Saturday, July 19, 2014

On re-reading the Euthyphro

Socrates: No sock-puppet, he
I have long considered the Euthyphro dilemma - posed by Socrates in Plato's dialogue of that name - one of the peak moments in Western thought, one of the best insights anyone has ever had about anything. What with one thing and another, it's been on my mind lately (it's been on Jay-Z's mind, too, apparently) so I thought I should reread the dialogue, for the first time in forever.

It's short - 15 pages in the Hamilton-Cairns edition - and pretty amusing. The famous bit leaps out at you the way such things always do (like "nasty, brutish and short" in Hobbes, the one quoted sentence in a roughly 600-page book).

But so do other elements. In particular, I was struck by poor Euthyphro, who gets increasingly frustrated as Socrates punctures one definition of piety or holiness after another. In a lot of dialogues, including more than a few of Plato's, there's a "sock-puppet" feel, but the Euthyphro reads like a well-made play, with both characters allowed free rein to be themselves and react naturally, like real people.

Toward the end, Socrates asks Euthyphro to explain the fruits of piety: Farmers produce food, generals produce victory in war, so what is produced by propitiating the gods? By this time, Euthyphro knows that anything he says will be shot down; he answers with this cri de couer (my bold):
"Just a little while ago I told you, Socrates, that the task is not a light one, to learn precisely how all these matters stand. I will, however, simply tell you this. If anyone knows how to say and do things pleasing to the gods in prayer and sacrifice, that is holiness, and such behavior saves the family in private life together with the common interests of the state. To do the opposite of things pleasing to the gods is impious, and this it is that upsets all and ruins everything." 
Take that, Richard Dawkins! Seriously, though, doesn't that 2,400-year-old outburst sound eerily contemporary? Sure, you have to change "gods" to God and make a few other adjustments to the rhetoric, but isn't that the emotional heart of it? With God, all things are possible; Without God, all goes to rack and ruin.

I think many people deeply believe that. And considered, not as a metaphysical assertion, but a psychological one, I would be hesitant to say it's entirely false. (As would Jay-Z.)

Curiously, editor Edith Hamilton (the front half of Hamilton-Cairns) is somewhat dismissive of the Euthyphro. In her prefatory note, she writes:
[The dialogue] is chiefly an attempt to define piety, and comes to nothing, but in the course of it Socrates makes a distinction fundamental in reasoning and often disregarded, that the good is not good because the gods approve it, but the gods approve it because it is good. 
The real interest of the dialogue, however, is the picture of Socrates just before his trial. 
I beg to differ. The reason we still look to Socrates to this day is because he freely and happily died in service of the right to pose goofy yet unsettling philosophical questions like the Euthyphro dilemma. So how can the very kind of question he died for not be "the real interest of the dialogue"?* Plato wrote a dialogue, not an Attic personality puff piece. He didn't have to stick the dilemma in there. That he did strongly suggests he thought it was crucial and essential and worth thinking about. You can't just flick it away like soot off a marble bust.

*Not to mention that Hamilton completely begs the question of how accurate Plato's fictionalized account is. That "picture of Socrates" may have as much connection to a real person as Dickens' picture of Sydney Carton.

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