Review: Partially Examined Life episode on Plato on Ethics & Religion
This is a partially informed review. I quite like Partially Examined Life as a podcast that goes relatively in-depth on philosophical issues without falling into too much of the philosophical circle jerk. On a train from my girlfriend’s home in Daejeon to the my transfer to Seoul, I love to listen to the Partially Examined Life give me what is akin to a good discussion over beers of a critical theory or philosophy graduate seminar. Lately, I have been almost solely writing about politics or religion, so going back into “pure” philosophy is always a leisure activity for me. It is a similar experience to dealing with pure poetry.
Yet, listening to the Episode 46, it became obvious how much actually rests on the theory/praxis divide: Or the fact that even in Plato’s case with Socrates, there was actually quite a small distance in that divide. In fact, one quickly can see how ethics, semantics, metaphysics, and epistemology almost over-determine politics in Plato’s dialogues. This was, I think unintentionally, driven home for me in Seth, Dylan, Mark and their guess Matt Evan’s dialogue.
So to some points: While I think Matt’s assertion that the Euthyphro s the most important text in the history of Western philosophy is, well, frankly odd, the contention that it illuminates a lot of problems in the text that plague philosophy without any real reconciliation even currently is valid. The way the Euthyphro dialogue has been framed: in theistic debates, in theories about divine commandment, and in the somewhat rarefied notions of justice are given but also complicated. For example, given the discussion that Euthyphro and Plato may have actual ethical consequences in real terms in the narrative, that the issue of violent political stakes are never too far from the surface. Yet one can’t even parse what is at stake totally in contemporary context: the tendency to read Plato’s argument as nontheistic is an approach that one sees from Leo Strauss’s contention that Plato and Socrates weren’t really arguing what they were arguing. The tendency to read this in the context of Christian demand command theory is also just as problematic. For the issue that Euthyphro, as is pointed out in the podcast, is contenting is his insistence that his father’s misdeed would be a miasma against him. It was effectively on grounds of pollution not ethics that was the key. So the argument about demand command takes a Christian confusion on the topic and expands it: In both the Greek (and the Jewish tradition), divine will is arbitrary partly ritual pollution are under the same category, but the ethical rules predominate. In Christianity (and perhaps in later Platonism), there is a unity of the virtues in which ethics and ritual pollution are not separate. In this sense, questions of the Euthyphro are ontological and metaphysical in the first order, and ethical only in the reconciliation. Furthermore, as is discussed in the podcast, the semantics actually have real metaphysical consequences.
Yet one can see that part of the pain of this dialogue is in its abrupt rupture with Euthyphro simply avoiding the difficulty of the question to persecute his father which will probably lead to his father’s death. Furthermore, we know Socrates’s death is approaching.
Needless to say, I was impressed with this episode. I have a few contentions: One the digression about the separateness of the Greek and Jewish idea set from each other is overstated. One) while the Jewish tradition does focus on particularities, it is too strong a claim to say that historical Judaism has simply taken a divine will approach modified by reason after G-d’s revelation is complicated by the fact in the Jewish tradition Abraham and Moses argued with G-d on moral grounds. In others, G-d recognized a reason beyond his own will. The difference is that G-d is under no imperative to be good in the Jewish tradition or the Greek Pagan tradition like he/she/it/they are in either Platonic or the Christian traditions. Two) The primacy of the order of being is interesting, but is largely unresolved by modern set-theory or any sort of insistence on ignoring modal logic.
We are left in a thorny position where the issue of meta-ethics looks impossible in Plato the moment the idea of meta-ethics is set out in the Western tradition.
Some notes on the relationship to left-wing thought: I have been wondering how our metaphysical conception actually relates to our political conception. In moments, I think the avoidance of politics is actually an attempt to separate not only thought from action (as if thought wasn’t an action itself) but also opinion from truth. By truth, I don’t mean fact, but in a Badiou-ian sense, as in a truth process. The dialectical truth process of political economy being key, but even that requires a grasp of the metaphysics of history conceptualized within the idea as well as a relatively fine tooth combing of semantic differences in totality: these rather rarefied notions actually matter to one’s political vision.
For example, one’s metaphysics will actually lead one to varying conceptions on if a rupture with the present is actually truly possible. Hegel, Marx, and even Foucault thought that it was; Popper, Negri, and Deleuze, perhaps to not: yet at least two of the latter thinkers are monists. Does this surprise us? It was there in Plato if we looked hard enough.