2012-09-14

Plato’s and the Bible’s Laws and Ethics Compared

by Neil Godfrey

For many months now I have been hoping to post on the remarkable similarities between the ideal laws espoused by Plato and many laws and moral principles we read about in the Bible. I began linking Plato’s laws to their counterparts in Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers-Deuteronomy but in the process ran across so many other passages that resonate with other Biblical precepts elsewhere that I decided to take the easy way out for a post and simply list the significant passages as I find them, beginning with the first of the twelve “books” that comprise Plato’s Laws, with references beside each one to its Biblical echo.

Anyone who is familiar with the Bible and who takes up reading Classical literature can scarcely ignore the many times one bumps into some idea, some turn of phrase or view of life and humankind, some ethical principle, some metaphor, motif, plot or tale that strongly resonates with what one read in the sacred scriptures. It is so easy to think of the Bible as a unique set of writings, but once one starts reading more widely across the non-biblical works that were being written and read at the time the biblical works were being composed, one learns that “it ain’t necessarily so”.

One striking comparison is the ideal sexual morality enjoined by Plato with what is commanded in the Bible. It is commonly thought that the Bible’s ethics are distinctly superior to those of the pagans, yet it is in Plato that we first read that homosexuality as “against nature” and that young people should resist temptations and aspire to remain virgins until married.

Don’t let anyone think that this post is some sort of “attack” on the Bible. Rather, it is an attempt to share a better understanding of what the Bible really is. It is a book of its times. It shares much of the outlook and literary expressions of its wider world. Of course it is “Jewish”, but one soon begins to realize that being “Jewish” did not mean one was hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. Jews were a part of their wider world as were any other race or culture. Greek thought, literature and philosophy dominated the Middle Eastern regions from the third centuries on so it is only natural to expect Greek thought to show up in the literature of other cultures — including that of the Jews and early Christians.

Others have noted the similarities between Plato’s Laws and the Laws of Moses and registered some discomfort over their observation. (Sorry, I can’t recall my source for that.) There is a two-part online article comparing the Plato’s and Moses’ laws: part one; part two. I have not read that yet, but I have read Philippe Wajdenbaum’s detailed comparisons in Argonauts of the Desert.

Laws follows Plato’s better known Republic in which Socrates is engaged in a discussion of what the ideal state would look like. Laws does not feature Socrates but does include an Athenian stranger who is looked upon as a representative of the best laws in force at that time and who always gives the best advice in the discussion comparing the laws of Crete and Sparta. The dialogue is used by Plato to argue for what he believes would be the ideal laws that would be appropriate for a new state starting out from scratch.

What follows are my own observations as I read through each book of Laws.

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BOOK ONE

Moses with the Two New Tables of Stone (illust...

Moses with the Two New Tables of Stone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

God is the source of the laws, and the laws are good

Athenian Stranger. Tell me, Strangers, is a God or some man supposed to be the author of your laws?

Cleinias. A God, Stranger; in very truth a, God: among us Cretans he is said to have been Zeus, but in Lacedaemon, whence our friend here comes, I believe they would say that Apollo is their lawgiver: would they not, Megillus?

Megillus. Certainly.

And again:

with one mouth and one voice they [the citizens] must all agree that the laws are all good, for they came from God; and any one who says the contrary is not to be listened to

The Athenian who is speaking here allows only the elderly to suggest amendments to laws if they find fault with any of them.

So Israel was not the only people to believe that their laws came from God. And that for that reason they were good laws. Those who would say otherwise are not to be listened to.

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Reason for Law: to make citizens happy

Human blessings

  1. first is health,
  2. the second beauty,
  3. the third strength, including swiftness in running and bodily agility generally,
  4. and the fourth is wealth, not the blind god [Pluto], but one who is keen of sight, if only he has wisdom for his companion.

Divine blessings

  1. For wisdom is chief and leader of the divine class of goods,
  2. and next follows temperance;
  3. and from the union of these two with courage springs justice,
  4. and fourth in the scale of virtue is courage.

Health is one of the blessings of the laws of God in the Bible, too:

“If you diligently heed the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in His sight, give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians. For I am the Lord who heals you.” (Exodus 15:26)

And wisdom is another blessing:

Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies (Psalm 119:98)

Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ (Deuteronomy 4:6)

But if one reads Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 one will see that the God of the Bible promises many more blessings for those who abide by his laws. The law is intended to be a blessing for the people.

The Bible, of course, parts company from the Greek ideal of physical beauty. Although not really. It exalts physical beauty greatly, but only as it is an attribute of God or angels. The Bible might be seen as the beginning of a religious dehumanization or abasement of humankind. To win God’s favour one must loathe oneself (Job 42:6). But like Plato’s ideal, true riches are not the material kind, and temperance and justice and courage are among the highest virtues:

Wisdom is speaking in Proverbs 8:10-11, 18-19, saying she is the true riches (as Plato also wrote above):

Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold. For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.

