Printer Friendly

On prayer in Plato's Laws.

In Laws X, Plato attempts to demonstrate that gods (1) exist and that they are good--the latter meaning (among other things) that they care for humans and would never perform, condone or overlook evil actions in return for sacrifices and prayers. Such a set of beliefs does imply something about Plato's conception of prayer--namely, that we should not attempt to use prayer to get the gods to commit evil acts or overlook our evil actions (more on this shortly). But his conception of prayer in this his last dialogue--the one dealing most directly with religion--is not entirely clear or fully developed. Further, it is a topic that has received little scholarly attention. (2) My aim is to arrive at a better understanding of the conception of prayer in the Laws. (3)

In the Laws, Plato offers the following definition of 'prayer' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]): 'prayers are requests ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) of the gods' (VII 801a). (4) What sort of requests should we make of the gods, and what sort should we refrain from making? Do the gods answer any of our prayers? And if so, is this the major value of prayer, or does praying provide some other benefits?

A good place to begin this investigation is with the earliest significant passage on prayer in the Laws: III 687c-8c. Plato here says that there is a common desire among humans: 'To have things happen according to the commands of one's own soul, preferably all things, but if not, then at least the human ones' (687c). This is common to people of all ages--children, adults and the elderly--and we all desire this for ourselves and for our friends or loved ones ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], 687d). This tells us (in general terms) what Plato believes every person (who prays) prays for: to have things happen in accordance with his wishes and desires.

What is not common to all is what precisely each of us prays for. Plato makes this clear in the following exchange between the Athenian Stranger and Megillus: (5)

AS: Many of the things a child prays will happen to him, a father would pray to the gods never happen according to the son's prayers.

M: You mean when he [the son] prays, though he lacks reason ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) and is still young?

AS: And when the father, though he is old or even too youthfully impetuous, knows nothing of the noble and the just, and prays vehemently in a passion akin to what Theseus experienced against Hippolytus, who died so unfortunately, (6) do you think that the son--the son who knows--will ever join in prayer with the father?

M: I understand what you mean. For it seems to me you mean that someone should not pray or long for this: to have everything conform to his own wish, but much more to have his wish conform to his prudence ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). This is what a city and each one of us should pray and strive for: to possess reason ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). (7)

AS: Yes. ... (687d-8a)

Each of us prays for what is (or seems to be) good. But since people do not all know what is genuinely good (in fact, most do not), the things people pray for come into conflict. What a rational father wants for his son will clash with the passion-driven prayers of the son. (8) What an irrational father prays for on behalf of his son will not be in his son's best interest. And sometimes a mistake about the facts, in combination with a powerful passion or anger, can lead one to pray for what turns out to be utterly irrational (e.g., Theseus' prayer to Poseidon for the death of his son Hippolytus).

Three related points about Plato's conception of prayer emerge from this passage:

a. We should never pray for what is irrational or evil.

b. What each of us should pray for generally is to possess reason.

c. Since rational prayer is not guaranteed, what one person prays for can contradict the prayers of another--even that of a friend or loved one--with bad results.

Each of these points concerns what we should pray for. After discussing that topic in greater detail, I turn to the benefits of prayer.

1 What we should pray for

In the Republic, Plato criticizes a feature of traditional theism (II 364b-c), and then quotes (with some alteration) a passage from Homer's Iliad that expresses it:

The gods themselves can be moved.

And with sacrifices and soothing prayers

And libations and burnt offerings, humans turn [the gods] around

With begging, whenever someone has transgressed and done wrong. (Iliad IX 497, 499-501; Republic II 364d-e)

This is one of the impious beliefs that Plato aims to refute in Laws X: that the gods can be 'easily won over when influenced by sacrifices and prayers' (885b; see also 888c, 901d)--that the gods 'are always forgiving unjust humans and those who commit unjust acts, provided one distributes to them some of what's been gained unjustly' (906c-d). (9)

There is no mystery why Plato rejects this view. Given his conception of the gods as good--which by this point in the Laws he claims to have sufficiently demonstrated--refuting the traditional notion that the gods can be appeased through sacrifice and prayer into doing or overlooking injustice is relatively easy. What kind of being, Plato asks, would the gods need to be if they were to be appeasable by humans? He answers:

a. Like dogs who allow wolves to ravage the flock, in exchange for a share of the kill (906d).

b. Like captains who '"turn from their course by the libation of wine and the burnt offering", and overturn ship and sailors' (906e, in part quoting Iliad IX 500).

c. Like charioteers who throw a race for money (906e).

