IT was through Plato that the spirit and wisdom of Socrates came forth to Hellas and to the world. The minor currents of Cynicism, Cyrenaicism, Megarianisrn and the cultured religiosity of Xenophon, though all had important consequences, are comparatively of little account. Platonism is the main stream deriving from the Socratic fountain, but the channel has given shape and colour to the moving waters. In the Platonic philosophy, the whole spirit of the master's life and teaching is embodied, but there is something more. When Plato first attached himself to Socrates as a younger companion and disciple, he was already accomplished in all bodily and mental graces which the highest circle of Athenian society could bestow. He was a poet of no mean aspirations, though when he came under the influence of Socrates he destroyed his verses so effectually that only a single couplet can with any probability be assigned to him:
ἀστέρας εἰσαθρεῖς, ἀστὴρ ἐμός εἴθε γενοίμην
οὐανρός, ὡς πολλοῖς ὄμμασιν εἰς σὲ βλέπω.
‘Thou gazest at the stars, my star; would I were Heaven, With countless eyes to give thee back that gaze!’
He had also a considerable tincture of the earlier philosophy, and as we are told by Aristotle, a sound authority, had studied under Cratylus, the contemporary Heraclitean. But in the talk of Socrates he found a depth of wise suggestiveness which eclipsed for him all other culture, speculation, dogma. And when that strange and fascinating life came to its tragic end, the poet-scholar could not rest in the suspense which had been so often the last word of the Socratic teaching; the aim and scope of that teaching, negative as it had seemed, was revealed to him as having a positive substance of which other doctrines were but the shadows. These discourses alone had mind within them, they lived and breathed, and were instinct with a life-giving power. Socrates had not died for a negation, but for an ideal of justice, which Athenian wits had pared away to nothing; a standard of goodness to which the world was still a stranger; an absolute truth which, if discovered, would afford the only sure basis for human life and conduct. To develop these conceptions, to give them literary form, to recommend them to the select spirits of his own generation, and if possible to posterity, was thenceforward to be his lifework. In this he was not unmindful that Socrates had been throughout impelled by a profoundly religious aim; that he believed himself to be acting in obedience to a divine call; and that the ideas of justice, goodness, truth, by which he measured contemporary standards and found them wanting, were inseparable from a right conception of the nature of God.
1. There had grown up in the Athenian mind, as we see from Thucydides, a radical opposition between justice and expediency. Ordinary men were in the habit of praising justice, while they did what they found expedient. But here and there, one bolder than the rest would discard justice altogether, as a word only ‘devised at first to keep the strong in awe.’ Such a person is the Callicles of the ‘Gorgias.’ Plato sees that in their highest realisation the just and the truly expedient are at one, that it can be for no man's genuine interest to do wrong, and so to lose that integrity which is beyond all price. But he sees also that the narrow conceptions of justice which have hitherto obtained must be revised, if human society is to continue or to be improved; that man cannot live by sentiment alone, but human life, both individual and social, must have a ground of reason. Hence, not content with exhibiting Socrates against the world in the person of Callicles, as alone determined ‘to live by law, acting the law he lives by without fear,’ he further represents him as engaged in a search for ideal justice, in conversation with Plato's younger brothers Adimantus and Glaucon. This is the theme of the ‘Republic,’ in which Plato has also inwrought many of his own highest thoughts on cognate subjects.
2. There is another aspect of life, rather individual than social, in which the questions that occur have less to do with conduct in relation to other men than with the art of living. The secret of this art, according to Plato, is a reasoned enthusiasm, such as Socrates inspired in his best disciples, and of which they, realised the depth and permanence only after his death. This mystic impulse is symbolised as Ερως, Love. The passion so described is not, however, mere personal attachment, though that may sometimes kindle it; but the love of that ideal which, to the mind so inspired, is alone the real,—an absolute universal goodness, a beauty, of holiness, which becomes the standard to which all actions, lives, thoughts, doctrines, are referred. This is the leading conception of the two great dialogues, the ‘Symposium’ and ‘Phaedrus,’ in which Socrates treats of philosophic love under a form which is often misunderstood—and not unnaturally, since he starts from a phase of manners, belonging to that time and race, to which nothing in modern life bears strict analogy. But the meaning is independent of the starting-point, and it is this: that the only life which is worth living is one in which the contemplation of truth and goodness in their highest realisations is prized beyond all other objects, and has a practical effect in subordinating all other motives to the endeavour to attain moral and spiritual perfection.
