Plato's Laws X, 5: The Problem of Evil

There remain two very important matters in Book X: the problem of evil, and how to avoid blasphemy and impiety in society. We'll tackle the first one today.

The Athenian feels the existence of the gods is adequately established. But what to say to those who think the gods don't care about justice -- especially given the evidence of our eyes?

Ath. But the fortunes of evil and unrighteous men in private as well as public life, which, though not really happy, are wrongly counted happy in the judgment of men, and are celebrated both by poets and prose writers-these draw you aside from your natural piety. Perhaps you have seen impious men growing old and leaving their children's children in high offices, and their prosperity shakes your faith-you have known or heard or been yourself an eyewitness of many monstrous impieties, and have beheld men by such criminal means from small beginnings attaining to sovereignty and the pinnacle of greatness; and considering all these things you do not like to accuse the Gods of them, because they are your relatives; and so from some want of reasoning power, and also from an unwillingness to find fault with them, you have come to believe that they exist indeed, but have no thought or care of human things.

Indeed this is very evident in the world down to our own day. Vladimir Putin's security in office arises from his successful adaptation of the old KGB methods of secret murder of enemies, and repression. The People's Republic of China has obtained great sway over all of our elites, political, economic and cultural; yet its power comes from cheating at trade deals, theft of intellectual property, enslavement of its workers -- all secured by forced labor of Tibetans, the genocide of the Uighur, the arrest of the entire democracy movement in Hong Kong, the oppression of all natural rights, and the readiness to commit mass murder and military invasion. It would appear to our eyes, as to Plato's, that evil prospers quite well in spite of whatever the gods may think about justice.

Now the Athenian has an easy out here, and it is very interesting to me that he does not use it. Back when he was proving that some soul must be the source of the original motion of the universe, he quickly added that it must be at least two: "And as the soul orders and inhabits all things that move, however moving, must we not say that she orders also the heavens? One soul or more? More than one-I will answer for you; at any rate, we must not suppose that there are less than two-one the author of good, and the other of evil."

Thus the most natural thing in the world would seem to be to say that the evil soul explains the success of the evil powers. The evil soul empowers wicked men just so that they might cause pain, suffering, misery, and the corruptions of despair that might turn more once-innocent hearts to evil things. Indeed, since the prospering of the evil leads to more evil, and thus more worship, isn't this just what an evil soul would do? This obvious route the Athenian never considers; the evil soul he said must be one of the first principles of the universe is never brought up again.

Instead, the Athenian offers an argument that denies the evidence of our eyes, and affirms that the gods must be good and just, and deeply devoted to justice in small things as well as large. He then turns to mythmaking to reinforce this point, and then again to threats of dire punishment for anyone who denies it; we'll get to that tomorrow. The point for today is that the problem of evil is not successfully addressed by his arguments at all.

Why doesn't the Athenian use his obvious answer? I suspect it is because Plato knows that the Athenian spoke falsely in the first place; there can't be two first principles of reality. 

Attentive readers will notice that the Athenian hasn't actually proven the existence of gods; if you work through the last piece carefully, you'll notice that he actually didn't prove that the sun is a body with a soul. He proved that some kind of soul must be behind the original motion of the sun; and that thing must be a god. One of the options is that the sun is a body with a soul, like our own; but the other option is that there is some kind of being who is behind the regular motion of the sun, perhaps because it is set up by the original motion of the universe. 

In other words, this proof of 'the gods' can be transferred into a proof  'of God.' Avicenna will later prove that there can be only one first principle, not two or more, in a proof adopted by those who followed him in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Yet the proof that there can be only one first principle is already in Plato: you can read it in the Parmenides. It is interesting that the Athenian does not reference it. Later, Plotinus and the so-called Neoplatonists explore the necessity of the One that unites all at great length. (I consider myself a Neoplatonist, for whatever that is worth). Early Christian thinkers, including St. Augustine, either were Christian Neoplatonists or were heavily influenced by pagan Neoplatonism, long before Avicenna set out the proof that the Necessary Existent was also necessarily One.

Augustine (who was once a pagan Neoplatonist before converting) gives the Church its answer to the problem of evil, which is that evil represents a privation of the goods that the One God intended. Because of free will, human beings often imperfectly realize what God had made available; and every such imperfection leads to less good than God made available; and this is what we call evil. The prosperous evil man is thus allowed to exist because human beings failed to do the right things to stop him; and they will continue to exist and know power until people make the righteous choices to bring about a better world; or until they die, which is their unavoidable fate. In any case, all the evil is on humanity, not the divine.

The Athenian does invoke free will in explaining how the gods manage the world:

Ath. When the king saw that our actions had life, and that there was much virtue in them and much vice, and that the soul and body, although not, like the Gods of popular opinion, eternal, yet having once come into existence, were indestructible (for if either of them had been destroyed, there would have been no generation of living beings); and when he observed that the good of the soul was ever by nature designed to profit men, and the evil to harm them-he, seeing all this, contrived so to place each of the parts that their position might in the easiest and best manner procure the victory of good and the defeat of evil in the whole. And he contrived a general plan by which a thing of a certain nature found a certain seat and room. But the formation of qualities he left to the wills of individuals. For every one of us is made pretty much what he is by the bent of his desires and the nature of his soul.

Now this model depends, again, on ignoring the evidence of our eyes. The idea is that virtue profits us, always; and that vice harms us, always; and thus that 'the king' only had to leave us to work this out for ourselves. We will learn to do the right thing because the right thing is what brings us profit, health, strength, etc. We will learn to avoid vice because it leads to dissolution, disease, death ("The wages of sin are death") and so forth.

The problem is that this doesn't address the very matter with which we began: the fact that we can see that evil prospers, and not only that, that the evil which is done is often the source of the prospering and its security. 

Furthermore, we also know from the earlier books that the training in virtue doesn't always bring about good things: remember, the warlike games that were to inculcate virtue in the citizens are to be expected to bring about a certain amount of death and severe injury. The wages of virtue are death, too!

Aristotle wisely addresses this problem right at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics (EN 1.3):
Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.
So when we speak of virtue, we speak of what usually brings about excellence and success; and when we speak about vice, we speak about what usually brings about dissolution and disease, etc. Things in the physical world sometimes interfere with the working of Forms, so we can't expect to give logical proofs about physical reality. 

That's fine for ethics, but the Athenian is speaking about theology. He has given a proof (of just the sort Aristotle says only the foolish would try to give) that the gods are good and that justice must always therefore prevail. Clearly it doesn't; and clearly the virtues that the gods may have appointed to be healthy and strong are sometimes, as Aristotle says, just what leads to our destruction. 

Free will, Augustine's solution, is insufficient here because the way the Athenian presents it is that virtue and vice are reliable; and thus that reliability itself provides the regulatory manner of the gods. Yet since they are not in fact reliable -- evil does prosper, virtue can destroy us -- the theological point fails. The logical proof that the gods ensure a just world fails; and the evidence of our eyes is uncontested. 

What to make of all this?

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