Jacob Abolafia

How is a legislator to harness the positive cohesive power of religion without falling prey to a charge of hypocrisy? As with so many theoretical puzzles, it was Plato who first recognized this paradox of civil religion. Consequently, the multi-tiered religion he proposes in the Laws should be understood as western thought’s first attempt to solve this problem.

At the centre of the Laws stands a single icon – the sun – that fits within both the Olympian schema of polis-religion and a naturalistic, rationalist account persuasive to the more philosophically minded. Using the language and imagery of solar worship, Plato designed a shared ‘civil religion’ (to use an anachronistic term), that can reasonably claim to link the social forms of political life to the higher truths of reason, even if not all the city’s citizens will mean the same thing when they speak of the god and his rites.