Recently, I’ve had some interesting discussions with a couple of Straussians who argued that Plato didn’t really believe the Theory of Forms or the existence of gods, and that those metaphysical and theological notions are only means to an end, which is to teach people to lead a virtuous life, in other words, they serve as instructional tools for ethics. I asked them if Strauss provided any concrete evidence from Plato’s own dialogues that proved his and their argument, but they couldn’t provide any, apart from some peripheral speculations about Plato’s intent and his use of the dialogic form.
Having read firsthand the complete works of Plato, and some works many times, I tend to think that I have a decent understanding of his philosophy, perhaps better than most average readers and even some scholars. To my mind, Plato’s epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, political philosophy and theology are all logically connected parts of a whole. We cannot make full sense of each subject, unless we take into consideration all other aspects of his philosophy. If anyone rejects the Theory of Forms, which underlies Platonism, his critical analysis would necessarily be deficient and misleading.
It’s impossible to do Plato justice in one post, and I can’t give chapter and verse without expending more time and effort than I can afford at this point, but just for the sake of fun and discussion, I’ll construct the logical links between the various branches of Platonism, starting from ethics.
1. To lead an ethical life, one must have knowledge of virtue and justice, just as one must have knowledge of the body and medicine to maintain good health.
2. If all things are in a constant flux, knowledge would be impossible, as there would be no one to know and nothing to be known. Therefore, the objects of knowledge must be an enduring reality.
3. Knowledge of justice and goodness is not a matter of perception or personal opinion, but objective truth that persists through time and space.
4. For man to comprehend the truth, which is immutable and everlasting, the soul of man must be immortal as well.
5. The virtuous soul lives in the contemplation of the Good both in this life and the afterlife, but the wicked abides in ignorance and wretchedness both now and hereafter.
Comprehensive arguments for the immortality of the soul are presented in Phaedo. If one takes those arguments seriously –which I do because they are not contrary to reason, it’s not a stretch to get at the nature of the gods as Plato might conceive them, the latter being a corollary of the former. As Descartes succinctly puts it, “Sum Ergo Deus Est” (“I am, therefore God is”).
1. Gods are immortal. If the souls of men are immortal, then, a fortiori, so are the gods.
2. Gods are artisans and guardians of the universe. If the body of man doesn’t move itself, but is guided and managed by the soul, the universe doesn’t move by its own power either, but is guided and overseen by the gods.
3. Gods are perfectly virtuous, viz. wise, good and beautiful. There is order, harmony and beauty in the universe, so the guardians must be wise.
4. Gods are powerful, as power proceeds from virtue. Justice is more powerful than injustice, which is but a diseased state of the soul.
5. Gods are supreme rational beings, with no unruly passions or desires.
6. Gods are the philosopher-kings of the universe. The Republic is the Philosopher writ large, and the universe is the Republic writ large.
7. There is one preeminent God, for the best form of government is monarchy.
In conclusion, I’ll quote Plato’s own words on the nature of God:
Let us give the true reason. God is in no wise and in no manner unrighteous, but utterly and perfectly righteous, and there is nothing so like him as that one of us who in turn becomes most nearly perfect in righteousness. It is herein that the true cleverness of a man is found and also his worthlessness and cowardice; for the knowledge of this is wisdom or true virtue, and ignorance of it is folly or manifest wickedness;