The two philosophers has very different interpretations of their God/Gods. However, I would like to point out that both philosophers believed that their deities are or have been present in the world at some point. Descartes wrote six meditations because of the fact that he believed that God created the world in six days, which is an act of presence. Plato believed that ‘What is really good cannot do any harm or be harmful, so what is really good can only be the cause of good things, not of harmful things’, which demonstrates that God was active in the good things in the world. The reason this is important in my discussion is because it allows me to elaborate on differences in the characteristics and roles of the Gods, and how they are viewed to affect humanity.
The first difference I’m going to discuss is the the level of power that each philosopher believed their God/Gods have. Plato wrote in Republic book II that ‘He alone is responsible for the good things’. This statement depicts his Gods to be an ultimate power, however he later examines the fact that his Gods would have to be the cause of only ‘a few things’. Plato deemed the Gods incapable of committing any acts that are not good, this is an example of a limit in ability. Plato’s Gods were not seen to be omnipotent. On the other hand, Descartes placed a higher degree of power on his God, as he proceeded to describe him as an ‘infinite Being’. In Descartes’ mind, God has the capability to undermine the laws of science and mathematics. This gives God the ability to be the ultimate deceiver, which is the main difference between their ideas of Gods, as Plato does not believe that the Gods can commit bad acts, and Descartes believes that God can do anything He desires.
Plato was able to add adequate reasoning behind his theory of the Gods’ powers through the fact that ‘The social classes are not given, rigid castes, but educational means and opportunities’ (Gustav E Mueller ‘Plato and the Gods’). This is evident in not only modern society but in all societies, as there are always ways in which we can better ourselves. Plato would have argued that an omnipotent God would control our lives, so much so that becoming better people would not be possible under rigid castes.
However, I would argue that Descartes’ theory of God’s omnipotence is poor. This is because Descartes method, in order for it to develop to the third meditation, requires God to be omnipotent. Descartes fails to apply his own method into the existence of God, and in doing so, he fails to provide sufficient evidence as to why He is omnipotent (Brandhorst, Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy: An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide, page 41).
Descartes believed that God is the sufficient reason for everything that is finite, this would include the entire universe. 'I understand by the name 'God' a certain substance that is infinite, independent, supremely intelligent and supremely powerful, and that created me along with everything else that exists' (p. 30, Meditation three). This heavily contrasts with Plato’s view. We know that Plato does not think that the Gods’ created everything. Evidence for this is the ‘Noble lie’ that he wrote in order to create the Kallipolis, in which he lies to society that God created all humans and instilled them with a ranking of either bronze, silver or gold. ‘we will say in our tale, yet god, in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule, mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious—but in the helpers, silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen’ (Book 3, 414e–15c). Instead, Plato believed in the ‘Theory of the forms’. This theory states that all of everything in which the senses perceive are imitations of perfect forms which exist in another realm. ( Book III 402–403: Education the pursuit of the Forms).
I would like to add that there are major parallels between Plato’s forms and Descartes’ God, as both are described to be unchanging and metaphysical properties that influence the finite and tangible universe.
Looking at these thesis’ from a critical point, there is a lot that could be said about both of them. Johannes Caterus was one to object Descartes principles as he made the point that Descartes actualised God in his theory, when in actual fact, all that Descartes proved was that we can confidently assume that there is a concept of God which only exists in concept, his theory tells us nothing of the ‘real’ world. ‘Even if it is granted that a supremely perfect being carries the implication of existence in virtue of its very title, it still does not follow that the existence in question is anything actual in the real world’ (AT 7:99; CSM 2:72 - https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=descartes-ontological). Of course, if God can only be proved to exist in concept, then it cannot be said that God is the necessary being that created all tangible things in the universe.
Plato’s theory of the form is criticised numerous times. If there is a form of everything that exists on earth, then there would need to be a form for things that are unpleasant, for example greed, dirt, disease. The realm of the forms 'requires the existence of deeply unpleasant things too, such as mud, faeces, and mucus. The 'Platonic heaven of the Forms' does not sound so heavenly’’ (Stephen Law, The greatest Philosophers). This contradicts Plato’s attempt of depicting this realm as ‘heavenly’ and therefore weakens his argument.
Another difference, perhaps the main one, is the fact that Plato subscribed to a polytheistic description of the Gods, whereas Descartes was monotheistic. Plato described the nature of the Gods in Book two. He wrote that some Gods are visible (sky Gods) and others are not. Greek mythology on the ‘Olympian Gods’ are somewhat similar to Plato’s concepts, apart from the fact that Plato believed they were not named in the same way in which we describe them and they care about humanity and determine whether or not we are good or bad.(https://people.wku.edu/jan.garrett/pgods.htm). The visible Gods are planets and stars, such as the sun, which is described to be ‘the child of goodness’. Plato also believed in a higher God described as the Demiurge, which combined all chaotic materials that were pre existing and combined them to make the materials that exist today. ( The Timaeus of Plato, Plato, and R. D. Archer-Hind, 28a6).
