Part 2 of 2
The following text is based on a transcript by V. S. of a lecture on Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro. As usual, I have edited his transcript to remove excessive wordiness.
The quotes are from Plato and Aristophanes, Four Texts on Socrates, trans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).
Socrates asks Euthyphro (I’m paraphrasing here): “What’s the idea of piety? You say you know it better than anybody. If you know better than anybody, say it. Say what it is.” And what’s the first definition? Euthyphro replies, “Well, what I’m doing now is pious: prosecuting my father.” Then he appeals to the example of Zeus, and says: “Zeus bound his father and so I’m punishing my father, too. That’s a pious act.” Socrates says, “Wait a second, Euthyphro. I wasn’t asking you for an example of piety. I was asking for the idea of piety itself.”
Then Socrates reformulates this request for an idea.
Socrates: Do you remember that I didn’t bid you to teach me some one or two of the many pious things, but that eidos, the idea itself by which all pious things are pious? For surely you were saying that it is by one idea that the impious things are impious and the pious things pious. Or don’t you remember?
Euthyphro: I do.
Socrates: Then teach me whatever this idea itself is so that by gazing at it and using it as a pattern I may declare that whatever is like it among the things you or anyone else may do is pious and that whatever is not like it is not pious. (p. 48)
So, again, he’s asking for a single idea not an example. What he’s asked for is the idea of piety, and what he’s gotten is just an example of a pious act. He doesn’t want to remain on the level of examples. He wants to move up to an idea of piety, which is what all pious acts have in common, in virtue of which they are pious acts.
Euthyphro then gives his first definition of piety: piety is what is dear to the gods. It’s what the gods like. Socrates’ response is quite good. He says (I’m paraphrasing), “Wait a second, don’t the gods have battles amongst one another? Don’t they have wars and enmities? Quarrels?” And Euthyphro answers “Yes.” “And what are they quarreling about? They’re not quarreling about weights and measures and things like that that can be easily solved by appeal to simple criteria. No, they’re battling about what’s just and what’s noble and what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s pious and what’s impious. Those are the things that the gods disagree about. So, if what’s pious is what’s dear to the gods, wouldn’t that mean that adultery is both pious and impious? It’s pious because it’s dear to Zeus who’s always committing adultery, but it’s impious because it’s not dear to Hera who’s always trying to prevent Zeus from committing adultery. Which means that the same thing can be both pious and impious at the same time, and that can’t be true.”
That’s clear evidence that this is not a good definition of piety because a good definition of piety would be something that allows you to distinguish pious and impious things, whereas, on this account, the same things are both pious and impious. So, he says this cannot be a correct account.
The next definition Euthyphro gives is that the pious is what is dear to all of the gods. So, if the gods can get together and agree that something is dear to all of them, then that is a pious thing. And if the gods can get together and agree that something is not dear to all of them, then that’s an impious thing. Whatever the gods can’t agree upon is neither pious nor impious.
Socrates doesn’t even touch the major problem with this, which is that virtually all the important moral issues would fall between the cracks as things that are neither pious nor impious, because those are the precise things that the gods disagree about most vehemently.
Instead Socrates raises a different problem, and here the text gets kind of dense and difficult. Rather than go through it line by line, I’ll just give you the gist of the argument. He says, “Wait a second, Euthyphro, you say that what’s pious is what’s dear to the gods. Is what is good, good because we think it’s good? Or do we think that something is good because it is good?” Those are two alternatives. The first alternative is that good things are good because we think they’re good. The other is that we think things are good because they’re already good.
Now, the first view is what you could call a subjective value theory, which is that things are good because we think they’re good. So, their goodness derives from our appraisal of them as good. We like them, therefore, they become likable. Whereas the other view can be called an objective value position, which is that things are good in and of themselves, and it’s only because they are good in and of themselves that we then like them or think that they’re good. That is, if we’re thinking properly.
