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Plato’s Gods, by Gerd Van Riel

Reviewed by Robbert M. van den Berg

The laconic title of this book may look completely innocent; in fact the plural is highly provocative. It challenges what the Belgian scholar Gerd van Riel identifies in his introduction as the dominant, Aristotelianizing approach to Plato’s theology. On this view, the divine in Plato coincides with the highest metaphysical principle. It thus effectively reduces the numerous Platonic gods, for example the twelve Olympian gods from the myth of the winged charioteer in the Phaedrus, to one ultimate God, comparable to Aristotle’s divine Intellect. In this study Van Riel resists this reduction of theology to metaphysics, arguing that for Plato the gods are not metaphysical principles, but souls – of an admittedly superior type – in charge of the sensible universe.

The first two chapters prepare the ground for the full exposition of Van Riel’s interpretation in the third and final chapter. The first one deals with Plato’s religion which, Van Riel argues, is characterized by humility and moderation: God, not man, is the measure of all things (Laws 716c-d). As Van Riel points out in a subtle reading of the famous myth of Prometheus from the Protagoras, primeval mankind received the gift of fire before those of justice and shame. The former allowed them to develop culture, religious sacrifices included, the latter to live together in political societies governed by nomoi. Religion thus predates the activities of the lawgiver and hence falls outside his sphere of competence. In contrast to the modest lawgivers of the Republic and the Laws, who are happy to simply accept existing religious traditions, Euthyphro in the eponymous dialogue goes wrong because of his lack of moderation. By proclaiming himself to be an expert on religious matters, he takes himself, rather than god, to be the measure in religious matters. Plato’s insistence on moderation sets him apart from Aristotle. Van Riel warns against interpreting the famous Platonic command to become like God to the extent possible in Aristotelian terms. Plato does not tell us, as some modern scholars assume, that we should somehow become like Aristotle’s divine Intellect by thinking the thinking god’s own thoughts. As the addition “to the extent possible” indicates, there exists an essential difference between god and mankind. To become like god consists in recognising this difference and in acting accordingly, i.e. with moderation.

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