What were Plato's beliefs?



Michael Bordt examines Plato's doctrine of God

In current research on Plato, the preoccupation with Plato's theology plays a subordinate role. This was different in the first half and the middle of the 20th century. Almost all of the major interpreters of Plato had spoken out on the question of Plato's theology; it was one of the core questions of Plato's research. Michael Bordt, who teaches at the University of Philosophy in Munich, took up the topic again in his habilitation thesis and re-examined Plato's theology:

Bordt, Michael: Plato's theology. 286 S., Ln., € 40., 2006, Symposion 126, Karl Alber, Freiburg

What does theology mean in Plato?

According to Bordt, three fundamentally different interpretations of what should be considered Plato's theology can be distinguished from one another. All three are still represented:

The metaphysical interpretation considers Plato's God to be identical with the supreme idea that Plato adopts in his dialogues. This view was first represented in the 19th century by Eduard Zeller. Zeller sees no other possibility of a coherent understanding of the “inner connection of the Platonic doctrine” than to accept the identity of the idea of ​​the good with God. Because, so Zeller's argument, if God were above the ideas and the idea of ​​the good in the ontological hierarchy, the ideas would be derived and ontologically dependent principles. That would clearly contradict the definition that Plato gives of the ideas in his dialogues. But God could not be a product of ideas either, nor could there be two supreme principles that were unrelated to each other. With this, Zeller directed himself against the view that God mediates between ideas and the world of appearances, even if, as he himself admits, there are “considerable reasons for this assumption to be found in Plato's system”.

With this line of argument, Zeller had defined the framework within which the discussion continues to this day. It is characteristic of the thesis of the identity of God with the highest idea that it is based primarily on the Politeia, that it argues with the consistency of Platonic metaphysics and that it refers to post-Platonic evidence from antiquity. Well-known representatives of the metaphysical interpretation at the beginning of the 20th century were Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Paul Friedländer, Constantin Ritter, Werner Jaeger and Léon Robin. The few authors who commented on Plato's theology in the second half of the 20th century (such as Hans Joachim Krämer, Cornelia de Vogel and Lloyd Gerson) also usually represent the metaphysical interpretation. For example, Krämer argues that because the supreme principle, the good or the one in its transcendence, cannot be more precisely determined, Plato is the founder of negative theology. And Cornelia de Vogel even thinks that those interpreters who do not identify God with the highest metaphysical principle would not have understood anything about Plato.

A variant of the metaphysical interpretation consists in the view that Plato's theology should only be adequately understood as a form of mysticism. It is the ultimate idea that can be experienced in a mystical show. The proponents of this view can fall back on a long ancient tradition of the interpretation of Plato, which does not begin with Plotinus.

The cosmological interpretation assumes that God is a soul. Whatever is to be understood by a soul, it is never an ultimate metaphysical principle, but always subordinate to such a principle, i.e. ontologically dependent on it. Many exponents of the cosmological interpretation are of the opinion that the special function of God is to mediate as a soul between the world of ideas and the world of appearances. Important English-speaking Plato researchers such as John Burnet, Paul Shorey, Alfred E. Taylor, Francis M. Cornford or David Ross have represented this cosmological interpretation. Their most important argument is that Plato says in the Timaeus that the demiurge, who, according to their interpretation, mediates between ideas and the world of appearances, is God. Variants of the cosmological interpretation see God as reason (Reginald Hackforth and Stephen Menn) or God as the mediator between the idea and the polis (Franco Ferrari).

The religious interpretation assumes that any interpretation of Plato's theology must begin with Plato's treatment of the Greek religion. This view was represented by Friedrich Solmsen and Michael Morgan.

Is theology identical with metaphysics?

The various interpretations of Plato's theology differ from one another not only in their different approaches and results, but also in what they mean by theology. Is theology identical with metaphysics? Or is it the task of theology to reflect on religious beliefs and practices? Plato himself uses the word theologia only once and in the second book of the Politeia. And this is the oldest place in the texts handed down to us from antiquity where this term is used. Asked by Adeimantos what stories the poets should tell about the gods, Socrates replies:

“Adeimantos, we are not poets now, me and you, but founders of a polis. As founders, we must know the rules according to which the poets must compose myths and from which they must not deviate, but not compose myths themselves ”.

Adeimantos confirms and asks further:

"But just these, the rules relating to theology (theologia), what would they be?"