So, which is it, Euthyphro? And Euthyphro agrees that what’s pious is pious in and of itself, that it’s objectively pious. Therefore, what’s dear to the gods can’t be the definition of what’s pious, because the things that are dear to the gods are dear because the gods like them, but pious things are pious in and of themselves. So, piety is not equivalent to being dear to the gods, even if all the gods agree on it.
This is a revolutionary point that Socrates is making. Socrates is upholding a standard of right above what the gods believe. There are objective goods. And these objective goods are objective even to the gods themselves. So that the gods have now something above them to look up to, and that’s what is right and wrong in and of itself.
The gods themselves can be wrong, and we have a standard by which we can judge them. If there are objective goods that the gods do not recognize, then you have to conclude that the gods are mistaken or the gods are immoral. Of course, Socrates uses this kind of account in the Republic to begin sweeping away a whole pantheon of Greek gods, because they’re all bad. His assumption is that if anything is a god, then it must be good. Since the gods of the Greeks are not good, they cannot be true gods.
That is a radical position. That really does imply that Socrates doesn’t believe in the gods of the city. It also implies that he is bringing in something new that’s divine, something that’s more deserving of piety than the gods themselves. And that’s an objective notion of good, what’s right by nature, if you will, rather than right by opinion. And it stands even above the gods.
In a sense, Meletus’ indictment is correct. Socrates does bring in new divine beings, but the new divinity is this notion of what’s good in and of itself, or right by nature, that stands above the gods. He is guilty of not believing in the gods of the city because by the standard of what’s objectively good, the Greek gods cannot be understood as gods, if you believe that gods have to be good.
If something is a god, then a sign that it is god-like and worthy of our respect and piety is the fact that it itself submits to what is good. So, in a sense, the gods have to earn our respect by submitting to the same objective moral laws that we do, and if they don’t earn our respect, we don’t owe them any piety. And, in fact, we have to conclude that they aren’t real. Because real gods must be good gods.
Even if all the gods agreed on something being good, they could all be wrong. You see, it’s not a matter of opinion anymore. Euthyphro treats what’s pious as a matter of what the gods opine, what they believe. At first it is just what they believe. Then he realizes that since their beliefs are contradictory, that would give you a contradictory notion of what is pious. So, next he adopts the notion of a consensus, but a consensus is still just common opinion.
But what Socrates is implying is that what is good is good by nature. It’s good because it’s good, not because we say it’s good. In fact, we should say that some things are good based on their objective goodness, and if we fail to say that, then we’re wrong. We’re mistaken. All the gods, if they believe that certain things are good, could still be wrong by the objective standard of what really is good in and of itself.
At the time that this is happening, there is an emergence of a kind of monotheism that is urged along by philosophical rationality that is critical of the mythical accounts of the gods and moves toward a kind of rational theology. My view is that Socrates and Plato believed in a kind of mystical monotheism. They were certainly atheists from the point of view of their contemporaries, but I don’t think they were atheists as such.
This notion of an objective good is equivalent to a sort of god. In Neoplatonic strands of Christianity, the form of the good or the idea of the good becomes identical with god. When we look at Plotinus, you’ll see a lot of the groundwork of this laid. Plotinus’ Neoplatonism is at work in the 3rd century A. D. Christianity was already a very powerful force in the Roman world and some of Plotinus’ students and associates were Christian thinkers and there was this fusion of Christianity and Platonism going on which was a natural fit between this idea of a natural good and the idea of a god that is by nature good.
This is a radical transformation of the Old Testament God, who by any standard isn’t good. He’s really very wicked. Neurotic, as Jung psychoanalyzes him in Answer to Job. This is an interesting transformation that’s going on, and it had a profound impact. By the time that the ancient world and ancient paganism crumbled away, virtually nobody who defended the pagan religion believed in its literal truth. It was completely allegorized, and at the core of it was a kind of monotheism. And this is why it was so natural in some ways for Christianity to triumph in the Roman world. Because the full impetus of Greek pagan thought from the 5th century B. C. on was toward a kind of monotheism anyway. You’re seeing signs of this here in this notion of what’s good by nature or objectively good. It’s really a kind of monotheistic notion.
