Christian Theology and Plato’s Natural Law
Plato’s Minos is an ancient contribution to the subjects of legal philosophy and natural law. The Minos dialogue uses classical thought as a way to discuss what would later become the Christian idea of a supreme lawgiver. Written well before the time of Christ, this connection was not intentional. Yet, the presence of this relationship may bolster the Christian’s confidence in a natural lawgiver.
Introduction: What is Law?
The dialogue begins with Socrates—Socrates is used as a character in Plato’s dialogues—asking the question, “What is law, for us?” or “What is law, among us?” Broadly, Socrates is referring to the idea of law itself. Oftentimes, the companion, or interlocutor, will mistake Socrates for discussing specific laws. The philosopher’s question pertains to discovering the meaning of law itself. In response to the initial question, Socrates’ interlocutor concludes that the law is “those things held customarily” and “the resolution of the city.” The interlocutor is fixated on the idea that, because laws will vary by time and place, the law is nothing more than the culmination of social, political, and cultural opinion.
In an initial attempt to dissuade the interlocutor away from his opinion, Socrates gives his definition of the law as such: “The law wishes to be the discovery of what it is.” Through this statement, Socrates is asserting that the law is not dependent upon any social or political factor. The law is only dependent upon its own existence. In the following scenarios, Socrates attempts to defend his definition of the law while also looking to expel the notion that the law is reliant upon outside factors.
Scenario One: “Socrates! What laws are you talking about?!?”
The companion seems thoroughly confused by Socrates’ initial question. Understandably, we may sympathize. So, the companion asks, “What sort of laws are you talking about?” Socrates does not give him a direct answer. Although the following is a direct response to this inquiry, it can also be considered a refutation of the companion’s definition of the law as nothing more than what is conventionally accepted.
Socrates uses the metaphor of discerning the substances of gold and rock. In distinguishing between the two, one will perceive a certain “goldness” and identify gold. In the same way, one will perceive a certain “rockness” and identity rock. Simply, the way in which all people perceive “goldness” and identify gold is the same route that all people take in identifying the law. Because every individual identifies law in the same manner, Socrates promotes the idea that all laws, no matter how they fluctuate in different contexts, can be apprehended as “law to some degree.” In answering the interlocutor’s question rhetorically, Socrates promotes the idea that all people instinctively recognize the law by its mere existence.
Scenario Two: The Noble and Shameful Things
Socrates’s next argument revolves around his statement that “the noble things, as is likely, are everywhere lawfully accepted as noble and the shameful things as shameful but not the shameful things as noble or the noble things as shameful.” The interlocutor seems to understand this statement as meaning, “the very things that are noble in one place are also noble in another,” and, “the very things that are shameful in one place are shameful in another.” In defense of his argument, the companion references the differences in the law of human sacrifice among the Carthaginians and the Athenians. Because laws differ in various contexts, the companion exclaims that he cannot be persuaded.
Yet, he misunderstands what Socrates means by his statement that “the noble things… are everywhere lawfully accepted as noble…” Socrates is affirming that, in every society, some things are accepted as noble and some things are deemed shameful. Although what is considered noble and shameful varies, there is still a universal acceptance of nobility and shamefulness. In other words, there is not one society that does not have ideas of right or wrong.
Scenario Three: The Meaning of “True” Law
Socrates’ final argument is dependant upon the understanding of “true” law as the laws that are constructed by those who have wisdom or knowledge. Possession of the attributes of wisdom and knowledge qualifies the law as something that is valid. Inversely, laws that are established under the authority of those who lack wisdom may not be laws at all, or at least not good or valid laws. This allows for an explicit distinction between “true law” and “pseudo-law.” Socrates states that “what is correct is kingly law, while what is not correct—what seems to be law to those who don’t know—is not.”
Socrates seems to imply that “kingly” or “true” law—laws established by those who have expertise in the appropriate disciplines—is similarly understood as such: “The laws of the shepherd are best for the sheep.” Socrates is asserting that “kingly” or “true” law is meant to be in the best interest of the human soul. Just as a shepherd knows and tends to his sheep in a manner that is favorable to them, so the lawmaker must do the same with civilians. Because true law is established under the authority of experts and therefore beneficial to the human experience, the law cannot be defined as an arbitrary culmination of conventionally accepted social, political, and cultural ideals.
Natural Law and Christian Theology
The idea of natural law is ingrained into the Declaration of Independence and, more broadly, the American spirit. In a nutshell, the theory of natural law refers to the idea that there exists a universal body of unchanging moral principles. Thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin wrote extensively on the subject, which, of course, explains the concept’s circulation in history. So, who coined the term? Scholars are not entirely sure. Yet, when we look at the “Minos” dialogue, there remains a curious, pre-Christianized version of natural law.
Socrates’ sentiment that all people recognize “law to some degree” parallels with St. Augustine’s belief that “natural law… [is] inscribed upon the rational soul.” Both of these statements are intended to convey the truth that all people understand a universal system of law. St. Thomas Aquinas furthers this conviction when he states that all people are rational beings. Because both philosophers conclude that all individuals are able to behave in a way that is rational to their natural state, all human beings can discern between the “noble and shameful things.” Augustine’s idea of natural law echoes St. Paul in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.
But, how exactly do all people have the rationality—I use this term intentionally—to discern between right and wrong? Surely it is not because of the interlocutor’s idea that law—that is, the law as mere opinion—has been randomly impressed on our hearts through some mixture of cultural awareness and social experimentation. There must be a natural lawgiver. St. Augustine would conclude that all human beings know the “noble and shameful things” because “God has written the law of nature in the hearts of men.”
When following this course of reasoning, the Almighty proves to be the expert lawgiver. In fact, Socrates’ use of the metaphor between a shepherd and his sheep—this metaphor is used to promote the idea that “true” law is established under the council of experts—elicits numerous parallels with the Christian Scriptures (c.f. Psalm 95:7; 1 Peter 5:2; John 10:11-13). Just as Socrates concludes that the shepherd is the expert, lawful provider for his sheep, so God is such a lawful provider for all of humanity. This Augustinian claim is finalized by St. Paul when he states that:
They [all people] show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.
Plato’s Natural Law and the Christian
The irony is this: By asserting that all societies hold to some form of right and wrong, the “pagans” of ancient Greece philosophized a way to affirm Paul’s belief that all are aware of their wrongdoings. This is because God has done the work of writing the law “upon the rational soul.” The Platonic idea of natural law glorifies the Righteous Lawgiver. The combined philosophical and theological conclusions of Aquinas, Augustine, and Plato point the reader to a reassuring version of natural law and Christianity. In that, Plato’s case for the idea of natural law helps philosophically defend the Christian conception of moral universalism—moral universalism in the sense that all people know and have some form of morality. The genius of Plato has brought forth some light of understanding to the Christian world. Plato’s Minos dialogue gives us the philosophical tools to combat the question of natural law and approach the Scriptures.
Furthermore, the existence of a pre-Christian idea of natural law should bolster the Christian’s confidence in God’s providential revelation of moral truth. God’s truth is ultimately laid out in the Scripture yet aspects of it can also be experienced in the natural world. In conclusion, moral truth has been providentially interwinted into the writings of Plato and is, therefore, an encouragement to the Christian.