Friday, November 22, 2013

Inner and Outer Ethics, and Plato's Euthyphro

            The stones are struck, and fire is made.  The prayers are said, and the rains come.
            If I had to guess at what draws us toward ritual, it would be the combination of our love of cause and effect, and our relentlessly pattern-making brain.  Always, our brains look for the repeated — and repeatable — patterns.  If the rains do not come, considering the general reliability of the weather, it seems not only understandable, but necessary, that humans would look for what went wrong; some practice left unfinished, some link in the chain of cause-and-effect that was left out.
            But this gets into very complicated territory, very quickly.  Because somewhere along the path of human history, we also came up with the idea of "pollution."  I will refrain from using the term sin, only because it often has very Christian overtones in this country, and the idea of pollution is much, much older than Christianity.  Whenever it came along, pollution meant that something went wrong in that chain of cause and effect, but internally, and perhaps invisibly.

            Some terminology, and a bit of background:
            Euthyphro is one of Plato's earlier dialogues.  Pronounce it like "You-Thi (as in 'thimble')-Fro.*  The earlier (and blessedly shorter) pieces are often called the Socratic dialogues, in part because scholars generally believe them to fairly well reflect the views of Socrates himself, as opposed to Plato, who is of course writing the dialogues and could put any idea he wanted into Socrates' mouth.  Euthyphro ends, like most of the Socratic dialogues, in what is called aporia, which could be translated as "puzzlement," or something like "impasse."  The Socratic dialogues, in other words, end without resolution.  These dialogues demonstrate that no one knows what they thought they knew.  The Socratic dialogues end with bewildered looks on their faces, and Socrates indicates that perhaps a conversation in the future might be beneficial to everyone concerned.
            The titular character, Euthyphro himself, is a priest.  As a priest, Euthyphro knows the rituals that were central to ancient Athenian life.  He knows the appropriate sacrifices, and the gestures, and the prayers, and all of the various benefits of fulfillment, and consequences for a failure of fulfillment.  Euthyphro is an expert on the topic of the dialogue:  ὅσιον.  According to G.M.A. Grube, the translator of my copy of Euthyphro, ὅσιον or hosion means, 
in the first instance, the knowledge of the proper ritual in prayer and sacrifice and of course its performance...But obviously Euthyphro uses it in the much wider sense of pious conduct generally (e.g., his own), and in that sense the word is practically equivalent to righteousness...the transition being by way of conduct pleasing to the gods.  (Grube, G.M.A.  Five Dialogues.  Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Company, 2002.  Print.)
            The story behind the dialogue is that Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father for the death of a slave, who was himself a murderer.  Euthyphro is defying his entire family by doing so, and insists that it doesn't matter what one's family or even community think of one; the important thing, in modern parlance, is to "do the right thing."
            This is kind of a crazy thing to think in an ancient and/or traditional society.  For practical purposes, what matters is what your community thinks of you, not some abstract vision of morality.  Euthyphro himself seems slightly less interested in the abstract and more interested in, for him, the reality of the gods.  If the gods disapproved of something, it would be duly punished.  In that sense, Euthyphro is being just as practical as anyone performing prayers for their neighbors' eyes' benefit.  But in another sense, it seems to me that we are getting a window into a particular kind of phenomenon:  Jesus of Nazareth was trying to counter this exact issue when he said "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27).  When exactly did human religion and ritual become less about serving the purposes it so clearly evolved to serve, and more about appeasement of either an abstracted Law or fickle Gods?  Because while appeasing the gods goes way back, it would seem to me that any god whose service leads to the sundering of familial ties is a very modern, and very peculiar, kind of god.  Don't get me wrong; Euthyphro's dad sounds like an asshole (so does Euthyphro for that matter), but religious ritual is intended to keep human society running along as smoothly as possible, to give humans a sense of control over uncontrollable circumstances, to glue us together so we'll be there for each other when it's needed.
            If we keep hosion tethered to its primary meaning — as Grube puts it, "the knowledge of the proper ritual in prayer and sacrifice," — it feels distinctly external.  This, in contrast to what I will call righteousness, or internal justification.  (I am trying very hard to keep my Christianity out of this, so bear with me.)  The internal justification seems to be a product of maintaining a harmony within one's self; keeping one's ducks in a line, so to speak, where the ducks are the disparate parts of one's psyche.  There is a link between the internal and external, but I'm not sure that Grube's description of that link as "by way of conduct pleasing to the gods" captures it very well.  Does one fulfill the proper rituals, and thereby gain some kind of inner concord?  Or is the other way around, that one must have the inner concord in order to be able to fulfill the rituals properly?
            And now we are back to cause and effect.

            Over to the left you may see I have a blog on my list called speculum criticum traditionis.  It's one of my favorites (though, full disclosure, the author is also a friend), and awhile back skholiast wrote a post that included the following Hasidic story:

When the Ba'al Shem Tov had to accomplish a difficult task, he retired to a certain spot in the forest.  By mystical means he would light a fire, and he meditated in prayer; and what he set out to perform was done. 
After a generation, his disciple the Maggid of Mezeritz too faced a challenge.  He went to the same place in the woods, and would say:  "We can no longer light the fire, but we can still say the prayers," and what he wanted done became real. 
Again, a generation later, Rabbi Moishe of Sassov had to perform a task.  And he too went to the forest saying:  "We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the prayer's secret meditations; but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs, and that must be sufficient."  And so it was. 
But when another generation had passed, and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his chair in his room and said:  "We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place.  All we can do is to tell the story of how it was done."  And the story that he told had the same effect as the deeds of the other three.
            If you read the post on speculum criticum, you'll see that skholiast doesn't agree with the more common, feel-good interpretation of this story, which would seem to indicate that the answer to my question is that not only is the inner concord/morality/righteousness primary, it may be all  that is required.  I tend to disagree with him on this; I think the story is intended in this feel-good way.  I happen to think the good feelings are nonsense, but I'll save that for another time.
            The story does make an intriguing maneuver, though.  Going back to my earlier questions — Does one fulfill the proper external rituals, and thereby gain some kind of internal righteousness?  Or must one have the internal righteousness in order to be able to fulfill the external rituals properly? — the Hasidic story points up the cause and effect assumption of the questions.  Maybe the Hasidic story asks another question:  Is it possible that all we truly have observed is correlation?  And if so, is this observation a gesture towards freedom, or towards terror?

*You should pronounce it this way because this is how I pronounce it, which doesn't tell you much.  I looked at the phonetic pronunciation, but God only knows what those symbols mean.

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