This is the tenth in a second series of essays and reflections about politics and the moral life. The themes of the essays are drawn from Plato’s Laws, his last and longest philosophical dialogue written shortly before his death in 347 bce. Lawsis a fictional account of a conversation involving three old men with long experience in politics: Cleinias, from the Cretan city of Cnossos, Megillus, from Sparta, and an Athenian stranger who is not named, but who may be Plato himself. They have assumed the role of founders of a new Cretan city, Magnesia.
Book 10 is the most rigorously argued part of Plato’s Laws. It has been far more widely read than any other part. It has become a foundational work of political theology in the West whose influence reaches down to the present. So there is good reason to read it carefully.
Book 10 continues the theme of crime and punishment, and introduces a new variety of crime: impiety. This is presented not as just another felony, but rather as the root of all crime and immorality — of all uncontrolled lawless human behavior.
In contrast, Platonic piety is a love of excellence. It is a principle of Platonic philosophy that all excellence is a product of intelligent action, and further, that intelligence is the ruling power of the soul — that part of us which is our most precious possession, which is most properly our own. The soul consists of two parts, a higher and a lower. Desire and passion comprise the lower part; intelligence, the upper. Wherever the lower part of the soul is dominant, individual behavior tends to uncontrolled excess. Only when intelligence governs the soul is human behavior brought within the boundaries of virtue and civility. Remember Plato’s metaphor of puppetry and the golden thread — intelligence is the golden thread by which we govern our behavior and follow the rule of law. Individuals achieve excellence in all their endeavors by means of this golden thread. The supreme human excellence is moral. It is manifest in the virtues: prudence, self-control, courage, and justice — to name the standard ones. One could add friendliness, magnanimity, and generosity.
In his discourse, the Athenian Stranger extends this hypothesis to encompass the world. The world is a thing of beauty and order. It is excellent — its shape is spherical and it moves eternally around its center, never straying from itself. By design, it encompasses many varieties of excellence manifest in all the sorts of things we judge to be noble and good. The world also has a soul whose governing part is intelligence. That there is any excellence is due to intelligences contemplating the Good, which is the archetype of all excellence in all its varieties, and which transcends all worlds. Intelligence and the Good are the objects of Platonic piety. It is by pursuing them that we discover that the soul is immortal and immaterial, and that it is also divine. The love of these things, in particular, of excellence and its sources, comprises true religion. Plato’s god is pure intelligence, impassive, without desire or will.
From this, it becomes clear why Plato believed that impiety is criminal. It is a denial of excellence, which in turn engenders disrespect of law and social institutions and of society itself. Who are these deniers? The Stranger identifies two classes of them. First, there are atheists. They are philosophical materialists, who assert that everything that exists is the product of chance and necessity, of material particles in random motion, that even intelligence and the soul are mere products of unplanned material configurations. Only matter is eternal; there is nothing besides that is either immortal or divine. It is noteworthy that the Stranger speaks of these philosophical atheists with a measure of respect for their acuity (they are the forerunners of modern physical science) and he admits that for the most part, they live morally exemplary lives — this is true: the great materialist philosophers of antiquity, Leucippus, Democritus (Plato’s contemporary and philosophical rival) and Epicurus (an Athenian, who was born six years after Plato died) lived virtuous lives. Yet he worried that materialist teachings, especially the doctrine that chance and necessity, not intelligence, are the causes of existence, take away all reason for excellence and rational restraint; he feared also that untutored youths would use the belief in an unregulated universe an excuse for excess and unconstrained behavior and hooliganism.
The second class of deniers includes those who hold false beliefs concerning the gods. There are two sorts of these. Those admit that there are gods, but who deny that the gods have any interest in human affairs, and, since they ignore us, they may be safely ignored. Others believe that the gods take an interest in human affairs, but that they can be placated, appeased, and so one need fear nothing from them so long as one offers them the sacrifices they desire. The Stranger suspects that the latter are in fact atheists who mask their atheism with false professions of faith. In any case, their gods are vain, arbitrary, and morally compromised. They are neither models nor upholders of excellence.
The Stranger contends that government has a duty to maintain true religion, and to regulate the practice of it for the good of city and of the souls of all who dwell in it. Freedom of religion is denied. The only lawful religion is one established by the city. Moreover, since impiety is a crime, it must be punished. The punishments he prescribes imply that he supposed that free-thinking, which leads to the denial of the moral foundation of the world, is less a danger to civil society than the free exercise of religion. Hence, in the case of professed atheists, the stranger prescribes that they be put in houses of correction. The method of correction is persuasion by rational instruction. They are to be confined to a school for five years and taught true philosophy. If this fails to enlighten them, and they persist in their errors, then they are to be put to death. On the other hand, perpetrators of false religion and individuals who practice or advocate their own private religions are to be treated more harshly. They are to be imprisoned for life in a prison located in the wildest region of a city’s territory.
This seems to be Plato at his worst and, some would argue, at his most obtuse. In his defense, it may be said that these harsh measures are intended to insure that nothing untoward be allowed to interfere with the progress of the soul towards excellence. They are meant to protect an individual’s prize property as well as the peace of the city. The goal seems right, the means wrong. They are wrong not necessarily because government has imposed them, but because they use coercion in ways that contradict government’s true intent. Ultimately they do harm. And as Plato argued so eloquently elsewhere, justice can do no harm; it must benefit all. I shall attempt no further excuses.