Why be good? Plato and the Gospel

In Plato’s Republic, one of the central questions is Why be good? On the face of it, it seems that being immoral or unjust is more profitable than being good. If so, then no one is willingly good—and perhaps then we have found a pragmatic reason for religion—fear of divine wrath keeps the immoral masses from perpetrating evil acts. I say this is exactly backwards—and Plato’s own answer to his question points us in the right direction.  Consider the famous story of Gyges and his magic ring (told by Glaucon in Book II):[1]

Gyges was a shepherd of the king of Lydia who discovered a cavern in the ground, uncovered by an earthquake. He went down into the cavern and found a larger than human-sized corpse, wearing nothing but a gold ring on his finger. Gyges took the ring. He wore the ring to the monthly meeting that reported to the king the state of the flocks. As Gyges was sitting among the others, he turned the ring toward himself to the inside of his hand—and became invisible to those sitting around him. He turned it outwards again and became visible. When he realized he had a ring that would make him become invisible whenever he turned it toward himself, he immediately went to the king’s castle, seduced the king’s wife, attacked the king with her help, killed him, and took over the kingdom.

Glaucon goes on to argue that anyone who found himself in possession of such a ring would do the same—that is, no one is willingly moral. Being immoral or unjust is more profitable than being good, and we are good only out of a fear of being caught (such a fear is removed if we have a magical ring).

As the discussion continues, Socrates arrives as his own answer to the question of morality. Why be good? The answer is because it is the only way to live well—being good is in fact profitable whereas being unjust is not. At the end of Book IV Socrates states:

Even if one has every kind of food and drink, lots of money, and every sort of power to rule, life is thought to be not worth living when the body’s nature is ruined…how can [life] be worth living when his soul—the very thing by which he lives—is ruined and in turmoil? (445b)

So, why we good? The answer is because it is the only way to flourish in light of our nature. The happy life is a life of moral and intellectual virtue and being good is an intrinsically worthy state of affairs.

Plato (through the voice of Socrates) is right—being good—is the only way to live life well.

The gospel goes one step beyond this: Yes, we are to do what is right. Yes, we are to be good (that is, virtuous). But the gospel emphasizes the reason:

Because in Christ, God has done you right.

Because in Christ, God has made you alive.

Examples are all over the Bible: “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19); “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

In Christianity we find the ultimate answer to Plato’s question. Why be good? Because Christ came to make us alive again; to redeem us; to change us from the inside out, so that we might become men and women who flourish in light of our nature.

This is the best life, because it is the only life that God offers.

So, we ought to be good, not out of fear of being caught (by God or others), but out of gratitude for what Christ has done on our behalf. And the best part: the same One why saves is also the one who makes us good:  “we have to keep remembering that the reason Christ came was first of all not to make bad people good but to make dead people alive”[2]

 


[1] Yes, this is the story that inspires Tolkien and his Lord of the Ring trilogy.

[2] Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus+Nothing=Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 154.

 

3 Responses to Why be good? Plato and the Gospel

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