Saturday 21 June 2014

Socrates and the gods - philosophy without the gods


The last words of Socrates were: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? 

In other words he was talking about the gods. He talked about the gods a lot. Talk about the gods is all over Plato - pretty much everything gets related back to the gods, sooner or later. And philosophy is footnotes to Plato.

When, and why was it decided that it made sense to do philosophy without the gods? That it made sense to be a Platonist, but not believe in the gods?

Of course, this entails deciding what was meant by talking about the gods - and when I was an atheist I simply assumed that because I couldn't take the gods seriously, then neither did Socrates and Plato. Or even if they did 'believe in' the gods, this was merely a shallow and conventional conformity to the contingent culture of their world.

But it does seem that without the gods, the whole thing falls apart  - without the gods philosophy seems to be just a matter of opinion, playing with ideas, this metaphor or that...

But if Socrates was serious, and the most important thing in the world as he approached death was to sacrifice to one of the gods - the god of doctors - then we ought to assume that the gods were the foundation of Socrates most profound beliefs. And also of Plato - and therefore of philosophy.

Take away the gods and philosophy falls to pieces.

And this is what we find.



Nicholas Fulford said...

The paying of what is owed is a key part of Plato, and "The Republic" devotes a significant part of Book IV to this. Hence Plato's Socrates is in his last words both fulfilling one's appropriate role (wise teacher - healer) and repaying a debt owed, and hence clearing the slate in his debt to Asclepius - the god of healing.

He is also in his last act demonstrating that his principle role is one of healer, for it is to the god of healing to whom he wishes his final act of debt to be honoured. His act demonstrates the truth of his life and his lessons concerning the four virtues in general and justice in the particular.

His testament is to be a healer and to repay the debt of what he has been given in life. Hence, he repays that debt and demonstrates justice.

Then our dream has been realised; and the suspicion which we entertained at the beginning of our work of construction, that some divine power must have conducted us to a primary form of justice, has now been verified?

Yes, certainly.
And the division of labour which required the carpenter and the shoemaker and the rest of the citizens to be doing each his own business, and not another's, was a shadow of justice, and for that reason it was of use?

But in reality justice was such as we were describing, being concerned however, not with the outward man, but with the inward, which is the true self and concernment of man: for the just man does not permit the several elements within him to interfere with one another, or any of them to do the work of others, --he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself; and when he has bound together the three principles within him, which may be compared to the higher, lower, and middle notes of the scale, and the intermediate intervals --when he has bound all these together, and is no longer many, but has become one entirely temperate and perfectly adjusted nature, then he proceeds to act, if he has to act, whether in a matter of property, or in the treatment of the body, or in some affair of politics or private business; always thinking and calling that which preserves and co-operates with this harmonious condition, just and good action, and the knowledge which presides over it, wisdom, and that which at any time impairs this condition, he will call unjust action, and the opinion which presides over it ignorance.
- The Republic; Book IV.

And so your conclusion about the gods as of great importance to Plato's Socrates is demonstrated.

Valkea said...

Socrates was an atheist in his early life, when he was interested mostly in natural phenomena, like rain, thunder, jumping distances of flees, atoms and the void, movement etc. He e.g. deduced that gods cant be the reason of rain and lightning, because they are always accompanied by rain/storm clouds. If gods would be the reason, they could make the rain and thunder appear at least now and then from clear sky according to their wishes, because they can make miracles. Thus for him rain dropped to ground because rain/storm clouds are wet, and lightning strikes, because rain particles crash violently to each other. The regularity and mechanical nature of rain and storm implied to him that impersonal natural forces are behind them. He started to change his mind about gods in later life when he oriented his interests to human life and virtuous life, although this doesnt mean he changed his views about natural phenomena. E.g. when Socrates was waiting his death, he tried to prove with logic that souls live after death, that they dont dissolve with the body.

Brett Stevens said...

Perhaps leaving the question of gods aside for a moment, it's clear that philosophy falls apart without a commitment larger than self and right-here-right-now.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Brett "leaving the question of gods aside for a moment" - my point here is that that is what Socrates and Plato didn't do!