What theologia means at this point is controversial. Werner Jaeger advocated the thesis that Plato used the term in the sense of the "natural, rational treatment of the God problem". With the view that theology is a rational and i.e. a philosophical investigation of God, Jaeger also refers to Aristotle. Viktor Goldschmidt has contradicted Jaeger's claim. The term theologia, according to Goldschmidt, does not designate a rational investigation of how God really is, but rather the mythical stories about the gods. In doing so, Goldschmidt - and therein lies the strength of his argument against Jaeger - falls back on a distinction made by Plato himself in the politeia. In the third book he differentiates between different types of narratives, namely narratives that concern the gods, the daimons, the heroes, the inhabitants of the underworld and the people. Similar distinctions can also be found in other dialogues. In contrast to the stories about the heroes, for example, the stories about the gods would be called theologias. Goldschmidt also points out that in one of the traditional manuscripts the variant mythologias can be found instead of the theologias handed down in other manuscripts. This suggests that there was a tradition in antiquity that theologia understood as a form of mythology.

Bordt assumes that the word theologia is not a creation of Plato, but was part of everyday Greek language and that its appearance in the dialogue Politeia has no philosophically relevant implications. First of all, the word means “the talk of God”. When Socrates discusses the rules of theologia at this point, he is discussing the rules by which the poets should act when they portray the gods. Bordt understands the expression as asking what one can justifiably and truthfully say about God and the gods. Socrates responds with the following principle:

"How God (ho theos) actually is, he must always be represented when someone writes about him in epics, songs or tragedy".

Some translate ho theos with "the god" (Horneffer, Rufener and Leroux), many simply with "God" (Schleiermacher, Chambry, Shorey and Vretska), others with "the god" (Teuffel, Ferrari, Apelt). Plato uses ho theos individually and anaphorically to designate a certain god who has already been introduced into the dialogue through a proper name (e.g. Apollo) or a definite description (e.g. the god of Delphi). But he also uses the term in a generalized way to denote all gods according to the matter. If no specific god by name or definite description is mentioned in the context, the term refers to all gods and is thus used in a generalizing manner. In the above-mentioned dialogue, Socrates does not want to say anything about how a certain god should be represented by the poets, but how the poets should represent all gods.
However, as Bordt admits, this interpretation encounters difficulties in some passages in Plato's work. In some places, for example, Plato refers to “the God” when he speaks of an unspecified creator. In the Timaeus, Plato distinguishes one god from the many gods. This has led various authors to attribute a form of monotheism to Plato. Bordt understands ho theos as an individual expression that refers to the one God who exemplarily shows those properties that characterize a God as God.

Was Plato a monotheist?

Again and again the objection to the possibility of ascribing a monotheistic position to Plato is that it is an anachronism to transfer a Judeo-Christian concept of God to pagan antiquity. Martin West, on the other hand, has shown that in many religions there has been a development from traditional polytheism to monotheism. Different stages can be distinguished within such a development, whereby the individual development steps can also coexist in a specific culture. A phenomenon associated with the development towards monotheism is henotheism, i.e. the view that one of the gods is the most important among the various gods. This surpasses the other gods in power, but does not differ fundamentally from them in his godliness. Bordt speaks in this context of a “weak monotheism” and attributes this view to Plato. Monotheistic traits can be found in Greek culture even before Plato. Xenophanes, for example, speaks of a single god among gods and men who is greatest, who always remains motionless in the same place and achieves his goal by being able to direct everything with his reason without effort.

It is characteristic of Plato's entire philosophical project to use an individual entity, an idea, to discuss the properties of all entities about which the idea can be predicated. The grammatical transition from the plural to the singular is also motivated by the matter, because the aim is not to examine the many righteous things, but the one thing that makes righteous things precisely these. It is therefore natural to ask the question of how the poets should truthfully portray the gods as a question of the one God to whom alone godhood belongs as it should belong to a god. The one God is the paradigmatic case of what it actually means to be a God. The God to whom Plato refers with the expression ho theos is the God to whom only those qualities apply in the full sense which characterize a God as God.

Plato begins the investigation of the rules of theologia with the assertion that God is good and from this develops the statement that God must be the cause of all good. On the one hand, Plato stands within a theological reflection that was shaped by poets and philosophers such as Hesiod, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles and also Socrates and which deals critically with an understanding of the gods, as encountered in Homer and partly also in Hesiod, where the gods do not shrink from injustice. On the other hand, Plato thereby introduces a new definition of God by asserting that God cannot be other than good. The Phaedo dialogue is the first dialogue in which Plato has Socrates explicitly assert the goodness of God - and no author before Plato has asserted goodness as a quality of God.

Plato's metaphysics gives us an argument for God's goodness. If the talk of God makes sense, if one understands God to be the ultimate principle of reality, and the philosophical investigation of the ultimate principle of reality comes to the conclusion that the ultimate principle of reality is good, then God cannot of that Good be different. However, it would be wrong to conclude from this that metaphysics should now replace religion. In Plato's state, cult celebrations continue to be carried out as tradition dictates. They not only serve to worship the gods, but also strengthen the community of citizens. And it is certain that on the grounds of Plato's Academy there was a muse shrine with an altar on which daily sacrifices were made.