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The European philosophical tradition ... consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.
Plato was born in Athens in 427 BCE, the scion of an aristocratic, wealthy, and influential family. In his youth he was an accomplished wrestler and aspired to be a poet. By all accounts, his early poems showed great promise.
But, like many of the wellborn youths of Athens in this era, Plato fell under the spell of Socrates. He was completely captivated by the Socratic insistence that a man must be able to give a reasoned account of his beliefs and his actions, and that he must place virtue and wisdom before all other pursuits. He began to haunt the agora (marketplace) and lyceum (gymnasium) where Socrates engaged in his withering cross-examinations of those who claimed to understand and practice virtue. Poetry was cast aside as at best a distraction from the serious business of philosophy and at worst a dangerous and corrupting illusion.
Plato was twenty-three when the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE) ended in a disastrous defeat for Athens, and he was twenty-eight when his fellow Athenians—pushed beyond limit by the war and the tyranny that followed—condemned Socrates to death. Plato's reaction was not surprising: disgust with the city and its politics. He established a school in the sacred grove of Academus, outside Athens, and taught and wrote there for much of the rest of his life, dying in 347 BCE at the age of eighty-one and leaving behind a body of work that has inspired readers and bedeviled professional philosophers ever since.
All of Plato's surviving writings (aside from a handful of letters, most of dubious authenticity) take the form of dialogues. They begin (insofar as one can group them chronologically based on internal evidence) with idealized, exquisitely crafted encounters between the quasi-historical Socrates and various Athenian citizens with pretensions to wisdom. In the course of the dialogues, those pretensions are punctured, but no competing claims to wisdom are put in their place. The early dialogues end in confusion and doubt, a state of mind superior only to thinking one knows what one does not know.
But Plato transcends his teacher. In a series of transitional dialogues, still using Socrates as his interlocutor, he begins to put in place the positive doctrines and theories that reach full flower in The Republic. To resolve the core Socratic question of how one can know virtue and lead a good life, Plato develops a full-scale metaphysics (theory of being), he places the good life for man in the context of the good society and fashions an educational system, including a restrictive theory of the arts, designed to mould ideal citizens. In the process, Plato sets the agenda for future philosophers. Metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and political theory are all established as parts of a single, interconnected enterprise.
To say that Plato is the greatest of all philosophers does little justice to his work. He is the greatest thinker in the Western tradition, as well as a writer of uncommon subtlety and power. His dialogues belong on the same narrow shelf as Homer's and Dante's epics, Shakespeare's plays, and Montaigne's essays. I had a teacher in college who liked to say: No man can consider himself educated who has not read The Republic with understanding. Complete understanding may be too high a benchmark. But repeated readings are definitely a requisite.
THE EARLY DIALOGUES
Euthyphro is not the earliest of Plato's dialogues, but it is generally presented first in editions of his work, and for good reason. It forms a natural unit with the Apology and two related dialogues (Crito and Phaedo) dealing with the trial and death of Socrates. It is also a perfect introduction to the sort of philosophy practiced by Socrates and the challenge that he posed to Plato.
In Euthyphro, Socrates is on his way to face the charges of impiety and corrupting the young that will eventually lead to his conviction and death. He meets Euthyphro, who expresses surprise at seeing Socrates in the vicinity of the courts. Socrates explains his mission. Euthyphro in turn says that he is there to pursue murder charges against his own father. One of his father's household servants killed another servant when drunk. The father had the offending servant bound hand and foot and thrown into a ditch, while he sent to the priest for instructions on what to do with him. Meanwhile, the servant died of hunger and cold.
It is important to recognize that Euthyphro's actions in prosecuting his own father are startling and would seem impious to Socrates' contemporaries. Euthyphro himself recognizes this and is proud of his singular stand: "They say it is impious for a son to prosecute his father for murder. But their ideas of the divine attitude to piety and impiety are wrong, Socrates." Socrates himself presses this point: "'Certainly, Euthyphro, most men would not know how they could do this and be right. It is not the part of anyone to do this, but of one who is far advanced in wisdom.' 'Yes, by Zeus, Socrates, that is so.'" Euthyphro adds, speaking of himself in the third person, "Euthyphro would not be superior to the majority of men, if I did not have accurate knowledge of all such things."
