The Athenian’s First Cause Argument for the Gods in Plato’s Laws

An argument from first cause is found in Plato’s Laws, a dialogue in which we have a conversation on political philosophy between three men: an unnamed Athenian, Megillus (a Spartan), and Cleinias (a Cretan).

Book 10 of Laws refers to three varieties of the laws of impiety: atheism, deism, and traditional theism. All three varieties, according to the Athenian, threaten to undermine the political and ethical foundation of a city and therefore should be abandoned, and those holding to them punished. It is also here where that we two arguments presented by Cleinias for the gods. Cleinias attempts to prove their existence as follows,

“In the first place, the earth and the sun, and the stars and the universe, and the fair order of the seasons, and the division of them into years and months, furnish proofs of their existence; and also there is the fact that all Hellenes and barbarians believe in them.“

Here Cleinias combines two arguments. First, there is a variant of the design argument. Cleinias considers the beauty and the ordered structure of nature to prove the existence of gods. Second, he appeals to consensus, according to which everyone, including foreigners with different cultural backgrounds and ways of thinking, recognizes the existence of gods. But the unnamed Athenian is unimpressed and rejects these arguments,

“… when you and I argue for the existence of the Gods, and produce the sun, moon, stars, and earth, claiming for them a divine being, if we would listen to the aforesaid philosophers we should say that they are earth and stones only, which can have no care at all of human affairs, and that all religion is a cooking up of words and a make-believe.”

Although the Athenian does not deny that the beauty and the structured order of nature indicate the existence of gods, he does maintain that Cleinias’ arguments would not convince people who are already committed to atheism, namely the belief that the gods do not exist. This is because atheists will simply claim that nature consists of material objects like earth and stones, in which there is no sign of the intelligence or care of gods. This leads to the Athenian attempting to replace Cleinias’ arguments with a version of the cosmological argument, which he takes to be more convincing.

The existence of the gods is supported, argues the Athenian, by the fact that some things in the universe are in motion. He argues his point by distinguishing between two types of motion: transmitted motion (that which moves other things but cannot move unless another motion moves it) and self-motion (that which moves itself as well as other things). He dismisses transmitted motion as an explanation for first motion because it would suggest that there would have to be an infinite series of transmitted motion. Instead, the only thing that could initiate motion again would be self-motion. The first motion must be self-motion,

“I mean this: when one thing changes another, and that another, of such will there be any primary changing element? How can a thing which is moved by another ever be the beginning of change? Impossible. But when the self-moved changes other, and that again other, and thus thousands upon tens of thousands of bodies are set in motion, must not the beginning of all this motion be the change of the self-moving principle?”

But what exactly is this first motion? The Athenian explains that a thing that moves itself must be said to be alive and that whatever has a soul is alive. He thus concludes that soul is the first source of movement and change in everything and is prior to material things,

“If, my friend, we say that the whole path and movement of heaven, and of all that is therein, is by nature akin to the movement and revolution and calculation of mind, and proceeds by kindred laws, then, as is plain, we must say that the best soul takes care of the world and guides it along the good path.”

Since soul is prior to the material, then the attributes of soul (such as true belief and calculation) are also prior to material things. The Athenian concludes that his argument, unlike Cleinias’, shows that there are intelligent, caring gods.

But the argument leaves us with questions. How does the Athenian jump from soul being the first source of movement and change to the existence of the gods? How will he establish that the qualities of this self-moving soul possesses are divine and worthy of being called a god? Nonetheless, the Athenian thinking he had refuted atheism, he moves on to his next targets, namely deism and traditional theism.


Baima, Nicholas R. n.d. Plato: The Laws. Available.

Rowe, William L., and Trakakis, Nick. 2007. “Cosmological Arguments.” In William L. Rowe on Philosophy of Religion, edited by William L. Rowe and Nick Trakakis, 301-351. Oxfordshire: Routledge.

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