Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 887d–895b

“The Combat of Mars and Minerva,” by Jacques-Louis David, Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon


If we’re going to have a discussion with a young materialist in order to defend the existence of the gods, we’ve got to start by keeping our cool:

You see, one inevitably gets irritable and annoyed with these people who have put us to the trouble, and continue to put us to the trouble, of composing these explanations. If only they believed the stories which they had as babes and sucklings from their nurses and mothers! (887d)

There may be a broader point here—perhaps the anger of the New Atheists is a result of those of us who are theists refusing to adhere to the stories we’ve been told all our lives about how we’re little more than atoms, time, and chance. That’s of course turning it around on the Athenian, who argues from the theistic perspective that we ought to believe the lessons and evidence we pick up in Sunday school without demanding additional philosophical defenses of the core tenets of religion.

Still, we must make the best of it: we don’t want both sides maddened at once, they by their greed for pleasure, we by our anger at their condition. So our address to men with such a depraved outlook should be calm, and run as follows. (888a)

In our modern context, where we come out of a mixed history (both the religious and the atheistic stories have a clear place in our culture and the upbringing of the young), both sides ought to remember that anger must not dominate the discussion.

What, then, should we say to the young atheist?

Now then, my lad, you’re still young, and as time goes on you’ll come to adopt opinions diametrically opposed to those you hold now. Why not wait till later on to make up your mind about these important matters? The most important of all, however lightly you take it at the moment, is to get the right ideas about the gods and so live a good life—otherwise you’ll live a bad one. In this connexion, I want first to make a crucial and irrefutable point. It’s this: you’re not unique. Neither you nor your friends are the first to have held this opinion about the gods. It’s an illness from which the world is never free, though the number of sufferers varies from time to time. (888b)

The Athenian claims that he has never met an old man who holds to his materialistic atheism, it’s just a matter of waiting for good sense to override youthful arrogance. In the meantime, the young need to remember

1) Be patient and willing to suspend judgment for the moment;
2) Work hard at finding the truth and living well;
3) Remember you’re not all that special—others have been through this too.

That last point really ought to be painted on the wall of every elementary school in America—and not just for religious reasons.

Once we’ve encouraged the atheist to be patient and examine the issues carefully and in the community of others who have gone through the same intellectual struggle, we must begin with an exploration of existence:

Some people, I believe, account for all things which have come to exist, all things which are coming into existence now, and all things which will do so in the future, by attributing them either to nature, art, or chance. (888e)

The Athenian admits that these are in fact the three pertinent aspects of creation, but he notes that the atheist is going to subsume “art” under “nature” and “chance”, and then claim that it (art) is only relevant once existence is established. Nature and chance together lead to existence, art is only an afterthought that gets combined with the natural materials at hand. Even then, we only really care about it when it is worked into nature and results in something like medicine, agriculture, or athletics. The “gods” are a development of art even less relevant than those, somewhere behind “politics.” Which further tells these atheists that there is no natural grounding for morality at all, because the two sources of it are so distant from the original ground of being.

My dear fellow, the first thing these people say about the gods is that they are artificial concepts corresponding to nothing in nature; they are legal fictions, which moreover vary very widely according to the different conventions people agree on when they produce a legal code. In particular, goodness according to nature and goodness according to the law are two different things, and there is no natural standard of justice at all. On the contrary, men are always wrangling about their moral standards and altering them, and every change introduced becomes binding from the moment it’s made, regardless of the fact that it is entirely artificial, and based on convention, not nature in the slightest degree. (889e–890a)

And once that shapes our worldview, obedience to the law is relevant only until we can convince society to change it to match our own internal desires, which makes politics and life all about the act of conquering others and bending them to our will.

So how are we to respond to these challenges? Presumably because anger can be our initial emotional response, our temptation will be to simply have the legislator make confessing the existence of the gods mandatory and threaten any who refuse with punishment. Obviously this will be a temptation for a legislator in any number of areas, including beauty, justice, and everything else that is essential to the state. Yet we all know that persuasion is better and that, if our goals can be met by discussion rather than force, we ought to use discussion—even if it takes a long, long time.

The Athenian’s response to the challenge of materialistic atheism begins with turning the materialist’s assumptions on their heads. The atheist assumes that nature (material existence) comes first and that the soul only develops later. (The Athenian does not come right out and accuse the atheists of not believing in a soul at all, but in the context of the earlier discussion of “legal fictions” I think we can make the leap with a good conscience.) In fact, the Athenian argues, the truth is quite the opposite:

[the soul] is one of the first creations, born long before all physical things, and is the chief cause of all their alternations and transformations. (892a)

Consequently, all the things we associate with the soul—reason, art, law, etc.—predate the characteristics of the material world.

But because the soul predates the material world, we’ve got to adjust our language a bit. If in fact the soul came first, then it is what is truly “natural,” rather than the rocks and trees and such around us. And once we’ve opened that door, we will be able to say that what is good for the soul is the true “natural law” and not at all a made-up legal fiction. But how do we prove that the soul was first? The Athenian admits that the case is a difficult one to prove and has to start with the complicated idea of motion.

Without getting into the complicated (and debated) mechanics of the Athenian’s explanation of motion, we see that there are two key types of movement for the purposes of his argument:

The one kind of motion is that which is permanently capable of moving other things but not itself; the other is permanently capable of moving both itself and other things… (894c)

That is, there is motion that begins elsewhere and is transmitted (a pool cue strikes a ball, which then strikes another ball, etc.) and motion that begins internally (I choose to stand up). That which can internally generate motion must obviously come before that which receives motion from an external source.

If, then, we imagine a universe where there is no motion—as must have been the case at some point if we have a materialistic worldview—then the objects or beings which can internally generate motion are the source of all that happens in that universe.

How this becomes a proof for the antiquity of the soul we shall see in the next post.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.

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