3. It is evident that a mind so inspired cannot rest short of the highest intellectual satisfaction which is attainable for man; for that ideal which is alone the real is not the object of a mere vague yearning, like an earthly love, but of the most strenuous mental effort, in accordance with the laws of reason. The conversations of Socrates had aimed at defining, with a precision that should be invulnerable by counter-argument, those moral truths which all men everywhere acknowledge, but of which, when questioned, they are found to have such hazy and confused notions. Plato's way of representing this is to say that Socrates was in search of the form, εἰ̑δος or ἰδέα, of temperance, of courage, of justice, of the state, &c. This perfect form, which was only to be grasped by reasoning, he opposed to the changing impressions or first-thoughts which the dialectic of Socrates was engaged in setting aside,—so approaching ever nearer to the certainty of truth. Thus philosophic truth became for Plato a constellation, as it were, of abstract forms or ideas, which alone had reality, and could be reached only by discarding, through a process of reasoning, the fleeting appearances or impressions which were their shadows. This was the first crude sketch or outline of the doctrine of ideas; but to take this as a distinct and separate dogma, and call it Platonism, would be untrue to Plato. He had been, as we have seen, a pupil in the Heraclitean school; and in the method of Socrates, dislodging men's apparently fixed opinions, and making them move away, as Euthyphro puts it, like the tripods of Daedalus, of themselves, he saw a living illustration of the Heraclitean doctrine of flux and perpetual change. But beneath this he saw also the permanence of the ideal, a fixity not like that of the Eleatic ‘Being,’ that stood out of relation to human things, but an unchangeable reality which imparted to human life, as nothing else could do, a true element of stability. All round him were raging the contentions of philosophic disputants, overthrowing one another in argument, and caring little for truth or human good in comparison with a polemical victory. How was the ground which Socrates had gained, and which Plato had enclosed with his ideal theory, to be secured against polemical attacks? How was he himself to hold it, or his disciples to cultivate it, in the face of all this controversy? What had been intellectually gained could only be held intellectually, and the Socratic teacher, above all, could not maintain positions that lay open to disproof. Hence Plato was brought face to face with the great intellectual difficulty of his time, the fruit of a philosophy in which a grand anticipation of truth had degenerated into a tyrannous form of thought. Euclides and the Megarians, and in a different way Antisthenes and the Cynics, had fallen under the dominion of the Zenonian logic. Plato, in his first enthusiasm, had carried his theory of abstract indefeasible ideas beyond the ethical region, which had been the province of Socrates, into all other subjects of human inquiry; but he was arrested by the logical difficulty how to conceive the relation between the idea and the phenomenon, the real and the apparent—or, what comes to the same thing in Platonic theory, the universal and the particular—which Eleatic reasoning tended to regard as incommunicable. This difficulty is developed with consummate skill in the ‘Parmenides’; and in the ‘Theaetetus’ the cognate difficulty of the relation of knowledge to sensation and opinion is similarly evolved. In a series of dialogues, probably composed a good while after these, a determined attempt is made to solve this problem of the age, by disposing of the prime fallacy of reasoning through contraries, in which it is assumed that things different are mutually exclusive. This fallacy had been carried to its extreme by those who denied predication because the subject was not identical with the predicate, and it is the same illusion which, under infinitely varying disguises, has haunted controversialists and polemical disputants of every subsequent age. The dialogues in which this phase of Plato's philosophy is embodied and expressed are the ‘Sophist,’ ‘Politicus,’ and ‘Philebus.’ These represent a long period of intellectual conflict, at the end of which the conviction remains, as firmly as at the first, that goodness and truth are in their highest forms inseparable and can be made the objects, in part at least, of scientific determination. But the ground for rational discussion has been cleared by the discovery that, as Renan saw, ‘the truth of a thing does not necessarily establish the falsehood of its apparent opposite’; or as John Selden put it: ‘When a doubt is propounded, you must learn to distinguish and know wherein a thing holds and wherein it doth not hold. “Ay or no” never answered any question. The not distinguishing where things should be distinguished, and the not confounding where things, should be confounded, is the cause of all the mistakes in the world.’
