As it is often remarked, the history of western philosophy of more or less a series of footnotes to Plato.
Alfred North Whitehead originally voiced this sentiment (“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”), but others have quoted him in agreement, and it would seem that pretty much every college philosophy class proves the point. Even if pre-Socratics are considered, the topics of discussion are first framed by Plato’s writings and then the discussion moves on from there.
Now, what is interesting about all of this (besides that its philosophy which is intrinsically interesting) is that in a letter (Plato’s 7th Letter to be specific) written later in his life, Plato claimed to have never written any philosophy. Volumes of his writing notwithstanding, Plato claimed that truth could never be written down and he in fact had never written down his own philosophical teachings.
On the one hand, this is true, since all of Plato’s writings consist of dialogues where the main character is Socrates. He could just be pointing out that he was merely passing on what Socrates said.
On the other hand, it is at least worth noting that Plato’s chosen form of communication was dialogue, which is to say he didn’t write academic treatises but rather cast his ideas in dramatic form.
In this sense then, the history of philosophy is not just a footnote to Plato. The history of philosophy is a footnote to (what is mostly) fictional dialogue. Or, we could go so far as to say, philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to the drama of everyday life.
Whether or not this is a completely accurate way to look at things, I’ll let you ponder. It all got me thinking though how this might correspond to theology. You may have guessed where I was going with this, but I think it’s fair to say something similar about the history of Christian theology:
The history of Christian theology consists of a series of footnotes to the divine drama of redemption.
It may be too much to say theology is merely a footnote, but it does put it in its place. The main text (or Word?) deserves center stage. Theology is the space below where you can find further elaboration and explanation. Some of us enjoy digging around the footnotes more than others, but we certainly shouldn’t elevate the task of perfecting footnotes beyond looking intently at the dramatic action that has already been written into the history of redemption.
It would seem that though they may dabble in the obscure and arcane, philosophy and theology are both connected to drama and are both commenting extensively on drama. Rather than being the real action, we are called to be faithful commentators on the divine action and draw people interested in the footnotes to pay close attention to the action while also drawing people enamored with the action into a deeper knowledge of what they’re watching.
Now that shouldn’t be too hard now should it?