Notwithstanding the widely held belief that Plato is constructing a theological system, the Platonic texts themselves lend little support to such a claim. Platonic divinity, in its various forms, is characterised by profound conceptuality, with goodness as its defining characteristic. The entity that closer approximates Plato’s understanding of the divine is the Idea of the Good.

Is there a Platonic theological system?

Almost throughout antiquity, from the 4th cent. BC to the 6th cent. AD, the view that issues of theological nature represented a fundamental element of Platonic philosophy remained prevalent. This theological reception of Plato’s works becomes more evident in writers such as Plutarch, the author of the Platonic textbook Plato’s doctrines, Atticus -scholarch of the Platonic school of Athens in the 2nd cent. AD- or even Maximus of Tyre (who composed a treatise entitled What God is according to Plato). Later, such theological pursuits in the area of Neoplatonism received their monumental expression in Proclus On the Theology of Plato. It is quite likely that this tradition originated with the Ancient Academy, and especially Xenocrates, in whose theological Weltanschauung a cosmic God-Intellect (Nous) operates as the primary organizational principle.

When, however, one turns to Plato's works seeking evidence of theological concerns or analyses of an genuinely theological import, the results are rather paltry.

Early and middle dialogues

In his early dialogues, Plato appears chiefly interested in acquitting Socrates of the charge that he introduced novel ideas in the area of theology -the infamous καινὰ δαιμόνια-  and thus depicts him (especially in the Apology) as unconditionally embracing traditional views on the Twelve Olympians, exhibiting, in fact, special reverence for Delphic Apollo. Clearly, it is more important that in the Phaedo a philosophical “death” is regarded as the philosopher’s main concern – this means the soul’s release from the bonds of its body and bodily cares, and its ascent towards the extrasensory Ideas. These are repeatedly described as θεῖα ὄντα (=divine beings) and the soul is said to possess the ability to approach them because it is συγγενὴς (=akin, related) or something ὁμοιότατον (=very similar). It becomes clear that Platonic Ideas (εἴδη) are considered divine by their very nature, and that the soul also becomes divine to the extent that it grows attached to these. In fact, at some point in the dialogue (82b10-c1) Socrates does not hesitate to claim that by practicing philosophy and through the concomitant purification of the soul from corporeality, the philosopher can join the race of the gods (θεῶν γένος). The clearest and perhaps most distinctive expression of this view can be found in a somewhat later dialogue, in the famous passage from the  Theaetetus ,  where man’s goal is defined as ὁμοίωσίς (=assimilation) to god to the greatest possible extent. It is evident that in this context, god should be understood as the totality of the intelligible world, which contains the fundamental values of a righteous life that leads one to perfection.

It is apparent that this view ultimately ascribes new and groundbreaking, for its age, meaning to the way in which Plato interpreted and evaluated man’s relation to the divine, but it hardly contributes anything substantial towards the formulation of a complete theological system.

Later dialogues

Only in his later dialogues does Plato begin to crystallize, or at any rate give intimations of, a theological system; it apparently casts a heavy shadow on dialogues of an intensely dogmatic content, like his last major work, the Laws.

The first decisive step in that direction can already be found towards the end of the second book of the Republic, where Socrates attempts to define the prerequisites for any politically expedient narrative concerning the gods, laying down the famous τύποι περί θεολογίας (=patterns for theology, 379a ff.). Of these, the two foremost recommend (a) that, insofar as god is truly good, he can not beget, and therefore be held responsible for, anything evil or harmful that occurs in the world, but only good things; therefore, one needs to search for another cause, independent of divine will, for all the evil in the world. (b) That, given that god is perfect, he can not be subject to any change or transformation, for this would render god imperfect.

These stipulations are austerely adhered to in the cosmological vision contained in the final eschatological myth of the Republic, as well as in the cosmogonic account in the Timaeus. There, the creator god acts so as to ensure that the world being created will be as perfect and well-ordered as possible, the best possible approximation to its intelligible model that exists in the world of the Ideas. God acts as the provident Mind, planning his creation with teleological criteria to achieve the optimal result.

