Piety, virtue, and folly

Socrates was: (a) a virtuous man (within the limits of his time); (2) not an atheist; and (3) not a fool. Bigoted Christians and bigoted atheists seem to have a problem holding these three propositions in mind together.

Isn’t it fun watching various conservative politicians and commentators suddenly backing away from Christian-ism now that it appears &#8212 in the person of Mike Huckabee &#8212 detached from economic royalism? I’m hoping that the current round of religious warfare within the GOP coalition will have lasting impacts, both driving the money-cons away from voting for theo-con candidates (while also helping to legitimize attacks by liberals on religious extremism) and driving a wedge between the GOP and its theo-con voting base by reminding the “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” crowd of the profound contempt in which they are held by their allies.

Even Rick Santorum has suddenly decided that he ought to defend us unbelievers from the charge that our skepticism makes us incapable of ethical action. But in doing so he falls into a widely-shared error:

For most, virtue is derived from religion, but that hardly means a man without religion cannot reason his way to virtue. Witness the ancient Greeks.

Put aside for now the question whether “the ancient Greeks” generically were models of upright action, and focus on Santorum’s implication that they were, generically, unbelievers who derived their moral principles from “reason” rather than religion. Yes, some of the classical philosophers made bold attempts to substitute material causation for divine management as the primary explanation for natural phenomena. But classical Greek society would have measured at least as high on religiosity as, for example, the contemporary United States.

Irreligion wasn’t even characteristic of the philosophic enterprise as such, though then as now the ignorant suspected their intellectual betters of being deficient in piety. Socrates was accused of atheism, but the charge was transparently false: according to Plato, his last words were a reminder to one of his students to make an animal sacrifice on his behalf. (“I owe a cock to Aesclepius.” [the traditional offering for one who has recovered from a dangerous illness] “Don’t forget to pay.”)

Our contemporaries are, I think, inclined to credit Greek thinkers with atheism simply because they can’t imagine any thoughtful person believing in what is still taught in schools as “Greek mythology,” as if it Greek beliefs and observances were different in kind from more recent religious beliefs and observances.

The logic seems to go about as follows:

1. If Socrates really believed that the goddess of love cuckolded her husband the god of technology by having an illicit liaison with the god of war, and that the technology-god retaliated by rigging a mechanical net to capture them and display them entwined together, then Socrates must have been an idiot.

2. But Socrates was not an idiot.

3. Therefore, Socrates didn’t believe in the Olympian gods as described by Homer.

4. Therefore, Socrates was an atheist, and his moral sense must have come from reason rather than religion.

But of course the whole point of the early Platonic dialogues is that it doesn’t really make sense to ask whether someone “believes” a proposition or a definition expressed as a verbal formula, because any such formula is likely to have some interpretations that are trivial, absurd, or vicious, and other interpretations that are significant, valuable, and (to some limited extent, because no formula can accurately express reality) true. “That which alone is wise and good,” says Heraclitus, “does and does not allow itself to be called ‘Zeus.’ “

Perhaps, if I had some time, I might even persuade someone like Rick Santorum that it was possible to be a pious pagan without being a fool. Persuading someone like Christopher Hitchens or P.Z. Myers that it is possible to be a pious Christian and not a fool would be harder.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com