I re-started an adult English speaking and reading (aloud) scripture session for Virgin Mary’s EOTC in South Los Angeles about a year and a half ago. We have gone through Ephesians, Galatians, Acts of the Apostles, and a chunk of Luke. We have done half a year face-to-face, and a year in the digital space. Sunday after Sunday, regardless of the topic, as Cato the Elder slandered Carthage, I slander Prosperity Gospel preachers and the philosopher king himself Plato.
I am not nor have I ever been lured into the siren call of the Joel Osteens and Creflo Dollas this world has to offer up. But, in college, I was definitely a platonist or a neoplatonist. And the worst part is that like many of the fathers of the church, I was fooled into thinking this is compatible with Christianity. It is not.
It is not compatible in the sense that Platonism is a political philosophy, and thus its analyses should remain in that domain. In the best case scenario, he has things of use to say in that arena. In the worst case scenario, scripture has something to say about all areas of human behavior, and thus it has something to say about political philosophy. This means scripture has something to say about ethics and not just metaphysics. Epistemology, we will leave to those who know.
Hat tip to the Pop & Locke podcast, whose Lord of the Rings (LOTR) episode I heard the other day, and it got my brain juices flowing. I have heard political and religious interpretations of LOTR before. J.R.R. Tolkien was more open about his faith than his politics. He famously did not want the chattering class saying his books’ passages had one definitive end all be all meaning. His friend and fantasy co-conspirator C.S. Lewis was known to be more blatant in his allegory. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic and thought critically about both monarchy and anarchy (sans twirly mustache and Molotov cocktail). Jeff Riggenbach has the best radio and audiobook voice of all time (I will only accept James Earl Jones as an alt), and he deals with LOTR from a political perspective here. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick deals with LOTR from an Orthodox Christian perspective here and here (with carver and symbolist Jonathan Pageau).
I am sure Tolkien read Plato. Whether he was directly and knowingly paying homage to the following quotation, the Lord knows. But, certainly there are links between LOTR and this passage. Tolkien critiques human desire for power by showing us that all humans (sorcerers included), dwarves, elves, and even hobbits fail to resist the allure of power. Everyone who puts the ring on succumbs to it. Some take longer, but all fall. No one is good, no not one. And so, eucatastrophe, subtle divine intervention, is needed to make sure there is a happy ending to our story.
Plato concludes that since no one is good, revealed by the power of the ring, let’s stop pretending. Grab power. Plato’s disciple is Aristotle. Aristotle’s disciple is Alexander the Great. Alexander invaded and conquered large swaths of the known world of his day. The Neoplatonist would call this evil, and it is easy to do so, but real biblical morality and ethics are functional and contextual. Alexander’s successors divvied up his gains till squandery. YHWH used Alexander’s spreading of Hellenistic culture to have the Septuagint (Old Greek) translation of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament reach the ends of the earth.
Read Plato, and decide to reject or accept his message. Read scripture, and do likewise.
The Ring of Gyges, from the Republic, Book II
"They say that to do injustice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good. And so when men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. This they affirm to be the origin and nature of justice; --it is a mean or compromise, between the best of all, which is to do injustice and not be punished, and the worst of all, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation; and justice, being at a middle point between the two, is tolerated not as a good, but as the lesser evil, and honoured by reason of the inability of men to do injustice. For no man who is worthy to be called a man would ever submit to such an agreement if he were able to resist; he would be mad if he did. Such is the received account, Socrates, of the nature and origin of justice.
Now that those who practice justice do so involuntarily and because they have not the power to be unjust will best appear if we imagine something of this kind: having given both to the just and the unjust power to do what they will, let us watch and see whither desire will lead them; then we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along the same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be their good, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law. The liberty which we are supposing may be most completely given to them in the form of such a power as is said to have been possessed by Gyges the ancestor of Croesus the Lydian. According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and re ascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet [decorative front of the ring] outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result-when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom. Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another's, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another's faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice."