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Art. IX. – PLATO AGAINST THE ATHEISTS.*
the Platonic look of the famoriter of ancien
As an indication of the increasing taste for the study of the Platonic philosophy, we regard the present edition of the Tenth Book of the famous Dialogues on Law with great interest. There is no writer of ancient, or, possibly, of modern times, who will better repay an attentive perusal, than the broad-shouldered son of Ariston. He has an almost inexhaustible mine of the richest thought; but this is not his greatest excellence. He is the most suggestive of all the writers of antiquity. Discoursing as he does upon those subjects which interest the human mind most deeply, he leads the careful student to independent investigation : - a result in the highest degree desirable. It is this power - more striking in him, than in others who have treated upon the same, or kindred topics — that always characterizes the truly great writer. A few at the present day possess it. In English literature Carlyle is prëeminent for it: although his style is barbarous in the extreme and worthy of the severest censure. France may well be proud of the venerable La Mennais, who unites this excellence with a lofty, pure, and elegant diction, that discovers at the same time deep erudition, severe scholarship and transcendent genius. These two great men stand almost alone, at the present time, in their respective countries. They however compare with Plato in scarcely anything else: Carlyle less than the gray-haired Frenchman, since he touches questions less akin to those dwelt upon by the Greek philosopher; who, although living in an age reinote from Christianity, insisted, with all the argument and eloquent persuasion of a powerful intellect and intense morality, upon many of those immortal truths which the Christian now folds to his heart in hope and love.
The genuineness of the twelve Dialogues on Law, of which this book forms a part, has indeed been questioned :
* Plato contra Athcos. Plato against the Athrists; or, the Tenth Book of the Dialogue on Lars, accompanied with critical Notes, and followed by crtended Dissertations on some of the main Points of the Platonic Philosophy and Theology, cspecially as compared with the Holy Scriptures. By TAYLER Lewis, L. L D., Professor of the Greek Language and Literature in the University of New York. New York. 1845. 12mo. pp. 378.
but no reasonable doubt will arise in the mind of one conversant with the other works which are universally attributed to the same great author. The style and manner of reasoning are the same; and if Plato wrote the “ Politicus," the “ Republic,” or the “ Timæus,” he wrote the “ Laws" also. The editor of the present work founds an argument for the genuineness of the “ Laws" upon its resemblance to the “ Parmenides.” He should have recollected — for surely he must know — that the “ Parmenides” itself has been, and still is, the subject of much critical controversy ; and though he might succeed in showing the resemblance of the “ Laws” to it, he would not have established the claims of either. Setting resemblances aside, however, we may safely assert that if the “ Laws”-a work equal in power of thought and execution with the “Republic,”— had been the production of any other man, his name would have been handed down to us ; for he must have possessed a mind not only similar, but equal in originality, keenness and depth with that of the author of the “ Republic" and the “ Philebus," and would have had equal claims to our regard and admiration.
Plato is generally and justly lauded by his admirers for the logic, beauty, and sublimity, which he displays when discoursing either of the human soul and its immortality, or of the Divine soul and its eternity. This work, chosen by the editor was one of the best central positions from whence to make excursions over a large part of the Platonic philosophy," possesses a very great degree of conclusive reasoning, and much of the philosopher's accustomed beauty and power of illustration.
With regard to the title which the editor has seen fit to affix to his book we must take exception; for it cannot, correctly speaking, be entitled “ Plato against the Atheists,” inasmuch as the arguments and penal laws which follow, are not directed against the Atheists alone. Plato treats of three classes of offenders: — first, Atheists; secondly, Theists, who deny a Providence; and thirdly, those who acknowledge the existence and presiding providence of the gods, while they deny their immutability, and believe that they can be propitiated by the prayers and sacrifices of the wicked. Now Atheism, or a disbelief in the existence of God, or the gods, is one thing; and Theism, or a belief in VOL. XL. — 4th S. VOL. V. NO. I.
the existence of the Deity, although at the same time embracing a denial of his immediate and superintending providence, is quite another. Still farther removed from Atheism is the belief in the efficacy of individual sacrifice and prayer in averting the merited punishments of Heaven. Had the book been entitled “Plato against the Heretics," the title might have been less inaccurate.
The Greek text, — which, together with the critical notes upon it, occupies only eighty-three out of three hundred and seventy-eight pages, — conforms to that of Bekker and Ast, whose editions vary slightly from that of Ficinus Florentinus; and for clearness and beauty is worthy of all commendation as a specimen of typographical neatness and editorial care. It is to be hoped that other editors of the Greek classics will take this edition as a provocative to “good works,” if not entirely for a model.
We propose to glance at the spirit and design of this Tenth Book of Laws, and see what they are, and what Plato intended they should be.
