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Socrates and the impasse of divine morality

This is a chapter from my book Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

“Not even on this should you believe god doubtlessly, but you should examine separately each of his phrases”
Xenophon, Apology

“One is the race
of gods and men.
From one mother we are born.
Our only difference is power.”

In Euthyphro, Socrates arrives at the king-archon’s court because he just learnt that someone accused him of impiety and of corrupting the youth. As he arrives, he finds Euthyphro, who is there because he himself accused someone for a similar to Socrates’ alleged transgression. When asked for details, Euthyphro says he accused his own father of committing unjust murder, an impious act. His father had captured a worker because he killed one of his servants, and after tying him up and securing him in a pit, he called an exegete (expounder of religious law). But by leaving him tied and alone he ended up dying of hunger and cold. Socrates displays his satisfaction of finding an opportunity to learn what “piety” and “impiety” is, since, he says, he doesn’t know, and this is the essence of his own charges. Euthyphro had some reputation of being wise on such matters (he was a theologian and a seer), but the fact that he accused his father, shows him to be absolutely sure of his knowledge on piety, since he reached to the point of leading a familial person in front of the judges.

Ο Σωκράτης έξω από την Ακαδημία Αθηνών
Socrates in front of the Academy of Athens (photo)

In other words, if he is to endanger his father’s future, he better know what he’s talking about. Leaving aside his own case, Socrates starts examining the theologian, showing (pretending?) interest in learning from him what piety is, something that might come in handy during his trial.

Plato’s narration presents itself as an effort to find a definition –“what is piety?”-, but the writer uses this speculation also as a pretence to show that the charges against Socrates were unjust. The dialogue was written after the death of Socrates, and largely illustrates the reasons he was killed for. He would often meet apparently random people in Plato’s work and, not recognizing authorities on any issue, examine them to see if they were wise or not. Something which annoyed people and made enemies for Socrates, creating suspicion and doubt on his attitude and convictions, as well as attracting an eagerness from sycophants and slanderers to lead him to court. What better then for Plato, than presenting us Socrates searching to learn what he supposedly taught (and through which he allegedly corrupted the youth), and inquiring on the concept of morality (in the dialogue the “pious” is identified as the good, the fine, the just), in theological terms. In this way, Plato shows that Socrates did not teach (since he did not know), that he was not an atheist or blasphemer (since he centered his investigation of the nature of piety on the gods’ desires) and that he annoyed and offended his interlocutors (which contributed to his unjust charges). Nothing is random in Plato’s writings, who surrounded Socrates’ philosophy with important context and, especially in later dialogues, great symbolism.

Euthyphro supports the claim that whatever is loved by the gods is pious, and whatever is hated by them impious. But Socrates says that, as men do, the gods also disagree with what is just, good or moral. How can we then know what is pious, since we don’t even know what the gods love, and moreover when the gods themselves seem to disagree among them on the issue? It is only to be expected for Socrates to wonder just that, since in the polytheistic world he lived in, with gods acting as consistently as men did, each god chose sides according to his own idiosyncrasy. During the war of Troy, for example, some gods were on the side of the Trojans and others on the side of the Achaeans. So how can we, men, know what piety is when even the gods disagree on it?

socrates-divine-2. socrates-statue-black-image

Euthyphro’s answer is that piety is whatever all the gods consider likeable. Meaning, there are things which we know all gods love and others that surely all of them hate. “The gods do not disagree among them on this matter, that whoever kills unjustly must be punished”8d he tells Socrates, to show him how certain he is to accuse his own father. Socrates is not satisfied with this answer, or his example of the unjust killing: “Did you ever hear anybody doubting that we must punish him who has killed anyone wrongfully?”8b-c. We don’t need gods to tell us whether the wrongdoer should be punished or not. Nobody defends himself by saying that he may indeed have wronged but he does not deserve punishment; only by saying that he hasn’t actually wronged. The question remains: how will we know if something is just or not? Socrates then wonders whether piety is what the gods love, or whether the gods love that which is pious.

