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Of Gods and Men

By: Keith Whitaker
November 28, 2018

or two thousand years philosophy oriented itself to God. Today there is not even a pretense of such orientation. How then does philosophy give an account of itself? Inquiring into piety may be far more than exhuming a musty old word.

Lewis Fallis’s Socrates and Divine Revelation is neither reverential nor irreverent. His writing is clear. His arguments are lucid. He sees his subject as important and he explains why it is important.

Fallis begins by sketching out two obstacles to our taking piety seriously today: relativism and scientism. The first claims that all values—all moral claims—are historical constructs. Piety does not say anything “true” about the divine; it reflects only its all-too-human creators. The second claims that science has disproven the existence of God and so the relevance (to science) of piety. Proponents of the first claim are “Ironists”; the latter are boasters. (“Ironists” are really sophisticated boasters.) Both stances are theoretical and require a reply grounded in theory, hence Fallis’s turn to two Platonic dialogues, the Euthyphro and Ion, that deal with piety.

By going to the heart of the matter—bad theory—Fallis passes by the reason that, I suspect, most people do not think seriously about piety today. Most are neither Ironists with Richard Rorty nor boasters with Richard Dawkins, though the fog of those theories dim many people’s thinking. Rather, the modern “agnostic” puts too much faith in practice. He believes that beliefs about God don’t have much to do with living well. To paraphrase Jefferson, since it doesn’t pick my pocket or break my leg, it doesn’t matter what my neighbor or I believe about God. This insouciance depends on a prior assumption that the right way to live is evident without piety. The theoretical critique that makes this assumption possible is well outside the scope of this review. But its conclusion—which holds that morality “shines like a jewel”—is not without relevance to Fallis’s work. If piety is somehow reverential response to morality’s shine, which inspires me to devote myself to this, then piety is, oddly enough, much more evident today than morality itself.

Fallis offers persuasive reasons for reading Euthyphro and Ion together. He treats the former as the inquiry into the prophet, the person who claims direct experience of the divine call, and the latter as the inquiry into the believer, who may or may not have directly experienced the divine but who claims to have identified certain others or their writings as divinely inspired. Fallis shows that in both cases Socrates seeks to understand the basis for the prophet’s or the believer’s claims.

A few points are important to emphasize here. First, in both dialogues Socrates is the learner, the student. Doubtless he is far cleverer and more perspicacious than his interlocutor: he can dance circles around Euthyphro and Ion. But his intellectual superiority does not change his belief that he has something to learn from each of them. Also, the possibility that he may have other practical purposes in mind (e.g., to correct Ion’s boastfulness, to moderate Euthyphro’s zeal, or to modify his own defense against Meletus’ charges) should not obscure that his main purpose in both cases is theoretical.

Second, what Socrates seeks to learn from Euthyphro and Ion is not about the gods. He expresses no interest in Euthyphro’s “secret teachings.” He focuses on Ion’s knowledge or lack of knowledge of charioteering and generalship rather than of the things in Olympos or Hades. What Socrates seeks to learn about is each man’s experience of the divine or, rather, the qualities of that experience that cause each man to call that experience divine. Socrates’ inquiry is into the human things rather than the divine things.

This brings us to Fallis’s main conclusion: what Socrates learns in each case is that claims of moral knowledge “condition” or are “connected” with each man’s claims to divine wisdom. More precisely, Socrates discovers that neither man will accept the reduction of his claims of knowledge to some amoral content. Euthyphro is disgusted at Socrates’ attempt to describe piety as doing business with the gods. Ion rejects knowledge of any of the other arts (besides rhapsody) if those arts are treated as merely technical, that is, without moral content or guidance; in turn, he eagerly and even absurdly claims knowledge of arts (e.g., generalship) when they are accompanied by moral direction.