Here we have a notion of a good that’s above the gods, the conventional gods of the city, in terms of which we could judge these gods either good or bad. And because there’s the assumption that any god, if it’s genuine, has to be good, we can come to the conclusion that the gods of the city are not even real gods. There’s a line that Socrates gives that’s a really pregnant line. After Euthyphro talks about how Zeus did this to his father and so forth. He says, “Is this, Euthyphro, why I’m a defendant against the indictment? That whenever someone says such things against the gods I receive them somehow with annoyance. Because of this, as is likely, someone will assert that I am a wrong-doer” (p. 47). Socrates is annoyed whenever he hears gods ascribed evil acts because he knows that gods do not commit evil acts.
He goes on, “So, now, if these things seem so to you too, who know well about such things, it is certainly necessary as is likely for us to concede them as well. For what else shall we say since we ourselves also agree that we know nothing about them. But tell me before the god of friendship, do you truly hold that these things have happened this way?” The god of friendship is Zeus. He always keeps it going to Zeus and it’s appropriate given the patriarchal context here.
He’s saying we know nothing about the gods. The “we” could be, as our translators say, Socrates being humble when referring to “I” as “we.” However, I think it’s a broader thing than that. I think he’s referring to “we Greeks.” We Greeks—except for you, Euthyphro, who know so much—know nothing about the gods. The trouble is that they claim to know all kinds of things about the gods. If we know nothing about the gods, that implies that everything that we think we know about the gods is not knowledge, that it’s false. So, the unstated implication of Socrates’ denial of knowledge about the gods is that he believes that what people say they know about the gods is false. The whole pantheon is swept away with this single line. It’s somewhat understated, but the implication is quite clear.
Socrates is an unbeliever in the gods of the city. Yet at the same time he swears oaths by them. This is very much like Aristophanes in the Clouds who, on the one hand, has a notion of what’s right by nature over and above conventional views and views that are backed up by religious teachings, but at the same time gives credence or at least lip-service to the gods of the city. Again, the question is why, if you have access to another objective good over and above conventional opinions of right and wrong and conventional religious morality, would you ever continue to pay lip-service to these religious moral views?
The answer is pretty much the same for Socrates as it is for Aristophanes. Because not everybody is improved by pushing aside the conventional religion. And Euthyphro is a wonderful example of a person who isn’t improved by pushing aside religious convention. He is a worse man for his unconventional views.
Again, the question is: if Socrates believes that you can appeal to an objective good over and above traditional religious notions of morality, why in the very same passage where he says we know nothing about the gods, does he swear an oath by the god of friendship? Why is he doing that? He could be needling Euthyphro in a way by constantly referring to Zeus. However, my sense is that the reasons why Socrates continues to pay lip-service to the gods even though he believes he can appeal above their heads is the same reason that Aristophanes does, in a nutshell: Even if it’s true that there is an objective moral standard that you can appeal to above convention, it’s not always the case that an individual person can do that. Most people can’t.
In the case of Euthyphro, he thinks he is better than the many. He’s thrown aside convention, and that has made him into a worse man. It’s made him into a father-beater and a vain fool. What Socrates is doing, by deflating his attempt to think unconventionally and moving him back to the conventional thinking, is to make him a better man. However, it is the case that Socrates might encounter other people, and you see these in other Platonic dialogues, where Socrates is trying to loosen the grip of convention. Why? Because he can see that they would be improved by that.
You see, Euthyphro is in an odd state, and this is the case with most intellectuals and also with most pseudo-intellectuals. On the one hand, there’s opinion, and on the other hand there is what’s right by nature. Most people who begin to think will depart rather quickly from opinion in the direction of what’s right by nature. Unfortunately, they don’t make it to the other side. They just end up wandering around out there in no man’s land without any kind of moral guidance whatsoever, and when they occasionally cycle back into the realm of opinion they screw things up and make people’s lives hell, like Euthyphro is doing.
