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Plato on Intelligent Design

The Greek philosopher Plato (429-347 BC) was an early proponent of intelligent design. Plato’s views on design in nature can be found, among other places, in Book X of his dialogue The Laws and in the following selection from his dialogue Philebus. The latter dialogue was written in 360 BC, and the translation reprinted here is by Benjamin Jowett. The complete text of Philebus is available here.

Selection from Plato’s Dialogue Philebus

Socrates: …let us begin then, Protarchus, by asking a question.

Protarchus: What question?

Socrates: Whether all this which they call the universe is left to the guidance of unreason and chance medley, or, on the contrary, as our fathers have declared, ordered and governed by a marvellous intelligence and wisdom.

Protarchus: Wide asunder are the two assertions, illustrious Socrates, for that which you were just now saying to me appears to be blasphemy; but the other assertion, that mind orders all things, is worthy of the aspect of the world, and of the sun, and of the moon, and of the stars and of the whole circle of the heavens; and never will I say or think otherwise.

Socrates: Shall we then agree with them of old time in maintaining this doctrine-not merely reasserting the notions of others, without risk to ourselves,-but shall we share in the danger, and take our part of the reproach which will await us, when an ingenious individual declares that all is disorder?

Protarchus: That would certainly be my wish.

Socrates: Then now please to consider the next stage of the argument.

Protarchus: Let me hear.

Socrates: We see that the elements which enter into the nature of the bodies of all animals, fire, water, air, and, as the storm-tossed sailor cries, “land” [i.e., earth], reappear in the constitution of the world.

Protarchus: The proverb may be applied to us; for truly the storm gathers over us, and we are at our wit’s end.

Socrates: There is something to be remarked about each of these elements.

Protarchus: What is it?

Socrates: Only a small fraction of any one of them exists in us, and that of a mean sort, and not in any way pure, or having any power worthy of its nature. One instance will prove this of all of them; there is fire within us, and in the universe.

Protarchus: True.

Socrates: And is not our fire small and weak and mean? But the fire in the universe is wonderful in quantity and beauty, and in every power that fire has.

Protarchus: Most true.

Socrates: And is the fire in the universe nourished and generated and ruled by the fire in us, or is the fire in you and me, and in other animals, dependent on the universal fire?

Protarchus: That is a question which does not deserve an answer.

Socrates: Right; and you would say the same, if I am not mistaken, of the earth which is in animals and the earth which is in the universe, and you would give a similar reply about all the other elements?

Protarchus: Why, how could any man who gave any other be deemed in his senses?

Socrates: I do not think that he could-but now go on to the next step. When we saw those elements of which we have been speaking gathered up in one, did we not call them a body?

Protarchus: We did.

Socrates: And the same may be said of the cosmos, which for the same reason may be considered to be a body, because made up of the same elements.

Protarchus: Very true.

Socrates: But is our body nourished wholly by this body, or is this body nourished by our body, thence deriving and having the qualities of which we were just now speaking?

Protarchus: That again, Socrates, is a question which does not deserve to be asked.

Socrates: Well, tell me, is this question worth asking?

Protarchus: What question?

Socrates: May our body be said to have a soul?

Protarchus: Clearly.

Socrates: And whence comes that soul, my dear Protarchus, unless the body of the universe, which contains elements like those in our bodies but in every way fairer, had also a soul? Can there be another source?

Protarchus: Clearly, Socrates, that is the only source.

Socrates: Why, yes, Protarchus; for surely we cannot imagine that of the four classes, the finite, the infinite, the composition of the two, and the cause, the fourth, which enters into all things, giving to our bodies souls, and the art of self-management, and of healing disease, and operating in other ways to heal and organize, having too all the attributes of wisdom;-we cannot, I say, imagine that whereas the self-same elements exist, both in the entire heaven and in great provinces of the heaven, only fairer and purer, this last should not also in that higher sphere have designed the noblest and fairest things?

Protarchus: Such a supposition is quite unreasonable.

Socrates: Then if this be denied, should we not be wise in adopting the other view and maintaining that there is in the universe a mighty infinite and an adequate limit, of which we have often spoken, as well as a presiding cause of no mean power, which orders and arranges years and seasons and months, and may be justly called wisdom and mind?

Protarchus: Most justly.

Socrates: And wisdom and mind cannot exist without soul?

Protarchus: Certainly not.

Socrates: And in the divine nature of Zeus would you not say that there is the soul and mind of a king, because there is in him the power of the cause? And other gods have other attributes, by which they are pleased to be called.

Protarchus: Very true.

Socrates: Do not then suppose that these words are rashly spoken by us, O Protarchus, for they are in harmony with the testimony of those who said of old time that mind rules the universe.

Protarchus: True.

Socrates: And they furnish an answer to my enquiry; for they imply that mind is the parent of that class of the four which we called the cause of all; and I think that you now have my answer.