But gods that are good, knowledgeable, virtuous and concerned about the good of the entire universe (including the good of humans) could never act like such dogs, captains, or charioteers. The Athenian says that to think so would be 'ridiculous' (906d). (10) So Plato regards as unjust (and useless) prayer which aims at moving the gods to act in unjust ways or to ignore the unjust actions of humans (see also X 905d-7b, 910a-b, and cf. XI 931c-d).

Plato does approve of some prayer, however. For example, in stating the laws on impiety in Book X, the Athenian says:
 When it occurs to someone to make a sacrifice, let him go to the
 public [shrines] and sacrifice, and hand over his offerings to the
 priests and priestesses who supervise their consecration. Let him
 join in prayer along with anyone else he wants to join in prayer
 with him. (909d-e)

And not only are the citizens of Magnesia (11) allowed to pray, mandated sacrifices to various gods will be performed every day and be accompanied by prayers (see VII 801a and VIII 828a-c).

Further, we know something about Plato's conception of proper prayer, namely, that what each of us should pray for generally is to possess reason. So let's try to determine what prayer, according to Plato, is consistent with reason. Consider Laws IV 716b-8a, the bulk of the Athenian's address to the (hypothetical) newly-arrived colonists of Magnesia. Here Plato discusses the prudent man's attitude toward god. He says that such a man should follow god and do what is dear to the god, i.e., do everything in one's power to become like god. (12) To be like god is to possess reason and the other virtues, though in the present passage Plato stresses justice and especially moderation. (13) Plato says that there follows from the commitment to be like god--to be dear to and follow god--this principle: 'for the good man, to sacrifice to and always commune with the gods, through prayer and offerings and every sort of service to the gods, is most noble and best and most effective with a view to a happy life, as well as especially fitting' (716d-e). It is not enough to emulate the gods and possess reason and the other virtues, and to act in accordance with the virtues. To do what is dear to the gods, Plato says, one must also pray to them for these virtues, and perform the other services consistent with honoring of the gods. (14)

A prayer consistent with reason is a request of the gods that we be rational in all we do, and thus arrive at the truth (in intellectual matters) (15) and/or do what is virtuous (in ethical matters). Prayer is appropriate here not only because acting in accordance with reason is crucial to a good life, but also because it is difficult to do (and perhaps involves an element of luck, though that is not clear). (16)

Does the above exhaust, for Plato, what one can properly pray for? Consider the following passage from the end of the Phaedrus (where Socrates is speaking):
 Dear Pan and the other gods of this place, grant that I may be
 noble within, and that whatever I have outside be friendly with
 what is within. And may I consider the wise man rich, and may the
 amount of gold I have be as much as none but a moderate man could
 bear or carry. (279b-c)

Socrates is requesting goods of the soul and external goods: that he be noble inside (i.e., be virtuous--wise, moderate, just and courageous), and that whatever external goods he might possess not clash or conflict with the goods of his soul. And he elaborates on both aspects of his request: 'may I consider the wise man rich' is a request of the gods that he not lose the knowledge of (or true belief about) the proper relationship between wisdom (the supreme good of the soul) and external goods (the most popular being wealth). Next he (apparently) wishes for a particular external good: the amount of gold consistent with the needs of a moderate man (which, presumably, only one who possesses the wisdom just prayed for would be able to determine with any reliability). As this is Socrates who is praying, when he says 'may the amount of gold I have be as much as none but a moderate man could bear or carry' he is likely requesting that it be as little 'as none but a moderate man could bear or carry.' For most people, such a prayer would not be a request for the acquisition of anything; but for some--e.g., one living in abject poverty or a farmer whose crops have been devastated by pestilence or drought--I think it could legitimately amount to an actual request for gold.

