Plato’s Republic vs Locke’s ‘A letter concerning toleration’

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While reading both Plato’s Republic and John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, it is impossible not to notice the frustrations that each writer has experienced within their respective societies. Both are clearly aggravated with the way religion and religious ideals affect their governments. Although their works are hundreds of years apart, similarities can be found in the call for a more pacific and wise government, free from the coercion and misguidance that the belief in religion brings about in both of their historic circumstances.

Locke, in seventeenth century England, was witness to how the religious institutions of the time could easily sway the government and how different sects caused rivalries and divisions within the general population. The solution that Locke proposes is the division of church from state, relegating the ‘goods of the body’ to the state, and leaving the domain of salvation to the church. (Locke, 26) Plato, on the other hand, traced the evils of society to the false tales of Homeric gods and heroes, which poisoned the minds of the people of Athens.

His solution to this is to provide perfect gods in whom people can believe in, ones that are wise and good, so that they would never be misguided to lead an unjust life. It seems as though both philosophers aim to improve their societies, but for different aims; while Locke is primarily concerned with liberty and personal rights, Plato is set on defining how the just city comes about and what is needed for its maintenance. John Locke In A Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke mainly discusses the duties of the magistrates.

In the introduction, Locke outlines which church is the true church. He states that the ‘chief Characteristical Mark of the True Church’ is toleration. (Locke, 23). Furthermore, the true church does not claim itself to be the true church. Locke claims that charity, meekness, and good will come before orthodoxy of doctrine. (Locke, 23). In turn, the intolerant come off as fornicators, war-mongers, and obsessed over their own authority. (Locke, 24). In Locke, we see the mobilization of Christian morality against the doctrines of the day, including an attack on hypocrisy.

The people that are most zealous in furthering their beliefs, Locke claims, are actually the ones that are the hypocrites. ‘Why then does this burning zeal for God, for the Church, and for the salvation of souls… pass by those moral vices and wickednesses, without any chastisement, which are acknowledged by all men to be diametrically opposite to the profession Christianity? ‘ (Locke, 24). For Locke, the main challenge that religion poses to politics is that it infringes upon the ruling domain of the state. The business of the commonwealth is civil interests.

These civil interests are limited to the goods of the body, or in other words, self-preservation. (Locke, 27-28) The domain of salvation, however, is much too lofty to be left up to the state and must thus be left fully to the church. Locke’s was not a world where the state oppressed the churches. It was, however, a world where the church persecuted other churches, with the state being the main means of doing so. (Locke, 28) Locke argues that the churches cannot use the state in this way, thus making it impossible for the church to engage in any type of coercion, since these matters would be the monopoly of the state.

Due to the state having sole control of dispensing punishment or coercion, the church also does not have the right to coerce in the name of the church and spiritual matters. (Locke, 29) This way, Locke frees the state from the grasp of religious institutions. With the church separated from the state, the churches are forced to make the same type of deal that people are made to make in the state of nature; one that makes both parties equal. (Locke, 31) Locke states that this is not a sacrifice, but rather a manifestation of the real Christian way, seeing as there is no competition and coercion written into Christian doctrine.

In other words, there is no tough love in Christianity, and there should be none in the church, either. (Locke, 30) Locke continues to explain why the division of church from state is not only beneficial to the state, but also the right thing to do in terms of Christian teachings. The care of souls, Locke claims, is not and should not be committed to the civil magistrates. (Locke, 27) In fact, none of us by nature have the power to entrust anyone with the care of our souls. Genuine piety cannot rest on authority. (Locke, 25) It must be sincere and heartfelt, and nobody within the legal realm could possibly enforce that.

People can try to persuade, but nothing further. When it is enforced, then it is no longer genuine, sincere piety. (Locke, 27). Similarly, as state is separated from church, the churches are free from the constraints of each other. Each church, as a church, is autonomous and is free from any constraints other churches may try to put on it. (Locke 33) Locke gives as an example a reading from Matthew, which states that ‘wheresoever two or three are gathered together in his Name, he will be in the midst of them. ‘ (Locke, 29). Since a church cannot coerce anyone into being pious or sincere, then it must be a voluntary organization.

Locke is adamant on the fact that every church is as much a church as any other church, as long as it extends toleration to other churches. (Locke, 33) In this way, Locke seeks to replace religious warfare with peaceful toleration. Indeed, Locke turns the different churches into competing entities, each vying for people to follow them. Ecclesiastical authority is limited to spiritual authority, and only over those people who are in that particular church. Essentially, Locke turns the authority of the church into property rights, with different churches ‘owning’ a following.

The example that Locke illustrates is one of churches as private clubs, where people can join at will and choose what ‘club’ they want to be a part of. (Locke, 40) The part of the magistrate, then, is to protect the people from injury in life and estate. Plato In The Republic, religion poses a challenge for politics in the form of misguidance from the just way of life and the goal of the perfect city. The Homeric gods are portrayed as having faults and as being spirited, often seen quarrelling with each other. (Plato, 381d-e) This causes people to be the same, because they try to imitate the gods.

The solution to this problem lies in changing the gods so that they are perfect; able only to do good, and not evil. The goal is to change the admired attributes of the gods from spirited, to wise, so that others would aspire to be wise as well. If, for example, Socrates was the prototype of a god, instead of Achilles, then the city would be run much more peacefully. The process of making the gods perfect involves starting from the very beginning. According to Plato, all poets must depict gods as good, and nothing but.

