|P l a t o o n
t h e G o d s
O V E R V I E W
The Platonic Forms
It is Plato's view, that there is such a thing as an objective Good. For Plato, Justice, Wisdom, Courage, Moderation, and Beauty, are realities, even more real than the physical things we see and touch. In fact, Plato will say that the things we see and touch are only half-real: they knock about in the middle realm between reality and unreality, while what Plato calls the Forms, such as Justice, Beauty, etc. are fully real.
A person's soul can bridge the two levels, the level of body and the level of the Forms. We are tied to the body during much of this life, especially by our appetites, but by philosophical reflection, by asking and trying to answer the right sort of questions, the soul can gradually rise to a plane on which it can perceive the Forms. They are not visible to the senses, but intelligible, which is to say, they can't be seen by the body's physical eye; they can only be seen by the mind's eye.
The Forms are divine in a way: they
are perfect; they are beautiful; they are eternal; they do not pass away.
But the Forms are not substitutes for Gods and Goddesses: they are not
active and they are not alive. The Forms are intelligible, they can
be known by the wise; but they themselves neither move nor think.
The visible and the invisible Gods
In Plato's picture of things, the Forms do not replace the Gods; in his view, there are Gods in addition to visible bodies, human souls, and Forms. The Gods are perfect beings. The Gods do nothing unwillingly and their forms are perfect. A lower animal (indeed, even a human being) has a form inferior to that of the Gods. Therefore the Gods do not take on other forms.
Thus, the story of Leda and the Swan alias Zeus must be false. And the poets who tell this story are the real corrupters of the youth. Plato refutes Homer's story about Zeus sending the falsely prophetic dream to Agamemnon as a liar.
The Gods are perfect beings, with perfect bodies, far more beautiful than our own; they cannot be killed --in fact, they cannot be harmed in any way. Their bodies are incorruptible. What is more, since they do not die, they need not replenish their population; thus they do not beget child.
Plato never gives a knockdown proof that Zeus, Athena, and Hera exist, but he does give a proof, in the last book of the last work he composed, the Laws, that there are Gods. In doing so, he appeals directly to the visible evidence of the Gods in the sky. Surely there are Gods; everybody can see them!
But in his view these are not the only Gods. These visible Gods, he thinks, were the first Gods which human beings recognized. They were called Gods because they run or course forever through the heavens. But later, when cities were founded, other Gods were recognized. These are the Gods we call Zeus, Hera, Athena, and so forth -- the Olympians. We can call them that provided we don't believe everything about them that Homer and Hesiod and their ilk tell us. For one thing, no human being has the slightest idea of these Gods' true names, i.e., what they call each other. It's probably not Zeus, Hera, Athena, etc.
These are the Gods of civilized life; that's why they are not recognized by most of the barbarians. These are the Gods that care about human beings and are aware of whether we are good or wicked.
Like the visible sky Gods, these Gods are everlasting; they have incorruptible bodies; they do not come into being and pass away. Their minds are in complete control of their bodies. Note the difference from human beings. Our bodies resist the control of our minds, not least when they lead us into temptation.
There are two key differences between the invisible group of Gods and the visible sky Gods: First, these Gods are essentially invisible, but they can reveal themselves to us when they wish. Secondly, these Gods care about whether human beings are good or not.
Both kinds of God provide us with
benefits: The sun's benefits are obvious. The planets and stars help us
tell the time of night or season of the year and enable navigators to find
their ways on the seas. But the invisible Gods, the ones we call Zeus,
Hera, Athena, etc. care about the well-being of societies and individuals.
Proper service to the Gods
Piety governs our interactions with the Gods. Piety involves proper service to the Gods. But service is, of course, service to a master. Yet the Gods are perfect and self-sufficient -- they lack nothing, so they have no needs. How then can we serve the Gods?