If my reading of this passage is correct, then when he wrote the Phaedrus, Plato held that it is proper to pray not only for goods of the soul, but also (in some cases) for material goods, so long as what is prayed for is consistent with wisdom and the other virtues. Is there any suggestion of this in the Laws? Consider the discussion of buried treasure at the opening of Book XI. Plato says that if the treasure does not belong to me or my ancestors, 'I should never pray to the gods that I may find it' (913b). This is consistent with the Platonic view that one should not pray for what is unjust, and should not attempt to get the gods to do what is unjust (and turning over to me treasure to which I am not entitled, as thanks for my prayers, would be unjust). But the implication seems to be that if I (or my father or grandfather, etc.) has lost a treasure, then assuming it was acquired justly and will not make me immoderate, it is proper to pray to the gods for its recovery. Such a prayer is consistent with--is in fact a narrower version of--Socrates' prayer for gold at the end of the Phaedrus.

But aside from any divine help I might receive as a result of my prayers (assuming for now that Plato believes the gods answer some of our prayers), whether I find my lost treasure is a matter of luck. (17) And it is likely that Plato thought that whether one has enough (or as little) gold as is necessary for a moderate life is also a matter of luck. Some evil people are wealthy; some virtuous people are poor. This is important, because it signals part of the boundary around the realm of proper prayer. Aside from praying for a good soul (for reason and the other virtues), prayers are appropriate where one is confronted with luck--by what cannot be grasped and managed by reason. (18)

So it seems that much of what the average ancient Greek would have prayed for--e.g., a successful harvest, avoiding poverty and staying out of debt, the safe return of a son from battle, that both wife and child survive this pregnancy--is appropriate according to the conception of prayer outlined so far. As long as one is praying for what is consistent with virtue and the priority of goods of the soul over material goods, one may pray for material goods, all or much of which falls within the realm of luck. (19)

An especially significant instance of luck, where prayer proves to be important, is in the realm of politics. In Laws IV, toward the beginning of the attempt to found Magnesia, the Athenian says that 'god--and with god, luck and opportunity ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.])--pilots all human things' (709b). He then adds that a third thing accompanies luck and opportunity: 'skill' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], 709c). 'For the skill of piloting to cooperate with opportunity ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) in a storm--I for one submit that that's a great advantage' (709c; cf. Euthydemus 279d-80b).

A number of factors are involved in the success of piloting a ship. Plato does not tell us what the gods have provided, but presumably he believes it is the sea and the winds and the orderly movement of the stars and the regular seasons--and the human faculties, like reason and even the capacity to acquire the skill of piloting. Some things are beyond human control, however--for example, whether one gets caught in a storm that could not have been predicted. This is one way that luck affects human affairs. But accompanying luck is opportunity--a kind or aspect of luck that can affect the outcome of human activity, if there is someone around with the skill necessary to exploit it. A seasoned pilot could find himself in a storm out of which no amount of expertise and experience could successfully navigate. But there may be chance opportunities--a brief lull in the storm, the unexpected encounter with a small island or another ship in the distance--that someone with skill (and only such a person) would be able to make use of and thereby avoid an otherwise completely tragic outcome (for example, by moving the ship out of the storm, or getting the crew off of the wrecked ship and to safety).

Plato next moves the conversation away from the example of piloting a ship to what genuinely concerns him here: lawgiving and founding a colony successfully. If a city that dwells in happiness is to be established (presumably through colonization or reformation), what is required along with 'however much a land needs luck to fall its way ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.])', is a 'lawgiver possessing the truth' (709c). At this point, Plato mentions prayer: 'in each of the cases mentioned [i.e., piloting a ship and founding a city] the man possessing the skill would presumably be able to pray correctly for that which, being present to him through luck, would make the skill alone necessary' (709d). Take the pilot in a storm. If he is pious and prudent, he should pray to the gods for a change in the circumstances that would make him able to practice his skill well: for fair weather, or if there is a storm, for it to blow over completely, or for the kind of opportunity that would enable him to save the ship or at least to get his crew to safety.

What should a lawgiver involved in founding a city pray for? 'Give me a city under tyranny,' Plato writes, 'and let the tyrant be young and possessed of a good memory and quick at learning and courageous and magnificent by nature' (709e). He adds that if these qualities are to prove beneficial, then moderation must 'attend the tyrannical soul' (710a). What is being prayed for is 'good luck' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.])--the chance meeting of a good lawgiver and the young tyrant just described (see 710c-d; cf. Republic VI 499b-c). 'For if this happened, then god would have accomplished nearly everything he does when he wants a city to do especially well' (710d). (20)

Why does Plato have his lawgiver pray for a tyranny? Because he believes that what would make founding a good city as easy as possible, in the briefest amount of time, is if the city one was hoping to transform was ruled by a tyrant who was young and intelligent and virtuous (and presumably open to Platonic philosophy). A tyrant does not need to compromise with other officials or get the approval of the people, nor is he limited by any laws. So if he were properly philosophical, he would simply do whatever was necessary for the city's happiness, without encountering any opposition or obstacles.

