Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Reflections: The Marriage of Politics and Religion

I recall once making what I thought to be the non-controversial observation that Plato was a "religious philosopher" in a comment box discussion, only to have the jamoke with whom I was arguing tell me flat-out that I was wrong. I wish that I had had Iris Murdoch's essay on Plato, "The Fire and the Sun" on hand at the time so that I could have backed up my statement with the following excerpt:

Plato's work is...largely concerned with ways to salvation. We may speak of a (democratic) "way of justice" which, without necessarily leading to enlightenment, is open to anyone who is able to harmonize the different levels of his soul moderately well under the general guidance of reason. The characteristic desires of each level would not be eliminated, but would in fact, under rational leadership, achieve their best general satisfaction. The baser part is really happier if rationally controlled. The reasonable egoism would be accessible to the lower orders in the Republic. Plato certainly thought that few could be 'saved', but allowed that many might lead a just life at their own spiritual level.

That should settle things for the religiously minded. Any philosophy that is "largely concerned with ways to salvation" is certainly concerned with the "religious."

That said, on the same page Murdock throws out some tidbits for the intractably political, particularly those of a partisan bent. Plato, she says, taught that "most people want power not virtue and must be trained by pleasure and pain to prefer justice." That's grim enough. "Political systems make men good or bad", she adds. I agree completely. It is the role of the progressive (the good) to train the bad (the conservative) to "prefer justice" by the application of pain (confiscatory taxation). At this juncture do religion and politics form an uneasy union, allowing us to get on with the daunting task of making a better world for men at every spiritual level.