Plato and America’s Civil Religion

The West owes so much, whether good or bad, to Plato. Along with Justin Martyr’s Trinity, along with Clement of Alexandria’s, we how much in the way of government. The below are excerpts from Plato’s dialogues on the Laws, his last work. In it, he creates for all intents and purposes a theocracy, in which the guardians of public virtue make atheism a crime and enforce public worship, amond other things.

ATHENIAN: And shall we say that those who guard our noblest interests, and are the best of guardians, are inferior in virtue to dogs, and to men even of moderate excellence, who would never betray justice for the sake of gifts which unjust men impiously offer them?

CLEINIAS: Certainly not; nor is such a notion to be endured, and he who holds this opinion may be fairly singled out and characterized as of all impious men the wickedest and most impious.

ATHENIAN: Then are the three assertions—that the Gods exist, and that they take care of men, and that they can never be persuaded to do injustice, now sufficiently demonstrated? May we say that they are?


In all these cases there should be one law, which will make men in general less liable to transgress in word or deed, and less foolish, because they will not be allowed to practise religious rites contrary to law. And let this be the simple form of the law: No man shall have sacred rites in a private house. When he would sacrifice, let him go to the temples and hand over his offerings to the priests and priestesses, who see to the sanctity of such things, and let him pray himself, and let any one who pleases join with him in prayer.


ATHENIAN: Is not the knowledge of the Gods which we have set forth with so much zeal one of the noblest sorts of knowledge—to know that they are, and know how great is their power, as far as in man lies? We do indeed excuse the mass of the citizens, who only follow the voice of the laws, but we refuse to admit as guardians any who do not labour to obtain every possible evidence that there is respecting the Gods; our city is forbidden and not allowed to choose as a guardian of the law, or to place in the select order of virtue, him who is not an inspired man, and has not laboured at these things.

How interesting that for Plato, and many today, assume that only public religion is vital to democracy. Of course, to note, Christians were atheists, and would have been killed under Plato’s theocracy.

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