But the important point for our purposes is what this says about Plato's conception of prayer. In this passage--not unlike the case of lost treasure, though the stakes are higher--one prays for good luck that is consistent with virtue, in this case the intellectual virtue of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (of practicing a particular skill). One prays to the gods for what is not under one's control, but which is consistent with virtue and would better enable one to exercise virtue.

Prayer for good luck seems especially important in practical politics. In Laws V, Plato says that when one is attempting to affect political change, under ideal circumstances there would be no history of class tension and strife brought about or exacerbated by the re-division of land, cancellation of debts, and redistribution of wealth. Where there is such hostility, especially if it has ancient roots, one can count on nothing but prayer and a slow, gradual change for the best (736c-d, cf. 737b). Similarly, in Laws VI, Plato says that ideally lawgivers will employ a strict justice that is perfect and exact (757e). But in some imperfect contexts, owing to the discontent of the many, this isn't possible, and so, for the sake of civic friendship, the rulers of the city must rely on equity and forgiveness, and make use of 'the equality of the lot' (757e). Choosing certain offices by lot allows some within the many to be eligible for, and serve in, certain political offices, which they could never do according to a strict application of justice based on merit. In such non-ideal cases, the rulers should 'pray to god and good luck ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.])' (21) that the outcome of the lot be close to what is most just (757e-8a; cf. I 690c). (22)

In Laws VIII, discussing the difficulties involved in legislation concerning sexual activities, Plato makes clear that the Athenian and his companions cannot rely on written law, but should instead hope for three things to keep the citizens in line: reverence for the gods, love of honor, and the desire for 'the noble attributes of souls' over the desire for bodies (841c). He says that these three are prayers, and that 'if they were to come to be, then what is best of all would come to be in all cities' (841c). Plato's point is that in the realm of sex, where passions are extremely strong, whether citizens (and especially the young) tend to follow customs and unwritten laws urging the avoidance of what is shameful, is to a large degree (or more so than in other areas) a matter of luck, and so somewhat beyond the control of the skill of the lawmakers and rulers. If citizens do act honorably in this area, then the rulers will be better able to exercise their political art. But they cannot count on this; hence the need for prayer. (23)

In summary, according to the Laws, what can properly be prayed for--for oneself and for others (relatives, friends, fellow-citizens)--are (1) goods of the soul (that is, virtue and especially reason), (24) and (2) material or external goods of a nature and in an amount consistent with virtue, to the extent that their acquisition is a matter of luck (that is, cannot be reasonably acquired otherwise). One can properly pray for lost gold that one is entitled to and needs, and for one's crops to grow, and for the skill necessary to manage one's household and run one's farm; one should not lie indolently in bed praying for gold to fall from the heavens, thus sparing one the need to work. One can properly pray for victory in battle and the courage to face the enemy if the situation warrants it; one should not, driven by cowardice, whimper a prayer to the gods in the hope of avoiding a necessary battle.

What should not be prayed for, according to the Laws, is basically anything else. But it is especially important not to request something of the gods that is undeserved or to ask them to overlook some evil action of one's own. Finally, so important is it not to pray improperly, there is the implication in the Laws that when in doubt, one should not pray for anything apart from wisdom (e.g., see III 687e-8a, VII 801a-e).

2 The benefits of prayer

Plato believes that gods exist and are good, and that we should pray to them in the proper way. But what benefit does he think we should expect to get through prayer?

Let us return to Laws IV 716b-8a. Recall that Plato there connects being like god and being virtuous, and says that becoming like god requires or involves communing with god--one means of which is prayer. The result of being like god (being virtuous) is happiness. So there is at least a suggestion here that prayer can contribute to being virtuous and thus being happy. (25) At the conclusion to this speech, Plato says: 'So the great effort on the part of the impious concerning the gods is folly, but [such effort, which includes prayer] on the part of the pious is most opportune ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) for all of them' (717a); and he adds shortly thereafter that if we live and act properly in the way described, 'each of us on each occasion will receive what we deserve from the gods ..., and will pass most of life in good hope' (718a).