This includes making all stories that are told to children truthful. (Plato, 377c) Telling children the truth about the goodness of gods will point them towards the right path, just as not telling the guardians of the city about the quarrels that gods have will avoid the guardians fighting amongst themselves. (Plato, 386) These good beliefs about the gods will make the guardians respect and honour the gods, and will thus lead them to respect and honour their fellow guardians. (Plato, 377d-e) The belief in good gods will, in this way, bring about peace amongst the warrior class.

When the discussion flows into the afterlife, Socrates recoils from the picture that Homer had painted of Hades, and says that such things should never be said. Socrates insists that people should not be afraid of death. (Plato, 386d) However, this seems to wipe out the virtue of courage. Although Socrates wishes to erase all the nasty images of Hades, his intention is not to do away with courage at all. By getting rid of Hades, Socrates removes the fear that is associated with dying, making the process of aging not as scary as it once was.

When contrasted with Achilles, the picture of youth and courage, the old, wise philosopher becomes to look more attractive. Furthermore, if Achilles is what young men try to be, then they would not pursue philosophy, which is the key to the perfectly governed city. (Plato, 388d-e). Stemming from the attractiveness of Achilles is another problem that plagues the city as well as the soul analogy. The spiritedness of Achilles must be replaced with the thirst for knowledge of a philosopher in order for the good city to come into being.

According to Socrates, spiritedness is directly connected with protecting what one possesses. Plato, 390c-e)The anger that is incurred when those possessions are taken away is not compatible with the good city because what one individual perceives as justice may not necessarily be so. Achilles, as it turns out, becomes the ideal disobedient subject, fueled by anger. By changing the outlook on death and how people talk and write about it, therefore, Socrates aims to limit the spiritedness in the good city. (Plato, 411 a-c). The training that the guardians of the good city must go through is rigorous, combining exercises of the mind as well as the body.

In addition, everyone that resides within the good city will not have private property, so as to avoid jealousy. Instead, everything will be communal; public and private spheres working in tandem and on equal grounds. In Comparison Although writing at two completely different historic periods, Plato and Locke both happen upon the same ideas. The major similarity between the two philosophers is that they both want their societies to run in a fair and peaceful manner. Locke advocates for the separation of the different sects of the church from the state. He roots his reasoning in the Bible, as well as the principles of the Enlightenment.

Locke is disturbed by the rivalries between the different sects of Christianity, pointing out that coercion and punishment do not come part and parcel with Christian doctrine. (Locke, 25) The separation of church from state would allow for a more peaceful society that would not pit its’ citizens against each other. In addition, the state would not be connected to any particular sect, thus easing the tensions between the government and the citizens. Plato also wishes for a more peaceful Athens. He writes of a good city that is run by the guardian class.

The guardians have been trained vigorously and told tales of good gods that can do no evil. Plato, 380a) The fear of death is minimized, and growing old is respected instead of feared. Moreover, the young hero Achilles is replaced by a wise philosopher, who in turn becomes the object of admiration. The overcoming of the fear of death and respect for the old and wise is necessary in purging spiritedness from society. (Plato, 412c) According to Plato, this spiritedness, which is borne of the myths of Homeric gods, must be eradicated because it is the cause of anger within society, thereby causing people to be confused between real justice and what they merely perceive as justice.

Plato hopes to attain peace within the good society by instilling principles of philosophy within young Athenians, instead of the lies carelessly tossed around by Homeric poets. In Contrast While similar in their quests for peace within their respective societies, Plato and Locke have very little in common when it comes to their views on freedom and individual position within society. Locke is adamant that everybody has individual rights that are protected by the government from the coercion of church sects.

The churches are viewed as various clubs that one could join voluntarily. (Locke, 28) Everybody in the society that Locke envisions has personal property and the right to make up their own mind about which religious sect to be a part of, as well as the duty to tolerate the choices that others have made within their private domains. (Locke, 25) The separation of church and state furthers the connection between public and private to a huge extent. On the contrary, Plato wants to fuse public and private together to the point where they are the same thing.

Everyone is raised in the same way and told the same stories about the good gods in the good city, and people do not have private property. This communal type of life, according to Plato, would squash any kind of jealousy between the citizens and make them equal. (Plato, 415-417) In the perfect city, the guardians would rule and dictate for everybody else what is good, since they have the best conception of it based on their lifelong teachings of philosophy. In Conclusion Locke believes that religion should be relegated to a personal preference, instead of something that is compulsory and forced.

In his view, true piety cannot be coerced, and thus should be something that an individual could choose if need be. The separation of church from state and the toleration between different churches is key to a working society and an effective and unbiased governmental system. Plato’s experience of democracy lead him to believe that worshipping good gods and instilling the virtue of wisdom in the form of philosophy was the right path to the good city. Instead of rule by popularity and spiritedness, the old and wise would rule and dictate what is best and just in the good city.

Although Plato and Locke share many differences in the way that they see religion as a challenge to the politics of their respective states, they are both concerned with the peaceful life that their proposed changes would bring to their communities. Their theories and views on the relationship between religion in politics have affected the modern world and have made it what it is today. Plato paved the way for communism and equality, while Locke drew an invaluable line between the spiritual domains of the church and the civil ones of the state.

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