In showing how Socrates achieves this result, Fallis does a service to all readers of Plato, by laying bare a crucial mode of Socratic procedure. He shows in these two dialogues—and in his conclusion he sketches a similar movement in the Alcibiades I, Republic, and Meno—how Socrates purposefully advances an amoral interpretation of his interlocutor’s position in order to test whether his interlocutor will abandon his moral presuppositions or manifest them all the more strongly. In the Euthyphro and Ion Socrates employs this procedure to test what Fallis calls, at one point, the “Socratic thesis”—“that in human beings the concern for justice has some kind of priority to concerns about the gods”—and elsewhere the “Socratic hypothesis”: that “claims of divine wisdom are dependent on claims to moral knowledge.” In both cases, the test upholds the hypothesis.

In a book this thoughtfully written, it is as important to observe what Fallis does not say or prove as to keep track of what he does. He is careful to note that Euthyphro and Ion are only two cases. They do not cover all cases of those who claim “divine wisdom.” As a result, the “Socratic hypothesis” could be invalid: perhaps someone could claim divine experience without any claim of moral knowledge. (The Ion hints at such a possibility in the rhapsode or listener’s “glimpse” of something while experiencing the poem—a vision, a “true opinion.” This vision, not some claim of knowledge, may validate his belief that he has experienced the divine.) Likewise, Fallis is careful to observe that confusion—of the sort that Euthyphro has about the primacy of God’s love and piety, or of the sort that Ion has about his own knowledge—does not disqualify the claim of divine experience. Perhaps experience of the divine necessarily causes confusion in the minds of those who hear the call?

In addition, and perhaps most importantly for students of Leo Strauss, Fallis corrects a third, contemporary obstacle to taking piety seriously: the argument that Socrates not only shows that claims of moral knowledge cause claims about divine experience (piety), but also that these claims are necessarily and always confused and that when the interlocutor sees the confusion his piety, his belief, disappears. In short, a political argument leads to a theological refutation.

Fallis’s introduction deals at length with David Leibowitz’s The Ironic Defense of Socrates: Plato’s Apology (2010) as an exponent of this view. But Fallis’s entire book could be taken as a corrective to this argument. Neither dialogue, Fallis shows, contains a full treatment of the interlocutor’s own moral views, much less a debunking of morality. (The central subsection of the Ion’s central section contains at best a “brief and elliptical” investigation of morality—alluding to the hopes for divine punishment or for alleviation of unjust suffering evoked by certain passages of poetry—and so does not convince anyone, including the interlocutors.) At most these interlocutors end up “Protean,” “wavering,” or “ambivalent” about their “moral knowledge.” And there is little sign that this possible ambivalence leads either to change his ways, much less doubt his claims about the divine. Further, if it had, perhaps that would have been a sign that they were corrupted or that God had withdrawn His favor from them.

But what about Socrates? Fallis notes that what Socrates learns about piety in these dialogues requires supplementation with what he learns about its connection to love of one’s own (in the Republic or Laws), eros (in the Symposium or Phaedrus), and thymos (in the Republic or Laws)—topics left unexplored here. Also, these dialogues don’t explore the dark side of piety: for that one must turn to, say, tragedy. Was Agamemnon (or, for that matter, Abraham) pious—or mad? Is piety a sort of madness?

Fallis insists that piety remains core to Socrates’ own education to the end of his life. He recounts the possibility that Socrates not only started as but remained a natural scientist—someone who sought to understand the way things are according to nature (not God’s will). For a truly self-reflective, and hence “scientific,” natural scientist, the inquiry into the possibility of the divine is absolutely paramount. Yet Fallis resists describing these conversations as some sort of “confirmation” of Socrates’ “theory.” Socrates’ dialectic remains unable to transform his “inferences into knowledge.” “To recognize that inability, and to live in full awareness of its significance, may have been part of what led Socrates to profess knowledge of ignorance and to continue to engage in dialectical refutations.” The full awareness would include awareness that he had not fulfilled his “great hope” to exchange some of his “human wisdom” for “providential protection and immortality.” Also, Socrates would remain aware that he did not have access to an account of the whole that excluded the possibility of the divine and thereby provided a comprehensive, rational ground for natural science.

And yet it seems that precisely in these moments of his greatest resourcelessness Socrates found the firmest ground for his peculiar way of life.