The dramatis persona are Clinias, a native of Crete, Megillus, the Spartan, and an Athenian traveller, who meets them near Cnossa, a town of Crete. This traveller, who carries on the philosophical part of the colloquy, is termed by the editor “the Socrates of the dialogue.” From internal evidence it appears that Plato had himself in view: for once forgetting the extreme delicacy of his self-hiding modesty, which almost invariably leads him to make his great master the principal person of the debate.
The Dialogue on Laws has already advanced through nine books, and this is the first of the concluding three, opening with a strong recognition of the right of property ; the violation of which Plato asserts to lie at the foundation of all immediate personal injuries, to the consideration of which the preceding book has been devoted. In addition to the wrongs committed against society having their rise in a thirst for the enjoyment of wealth, regardless of the mode of getting it, and the consequent violation of the right of property, Plato takes note of those wrongs, also, which spring from the mere turbulence and disregard of restraint, and insolent and impious bearing, of “the young men." These latter wrongs he divides into six classes ; viz.: – first, irreligious levity and mockery of the sacred
rites which were performed in the public places of the tribes, or wards of the city:— second, the same conduct with regard to private devotions or household gods, and the robbery and desecration of tombs, on which, as was the case among the rich families of Athens, great wealth was expended in costly ornaments and tasteful decorations:third, and distinct from the preceding two, was the disregard of parental authority and insolent behavior at home: fourth, seizing and carrying away, in despite of the magistrates, their badges or instruments of office:- fifth, the prosecution of any citizen without good reason, or from mere motives of malice: and sixth, and last, impious speech or action, or blasphemy of the gods. This last class of crimes he divides into three, and then subdivides each of the three species of this class into two others — making this last class of offences the genus of six separate species. It is with this genus and its subdivisions that the Tenth Book is occupied.*
The three classes of offenders and their distinguishing beliefs are thus introduced at the second page. “Let this be understood,” says the Athenian guest, “ that no one believing in the deities according to the law will ever do an impious deed or speak an unlawful word. But he that does is liable to one of these three charges ; - either that he does not believe in the existence of the gods; or, he believes that, although they exist, they do not exert a
* In his statement of the argument, Dr. Lewis has omitted fully to mention this logical arrangement of the six primary divisions of the wrongs — uspelo — and turbulence - üzolagin — of which young men, more than others, were supposed to be guilty. He notices, however, the three greater and three minor divisions which Plato makes of this same sixth class of the crimes and criminals treated of in the work, and we should be led to suppose that he merely overlooked so small a matter in his haste to give an outline of the main body of the Dialogue, were it not for an unlucky note on the second page; where, in a critical remark on the plural of 1 Bora, he enumerates five, only, of the six classes. Now it so happens that, in the text, Plato himself enumerates only five, prefixing to each its appropriate number; and when he comes to the sixth, he omits its number, as it is the last, and, from its being the subject of the whole book, the most important of them all. Still Plato does not leave anything to be guessed at by his readers, but immediately on finishing the fifth class makes the remark, that he should now attend to the consideration of the crime and punishment of those who despise the gods : which remark is, in fact, the real beginning of the work; the mention of other crimes being merely introductory. This however does not excuse carelessness in a scholar of any pretensions, and the editor should have examined the course of the argument more thoroughly.
watchful care over mankind; or, thirdly, that they can be propitiated when approached with sacrifices and prayers." * Immediately after follow the arguments against the belief of the three classes respectively; commencing with Atheism, or a belief that the gods do not exist.
It must be kept in view, that Plato, according to his assertions in the very outset, considers atheism to be a kind of disease incidental to the young men, which would be outgrown as years and experience advanced. In view of this he admonishes the young man, that his opinions will materially change as he grows older; that he will not be the first whose views have been altered in regard to this matter; but that many before him have held opinions as atheistical as his own, yet, almost universally, “did not continue from youth to old age to hold that there are no gods.” This is rather unsatisfactory food for a doubting, hungry mind. At any rate a goodly proportion of modern readers would think it so, whatever nourishing fitness it may have had for the intellectual stomach of Athenian atheism; which had already failed to be convinced by the order and harmony of nature, “ the earth and sun and all the stars, and the seasons so pleasantly varied each month and year;” and furthermore, indeed, saw no convincing significance in the prayers and adorations of both Greeks and barbarians, when all, at morn or even, knelt to the rising and the setting sun, “or moon of paler ray." But Plato by no means leaves the matter with this adınonition. He is about proposing a law against the atheist, and wishes to establish beforehand that atheism is unwarranted by reason. In the argument he fully establishes what he seis out to prove, namely, the existence of some first and original Cause. Passing by the order and beauty of the universe, and the argument of Socrates from fitness and benevolence, which is so much insisted on by the school of Paley and Butler, he launches out, at once, into the ether of abstract reasoning, and shows, by a conclusive argument from motion, that a primal mover must necessarily exist.
The popular belief in Athens at the time of Plato was, that the earth was fixed immovably in space, and that the
* Opp. ed. Ficin. p. 364.