What concerns us more (as students of Greek religion) is to observe that in these later dialogues Plato's ethical conviction assumes more and more the nature of a religious confidence. According to this, mind and the object of mind are the supreme realities, the measure of all else in the universe, at once the end and the cause of all that is, or comes to be.
4. Plato nowhere sets himself directly in opposition to the religion of his countrymen in such a way as to provoke an accusation of atheism or impiety. Like Socrates he conformed to the traditional worship, but he is all the while absorbed in theological speculations, which really stand apart from tradition, but which he probably felt to comprehend it, as the less is comprehended in the greater. His quarrel is not with the religious teachers, whether Apolline, Eleusinian, or Orphic, whose symbolism he sometimes adopted, seeking to infuse into it a higher spirit, but rather with the poets and the mythologists, and their anthropomorphic and immoral representations of things divine. His Socrates confesses in the ‘Euthyphro’ that he had been accused of impiety because he could not accept current fables which implied immorality amongst the gods; and it is on this ground that Plato in the ‘Republic’ does violence to the cherished feeling of his adolescence by excluding Homer from his ideal state. God must be represented, even in fiction, as He is: that is to say, as perfectly good and true. God cannot be the author of evil: if He afflicts mankind, it is because they need such chastisement to purify them from their own unrighteousness; nor can God be ever tainted with falsehood or deceit, nor is. He liable to change, for He is absolutely perfect and all-powerful, and no being that could avoid it would alter from a state of perfection. Such views of the divine nature are far in advance of any earlier theology; indeed, it may be questioned if much of what has been called theology in later times might not bear to be revised by Plato's rules.
In no respect is the height of Plato's moral idealism more striking than in the contrast which it presents to the common Greek tradition, which even Herodotus maintained, concerning the divine envy. ‘Envy stands apart from the concourse of the gods,’ it is said in the ‘Phaedrus’; and the God of the ‘Timaeus’ in creating the world, because He is exempt from envy, is determined that His work shall be very good. The idea of Good is, in fact, hardly separable in Plato's mind from God Himself. The reason of the best is all but identical with the great First Cause. In Plato's religious philosophy, as perhaps in all natural theology, there is a lingering doubt as to what in modern language may be called the personality of God. Of the reality, beneficence and wisdom of the Supreme Being, there is no doubt at all; and how these attributes should exist without personality is inconceivable: (‘Soph.’ 249 A) ‘Can we ever be made to believe that movement and life and soul and mind are not present with Absolute Being? Can we imagine Being to be devoid of life and mind, and to remain in awful unmeaningness an everlasting fixture?’ Yet on the other hand, even where the language is so full of personal emotion as to incur the suspicion of anthropomorphism, we are conscious of a certain impersonality and remoteness in the mode of thought. At the same time it is made abundantly clear that the way for man to rise above himself is by imitation of the divine. ‘God is in no way by any means unrighteous, but as righteous as can possibly be; and nothing more resembles Him than whosoever of mankind becomes as righteous as he can; in that consists man's real ability, and in the want of that his nothingness and inability.’ From these speculative heights, in which moral aspiration and spiritual emotion are blended with the most intense and indefatigable efforts of the mind, Plato surveys ‘all time, and all existence’—that is to say, all human experience, so far as realised hitherto by the Hellenic race. He does not go to work with a ready-made system, into which particular facts are forced; but he brings to the test of his highest conceptions whatever the Greek mind had felt, imagined, or conceived. He does not stand aloof from traditions, which he regards as good servants although bad masters; nothing is left unexamined or uncriticised, and yet all are in some way woven in,—the old mythology, where it admits of being moralised; the Orphic mysticism, except where it ministers to immoral delusions; the old philosophies, as witnesses to high truths which they had partially disclosed. Plato is quite aware that, as Professor Jowett has expressed it, ‘the religious truth of one age may become the religious poetry of another.’