Riches and honour are with me; yea, durable riches and righteousness. My fruit is better than gold, yea, than fine gold; and my revenue than choice silver.

Bible’s Wisdom, like Plato’s, is the “chief and leader of the divine class of goods”:

She standeth in the top of high places (Proverbs 8:2)

Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom (Proverbs 4:7)

We are also familiar with the various lists of godly virtues in the Bible that embrace justice and courage (“virtue”) and more.

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The Law is to contain both Punishments and Rewards

the duty of the lawgiver will be to take charge of his citizens . . . . and to give them punishments and rewards

As above, the biblical God’s laws are couched within rewards and punishments. See again Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 and 4.

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Homosexuality is contrary to nature

I think that the pleasure is to be deemed natural which arises out of the intercourse between men and women; but that the intercourse of men with men, or of women with women, is contrary to nature, and that the bold attempt was originally due to unbridled lust. The Cretans are always accused of having invented the story of Ganymede and Zeus because they wanted to justify themselves in the enjoyment of unnatural pleasures by the practice of the god whom they believe to have been their lawgiver.

Compare Romans 1:26-27

For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly

And Leviticus 20:13

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.

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Two ways, blessings and curses

The Creation of the Two Trees figured in Tolki...

The Creation of the Two Trees figured in Tolkien’s fantasy world, Arda (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

these [pleasure and pain] are two fountains which nature lets flow, and he who draws from them where and when, and as much as he ought, is happy; and this holds of men and animals-of individuals as well as states; and he who indulges in them ignorantly and at the wrong time, is the reverse of happy. . . .

Ath.And each one of us has in his bosom two counsellors, both foolish and also antagonistic; of which we call the one pleasure, and the other pain.

The theme of two ways is a commonplace outside the Bible. Here we find it in Plato. Apart from the first human story in Genesis being all about choosing between two trees, we have the following:

Compare Psalm 1

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; . . .

And again in Deuteronomy:

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, . . . I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life

Jeremiah 2:13

“For my people have done two evil things: They have abandoned me–the fountain of living water. And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all!

James 3:11

Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?

Matthew 5:17

Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.

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Drunkenness condemned

But the laws of Sparta, in as far as they relate to pleasure, appear to me to be the best in the world; for . . . any one who meets a drunken and disorderly person, will immediately have him most severely punished, and will not let him off on any pretence, not even at the time of a Dionysiac festival.

Ephesians 5:18

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery

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Wine festival

Wine festival (Photo credit: Matti Mattila)

But wine is good

O Lacedaemonian Stranger, these festivities are praiseworthy where there is a spirit of endurance, but are very senseless when they are under no regulations.

I am not speaking of drinking, or not drinking, wine at all, but of intoxication. . . .

Ath. . . . . What is better adapted than the festive use of wine, in the first place to test, and in the second place to train the character of a man, if care be taken in the use of it?

Judges 9:13

wine . . . cheereth God and man

Deuteronomy 14:26 commands the consumption of wine and strong drink to increase the joy of a sacred festival:

And spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.

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English: Jeroboam II was the son and successor...

Jeroboam II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Victory over enemies not a proof of goodness of laws

Meg. O best of men, we have only to take arms into our hands, and we send all these nations flying before us.

Ath. Nay, my good friend, do not say that; there have been, as there always will be, flights and pursuits of which no account can be given, and therefore we cannot say that victory or defeat in battle affords more than a doubtful proof of the goodness or badness of institutions.

The Bible’s narrative agrees. Sometimes Israel did conquer enemies but in vain. Jeroboam II is a classic example of a great Israelite conqueror who was also a “bad king“.

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But Victory over enemies is evidence of keepers of good laws

good men act nobly, and conquer their enemies in battle, because they are good.

Moses agrees with Plato: victory over enemies truly is a blessing that comes from keeping the good laws of God:

You will chase your enemies, and they shall fall by the sword before you. Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you. (Leviticus 26:7-8)

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Fear God, but perfect love casts out fear

For there are two things which give victory-confidence before enemies, and fear of disgrace before friends.

Cle. There are.

Ath. Then each of us should be fearless and also fearful; and why we should be either has now been determined. . . . . there are two things which should be cultivated in the soul: first, the greatest courage; secondly, the greatest fear-

Cle. Which you said to be characteristic of reverence, if I am not mistaken.

The same paradox or irony is also found in the Bible:

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18)

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10)

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A time and season for every purpose

There are times and seasons at which we are by nature more than commonly valiant and bold

We all know Ecclesiastes 3:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: . . .

a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

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There are many other less obvious allusions. I leave aside some of the more subtle ones. As with any comparison of cultures and thoughts there are always shades of grey, of subtle hints that leave one wondering but are not quite so clear as others.

