War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.
J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Lord of the Rings
With these words I was thinking that I had made an end of the discussion; but the end, in truth, proved to be only a beginning. For Glaucon, who is always the most pugnacious of men, was dissatisfied at Thrasymachus’ retirement; he wanted to have the battle out. So he said to me: Socrates, do you wish really to persuade us, or only to seem to have persuaded us, that to be just is always better than to be unjust?
I should wish really to persuade you, I replied, if I could.
Then you certainly have not succeeded.
When Saint Augustine said “All truth is God’s truth” he surely must have had Plato in mind. Plato was not a Christian, but that does not make his teaching untrue. This can be threatening for those who believe in sola scriptura (Latin: by scripture alone), that the Christian scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith and practice. Augustine is considered a Neoplatonist who interpreted Plato as a thinker who “understood the eternal truth” consistent with later Christian ideology.
In his book The Great Books Reader, John Mark Reynolds said:
Three things must be kept in mind when reading Plato.
First, he wrote in dialogue form. He believed certain things, but those beliefs were less important to him than the process of reaching those beliefs. He wrote in a way that would provoke argument. Don’t be afraid to be bored . . . and then ask why Plato is going on and on. Ask, and you find an answer.
This is because Plato wrote with great care. He was interested in numbers and grew up on the measured poetry of Homer. Perhaps the highest difficulty in reading Plato is knowing when to stop examining a page, a paragraph, a sentence, a word. The first word of Republic says Socrates is “going down,” and the rest of the book contains a series of upward and downward motions.
Second, Plato does not speak in his own dialogues. Socrates is the main character in most (and certainly in Republic), but that does not mean Socrates is always speaking for Plato. The historic Socrates, like Jesus, wrote nothing, and like Jesus, he died for his virtues. Unlike Jesus, though, Socrates was not the perfect son of God. Be willing to argue with Socrates or question the persuasiveness of his arguments. Note that his best students do so at the start of Republic’s Book II.
Third, many Christians, from Justin Martyr through Augustine to C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, have found useful philosophy in Plato. His works contain ideas that are not only compatible with Christianity but can also be used to understand the faith. He anticipated many Jewish and Christian ideas.
Do you believe that “all truth is God’s truth?” How does your belief inform your Bible study?
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
D I G D E E P E R
On Justice in the Republic
The Republic, Plato’s masterpiece of philosophical writing, challenges readers by asking us to examine both our notions of justice and our motivations for just living. The dialogue—while treating subjects that range from ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology to politics, psychology, education, music, theology, art, and mathematics—is centrally a discussion of the nature of justice. In particular, Plato, through the literary lens of Socrates’ first-person point of view, poses three questions about justice:
1. What is justice?
2. Is justice a virtue?
3. Is justice better than injustice?
To unify and oversimplify his answers, we can say that justice is the virtue that organizes the capacities of the soul into a stable, harmonious whole and that, since stability and harmony are objectively better than instability and discord, justice is preferable to injustice.
Plato investigates the nature of justice through an analogy between the soul and the polis. Although the discussion of politics is at the forefront of the Republic, the true purpose of that discussion is not political: Its point is to get a better view of the human soul (see 368e–369a), which in itself is very difficult to apprehend. Hence, when Plato argues (in a section not included here) that rulers must expunge immoral poetry from their communities, the reader must remember that Plato’s concern is not so much with cities or nations but with individuals. His lesson is that it would be better for us if we did not allow ourselves to accept immoral art as a teacher and an authority. Whether such censorship becomes public law is another, secondary, matter.
The concept of the tripartite soul, which has fairly distinct rational, spirited, and desirous elements, is one of Plato’s legacies to Western thought. In the Republic, the account of the tripartite soul is essentially connected to the account of justice: justice is present in the soul when each part of the soul is doing the work it is best suited to do.
Reason should be in charge of the soul, because it is the only aspect with both the foresight needed for long-term planning and the insight needed for knowing what is good. Desire does not know what is best because it “knows” only what it wants, which is whatever will satisfy it in the moment. Because desire is by nature insatiable, reason’s capitulation of its ruling office to desire is the primary way through which most people’s souls become disordered.
According to Plato, there is nothing wrong with desire itself. Desire, though, causes problems when it is put in charge of choosing. All the same, reason is too weak to maintain order by itself. It needs the assistance of the spirited element, which, as the seat of anger and courage, rouses individuals to action. Because this element of the soul can be aligned with either reason or desire, it must work with the rational part to maintain the soul’s order—otherwise, disorder ensues.
A number of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians throughout history have adopted this notion of the soul’s harmony because it makes sense of the Christian doctrines of sin and sanctification, and it provides a model of Christian education. According to C. S. Lewis, for example, sanctification is a matter of integrating the dimensions of the human person by repairing the disintegrating effects of sin and advancing the soul’s capacities into greater harmony with itself and unity with God.
Of course, Lewis does not think such sanctification can be accomplished without divine grace. Lewis also argues that, because a person’s character is set largely by whether the spirited element sides with reason or desire, a central goal of education is to instruct students’ sentiments in ways that align them with reason. According to the Christian Platonism of Lewis, education that does not train the sentiments, which are seated in the spirited element, creates students “without chests” who are unable to do what is good even if they have true opinions about it.
It is noteworthy that Plato, living before the time of Christ and probably without any exposure to Jewish Scriptures or teachings, was able to apprehend so clearly the nature of justice. That he was able to maintain his commitment to justice in the face of significant pressure to lend approval to the less scrupulous cultural and political élite of Athens is even more impressive.
Furthermore, Plato defends the goodness of justice without recourse to any utilitarian motivation, including the motivation of rewards in either this life or in the afterlife. A gripping picture of the perfectly just person given in the Republic is of a man who, while being completely just, is thought by everyone to be unjust and is persecuted and killed because of it. Plato argues that if this man is just, it is better for him to suffer these things than to be unjust, and not because he will be rewarded in the afterlife.
From what we can tell from his writings, Plato did not believe in a final end to history. The cosmos simply continues forever, and within the cosmos our souls pass from our bodies at our deaths until they take on temporary homes in other bodies and begin embodied life again. This means that although Plato tells a story at the very end of the Republic about individuals who face postmortem judgment, he does not think such judgment is either irremediable if one has lived unjustly or irrevocable if one has lived justly. Thus, it is remarkable that Plato does not think a person should be just simply because the just person will fare well in the afterlife.
As contemporary readers of the Republic, then, we are left to ponder on a personal level whether we love justice and goodness for their own sakes or only for the benefit of just living promises for the afterlife.
Plato seems to have thought that being just so things turn out well after death is pitiful utilitarianism. In his view, we only love goodness when we love it for its own sake. In pressing for this conclusion, Plato did not know the true nature of what he was arguing for, though surely we can marvel at the fact that he bent all his powers to plead for as much as he did.
Gary Hartenburg is assistant professor of philosophy and director of the Honors College at Houston Baptist University. He earned his PhD in ancient philosophy from the University of California, Irvine.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).