What I Learned In School Today: Mortals have Limits, and Socrates was a jerk…

…Or at least, Plato’s accounts of him make him seem that way.

We’ve been reading (as English translations) accounts of Socrates’ trial and related occurrences as written by Plato. It started off with a possibly fictional dialog before Socrates’ trial, between Socrates and some guy named Euthyphro, who is some kind of priest.

In short, they get to talking about why they are there at the court, and it turns out Euthyphro is there to accuse his own father, who has apparently committed what we in the modern U.S. would call “manslaughter”. Euthyphro’s father had caught a murderer, then tied him up and thrown him in a ditch while he sent somebody to ask the authorities what to do with the murderer. While waiting for the messenger to return with the answer, the murderer in the ditch had evidently died. Euthyphro says “piety” demands that his father be tried for the death of the murderer but complains that everybody seems to think that hauling his own father to court for this is “impious”. And now you have the backstory for a long, involved, and ultimately unsettled discussion of just what the heck “piety” is supposed to be.

That’s where you notice that Socrates is a sarcastic butthead who thinks he’s on a mission from The Gods™ to prove that everybody is an ignorant fool. He puts on a snide show, pretending that he expects Euthyphro will reveal The Secret Of What Piety Really Is (Socrates claims that the knowledge will be useful for his own defense at his trial later) all the while busily demonstrating that Euthyphro really can’t answer the question.

The argument dances around various definitions. They more or less settle on the notion that “piety” is something that pleases all of the Gods (and impiety, by definition, displeases all of the gods), and that The Gods™ love an action because it is pious rather than something being pious because it is loved by The Gods™. (There’s a bit of virtually Dickensian pedantry there involving whether something is “being carried” because someone is carrying it or whether people carry things because they are “being carried” objects.) I guess that means nobody would have to worry that they’d wake up one morning and discover that The Gods had decided on a whim that “piety” would mean raping puppies and eating babies for the next few days. They manage to reach agreement that “piety” has something to do with being like a servant to the gods, but are completely unable to come up with a definitive test by which they could define any particular act as “pious” or “impious”.

Euthyphro finally says (more or less) that hey, he’d love to stay and go around and around and around and around with this annoying little brain-teaser but he’s got places to be and things to do, and the dialog ends with one last bit of Socratic Sarcasm as Socrates wails about how he was hoping to show up at his trial and tell everyone he’d learned the divine secret of Piety from Euthyphro and therefore wouldn’t be accidentally corrupting the youth with his lack of wisdom any more…

I have to wonder if Plato wrote this dialog so that readers would understand why so many Athenians wanted to get rid of him…

Of course, as an (self-proclaimed) Applied Empirical Naturalist, I think they’re whole problem is that the knowledge they were seeking was defined as something that would only necessarily exist in the minds of Supernatural entities – since “piety” and “impiety” are entirely defined in terms of what The Gods thought, it’s not clear that “piety” can be known outside of the Invisible Giant People Up On Mount Olympus. Of course for Euthyphro, being a professional priest, admitting that he doesn’t – and maybe can’t – know what “piety” actually is and that he really has no clue what’s going on in the minds of The Gods would be a definite Career-Limiting Move, and Socrates doesn’t seem (to me) to actually care what it means so long as he gets to prove that Euthyphro doesn’t know either, so it’s no wonder that this point doesn’t come up.

I wasn’t kidding about the “thinks he’s on a mission from The Gods™ to prove that everybody is an ignorant fool” comment, either. In his “Apologia” (defense speech during his trial), as reported by Plato, Socrates describes how someone once went to the Oracle at Delphi and asked if anyone was wiser than Socrates, and was told that, no, nobody was wiser than Socrates. Socrates says he interprets this to mean that nobody is really wise and that this answer from the Oracle (who is just passing on messages from the Gods, after all) means that he has a sacred duty to go around demonstrating this fact – which is the basis of the famous “Nobody knows anything, but I know I don’t know anything, so I know more than anybody else” flippant description of this argument.

Oh, and one unrelated odd fact – the introduction to the translation says that Socrates is about 70 years old during this trial, but at one point during Socrates’ rambling defense speech he explains that he wouldn’t want to be like other people who show up in court and have their kids plead with the jury for mercy in order to avoid punishment. Socrates says he had three kids – one adolescent and two who are “children”. So, wait, he’s wandering around Athens unmarried, when suddenly he runs into some woman willing to shack up with a penniless, irritating old guy who’s almost sixty and they have three kids who survive childhood? What?

This isn’t discussed at all, really, it just struck me as a really odd circumstance…

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The Author is (currently) an autodidactic student of Industrial and Environmental microbiology, who is sick of people assuming all microbiology should be medical in nature, and who would really like to be allowed to go to graduate school one of these days now that he's finished his BS in Microbiology (with a bonus AS in Chemistry). He also enjoys exploring the Big Room (the one with the really high blue ceiling and big light that tracks from one side to the other every day) and looking at its contents from unusual mental angles.

3 thoughts on “What I Learned In School Today: Mortals have Limits, and Socrates was a jerk…”

  1. While it doesn’t really help coming from a Empirical Naturalist point of view, ‘Euthyphro Dilemna’ can be a powerful argument against ‘The Gods™,’ especially those who haven’t really questioned it before. I usually modify it slightly:

    Are good things good because The Gods™ say so, or are they good whether The Gods™ say so or not? If it’s the former, then The Gods™ could say that murder, rape, and all are good, but that wouldn’t set right, would it? If it’s the latter, then there is a standard higher than The Gods™, and how could that happen?

    Besides un-empirical philosophy can be so messy. That’s why I like Dennett so much, and other empiricists.

    By the way, thanks for the link.

  2. No, no, see, if The Gods tell you to do it, it’s not “rape” or “murder” any more…

    I tend to firmly categorize the whole subject of the “supernatural” as, at the very least, Not What I’m Here For.

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