2015-09-21

Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal States

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

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The first Christians shared all things in common; the first people of God began as a nation of twelve tribes. Plato would have been impressed with both beginnings.

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Previous in this series:

  1. Plato’s and the Bible’s Ideal Laws: Similarities 1:631-637  (2015-06-22)
  2. Plato’s and Bible’s Laws: Similarities, completing Book 1 of Laws  (2015-06-23)
  3. Plato’s Laws, Book 2, and Biblical Values (2015-07-13)
  4. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization (2015-08-13)
  5. Bible’s Presentation of Law as a Model of Plato’s Ideal (2015-08-24)

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Book 5 of Plato’s Laws

Laws 739b-c Acts 2:42-47
The first and highest form of the state and of the government and of the law is that in which there prevails most widely the ancient saying, that “Friends have all things in common.Whether there is anywhere now, or will ever be, this communion of women and children and of property, in which the private and individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasions, and whatever laws there are unite the city to the utmost-whether all this is possible or not, I say that no man, acting upon any other principle, will ever constitute a state which will be truer or better or more exalted in virtue.

And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.
And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.
And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need.
And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, 
praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to them day by day those that were saved.

So began the Christian church, one body, having all things common, like-minded, expressing praise and feeling joy together daily.

If we wink at the fact that Luke probably didn’t mean to indicate that the women and children were included in the common property Plato would have said

no one will ever lay down another definition [of a State] that is truer or better than these conditions in point of super-excellence. (739c Bury’s translation)

People in such an ideal state would inevitably be “happy”:

Whether such a state is governed by Gods or sons of Gods, one, or more than one, happy are the men who, living after this manner, dwell there. . . 

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Laws 745d Ezekiel 47:13, Numbers 1:44 & Matthew 19:28
And the legislator shall divide the citizens into twelve parts,

and arrange the rest of their property, as far as possible, so as to form twelve equal parts;

and there shall be a registration of all. 

Ye shall divide the land for inheritance according to the twelve tribes of Israel . . . .

These were the men registered by Moses and Aaron and the twelve leaders of Israel.

The Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Plato was imagining an ideal state. Having all things in common he considered to be too idealistic to be practical so he considered next-best options. Twelve tribes was the more realistic option, each tribe named after one of the twelve gods of Olympus. The land was to be divided “equally” but that meant larger allotments would be created to compensate for poorer quality soil in some areas. There was to be a methodical census of all citizens.

We know the story of the twelve tribes of Israel, both the original one from Genesis and the renewed one with the twelve apostles.

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Let’s backtrack and start at the beginning. Book 5 begins with the most important things, the gods, followed by those next in rank, the “demons”, then the human soul (our divine part), and finally the human body, and speaks of the respective honours each is owed. 

Parents

Once again the duty of children towards parents is singled out: it is preferable for parents to bequeath a spirit of reverence to their children over riches. The way to instil reverence in children is to rebuke them when they fail to show it — anticipating instructions in biblical proverbs and New Testament epistles. But Plato went one step further than the Bible in this respect when he added a better way:

The best way of training the young is to train yourself at the same time; not to admonish them, but to be always carrying out your own admonitions in practice.

Also once again long life as a blessing from God is promised to those who do honour his kindred:

He who honours his kindred, and reveres those who share in the same Gods and are of the same blood and family, may fairly expect that the Gods who preside over generation will be propitious to him, and will quicken his seed.

The Law

If we think the Bible is overly hung up about obedience to the laws of God we won’t get a sympathetic ear from Plato. Plato stressed that the highest good, the goal in life, what one must strive and overcome to achieve, is obedience to good laws that are given to perfect one’s character. The law is given to make people happy — blessed and happy is the man, etc. . . .

[H]e is by far the best, who rather than the Olympic or any other victory of peace or war, desires to win the palm of obedience to the laws of his country, and who, of all mankind, is the person reputed to have obeyed them best through life. . . .

But the intention of our laws was that the citizens should be as happy as may be, and as friendly as possible to one another. . . .

But if, in any of the laws which have been ordained, health has been preferred to temperance, or wealth to health and temperate habits, that law must clearly be wrong. Wherefore, also, the legislator ought often to impress upon himself the question – “What do I want?” and “Do I attain my aim, or do I miss the mark?”

Law is in fact Torah — a Teaching script. It is the way to the good and righteous life — in Plato as well as in the Bible.