The suggestion is not only that we get benefits from prayer (and sacrifice, etc.), but that these benefits in some sense come from the gods. But what precisely does this mean? And how is prayer a means to becoming like god and thus to being virtuous? I think Mark McPherran is right that 'we should associate the operations of prayer and sacrifice as ways of becoming like God with the idea of moral ordering.' (26) Much of what McPherran goes on to say has more to do with sacrifice than with prayer--and he is admittedly presenting a 'sketch' of Plato's views at any rate--but I think he gets at the crux of the matter in claiming: 'Petitioning God for internal goods rather than things of equivocal value such as wealth ... imitates God's own desire for the flourishing of the good.' (27) I'd like to explore this.

At Laws I 631b-d, Plato divides goods into the divine and the human. The divine goods are (in descending order): (1) reason or prudence, (2) moderation, (3) justice, and (4) courage. The human goods are: (1) health, (2) beauty, (3) strength, and (4) wealth (and these last four are goods only to the extent that they follow prudence). Further, he says that all of the divine goods have priority over the human goods. One could reasonably speculate that according to Plato, for a human to hold divine goods as more important than human goods is to imitate the priorities of god--to match in part one's thoughts with god's--and to that extent to be like god. One could further speculate that prayer could help in this task as an aid to keeping constantly in mind and even automatizing an important set of priorities (divine goods over human goods, moderation over courage, health over wealth, and so forth) when there is a great deal of pressure from the body to value human goods over divine ones and wealth over health, and cultural pressures to value courage over moderation. If this is right, then one major benefit from prayer, according to Plato, is its contribution to acquiring and maintaining virtue. (28)

A connected benefit of prayer, on this view, is its value with respect to the proper moral development and behavior of citizens. (This is in fact the same benefit, but viewed socially or politically.) This becomes most evident at Laws VII 801a-e, where Plato says that the poets will be responsible for creating prayers, and that it is crucially important that they not make mistakes in doing so--so much so that the Guardians of the Laws must approve all prayers (and everything else) that the poets create. Plato warns that if the poet creates 'prayers that are not correct, he [the poet] will make the citizens pray in a way opposed to us, concerning the greatest things' (801c). The implication is that proper prayers should serve the function of making the citizens pray for (and thus want) what has been advocated by the Athenian and his companions, in their role as founders of Magnesia--that is, what has been ordained by law.

Consider two examples. In Laws V, in his discussion of the number of property allotments, and the importance of maintaining that number, Plato says that what will aid in keeping a citizen from changing this number is the fact that he saw 'priests and priestesses saying prayers at the first sacrifices and the second and the third' (741c)--presumably sacrifices to the Earth or to the Lot, which 'is a god' (741b). Similarly, in Laws X, Plato says that one problem facing the Athenian and his interlocutors in attempting to persuade atheists that there are gods is how to talk to atheists--whom proper theists have every reason to hate--without becoming angry. One cannot successfully persuade people of something while simultaneously being angry with them (or expressing that anger, at any rate); one must be tame or gentle with them (see 885c-e and 888a). And Plato tells us why he thinks atheists are a proper object of hatred:
 For it is indeed necessary to be harsh to and to hate those who
 have been and are now responsible for these arguments coming to us,
 as they do not believe the stories which, from the time they were
 young children still being nourished on milk, they heard from their
 nurses and mothers, presented like an incantation, sometimes
 playfully and sometimes seriously--they heard them in prayers at
 sacrifices, and they saw them in spectacles which are most pleasant
 for the young man to see and hear when accompanying the performing
 of sacrifices, and they saw their own parents, with the utmost
 seriousness, on behalf of themselves and their children, engaged in
 dialogue (through prayers and supplications) with gods who
 certainly did exist; and at the rising and the setting of the sun
 and moon, they heard and saw the prostrations and adorations of
 both the Greeks and all the barbarians, in all sorts of misfortune
 and in prosperity, not as if they do not exist, but as if they
 certainly exist and in no way exhibit any suspicion that they are
 not gods. (887c-e)

According to Plato, it is understandable to hate the atheist not only because he defends false and dangerous views, but also (what is stressed here) because of what that implies: (1) he does not believe the stories he heard in his youth--sometimes in prayer--from his mother and others; (2) he does not believe in the gods he knows his parents believe in (as he witnessed the actions that accompany belief, including prayers); and (3) he does not believe in the gods that (nearly) all Greeks and barbarians believe in (and pray to), under all kinds of circumstances. But if we are justified in hating the atheist for resisting this kind of external pressure, it follows that Plato thought that in cases of successful civic-religious education, prayer is beneficial in that it helps the young people who witness it to develop proper views about the gods and their nature.

