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Plato on Piety

, 03:42 - Permalink

Anyone who is unfair to humans cannot respect God. -Porphyry


As we have written again on piety, from different ancient Hellenes writers, we will continue that tradition today, by presenting a taste of platonic theology, through the book Laws, which is the last dialogue of Plato. It consists of 12 books and an additional one. In the tenth book we read about three major crimes, which are three cases of disrespect against the gods. The first case is that gods do not exist. The second case is that gods don't care about humane problems. The third case is that humans can bribe the gods with offerings so that they won't be harsh on his unjust actions. Those ideas are crimes against gods and Plato is proving that ignorance is the cause of them. He also proves why those three ideas are wrong. In the article we will see a synopsis of the tenth book, centering aroung piety.

We have three participants. Kleinias from Crete, Meggilos from Sparta and an Athenian who is expressing Plato’s views, start in the midsummer to walk and discuss the matter of the content of a good educational system, the organization of a country-city, thus education, ethics, politics. They have all day to discuss it, by taking a long walk from Knossos to the cave of Zeus at the top of mountain Ide. Quite atmospheric, isn't it?

Against atheism

Let's examine the first case. Plato does not feel comfortable at all to discuss the subject of the existence of gods as it is so obvious to the Hellenes and even to the barbarians (886.a) that gods exist. He sees the universe as a creation of the god and also the time, the seasons, the harmony imply a great programmer. Plato gets angry that he has to prove the existence of gods and that there are writers who teach in their books that matter was created firstly and then all the others (887.a & 887.d). At this point we read that Hellenes prayed to the gods regularly, sacrifice to the gods, participate in religious celebrations, they beg and address the gods for their problems and for the things they give to them, they salute the gods in the raise and the fall of the sun and the moon. So, as a child was raised in such an environment it is not common to start having doubts when he becomes a young man. In that case, Plato is sure that he is going to change his view in later years and he should not act in any disrespectful way till then (888.d). The lawmaker should act in such a way that those opinions won't spread to other people, because atheism is a disease, something that Plato repeats again in a later point of the dialogue. In the second point he is more specific naming it as a passion to disrespect, thus a disease of the soul. Plato uses astronomy in his dialectic to prove the existence of gods and we won't present his thought here.


Against negligence

Let's see the second case, that gods do not care for our problems. Our base is: "The gods are good (agathoi) and they have all virtues and first of all they take care of everything." (900.d) As they have all virtues they are brave. Let's see a human. If he ignores the details then he is lazy and soft (901.c). But gods are not lazy or soft, because they have all virtues. If they were lazy they should also be cowards. Not to work is the effect of cowardise and laziness is the effect of softness (901.e). Let's see someone who builds a wall. He uses big rocks and small rocks too. But he pays attention on both sizes to have a good effect. Why we should say that god doesn't care about the details (the small parts) and he cares only about other more important work?

Against bribe

Time for the third case, that humans can bribe gods. If a human being is bad and unjust he is going to be punished here or in the underworld, Hades. There are humans who believe that they can escape that punishment by making good offerings to the gods, sacrifices or prayers. Plato examines why humans behave that way, being unjust. He states that the soul chooses between two paths, what to follow. Our allies are gods and with us we have daimons, but we belong to them. The thing that decay us is unjust, hybris (to be arrogant towards gods and their actions), afrosyne (the lack of fronysis = prudence and temperance). But we have the virtues on the other side, which lead us to god and they exist in us (906.b). (Years later, Porphyry of the neoplatonism will write on the same subject.) Let's imagine that we have a flock of sheep and we are the dogs. Do ever the dogs leave the wolves to come and eat the sheep if the wolves make an arrangement with them, to let them too eat from the dead sheep? No. Would a general do that? No. Why should people believe that on gods? Why should form in our minds the idea that those beings are unjust and they are influenced by our greed?


At the end of the dialogue, Plato speaks through Athenaios again by the disrespect towards the gods that we have when we think wrong things on gods or we make wrong actions towards the gods. He suggests that the reaction of the citizens should be immediate in those cases and the penalties are severe. Plato accepts that someone may have doubts on the existence of gods and at the same time to be a man of good character. In that case, he worries of spreading atheism to the city, not for the person, but for others (908.b-c). He also addresses another problem. The wrong type of devotion. He is against home altars and household cults because people tend to mess theology with personal imagination. So, they make sacrifices, they erect shrines and altars they extend the worship of a local deity due to dreams they saw, or ghosts, or visions they saw once, they make (weird) promises to gods, etc. For Plato it is difficult to found a right type of religion and devotion towards one god. People confuse their ideas on gods and they act disrespectfully without knowing it, so that they make sacrifices and gods instead of feeling good for them, they don't, they provoke dissatisfaction to the gods and the whole city is in danger due to those actions. To solve those problems Plato suggests the use of the public shrines and altars for prayings and sacrifices.


At this point, the dialogue ends. I have a notice. Plato is referring to ill ideas that people may have on gods and then they move to a wrong type of worship. This has no difference with superstition and Plutarch of the middle platonic school is going to write on later years that superstition, the fear of the gods, is another form of atheism. Theophrastos will also characterize superstition as a disease, like Plato does with atheism. Zenon, the founder of the Stoic school will characterize atheism as foolishness and piety as the science of serving the gods. The Stoics wouldn't disagree with Plato regarding the ill views of the gods that people have. Epictetus named piety to have the correct opinions on gods and he even wrote how the priests and priestesses should be chosen (more). On the subject of sacrifices and offerings, Porphyry will write many years later, that God has no need of our offerings and he continues that people who like money, are unjust and make offerings, those offerings are a disrespect towards the Gods and they pollute the sacred temples (more). He writes what kind of offerings we should provide and how.

So we may have magical papyri and curse tablets or poppets from ancient Hellas, but we should also keep in mind the advice of the philosophers who formed the theology of their time. In case of Plato, he passed his ideas to different schools and we have examples of other writers who fought against poets and sophists, who told weird things on gods. Poetry influenced the mass because it spoke to their heart, that's why it was used by the Stoics as a mean of rhetorics to persuade the mass on the right things.


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