Socrates and piety

22 09 2010

He [Socrates] was accused of making innovations in the religion of his country, and corrupting the youth. But as both these accusations must have been obviously false to an unprejudiced tribunal, the accusers relied for the success of their cause on perjured witnesses, and the envy of the judges, whose ignorance would readily yield to misrepresentation, and be influenced and guided by false eloquence and fraudulent arts. That the personal enemies indeed of Socrates, vile characters, to whom his wisdom and his virtue were equally offensive, should have accused him of making innovations in the religion of Greece, is by no means surprising; but that very many of modern times should have believed that this accusation was founded in truth, and that he endeavoured to subvert the doctrine of polytheism, is a circumstance which by the truly learned reader must be ranked among the greatest eccentricities of modern wit. For to such a one it will most clearly appear from this very Apology, that Socrates was accused of impiety for asserting that he was connected in a very transcendant degree with a presiding daemon, to whose direction he confidently submitted the conduct of his life. For the accusation of Melitus, that he introduced other novel daemoniacal natures, can admit of no other construction. Besides, in the course of this Apology he asserts, in the most unequivocal and solemn manner, his belief in polytheism; and this is indubitably confirmed in many places by Plato, the most genuine of his disciples, and the most faithful recorder of his doctrines. The testimony of Xenophon too on this point is no less weighty than decisive. “I have often wondered,” says that historian and philosopher, “by what arguments the Athenians who condemned Socrates persuaded the city that he was worthy of death. For, in the first place, how could they prove that he did not believe in the Gods in which the city believed? since it was evident that he often sacrificed at home, and often on the common altars of the city. It was also not unapparent that he employed divination. For a report was circulated, that signals were given to Socrates, according to his own assertion, by a daemoniacal power; whence they especially appear to me to have accused him of introducing new daemoniacal natures. He however introduced nothing new, nor any thing different from the opinion of those who, believing in divination, make use of auguries and oracles, symbols and sacrifices. For these do not apprehend that either birds, or things which occur, know what is advantageous to the diviners; but they are of opinion that the Gods thus signify to them what is beneficial; and he also thought the same. Again, in another place, he observes as follows: “Socrates thought that the Gods take care of men not in such a way as the multitude conceive. For they think that the Gods know some things, but do not know others. But Socrates thought that the Gods know all things, as well things said and done, as those deliberated in silence. That they are also everywhere present, and signify to men concerning all human affairs. I wonder, therefore, how the Athenians could ever be persuaded that Socrates was not of a sound mind respecting the Gods, as he never said or did any thing impious concerning them. But all his sayings and all his actions pertaining to the Gods were such as any one by saying and doing would be thought to be most pious.” And lastly, in another place he observes, “That it was evident that Socrates worshipped the Gods the most of all men.

-Thomas Taylor, from here


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22 responses

29 09 2010
Pints in NYC

Been reading for a while. I recently started my own attempt at a blog, which I link to this article.

Cheers!

23 09 2010
Henry Karlson

Arturo is correct, the distinctions between monotheism and polytheism are complex and easily confused. There are also the categories of henotheism and pantheism to consider.

Hinduism, for example, is really not unified in regards to where it stands. Some strains are strict monotheists. Others are quite natural polytheists. Polytheism, to me, is more a practical issue, where there is no ranking or hierarchy being done, and especially, no philosophical investigation of one’s gods — this is not necessarily a bad thing, for it gives strength to many peoples.

However, once one begins to examine and create hierarchies, the gods become intermediaries to the Ultimate God. Then it becomes much more complex. St Augustine, for example, could see the Platonic conception of the gods in relation to the One was similar to angels with God. This then points to how Christianity, though monotheism, has a “polytheistic side” (even more apparent in the early practices of ancient Israel). Few intellectual traditions end up as pure polytheists, though most I would say, are practical ones.

