Saturday, July 30, 2022

Reading 3

Plato, Phaedo

This here's Plato, to whom all philosophy is a footnote.

In the dialogue Phaedo, he has his character and mentor Socrates argue with a man named Phaedo outside a kind of pavilion before both of them are going to go to court, Socrates on an impeachment charge that he's corrupting the youth by declaiming the gods and making up his own and Phaedo to prosecute his father for killing one of their slaves.

You see, Phaedo's father saw their slave kill another slave, so he tied up the living slave and went into town to figure out what to do about him. But leaving him outside tied up without food and water, he died of heat exhaustion. Phaedo is going to court to prosecute his father for that.

Socrates says, "Gee whiz, you must be a mighty pious man to want to prosecute your father. Why, you must be the kind of man who knows what the gods want. Perhaps you can teach me and help me beat my rap."

This is where the fun begins.

As you know, Socrates was all about getting folks to investigate what they think they know. His second-order mission was maybe to get people to be less pretentious and not claim they know something when they don't. So he has Phaedo try to tell him what it means to be a pious man. I'll spare you all the arguments they go through but what they arrive at is this central question: is an action pious just because the gods say that it is or are even the gods bound to doing pious acts?

Let's update the example a little to tease out the problem. God commands "Thou shalt not murder." But is not murdering the right thing to do because God wills it so or is it the right thing to do regardless of whether God wills it? Could God will that a person should murder? If so, morality is entirely dependent on the will of God. If not, then not even God could or would overturn the moral law.

The reason a dialogue like this from Plato endures is that these are more than just interesting puzzles. In the case above, as religious folk, we have to take the question seriously, even if we can't come up with a be-all, end-all answer. Take a case like the issuance of the ten commandments in the Bible, which explicitly prohibit murder. A couple of leaves letter, God commands Moses to conquer the land of the Canaanites and what you've got is mass slaughter. Under modern circumstances, that would be called unjust war, genocide. So then religious folk have to ask themselves, Was this not murder because God willed it or is it impossible that God would will genocide and what we have here is a group of folks believing and being wrong that God ordered mass murder? That's a question religious folk have to decide for themselves but above all let's pray to God that if someone were to believe God had called for that in the past, then he would never ever call for it again. Let's hope no kook believes in mass slaughter in the name of God.

Alice Munro, "The Found Boat," Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You: Thirteen Stories

It's rural Ontario where a part of town floods regularly making the rivers rise, and Eva and Carol ride out to the river on their bicycles to investigate how high it's risen. They get into the water and play around on a log and encounter three other boys shoreside who are calling the girls' names. All the boys and girls are about the same age, probably just right before junior high or middle school. The girls Eva and Carol want to trick the boys to get into the river and get in over their heads so they attract their attention to a boat stuck in a tree. The boys get in, Eva and Carol suspect the boys will feel fooled, but then they become interested in this broken down boat with a hole in it and work to get it out of the tree. Well, that summer, it becomes a project for the boys to repair the boat and tar it, and Eva and Carol come along to help out. Before you know it, they're running the boat out on the water taking turns. Later, they reach a shallow part of the waters that leads to an abandoned building. They all go inside and play truth or dare. One of the boys suggests getting in the buff. Carol says why not, Eva follows suit, and the boys all do, and they all think it's pretty silly, so they run off through the field and into the water and play, and it's all pretty innocent. Eventually the boys run off first and Eva and Carol decide to wait until the boys are fully gone before they get dressed and go home. The story ends with Eva and Carol saying if the boys tell they disrobed, they'll deny it, nobody would ever believe them. Then Carol gets a stomach cramp.

Ted Hughes, "God Help the Wolf After Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark," Birthday Letters: Poems

Poet Ted Hughes mourns the reception of his wife, poet Sylvia Plath, implying that the criticism of her poetry was what egged on her depression. He writes,

Nobody wanted your dance,

Nobody wanted your strange glitter—your floundering

Drowning life and your effort to save yourself,

Treading water, dancing the dark turmoil,

Looking for something to give—

 I don't know what he's talking about. Sylvia Plath is one of the most revered poets of the 20th century. And I don't understand the title. Hard for me to like a poem with such a pretentious title.

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