Euthyphro is so pompous and sure of himself that he does not even recognize Socrates' irony, which is laid on very thick in this dialogue. Indeed, Socrates openly mocks Euthyphro, but Euthyphro never notices, and the mockery might make the reader uncomfortable were Euthyphro not insufferable.
Since Euthyphro is so confident of his own wisdom and his knowledge of piety, Socrates proposes to become his pupil and to learn the true nature of piety so that he can respond properly to the charges brought against him. Euthyphro readily agrees. But when Euthyphro tries to explain "what is the pious, and what is the impious," all he does is cite his own example. "The pious is to do what I am doing now, to prosecute the wrongdoer, be it about murder or temple robbery or anything else, whether the wrongdoer is your father or your mother or anyone else; not to prosecute is impious."
Socrates is hardly satisfied with this response, and he makes a critical move characteristic of all the early dialogues: he refuses to accept mere examples as an explanation of the virtue in question. "Bear in mind then that I did not bid you tell me one or two of the many pious actions but that form itself that makes all pious actions pious.... Tell me then what this form itself is, so that I may look upon it, and using it as a model, say that any action of yours or another's that is of that kind is pious, and if it is not that it is not." In other words, Socrates asks Euthyphro for an account of piety ("this form itself") that will enable him to distinguish truly pious actions from actions that are not pious, an account that will withstand challenge and questioning.
Euthyphro fails miserably at this task. He begins by appealing to authority: "the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is the impious." Through his questioning Socrates forces Euthyphro to admit that the gods only love piety because it is pious; it is not pious because the gods love it. Describing an affect or quality of piety (that it is loved by the gods) does nothing to advance our understanding of what piety actually is.
Euthyphro's alternative definitions fare no better. He argues that piety is the care and service of the gods. Socrates presses him on this definition to determine just what sort of "care" he has in mind. Through examples of horse breeders, hunters, and cattle herders, he establishes that care in each of those cases aims at the good and benefit of the object cared for. Horses, hunting dogs, and cattle are all benefited and become better through expert care. But Euthyphro is forced to admit that the gods are not made better by our piety. So he tries a different tack, noting that the sort of "care" he has in mind is the care of servants for their masters, so that piety is a sort of service to the gods. Socrates then gets Euthyphro to admit that service is directed at a goal: doctors promote health, shipbuilders build ships, farmers aim at producing food from the earth. What excellent aim, Socrates asks, do the gods achieve using us as their servants? Euthyphro insists that the service to the gods is merely pleasing to them, rather than aimed at some separate end, and to the extent it is pleasing to them, the gods benefit us, we do not benefit the gods. The argument has, accordingly, come full circle. Piety is "what is pleasing to the gods," yet they had both already concluded that piety could not be defined that way. "Either we were wrong when we agreed before," Socrates says, "or, if we were right then, we are wrong now."
Euthyphro expresses his frustration with this mode of proceeding: "Socrates, I have no way of telling you what I have in mind, for whatever proposition we put forward goes around and refuses to stay put where we establish it." Socrates says, by contrast, that it is Euthyphro's propositions that move around in a circle, like the famous statues of Daedalus (reputed to be so lifelike that they would step down from their pedestals and run off). Socrates insists that he would "rather have your statements to me remain unmoved [that is, stand up to analysis] than possess the wealth of Tantalus as well as the cleverness of Daedalus."
Socrates accordingly proposes that they start again from the beginning. But Euthyphro dismisses him: "Some other time, Socrates, for I am in a hurry now, and it is time for me to go." At this point, Socrates' irony reaches its height: "What a thing to do, my friend! By going you have cast me down from a great hope I had, that I would learn from you the nature of the pious and the impious and so escape Meletus' indictment by showing him that I had acquired wisdom in divine matters from Euthyphro, and my ignorance would no longer cause me to be careless and inventive about such things, and that I would be better for the rest of my life."