23 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

It sort of all depends on what your definition of a “god” is. I am pretty sure any form of monotheism that isn’t exclusionary can’t really be called monotheism, no matter how monistic it may be philosophically. Plotinus’ One, for example, could be interpreted as something deeply impersonal, like the force in Star Wars, that unfolds into a myriad of gods and goddesses, not to mention heroes, demi-gods, and other entities, all the way down to men, dogs, and rocks. Iamblichus had no problem with the idea of the One, yet no one could call the sublime hierophant of late classical paganism a monotheist.

On the other hand, some systems have the creator god as some sort of deus otiosus, someone way the hell “up there” so to speak who doesn’t even bother with the daily lives of people. That is how Haitian voudoun is, or Brazilian candomble: God exists, and is One, and is invoked in popular discourse, but the real force of the divine in people’s life are the lwa/orishas/santos. One could assume that the title, “santero” or “mae de santo” were just clever ways for the slaves to cover up their ancestral religious system, but one would still have to take into account that in their systems, the lwa/orishas are actually the spirits or souls of their ancestors de-personalized: a sort of ancestral energy. They are not gods in the Greek sense of the term. How is that different from the power of the Catholic saints? Perhaps the most subversive thought of all is that voudoun/santeria/candomble are no less “monotheistic” than classical Catholicism.

So the division between monotheism and polytheism in the modern context is a complicated distiction when applied to the contemporary Westerner. Is a devotee lighting a candle to Pancho Villa a pagan? Or someone who has a statue of la Santa Muerte in their house? Neither of them would say, however, that there is more than one god. On the other hand, in Venezuela, many devotees call Maria Lionza a goddess, but I feel that has more to do with the prevalence of modern secularism seeping down into the masses that can create such distinctions. So in the end, the division between monotheism and polytheism has more to do with what our expectations look like. Could one be a monotheistic pagan? Or a polytheistic secularist? Aren’t all religious systems syncretic? And so on.

23 09 2010
Apuleius Platonicus

The dichotomy between polytheism and monotheism is not false, unless we are to render monotheism meaningless to the point of being indistinguishable from the religion of Homer. In my opinion a monotheist who worships many Gods is no monotheist, and a polytheist who explicitly rejects (either as evil, or unworthy of worship, or simply as non-existent) all Gods but one is no polytheist.

Monism is a very different matter, and there is no difficulty in finding monistic tendencies in both polytheism and monotheism.

And Greek philosophy was quite robustly and explicitly polytheistic, at least so far as Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics and even Epicureans were concerned.

Eros is prominent in both the Phaedrus and the Symposium, while Pan and the Muses play an important supporting role in the Phaedrus. Book X of the Laws is a fundamental statement of polytheistic theology. The Timaeus lays out a theology that is explicitly polytheistic and pantheistic, and this was the model for most of Pagan theology for the remainder of antiquity (although it was already heavily indebted to Pythagoreanism). The Lysis has many significant references to Hermes. Then there is the Cratylus, and many other examples can be given — including of course the famous oracular pronouncement, from Apollo, which Socrates cited as providing the divine catalyst for his philosophical “mission” to the Athenians.

The Akademy itself was home to shrines and altars to Eros, the Muses, Prometheus, Athena, and Herakles — the altar to Prometheus was especially prominent, and this was where the torches were lit for the annual torch race in honor of the God, which ended at Athena’s altar at the Parthenon. Marinus’ “Life of Proclus” deals very specifically with the significance of many different Gods, especially Aesclepius, Pan, Athena, and Cybele (Hermes, the Dioscuri and other Deities are also mentioned less prominently).

The polytheism of the Stoics is treated very nicely by P.A. Meijer in “Stoic Theology”.

In addition to Goddesses and Gods we know that Platonists and Stoics also placed great importance on Daemons (although the demarcation between Gods and Daemons is not always clear and bright).

As for Epicurus “ignoring” the Gods, well, Diogenes Laertius emphatically praises Epicurus for his “piety toward the Gods,” and in one of the few extant writings of Epicurus, a letter to Menoeceus, he stated “[T]he greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the Gods.” In the same letter he also wrote “Truly there are Gods, and knowledge of them is self-evident.”

