinking, universals and absolutes, the transcendent, and tradition.  Actually, every theme of the first group can be discovered somewhere in classical antiquity or the Middle...

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