What is piety?
- According to etymology, piety comes from Latin pietas, the noun from of pius, meaning “good” or “devout”.
- According to the dictionary, piety means “reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations”.
Simple enough. Time to end this post, let’s all get drunk. Not.
Back in ancient Greece, Plato once wrote a dialogue wherein his then-dead teacher, Socrates, was talking to someone outside the courts. Socrates was on his fated and fatal trial charging him with impiety and the introduction of new gods to Athens, and he encounters Euthyphro, a prosecutor for another case (against his father for murder) which also involves piety and doing what is just in the eyes of the gods. Chatting idly before the courts, they engage in a bit of discussion about their upcoming trials, which eventually settles on the nature of piety. After all, if piety weren’t an issue, Socrates couldn’t be charged with corrupting the youth of Athens because of his impiety, and if piety weren’t demanded of Euthyphro, he wouldn’t be testifying and placing a charge against his own father.
The problem is that neither of them can give an explanation for what piety actually is. Through their dialogue, Socrates gets the following answers out of Euthyrphro for what piety is, but notices a problem with each of them.
- Piety is what Euthyphro is doing right then, viz. prosecuting someone of a crime, just as Zeus restrained and punished his father, who restrained and punished his father before him, which were acts of justice. Socrates points out that, while this act may be pious indeed, there are other acts which are considered pious; this is an example of piety, not an explanation or definition of it. Rejected.
- Piety is what is dear to the gods, and impiety is what is not dear to the gods. Socrates points out that the gods disgree amongst themselves, and that some disagreements may be on points where there is no factual or objective measure to agree by, such as what is just and what is unjust. So, though the gods may hold what is dear to them to be what is pious, what is dear to one god may be repulsive to another, so the same action may be both pious and impious at once, which is a contradiction. Rejected.
- Piety is what is dear to all the gods, and impiety is what is all the gods hold not dear. This is something they both agree on, but then Socrates asks a crucial question: is what is pious pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it’s pious? In other words, is it pious because the gods say so, or is it pious because of something intrinsic to itself? It can’t be both, because then that would lead to a vicious circle, and further, just the fact that the gods love something doesn’t mean that it is intrinsically pious because of that fact. Their loving it is a recognition of it being pious is thus an attribute of piety, but is not a definition for piety. Rejected.
- Piety is a type of justice. In other words, Socrates supposes that, since all things that are pious are just, piety is based on what is just. However, because there are things that are just that are not necessarily pious, we can’t just assign the qualities of justice to piety and be finished there. It’s a superclass/subclass or genus/species issue of definition; we may have some qualities of piety, but not all of them, without which we can’t yet have a definition of piety. If piety is only a part of justice, which part is it? Neither Socrates nor Euthyphro can answer. Rejected.
- Piety is an action that is just that attends to the gods. In this instance, attendance to something is done to improve, benefit, and guide them. However, Socrates then states that pious acts are done to improve the gods, which they both quickly agree is a dangerous statement of hubris. Instead, Euthyphro restates the definition of attendance to be something more like ministration or service to a god to deliver things that please them. This then defines piety as giving the gods what pleases them, which then devolves into the definition of what is dear to the gods. Rejected.
- Piety is the art of sacrifice and prayerto the gods, learning how to please the gods in word and deed. Sacrifice is defined as the act of giving to the gods, and prayer as asking or receiving from the gods; piety, then, is an art and science of giving and asking, which is a kind of business or transaction. However, the gods want from us things that please them, which is essentially gives piety the same definition as above. Rejected.
After this point, Euthyphro has to leave to get to his trial on time, leaving Socrates just as confused as ever as he prepares to combat a charge about a quality he hasn’t found any explanation or definition for. Kinda sucks, really, but we end up with the notion that piety is intricately bound up with what divinity approves of. So we have a bit of a dilemma on our hands: is something pious because it has an innate nature called “piety” that is only recognized and approved of by an outside source, or is it pious because it is explicitly liked by divinity for no other reason than it pleases them?
- If what is pious is instrinsically pious, then that implies that there is a rule or order of things outside of divine order. If so, then divinity has no power over it to change it, divinity is itself holy based on things that are pious and so aren’t worthy of worship in and of themselves but only to the degree that they support piety, and piety would still exist even if there were no gods to approve of them.
- If what is pious is just what is pious to the gods because they like it, then that implies that pious things amount to no more than “because I said so”. If so, then anything could be possible, allowed, legal, or demanded just because divinity wants it: if he said it pleased him to kill unborn babies, or for triangles to have more than three angles. Morality could not exist without divinity already existing, morality could not be eternal laws due to the potential for divinity to change its mind about a command, and removes any reason to praise God.
In Hebrew thought, the similar quality of tzedeq (same triliteral root that gives Jupiter and its angel their names) doesn’t have the same dilemma, since it’s considered an action or event that can be seen and recognized. The only way to describe the totality of things that are tzedeq is a list of all things that fall under that category. In other words, it can only be enumerated specifically, not formulated generally.
From the point of view of a Hermetic philosopher, this is where a slightly different notion of divinity come into play. In my case, good is not separate from divinity; divinity is not separate from what is good, or anything else for that matter. Being good is being godly, and the only thing that is purely and only good is God (or, rather, the Divine Source). Being good in a godly way (not in the common, mundane, or humane way) is, then, what piety could very well be. This permits bad things to happen, in the sense that bad is what is not good, but only from a humane or mundane perspective. This agrees with the earlier definition Euthyphro kept getting stuck on, because God likes and constantly contemplates Itself Mindfully, at one point speaking the Word to act and interact with itself; thus, being Good (capital-g “good in a godly way”) is being what God likes, i.e. pious and piety.
How do we know what being Good is? By being Godly. In being Godly, we learn the mind of the Nous, the word of the Logos, and the wisdom of Sophia, which help us collectively in knowing ourselves. By knowing ourselves, we learn what we really want to do and what we really need to do; from a teleological or Godly point of view, the two are ultimately the same. This is knowing our True Will, knowing the true course of our lives and how to act in accordance with our nature and Nature/God itself. “Do what thou wilt” isn’t just a license to fuck around and fuck up as fancy would drive one to do, but is really an injunction to do what you need, are suited, and are destined to do. In doing this, we do what is Good, and in doing what is Good we become pious.
However, this type of Good defies definition beyond “what is Godly”. It’s entirely above and beyond mechanical, natural, logical, or spiritual revelation, coming from the superclass and source of all these things. The only way to learn what one should do is to…well, you tell me.
Nice to see somebody doing work on the Euthyphro. A useful additional dimension of interpretation for a dialogue like this, in which all the conclusions are negative, is the approach of the later Platonists, such as Proclus, who interpret each of the “rejected” positions as being valid on a specific plane of being, so that each of the negative conclusions is also positive in a narrow context.
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