22 09 2010
Turmarion

Another such false dichotomy, I think, is “polytheist vs. monotheist”. On the one hand, none of the major Greek philosophers was a monotheist in the sense of a modern Christian, Jew, or Muslim. All evidence is that in general, most of them followed at least the externals of Hellenic religion.

On the other hand, none of the philosophers seemed too interested in the Greek pantheon, either. Recall that Xenophanes ridiculed standard Greek polytheism and idols, with his memorable statement that animals would make statues of gods in their own image, just as humans do; Socrates in the Euthyphro takes issue with the simplistic, standard views of the eponymous interlocutor; Epicurus, while not denying the gods’ existence, thought it best to ignore them, as he thought they ignored man; and so on. Not only this, but (with the exception of Epicurus) most of the post-Socratic philosophers seem to have believed in some sort of God above the gods—the One, the Logos, etc.—and were interested in a return to this primal source (e.g. Plotinus).

I suspect that to the philosophers, for the most part, the gods of Olympus were sort of like the stunning array of Hindu deities to a jñana yogin—either real and maybe even helpful at times, but secondary; or “masks of God”. To put it in Gibbon’s famous formulation (mutatis mutandis for the Greeks), “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.” In any case, I’m not aware of any major philosophers that wrote at lengths about the Olympian pantheon or gave much attention to them.

The point is that I think it’s pretty much useless to argue whether Socrates or Plato or Aristotle or Plotinus or even Ficino or Pico was “really” monotheistic or polytheistic. The answer would be “both” or “neither, as those terms are commonly understood”. It reminds me of a friend of mine who on reading the Tao Te Ching for the first time kept calling attention to what he thought were parallels with Christian thought. It got on my nerves after awhile—I am, in fact, a Catholic, but I wanted to say, “Look, appreciate it on its own terms—don’t try to make it something it’s not.” I notice this a lot—people want to claim an ancient philosopher or book for their own team, and get invested in arguing thus, getting all worked up about what a person “really” was, and getting all rancorous about it until at the end of the day it’s all heat, no light.

Look, a Christian can appreciate a pagan individual or pagan philosophy, and I would hope vice versa, without having to make the pagan a crypto-Christian or the Christian a crypto-pagan. Let everyone be who he is, appreciate (or deprecate) him on his own merits (or demerits), and in the end, to quote the Koran, “Had God willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you He made you as ye are. So vie one with another in good works. Unto Allah ye will all return, and will then inform you of that wherein ye differ.” — 5:48

22 09 2010
Henry Karlson

I would also like to add something about Ficino, pointing out the audacity I had in my youth (strange to say that1).

Back in 2000, when I went to Florence, the main reason I went was to visit the tombs of Ficino and Pico. When I went to them, I asked both of them to give me their mantle. Talk about pride! Yet, I still hope they offer some intercession for me, even if I am not worthy of that mantle.

22 09 2010
Henry Karlson

You would find this interesting. Years ago, when I started my PhD studies, a group of us went from class to the bookstore (Newman) to get books for our classes. We talked about nominalism/realism.

Now, I admit St Thomas Aquinas is a genius, and worthy of respect. However, in the discussion, I pointed out how he helped the progress of nominalism with his moderate realism. I also pointed out Chartres was better on this, though called “ultra-realist.” One person’s response was, “How can there be different kinds of realism? It is real or not.” Seriously.

22 09 2010
Tancred

Not only that, but part of the Aristotle we got by way of the Arabs was nominalist.

22 09 2010
Henry Karlson

While one can disagree with it in parts, elements of Solovyov’s essay on Plato is ingenious, and deserves a reading. He explains why the “liberals” and “conservatives” both hated Socrates, and when he explains this, offers a brilliant summary of what is wrong with conservatives and liberals in general:

Conservatives are right in trying to conserve, but not in what they want to conserve. Liberals are right in wanting people to think, but they just can’t think straight.

