Twentieth in an ongoing series on the nexus between religion and technology. The previous essay is here.
Out of the two objections we raised against the concept of God as the "Lonely Dungeon Master" (at the end of our last segment), the conceptual complexity of the Dungeon Master’s world is perhaps the easier one to address. In our outline of the scenario, we made a huge jump, from geometric patterns straight into the middle of a hotly contested Dungeons & Dragons campaign, from a universe of absolute simplicity and pleasing symmetry to one that was oddly and asymmetrically specific. It might seem more plausible, or at least less jarring, if we instead picture the Dungeon Master as inventing the Big Bang as a first or early step, and then as simply letting everything else flow naturally from that, in the fullness of time.
The moral complexity, or rather, ambiguity of the Dungeon Master is harder to explain away, however. When God is in everything, and everything is within God, does that not implicate God in our crimes of the spirit as well? Is God present in our angers, and our wars; our dirty jokes and our pornography?
Here, perhaps, we have made a mistake by conflating God, as traditionally conceived, with our conception of “the Dungeon Master,” who is merely the maximally simple simulator. But then again, our entire purpose was to determine if there is any necessary connection between the two; between the simulator predicted by Nick Bostrom’s theory and God as envisioned by theologians and believers throughout the ages. Is there any valid reason that we should expect moral perfection from the maximally simple simulator? And what is the reason we expect it from God?
The idea that God is morally perfect, although it seems so fundamental as to be inextricably bound up in the very idea of a god, is not actually a universal one. In the ancient Greek, Roman, and Norse religions, motley assortments of gods formed quarrelsome pantheons composed of beings not notably more moral than human beings, and in some cases arguably less. The same is true of the deities as conceptualized in places as far distanced as Africa and Japan.
The story of the invention (or at least the popularization in Western culture) of the idea of God as a perfect being arguably begins in ancient Greece, with an athletic young aristocrat, named Aristocles, but known universally by his affectionate nickname, “Plato.” It is not known whether the young Plato already had doubts about the reality of the crude and lustful Greek pantheon, but what is clear that when a quarrelsome old soldier named Socrates began disputing the popular religious myths of the time, Plato was all ears.
Socrates is one of the great and indelible characters of historical legend. Memorably ugly in an age that idolized beauty, and an elderly veteran at a time when most people never survived to old age, he was said to have nearly superhuman strength and endurance, even in his latest years. A testament to his unflagging virility is the fact that he somehow obtained a much younger wife, Xanthippe. She was reputed to be the most critical and unpleasant woman in Athens, a fact of which Socrates seemed perversely proud. He declared her the ideal companion for a philosopher, since she kept his mind fixated on heavenly pleasures rather than earthly ones. Together they had several children who were still young at the time of Socrates’ death (a circumstance that he seemed notably untroubled by).
The most famous of philosophers, without having ever claimed to be worthy of the title, Socrates was notorious for asking everyone he met an endless series of probing and difficult questions. He is best remembered for his credo “I know only that I know nothing!” and he seems to have been dedicated to demonstrating that no one else knew anything either. His favored victims were self-important know-it-alls, whom he delighted in reducing to a state the Greeks called aporia, a kind of baffled confusion involving the surrender of all beliefs and the suspension of all judgment.
While Plato found Socrates’ provocations a breath of much-needed fresh air in contrast to the stale and conventional ideologies of Athens, others considered him a menace to society. In particular, Meletus, a brittle, ambitious, and ostentatiously conservative young prosecutor (a kind of Tucker Carlson of his day) took the lead in accusing Socrates of crimes against the city of Athens, among them corrupting the youth, and teaching them to disbelieve in the stories about the gods. After Socrates, who, acting as his own lawyer, launched a defense that was almost deliberately counterproductive, he was found guilty.
