1 Thomas Pangle, Plato The Laws, Bk X pg 286
2 Ibid. pg 308
4 R. Hackforth, Plato’s Phaedo, pg 169
5 Paul interprets the Greek ? ??? ?????? ???? as more appropriately translated as the ‘idea of the good’ Paul Shorey, Plato’s The Republic, pg103-104
6 Ibid. pg105
7 Thomas Pangle, Plato The Laws, Bk X pg 295
8 Ibid. pg 294
9 Ibid. pg 295
11 Ibid. pg300
12 Ibid. pg 307-308
13 R.Hackforth, Plato’s Phaedo, pg 127
14 Ibid. pg 127
15 Ibid. pg 133-134
16 Ibid. pg 133-134
17 Thomas Pangle, Plato The Laws, Bk X pg 311
‘If someone should be detected having committed an impiety that is not of the childish sort but of the sort that characterises impious grown men… let the penalty be death’.17
Certainly, in perhaps the most theistic of Plato’s dialogues Timaeus, Plato explicitly argues for a divine creator, the ‘demiurge’ or craftsman. Here, Plato takes the cosmic god of Pre-Socratics and transforms him into an active, designing, anthropomorphic deity who forged the universe in a perfect orderly way, every element fitting together harmoniously. The Timaeus then, finally ties together all the various strands of Plato’s thought into one theistic whole, his intellectual journey, which began with the project to rehabilitate the young atheists in Laws, ends finally with an ordered universe brought about and maintained by the Gods. Thus in final reckoning, atheism stands in sharp and distinct contrast to Plato’s metaphysics and theory of forms according to which these ‘forms’ and not the material world known to us through our senses, constitute the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. Thus, as the Athenian tells us;
Thus, the world for Plato is in a state of unceasing change to be seen mostly as the movement of all things toward the Good, the principle of all motion a radical pursuit of the eros, an aspiration on the part of all mortal beings toward Beauty. Hence becoming is the becoming of perfection, insomuch as that is possible in the realm of mortal things. Existence then, consists in the embodiment of value. To the extent that any object fails to exhibit value, it fails to be.
Thus, Plato in his critique of Anaxagoras in the Phaedo, laments Anaxagoras’s attempts to explain the order of nature by the operation of ‘mechanical causes’. He upholds instead that (99c) ‘the truly good and ”binding” ties and holds everything together’,13 ie through a teleological rather than a mechanical explanation of the cosmic order. In other words, things are in so far as they are good for something. This is the affirmation of Plato’s teleological principle. The goal at which all things aim is perfection. As stated in the Phaedo, the mechanists and the materialists ‘regarded the earth as a flat trough supported on a foundation of air’,14 but in fact the ‘state of the earth and moon, the sun and the stars, their speed and revolutions, the shape of the earth, be it flat or round…all these are determined by the principle of the best.’15 The orbits of the stars are ‘circular because the circle is the best of all shapes.’16 Succinctly put, the Good contains and holds all things together.
Certainly, philosophies such as atheism have, to a large degree, divorced ‘value’ from being, conceiving ‘standards’ as ineffective in nature; that is to say whether or not an entity might be considered ‘good’ is immaterial to its arrival or to its survival. For Plato however, this bifurcation does not exist. The Good is efficacious. Perfection is a law of nature, in the sense that phenomena proceed according to the ‘rule of the best’.
By the same token, Plato’s conception of ‘the good’, the highest thing from which all other things are derived was instrumental in developing the Christian conception of God, something which Plato referred to as the ‘great cause of being’. In his most famous work The Republic, ‘the idea of the good’ is for Plato this kind of dynamism bending the world to its pattern, an axiological and an ontological principle, a force of creativity.
Plato then in completing his case, attempts to prove that the God’s care for and are concerned with human affairs. He maintains that to argue anything else would be to call into question their divine omni-benevolence and omniscience, the Athenian exclaiming ‘do you say they neglect what ought to be supervised because of ignorance!’11 Plato contextualises this thesis using his myth of divine justice. He lays out how, after death, human souls are relocated to destinations befitting the character they have acquired during the course of their lives. Then, in somewhat murky fashion sketches how the gods have arranged the physical world in such a way that this transposition of souls is an easy task for them to perform. In other words, the basic physical rules or constraints the cosmos follows were somehow designed from the outset with the administration of divine justice in mind. Thus as stated by the Athenian, ‘if someone should be impious in words or deed and is convicted… imprisonment is to be imposed in every case.’12
With these aforementioned premises having been established, Plato through the Athenian raises the possibility that ‘two souls’ by ‘virtue of their motions, stir into movement everything in the heavens and on earth.’7 He reasons that since ‘the soul is the cause of all things’ it must also be the cause of ‘good and evil, beauty and ugliness, justice and injustice… and all the opposites.’8 Thus, in order to prove that it is a good soul that governs the heavens and the earth, Plato points out that seeing as the heavens move in a way that ‘reflect the motion and revolution and calculation of reason’9 it would make sense that the ‘best kind of soul’ cares for the universe and ‘directs it along the best path’10. The Athenian continues, declaring that if the heavens and the earth moved in an ‘unbalanced and disorganised way’ we would have to say the ‘evil kind of soul is in charge of them’, evidently for Plato untrue thus implicitly, forming the basis of his first sort of improvised argument from design.
Perhaps then, the clearest argument Plato gives for the existence of God lies in Book X of The Laws. He argues that all motion or change is ultimately due to one or more self-moving entities, these ‘self-movers’ as the originators of all motion and change are therefore ‘prior’ to entities which are merely moved by other things. Plato then argues that these same self-movers must be alive; that is, they must be ‘ensouled’ things, because when we say something is alive we mean precisely that it has the power to cause motion or change in itself. Thus, for Plato all motion in the physical world ultimately derives from soul.
Thus, although in certain ways applying the term atheist diachronically in a ‘platonic’ context can be awkward insofar as over the course of classical antiquity up until today, the term has continuously evolved; (The early Christians for instance were labelled atheists by non-Christians because of their disbelief in pagan gods) it is likely that Plato would have seen the ‘problem’ of atheism as an ailment to which his metaphysics was no doubt the cure.
It is in this light then that Plato most likely viewed the concept of atheism, the lack of any fundamental ‘meaning’ or ‘order’ to the universe running contrary to platonic notions of a ‘greater chain of being’, (a strict hierarchical structure governing all matter and life) and his ‘theory of forms’, forming in his view the most accurate representation of our reality. Certainly, Plato often invokes in his dialogues lofty and poetic language to illustrate the mode in which the Forms are said to exist. Near the end of the Phaedo for example, Plato describes the world of Forms as a pristine region of the physical universe, a ‘spherical body at the centre of the heavens’4. In the Republic, the sensible world is contrasted with the intelligible realm in the famous Allegory of the Cave. Indeed, when Plato describes the ‘form of the good’ or more literally (for Paul Shorey) the ‘idea of the good’5 we find what is perhaps the first formulation of the ontological argument in his statement that ‘as the sun is the author of the generation of visible things, so good is the source of being and essence in the intelligible world’.6
Indeed, the Athenian in further conversation with Cleinias later identifies what he sees as ‘three kinds of faults worth distinguishing… concerning divine things’2; namely the belief that the Gods did not exist at all, that they existed but were unconcerned with human affairs or that they could be ‘ridiculed’ or ‘bribed’ with sacrifices and oaths’.3
ATHENIAN: My dear fellow, the first thing these people say about the Gods is that they are artificial concepts corresponding to nothing in nature, legal fictions… who assume that the kind of gods the law tells them to believe in do not exist… a belief in nothing but a life of conquest over others, not one of service to ones neighbour as the law enjoins. CLEINIAS: What a pernicious doctrine you’ve explained sir! It must be the ruin of the younger generation, both in the state at large and in private families.1