Pythagoreanism is an important element, not in Plato's thought so much as in assisting him to body it forth. The ideas of measure and symmetry, of harmony and rhythm, of limitation and the infinite, afford a meeting-point for that antinomy of the one and many, of similarity and diversity, of the fluxile and the stable, which, while remaining in sheer abstraction, seemed so hard to grasp. More especially he sought the aid of Pythagoreanism in dealing with those astronomical and cosmological theories which had fascinated him, although he still so far agreed with Socrates as to regard them as only capable of probable conjecture. Morality in Plato is the subject of exact science; physics only of doubtful speculation—the contrary of our modern point of view.
It is possible that he may have borrowed some of his imagery from Zoroastrianism, as for example the subterranean pilgrimage of Er, the son of Armenius, who, according to Clement of Alexandria, is Zoroaster himself. But this must remain in doubt until M. Darmesteter's view (rejected by Tiele) that Zoroastrianism, as we know it, has received a tinge of Platonism, is either confirmed or set aside. The substance of Plato's thought is independent of all such modes of expression, and to revert once more to his ethical doctrine, it is far more important than the resolution of any such questionable details, to observe how he differs from his own countrymen of old time (who made it a point of honour to revenge an injury) in maintaining that a good man cannot harm any human being, no, not even an enemy. This paradox Socrates maintains against Thrasymachus, and in the conversation with his old friend Crito, he refers to the same principle as having been long since agreed upon between them. The good man therefore only needs to be understood to be accepted of mankind. But he is misunderstood, and therefore rejected, tormented, crucified. Yet he wins the race at last, when the unrighteous who made a splendid start comes lagging in with shoulders up to his ears, breathless and faint. The wars of Greeks with Greeks appear to Plato unnatural, and to hang up in the temples of the gods (as had been done at Delphi) the trophies of such internecine strife, he accounts nothing short of impious. On the subject of marriage and of sexual relations Plato's philosophy was only gradually matured. In the ‘Symposium’ the picture of Socrates as absolutely exempt from the weaknesses of his countrymen in this respect is somewhat marred by the tolerance apparently extended to the errors of the average Greek. In the ‘Republic,’ the famous institution of communism is intended, not to encourage licence, but to minimise the indulgence of sexual desire. In the ‘Laws,’ his latest writing, while professing still to hold the theory of the ‘Republic’ as a pious opinion, he lays down for the citizens of the imaginary Cretan colony a series of precepts upon this subject which fully satisfy the requirements of a pure morality. As before remarked, he regains in theory the freedom from the special failing of the Greeks in this respect which is hardly to be found elsewhere except in Homer.
For once in the history of Greek thought religion, philosophy, and ethics are interfused. They all meet together in the Platonic doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul. The distinction of soul and body is sometimes regarded as a comparatively late development of human thought; but in one sense the separate existence of the soul is the most primitive of religious conceptions, and is implied in the earliest forms of sepulture. It had faded indeed into something very thin and shadowy for the age of Homer, but retained its vitality in central Greece, and had gained in warmth and intensity long before the time of Pindar and of Aeschylus. The Orphic teaching and the Eleusinian mysteries had given a more distinct shape to yearnings never long absent from humanity, when becoming conscious of itself. What is peculiar to Plato is not the assertion of a life of the soul after death, but rather the identification of soul with mind. This places the idea of immortality on a new footing. For on the condition of the soul in its relation to truth and righteousness depends her state of blessedness now and hereafter. Hence Plato, while often treading, as his commentators affirm, in the footsteps of Orphic mysticism, regards with unmitigated abhorrence those ceremonial rites by which it was pretended that the soul could be purged from sin and satisfy offended gods. Such doctrines of redemption are to him abominable, for they imply an utterly unworthy notion of the moral nature of God.
