Platonic Ethics and Classical and Christian Theism, Part 4

One of the reasons that I chose to investigate what Plato could tell us about morality is that he provides a great case study as to what can be discerned about God through general revelation. This thought goes back to the church fathers as this quote from St. Augustine demonstrates:

But we need not determine from what source [Plato] learned these things,—whether it was from the books of the ancients who preceded him, or, as is more likely, from the words of the apostle: “Because that which is known of God, has been manifested among them, for God hath manifested it to them. For His invisible things from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by those things which have been made, also His eternal power and Godhead.” From whatever source he may have derived this knowledge, then, I think I have made it sufficiently plain that I have not chosen the Platonic philosophers undeservedly as the parties with whom to discuss; because the question we have just taken up concerns the natural theology.[1]

In my previous post I looked at what Plato could tell us about moral motivation; in this one I’ll look at how this compares with Judeo-Christian thought on the subject.

Moral Motivation According to Plato

As discussed, Plato identified three levels of moral motivation:

The first and highest form of moral motivation is love of the Good. We should be motivated to be good because the Good is worthy of our love and our desire should be to be like it.

The second form of moral motivation is that the pursuit of and adherence to the Good leads to the very best life: the good life is obtained by acting in accordance with the Good.

The third (and lowest) form of moral motivation is based upon rewards and punishment. Those who do good will receive good things in this life (possibly) and after this life (certainly). Those who do evil will reap the consequences of those actions in this life and also after this life.

Just as his four requirements for a truly objective morality aligned well with the Judeo-Christian perspective, I believe his three levels of moral motivation align equally well.

Moral Motivation in Judeo-Christian Theism

The love of God as the primary motivating factor in Biblical ethics is fundamental in both the Old Testament (Tanach) and the New Testament. This centrality is seen in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” This centrality is reiterated in the NT by Jesus as the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38). In the Judeo-Christian worldview, the love of God is to be the controlling factor that frames every other concept—especially moral ones. The primary form of moral motivation for the Jew and Christian should be the love of God. We should want to be good because we love God—the source of all good—and want to be like Him. This love of God should spur us to “walk in His ways,” as Moses and Joshua frequently reminded the people (Dt. 10:12; 11:22; 19:9; 30:16; Josh. 22:5). In the center of one of his extended passages on Christian ethics, Paul tells us we ought to imitate God in our actions just like a loving child imitates her father (Eph. 5:1). If we truly have a love for God, this will extend not only to imitating the goodness of God, but also to obeying His commands (1 Jn 5:3). So, as with Plato, the best and highest form of moral motivation in Judeo-Christian theism is love of God/the Good.

The secondary motivation for morality in the Judeo-Christian world is that the life aligned with God’s character—that of godly wisdom—will bring about wellbeing, and that the life set against this—the life of folly—will bring death. Nowhere is this better seen in the Old Testament than in the book of Proverbs.

In Proverbs, the way aligned to God’s character is personified as Wisdom. She calls out to all who will listen:

And now, O sons, listen to me: blessed are those who keep my ways.

Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it.

Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.

For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord,

but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death.[2]

On the other hand, the way of life not aligned with God’s character—personified in Proverbs as Folly—leads a person to personal disaster:

The woman Folly is loud; she is seductive and knows nothing.

She sits at the door of her house; she takes a seat on the highest places of the town,

calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way,

“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” And to him who lacks sense she says,

“Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”[3]

But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.

Following the wisdom teachings of the Old Testament, the New Testament also teaches that those who align themselves to God’s character will do well and those who do not will harm themselves. James, in his epistle, contrasts what is brought about through the two different lifestyles—the one driven by heavenly wisdom (godliness), the other by natural wisdom:

Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.[4]

In the Judeo-Christian world, godly living brings personal peace (even when outward circumstances are difficult), and ungodly behavior harms the soul (even if it is accompanied by all of the comforts of life).

As with Plato, the final form of moral motivation for Judeo-Christian theism is reward and punishment. This is clearly taught in both the Old and New Testaments. The Law of Moses is full of moral obligations and has specific punishments for those who do not follow them. And, even if reward tarries in this life, or if justice fails for the wicked, Daniel tells us everything will be made right in the next life:

At that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.[5]

In the New Testament, Jesus confirms this eschatological teaching:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.[6]

Interestingly, for both Plato and the Biblical authors, while love for God/the Good is the highest form of moral motivation, they spend more words on the punishment and rewards aspect of moral motivation than on the love aspect. I believe this is because both Plato and the Biblical writers understood that most people would not attain to this level of motivation. Plato affirmed multiple times that only the true philosopher could reach this lofty goal and that there would be few who attain to this level. Jesus also stated that the road to life is narrow and that there are comparatively few who find it. This common problem, I believe, left both to focus disproportionately on the lowest form of motivation because (unfortunately) it is applicable to the greatest number of people. But the goal of each is to encourage as many people as possible to attain to the highest level.[7]


So once again, we see discoveries that Plato made which align nicely with the Judeo-Christian worldview, and this helps us, along with St. Augustine, to see some of the possibilities of general revelation. Plato not only discovered the characteristics of a truly objective morality, but also the optimal and pragmatic aspects of moral motivation.



[1] St. Augustine, The City of God, Book VIII, Chapter 12.

[2] Proverbs 8:32-36.

[3] Proverbs 9:13-18.

[4] James 3:13–18.

[5] Daniel 12:1–3.

[6] Matthew 25:31–46.

[7] Another potential take on at least the Biblical emphasis on rewards and punishments is to construe the salient underlying truth along these lines: in a classically theistic world, there is a deep correspondence between happiness and holiness. Aligning ourselves with ultimate reality, God Himself, is the very way in which to experience our deepest joy; and to lose out on this ultimate fulfillment is to forfeit or lose something of infinite worth. This connection between virtue and joy, happiness and holiness, doesn’t render the moral life as mercenary, but rather makes morality fully rational, affirms that reality itself is committed to the Good, which is one of the evidential and explanatory advantages of classical theism over secular and naturalistic perspectives in which no such connection or correspondence is guaranteed, thereby rendering a commitment to morality less than fully rational. This is one piece of what this site often describes as the four-fold moral argument for God’s existence.

Image: "Wisdom 62/365" by Andy Rennie. CC License.