We need to realize that subordinates can serve their superiors in two different ways; one way is that they can serve their superiors by supplying what these superiors themselves lack, but they can also serve their superiors as a subordinate worker serves a master craftsperson who is trying to provide what a third party needs. A carpenter or mason serves an architect in the construction of a house, not primarily in order to give the architect anything which he or she needs to survive, but in order that the architect may more effectively meet the needs of others, those who will use the house. Human beings may serve the Gods in some project of theirs which is meant to benefit beings other than the Gods.
Piety is that kind of justice which involves human service to the Gods, not in order to provide our masters the Gods with anything they need, since they have no needs, but rather to cooperate with our masters the Gods to promote well-being in human societies and individuals.
The subordinate soldier stationed
somewhere by his commander is in the same relationship to his commander
as a subordinate craftsperson is to the master builder on a construction
site. .Socrates said that he was stationed by the God in Athens in order
to prod his fellow Athenians to care for their own souls. Piety is a kind
of justice or moral goodness, reasonably related it both to the Gods and
goodness among human beings, and precisely fit what Socrates saw himself
as doing with his own life.
The human soul
Philosophy, or love of the good and the beautiful, gives a soul wings, and after death a philosophical soul soars to the place where the race of Gods dwell:
Now the great leader in heaven, Zeus, comes first, driving a winged chariot, imposing order upon all things and caring for them; and the host of Gods and spirits follows him, marshalled in eleven sections, for Hestia [Goddess of the hearth] alone remains in the House of the Gods. But for the others all that are counted among the Twelve Ruling Gods proceed in due order according to rank, each at the head of his own division.
Many and wonderful to see are the orbits within the heavens and the blessed Gods constantly turn to contemplate these as each busies himself with his special duties. There follows whoever will and can [this includes good human souls], for envy has no place in the company of heaven. But when they proceed to the divine banquet, they mount the steep ascent to the top of the vault of heaven; and here the advance is easy for the Gods' chariots, well balance and guided as they are, but the others have difficulty. (Phaedrus246e-247b)
That's because the human soul consists of three parts, represented here by a charioteer and two horses, one of them being quite unruly, representing the appetites; the good horse must struggle against the unruly one, and the charioteer, representing the rational part of the soul, must exercise constant vigilance over the unruly horse.
Now when those souls that are called immortal come to the summit, they proceed without and take their stand upon the back of heaven where its revolution carries them in full circle as they gaze upon what is without.
Of that region beyond no one of our earthly poets has ever sung, nor will any ever sing worthily. Its description follows, for I must dare to speak the truth, especially as the nature of the truth is my theme. It is there that Reality lives, without shape or color, intangible, visible only to Reason, the soul's pilot; and all true knowledge is knowledge of her [i.e., of this Reality beyond the heavens]. Now a God's faculty of understanding is sustained by experiencing direct and pure knowledge, as is that part of every soul that is concerned to receive what is akin to that experience. Consequently when the soul has at long last beheld reality, it rejoices, finding sustenance in its direct contemplation of the truth and in the immediate experience of it until, in the revolution of its orbit, it is brought round again to the point of departure. And in the course of the revolution it beholds absolute justice and temperance and knowledge (that is, the eternal forms or ideas). . . . And when the soul(s) [of the Gods] have . . . feasted upon all the other true realities, it comes back again within the heavens and returns home. (Phaedrus 247c-e)
In Plato's view, the Gods are beings that have no difficulty perceiving the absolute ideals; the Gods are not the standards of justice, beauty and goodness, but they are living beings who have perfect knowledge of these standards.
Human souls between lives have greater or lesser difficulty perceiving these absolutes -- it depends upon how much wisdom they gained in their previous lives; but every glimpse they gain of the absolutes, whether between lives or by philosophical reflection during life, helps to overcome the pressures that drag them back into the body.
Until the human soul has lived a philosophical
life three times in succession, it must be reincarnated; but when it has
done so, it may join the Gods for everlasting contemplation of the pure
truths that exist beyond the heavens.
Copyright ©1998-1999 Roy George