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This chapter explores the role of traditional and cosmic gods in Plato’s narratives of human and social origins expounded in the Timaeus, the Critias and the Laws. It argues that Plato unifies the two divine families in terms of their common function to originate human beings, but differentiates the traditional gods from the cosmic gods in terms of their political role – Plato regards only the traditional gods as the makers of political communities, which indicates his mild support of the Greek foundation myths and civic stories. This may be the key to the puzzle of why the two families were kept apart in the first place: unlike the uniformity of the cosmic gods, the diversity of the traditional gods provides a good explanatory factor for such a complex, diverse and unpredictable phenomenon as politics. Consequently, Plato’s anthropogony and politogony should be viewed as discontinuous discourses.
This chapter discusses the place of the traditional and cosmic gods in the cosmological theogony of the Timaeus. It argues that Plato’s cosmology follows the Greek theogonic tradition to a certain degree and accommodates both the traditional and cosmic gods via a shared pair of the first gods, but adopts different explanatory frameworks for the two types of gods. It also proposes a new reading of the Timaeus as a theogony of Ouranos. For Plato, Ouranos is a traditional god and a cosmic being, and as such he is the most senior deity of both families. These new findings lead to a more detailed examination of the double identity of gods (cosmological and religious) in Plato’s later dialogues, which shows that there are at least three ways to understand the double identification of gods.
The Introduction examines the status quaestionis regarding the relation between Greek religion and Plato’s cosmology, and in particular Plato’s proposed division between the traditional and cosmic gods. It argues that it is necessary to differentiate Plato’s understanding of religion, which is internal to his text, from a cultural-historical account of Greek religion. It also argues that the recognition of the plurality of interpretative models inherent to philosophical cosmology gives us a more precise way to understand how this discourse can affect the gods of religion. This methodological framework is then deployed to formulate the thesis of the book, after which follows a short overview of each chapter.
This chapter addresses the relationship between divinity, cosmology, morality and religion in the Timaeus and the Laws. It argues that the ideal of godlikeness becomes both the main ethical and the central religious principle in these dialogues. In particular, Plato finds in religion the institutional environment for achieving moral improvement as much as leading a good civic life, provided that the ordinary citizens will imitate the character traits of the traditional gods. However, the highest level of moral achievement lies in the assimilation to the cosmic gods via cosmological understanding, which can be achieved by the intellectual elite. Thus, this ideal has two sets of assimilative objects, two ways of imitating the gods, and it appeals to two different groups of people.
Plato’s general approach to the traditional and cosmic gods emerges from a tension between the four threads that we have uncovered in our investigation. Sometimes Plato presents himself as an outspoken critic of popular and poetic religiosity, especially when it comes to the flawed beliefs about the nature of, and relations between, the Olympian gods. We can also find Plato the conservative whenever we turn to the alliance between politics and religion forged in the theocratic Magnesia. Then again, Plato’s conception of the cosmic gods in the Timaeus and his arguments against impious views in the Laws is nothing but ground-breaking cosmological thinking. On top of that, Plato seems to be very sceptical about the possibility of complete understanding of such questions as the genealogies of the traditional gods.
This chapter examines the reception of Plato’s take on cosmology and religion in the works of the Early Academy. It argues that the Academics continued to develop the theology of Ouranos, who remained the primary cosmic god in their cosmological systems. They also moved towards a tighter union of the traditional and cosmic gods. Philip of Opus used the identities of the traditional gods to uncover the divinity in planets and stars, while Xenocrates extended the procedure of religious naming to all ontological and cosmological principles, thus fully assimilating the traditional gods with the philosophical gods. Finally, their moral systems adopted a strongly intellectualist version of the ideal of godlikeness, according to which only the cosmological beings can be the ethical role models.
This book sheds new light on Plato's cosmology in relation to Greek religion by examining the contested distinction between the traditional and cosmic gods. A close reading of the later dialogues shows that the two families of gods are routinely deployed to organise and structure Plato's accounts of the origins of the universe and of humanity and its social institutions, and to illuminate the moral and political ideals of philosophical utopias. Vilius Bartninkas argues that the presence of the two kinds of gods creates a dynamic, yet productive, tension in Plato's thinking which is unmistakable and which is not resolved until the works of his students. Thus the book closes by exploring how the cosmological and religious ideas of Plato's later dialogues resurfaced in the Early Academy and how the debates initiated there ultimately led to the collapse of this theological distinction.
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