As time permits I will post similar comparisons with biblical thought as they appear in the other books of Laws.

  • Niels Peter Lemche
    2012-09-14 20:13:43 UTC - 20:13 | Permalink

    Begin with Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert (Equinox 2011). Ot is in the center of his thesis about the Greek influence on the OT.

    • 2012-09-14 20:45:04 UTC - 20:45 | Permalink

      Been there done that: see my archive of posts on Philippe’s book. Before commenting further on W’s thesis I wanted to cover the Laws myself — there is much more overlap than just with the Pentateuch portion of the Bible. Though of course Philippe Wajdenbaum’s thesis is that there is much more than a broad general influence. He sees direct borrowing and adaption. But after starting to post in detail on his book I became concerned that further comment might be interpreted by some as an infringement of IP or thwart book sales. (I don’t think so at all — in fact I believe the reverse more likely and that research on open access supports my view. But perceptions do count.)

      Actually I am returning to where I started re PW. I learned of “Argonauts of the Desert” after I wrote up my own observations of the overlaps between Apollonius’s “Argonautica” and the Bible.

  • pearl
    2012-09-15 06:28:06 UTC - 06:28 | Permalink

    Neil: One striking comparison is the ideal sexual morality enjoined by Plato with what is commanded in the Bible. It is commonly thought that the Bible’s ethics are distinctly superior to those of the pagans, yet it is in Plato that we first read that homosexuality as “against nature” and that young people should resist temptations and aspire to remain virgins until married.

    I found the following article interesting:
    Pickett, Brent, “Homosexuality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=.

    The section on Natural Law particularly relates to your comment. “The development of natural law is a long and very complicated story”. Plato was concerned about the appetitive part of the soul in relation to a life of philosophy. Before the Laws, “Plato, in the Symposium, argues for an army to be comprised of same-sex lovers.”

    In the Laws, Plato applies the idea of a fixed, natural law to sex, and takes a much harsher line than he does in the Symposium or the Phraedrus. In Book One he writes about how opposite-sex sex acts cause pleasure by nature, while same-sex sexuality is “unnatural” (636c). In Book Eight, the Athenian speaker considers how to have legislation banning homosexual acts, masturbation, and illegitimate procreative sex widely accepted. He then states that this law is according to nature (838-839d). Probably the best way of understanding Plato’s discussion here is in the context of his overall concerns with the appetitive part of the soul and how best to control it. Plato clearly sees same-sex passions as especially strong, and hence particularly problematic, although in the Symposium that erotic attraction could be the catalyst for a life of philosophy, rather than base sensuality (Cf. Dover, 1989, 153-170; Nussbaum, 1999, esp. chapter 12).

    The same section continues to summarize other Greek philosophical ideas and the developing Christian theories of natural law.

    • 2012-09-15 11:54:05 UTC - 11:54 | Permalink

      Yes, Plato’s laws and ethical principles are indeed “idealistic” and grounded in his theory of human nature. That his views were different in different mental explorations of various questions is further evidence of this. Any attempt to put his ideas into practice would, in reality, require a totalitarian state. The Nazi state comes to mind. In modern terms Plato’s ideal is all about social engineering and indoctrination. A lot of the problems with Christianity (and Judaism) can be explained by those religions’ debt to Plato’s ideals. Ideals are contrary to the facts of human nature.

      Another interesting facet to this whole question is the (clearly?) creative narratives Plato constructs to communicate his thoughts. Only the naive or those not very familiar with his works would think that the scenarios Plato constructs are in any way historical. They are literary fictions. Yet they read as “true stories”. Some characters appearing in them may have been historical (e.g. Alicibiades) but their roles are entirely fictional in Plato’s dialogues. There is much to learn here for our understanding of the biblical literature (Old and New Testaments).

      • pearl
        2012-09-15 14:48:07 UTC - 14:48 | Permalink

        “Ideals are contrary to the facts of human nature.” Yes, but they are still alive and well. Most people still use ideals at least in the sense of values or standards, even if only as ethical goals, sans religious connotations. Whether ideals or perfection are real is a philosophical question. But trying to literally, totally substitute an earthly, historical world with an ideal one, instead of using the ideal to inform as a value or principle within a practical setting, seems futile.

        When considering biblical literature gathered from a variety of sources, not only Plato’s fictional dialogues could contribute to our understanding of that literature, but also ‘heretical’ interpretations of some of the same biblical literature that chose mythology containing meaning instead of historical explanations.

  • Pingback: Books From Humanities, Or, Reading for School Isn’t Always Boring « Diary of a Teenage Reader

  • mP
    2012-09-15 13:41:45 UTC - 13:41 | Permalink

    The big difference between us and the ancients is our concept of God. For them God controls everything, he is the definition of the universe and its wonderous laws and unexplained. If you see the world like that then of course he defines all laws, both interpersonal and the basic laws of nature.

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