2012-09-16

Plato’s template for the Bible

by Neil Godfrey

Before continuing with Book Two of Laws, there is a major theme in Book One that I ought to have included in the previous post as a significant point in common with one of the primary biblical themes. Both Plato and God emphatically stress the importance of testing the character of their people. The purpose of this test is to produce citizens worthy of the new state or kingdom. They will demonstrate their purity of character by obedience to the laws, living a holy life and hating everything that is against “nature”, “wisdom” or a “noble spirit”. Plato speaks of several ways people need to be tested for character so they can learn self-control and master their base passions and so become worthy citizens. Worthy citizens must learn to overcome unhealthy fear and the temptations of pleasures.

For you are the only people known to us, whether Greek or barbarian, whom the legislator commanded to eschew all great pleasures and amusements and never to touch them; whereas in the matter of pains or fears which we have just been discussing, he thought that they who from infancy had always avoided pains and fears and sorrows, when they were compelled to face them would run away from those who were hardened in them, and would become their subjects.

Now the legislator ought to have considered that this was equally true of pleasure; he should have said to himself, that if our citizens are from their youth upward unacquainted with the greatest pleasures, and unused to endure amid the temptations of pleasure, and are not disciplined to refrain from all things evil, the sweet feeling of pleasure will overcome them just as fear would overcome the former class; and in another, and even a worse manner, they will be the slaves of those who are able to endure amid pleasures, and have had the opportunity of enjoying them, they being often the worst of mankind. One half of their souls will be a slave, the other half free; and they will not be worthy to be called in the true sense men and freemen. . . .

One is reminded here of Herodotus’s infamously curious line that concludes his Histories:

and [the Persians] chose rather to dwell on poor land and be rulers, than to sow crops in a level plain and be slaves to others.

Recall from the previous post the same theme of healthy and unhealthy fears that Plato spoke of through his characters. Note the last line of the following extract: the ideal legislators must bring their people to face many fears to learn to have the right kind of fear — which is the same dialogue explains is reverence, or fear of God.

Ath. That is just what we must endeavour to show. And let me ask you a question:-Do we not distinguish two kinds of fear, which are very different?

Cle. What are they?

Ath. There is the fear of expected evil.

Cle. Yes.

Ath. And there is the fear of an evil reputation; we are afraid of being thought evil, because we do or say some dishonourable thing, which fear we and all men term shame.

Cle. Certainly.

Ath. These are the two fears, as I called them; one of which is the opposite of pain and other fears, and the opposite also of the greatest and most numerous sort of pleasures.

Cle. Very true.

Ath. And does not the legislator and every one who is good for anything, hold this fear in the greatest honour? This is what he terms reverence, and the confidence which is the reverse of this he terms insolence; and the latter he always deems to be a very great evil both to individuals and to states.

Cle. True.

Ath. Does not this kind of fear preserve us in many important ways? What is there which so surely gives victory and safety in war? 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.

Cle. Certainly.

Ath. And when we want to make any one fearless, we and the law bring him face to face with many fears.

This is one of the dominant themes of God’s dealings with his people. We know the many biblical passages that teach that the “fear of God” (reverence) is the beginning of wisdom and that it gives life. God is always testing his people to see if they demonstrated the right fear — and hence courage in the face of their enemies, or courage and confidence in the face of any adversity, such as hunger and thirst in the wilderness. (e.g. Deuteronomy 4)

The chief difference between the two works, though, is that Plato’s ideal remains a thought-experiment, while the Bible’s stories function to teach the reader to learn from the characters who regularly failed their tests and so become the truly wise and holy citizens themselves. This brings to mind the “noble lie” that is a subject of Plato’s next section of Laws.

God is likewise interested in training his people to

  1. “fear not” in the face of enemies and
  2. to “fear God” and not to be led astray when they are blessed with an abundance of material wealth.