This was followed by a tragicomic little farce, which can only be understood if one understands the system by which Athens sentenced criminals at the time. The prosecutor was supposed to propose one possible punishment, and the defense to counter with another, after which the jury would vote on which one seemed most appropriate. The theory was that neither side would pick something too extreme, since that would tend to encourage the jury to take the opposing side’s suggestion instead. In this case, however, Meletus, making the most of his moment of triumph, dramatically called for execution, doubtlessly in the expectation that Socrates would be suitably frightened and humiliated, and suggest some lesser, but still onerous and degrading punishment as an escape from death. Instead Socrates’ counter was that he should be fed daily at the city’s expense, an honor usually reserved for victorious Olympian athletes. With these as their only options, the jury opted for death, likely to the horror of everyone there, notwithstanding Meletus himself. Thereafter, Socrates steadfastly refused ample opportunities to escape the dubious security of the Athenian prison system. This was perhaps because he was fixated on eternal things (or perhaps because death seemed a better option than going home to Xanthippe and the children).
Ironically, we largely know Socrates only through Plato, since Socrates was opposed to the new-fangled invention called writing, and never wrote anything down himself; yet we largely know Plato only through Socrates, since Plato never wrote in his own voice, nor appears as a character in any of his own dialogues, but speaks to us, ventriloquist-like, only via the character of his deceased mentor (and Socrates’ diverse circle of non-Plato interlocutors). This, quite understandably, leads to difficulties in distinguishing the two men and their ideas, yet careful attention to the dialogues does suggest ways in which they must have been quite different. It was Socrates, not Plato, who said “I only know that I know nothing,” and it seems likely that Plato did in fact think he knew at least one important thing, a thing that he became less and less shy about alluding to as the years went on.
Since he eschewed autobiography, we cannot know if Plato had a mystic vision that came upon him like a thunderbolt one day after visiting with Socrates, or if it was slowly and gradually that he felt he was beginning to sense a deeper, more fundamental reality underlying his mentor’s incessant questions. Whether what he saw was what Socrates also saw is unanswerable, since Plato himself may never have known whether he was deliberately led by Socrates to the truth he glimpsed, or whether it was just that he could see it more clearly after his eyes and his palate had been cleansed of illusionary half-truths by Socrates’ caustic interrogations.
Whichever it was, scholars discern a shift at some point in Plato’s dialogues, as he begins to seem less interested in memorializing Socrates’ inquisitive bull sessions, and more and more to be driving at some point of his own. And whatever that point was, he must have been highly motivated to elucidate it, because he wrote work after work, each carefully aimed at a different audience, and taking on different styles, idioms and voices in order to speak to each group in their own language. For politicians and noblemen, he wrote a book called The Republic about politics. For artists and lovers, he wrote a book called The Symposium on love. He wrote a dialogue about the law for lawyers, and one about poetry for admirers of a handsome young popular idol named Ion. Much of the strangeness we experience when we read Plato today, in fact, comes from the fact that he is working so hard to address in their own language, and with their own cultural references, audiences that vanished well over 2000 years ago.
There was an oddity about Plato’s work noticed even in his own time, however. For all the virtuoso writing, the mastery of logic and rhetoric, none of the arguments in his books seem quite to work perfectly. They all have errors in them, some of which seem as though they must have been obvious to a master of argument like Plato, and some of which are even pointed out by characters in the dialogues. Was his goal Socratic aporia, or was he just careless?
Someone who likely thought the latter, if only privately, was Aristotle. A great philosopher in his own right, arguably the father of science, and a thinker whose philosophies dominated Europe and the Middle East for a thousand years, he was never Plato’s favorite pupil but he was clearly his most successful one. Following in the footsteps of his master, he wrote on a wide array of topics ranging from politics to aesthetics, forging a comprehensive system of thought that was long the gold standard for philosophy. Seen in the light of Aristotelian rigor, Plato’s work seems like an incomplete introduction to his pupil’s, the flawed work of the predecessor, completed by the successor.
That is likely how Aristotle conceptualized it, at least, and it is largely how people viewed Plato, mainly though the lens of Aristotle, for the next six hundred years, until an Egyptian-Roman by the name of Plotinus came along, with a radically different interpretation of Plato’s real agenda. If Aristotle had literalized Plato’s work, Plotinus went the opposite direction, uncovering the hidden and implicit mysticism just under the surface.
In Plotinus’s reading, Plato, somewhere along the way, began to believe that there is some Great Good Thing somewhere, in some mystical other world. In the famous “Allegory of the Cave,” Plato implies that this “Ideal of the Good” sends forth (intellectual) light brightly like the sun. Also like the sun, it might be said that we, in some sense, orbit it like planets (although, of course, both Plato and Plotinus wrote long before any Copernican cosmology). It is too pure, too holy, too rarefied and too good to ever enter our comparatively debased world, and we humans too limited to every truly know it, or understand it, or call it by name, but some deeply veiled memory of it exists in each of us, and we all constantly strive blindly towards it our entire lives, without ever knowing what it is we are striving towards.