In the ‘Republic’ he describes with bitterness, successfully veiled with ironical scorn, what may be termed the purchase of indulgences, by which rich sinners hope to escape from punishment in Hades. And in the ‘Laws’ there are three classes of heretics whom he proposes to visit with the utmost rigour (1) the atheist, whose offence is the least; (2) the believer in gods who are indifferent to human things; and (3) worst of all, the believer in gods who can be bribed by prayers and incense to the remission of sins. That is his way of expressing the truth that the only assurance of salvation for the human spirit lies in ceasing to do evil and learning to do well. Yet perhaps these utterances may also serve to indicate wherein the highest philosophy may fall short, when seeking to provide a religion for humanity. The Eleusinian mystic, the Orphic preacher, and even the juggling priest of Sabazius had an inkling of human needs and requirements, which the intellectual scorn of Plato overlooked: disorders which they contented themselves with healing slightly, in their ignorance of a more prevailing remedy. And it is certain that in emphasising the sacredness of domestic life, Greek tragedy had given currency to an aspect of religious truth which Plato when he composed his ‘Republic’ failed to estimate aright.
The great thought of immortality, like other great thoughts in Plato, is variously expressed. The reasonings of the ‘Phaedo,’ in which Socrates holds converse with the pupils of Philolaus, the disciple of Pythagoras, have naturally some tinge of Pythagoreanism, but were doubtless felt at the time by Plato himself to be entirely convincing. The substance of them is that since truth is eternal, and truth only exists as apprehended by the mind, the mind must also be eternal. Modern critics, perceiving that the inference is not distinctly drawn from the universal to the individual mind, assume that Plato has only thrown into a mythical form his doctrine of the eternity of knowledge. His argument as judged by logical standards may be defective, but no one who reads the dialogue with simplicity and without metaphysical prepossessions can fail to see that when he wrote it Plato was profoundly convinced of the continuance of life for the individual after death. Especially convincing in this regard is Socrates' remark on Crito's question, ‘How shall we bury you?’ and the same view is emphatically repeated in support of the rules about sepulture which, are given towards the end of the ‘Laws.’
In the ‘Phaedrus’ we have a partly mythical exposition of the nature of mind or soul. It begins as follows:—
‘The soul is immortal, for that is immortal which is ever in motion; but that which moves another and is moved by another in ceasing to move ceases also to live. Therefore only that which is self-moving, never leaving self, never ceases to move, and is the fountain and beginning of motion to all that moves besides. Now the beginning is unbegotten, for that which is begotten has a beginning; but the beginning itself has no beginning, for if a beginning were begotten of something, that something would not be a beginning. But that which is unbegotten must also be indestructible; for if beginning were destroyed, there could be no beginning out of anything, nor anything out of a beginning; and all things must have a beginning. And therefore the self-moving is the beginning of motion; and this can neither be destroyed nor begotten, else the whole heavens and all creation would collapse and stand still, and never again have motion or birth. But if the self-moving is immortal, he who affirms that self-motion is the very idea and essence of the soul will not be put to confusion. For the body which is moved from without is soulless, but that which is moved from within has a soul, for such is the nature of the soul. But if the soul be truly affirmed to be self-moving, then must she also be without beginning, and immortal. Enough of the soul's immortality. Her form is a theme of divine and large discourse; the tongue of man may, however, speak of this briefly and in a figure. Let our figure be a composite nature—a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the winged horses and the charioteer of the gods are all of them noble and of noble breed, but our horses are mixed; moreover our charioteer drives them in a pair, and one of them is noble and of noble origin, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble origin; and the driving, as might be expected, is no easy matter with us.’