And how can God prove them unless he, like Plato, would expose his people to the opposite of what he wants them to become: they need to face fearful situations to learn courage, and to experience opulence and pleasure to learn self-control.

Exodus 14:10-13

10 And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid: and the children of Israel cried out unto the Lord.
11 And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt?
12 Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.
13 And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever.

Exodus 20:18-20

18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.

That’s the fear of enemies, an unhealthy fear, that God trains them against. But God also tests them with pleasures:

In Exodus 16 we have a our first instance of God teaching to see whether his people, who were pining for their abundance of food in Egypt, will exercise self-control when given an abundance of food in the wilderness:

The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.” . . . . However, some of them paid no attention to Moses . . . .

And again in Deuteronomy 8, Moses explains that God was putting his people through tests of character for forty years:

2 And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no.
3 And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.
4 Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee, neither did thy foot swell, these forty years.
5 Thou shalt also consider in thine heart, that, as a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee.
6 Therefore thou shalt keep the commandments of the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to fear him.
7 For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills;
8 A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil olive, and honey;
9 A land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness, thou shalt not lack any thing in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass.
10 When thou hast eaten and art full, then thou shalt bless the Lord thy God for the good land which he hath given thee.
11 Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this day:
12 Lest when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein;
13 And when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied;
14 Then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage;
15 Who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint;
16 Who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not, that he might humble thee, and that he might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end;
17 And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth.
18 But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day.

God has followed Herodotus’s Persians and trained his people for being the head nation by testing them in the hardships of the wilderness. God admonishes his people to pass the coming (future) test of experiencing the opposite: wealth and abundance. The real audience, however, is not the characters in the narrative but the those reading and being taught the narrative.

In Book One of the Laws the subject turned to the value (and dangers) of wine at religious festivals in particular, and this came to serve as a test and trainer of character. God does not use wine as the means of testing whether his people will be obedient and learn to live temperate and holy lives, but he does have another test. First, here is Plato’s test of character:

Ath. And when we want to make any one fearless, we and the law bring him face to face with many fears.Cle. Clearly.

Ath. And when we want to make him rightly fearful, must we not introduce him to shameless pleasures, and train him to take up arms against them, and to overcome them? . . . And must he who would be perfect in valour fight against and overcome his own natural character-since if he be unpractised and inexperienced in such conflicts, he will not be half the man which he might have been-and are we to suppose, that with temperance it is otherwise, and that he who has never fought with the shameless and unrighteous temptations of his pleasures and lusts, and conquered them, in earnest and in play, by word, deed, and act, will still be perfectly temperate?

Cle. A most unlikely supposition.

Ath. Suppose that some God had given a fear-potion to men, and that the more a man drank of this the more he regarded himself at every draught as a child of misfortune, and that he feared everything happening or about to happen to him; and that at last the most courageous of men utterly lost his presence of mind for a time, and only came to himself again when he had slept off the influence of the draught.

Cle. But has such a draught, Stranger, ever really been known among men?

Ath. No; but, if there had been, might not such a draught have been of use to the legislator as a test of courage? Might we not go and say to him, “O legislator, whether you are legislating for the Cretan, or for any other state, would you not like to have a touchstone of the courage and cowardice of your citizens?”

Cle. “I should,” will be the answer of every one.

. . . .
Ath. “And in order to make use of the draught, you would lead them amid these imaginary terrors, and prove them, when the affection of fear was working upon them, and compel them to be fearless, exhorting and admonishing them; and also honouring them, but dishonouring any one who will not be persuaded by you to be in all respects such as you command him; and if he underwent the trial well and manfully, you would let him go unscathed; but if ill, you would inflict a punishment upon him? Or would you abstain from using the potion altogether, although you have no reason for abstaining?”

Cle. He would be certain, Stranger, to use the potion.