All such things, if only the legislator, by other laws and institutions, can banish meanness and covetousness from the souls of men, so that they can use them properly and to their own good, will be excellent and suitable instruments of education.

Strangers

In his relations to strangers, a man should consider that a contract is a most holy thing, and that all concerns and wrongs of strangers are more directly dependent on the protection of God, than wrongs done to citizens; for the stranger, having no kindred and friends, is more to be pitied by Gods and men. Wherefore, also, he who is most able to avenge him is most zealous in his cause; and he who is most able is the genius and the god of the stranger, who follow in the train of Zeus, the god of strangers. And for this reason, he who has a spark of caution in him, will do his best to pass through life without sinning against the stranger. And of offences committed, whether against strangers or fellow-countrymen, that against suppliants is the greatest. For the god who witnessed to the agreement made with the suppliant, becomes in a special manner the guardian of the sufferer; and he will certainly not suffer unavenged.

Exodus 22:21

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 23:9

And a stranger shalt thou not oppress: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:33-34

33 ‘When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 10:18-19

18 He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. 19 Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Don’t let another sin

Worthy of honour is he who does no injustice, and of more than twofold honour, if he not only does no injustice himself, but hinders others from doing any; the first may count as one man, the second is worth many men, because he informs the rulers of the injustice of others. And yet more highly to be esteemed is he who co-operates with the rulers in correcting the citizens as far as he can – he shall be proclaimed the great and perfect citizen, and bear away the palm of virtue.

Leviticus 19:17

You shall not hate your brother in your heart: you shall in any wise rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin on him.

Righteousness

Plato, like any good servant of Moses or Jesus, then speaks of the need for citizens to pursue self-control and wisdom, and to remove envy from their natures.

If one sins, but is nonetheless redeemable, such a one is to be pitied, cured, helped. But if one sins with an attitude that one is deserving of severe wrath. But for the backsliders one must be good and gentle as Paul himself admonished.

The unrighteous and vicious are always to be pitied in any case; and one can afford to forgive as well as pity him who is curable, and refrain and calm one’s anger, not getting into a passion, like a woman, and nursing ill-feeling. But upon him who is incapable of reformation and wholly evil, the vials of our wrath should be poured out; wherefore I say that good men ought, when occasion demands, to be both gentle and passionate.

Punishment is compared to a medicine by both Plato and the Bible, and those judged sinners in the end bring harm to the state and are destroyed:

The best kind of purification is painful, like similar cures in medicine, involving righteous punishment and inflicting death or exile in the last resort. For in this way we commonly dispose of great sinners who are incurable, and are the greatest injury of the whole state.

Leviticus 26:27ff

27 And if ye will not for all this hearken unto me, but walk contrary unto me; 28 then I will walk contrary unto you in wrath; and I also will chastise you seven times for your sins. . . . . 33 And you will I scatter among the nations, and I will draw out the sword after you: and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.

Self-love

Whereas the excessive love of self is in reality the source to each man of all offences; for the lover is blinded about the beloved, so that he judges wrongly of the just, the good, and the honourable, and thinks that he ought always to prefer himself to the truth. But he who would be a great man ought to regard, not himself or his interests, but what is just, whether the just act be his own or that of another. . . Wherefore let every man avoid excess of self-love, and condescend to follow a better man than himself. . . 

Philippians 2:3

 Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem the other better than himself.

Two sides to government

Those who are to hold great offices in states, should be distinguished truly in each case from those who have been but slenderly proven by education. Let us suppose that there are two parts in the constitution of a state – one the creation of offices, the other the laws which are assigned to them to administer.

Compare the civic and the priestly.

An old parable

The shepherd or herdsman, or breeder of horses or the like, when he has received his animals will not begin to train them until he has first purified them in a manner which befits a community of animals; he will divide the healthy and unhealthy, and the good breed and the bad breed, and will send away the unhealthy and badly bred to other herds, and tend the rest . . .

Freedom from avarice

freedom from avarice and a sense of justice-upon this rock our city shall be built . . .

All such things, if only the legislator, by other laws and institutions, can banish meanness and covetousness from the souls of men, so that they can use them properly and to their own good, will be excellent and suitable instruments of education.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.

How to distribute the land

Plato explained that the first task was to number the total citizenry to see how the land was to be divided. He was speaking of an ideal system and was convinced that the ideal state consisted of 5040 citizens (presumably male heads of households). (See the Wikipedia article for significance of the number 5040.)