Plato thought that proper prayer to the gods was good and beneficial. But what of the traditional motivation of prayer, which is the actual motivation of virtually anyone who prays: namely, that the gods will give us what we pray for? On this view, a person who prays to the gods for the possession of reason and courage, for the avoidance of civil strife, for victory in battle, for a successful sea voyage, for a prosperous harvest, for an amount of gold consistent with a moderate life, does so because he believes that the gods sometimes answer such prayers (and of course that they can answer only those prayers that have been issued). Is there any evidence that Plato believes the gods micromanage the universe in this way--that anything they do is a direct result of our prayers?

One might claim that there is indirect evidence in Plato's refutation of deism, where he makes the point that the gods do not neglect any part of the universe, however small. Among the 'mythic incantations' that Plato hopes will persuade the deist are the following:
 The universe is put together with a view to the safety and virtue
 of the whole by the one who supervises the universe, and each part,
 to the extent that it can, does, and has done to it, what is
 fitting. Rulers have been positioned over the experience and
 activity of each of these parts, for all time, to the smallest
 detail, and they [the rulers] have achieved their goal to the
 utmost fraction. Even your part is one of these, stubborn man [the
 hypothetical young deist being addressed here], and it always
 strains to look toward the universe, even though it is altogether
 small. But you have forgotten about this very fact, that all
 generation comes to be for the sake of this: that a happy existence
 may belong to the life of the universe; and it does not come to be
 for the sake of you, but you for the sake of it. ... But you are
 irritated, not knowing how that which is best for the whole
 corresponds to what is best for you as well, in virtue of the power
 of your common generation. (903b-d)

 Our King (29) saw that all actions involve soul, and there is much
 virtue in them, but also much evil ..., and he grasped that
 whatever in soul is good is always naturally beneficial, while the
 evil is harmful. Seeing all this, he presumably designed the
 position of each of the parts so that virtue would be victorious in
 the universe, and evil defeated, in the easiest and best way.
 Indeed, he has designed, with a view to this universe, that when a
 certain sort [of person] comes into being, it must always take a
 certain place and reside in certain locations. But he leaves the
 cause for the coming to be of each particular sort of person to the
 will of each of us. For as one desires, and as one is with respect
 to soul, so (pretty much in every case) is the sort of person each
 of us becomes, for the most part. (904a-c)

Taken out of context, the claim that the gods oversee every part of the universe 'to the smallest detail' and achieve their 'goal to the utmost fraction' might suggest that the gods, in managing the universe, attend to each and every request from virtuous people. But all that these passages say for certain is that this management involves seeing to it that every part of the universe (including every human being) is positioned with a view to the happiness of the whole universe, and that what Plato is discussing is where the souls of humans go after death. So there is no evidence here that Plato believed our prayers are causally efficacious--that they (at least sometimes) cause or prompt the gods to do what they would not have done otherwise. (30)

In fact, the conception of the gods found in this and other passages in the Laws--the idea that the gods are good and do everything with a view to what is best for the universe as a whole--actually creates problems for anyone attempting to defend the traditional view that the gods answer (some of) our prayers. (Perhaps Plato was aware of this, which in part explains the absence of solid evidence that he believed prayers are causally efficacious.) The problem is this: If the gods supervise us and always do what is best with a view to the whole universe, what genuine use could there be to our prayers? If what we ask for is immoral, irrational or mistaken, or otherwise not conducive to what is best for the whole universe, then the gods will not grant our prayers. But if what we pray for is consistent with prudence and the good, or otherwise conducive to what is best for the whole universe, then it seems the gods will (or should) bring this about in any case, whether or not we pray for it. So it would seem our prayers are useless. (31)

Plato's conviction that prayer is beneficial (see, for example, 717a, 718a) does not compel us to conclude that he thinks the gods do directly answer prayers. For he could have in mind exclusively the benefits discussed earlier: that prayer assists one in achieving virtue and being like god, and that prayer is good for the moral education of young citizens and the lawfulness of citizens generally. Similarly, one could argue: since Plato says that it is proper to pray to the gods for lost treasure--assuming it is one's own--then he must believe that the gods would be willing to grant such a prayer. But this does not follow. Plato could hold that the laws (written and unwritten) should limit prayer for material things, in the way we have seen, purely for the sake of the moral benefit of the individual citizens and the moral education of the young, without himself believing that the gods answer such prayers.

