The Gods are on our side — as also are the guardian spirits — and we in turn are the property of the Gods and guardian spirits. What is fatal for us is injustice, and arrogance allied to folly; our salvation is justice, and self-control allied to wisdom, and these are to be found dwelling in the living powers of the Gods — though they can also be seen dwelling in us, just a bit — or something very like them.Plato, Laws, Book 10, 906b
While looking back through Book 10 of the Laws to check my notes on what the Athenian Stranger said about atheism, I came across this strikingly beautiful passage that I want to share with all of you.
There is so much to unpack in it — but at face value, without being acquainted with the theological details, the passage may not seem like much. How often do we see others say (especially in arguments), “The Gods are on my/our side — you and your ilk will see!” That is not what is being alluded to here, especially when we think about the relationship between this passage and the rest of the Platonic corpus.
First, the Gods are on our side — as also are the guardian spirits calls to mind the end of the Phaedrus, when Socrates gives the prayer for good things as simple and adequate, and other places in the dialogues where Socrates has shown similar deference to the Gods. Often, we think we know what we want. I’m sure that I am not the only one who has made a decision or swiped my card thinking that the outcome would lead to good things when, in fact, there was only misery on the other side. The Gods are on our side in the sense that they care about what is truly good for us, as if we are plants in their garden that they are tending in delight moment after moment, our roots nourished by them so we can grow — through the verdant periods of each life, through the dormant periods of each death. Sometimes the growth is easy, and we grow by delicious nourishment; sometimes, it’s painful, and we grow through the barbs of critique and the snipping of wilting leaves. Sometimes, it may even seem like we’re taking one step forward only to take two steps back.
Assuming that we know what we don’t know is often a disaster. Ignorance often leads to actions based on that ignorance, and the more sure we are of opinions that are actually held in error, the more explosive the outcomes can be. It deepens the possibility of committing injustice, too, because we believe in our overconfidence that we are clear on all of the facts when we truly know little to nothing. Caring about uncovering truth, and controlling ourselves even in the worst circumstances, accompanied by prayer and trust in the Gods is the surest way to leave behind what is fatal (which, for astute readers, is related to the world of becoming and what is fated) for the providential.
At the close of the passage, the Athenian Stranger is referring to that small spark within each of us — the part that is truly us, that crowns our embodied soul with all of the complicated vehicles it wears like heavy coats — that is most like the Gods. Proclus, in his surviving commentary fragments on the Chaldean Oracles, writes about the flower of our Intellect and the flower of our soul, and the latter roots our essence (see fragment 4). It’s by climbing that mountain from scattered imagination to opinion to brass-tacks reasoning to insight, unless we go heavy on theurgy and the grace of a God breathes upon us, that we can safeguard our judgment. (I love “Bones of Man” by Equador for a music vibe related to this.) Although — admittedly, I may have just overanalyzed this based on my excitement — the Stranger could just be referring to how each of the Gods contributes to our activity in a unique way — we have the God who we are rooted in, the Gods of affinity of particular lives and events and so on, and the Gods that every living thing hymns out of necessity.
The Gods and guardian spirits do what is best for each of us, in contribution to the whole. The universe is the most beautiful garden and the most complex jewel, a Goddess of honeycomb webs, yawning chasms, and rivers of galaxies pooling in the cosmic ocean.