In this great passage the soul is mythically regarded as composite, having higher and lower elements, over which pure reason ought to preside. This notion of the composite nature of the human soul appears at variance with the argument in the ‘Phaedo,’ according to which the soul is one and indiscerptible. In the ‘Republic’ reason, anger, and desire are again assumed as distinct elements or aspects of the soul for the purposes of the dialogue; but in Book x. it is said that if we could see her as she really is, the soul might appear to have no parts at all, but to be one and indivisible. In the ‘Timaeus,’ which represents a later phase of speculation, anger and desire are not allowed to share in immortality but are inseparable from their seats in the bodily frame.
There is yet another aspect of immortality, hardly reconcilable with the preceding, and belonging to another mood, in which the divinity that shapes our ends is regarded, not as a stranger to the world of sense, but as permeating and commanding it, immanent rather than transcendent. This is suggested by the contemplation of the ideal Socrates, not as in the immediate prospect of death, but in fulness of life, amongst his friends and comrades, entering heartily into their enjoyments and rejoicing in their success. Here man is represented as partaking of immortality in so far as he partakes of higher life at all. In love, in action, in the productions of poetry and art, and in the contemplation of ideal truth, not only do his works live after him, but during his brief life on earth he lives in the light of eternity.
The ‘Symposium,’ that strain of glorious music, was probably the outcome of Plato's heyday of success, as a leader of Athenian thought, in the early days of the Academy. But in looking rather on this world than another, it bears some analogy to Plato's latest writing, the twelve books of the ‘Laws.’ This is not the most attractive outwardly, but in some ways the deepest and, taken in connection with the time of writing it, the most pathetic of his works. I know nothing in this way to be compared with it, except Shakespeare's ‘Tempest,’ and the last scene of the second part of Goethe's ‘Faust’; perhaps I might add the ‘Oedipus Coloneus’ of Sophocles. Only in none of these is the fading light of the parting luminary transfused with the same wistful glance at mankind whom he has yearned to save. At the end of the ninth book of the ‘Republic’ Plato had comforted himself with the reflection that if unrealised in any community his ideal might still awaken aspirations in individual minds. In his extreme old age, having lost nothing of his belief in the reality of ideal truth, or in the eternity of mind, and some good thing in reserve for the philosopher after death, himself on the verge of that other state, finding that his pattern Republic was not to be realised in his lifetime, he turns aside from his own fondly cherished ideal, and casts a last lingering glance on the Hellenic world, in which Athens, by her own fault, was no longer the chief factor. He sees that there is only one hope for the communities of a single race, loosely held together: namely, that each of them should be governed honestly and sincerely in accordance with laws framed after Greek models but purged from errors which experience no less than philosophy condemned.
Plato's most persistent aspiration was to reform mankind, both communities and individuals; and while perhaps his greatest effort had been to clear the sources of knowledge, and so to make intellectual progress possible, this intense endeavour was throughout associated with a practical aim. In the ‘Gorgias’ an absolute principle of moral rectitude was asserted, while current modes of ethical and political thought were utterly renounced. In the ‘Symposium’ a parallel but not identical doctrine was conveyed through the idealised image of Socrates, as reflected in the confessions of Alcibiades—an image of purity and spiritual elevation, that is in the world though not of it, and has the power of leavening the world. The ‘Phaedo’ breathes a still loftier tone, in which the ideal is that of a mild asceticism and withdrawal from the world, and from the experience of sense. In the ‘Republic,’ without lowering the ideal standard, a certain balance between the higher and lower views is obtained. While the state as a whole is to be possessed of all the virtues, and the rulers are to rise to the summit both of contemplation and of action, the remaining guardians and the industrious populace are to partake, through willing obedience, of a wisdom beyond their own. Even the nature-philosophy of the ‘Timaeus’ was only the prelude of a more comprehensive strain that should have hymned the triumph of the perfect human commonwealth in actual achievement. But some cloud had risen to obscure the vision of a reformed humanity which in the ‘Republic’ had appeared so bright. The reception of that great dialogue, and possibly the failure of some attempt to realise it in Sicily or elsewhere, the continued decline of political life at Athens, and other causes, of which we know nothing, must have intervened to account for the profound strain of disillusionment and misprision of mankind, which we meet with for the first time in the ‘Politicus.’ Another change of a different order goes along with this. From a patriotic Athenian (the author of the ‘Crito’) Plato is becoming cosmopolitan. Such hope for mankind as he still retains does not centre in Athens but ranges about the Hellenic world. Even the distinction between Hellene and Barbarian is fading away, and is attributed to the partiality of local pride. Linguistic indications, such as the admission of Ionic vocables and the like, confirm our impressions of this tendency.