Euthyphro is lost in a kind of moral no man’s land between conventional morals and what’s right by nature. (Sometimes they teach the same things, of course, but for different reasons.) Euthyphro has enough wherewithal intellectually to turn his back on the conventional way of looking at things, to be unconventional, but he doesn’t have enough wherewithal to get across the wasteland and find some other source of moral guidance. Therefore his life is morally unmoored, and his behavior is destructive, both of his family and his self. Poor Euthyphro is out in the wasteland, and Socrates is bringing him back to the conventional view of things. He’s clipping his wings a little bit. Euthyphro is better off a little barnyard fowl rather than trying to soar like an eagle.
Now it is important to understand the circumstances here. Socrates would not be sticking up for Euthyphro’s father if he thought he were a monster. But Euthyphro’s father did not just pick a random stranger and kill him intentionally. He let a murderer die while trying to do justice. But this does not matter. Again, this is the lack of subtlety of Euthypro’s mind. “It’s laughable, Socrates, that you think it should matter whether or not the person is a kinsman. The only thing that matters is whether the person acted unjustly or not and what one has to do is one has to purify oneself of the taint of injustice no matter who that person is.” It’s straight thinking rather than subtle thinking. This is the character of his mind. It’s not that Euthyphro is caught up in his head, it’s that he is caught up in one little part of his head.
If Euthyphro’s father were a monster and Socrates knew that, then Socrates might be having a very different conversation, trying to get him to recognize that just because he’s your father doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be prosecuted. When we look at Plato’s Gorgias, we’re going to see that Socrates not only believes that criminals ought to be punished but that they have a right to be punished for their own good, and if we don’t punish them, then we’re denying them their rights. Because true punishment improves the soul, which is an extraordinary argument.
The point is that if circumstances were different Socrates would be arguing for prosecution. In Book I of the Republic, Socrates takes the idea that what’s right is helping your friends and harming your enemies, which is a very conventional notion, and completely overturns it. He says, “But what if your friends are bad men?” Helping your friends who are bad men would be helping them be bad. Helping your father to be a bad man would be helping him to be bad. Euthyphro is not that subtle, but Socrates would be able to make that distinction, and if Euthyphro’s father were truly a monstrosity of a man, Socrates would probably be urging Euthyphro forward to prosecute him, because there would be a clear instance of the conventions about what’s right being out of whack with what’s really right.
After Socrates makes it very clear that piety is not what is dear to the gods, individually or collectively, Euthyphro comes up with another definition: piety is tending to the gods. It’s a kind of commerce between gods and mortals. Socrates says, “Well, what do the gods get out of this? Are we improving the gods like we improve dogs?” And Euthyphro says, “Well, certainly not. We don’t benefit the gods. They don’t need anything from us.” So, Socrates says, “What kind of tending is this?” Euthyphro replies:
I also told you a little while ago, Socrates, that to learn precisely how all these things are is a rather lengthy work. [Namely, how things are with the gods.] However, I tell you simply that if someone has knowledge of how to say and do things gratifying to the gods by praying and sacrificing, these are the pious things . . . (p. 59)
This attempt at a definition is just an example again of pious things when you get right down to it. Then he goes on, “. . . and such things preserve private families as well as the communities of cities. The opposites of the things gratifying are impious and they overturn and destroy everything.”
You could have just told me much more briefly, Euthyphro, if you wished, the main point of what I was asking. But you are not eager to teach me. That is clear. For you turned away just now when you were at the very point at which if you had answered I would have already learned piety sufficiently from you. But as it is, for it is necessary that the lover follow the beloved wherever he leads, again what do you say the pious and piety are? Isn’t it a certain kind of knowledge of sacrifices and praying? (p. 59)
Now, what I find very interesting about that paragraph is that Socrates says, “You turned away just now when you were at the very point at which if you had answered I would have already learned piety sufficiently from you.” This is very interesting because it indicates that Socrates has a pretty good idea of what piety is.
And Euthyphro almost got there but then turned away at the last minute. This is a very clear indication that Socrates is being entirely disingenuous when he says, “Teach me piety, oh wise Euthyphro!” But what is this thing that Euthyphro has turned away from at the very brink of giving a definition of piety? That’s an interesting question. I think it’s stated explicitly in what Euthyphro says. Let’s look at what he said.