Various numbers are given for the census counts of Israel. I don’t know what numerological (or astronomical?) significances there are to the numbers but would not be surprised if they exist. The Hebrew Bible several times breaks down the numbers for various tasks, especially for judicial, taxation and military purposes. Plato’s 5040 was chosen for its ability to be divided by so many other divisors — also for military purposes, for taxation and land-division.

Temple and festivals

Plato would have temples (and land set aside for them) established first — for gods, demi-gods and heroes — the sites to be determined by divine oracles. Sacrifices and religious rites were of course performed at these sacred sites.

Religious festivals were to be appointed at fixed times each year.

the inhabitants of the several districts may meet at fixed times, and that they may readily supply their various wants, and entertain one another with sacrifices, and become friends and acquaintances. . .

Exodus 23:14-17

Three times thou shalt keep a feast unto me in the year. 15 The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep: seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, at the time appointed in the month Abib (for in it thou camest out from Egypt); and none shall appear before me empty: 16 and the feast of harvest, the first-fruits of thy labors, which thou sowest in the field: and the feast of ingathering, at the end of the year, when thou gatherest in thy labors out of the field. 17 Three times in the year all thy males shall appear before the Lord Jehovah.

Deuteronomy 16:16-17

16 Three times in a year shall all thy males appear before Jehovah thy God in the place which he shall choose: in the feast of unleavened bread, and in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tabernacles; and they shall not appear before Jehovah empty: 17 every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of Jehovah thy God which he hath given thee.

Inheritances

Plato believed the 5040 land allotments should remain constant in perpetuity. Landholdings should not be divided among children; those unable to inherit the land would find other places – either to be allocated to childless couples, or to serve in administrative or other roles.

Land could not be sold.

[D]o not disparage the small and modest proportions of the inheritances which you received in the distribution, by buying and selling them to one another. For then neither will the God who gave you the lot be your friend, nor will the legislator; and indeed the law declares to the disobedient that these are the terms upon which he may or may not take the lot. In the first place, the earth as he is informed is sacred to the Gods; and in the next place, priests and priestesses will offer up prayers over a first, and second, and even a third sacrifice, that he who buys or sells the houses or lands which he has received, may suffer the punishment which he deserves . . .

Notice, by the way, that God is said to be the friend of these people. Recall Abraham and Moses, the only biblical names accounted to be the friends of God — until Jesus gave that status to all in the Gospel of John.

Leviticus 25:23

And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine: for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.

Gold,  silver and money

Here we see a marked difference. Plato did not want gold and silver in the state because of its corrupting power. God promised the treasures of the earth to an obedient Israel.

Plato forbade lending money on interest

[N]o one shall deposit money with another whom he does not trust as a friend, nor shall he lend money upon interest; and the borrower should be under no obligation to repay either capital or interest.

Exodus 22:25

If thou lend money to any of my people with thee that is poor, thou shalt not be to him as a creditor; neither shall ye lay upon him interest.

Wealth, physical and spiritual

The intention, as we affirm, of a reasonable statesman, is not what the many declare to be the object of a good legislator, namely, that the state for the true interests of which he is advising should be as great and as rich as possible, and should possess gold and silver, and have the greatest empire by sea and land; – this they imagine to be the real object of legislation, at the same time adding, inconsistently, that the true legislator desires to have the city the best and happiest possible.

God’s wish was for Israel to be rich in righteousness, and therefore happy — and that he would then bless them with great wealth. The Bible offers the best of both worlds. But there is a catch. What Plato foresaw as the inevitable downfall that would come with great wealth, the Bible has God predict as a virtual certainty — though ostensibly the people had a choice.

The only wealth to be generated in Plato’s ideal state was from agriculture.

Deuteronomy 28:1

And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of Jehovah thy God, to observe to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that Jehovah thy God will set thee on high above all the nations of the earth:

 

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To be continued…..

11 Comments

  • Jay Raskin
    2015-09-21 13:46:29 UTC - 13:46 | Permalink

    Hi Neil,

    After Alexander, Judea was under the control of Greeks for nearly two centuries. It would be normal for Plato and Greek ideals to influence the selection for preservation of Hebrew Texts and the interpretation of Hebrew Texts. We see the same thing happening with Native American religions in the 17th through 19th centuries with the dominant influence of Christianity. Did Native Americans really worship a great spirit in the sky before the coming of Christianity?