22 09 2010
Henry Karlson

The debate as to whether or not Plato and Aristotle disagreed, or how much they disagreed, is not entirely modern. We find it a debate which was discussed in the renaissance, with different sides being taken around the Florence.

My views:

Aristotle was a Platonist. Much of what we have are notes, and incomplete ones at that, from his lectures written down by his students. What was left out were more of the accord, because his students were interested in the differences.

Aristotle did, at times, differ from Plato, and when he did, often he did so by going in the wrong direction. Yet he did heighten our awareness, and deserves our respect.

22 09 2010
Max

I have taught the “Apology” and “Crito” to college students, and doing so I have described Socrates as a holy fool, basically the yurodivy of Athens. Students tell me they’ve never heard this before and that other teachers tried to convince them that Socrates was an atheist, so I try to emphasize his piety as a sort of corrective.

22 09 2010
Sam Urfer

I always figured the Athenians killed him for “ur doin it wrong” reasons, precisely because he took the gods so seriously, in ways they disapproved of. A heresy trial, as it were. How anyone can read the Dialogues and come away with a secular Plato or Socrates is mind-boggling. But then, most readings of Plato tend to be rather shallow, to begin with.

Another exaggerated separation in modern discourse: Aristotle vs. Plato. Certainly, they disagree on the nature of Forms to Matter, but what they agree on is enormous. I’ve heard it said that the only way to understand what Aristotle is up to, is that “he is the most careful reader of Plato.”

22 09 2010
Apuleius Platonicus

It is definitely true that both Socrates and Plato were revered as semi-divine figures throughout antiquity. This was not an unusual (or, in my opinion, at all unreasonable) practice. And as devotees of Juan Soldado, etc, know, this is a perfectly good “modern” practice as well, if one’s psyche is sufficiently flexible.

One of the best sources I’ve found on “Plato worship” is the book “Platonica: The Anecdotes Concerning the Life and Writing of Plato” by Alice Swift Rigino:
http://books.google.com/books?id=0LM3AAAAIAAJ

22 09 2010
Apuleius Platonicus

Hadot had his shortcomings. From what I understand he truly sought his own spiritual path in ancient philosophy (first in Platonism and then in Stoicism), but in the end he was left frustrated by his own inability to find a way to fulfill his own spiritual aspirations through philosophy — but not for lack of trying.

Personally I think his problem was that he came up against the usual modernist prejudice against ancient religion. Although he accepted the deeply spiritual nature of ancient philosophy, he could not see clear to accept that an ancient philosopher, such as Socrates, could be just as much a pious polytheistic Pagan as Augustine and Aquinas, for example, could be at the same time philosophers and devout Christians. But how could one ever hope to understand Augustine divorced from Christianity? And in particular, how could one ever look to Augustine as a purely “spiritual” guide, while not merely ignoring, but outright rejecting, Augustine’s own spirituality?

Hadot was a giant, and I feel more than a little foolish offering my own opinion about “where he went wrong”! But that is how I see it.

22 09 2010
Henry Karlson

Arturo

I have a statue of Socrates (actually two, one of him sitting, one of his bust) in my library. Through the years, people have bought my all kinds of statues. My Socrates that is sitting is next to the Theotokos, while I have a large Christ statue with a Buddha sitting in front of him.

If ever I have JWs, Mormons, or the like visit me, and want to chat, I will tell them the house rules is that because one engages talk, they have to bow to the Buddha, Socrates, Mary and Christ.

So, I do think Socrates is fitting.

22 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Really, these types of divisions are the only thing that pains me about the work of Hadot. Hadot is a bit of a rationalist when it comes to analyzing ancient religion, and at times likes to oppose philosopher and priest. Not always, mind you, but he is very dismissive towards post-Plotinian Neoplatonism. Iambichus and Proclus barely receive any mention. He is usually far more sympathetic to the Stoics and Epicureans, if viewed in a bit of a “de-mythologized” light.

