Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Plato and Mormonism


"Have you ever heard of Plato? Aristotle? Socrates?" "Yes." "Morons." (Or were they?)


I felt inspired to write this piece about Plato and Mormonism. These subjects might seem to be unconnected, but there are a few quotes from Mormons' General Conferences about the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Most of them are favorable, while one of them is critical of his philosopher king idea. Mostly they're favorable, though, and I will discuss these General Conference quotes in detail now.

James E. Faust

Socrates and Plato "received a portion of God's light"

James E. Faust said that "the great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God's light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals." (Source: April 1980 General Conference talk)

G. Homer Durham

Plato's "philosopher king" will fail, though ...

Note, though, that Mormons do not believe everything that Plato said. G. Homer Durham said that "when a society begins to disintegrate, the following ways of behavior appear: people feel that the world is ruled by chance; vulgarity and barbarism in manners appear; traditional values are replaced by iconoclasm. People turn to various remedies: to the so-called creative genius, the sword, anarchism, futurism, or to Plato's philosopher king. All these fail" (Source: April 1979 General Conference talk).

Ezra Taft Benson

Context for the next quote I am about to give here ...

This next one about Plato is not a quote from a Latter-Day Saint, but the book it comes from (the Federalist Papers) was endorsed in General Conference by President Ezra Taft Benson. Before giving the Federalist Papers quote about Plato, let me give the General Conference quote about the Federalist Papers first: "We should understand the Constitution as the founders meant that it should be understood. We can do this by reading their words about it, such as those contained in the Federalist Papers. Such understanding is essential if we are to preserve what God has given us." (Source: April 1976 General Conference talk)

James Madison

The "philosophical race of kings" wished for by Plato is very "little to be expected"

With that in mind, let me turn to the Federalist Papers quote about Plato. James Madison, the father of the United States Constitution, wrote that "the strength of opinion in each individual, and its practical influence on his conduct, depend much on the number which he supposes to have entertained the same opinion. The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated. When the examples which fortify opinion are ancient as well as numerous, they are known to have a double effect. In a nation of philosophers, this consideration ought to be disregarded. A reverence for the laws would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason. But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato." (Source: Federalist No. 49)

Vaughn J. Featherstone

"The very most important part of any project is the very beginning"

Latter-Day Saint leaders have, however, had sufficient respect for Plato to quote him in General Conference multiple times. Vaughn J. Featherstone accurately quoted him as saying that the very most important part of any project is the very beginning (Source: October 1976 General Conference talk)

N. Eldon Tanner

L. Tom Perry

"The first and best victory is to conquer self"

N. Eldon Tanner and L. Tom Perry both gave this Plato quote: "The first and best victory is to conquer self; to be conquered by self is, of all things, the most shameful and vile." (Sources: April 1975 General Conference talk and April 1986 General Conference talk)

Marvin J. Ashton

"The unexamined life is not worth living"

And Marvin J. Ashton quoted Plato's "Apology" as saying that "The unexamined life is not worth living" (Source: October 1987 General Conference talk). Elder Ashton notes that this quote is actually from Socrates, but he accurately cites Plato's dialogues as the record of this quote, since Socrates never wrote anything himself. (As with the mortal Jesus, his words were recorded by others.)


Church's recorded position on Plato is part approval and part disapproval, depending on which part of his legacy you're talking about ...

It's possible that there may be other quotes about Plato in our General Conferences, since the online General Conference archives currently just goes back to 1971. But these are basically all of the General Conference references to Plato that are currently available in the General Conference archives. (I know because I did a search of it.) These quotes show that the church's recorded position on Plato is neither fully approving nor fully disapproving, but rather a mix of each.


Socrates and Plato did receive "a portion of God's light"

As someone who has read Plato's "Republic" myself (as well as the dialogue "Apology" referenced above), I can testify that Socrates and Plato did receive "a portion of God's light," and that "Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals." (Source: April 2006 General Conference talk) I don't recommend everything in the "Republic," but I can recommend a lot of it, and apparently the church's General Authorities can, too.

A YouTube video with all
of these General Conference clips

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Socrates and Mormonism

Aristotle and Mormonism

Why I am learning Ancient Greek

Learning the basics of Ancient Greek from a book

How I found Plato in the original Greek

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