  • Neil Godfrey
    2015-09-21 13:51:38 UTC - 13:51 | Permalink

    Or the Hebrew texts were originally composed after the Hellenistic conquest — not just selected and interpreted then. . . . ?

    • 2015-09-21 23:11:16 UTC - 23:11 | Permalink

      No. Mostly they reek of 7th-6th century composition. There are some pretty clearly Hellenistic parts (e.g.,

      • references to Cherethites and Pelethites,
      • the books of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles,
      • Daniel,
      • plausibly Songs),

      but most of the OT books (including Prophets) were primarily written during the 7th-6th century.

      • Scot Griffin
        2015-09-22 00:33:38 UTC - 00:33 | Permalink

        That is the scholarly consensus, which is based on circular reasoning. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the entirety of Primary History dates from the Persian era or later. Count me among those who believe the Primary History dates to the Hellenistic Era.

        • 2015-09-22 00:56:20 UTC - 00:56 | Permalink

          There is also a boatload of evidence the Primary History mostly (though not entirely) dates to the 7th-6th centuries BC. Among these are

          • the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 (inconsistent with Greek knowledge in the 4th-3rd century BC, but not in 7th-6th),
          • the references to Hittites (which were unknown to the Greeks, but well known by the Neo-Babylonians),
          • the Joshua city lists (with the sole exception of Beth-Shean, which was not inhabited during the 7th-6th centuries BC, but was in the 8th and 2nd),
          • the description of Edom,
          • the existence of lengthy Biblical books of 6th-7th century BC prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, as well as Joel and probably others),
          • the strong archaeological evidence for Judahite literacy during the 7th-6th century BC,
          • the close correspondence of the world imagined in Genesis 14 with the 6th century BC world,
          • and the general lack of reference to anything distinctly Hellenistic in the Primary History outside Samuel.
          • Also, the careful descriptions of 6th-7th century BC history and figures, as contrasted with the unrealistic and less careful descriptions of the 10th-9th centuries.
          • Also, mentions of Ekron (abandoned during Hellenistic period),
          • and other cities abandoned in the 2nd century (though Ekron is mentioned in the Maccabees, where did the authors of the Maccabees get the idea to include that long-abandoned city from?).

          No circular reasoning. This might be parallelomania, but I’ve really seen no similar parallels for the Primary History as we see in Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles, and especially Daniel, with the exception of the Cherethites and Pelethites.

          • Scot Griffin
            2015-09-22 06:14:45 UTC - 06:14 | Permalink

            Certain items you cite are not that familiar to me, but off the top of my head:

            “the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 (inconsistent with Greek knowledge in the 4th-3rd century BC, but not in 7th-6th),”

            Russell Gmirkin has made the case that the Table of Nations is based on the work of Berossus in the early 3rd century BCE. Specifically, he argues that Jews and Samaritans used Berossus’ work to construct the Table of Nations.

            You seem to assume that Hellenistic kings could not learn about the history of the lands they ruled from native scholars, but both the Ptolemies and Seleucids commissioned such histories.

            “the references to Hittites (which were unknown to the Greeks, but well known by the Neo-Babylonians)”

            So Berossus would have known of them, as would those Greeks who read his history of Babylon.

            “the existence of lengthy Biblical books of 6th-7th century BC prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, as well as Joel and probably others),”

            Please explain your basis for assuming that these books were written in the 6th-7th century (other than the statements made in the books themselves). This is where the circular reasoning comes in . . .

            “the strong archaeological evidence for Judahite literacy during the 7th-6th century BC,”

            Strong? Please explain. And what do you mean by “literacy?” Are you just saying that some people were literate (granted), or are you arguing for a literacy rate higher than 10%.

            “the close correspondence of the world imagined in Genesis 14 with the 6th century BC world,”

            On that basis, we should date well-written works of historical fiction to the time they describe.

            “and the general lack of reference to anything distinctly Hellenistic in the Primary History outside Samuel.”

            You seem to assume that to be dated to the Hellenistic Era, there would have to be a reference to something “distinctly Hellenistic.” Where does that assumption come from, particularly if, as most minmalists would argue, it was the Jews doing the writing?

