Did Plato Reach too Far?
You and your friends are not the first who have held this opinion about the Gods [that they do not exist]. There have always been persons more or less numerous who have had the same disorder. – Plato, Laws, Book X
Plato hated irreligious people. Why?
Plato, as everyone knows, was a philosopher. Some of his books dealt with political philosophy. He developed theories of government. He constructed a system of legal principles. He wanted to help leaders govern with fairness and justice.
How do you know which people are good citizens? Plato discovered . . .
Impious People Do Not Respect the Laws
As Plato journeyed through life, he considered the role of religion in public life. He came to a conclusion: religious people generally obey the law. He said in Laws, chapter X:
No one who in obedience to the laws believed that there were Gods, ever intentionally did any unholy act, or uttered any unlawful word.
But he who did must have supposed one of three things: either that they [the gods] did not exist, which is the first possibility, or secondly, that, if they did, they took no care of man, or thirdly, that they were easily appeased and turned aside from their purpose, by sacrifices and prayers.
In other words, people behave when they fear the gods. But some people refuse to believe in the gods. They teach there are no absolutes. They believe there is no standard for justice. Rather,
[they believe] the principles of justice have no existence at all in nature, but that mankind are always disputing about them and altering them; and that the alterations . . . are of authority for the moment and at the time at which they are made.
They say laws are made up by men. None of the laws are given by God. This means right and wrong are relative. Morality depends on the time and the moment. Plato states the men who teach these doctrines corrupt the youth. (Socrates, Plato’s mentor, also was charged with corrupting the youth. This led to the execution of Socrates several years before.)
These [blasphemies], my friends, are the sayings of wise men, poets and prose writers, which find a way into the minds of youth. They are told by them that the highest right is might, and in this way the young fall into impieties.
Plato held extreme feelings toward these impious men. He believed they should be thrown into prison! They are a danger to the state. The most vicious of these men must be executed for their beliefs. They are not fit to live among civilized persons.
First, We Prove the Gods Exist
Plato believed the state must educate young people regarding the gods. However, this educational program must be just. What if there are no gods? The young must not be punished for unbelief in something that does not exist. Plato held it is the responsibility of the state to prove the existence of the gods. Only then, according to Plato, is it just to imprison someone for unbelief.
So, how can we prove God exists? Let’s start from the beginning. Greek philosophers generally believed in the eternity of matter. Matter is a given. But motion is not. Motion must be started. Someone or something had to set things in motion.
This is a logical idea. Every motion is caused by an earlier motion. The earlier motion is caused by a still earlier motion. A regression has started. But this regression cannot go on forever. There must be a first motion—a prime-mover. The alternative is “infinite regress.”
So what or who caused the first motion? Motion does not begin by itself. Some principle or essence or being must start it. Plato refers to this entity as “self-motion.”
Then we must say that self-motion, being the origin of all motions, and the first which arises among things at rest as well as among things in motion, is the eldest and mightiest principle of change.
How to describe this substance with the ability of self-motion? Plato says “we should call such a self-moving power ‘life!’”
Plato’s Proof Moves Beyond Logic
Plato gives this self-moving essence the name “soul.” According to Plato, “the soul is the first origin and moving power of all that is, or has become, or will be . . . she has been clearly shown to be the source of change and motion in all things.” Plato considers the soul as the oldest of all things.
Many of us applaud Plato for this argument. He proved not only that God exists, but also that God is a living soul. However, Plato’s proof is based on cause and effect. Motion must be caused—it is the effect of an earlier motion.
It’s a good proof. It’s a powerful proof. It is logically intact. However, if the proof is based on logic, it must be logical throughout. Yes, it is logical to infer the existence of a “self-moving essence” to provide first motion. But logic can tell us nothing about this “self-moving essence.” It might be a living being. Or it could be an impersonal force.
Is this essence a personal being? Can we have a relationship with this Being? Does this Being care about us? Does It even know that we exist? Logic cannot tell us. We cannot know even whether the essence is alive. We cannot know anything about this essence.
Plato proved logically there must be a first mover. But then he went too far. He went beyond the limits of logic. He tried to discover more about this “self-moving essence.” But logic cannot tell us any of this Being’s personal qualities. Logic cannot even tell us whether this Being has personal qualities.
But this does not negate the logic of his proof for God. There must be a first-mover. We recognize this first mover as God.
Quotations taken from Plato’s Laws, translated by Benjamin Jowett on the Internet Classics Archive at classics.mit.edu/Plato/laws.10.x.html