“However, I tell you simply that if someone has knowledge of how to say and do things gratifying to the gods by praying and sacrificing these are the pious things, and such things preserve private families as well as the communities of cities. The opposites of things gratifying are impious and they overturn and destroy everything.” Let’s look at what he says here and subtract from it the things that Socrates clearly rejects.
He would and he does reject that piety is a matter of doing what’s gratifying to the gods. Because he immediately goes to show that that’s nothing more than saying that what’s pious is what’s dear to the gods, and didn’t we already agree that that’s what piety can’t be, and haven’t we just argued in a circle?
So, if we cross out all of that, the only thing that is left is “such things preserve private families as well as the communities of cities.” That’s the only thing that’s left. And that, I think, is exactly what Socrates believes that piety is. This is the function of piety as far as Socrates is concerned.
Let’s just take a step back and ask ourselves again: Given that we can infer that Socrates and Plato do not believe in the gods of the city, what they’re really saying is that people’s pious belief in gods that they don’t think are real is still a good thing. Why? For the simple reason that it preserves private families and cities. It’s a tool of moral and political education. The fact of the matter is that people can be made better by beliefs in false gods.
Now, the gods are not being created to perform this role. Clearly the gods didn’t come about in order to do that. But the point is that, however belief in the gods does come about, over very long periods of time, as all the different forces in societies accommodate one another and adjust to one another, clearly those gods and those religious practices that are conducive to the survival of the society will come to predominate, and the ones that aren’t will just disappear. Therefore, through a kind of evolutionary process of adjustment between different forces in society, religion tends to have a preservative function. And that can often be quite contrary to the teachings of the religion itself. Certain teachings would be simply ignored and others will be brought forward because they’re socially useful.
For instance, certain religious groups like the Shakers that practiced complete celibacy have almost become extinct. Why? Because their form of piety does not preserve families and cities, and their communities have almost completely disappeared. Whereas other forms of religion say “be fruitful and multiply,” and those tend to survive. This is just a naturalistic view of the sociological function of religion, even religions that aren’t true. They can’t all be true. The fact of the matter is that they maintain themselves to the extent that they are consistent with maintaining the overall health of a society. This is the extent to which Socrates thinks that piety is a valuable thing.
However, he’s also quite able to recognize those aspects of traditional religions that aren’t conducive to the preservation of the family. How can he recognize that? Because he has a higher standard to look to: the standard of natural right. So, on the one hand, he’s willing to tinker around with—erase, reform, censor, whatever you want to say—certain aspects of the traditional religion that lead people to behave badly, but, on the other hand, he’s completely willing to keep all those aspects of the traditional religion, traditional piety, that make people better than they otherwise would be. This, for Socrates, is the whole purpose of piety. This is its function, and, from the point of view of nature and natural right, this is what validates it. This is what makes piety good.
This is pretty much the view of the Clouds. This is why the Clouds recognized the gods of the city. Socrates didn’t then. But now he does.
If you look at any religion, you will find that those dimensions of the religion that are conducive to civilized life tend to be the ones that responsible priests and preachers bring to the fore and emphasize. Those that are inconsistent tend to be pushed to the background. If you look at Christianity in its earliest forms, it was a totally apolitical religion. There’s “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”
The early Christian followers had completely given up the essentially political nature of Judaism. Judaism is a political religion. It demands the foundation of a state on the basis of the revealed law. It’s an extraordinarily persistent idea. In fact, Jews who don’t even believe in the revealed law became Zionists who were adamantly for a Jewish state. The same with Islam. If you put the Old Testament and the Koran side by side there is a continuity between the two as far as styles of religion are concerned that is far greater than the continuity between the Old and the New Testament or the New Testament and the Koran.
Christianity began as a totally apolitical religion, but after three centuries suddenly it was the official religion of the Roman Empire. What had happened was that the fathers of the Church who realized what was going on and suddenly had to make it into a political religion. They still maintained a separation between divine law and civil law, a separation between church and state, but it was there from the very beginning. But at the same time there was an attempt to accommodate the moral teachings of Christianity to the necessities of political life.