            “Also, the careful descriptions of 6th-7th century BC history and figures, as contrasted with the unrealistic and less careful descriptions of the 10th-9th centuries.”

            An alternative explanation is that the court histories seized by the Seleucids pretty much dated back to the 6th-7th centuries BCE. To the extent that we have corroboration of Biblical events in those times outside of the Bible itself, it is in artifacts that would have been possessed by the Seleucids. All you need is the right material to use as a starting point.

            • 2015-09-22 23:38:05 UTC - 23:38 | Permalink

              If Berossus mentioned the Hittites, why don’t we hear of them from Greek texts?

              The Table of Nations is heavily Fertile Crescent-focused: its author mentioned nothing to the East of Media. Even Persia is unmentioned. Why is India, Central Asia, and Persia unmentioned in the Table?

              Is there any strong evidence of post-exilic authorship (not just revision) of Ezekiel, Joel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah? All of Isaiah’s prophecies are claimed by the author(s) to date to the 8th century BC, but internal evidence is consistent in dating many of them to the 6th.

              If some people were literate, some could have written texts. I don’t know what the exact rate was, but there were plenty of literate people around at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, as shown by the numerous inscriptions recovered from there.

              There’s a lot of Mesopotamian-inspired material in the Primary History (flood, tower of Babel, Genesis 14, use of Hittites in an expanded manner). Is there any similar quantity of Greek-inspired material (the Japheth references are suggestive of Hellenistic influence, but could also plausibly refer to Greek mercenaries in 7th century BC Judah, as suggested by Walter Mattfeld)?

              • Scot Griffin
                2015-09-23 02:22:19 UTC - 02:22 | Permalink

                “If Berossus mentioned the Hittites, why don’t we hear of them from Greek texts?”

                Why would you expect us to?

                “The Table of Nations is heavily Fertile Crescent-focused: its author mentioned nothing to the East of Media. Even Persia is unmentioned. Why is India, Central Asia, and Persia unmentioned in the Table?”

                Read Gmirkin’s book and find his answer.

                “Is there any strong evidence of post-exilic authorship (not just revision) of Ezekiel, Joel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah? All of Isaiah’s prophecies are claimed by the author(s) to date to the 8th century BC, but internal evidence is consistent in dating many of them to the 6th.”

                Is there any evidence at all that the books of the prophets, other than the books themselves, were written when they claim to have been? The answer is that there is not. On the other hand, we have plenty of reasons to believe that the books of the Old Testament were not written when the books imply they were written, nor were the authors who they purported to be. Relying on the Bible as proof of what the Bible asserts is circular reasoning that starts with misclassification of the Bible as a form of modern history and not some other form of literature.

                “as shown by the numerous inscriptions recovered from there.”

                You are going a bit far in arguing that there were “numerous inscriptions.” Yes, relative to Judean inscriptions dated from the 8th to 6th centuries BCE, most date to the latter half of the 7th century BCE and first couple of decades of the 6th century BCE, but “relatively numerous” does not equal numerous by any stretch.

                And the fact that some people in Judea could write does not mean they could write a form of literature otherwise unknown to the Near east.

                “Is there any similar quantity of Greek-inspired material. “

                Yes. See Wajdenbaum’s “Argonauts of the Desert.” I’m sure Gmirkin’s “Plato and the Creation of the Bible” (link to abstract below) will add substantially to what Wajdenbaum and other authors (whose work you seem ignorant of) have amassed. Still, I’d argue you have no basis for asserting that finding “Greek-inspired material” in the Primary History is a pre-requisite for concluding that the Primary History was written in the Hellenistic Era.

                http://www.academia.edu/12658766/Plato_and_the_Creation_of_the_Hebrew_Bible_forthcoming_

          • 2015-09-24 02:30:24 UTC - 02:30 | Permalink

            Whoa, the authors here even bullet-point your reasons! Cool!

            • Scot Griffin
              2015-09-24 07:02:37 UTC - 07:02 | Permalink

              Yeah, but while you can bullet point your reasons, you don’t (or can’t) substantiate those reasons when asked to do so, so you resort to replying to yourself instead. Telling.

              I wish you well.

              • Neil Godfrey
                2015-09-24 07:51:50 UTC - 07:51 | Permalink

                I added the formatting in both your comments — dot points for E and blockquotes for Scot — it’s a topic I’m particularly interested in and it helps if the different points are set out to easy reference.

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