Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Plato Contra Atheos,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XII: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 162-166


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[page 162:]

PLATO CONTRA ATHEOS. — PLATO AGAINST THE ATHEISTS; OR THE TENTH BOOK OF THE DIALOGUE ON LAWS, ACCOMPANIED WITH CRITICAL NOTES, AND FOLLOWED BY EXTENDED DISSERTATIONS ON SOME OF THE MAIN POINTS OF THE PLATONIC PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY, ESPECIALLY AS COMPARED WITH THE HOLY SCRIPTURES, BY TAYLER LEWIS, LL. D., PROFESSOR OF THE GREEK LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE, IN THE UNIVERSITY IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK. — NEW YORK, HARPER & BROTHERS.

[Text: Broadway Journal, June 21, 1845.]

THE Laws of Plato were probably the work of his old age — of his extreme senility — and although Dr. Lewis insists upon this point, as one tending to make us think more favorably of the composition, on the ground of its embodying the philosopher’s most matured and best settled opinions — we cannot help regarding the question as disputable. As a dramatic work, all admit it to be inferior to the Republic. There are but three interlocutors — Clinias, a Cretan; Alegillus, a Spartan; and a stranger, who is spoken of only as the Athenian — but, who is the Socrates of the colloquy; the two first, being merely listeners, or speaking but for the purpose of foils. The nine first books are occupied with legislative schemes given at length, with preambles, and arguments in support of both preambles and schemes. The tenth book (now published) deals with laws enacted against violators of religion — that is to say, public worship — it being taken for granted that State and Church can never properly exist apart. The greater portion — indeed [page 163:] nearly the whole of the book, however, is taken up with an exordium, investigating the reasons for the laws — the latter in fact occupying only a few of the concluding pages.

The argument is directed first, against those who deny the Divine existence — secondly, against those who deny a Providence while admitting the existence of a God — thirdly, against those who, admitting both, yet maintain that the Deity is easily propitiated by sinners.

Clinias opens the first branch of this argument, by asserting that the existence of God is readily shown by the universality of man’s belief in his existence, as well as by the evidences of design in natural phenomena.

This ease of demonstration the Athenian denies; declaring, however, that whatever difficulty there is, is not innate in the subject, but springs from the perverseness of the Ionic Atheists in imposing upon the world the ideas of chance, nature, art, etc., and in the refutation of these ideas the reasoner discusses at length the nature of soul as involving, necessarily, self motion. Thence, he deduces the priority in time of soul to body — thence, again, of the properties of soul to the properties of body. The inference is, that Art is the mother of Nature — that law, will, thought, or design, must have been before qualities, such as hardness, weight — etc, etc.

The intention here is to refute the particular opinion of the Atheist, that religion had no better foundation than conventionality, since belief in the existence of God is the production of human law-which, again, is a product of Art — Art itself being regarded as the offspring of Nature.

The question of motion is examined very minutely — [page 164:] and all kinds of motion are divided into motion by impulse, and, that which moves something else by commencing motion in itself; the latter species being psyche, or soul.

In the next place, occurs the question whether one or more souls are at work in the Universe. It is decided that there are two — the soul of good and the soul of evil.

The second grand division of the subject is the investigation of the arguments which deny a Providence. The Athenian maintains a minute, special interference with human affairs, chiefly on the ground that the whole is composed of its parts, and that to neglect the smallest portion is to neglect the whole.

In entering the third division of his theme, the speaker opposes the arguments of those who maintain that the Deity is easily appeased, by adverting to the pre-supposed antagonism between good and evil. Where a conflict is continually going on, he says, the least neutrality or supineness — that is to say, the least mercy shown to sin, would be treason against the cause of the Piglet throughout the Universe.

The offenders against religion are divided into six classes, or rather grades. The book ends with a specification of penalties, and a law, in especial against private rites and churches.

Such is a fair, although very succinct synopsis of a work comparatively little known, although very frequently made the subject of converse.

No one can doubt the purity and nobility of the Platonian soul, or the ingenuity of the Platonian intellect. But if the question be put to-day, what is the value of the Platonian philosophy, the proper answer is — “exactly nothing at all.” We do not believe that [page 165:] any good purpose is answered by popularizing his dreams; on the contrary we do believe that they have a strong tendency to ill — intellectually of course.

We could wish that Dr. Lewis (however excusable may be his evident enthusiasm for his favorite) had less frequently interspersed his comments with such passages as the following:

“Then surely should Plato be studied, if for no other purpose, as a matter of curiosity, to see if there may not possibly be some other philosophy than THIS NOISY BACONIANISM ABOUT WHICH THERE IS KEPT UP SUCH AN EVERLASTING DIN, or that dell more noisy because more empty transcendentalism which some would present as its only antidote.

* * * * Especially will this be the case at a time when physical science, in league with a subtle pantheism, is everywhere substituting ITS JARGON of laws and elements, nebular star-dust, and vital forces, and magnetic fluids, for the recognition of a personal God and an ever wakeful, ever energizing special Providence.”

For our own parts we vastly prefer even the noise of Bacon, the laws of Contbe, or the nebular star-dust of Nichols to what Dr. Lewis will insist upon terming “the clear, simple, common-sense philosophy of Plato,” — but these things are perhaps merely matters of taste. It would be as well, however, to bear in mind the aphoristic sentence of Leibnitz — “La plupart des sectes ont raison en beaucoup de ce qu‘elles avancent, mais non pas en ce qu‘elles nient.”

We regret that it has been thought advisable to give the Greek text unaccompanied with a translation. The object, so far as we can comprehend the annotator, seems to have been the placing of the doctrines of [page 166:] Plato more immediately with in the reach of the public. For this end we should have had a paraphrase, at least.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Plato Contra Atheos)