Descartes’ God is much different. Descartes only believed in one deity which was both omnibenevolent and omnipotent, this seems to combine all of Plato’s Gods into one, as Descartes’ God would have also created the sun and all the planets and stars. Descartes proposed in Meditation five the ontological argument, in which he described God as the cause of Himself, whereas Plato’s Demiurge would have created the visible and the invisible Gods.
When analysing their concepts, I find issues with Plato’s. If Plato’s Demiurge created everything, and if the forms are everlasting and unchangeable then how did the forms exist prior to the Demiurge creating material?
This question is answered by stating that the Forms could have pre existed the Demiurge, or they could both be eternal properties. It is possible that the Demiurge attempted to use the chaotic material he found in order to replicate the forms in a physical state. ‘’Thus, while the Demiurge cannot provide standard cases with the sort of permanence which the Ideas have, nonetheless he can provide them an ersatz permanence which serves in a pinch to provide the constancy which standards require in order to be standards’’ (What Plato's Demiurge Does, Richard D. Mohr, page 6, https://orb.binghamton.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1112&context=sagp). Mohr defends his theory by using a ‘clock analogy’. He described a scenario where the form of time existed before the Demiurge created the materials for a clock. Without the clock, we are not incapable of somewhat describing the time and order of events, and therefore time can exist as a form without the need for the Demiurge to have created anything. (page 9).
Whilst discussing the differences, I also see value in discussing the similarities so that we can better understand who the Gods were described to be. Both Descartes and Plato described their Deities to be concerned and imminent in the world. Plato said this is Republic book two as he described that the Gods are only capable of commiting good acts and that ‘’The Gods are not the cause of all things, just the good ones’’ (Book two, page 56, 380-c). Descartes believed that God was perfect and that he would never deceive us, ‘‘has permitted no falsity in my opinion which he has not also given me some faculty capable of correcting’’ (Meditation 6). Therefore he must also be concerned and imminent with humanity.
I find that Descartes falls short to the ‘Inconsistent triad’. Created by J L Mackie, the Inconsistent Triad depicts the problem of evil by stating that all of the following characteristics cannot all exist together as they are inconsistent: ‘God is omnipotent’, ‘God is omnibenevolent’ and ‘evil exists’. (https://philosophydungeon.weebly.com/scholar-mackie.html, J L Mackie). Considering that evil does exist in the world through inequality and disease, then Descartes interpretation of God must be false.
To conclude, the two sets of Deities proposed by Plato and Descartes are vastly different. Whilst Plato divides multiple powers and responsibilities amongst none omnipotent Gods, Descartes described a scenario where there is a self responsible, omnipotent and omnibenevolent being who is responsible for all tangible properties in the universe. After considering some of the similarities I can now attempt to answer how different the two concepts are. When considering the two in relation to each other, it could be argued that the mixture of Plato’s Gods and his Form create something similar to Descartes’ God, as the mixture of Gods and Forms possess all the same properties and responsibilities that Descartes’ God holds. The main difference is that Descartes believes that his God is omnipotent, and Plato does not give that characteristic to any of his Deities, because he believed that Gods should not have the ability to commit bad actions as nothing that is purely good can be harmful, and ‘nothing that isn’t harmful can cause harm’ (Book two, page 54, 379-b). This is a huge difference because it completely changes what the definition of a ‘God’ is. Is a God an absolutely perfect being, or is a God something that is simply eternal and not tangible?
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=descartes-ontological.
- The Atomism of Democritus. https://people.wku.edu/jan.garrett/pgods.htm.
- Brandhorst, Kurt. Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy: An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide. Edinburgh University Press, 2010.
- Descartes, Rene, and Donald A. Cress. Meditations on First Philosophy. Hackett Publishing Co, 1993.
- Mueller, Gustav E. 'Plato and the Gods.' The Philosophical Review 45, no. 5 (09 1936): 457. doi:10.2307/2180503.
- Plato, G.M.A Grube, and C.D.C Reeve. Plato: Republic. Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.
- Plato, and R. D. Archer-Hind. The Timaeus of Plato. Nabu Press, 2014.
- 'Scholar: Mackie.' PHILOSOPHY DUNGEON. https://philosophydungeon.weebly.com/scholar-mackie.html.
- What Plato's Demiurge Does, Richard D. Mohr https://orb.binghamton.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1112&context=sagp