We should note, however, that the actions of the Demiurge are informed and demarcated by specific factors that are external to him. On the one hand, they are conditioned by their own teleological character as a realization of the Form of the Good, which is presupposed and immanent in the manner in which the intelligible model of the world is organized and articulated, a model which exists independently of the Demiurge’s cosmogonic intent. On the other hand, the Demiurge’s actions are subject to the limitations imposed by necessity; this is entailed by the fact that his creation is sensible, and therefore involves the element of materiality. The constitution of matter itself is such that it imposes its own causation, a distinctive form of causality all of its own. In fact, to ensure that the benevolent Demiurge has absolutely no part in the production of imperfect forms, he assigns the relevant tasks to a group of lesser -probably astral- divinities.

That the nature of the cosmogonic principle governing and regulating the sensible universe is conceptual is something that can be also seen in the other dialogues of Plato’s later phase – both in the cosmological principle of the Statesman, and in the Philebus (28c ff.). In his final work, the Laws, Plato revisits this, adding a new dimension though. Here, as Verdenius has aptly observed, rather than cosmogonic, the Nous becomes ‘cosmonomic’, i.e. holds an organizing role. Instead of determining the fate and the evolutionary course of the world externally -as a transcendent creator- he is immanent in it, as the supreme rational part of a beneficent Cosmic Soul that is continuously and providentially concerned with everything that unfolds in it. The fact that the Cosmic Soul has to struggle against another soul, antithetical to it, clearly constitutes an impressive innovation, yet despite first impressions, this is hardly striking enough to justify the adducing of influences of eastern origin, namely Persia – these dualistic notions about the world view it as the battlefield of adversarial and antagonistic divine forces. For, as we have seen, already in the Timaeus, the ordering Mind has to overcome counteracting forces inherent in the sphere of materiality, while it is argued that the Mind can not exist without a soul.

Platonic god and the Form of the Good

The fact that Plato employs the term ‘god’ to refer to a variety of entities, ranging from the human soul in its purest form to the transcendent cosmic Demiurge, including the intermediate astral divinities, the gods of Olympus, but also the provident Cosmic Soul, suggests that this term, instead of functioning as a common noun referring to a specific element in the philosopher’s cosmology, preserves the dynamics of an attributive adjective, and rather denotes a series of qualitative features; jointly, these contribute towards rendering something divine. Among these features first and foremost are immortality and its concomitant immutability, perfection, activity, and, above all, goodness, which determines the totality of god’s actions in the world. This is because goodness does not constitute a secondary characteristic of god, but a constitutive feature, an element of god’s own essence. Thus, this specific feature leads us to seek the core of the concept of god in Plato in the same supreme principle of his ontology, the Form of the Good. Although the Form of the Good is not described as god in its sole cryptic appearance in the seventh book of the Republic, yet its entire presentation is couched in terms suggestive of the feeling of a deeply religious conception.

It is an obvious fact that the Idea of the Good lacks several of the features we would be inclined to consider as indispensable for recognizing something as god. It appears completely aloof in its supreme transcendence, distant even from the intelligible world, for it is said to be situated ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας (Republic 509c), while it exhibits absolutely no indication of a personal element or even any reaction to piety or to the attachment humans can develop to it. Perhaps this should be correlated with the fact that Platonic theology is purely philosophical, lacking the intent to articulate any novel religious system or even a theological doctrine. This is because in Plato’s thought, god is not called upon to simply satisfy the psychological need -induced by religious sentiment- to resort to a higher power, one that can impart meaning to human life and enrich it with values, but constitutes the supreme ontological foundation, the measure against which everything ought to be judged to determine its truth and value (cf. Laws 716c). In other words, this is an unprecedented, extremely bold and almost subversive attempt to conceive of the divine by relying purely on right reason -recta ratio- as the μέγιστον μάθημα (Republic 505a2).

Author: Pavlos Kalligas
  • Goldschmidt, V. La religion de Platon. Paris, 1949.
  • Festugiere, A. La révelation d’Hermès Trismegiste, 4 τόμοι. Παρίσι, 1944-1954.
  • Cornford, F.M. "The “Polytheism” of Plato." Mind (1938)
  • Skemp, J. B. Zetesis: Album Amicorum É. de Strycker. Antwerpen/Utrecht, 1973.
  • Solmsen, F. Plato’s Theology. Ithaca, NY, 1942.
  • Verdenius, W. J. "Platons Gottesbegriff." Entretiens Hardt 1 (1952)
  • De Vogel, C. J. "What was God for Plato?." Philosophia Assen (1970)
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