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Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Righteous or Just Man in Plato

Plato (525-456 BC)
 L. W. Yaggy and T. L. Haines, 
Museum of Antiquity

 (New York: Standard Publishing House, 1882), 709.

While traveling this past Christmas season from Michigan back to Missouri, as the family slept, I listened to Plato's Republic on my iPod Touch. LibriVox produces free audio books in MP3 format  for a number of the classics, including the Republic. Plato's Republic is just over 13 hours when read, which helped the time in the car pass more quickly. It had been yeas since I had read the Republic and I read (or rather heard it) through different ears than I had before. 

Although Plato and his ideas were encountered in graduate school and in Reformation studies, my most recent pondering of Plato involved δικαιοσύνη / dikaiosune ("righteousness"), while teaching a class on justification in Novosibirsk, Siberia, Russia. Oswald Bayer in his book Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification (Lutheran Quarterly Books) discusses how as human-beings we always seek to justify ourselves. For example consider this simple example, "Why are you wearing that?" "Well... I thought it went well with my eyes, etc." In our every day lives, personal, professional, and religious lives we seek to justify ourselves. Despite the claims that Renaissance/Reformation man was concerned with the question, "Is there a gracious God?", while the post-modern individual is asking, "Is there a god at all?" In fact, to ask the question about the existence of God is just a different version of the "justification" question. In this case, humankind is attempting to "justify" its own existence -- evolution, apocalyptic fatalism (more on this in a future post and article), etc. Plato shows that people have been asking questions about "righteousness" and "justice" for a very long time.

Plato's Republic was written about 390 B.C., long after the Books of Moses. It is one of Plato's longest dialogues. The characters that appear in the Republic are Socrates, Glaucon (Plato's brother), Adeimantus (another of Plato's brothers), Cephalus, Polemarchus (Cephalus' son), Thrasymachus, Cleitophon, Charmantides, and three other silent characters. The entire piece is narrated by Socrates and it was to have been recorded the day after the actual event. The dialogue treats the subject of "righteousness" or "justice", which caused some people like Zwingli to remark, "Plato has drunk at this heavenly spring." Zwingli meant that Plato was inspired by the Holy Spirit. When Martin Luther learned of Zwingli's confession about Plato, he wrote in his Brief Confession of 1544, "In this book he not only remains an enemy of the holy sacrament but also becomes a full-blown heathen... What can such an author, preacher, and teacher believe about the Christian faith except that it is no better than any other faith and that everyone can be saved by his own faith." (AE 38, 289-290)

When listening to Plato's Republic two passages in particular from Book 2 stuck out as it relates to justification, natural law, and the New Testament. At the beginning of Book, Glauco, Plato's brother, tells a story about a shepherd who found a gold ring that made him invisible when put on. (Republic, Book 2, 359e) The shepherd, who before finding the ring had been a "righteous" man, used the ring to seduce the king's wife and ultimately kill the king himself to possess his kingdom. In fact, this man would become equal to the gods (ἰσόθεος), doing what is right in his own eyes.

Glauco says:

"....he would, and in all other things conduct himself among mankind as the equal of a god. And in so acting he would do no differently from the other man, but both would pursue the same course. And yet this is a great proof, one might argue, that no one is just of his own will but only from constraint, in the belief that justice is not his personal good, inasmuch as every man, when he supposes himself to have the power to do wrong, does wrong."

The phrase that caught my attention was "no one is just of his own will but only from constraint... when he supposes himself to have the power to do wrong, does wrong." The words of intrest are "his own will" and "constraint" or in Greek ἑκών (hekon) and  ἀναγκαζόμενος (anagkazomenos). Both of these words are used in the Greek New Testament, most notably in the writings of St. Paul. Paul uses ἑκών (hekon) in Romans 8:20, "creation was subjected to futility, not willingly (ἑκών)" and in 1 Corinthians 9:17, "For if I do this of my own will (ἑκών)..." The antonym of ἑκών (hekon) is ἀναγκαζόμενος (anagkazomenos), which appears around 20 times in the New Testament. In any case, it is used to indicate being forced against your will. Paul uses it this way in Galatians when the Gentiles were being forced to live like Jews -- Galatians 2:3, 14). In 1 Peter 5:2, oversight of the flock is urged but not under "compulsion". 

The basic point in the Republic is that "righteousness" must be produced under compulsion or forced since no man will be righteous of his own accord. This recognition has tremendous implications for natural law.

The next section worthy of considering deals with a hypothetical situation. To test whether a "just" or "righteous" man is truly "just" and "righteous", everything of value in his life will be stripped from him. Ultimately, his life will be taken from him in cruelest of manners to see if he can remain "righteous" until the end. After all, if he had good things in this life, perhaps he was "righteous" in order to the good things in his life. The only way to test "righteousness" is to give this man every "injustice" the world can inflict. Plato writes in Republic 2.361c:

"We cannot be sure in that case whether he is just for justice' sake or for the sake of the gifts and the honors. So we must strip him bare of everything but justice."

The stripping bare of the man culminates in his death by crucifixion. Republic 2.361e - 2.362a:

"What they will say is this: that such being his disposition the just man will have to endure the lash, the rack, chains, the branding-iron in his eyes, and finally, after every extremity of suffering, he will be crucified, and so will learn his lesson that not to be but to seem just is what we ought to desire."

So according to Plato, a truly "righteous" or "just" man can only be found after he is stripped of all, made to suffer, and then crucified. Therefore, most men only desire to appear "righteous" rather than become or be "righteous". In Plato's words: οὐκ εἶναι δίκαιον ἀλλὰ δοκεῖνδεῖ ἐθέλειν -- "not to be righteous but to desire to seem (righteous)." Now a note on the word Plato uses for "crucify." Plato's word is ἀνασκολοπίζω (anaskolopizo) which means "to fix on a pole or a stake, to impale". So it is not the same word that the New Testament uses for "to crucify" but it is within the semantic domain.

The fact that Plato's "righteous man" ends up crucified did not escape the early church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria in his Stromata, Book IV, chapter 7. Tertullian notes that the devil "copies certain things of that be Divine." 

It is ironic that Plato concludes "justice" or "righteousness" is only found on the cross. In the end, it seems that for Plato, the cross is still foolishness, since man only desires to appear righteous. Plato's Republic shows that people have been struggling with the concept of "righteousness" and "justification" for a long time.

Again despite the claims that the post-modern individual is beyond "being justified", Mark Mattes in The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology (Lutheran Quarterly Books) does a good job showing we aren't beyond the topic of "justification". Closely, related to Plato's discussion of "compulsion" are the topics of natural law and free will. It is hard to believe that Paul wasn't aware of Plato when he discussed "righteousness". Have joy of Plato.

Plato's Republic Book 2, Part 1 (about 31 minutes):


Oswald Bayer Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification (Lutheran Quarterly Books)

LibriVox.Org -- acoustical liberation of books in the public domain.

Mark Mattes, The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology (Lutheran Quarterly Books)

Perseus Digital Library -- Classical Greek and Latin texts from Tufs University.

Plato: The Republic, Books 1-5 (Loeb Classical Library No. 237)

Plato: The Republic, Books 6-10 (Loeb Classical Library, No. 276)


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