Continuing through Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex and finding it sooooo good. In fact I’m loving it.
Despite two previous mentions [here][and here], I failed to mention that Larry Krauss is set up as the archetypal scientistic philosophy-(and theology)-jeerer. So, so true, and given the order of events last week – the culmination (so far) of my own long-running run-in with Krauss’ disingenuity. – restrained of me not to have mentioned it yet. The “tumbleweed response” so far. The ignorance, The dishonesty. The horror.
Still not quite finished Googleplex, but after waxing lyrical about the three chapters majoring on love, I was quite simply blown away by the next chapter Socrates Must Die, hence the need to blog again before I’m finished. A mini textbook within the overall plot providing a wonderful readable summary of Plato’s world in historical context, the philosophy project he started in tribute to his first love, Socrates. No matter how much Plato you’ve read and interpreted yourself, I’d suggest Goldstein’s loving interpretation will be hard to beat. (And so many more Greek sources I’m going to have to find the time to read in a new light.)
For now a long quote from that chapter, to speak for itself:
The Euthyphro, which is one of Plato’s earlier dialogues and deals with the relationship between theism and morality – an issue still fraught for us today – [… takes place the same day while Socrates is … awaiting his turn to appear at the preliminary hearing on the charges against him … and it is Meletus who has brought the anti-Athens indictment against Socrates.]
Unwilling to squander any opportunity for meaningful discussion, he falls into conversation with a diviner-priest named Euthyphro, a priceless character whose sacerdotal vanity cannot be pierced. A self-declared expert on all things holy. Euthyphro has come […] to indict his own father on a charge of homicide for having accidentally killed a hireling, who had himself killed another worker in a fit of anger. Socrates is amazed to hear that Euthyphro is so secure in his moral certitude as to charge his own father. (The ancient Athenian codes of family loyalty make Euthyphro’s actions seem all the more questionable.) Euthyphro responds with the tell-tale conviction of the self-righteous.
Socrates immediately launches in, having his fun, declaring that Euthyphro alone can save him [Socrates] in this his moment of need, by instructing him on the nature of piety and holiness so that he can present himself as chastened to Meletus – though “Meletus, I perceive, along presumably everybody else, appears to overlook you.” With an interlocutor as deaf to sarcasm as to philosophical subtlety, Plato’s Socrates proceeds to formulate a line of reasoning that will prove to be of fundamental importance in the history of secularism, one that will be adapted by freethinkers from Baruch Spinoza to Bertrand Russell to the so-called new atheists of today, persuasively arguing that a belief in the gods – or God – cannot provide the philosophical grounding for morality.
Plato begins the inquisition innocently enough, with Socrates asking Euthyphro, “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it’s holy?”. Plato uses this question to pry apart the notion of an action’s being divinely ordained from its having moral worth. The argument is formulated in terms of “the gods”, but is without loss susceptible to the substituting of “God” for “the gods”. Plato’s argument, in a nutshell, is this: If God approves of an action, either he approves of it arbitrarily, for no reason at all, or else there is a reason for his approving it, so that it is not an arbitrary whim on God’s part but rather he has a reason for his approval, that reason being the independent moral worth of that which he approves. If the former is the case then how does this arbitrary whim, even if it is a divine arbitrary whim, confer moral value. How can something be good just because someone up there feels like calling it good, when, if he were of a different disposition or in a different mood, he could just as easily call the opposite act good? But if the latter is the case, then there is a reason for the divine normative attitude, and that reason is the reason both for God’s approval and for the moral worth of that which he approves.
That makes God’s approval, normatively speaking, redundant – he is, as we say today, a rubber stamp. In neither case – whether the approval is arbitrary or whether it is not – does the supernatural approval make any difference to whether an act is genuinely right or wrong.
What is still referred to as “the Euthyphro Dilemma” or “the Euthyphro Argument” remains one of the most frequently utilised arguments against the claim that morality can be grounded only in theology, that it is only the belief in God that stands between us and the moral abyss of nihilism. Dostoevsky may have declared that “without God all is permissible”, but Plato’s preemptive riposte, sent out to us across the millennia, is that any act permissible with God is morally permissible without him, making clear how little the addition of God helps to clarify the ethical situation.
The argument Plato has Socrates make in the Euthyphro is one of the most important in the history of moral philosophy. When it is joined with another of Plato’s claims, namely that a person’s action is virtuous only if he can supply a reason for its being so, the Euthyphro Argument demonstrates the need for moral philosophy. We humans must reason our way to morality or we will not get there at all.
This moment in Socrates’ life, as Plato has rendered it, is sufficiently important to step away from it, and reflect. It has a bearing on the question that is always hovering over this book, as it traces the sources of philosophy as we know it, and that is the question of philosophy’s progress.
If one evaluates what the Greek philosophers did solely in terms of Thales and Co., then of course one will conclude something like “Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then ‘natural philosophy’ became physics and physics has only continued to make inroads.” But this is to focus on only one type of question the ancient philosophers posed to self-critical reason, the protoscientific questions that awaited the mature sciences. It is to ignore such questions as those that Plato has Socrates raising with Euthyphro […] It is to ignore Plato’s argument that, since religious authority can’t answer these questions, we had better get to work on formulating the reasons that make right actions right and wrong actions wrong.
It is also to ignore the work that has since been done, not only on the normative questions of ethics but on the normative questions of epistemology, the work necessary to speak about rationality at all. It is to ignore the conclusions to which philosophy-jeerers freely help themselves, most certainly when they speak in the name of rationality.
When the philosophy-jeerers are also scientific, the their jeering frequently takes on religion as well as philosophy. Typically they do not differentiate between philosophy and theology. Anything that isn’t science is philosophy/theology. Lawrence Krauss, whom I keep mentioning only because he conveniently articulated a viewpoint that many scientists share, lumps philosophers and theologians together.
Such jeerers should pause and reflect on this moment of the Euthyphro.
And there is so much more to recommend.
Clearly that passage on why philosophy matters even where physicists believe they already have all bases covered is what failed to materialise when Larry Krauss talked with Mary Midgely and Angie Hobbs in “Philosophy Bites Back” at How The Light Gets In earlier this year.
More on Spinoza and sub specie aeternitatus embracing the whole cosmos.
More on re-admitting the poets to Plato’s domain.
More on the inescapable “elitism” angle that, when it comes to moral reasoning, not all men are created equal. Inescapable in the sense I concluded this independently before and always struggle to introduce the concept into more naive conversations about the mechanics of free democracies.
Friday I’m in love, with wisdom (again).