A note on the picture: this is of course the famous head of Socrates found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It was the only picture that my wife took for me when we went there. For those who do not know, Socrates was a “saint” in the ancient pagan world, and people used to raise altars to him and offer sacrifices. I am wondering if I should raise an altar to Socrates, and put him next to my Juan Soldado and St. Expedite. I already have a big picture of Ficino in the guest room.

22 09 2010
Apuleius Platonicus

There are actually a whole series of false dichotomies which are easily seen through by anyone who relies (critically, of course — it should go without saying) on a guide like Thomas Taylor to approach the ancients:
theology versus philosophy
Plato versus Socrates
Aristotle versus Plato
later Platonism (“neo” Platonism) versus Plato

Modern academic philosophers (and, as Arturo rightly points out, especially in the Anglophone world) lose themselves in the house of mirrors they have constructed out of anachronisms and distortions. We are told that a great chasm divided Plato from Socrates because Socrates was a skeptic and and an agnostic, perhaps even an atheist of some sort, unconcerned with metaphysics and religious mysticism, which infects Plato’s major works. But then we are told that those silly “neo” Platonists were deluding themselves if they thought they were truly Platonists, because Plato was very rational and skeptical — agnostic on religious matters at least, and perhaps even an atheist!

The fact is that all of the things that supposedly create a clean demarcation between Plato and Plotinus (etc) are in fact based very firmly on the writings of Plato.

One reason why this is relevant is that it is sometimes erroneously claimed that Thomas Taylor coined the term “Neoplatonism”!

22 09 2010
Henry Karlson

Right; I often tell people, the separation between philosophy and theology is recent, and the ancient philosophers saw themselves as theologians (often writing theologies, like Proclus). However, modern philosophers read this divide into the past. Yes, there were conflicts, but the conflicts were based upon “theological interpretations.” On the other hand, some of my favorite Fathers, at times, tried to emphasize the “atheism” of some of the philosophers, of course to point out, not as the secularist, that they really were theologians of a new key, which was similar to the Christians.

And I agree; Taylor’s translation of Iamblichus is one of his great works (though, of course, his translation of Proclus might have been his greatest achievement). I have not looked at the new, modern translation, so I don’t know how they compare.

22 09 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I like this quote especially since it debunks the whole line that Socrates, Plato, and the classical Greek philosophers were militant secularists avant la lettre. That is one of the problems that Hadot speaks about when addressing modern philosophical discourse concerning antiquity. Many philosophers, especially in the analytical tradition of the Anglo-Saxon world, want to address philosophical questions like word or number puzzles, and think that the ancient founders of “Western civilization” did the same. So they cut out all of the oracles, the daemons, the sacrifices, and so forth, and think they are carrying on the tradition of philosophizing. But these figures are not just there to be mined for information, to create a discourse above the “superstition” of the Greek gods. Socrates and Co. philosophized because they loved the gods all the more, not any less.

The relatively recent reassessment of the late Neoplatonists is significant in this regard. Thomas Taylor’s translation of Iamblichus’ De Mysteriis is one of my most cherished books. If I were stranded on a desert island and could only take one book, I would have to choose between it and the Bible, and on a bad day, the Bible would lose.

22 09 2010
Apuleius Platonicus

Thomas Taylor was a scholar of staggering accomplishment. He translated all of Aristotle and Plato into English as well as a great portion of the commentaries on those writings, which he included as notes. He also translated the most important works of Proclus, as well as a great deal of Porphyry and Iamblichus — and much else.

Taylor lived 200 years ago, and it is true that there some materials available to scholars today that Taylor did not have. But in the hands of most scholars that material is worthless. It is very much a case of pearls cast before swine.

22 09 2010
Apuleius Platonicus

Taylor’s little thumbnail sketch here is the definitive treatment of the religion of Socrates.

It never amazes me how widespread the misperceptions are concerning the most famous philosopher who ever lived!

22 09 2010
Henry Karlson

Thomas Taylor… I have many of his translations of the Platonists; while they might not be as scholarly as modern translations, I often got them before such translations existed or became affordable.

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