Why Plato says that Atheism is a Disease
Someone brought to my attention that atheism is considered disease by Plato. This phrase has caused many misconceptions and negative criticism and it is important before forming an opinion about a subject or a person, we need to be sure that we understand the concept of which someone speaks – and in our case Plato in the current of Platonism.This article is not about to offend anyone or pass judgement on anyone's choice. This article is a commentary on Plato's opinion.
Plato in his book Laws writes that atheism is a disease. This article attempts a brief explanation of his viewpoint. In his book we read:
- Neither you by yourself nor your friends are the first and foremost to adopt this opinion about the gods; rather is it true that people who suffer from this disease are always springing up, in greater or fewer numbers. But I, who have met with many of these people, would declare this to you, that not a single man who from his youth has adopted this opinion, that the gods have no existence, has ever yet continued till old age constant in the same view, (Plato, Laws, 888.b-c).
Rather than explain Plato’s observation from the standpoint of pure Platonism, I prefer to use the avenue of Neo-Platonism as expressed by Plotinos, himself an expert of Platonic teachings and sharing a similar view as Plato in the matter of atheism. In the fifth Ennead we find him wondering what had become of the people who had forgotten their father, god. We read:
- What can it be that has brought the souls to forget their father, God, and, even if they are his parts coming from the God’s world, to ignore themselves and Him? The source of the evil for these souls was the entry into the sphere of the process, and in the primal differentiation with the desire for self-ownership. They seemed to have pleasure in this freedom and they made a great use of their own motion; thus, they were running down the opposite path, and going further and further to the largest distance possible, they came to lose/ignore their origin in the Divine, (Plotinos, Enneads, V.1).
This is a logical thought based upon the premise that the human soul is innately part God, yet by taking pleasure in their own existence and perceived freedom (and independence from God), they in actuality distance themselves from God instead of attempting to approach and finally unite with Him. In moving away from God, these souls progressively forget their divine origin and all the power they can derive from Him. By forgetting their divinity and lacking any desire to seek their source of light and inspiration in God, these souls turn their attentions and interests to things belonging entirely to the material world. Plotinos continues:
- Since they can see neither their father (God) nor themselves, they no longer appreciate themselves because they ignore their origin and they misplace their respect, honouring everything more than themselves; feeling admiration and joy for these things (the material things), and, depending on these, they have broken apart, as far as possible, themselves, with ignorant of what they have deserted; as a result of this focus on the mundane with complete ignorance of the Divine they disregard themselves, (Plotinos, Enneads, V.1).
Thus, this complete ignorance of their own divinity is a direct result of these souls having turned their focus on material things, which are corruptible and mortal. These humans, being only able to admire what is corruptible and mortal, severely limit their perception with this attitude and are neither able to conceive the eternal nature of God nor His limitless power, surpassing any material or mortal thing. Since these people see matter as their source, i.e. that they are born at the level of matter, they are unable to elevate themselves to anything higher than this matter, as this would be non-existent in their viewpoint. Being born at the level of matter, these people have (at birth) already completed their purpose; that is: life and matter being identical would mean life and corruption being identical, because everything in matter is mortal.
However, the other man who recognizes his divine origin and positively seeks that union, is trying to get to know eternity and perfection not only in the matter but in non-matter as well. That man uses the material world as the starting point to climb higher and higher because matter, too, as a creation of the god(s), is divine. But for that man the material world is a basis and a lesson upon which he will slowly grow to reach the source of all creation - and not the beginning and the ending of limited matter as it was for the previous man.
After that excursion, returning to our concept “disease” we know that the disease in general manifests in the material body and thus in the material world. That means that disease exists where matter exists. Plato talks about disease as the suffering of those who deny the existence of the god(s). Plotinos writes for the people who refuse the existence of the god(s), that they have turned their attention only to material world and admire only matter. According to these two statements of Plato and Plotinos and our above brief analysis of the two types of people, we can say that atheism is a disease which exists where matter is, as matter and disease correlate.
To make it easier to understand, disease manifests in the body when there is an imbalance and when the natural functions of the body are disordered, going against the natural flow of the body. Making the connection with the paradigm, Platonism considers that the human being is a divine being which means that he will naturally seek the god(s). When man does not seek the god(s) it is not natural. This is a disorder and this is why it is characterized as a disease. For Platonism and Neoplatonsim, the natural state for the man is that he is divine, in constant connection with the god(s). When the man moves away from that natural flow and connection there is disorder and thus a disease, as happens with the material body, when there is an imbalance, there is a disease. Also, by moving away from the god(s), man moves closer to the material world, as Plotinos says, and the material world is connected to disease in general.