Socrates poses a very important question that still puzzles us. Where does morality come from? Is god the author of moral values or does he only repeat them and enforces them? And if the second answer is true, what is their original source? (In this case the answer might lie in the metaphysical reflections of moral philosophers or the materialistic approaches of biologists and sociologists or perhaps it may in the end be revealed by thousands of pages of research in neuroscience; but that is another story…)

Socrates, in this dialogue, trying to define justice, centers on its relationship with divine desires. And if he is troubled by the fact that the gods do not agree with each other, monotheism would seemingly offer a solution; with the existence of a singular, eternal and all-knowing god who surely knows what piety, morality and justice are, and is willing to share his knowledge with us so that we can live well. If god has forbidden something, it certainly is a sin. But is that enough? Would Socrates stop there? Why is something a sin? Because god forbids it? Or does god forbid it because it’s a sin? Does god give us our moral values or do we know them already and put them in his mouth ourselves?

In Christianity, the monotheistic god has given us his opinions in written form; we know what god loves and what he hates by reading the Bible. A theologian might say that, whatever god commands is moral and at the same time something that is moral god will also utter in the form of assignation. This doesn’t seem to convince a modern person, who explicitly rejects the Bible, when he reads in it, e.g., that if someone finds his wife not to be a virgin on the night of their wedding he must stone her to death outside her father’s house. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). We certainly don’t consider this to be right, just, good or moral. However, it is something that god commands. So it’s not correct that “whatever god commands is moral”.

But neither is “whatever is moral, god will proclaim”. In the Bible, if someone looks to theology to define morality like Socrates does here, there are many other mandates and prohibitions which he can address; the central being the Decalogue.

socrates-divine-3. socrates

But, the command “thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s house, his wife, his slaves, his animals or anything else that belongs to him” (Exodus 20:17), presents us with the grouping of women along with the animals, the slaves and the material possessions of the other (moreover, women are in the second place), something that rather suggests the identity of the writer (a human male), than offer us useful guidance on how to live a good life. Who would repeat this proposition today without facing our repugnance for his obvious misogyny, since he would include women in man’s belongings? Moreover, the forbidding of the thought itself of acquiring something that belongs to someone else (the prohibition of desire) is rather disorienting. The penalization of desire reminds us mostly of the “crimes of thought” in 1984, which consisted in the absolute enslavement of the Big Brother’s subjects, and less of something that an all-loving god might say. It is actions that harm people, not thoughts.

To “honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your god is giving you” (Exodus 20:12), can be found in most societies, though not in such an absolute form. Obviously, a drunk parent who abuses his children should not deserve anyone’s respect, and the secular law does not consider this kind of relationship as a mitigating factor in cases of abuse (perhaps the opposite). Respect, like love, is something we earn, it cannot be demanded. So if the phrase is read in absolute terms it is absurd, whereas if it is read critically it becomes commonplace; who needs god to feel indebted to the parents that raised him properly? It is also worth mentioning that the command is accompanied by the promise of reward (a long life), and therefore, like other commands that come with the threat of punishment, is not presented as an end in itself. It doesn’t seem to be enough to do good for its own sake, but rather in order to earn reward or avoid punishment.

The only thing that’s left is the triptych “thou shall not steal, kill, lie”[1]. These are prescriptions that we come across in every religion practiced on Earth, and are not dependent on the idiosyncrasy of each god. In which god would we recognize wisdom if he didn’t condemn lying, theft or murder? Which religion that claimed lying is not a sin (or even that it is “irrelevant”) would deserve or earn anyone’s worship? As Socrates says, “no god or man dares to say this, that it’s not necessary to punish the wrongdoer”8e. And all men know that killing is wrong, because men know what is moral and immoral on their own accord. If the Hebrews of the Old Testament had to have god tell them that murder “is bad” they wouldn’t have made it to Mount Sinai to receive the commandments in the first place. God does not have the power not to denounce murder.


So, moral values do not originate from the teachings of god or Jesus. And we don’t have to rest on the Decalogue; the rest of the Christian values also don’t originate in Christianity but can be traced in older civilizations. The so called Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have others do unto you”) comes from Confucius (at least as far as we can tell – it is most probably older) and “love thy neighbor” can be found in Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism and elsewhere. So these teachings were neither produced by a god nor does Christianity hold its exclusivity, whether it is studied as a religion or a system of ideas (Buddhism is not a religion and shares many of the moral values of the abrahamic religions). How can then one say morality comes from god?