In the ‘Laws’ we have the philosopher's final attitude towards Hellenic religion. There is no trace of irony in the passages, and there are many of them, in which he prescribes conformity to traditional worships. The great rule, that the beneficial is the holy, is carefully observed; but Plato's selection of the deities who are to preside over various public functions, while in each choice we find a Platonic motive, is in true accordance with Hellenic feeling. The introduction of Dionysus in the earlier books, in order to counteract a bare asceticism, is perhaps not to be taken too seriously. But the consultation of the Delphic oracle on matters not determined by the law, the punishment of sacrilege, the special honours given to Hestia, to Pluto and Eileithyia, the dedication of the artisan class to Hephaestus and Athena, the description of Nemesis as the messenger of Justice, the distribution and ordering of festival days, the consecration of the lot as the judgment of Zeus, the institution of priesthoods, the solemn appointment of the law-guardians in the temple of Apollo and the Sun, who are closely identified, the similar consecration of the appeal tribunals (945 E)—these and the like provisions are seriously intended to maintain genuine religious sentiment in connection with a strict observance of the laws. The inculcation of a spirit of reverence pervades the whole work.
On the other hand, Plato is as firmly convinced as ever of the necessity of purifying mythology and diffusing worthy conceptions of the divine nature.
The gods of the national worship (οἱ κατὰ νόμον ὄντες θεοί, 904 A), above all Zeus, Apollo, and Athena, are still to be revered; but a higher and more substantial divinity is attributed to the heavenly bodies, or rather to the souls that animate them and regulate their motions—it is blasphemy to speak of any of them as ‘wandering stars’—and higher yet is the silent worship given to the supreme invisible mind that moves and guides the world (ὁ βασιλεύς). In this conception Plato rises out of the pantheism which had already permeated and transformed polytheism, but in legislating for the men of his time this higher thought appears to him rather as the harmonising medium which is to dominate and reform the old traditions, than as a mere abstract or transcendent notion which is to annihilate them.
I will conclude this chapter by quoting some of the more striking passages illustrative of the ‘Spirit of the Laws’ according to Plato.
1. The lawgiver's prelude to his citizens:—‘Friends,’ we say to them, ‘God, as the old tradition declares, holding in His hand the beginning, middle, and end of all that is, moves according to His nature in a straight line towards the accomplishment of His end. Justice always follows Him, and is the punisher of those who fall short of the divine law. To that law, he who would be happy holds fast and follows it in all humility and order; but he who is lifted up with pride, or money, or honour, or beauty, who has a soul hot with folly, and youth, and insolence, and thinks that he has no need of a guide or ruler, but is able himself to be the guide of others, he, I say, is left deserted of God; and being thus deserted, he takes to him others who are like himself, and dances about, throwing all things into confusion; and many think that he is a great man, but in a short time he pays a penalty which justice cannot but approve, and is utterly destroyed, and his family and city with him. Wherefore, seeing that human things are thus ordered, what should a wise man do or think?’
2. The soul is to be honoured next to God:—‘When anyone prefers beauty to virtue, what is this but the real and utter dishonour of the soul? For such a preference implies that the body is more honourable than the soul; and this is false, for there is nothing of earthly birth which is more honourable than the heavenly, and he who thinks otherwise of the soul has no idea how greatly he undervalues this wonderful possession; nor, again, when a person is willing to acquire dishonest gains, does he then honour his soul with gifts: far otherwise; he sells her glory and honour for a small piece of gold; but all the gold which is under or upon the earth is not enough to give in exchange for virtue. In a word, I may say that he who does not estimate the base and evil, the good and noble, according to the standard of the legislator…does not know that he is most foully and disgracefully abusing his soul, which is the divinest part of man.’
