Plato’s Divine Law

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“Plato seems to be responsible for the dogmatism regarding reason that has overhung Western religion, politics, and morality for two millennia. Yet there are reasons to wonder whether Plato would make such assumptions about reason and the gods.”

These reasons form the core of the inquiry by author Mark Lutz, assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Nevada.

Most of the book relies on a close reading of two dialogs by Plato, The Laws, and The Republic. A third one, The Statesman, is also interleaved with these. Much less known than the other two, it is attributed to Plato’s late output, along with The Laws, but the author does not explain how The Statesman really fits into the grand design about divine law. It is introduced on page 14 in a discussion about the authenticity of another dialog, The Minos.

As a result of this interleaving some confusion in his argument arises in a discussion of mathematics and astronomy. Plato says in The Laws that a study of numbers “awakens him who is sleepy and unlearned by nature, giving him ease of listening, memory and sharpness, and thus making him surpass his own nature by a divine art.”

Lutz then offers a tidbit from The Republic, where Socrates (the mentor of Plato) says that the study of mathematics can “awaken” the intellect. He then goes back to The Laws, observing that astronomers have learned that the planets (regarded as gods) always move in regular circular motion. Socrates says that some Greeks criticize studying the heavens, but he believes the gods want to be worshipped, and therefore they want to be recognized accurately.

Finally Lutz delves into The Statesman, asking “precisely how would these studies help rulers govern cities?” Lutz says The Statesman shows that a study of the cosmos reveals that rulers “cannot rely on the gods to solve each and every problem.”

“We know from the opening of the dialog,” writes Lutz, “that the serious citizen recognizes or believes in the divinity of a code of law because he understands that it aims at the greatest good. But it is not yet clear how the study of numbers, geometry, harmony, and astronomy would seem to supply any further insights into the purposes or concerns of lawmaking gods. We must therefore continue to ask how this aspect of the higher education under the law contributes to ruling over human beings.”

Who is the “we” Lutz refers to? If it is the reader, he is left at loose ends here as the argument Lutz has built up to abruptly ends. While it is useful to have the intent of the dialogs of Plato elucidated, their real meaning is not given here. Was Plato mistaken is attributing such high-flown sentiments about the value of mathematics and astronomy for the ruler of a kingdom? On this and other points the reader is left to his own devices to divine (pun intended) the practical application.

Nonetheless this book provides an excellent explanation of what Plato was saying in his dialogs about the role of divinity in the laws that governed the Greek city states. As Lutz notes, “despite all the training, many citizens will never experience the consonance between passion and reason that is the object of divine law.” One could only hope that the rulers themselves could achieve this consonance, but what it actually meant even for them, in a practical sense, is a topic left largely untouched here.

There are a few typos in the book. A sentence is repeated at the end of page 64; Pg. 156: “can have done” should be “cannot have done”; Pg. 178: “Nturnal” should be “Nocturnal”.

Divine Law and Political Philosophy in Plato’s Laws (200 pages) is $35 from Northern Illinois University Press. Visit their website:

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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