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Saturday, February 02, 2013

Socrates, Piety and Truth

"The Socrates of the Apology at least is, as he himself proclaimed, a “gadfly” (30e), a questioning examiner of lives who aimed to arouse us from our sluggish, sleep-walking lives. The important lessons in that dialogue are, as Talisse puts it, “the need to question authority, to examine ourselves and others, and to pursue truth even if at the cost of cherished traditions and comforting pieties” (163). Philosophy, on this view, is primarily a practical activity, not a theoretical enterprise...

For Talisse, the center of the Euthyphro is “a contest between two concepts of expertise, namely the sophistical and the philosophical, one founded on power, the other on logos” (165)...

Individually, none of us can escape the persuasive force of our own beliefs and of the arguments that convince us. In theory, we all admit a distinction between good arguments and merely persuasive arguments; in practice, we all count those arguments that persuade us as good ones. This is why, I think, Socrates held that we must test our convictions in a public forum—with others who do not share our beliefs and commitments—so that the test of our convictions can transcend our own, individual (subjective?) conceptions of “good reasons” and, indeed, of Logos. That, I think, is why Socrates had to go into the agora. It is why he couldn’t accept the suggestion made in his trial that he just shut up and quit bothering his fellow Athenians. Thus, the Socratic kind of expertise is not only logos-driven; it is the result of a shared inquiry.

The humility necessary for genuine dialogue requires that we admit both that we might well not know despite our internal self-examination and also that this person with whom we are now talking is someone from whom we might learn. Socrates notoriously does not treat his interlocutors as people from whom he might learn...

Talisse calls Euthyphro’s conception of expertise “the sophistical view,” because it aims primarily at power and influence (173). Of course, any kind of acknowledged expertise about matters that people consider important—like piety and religious obligation—will confer power and influence. So, the philosopher, too, will enjoy power and influence if her expertise is recognized. And, in fact, Socrates must have had both—one does not get prosecuted for impiety and corrupting the young if he is a nobody or a laughable old fool whom no one takes seriously. But, presumably, unlike those who seek sophistical expertise, the Philosopher does not aim primarily at power and influence. She seeks wisdom, primarily...

For Socrates, the view that we can do anything to benefit God is impious, or at least insulting to God. “Prayer and sacrifice” (14b)—the staples of many forms of piety—are not beneficial to God. God doesn’t need our acknowledgement; God already knows that She is God and that She gives us every good thing. It doesn’t help God if we tell God that. If, prayer, thanksgiving, praise, worship, belief in God, and the like are beneficial at all, they are beneficial to the believer. This is very disturbing terrain for many students, especially as the implications of this view emerge...

Socrates says, “You are not keen to teach me, that is clear. You were on the point of doing so, but you turned away. If you had given that answer, I should now have acquired from you sufficient knowledge of the nature of piety” (14c—my emphasis). The divine work that we are to help God with cannot be designed to benefit God. So it must be designed to benefit God’s creation, or in the terms of the Euthyphro, our fellow men. The conclusion is that piety reduces to morality. What pleases God is simply the other part of justice, lives lived to benefit our fellow humans.

This conclusion squares nicely with Socrates’ puzzling statements in the Apology that he is on a divine mission (28e, 29e, 33c) and also with his claim that “there is no greater blessing”10 (30a) than provok- ing people to self-examination. If our confidence in our beliefs about the good life (which are often false) is the main obstacle to human fulfillment, then the life of the gadfly will be the life lived to benefit our fellow humans. Regardless of how much everyone dislikes be- ing examined about our lives and the beliefs we base them on, this examination will be “the greatest benefit” (36c). The life of dialogue is the pious life.

Who, then, is pious? Who is pleasing to God? Those who believe in God? No, for that would mean that God wants/needs our belief. The desire for acknowledgement or gratitude are, on this view, signs of self-doubt or insecurity and hence imperfections. Unlike Euthyphro and other very human experts, God does not need recognition. Our piety cannot benefit God in any way...

This is very powerful stuff indeed for many students and very nearly as challenging today as it was two millennia ago. Atheists can be pious? If there is a God, God is pleased by atheists? Once they grasp this Socratic view of piety, some students would be prepared to prosecute him for impiety and corrupting the young. Others, attempting to evade the force of Socrates’ argument, are busy trying to figure out what we could do for an all-powerful God. Some are wondering whether the mistake was to bring philosophical method into the domain of piety. Still others are wondering whether there can be genuine piety without metaphysical convictions. At this point, deep questions about the nature and function of piety have emerged. Read in this way, the Euthyphro is very much alive today. It is still the site of Socratic philosophy—it prompts real self-examination."

--- Socrates’ Conception of Piety: Teaching the Euthyphro / JOHN HARDWIG
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