And so, for instance, the recognition that virtue is necessary and nobility is necessary to maintain political life, which are pagan notions, there was an attempt to accommodate that to an egalitarian ethic that we get out of Christianity. It was a very subtle thing. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas tried to create a remarkable, perhaps an unstable, synthesis. But it was very clearly an attempt to bring to the fore those aspects of Christianity that were consistent with civilized political life and to take away those aspects that weren’t. And that is true of almost every religion that functions. It accommodates itself to the necessity of preserving families and cities.
Throughout most of the early Christian era, family life was heartily condemned as an excessive attachment to the world. It was only after Christianity became a state religion that it became more accommodating to the necessities of the survival of the human race. It’s an extraordinary transformation that took place. And this is the case with any religion that survives. It has to. There are many religions that haven’t survived because they’ve extinguished the societies that encased them.
But even within the city-state, there are always tensions between the family and the state. You can see this in Antigone, for instance. Sometimes the preservation of one gets in the way of the other. And this is really basis of most Greek tragedies, precisely the tension between family and polis. It was never really fully resolved. Aristotle’s Politics is an attempt to try to resolve it, but it is ultimately unresolved, and there is a recognition that this is sort of a permanent possibility.
One of the things that caused an enormous amount of upset in the Greek city-state was factionalism which was based on pre-political allegiances, ultimately to families, extended families, clans, and so forth. This was a factor that was constantly being negotiated. The health of the city was often inimical to the health of these pre-political kinds of orders. What’s good for the state is not necessarily good for the family, and what’s good for the family is not necessarily good for the state. The best situation is where they’re both happy. But you’re always going to find situations where people are going to be torn between these conflicting loyalties. The craft of the statesman is not to eliminate that, because that’s going to be a permanent fixture of human nature, but simply to try to adjust things as well as possible so that the frictions are not so bad that they cause the breakdown of one sphere or the other.
If you look at someone even like Hegel in his Philosophy of Right, again it’s this delicate balancing act to try to fit together the different realms of society (the family, the state, and what we call civil association) because each one of them requires the other to work, but each one of them has the tendency to totalize itself and overwhelm the others, and so they are in a sort of unstable situation where they all depend on one another, yet left to their own devices they would all swamp one another.
The next definition of piety is actually attempted by Socrates. Socrates says, “Piety, Euthyphro, would be a certain form of commerce for gods and human beings with each other” (p. 60). And, again, he asks, “What do the gods get from it?” And he says, “Well, they get what’s dear to them.” They get praise, they get gratitude and so forth and that’s what we give them. Socrates says, “Isn’t that what we’ve already rejected?” The idea that the pious is what’s dear to the gods, and so we’ve come around in a circle.
Then Socrates says, “Alright, Euthyphro. One more time from the top”:
Socrates: Then we must consider again from the beginning what the pious is since I will not voluntarily give up out of cowardice until I learn it. Do no dishonor me, but apply your mind in every way as much as possible and tell me the truth now. For if in fact any human knows, you do and like Proteus you must not be let go until you tell. For if you didn’t know plainly the pious and the impious there is no way that you would ever have attempted to prosecute an elderly man, your father, for murder on behalf of a hired man. Rather, as to the gods, you would have dreaded the risk that you would not do it correctly and, as to human beings, you would have been ashamed. But as it is now, I know well that you suppose that you know plainly the pious and the not pious, so tell me, Euthyphro, best of men, and don’t hide what you hold it to be.
Euthyphro: Some other time then, Socrates, for now I am in a hurry to go somewhere, and it is time for me to go away.
What Socrates says here is: “Euthyphro, if you don’t know what the pious is better than anybody else then you would not prosecute your father. You would never dare risk it. But since you’re prosecuting your father, I know that you must know.” But, of course, Euthyphro has now come to the realization that he doesn’t know any better, and he’s left to draw the conclusion that maybe he shouldn’t risk prosecuting his father. And so he makes a hasty exit. Apparently, he’s not sticking around a law court to pursue the lawsuit against his father. He’s leaving. And it is comic. Of course, this dialogue is a sort of dry philosophical comedy.
Then Socrates says,
Such things you are doing, comrade. By leaving, you are throwing me down from a great hope I had that by learning from you the things pious and the things not I would be released from Meletus’ indictment. For I hoped to show him that I have now become wise in the divine things from Euthyphro and that I am no longer acting inadvisedly because of ignorance or making innovations concerning them and especially that I would live better for the rest of my life.
He’s pouring on the sarcasm, but the fact of the matter is that Socrates does know what piety is, and it’s pretty much the conventional notion of piety that the Greeks had. Because, again, the Greeks were less concerned about whether people actually held correct opinions about the gods or believed in the gods, but simply that the religious institutions function for the preservation of the state and the family. Socrates is all for that. He thinks that that is the only correct definition of piety, as far as he’s concerned. But at the same time he’s maintaining his intellectual liberty to think otherwise about the gods, to hold contrary opinions based on his understanding of what is right by nature.
Euthyphro is a lovely response to the Clouds. You’re getting a picture of Socrates behaving exactly the opposite of the Socrates of the Clouds. He’s behaving exactly the opposite of the Socrates of the Clouds on the basis of the very philosophy that I think you can see in the Clouds. So, this is another tribute to the Aristophanean influence on the formation of Socratic philosophy. This is our third little comedy that we’ve looked at.
* * *
The next dialogue, too, has certain comic dimensions to it and that’s the Apology of Socrates to the Jury, which are Socrates’ defense speeches at his trial. The Apology is a marvelous text. Let me just give you a hint of how to read it. Every time Socrates denies one of the charges against him, he covertly affirms that there is actually some basis to it. Every single denial contains a covert affirmation or admission of the truth of the charge.
Of course, the charge isn’t true now, at the time of the trial, but it was true earlier. It was true about the Socrates of the Clouds. But Socrates can’t defend himself on the basis of a fine distinction by saying, “Yes, I was this bad person like you see in the Clouds, but I’m better now. Believe me. Trust me.” He can’t do that. It just doesn’t work.
The worst sort of defense at a trial is the “Yes, but . . .” defense. “Yes, yes, I did murder the person, but . . .” Because nobody is going to hear anything after you’ve admitted it. Socrates realizes that he can’t give a “Yes, but . . .” defense. So, he’s defending his entire life and he’s saying he’s entirely blameless. At least that’s the surface of the text. But if you look at it more carefully, you see that he’s covertly affirming that there’s essential truth to the charges against him. The misfortune, of course, is that people are not subtle enough to take a “Yes, but . . .” defense, and so poor Socrates is forced to defend his life as a whole.
1. Preferring your parents: there’s something deeply natural about that and something that’s salutary about it. However, if it is the case that he doesn’t know what’s right by nature, then again it would be logical to go back to the conventional way of doing things on the simple assumption that if you don’t know any better, then you should be at least open to the possibility that a long-standing and ancient convention might have more wisdom to it than your own mind.
Filial devotion is not an objective standard. Filial devotion, however, can be held up to what’s good and judged, but it’s certainly not unconditionally good. Of course, this is where prudence comes in, practical rationality, because a mechanical application of filial devotion would eventually lead to unjust acts. And, therefore, when you get close to doing injustice through filial devotion you have to have the capacity to look beyond the mechanical rule and track what’s right by a different means. So, there’s got to be a kind of insight into what is good over and above simply following traditional patterns. However, if you don’t have that insight . . .
2. What about the Unabomber? Well, if he were my brother, I would have a real hard time. I’m glad they didn’t put him to death. The deal was that the brother wouldn’t turn him in unless he could be assured that he wouldn’t be killed. I think that was the right decision to make. My view is that he deserves to be locked up for the rest of his life where he can’t hurt anybody or himself and given enough pens and paper to keep writing these things because it’s very interesting. He’s a damaged but very intelligent man. He’s not like some punk with an IQ of 75 that who cares if he’s executed?