3. The Athenian stranger is apostrophising the imaginary atheist:—‘O my son,’ we say to him, ‘you are young, and the advance of time will make you reverse many of the opinions which you now hold. Wait, therefore, until the time comes, and do not attempt to judge of high matters at present; and that is the highest of which you think nothing—to know the gods rightly and to live accordingly. And in the first place let me indicate to you one point which is of great importance, and of the truth of which I am quite certain:—you and your friends are not the first “who have held this opinion about the gods. There have always been persons more or less numerous who have had the same disorder. I have known many of them, and can tell you that no one who had taken up in youth this opinion, that the gods do not exist, ever continued in the same until he was old; the two other notions certainly do continue in some cases, but not in many: the notion I mean, that the gods exist, but take no heed of human things; and also the notion that they do take heed of them, but are easily propitiated with sacrifices and prayers’
4. The next passage is addressed to disbelievers in divine providence:—Let us say to the youth, ‘The ruler of the universe has ordered all things with a view to the preservation and perfection of the whole, and each part has an appointed state of action and passion; and the smallest action or passion of any part affecting the minutest fraction has a presiding minister. And one of these portions of the universe is thine own, stubborn man, which, however little, has the whole in view; and you do not seem to be aware that this and every other creation is for the sake of the whole, and in order that the life of the whole may be blessed; and that you are created for the sake of the whole, and not the whole for the sake of you. For every physician and every skilled artist does all things for the sake of the whole, directing his effort towards the common, good, executing the part for the sake of the whole, and not the whole for the sake of the part. And you are annoyed because you do not see how that which is best for you is, as far as the laws of creation admit, best also for the universe…Whenever the soul receives more of good or evil from her own energy and the strong influence of others—when she has communion with divine virtue and becomes divine, she is carried into another and better place, which is also divine and perfect in holiness; and when she has communion with evil, then she also changes the place of her life.
“For that is the justice of the gods who inhabit heaven.” O youth or young man, who fancy that you are neglected by the gods, know that if you become worse you shall go to the worse souls, or if better to the better, and in every succession of life and death you will do and suffer what like may fitly suffer at the hands of like. This is a divine justice, which neither you nor any other unfortunate will ever glory in escaping, and which the ordaining powers have specially ordained; take good heed of them, for a day will come when they will take heed of you. If you say:—I am small and will creep into the depths of the earth, or I am high and will fly up to heaven, you are not so small or so high but that you shall pay the fitting penalty either in the world below or in some more savage place still, whither you shall be conveyed. This is also the explanation of the fate of those whom you saw, who had done unholy and evil deeds, and from small beginnings had become great, and you fancied that from being miserable they had become happy; and in their actions, as in a mirror, you seemed to see the universal neglect of the gods, not knowing how they make all things work together and contribute to the great whole.’
5. Lastly the following are Plato's reasons for moderation in funerals:
‘We must believe the legislator when he tells us that the soul is in all respects superior to the body, and that even, in life what makes each one of us to be what we are is only the soul; and that the body follows us about in the likeness of each of us, and therefore, when we are dead, the bodies of the dead are rightly said to be our shades or images; for that the true and immortal being of each one of us which is called the soul goes on her way to other gods, that before them she may give an account—an inspiring hope to the good, but very terrible to the bad, as the laws of our fathers tell us, which also say that not much can be done in the way of helping a man after he is dead. But the living—he should be helped by all his kindred, that while in life he may be the holiest and justest of men, and after death may have no great sins to be punished in the world below. If this be true, a man ought not to waste his substance under the idea that all this lifeless mass of flesh which is in process of burial is connected with him; he should consider that the son, or brother, or the beloved one, whoever he may be, whom he thinks he is laying in the earth, has gone away to complete and fulfil his own destiny, and that his duty is rightly to order the present and to spend moderately on the lifeless altar of the gods below.’1
‘The wheel has come full circle’ from the Homeric notion that the slain heroes were themselves a prey to dogs and birds.