Ath. This would be a mode of testing and training which would be wonderfully easy in comparison with those now in use, and might be applied to a single person, or to a few, or indeed to any number; and he would do well who provided himself with the potion only, rather than with any number of other things, whether he preferred to be by himself in solitude, and there contend with his fears, because he was ashamed to be seen by the eye of man until he was perfect; or trusting to the force of his own nature and habits, and believing that he had been already disciplined sufficiently, he did not hesitate to train himself in company with any number of others, and display his power in conquering the irresistible change effected by the draught-his virtue being such, that he never in any instance fell into any great unseemliness, but was always himself, and left off before he arrived at the last cup, fearing that he, like all other men, might be overcome by the potion.

Cle. Yes, Stranger, in that last case, too, he might equally show his self-control.

Ath. Let us return to the lawgiver, and say to him:-”Well, lawgiver, there is certainly no such fear-potion which man has either received from the Gods or himself discovered; for witchcraft has no place at our board. But is there any potion which might serve as a test of overboldness and excessive and indiscreet boasting?

Cle. I suppose that he will say, Yes-meaning that wine is such a potion.

. . . . .
Ath. Now, let us remember, as we were saying, that 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.

Ath. Thank you for reminding me. But now, as the habit of courage and fearlessness is to be trained amid fears, let us consider whether the opposite quality is not also to be trained among opposites.

Cle. That is probably the case.

Ath. There are times and seasons at which we are by nature more than commonly valiant and bold; now we ought to train ourselves on these occasions to be as free from impudence and shamelessness as possible, and to be afraid to say or suffer or do anything that is base.

Cle. True.

Ath. Are not the moments in which we are apt to be bold and shameless such as these?-when we are under the influence of anger, love, pride, ignorance, avarice, cowardice? or when wealth, beauty, strength, and all the intoxicating workings of pleasure madden us? 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? What is there cheaper, or more innocent? For do but consider which is the greater risk:-Would you rather test a man of a morose and savage nature, which is the source of ten thousand acts of injustice, by making bargains with him at a risk to yourself, or by having him as a companion at the festival of Dionysus? Or would you, if you wanted to apply a touchstone to a man who is prone to love, entrust your wife, or your sons, or daughters to him, perilling your dearest interests in order to have a view of the condition of his soul? I might mention numberless cases, in which the advantage would be manifest of getting to know a character in sport, and without paying dearly for experience. And I do not believe that either a Cretan, or any other man, will doubt that such a test is a fair test, and safer, cheaper, and speedier than any other.

Cle. That is certainly true.

Ath. And this knowledge of the natures and habits of men’s souls will be of the greatest use in that art which has the management of them . . . .

Now here is God’s touchstone: it is, I think, the sabbath and the sacred feast days.

Exodus 16:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.” . . . .

He said to them, “This is what the Lord commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of sabbath rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord. . . .

Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none. Then the Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions? Bear in mind that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where they are on the seventh day; no one is to go out.” So the people rested on the seventh day.

The sabbath was thus enshrined within the Ten Commandments. Special instructions are given for the sabbath and feasts in Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16. Those who did any work on the sabbath were to be stoned. The Prophets enjoin the same as central to obedience to God (Isaiah 58:13, Zechariah 14:16-20 — the Feast of Tabernacles is the feast God commands to be enjoyed with wine and strong drink, as shown in my previous post, Ezekiel 44 . . .) Niels Peter Lemche has said that the devout should not be allowed within a mile of the Bible (see my earlier post on chapter 4 of “Is This Not the Carpenter?”). Here is one reason why: numerous sects have registered the biblical commands for the sabbath, noting it is a “test commandment” and “a sign” to identify God’s people, and have duly applied it rigorously in their one lives, even to the point of giving up jobs and removing themselves from family associations.

The Bible does not bypass the motif of trials of character coming in the form of an alcoholic potion, however. Jesus tells James and John they will indeed drink his cup, and Jesus himself prays for the strength to endure the cup of suffering.

Next in this series will look at “Book Two” of the Laws.

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