Every ordinary good thing, in Plotinus’ reading of Plato, is an imitation or a reflection in some way of this Great Good Thing, and things are real, and true, and beautiful, and lasting exactly and only to the extent in which they partake in the original. This is a great mystery, and it could not be explained in ordinary language. No one would understand it; it would be rejected, just as Socrates had been rejected. It could not be taught or transmitted, people had to discover it, or as Plato would have it, remember it for themselves. Accordingly, the task Plato took on, in book after book, was to “remind” people—very many, very different people—of this truth by teaching them how to look for it themselves under the surface of the things they already loved and admired. His book for noblemen and politicians, The Republic, was really about how the Great Good Thing was like the perfect city, and also like the perfect rulers of that perfect city. His book for artists and lovers, The Symposium, was really about how the Great Good Thing was like love, and the lover and the beloved, all rolled into one. (Notably, Plato describes Socrates as crediting much of this doctrine to a female philosopher and priestess, Diotima of Mantinea. Although once widely dismissed as fictional, probably because of sexism, Diotima is increasingly thought to have been based on a real person.) His book for lawyers and moralists was about how the Great Good Thing was like a perfect moral law, his book for the religious was about how the Great Good Thing was like the gods, and even his book for hot young heartthrobs was about how the Great Good Thing was like poetic inspiration.
The key to understanding Plato, and the reason he is so often and so deeply misunderstood, lies in a concept called the “Noble Lie.” Plato was perhaps not the first storyteller to believe that the facts should never get in the way of a good story, but he was surely the first to enshrine it as a philosophical principle. It comes in the middle of the Republic, and it consists of a myth to be told to the populace about how all people have different metals mixed into their souls, some gold, some silver and some bronze. It seems an odd move for someone as concerned with truth as Plato, and for someone as dismissive of myths about the gods as he was. But the difference, for Plato, is that myths about the gods being drunk, rapacious and vindictive obscure the Great Good Thing, and make it harder to discern it in the gods, while the myth about the metals (in his opinion) is revelatory of the Great Good Thing, and makes it easier to discern. The facticity of it, or lack thereof, is entirely beside the point.
This explains why Plato’s arguments never quite work. Although it may not have seemed that way to Aristotle, this is a feature, not a bug in Plato’s writing. The arguments never quite work, and the theories never quite hold water because they are not meant to be ends in themselves. They are there to move your forward, to make you think. Ultimately, however, Plato’s hope is that you move past them, to see what lies beyond. The Republic was never meant as a real city or political system, and neither is the Theory of Forms a real metaphysics, any more than the Symposium is actually either a faithful transcription of a real conversation, or a real treatise on love. They are all just portraits of the Great Good Thing, and Plato is at peace with their imperfection, because every possible earthly portrait of the Great Good Thing will inevitably be imperfect.
One of the qualities of the Great Good Thing, in the Neoplatonic conceptualization, is that it is metaphysically and morally simple. It is the unity of all perfections (what is sometimes called the “God of the Philosophers”). It is timeless, eternal and perfectly unchanging, both wholly good and the ultimate source of all goodness. It is perfectly beautiful, and in as much as all real things partake of it, it is omnipresent. It is arguably perfectly wise, or at least the source of all wisdom, but whether it is also omnipotent and omniscient is difficult to tell from Plato, since he does not speak of it in personified form. But why believe in such a thing at all?
Kraut, Richard, "Plato", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, September 21, 2017.
Nails, Debra, "Socrates", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, June 21, 2017.
Plato, translated by G. M. A. Grube, “Apology,” “Crito,” “Phaedo” Plato: Five Dialogues, Hackett, 1981.
Plato, translated by John Llewelyn Davies and David James Vaughan, Republic, Wordsworth Classics, Hertfordshire, 1997.
Plato, translated by Robin Waterfield, Symposium, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994.
Plato, translated by Paul Woodruff, “Ion,” Two Comic Dialogues, Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 1983.