Plato's Laws X, 3

So, the Athenian lays out his plan to prove the existence of gods. Along the way, he establishes one should 'hate and abhor' those who disagree that they exist.

Ath. Who can be calm when he is called upon to prove the existence of the Gods? Who can avoid hating and abhorring the men who are and have been the cause of this argument; I speak of those who will not believe the tales which they have heard as babes and sucklings from their mothers and nurses, repeated by them both in jest and earnest, like charms...

Now, as to the question of which side Plato really favors, you can run that one both ways. On the one hand, maybe it's a sincere sentiment; on the other hand, maybe Plato is having his character express clear disgust to draw off suspicion that he's really going to advocate that the gods don't exist. After the long preamble, he gets to the doctrine that maybe the planets are just rocks and stars just fire.

Ath. I am afraid that we have unconsciously lighted on a strange doctrine.

Cle. What doctrine do you mean?

Ath. The wisest of all doctrines, in the opinion of many.

Cle. I wish that you would speak plainer.

Ath. The doctrine that all things do become, have become, and will become, some by nature, some by art, and some by chance.

Cle. Is not that true?

Ath. Well, philosophers are probably right; at any rate we may as well follow in their track, and examine what is the meaning of them and their disciples.

Here it looks like Plato is setting up the Athenian to admit the truth of the 'philosophers' doctrine, which is probably right, and said to be wisest of all.' But he and Cleinias remain opposed once it is lain out.

Ath. They say that the greatest and fairest things are the work of nature and of chance, the lesser of art, which, receiving from nature the greater and primeval creations, moulds and fashions all those lesser works which are generally termed artificial.

Cle. How is that?

Ath. I will explain my meaning still more clearly. They say that fire and water, and earth and air, all exist by nature and chance, and none of them by art, and that as to the bodies which come next in order-earth, and sun, and moon, and stars-they have been created by means of these absolutely inanimate existences. The elements are severally moved by chance and some inherent force according to certain affinities among them-of hot with cold, or of dry with moist, or of soft with hard, and according to all the other accidental admixtures of opposites which have been formed by necessity. After this fashion and in this manner the whole heaven has been created, and all that is in the heaven, as well as animals and all plants, and all the seasons come from these elements, not by the action of mind, as they say, or of any God, or from art, but as I was saying, by nature and chance only. 

So here is the first step of 'the philosophers' doctrine': nature has priority over art, for after all our arts generally only mimic nature: the painting of the landscape draws all its inspiration from the actual land, and sea, and air; and those things change wondrously daily, and through the seasons. Not so the painting, which dulls with age. Art is thus categorically inferior to nature. Therefore, the highest and noblest things -- suns and planets, for example -- should be products of nature, not art.

Being a product of nature means being formed by natural forces -- they do not know the names of gravity and the like, but that is what they mean. This is the best kind of formation, and it would be insulting to attribute mere art to such things.

Step two:

Ath. Art sprang up afterwards and out of these, mortal and of mortal birth, and produced in play certain images and very partial imitations of the truth, having an affinity to one another, such as music and painting create and their companion arts. And there are other arts which have a serious purpose, and these co-operate with nature, such, for example, as medicine, and husbandry, and gymnastic. And they say that politics cooperate with nature, but in a less degree, and have more of art; also that legislation is entirely a work of art, and is based on assumptions which are not true.

Cle. How do you mean?

This should bring back the earlier books on the education of the young. The arts there were highly praised, but because they perfect nature. Arts such as lewd poetics that brought about greater heights of pleasure, in a way that weakened nature, were said to be bad. Nature has priority. Art is valuable if and only if -- and indeed, only insofar -- as it works to perfect what nature has left unfinished. 

Step three:

Ath. In the first place, my dear friend, these people would say that the Gods exist not by nature, but by art, and by the laws of states, which are different in different places, according to the agreement of those who make them; and that the honourable is one thing by nature and another thing by law, and that the principles of justice have no existence at all in nature, but that mankind are always disputing about them and altering them; and that the alterations which are made by art and by law have no basis in nature, but are of authority for the moment and at the time at which they are made.-These, my friends, are the sayings of wise men, poets and prose writers, which find a way into the minds of youth. They are told by them that the highest right is might, and in this way the young fall into impieties, under the idea that the Gods are not such as the law bids them imagine; and hence arise factions, these philosophers inviting them to lead a true life according to nature, that is, to live in real dominion over others, and not in legal subjection to them.

Cle. What a dreadful picture, Stranger, have you given, and how great is the injury which is thus inflicted on young men to the ruin both of states and families!

Plato has had the Athenian give a pretty compelling argument for the opinion of 'the philosophers, who are probably right, and which some say is wisest of all.' Yet Plato does this. In the Protagoras, Protagoras has some fantastic and noble arguments. They don't end up making sense, but Socrates' responses are conflicted in the opposite way -- as Socrates himself notes. 

So, here too we can run it both ways. One: Plato isn't in the business of mocking his opponents. He is fighting an honest fight. He gives them their best possible argument in part of this honest struggle, so that he is not cheating them even if he ultimately defeats them; and when he cannot, as in the Protagoras, he admits it. 

Two: Plato is subversively arguing for the rocks-and-fire position (which happens to be true, by the way), but framing the opposition of his characters as a kind of self-defense against censure. Clearly they're expressing the socially acceptable views, and are entertaining these horrid thoughts only to refute them. 

As if to add weight to the second side, Plato now embarks upon a brief debate between the Athenian and Cleinias as to whether they should even continue trying to construct arguments against such a terrible position. Shouldn't the legislator simply ban such thoughts, and drive out such people? Or, after all, wouldn't it be better if you could persuade people of the wrongness of such evil thoughts? And shouldn't you be able to do that, if indeed they are wrong ideas? And after all, wouldn't it be a way of honoring the gods to defend them in such a fight? 

So again:  One: Plato is defending the idea of a fair fight, not simple legislative action. He believes and wants others to accept that persuasion is better than force. Or, two: Plato is hiding his tracks. He wants to continue to show the truth of the rocks-and-fire argument, but he's afraid of drawing censure. This argument is to give cover for continuing to explore the true idea he wants to advance.

See what you think about all that, and then we'll explore the argument that the sun and the planets are really divine. 


J Melcher said...

I vote "One".

It's said Socrates preferred face-to-face dialog over reading text because the f-t-f encounter allowed him to "interrogate" or confirm meaning. Plato here has created a text to mimic a dialog; in a (fair) attempt to bring out his points. If he'd wanted to hide his tracks, the conversation would be, frankly, more Socratic. "That is so, Socrates." "You are right, Socrates." "Of course" and "No question" and "None would say otherwise" ...

That said, however, Plato's "rocks and fire" claim embeds the modern explorations of "emergent order". The elements are severally moved by chance and some inherent force according to certain affinities among them-of hot with cold, or of dry with moist, or of soft with hard The ROCKS are formed in accordance with RULES, but who made the rules? Yes, this becomes a form of the "turtles all the way down" sort of argument. But to the extent that all of the physical world is an expression of math -- with fundamental axioms which might after all have been by choice or by chance different -- we get to an understanding that most of the random combinations of fundamentals are unstable or boring. The physics we study are evolving and interesting because the fundamentals appear to be -- carefully? -- matched.

Chance is not a god nor possesses godly powers.

Grim said...

That’s a good argument, but look at this too: Cleinias is providing the “Yes, of course you’re right” commentary. It could be that Plato is using the Athenian to provoke our objections. That sophisticates the dialogue into a complex instrument that allows Plato to stimulate us into engaging the debate. It also would happen to protect him.