Sunday, May 31, 2009

God may be great, but is he good? Plato's Euthyphro

I'm well under way with these essays. Only another month's work should see them ready. Here's a finished one.

One of the problems with a god who is transcendant and also personal, a problem felt heavily not only by Christian theologians but also the Islamic faylasufs, is the problem of free will and its essential opposite, predestination. Interestingly, this is a problem not only for humans, but for the god or gods. So Christians might ask, is God making me sin or am I sinning against God's wishes? If God is making me, then I have no reason to feel any shame [but nor should I feel pride in doing good things, as this also is God's responsibility, not mine]. On the other hand, if I'm free to do what I want, how do I know that what I'm doing is something God approves of? I feel pride in my actions, I'm winning the praise of others, but what about God? Are God and the good one and the same? We often hear that God is good, but is this an equation of precise identity? And if not, which is more important, God or the good? Is God constrained by the good, or is the good constrained by God?

The problem's a very old one, dating to well before the advent of Christianity, and it was addressed head on in an early Platonic dialogue, the justly famous Euthyphro.

In this dialogue Socrates encounters Euthyphro outside the court-house, where Socrates is facing a charge of impiety [he is later to be found guilty and sentenced to death]. Euthyphro, an expert in religious law and lore, is there, we discover, to prosecute his own father on a charge of murder.

Socrates is keen, or at least pretends to be, to probe Euthyphro on this life and death issue of piety and impiety:

Soc. And what is piety, and what is impiety?
Euth. Piety is doing as I am doing; that is to say, prosecuting any one who is guilty of
murder, sacrilege, or of any similar crime-whether he be your father or mother, or whoever
he may be-that makes no difference; and not to prosecute them is impiety. And please to
consider, Socrates, what a notable proof I will give you of the truth of my words, a proof
which I have already given to others:-of the principle, I mean, that the impious, whoever he
may be, ought not to go unpunished. For do not men regard Zeus as the best and most
righteous of the gods?-and yet they admit that he bound his father (Cronos) because he
wickedly devoured his sons, and that he too had punished his own father (Uranus)

for a similar reason, in a nameless manner. And yet when I proceed against my father, they
are angry with me. So inconsistent are they in their way of talking when the gods are
concerned, and when I am concerned.
It should be noted that the murder Euthyphro accuses his father of is a murky affair. The victim was a farm labourer, a dependent of Euthyphro's family. He had slain one of the family's domestic servants in an argument. Euthyphro's father had tied him up, thrown him in a ditch, and then sent to Athens for advice as to the next step to be taken. The messenger was delayed, and by the time he got back, the bound and neglected labourer was dead. Certainly there is blame to be attached, but Socrates is taken aback at Euthyphro's certitude about how the gods view his father's act – that is, as an act of impiety.

Euthyphro's response above, that he is following the example of the gods, prompts Socrates to express doubts about these tales of the gods, a scepticism which, he speculates, might be the reason for his being accused of impiety. Euthyphro assures him that all the stories of the gods are true, whereupon Socrates returns to the general category of piety. He wants a more catch-all definition than 'doing as I do', or 'doing as the gods do'. The next definition Euthyphro comes up with is that piety is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety that which is not dear to them.

However, as both interlocutors agree, the gods are often in discord, and when they argue, it's always about Big Issues; right and wrong, justice and injustice. And the same goes for humans. So, as Socrates points out, the gods appear to be on both sides, arguing for 'right' one minute, and 'wrong' the next. So it's impossible to tell whether piety or impiety is dear to the gods – which way they will go on any particular Big Issue.

Socrates next gets Euthyphro to agree that the gods don't argue about whether just actions should be rewarded or unjust actions punished; they accept that's how it should be, as do mortals. Instead they argue the particulars of cases, whether such-and-such an action was right or wrong. So Socrates amends Euthyphro's definition to say that piety is that which is dear to all the gods, impiety that which is hateful to them all, and any action or thing about which they're in dispute is neither pious nor impious. He then asks a question which greatly perplexes Euthyphro. He asks – but are these acts loved by the gods because they are pious, or are they pious because they are loved by the gods?

The question here, of course, is one of priority. Which came first, piety [roughly equivalent to our morality] or the gods? Do we do what is right because it is right [and the gods too are subordinate to right and wrong], or do we do what is right because the god – when they're in agreement - will it as right [in which case we must be constantly trying to determine the will of the gods]? The crucial nature of this question, for all religions and for all believers, cannot be underestimated. To put things monotheistically, if God simply determines the good, or if goodness is an attribute or defining characteristic of God, then it would be as pointless to praise God as it would be to praise [or blame] a cat for having fur, or a fly for producing maggots. If, on the other hand, the good is something antecedent to God, something which God strives to achieve along with the rest of us, then this puts something of a dent in God's omnipotence and all-round Supremacy.

This issue has indeed proved a headache for all three major monotheistic religions. Different positions have been taken on it, and many lives have been taken as one side or another has gained power. The position of Plato is clear enough, both in the Euthyphro and the Timaeus. He gives priority to piety, justice and all the general 'forms' of virtue. Interestingly, the writer or writers of Genesis also seem to give the good a prior existence to God. In the very first chapter the phrase 'God saw that it was good' is written several times. The chapter begins with a satisfying crescendo, 'And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good'. I wonder who he was trying to please?

To return to the Euthyphro, Socrates continuing treatment of the relationship of piety to the gods, and to justice in general, of which he sees piety as a subset, only succeeds in bewildering Euthyphro all the more, until he's reduced to agreeing with whatever Socrates suggests to him - a familiar pattern in Plato's dialogues. When he finally gets Euthphyro to assert himself once more, Euthyphro can only come up with an elaboration on a previous statement of the nature of piety:

Euth. I have told you already, Socrates, that to learn all these things accurately will be very
tiresome. Let me simply say that piety or holiness is learning, how to please the gods in
word and deed, by prayers and sacrifices. Such piety, is the salvation of families and states,
just as the impious, which is unpleasing to the gods, is their ruin and destruction.

Socrates is very disappointed with this answer. Why would prayers and sacrifices be pleasing to the gods, who have no need of them? Or if they need them, how could they be omnipotent? Are offerings and supplications good in themselves? We appear to be back at the starting point, and Socrates prepares to begin the exploration from scratch. Euthyphro is having none of this, and begs off; he has a court case to attend to. Whether his confidence in his cause has been affected by the dialogue is anyone's guess.

The implications of Socrates' central question, though, should be clear to all believers. If morality is just the will of God or the gods, that doesn't help us much, as nobody seems quite to know what that will is. There are interpreters, mediators between the god or gods and ourselves, who try to teach us this will, but they notoriously contradict each other, just as the sacred writings of the deities are full of apparent contradictions. If morality is separate from the gods then we have to work it out for ourselves, just as, presumably, the gods do. Either way we appear to be on our own, morality-wise, no matter how fervently we believe.



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