Plato’s Proof of God’s Existence
MOST anyone who’s taken a course in the history of Western philosophy has run across the famous ontological argument proof for God’s existence associated with St. Anselm of Canterbury. Actually several versions of the ontological argument have appeared over the centuries, the simplest one being:
- By definition, God is a with every perfection.
- Existence is a perfection.
- Hence God exists.
One of the most interesting things about these arguments is that they have attracted so much attention despite the fact that they are basically unconvincing.
Please don’t mistake my intentions. Of course I believe in God; I only mean that these arguments, analyzed at the logical level, aren’t very good, and everyone knows that. The strange thing is that, despite this, the ontological argument has been ceremoniously taught to philosophy students for at least a millenium. It’s as if to say, “We don’t really have a good logical proof for God’s existence, but rather than abandon the project let’s practice with a second-rate one.”
Curiously, all this overlooks the fact that we do potentially have at our disposal a much better philosophical proof of God’s existence. To call it a proof in the sense of a logical proof might be technically incorrect — it’s really more of a demonstration. [Note 1] Nevertheless, regardless of how we classify it, its evidential value for supporting a belief in God is, I believe, substantially stronger than that of the ontological argument. This experiential argument comes from Plato’s dialogues, most notably, the central books of the Republic and Diotima’s speeches in the Symposium. It is illustrated as follows:
- Consider some beautiful thing — say an incredibly beautiful sunset, the kind that totally absorbs you in a profound sense of beauty, awe, and wonder..
- Now, instead of pausing in that experience alone — which is our usual tendency — elevate your thoughts still higher and consider that this is not the only beautiful thing. There are many other experiences equally or more beautiful as this one.
- Then consider that there must be something in common amongst all these experiences — in exactly the same way that there is something in common for all triangles, all horses, or all trees. That is, each of these things has some defining principle or principles, some essence.
- Consider further that a defining essence has, at least in theory, some existence outside of its instantiation in actual examples. Hence we may conceive of the abstract “Form” of a triangle, which would exist even if somehow we were able to remove all physical triangles from the world. If so, we may also suppose that there is some Form of Beauty, which is the principle that all beautiful things have in common; and that this may potentially exist independently of all beautiful things.
- Moreover, Beauty is not the only good. There are also such noble things as Truth, Virtue, Excellence, and Justice — which we also unhesitatingly consider good, which delight or assure us, and which can bring us very deep levels of satisfaction.
- And, just as with Beauty, we may suppose that there is some essence or Form for each of these other things: a Form of Truth, a Form of Virtue, of Excellence, of Justice, and so on.
- And finally, we may contemplate the possibility of some principle or essence which all these different Forms of good things have in common. This, too, would be a Form — the Form of Goodness.
- God is defined as that being than which nothing can be more Good. Therefore God is the Form of Goodness.
For me, this comes very close to being a fully logically persuasive argument for God’s existence. But — perhaps more importantly — it can also be approached as a contemplative or spiritual exercise. That is, as Plato himself presents this line of thought, one is not so much trying to logically convince oneself, as to elicit, by performing this exercise, an elevation of the mind to an awakening or remembrance (anamnesis) of an innate, intuitive understanding of God. We might call this an experiential proof, or an anagogical proof.
It is, of course, up to each one individually to investigate this method and to determine how well it works; but I will add another thing. Not only does this demonstration supply evidence of God’s existence, it may also promote the development of a sincere gratitude for and love of God. As one contemplates the nature of Goodness, that is, as one begins to become more conscious of the principle that, if there are good things, there must be a Form of Goodness, one also becomes amazed at the very idea that there is such a thing as Goodness. And also that we, as human beings, seem particularly attuned to crave, seek, and experience Goodness. It is quite remarkable that we have this word and this concept, ‘good’, such that we may apply it a huge variety of things and experiences.
The counter-argument of the reductionist will not do here: he or she might say, “What we consider good merely derives from sensory, practical, and survival considerations; it’s all explained by Darwinism: we desire and prefer certain things because they are advantageous.” But that does not explain, among other things, why some of the things we consider most good – say a heroic sacrifice of some noble person – is not materially advantageous.
If, then, we accept that there is something deep and fundamental in our nature such that we seek goodness (which is to say, in effect, that we are moral beings) and also that there is some Author and Source of Goodness, and, further, that it is our destiny as immortal souls to enjoy an eternity of ever greater Beauty and Goodness, then naturally our gratitude to this Supreme Being is spontaneously aroused.
Therefore Plato’s ‘proof’ of God’s existence as the Form of the Good is not only logically appealing, but effective at the level of emotion and devotion as well.
Finally, there are definite connections between Plato’s wish to prove the existence of God, and the many proofs he supplies throughout the dialogues for the immortality of the human soul. A new article (with some of the leading ideas raised here developed more clearly) considers that topic.[Note 2]
1. The word ‘proof’ means to try or verify something. Not all proofs are logical. Ones proves a gold coin by biting it. Making evident to ones senses, whether physical or intellectual, that something is real is a valid form of proof. The point of this article is to suggest that in theology one should not automatically equate proof with deductive syllogisms.
2. Since originally making this post I’ve discovered a few related references. Most relevant is: Daniel A. Dombrowski, A Platonic Philosophy of Religion: A Process Perspective, SUNY Press, 2005. Chapter 5 (‘Arguments for the Existence of God’) suggests that a precursor to St. Anselm’s ontological argument can be found in Books 6 and 7 of Plato’s Republic. There are some similarities between Dombrowski’s discussion and the present one, such as an emphasis on the Form of the Good, but also major differences. The main difference is that whereas Dombrowski uses the Form of the Good and the principle of directly intuited knowledge (noesis) to construct a deductive logical proof for God’s existence, I believe Plato employs these principles to present an experiential proof.