01 July 2009

Why is God Good?

Terry Eagleton's defense of theology was still rattling around in my skull when I picked up Robin Waterfield's Why Socrates Died, the newest attempt to account for that unfortunate fact. Waterfield presents his thesis as if he were a mythbuster, but as far as I knew the notion that Socrates was condemned as a scapegoat for the oligarchic tyranny that he allegedly influenced is nothing new. But I guess the idea of Socrates as a generic questioner of authority, and therefore an archetypal liberal, is still so common that it needs correction as often as possible.

Anyway, Waterfield's discussion of Socrates's religion caught my eye. The philosopher was accused of impiety, but he didn't exactly reject the Olympian gods. Instead, he rejected much of the ribald and violent mythology that had developed about them, and he did so on the ground that the gods had to be good. This wasn't a new discovery for me, but after reading Eagleton I found myself asking why Socrates thought this way. I reminded myself that Judaism developed in the direction Socrates hoped for Greek religion, from Yahweh as a temperamental, manipulative and jealous being to someone who was basically "the Good" personified, as he is seen by Christians and Muslims. Greeks and Hebrews alike were probably absorbing the influence of Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Persian Empire, which also popularized the idea of a Last Judgment. It would seem that Eagleton's theological notion (which, again, he doesn't fully embrace) of God as the necessarily good sustainer of the universe dates back to this epoch. History went in a certain direction, but who's to say it wasn't a wrong turn? Going back to Socrates, the idea of the good god seems of a piece with his authoritarian philosophy. Waterfield is careful to stress that Socrates didn't support just any old kind of elite rule, but the philosopher apparently did insist that rulership was a form of expertise that belonged, by his definition, to the experts rather than the people. Just like there had to be "the good" and it had to come from a good god, so there had to be a "good" in any field of life that bestowed automatic, indisputable authority on experts. Socrates didn't believe expertise was hereditary, but he did think that only certain people had the inclination and the free time to develop that expertise. To him, it appeared, that disqualified democracy from consideration as the best form of government, and that, along with the influence he allegedly had on more active enemies of democracy in Classical Athens, made him too dangerous to live even in his old age in the eyes of a majority of jurors. They may have seen in him a proponent of an absolute moralism that presented as many perils as it did potential benefits. Anyone who insists on a metaphysically absolutist notion of "the good" as a necessity of political or civil life should be regarded with caution, at a minimum -- but it shouldn't be necessary to break out the hemlock right away.


Anonymous said...

What is "good"? Is there an objective definition? It seems to me that anytime you see two nations (or religions/religious factions) at war, they both claim to be the "good guys" and the other side to be evil. So which god is good? Is it the Catholics god? The Baptists' god? The Shi'ites' god? The god of the Jews? How do I know for a fact which religion is the "true" religion, representing the "good" god?

d.eris said...

Another reason why the gods have to be good is provided in the second book of Plato's Republic: "won't somebody think of the children?!" Socrates basically argues that the gods must only be portrayed as good because the stories of the gods are taught to children from a young age, and from these stories they draw lessons about the appropriate way to conduct oneself in the city. Interestingly, though, Socrates has no faith in the text, as it were. If, in a given story, the gods do something that is clearly bad or evil, the story is not re-interpreted so as to construe this evil as good, rather the story is simply banned from the city.

With respect to Chryme's question, in this section of The Republic, it is often simply assumed that everyone knows what the good is, though Socrates does eventually articulate four virtues: justice, moderation, courage and wisdom. This only displaces the question as to what the good is though: what are justice, moderation, courage and wisdom?

Anonymous said...

Of course, I was speaking in a realistic, rather than theoretical way. It's all well and good for Plato have Socrates theorize and all, but in real society, there never seems to be a complete or accurate definition of "good". Good (and evil for that matter) always seem to be, at best, vaguely defined. And what some see as "good", others define as "evil". Our current American society is a perfect example of this.