If I am right, and there is no solid evidence in the Laws that supports the idea that Plato believed that the gods do grant our prayers, then the only way he could answer the charge that prayers are useless is by referring to the effect prayer has on the citizens of Magnesia: it tends to make them morally better and more law abiding. But note that prayer could have this effect--provide these benefits--only if the citizens of Magnesia were unaware that the gods did not answer their prayers. For otherwise, what motivation would citizens have for making the requests of the gods that they do? No one (or no one rational) would go through the motions of asking the gods to save one's crops or to lead one's son down the path to virtue if one did not believe there was some chance that the gods would grant these requests. And this is important, as it touches on a broader and controversial issue involving how to interpret the Laws generally, namely, whether the Laws condones lying and other forms of deception, as the Republic did. (32) I believe that what Plato says about prayer supports (but does not clinch) the view that he did condone such practices on the part of the rulers of the city, if the aims or ends were good.

In conclusion, I think that based on what the Laws does in fact say, according to Plato (if he is consistent) the exclusive benefit from prayer is the proper development and maintenance of the soul of the one who prays (and the one who sees others pray). And so, like much of what he says about religion, Plato's conception of prayer is simultaneously traditional and radical. For he is defending a (revised) traditional religious practice, but basing that defense on a fairly radical conception of what prayer actually is and does. (33)


Annas, Julia. 1999. Platonic Ethics, Old and New (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

Bobonich, Christopher. 2000. 'Persuasion, Compulsion, and Freedom in Plato's Laws', in Gail Fine, ed., Plato 2: Ethics, Politics, Religion and the Soul (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Mayhew, Robert. 2007. 'Persuasion and Compulsion in Plato's Laws 10', Polis: The Journal of the Society for Greek Political Thought 24.

--. 2008. Plato: Laws 10 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

McPherran, Mark L. 1996. The Religion of Socrates (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press).

--. 2000. 'Does Piety Pay? Socrates and Plato on Prayer and Sacrifice', in Nicholas D. Smith and Paul B. Woodruff, eds., Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Menn, Stephen. 1995. Plato on God as Nous (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press).

Morrow, Glenn R. 1960. Plato's Cretan City: A Historical Interpretation of the Laws (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; rpt., with a foreword by C. Kahn, 1993).

Sedley, David. 2000. 'The Ideal of Godlikeness', in Gail Fine, ed., Plato 2: Ethics, Politics, Religion and the Soul (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Stump, Eleonore. 1979. 'Petitionary Prayer', American Philosophical Quarterly 16.

(1) Like Plato in the Laws, I move comfortably back and forth between 'god' and 'gods'.

(2) The best treatment, though brief, is McPherran (2000), 102-6 (the subsection 'Plato, Prayer, and Sacrifice'). For religion in the Laws generally, see Morrow (1960), ch. 8, 'Religion' (and esp. pp. 434-70, the subsection 'The gods and their worship').

(3) The dialogue in the Platonic corpus dealing most directly with prayer is the Second Alcibiades. It contains much of interest, but as it is not by Plato (it probably dates from the end of the fourth or beginning of the third century BC), I do not discuss it here.

(4) Translations from the Greek are my own. Those from Book X come from Mayhew (2008). See also Euthyphro 14c-d and Definitions 415b. In Laws XI, Plato compares prayer to begging (936c). I restrict my discussion to prayers that are requests of the gods, and do not discuss, for example, prayers of thanksgiving.

(5) The main speaker is the Athenian Stranger. His two companions are Cleinias and Megillus.

(6) See Euripides' Hippolytus. Before committing suicide, Hippolytus' step-mother, Phaedra, falsely accuses Hippolytus of raping her. Theseus--Hippolytus' father and Phaedra's husband--prays to his father Poseidon to kill Hippolytus. Theseus discovers his tragic mistake too late, after the prayer was granted. Cf. Laws XI 931b-c.

(7) Plato often connects reason and prudence, and even seems to treat them interchangeably. See Menn (1995), 16.