Socrates has revealed through his questioning that Euthyphro has no idea what piety is. He cannot define it. He has no model or form to guide his actions. He has no basis for distinguishing true piety from false. He cannot even defend a single proposition about piety without running head-on into some other proposition that he admits to be the case. But he presses ahead with his prosecution nonetheless, convinced that he is in the right. He will not even stop to consider further. Socrates, on trial for his life, will stop on his way to court to discuss the true nature of virtue and the good life for man. He does not claim to have any answers, and he would certainly never prosecute another based on an assumed knowledge that he does not possess. But he will ceaselessly inquire into the one truly important issue for man.
We as readers are appalled at Euthyphro's arrogant and unjustified assurance, and are wholly at one with Socrates' ironic response to it. Yet we as readers are the targets of Plato's deeper, and more bitter, irony. We smugly sympathize with Socrates' disdain of Euthyphro without realizing that an equal disdain is directed at the reader who finishes the dialogue, as Euthyphro finishes the discussion, and goes on about his life, unchanged, still making judgments about matters as to which he has no knowledge and about which he has not even tried to consider critically and seriously. Plato's immediate readers, after all, include the very men who condemned Socrates to die for impiety without ever having a firm sense, or being able to give an account, of what piety is. We are all complicit in that crime insofar as we live and act without knowledge of virtue.
Euthyphro provides the model for all the early dialogues. Socrates challenges someone (often a prominent Athenian, such as a general or politician) to give an account of a particular virtue or excellence, such as justice (Crito), temperance (Charmides), courage (Laches), friendship (Lysis), or beauty (Greater Hippias). The prominent citizen is often only too happy to oblige. Socrates then proceeds, through a series of questions and homely examples, to dismantle that account, a process known as elenchus (or refutation).
But it is refutation of a peculiar sort. Socrates does not match proposition for proposition. He does not defeat one position by arguing more persuasively for a different position. Since Socrates denies possessing any knowledge he declines to rely on any beliefs of his own. That is not to say that Socrates does not have beliefs; as we shall see, he has some very important ones. But he does not know whether those beliefs are true and hence is unwilling to rely upon them. His only method of proceeding therefore is to extract admissions from his subjects that can serve as premises from which to prove that the subject's thesis is incorrect.
Accordingly, Socrates elicits a general statement concerning the nature of, say, courage. He then explores the implications of that statement through a process of questioning. The implications invariably turn out to be inconsistent with each other or with something else the speaker believes. That is to say, one of the logical consequences of the general statement turns out to be unacceptable. A contradiction is established, but whether the original statement or the contradicting statement or both need to be abandoned is generally left unresolved at the end of the dialogue.
In this way, Socrates is able to reject or refute pretensions to knowledge without claiming to have knowledge of his own. But that is not to say that Socrates does not consider some beliefs to be true and others not. Socrates rather draws a sharp distinction between knowledge and mere opinion. It is a premise of Socrates' mode of proceeding that if you possess a virtue (such as temperance) you must have some sense of its nature, and, "since you know how to speak Greek," you should be able to articulate that nature or at least to express opinions and impressions about it. Socrates assumes that each person he questions holds some true beliefs about the virtue at issue, and these are the admissions that Socrates seeks to extract with his questions and then use to show that the general statement put forward at the outset cannot be correct.
So the interlocutors may well possess true beliefs about virtue. What they do not possess is knowledge. Without knowledge, beliefs (even true beliefs) are not firmly rooted. Without knowledge, our beliefs are like the Daedalus statues. They will not stand still and cannot provide a certain guide for our behavior. We have no criteria for distinguishing between true and false beliefs, and true and false beliefs will accordingly collide with one another and create contradictions. Only knowledge provides a solid, immovable foundation and a crystalline consistency that will withstand even Socrates' questioning.
Thus, a courageous man confronted with a dangerous situation may well choose the courageous course of conduct. He will have an intuition of what courage requires. But if he is unable to give a general account of what courage consists—an account that will cover not just this or that case, but provide a clear line of demarcation between courageous conduct, on the one hand, and cowardly conduct, on the other—then he will not know that his action is correct. In such a state, he cannot be certain that he has not been swayed by pleasure or self-interest into a false belief and hence a wrong course of conduct.
Excerpted from THREE QUESTIONS WE NEVER STOP ASKING by MICHAEL KELLOGG Copyright © 2010 by Michael Kellogg. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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