Now, one could say that the aforementioned religious claims which constitute cues to act (like stoning the non virgin wife) or thoughts (like woman being a piece of property) that today are considered immoral, can only be seen as such through an anachronistic viewing. Meaning, it is unfair to judge the opinions of people living 3,000 years ago with contemporary criteria. We are called, therefore, to choose those of god’s moral orders that we already agree with. This presents us with a logical fallacy, since we now negate something that we have so far, silently, considered a given; that the Bible is the word of god (or inspired by him), in which we cannot interfere. But even in this way (if we can change the content of the Bible), we must conclude that ethical orders do not originate from god, but people already know them and are called to delete from the Bible those that are not included in the moral values of their time. Or, as Socrates would say to a monotheistic Euthyphro, “something is liked by god because it is moral”, not “something is moral because god likes it”. So, it appears that divine morality follows the secular morality and not the other way around. But in this way the question remains; “why is something a sin?” or “where does morality come from?” The insistence to link it to god doesn’t give us an answer. We don’t need religion to learn what is moral or how to be moral, we only might think we do.

But even if we don’t make the aforementioned concession, meaning if we look for morality strictly in divine teaching (in the same way Socrates did with Euthyphro by addressing their questioning about justice through its relation with the divine), the Ten Commandments remain, as do other promptings of god and Jesus, as behavior cues from an almighty god whom, if we disobey, will punish us with the worst possible punishment and, if we obey, will reward us with the best possible gift; even if we disagree with those cues. In other words, the concept of sin remains and is differentiated from the concept of immorality. What we ought to do, as religion (or at least the Bible) teaches us, is not something that will increase anybody’s well-being, but whatever god says. A good Christian is not a moral Christian, but an obedient one.

Socrates, as a polytheist, could easily search for ethics on his own, since there was no single divine authority to give him a final answer. Perhaps he’d make a similar investigation if he detected the contradictions in the words of god, as we find them in the Bible (there’s more than one version of the Decalogue in the Bible, for example). His gods, all of which he recognized to be wise, were idiosyncratic, each of them said whatever worked for him or her. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the dialogue does not reach to a conclusion on what is pious and what impious. Xenophon in his Apology shows us the philosopher commenting on the Oracle’s divine prophecy that “[Apollo] deemed me to excel among other men. However, do not believe the god even in this without due grounds, but examine the god’s utterance in detail”15.

Από αφιέρωμα στον Σωκράτη
From an NPR special on Socrates (photo)

Therefore, we as well, if we seek moral guidance in the biblical narration, will either be disappointed if we make a literal reading (since we’ll come across things we consider immoral to be divinely commanded) or we’ll be forced to interpret, rationalize or paraphrase what we come across, to make it fit to our preexisting moral criteria. But if we already have moral criteria, why look for morality in the Bible? What is its singularity in this context (as a mean to learn what is moral and what is not)? Why not consider it to be a book like any other, from which we can only be inspired, picking and choosing what we like, agreeing with some narratives and disagreeing with others?[2]

Because even if Socrates met Jesus, not knowing that he was the son of god, he would not arbitrarily recognize in him the authority of wisdom, moral or otherwise, since Jesus would be presented to him in his human form, like so many others who were considered to be wise by their fellow men. But he would examine him to find out if he could justify his fame as such, or if he though he was something he wasn’t –how does Jesus know the things he says he knows? Does he have access to knowledge denied from Socrates? One wonders whether that dialogue would be the only one where the Oracle’s revelation that Socrates was the wisest of all, would be proven wrong.


Plato – Euthyphro (or on piety)


[1] We will ignore the first commandments of the Decalogue, where we find more “arbitrary” prohibitions, like not to worship other gods, not to make idols of god, not to speak god’s name vainly and also to honor the Sabbath as a holy day (with the first commandment of “I am the Lord your god” to hardly even resemble one, being mostly a declaration). These commandments are not quite related to morality, since the prohibited or suggested actions can’t hurt any man and, of course, nor can they hurt god (how could one threaten god anyway?).

[2] Like Gottlieb reminds us, Leibniz, in the beginnings of the 18th century, noticed that those who believe that god defined morality, rescind from him the characterization “good”. Why commend god for anything he does, if we consider that whatever else he might have done (if he defined morality to be something different) he would have the same success?

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