(8) See Plato (?), Theages 125e-6a.

(9) The other impious views he attempts to refute in Laws X are atheism (not believing that gods exist) and deism (believing that gods exist, but that they do not care about humans).

(10) Similarly, to the suggestion that the gods might compare favorably to 'dogs charmed by wolves', Cleinias replies: 'Silence!' (906e).

(11) The city in speech that the Athenian and his companions are founding in the Laws is sometimes referred to as 'the city of the Magnesians' (VIII 848d, IX 860e, XI 919d, XII 946b, 969a). For simplicity's sake, I refer to it as 'Magnesia' (as do most scholars of the Laws).

(12) On the nature and importance, in Plato's thought, of becoming like god, see Annas (1999), ch. 3, and Sedley (2000).

(13) See also Theaetetus 176a-b and Republic X 613a-b.

(14) The Athenian says that the Magnesians should honor and/or worship (in this order of priority): the Olympian gods; the gods of the underworld; spirits (daimons); heroes; ancestral gods (i.e., the souls of dead ancestors); and, living parents (IV 717a-b).

(15) See, for example, Timaeus 27c-d and Critias 106a-b.

(16) In the Cratylus, Plato compares prayer with the hope for success in an intellectual pursuit in which one does not (and likely cannot) possess knowledge--namely, trying to discover the correct names of the gods (400e-1a).

(17) I use 'luck' throughout as a translation of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] and as synonymous with 'chance'.

(18) See the first part of the entry on 'luck' in the Platonic Definitions: 'passage from the unclear to the unclear ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.])' (411b).

(19) Cf. Xenophon's description of Socrates' conception of prayer at Memorabilia I 3 2. Socrates prays to the gods to give him what is good without qualification, whereas he seems to dismiss those who pray for external goods (e.g., wealth and political power) as doing what is no better than praying for 'a toss of the dice, or a battle, or anything else where it's obviously unclear ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) how it will turn out'--that is, for what is a matter of luck.

(20) It is interesting to read this passage in connection with the Platonic Seventh Letter.

(21) Cf. the second part of the entry on 'luck' in the Platonic Definitions: 'the spontaneous cause of a divine ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) event' (411b).

(22) It is interesting to read this passage in connection with the brief Platonic Eleventh Letter.

(23) Cf. the unusual passage at the end of Laws VII, wherein the Athenian offers a prayer that the young never be caught by an erotic desire for certain kinds of fishing and hunting (823d-4a).

(24) It is unclear whether in this case one is praying for what is a matter of luck. This issue is beyond the scope of the present essay, however, as it involves Plato's views on the extent to which human action and character development is volitional, and to what extent becoming virtuous is a matter of chance factors.

(25) See McPherran (2000), 103-4.

(26) McPherran (2000), 104

(27) McPherran (2000), 104

(28) I find it unclear how exactly he thinks this will be achieved. Cf. McPherran (2000), 104-6.

(29) In this section of Laws X, Plato uses a number of metaphors for the gods, e.g., king, rulers, game-player.

(30) Cf. McPherran (1996), ch. 3, [section] 4.5.

(31) This problem is admirably presented by Eleanor Stump, in the context of the Christian conception of God and prayer, in (1979), 83-5. Incidentally, I think Stump's solution to the problem (see pp. 85-91) does not succeed. Of course, the fundamental problem for anyone attempting to provide a rational defense of prayer is successfully defending the existence of a God or gods who can hear and respond to prayers. It is, however, beyond the scope of this essay to examine critically the arguments Plato presents in Laws X for the existence of the gods.

(32) On 'noble lies', see Republic III 389b-c, 414b-c. For two different views on whether in the Laws Plato condones rulers employing such things, see Bobonich (2000) and Mayhew (2007a).

(33) I wish to thank David Sedley and an anonymous referee for Apeiron for their many helpful comments on earlier versions of this essay. I am also grateful to Seton Hall University for granting me the sabbatical leave (2006-07) during which this article was written, and to the Ayn Rand Institute for a Research Grant that made this year-long sabbatical possible.

Department of Philosophy

Seton Hall University

South Orange, NJ 07079

COPYRIGHT 2008 Academic Printing and Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Mayhew, Robert
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2008
Previous Article:A new reconstruction of Zeno's Flying Arrow.
Next Article:Aristotle on identity and persistence.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters