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Having traveled from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First Century A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.
Time and again you return to the question of religion, about which you have expressed very definite opinions. Why this bee in your bonnet? It seems to have become your hobbyhorse of late.
Not just of late: it was my preoccupation in ancient time as well. But you are right. The former gadfly of the steed of Athens now has his own mount and stinger. And I think I can answer your question about why directly (although I hesitate to utter it because it will not sound humble): looking back over the millennia I have come to realize that on that day in the agora when I asked Euthyphro, priest of the Olympian gods, “Do you really believe those stories about the gods are true?” and he said, “Yes,” philosophy was born. There you have it – what distinguishes philosophy from religion. Philosophy questions what religion merely asserts and assumes.
Furthermore, I agree with my distinguished predecessor, Siddhartha Gautama, that the metaphysical claims of the various religions can be safety put aside. Let the sciences handle them. Such issues do not tend toward the kind of edification I seek, which is guidance in living. This was clear to me even in ancient times, as Plato reported in the Phaedo. Thus, I see the pith of religion to be ethics. But ethics can be, and I maintain should be, an object of inquiry, not a subject of dogma. Therefore, again I advocate philosophy.
Nonetheless I have also argued in these columns that there is a legitimate place in human life for something that can rightly be called religion, although it would still be philosophically imbued. In fact I think true religion might be defined as lived philosophy. I allow that this could be conceived as something separate from philosophy per se as it does – alas! – seem to be possible to reason well about ethical questions even if the reasoner fails, or does not even try, to live up to his or her own conclusions. I am not absolutely certain that this does not reduce to an earlier distinction of mine between philosophy and sophistry, but I am willing to grant that it does not and instead represents a higher dichotomy between a seeker after truth and a master of life (or one who honestly, humbly, yet confidently strives to be so to the best of his or her ability).
I would number among the latter such luminaries as Siddhartha, Jesus and Gandhi. None of these was God or a god, that is, no more than any of the rest of us are. Indeed, an essential component of my admiration for them is precisely that they were not gods, since to the degree that they were and I am not, what interest could they have for me? How could they be models of how I should live? What attracts me to them is their eloquence, their calm, perhaps their good humor, their compassion, their courage, and their total liberality of thinking.
It is completely clear to me that if there is a God, His behavior is nothing I would be able to emulate, nor would I even care to. What credit should go to such an all-powerful, all-seeing, and perfectly pure of heart? Is it not we, who must struggle to achieve anything at all, for whom praise or condemnation is both necessary and apt? And what instruction would come to me from contemplating how God behaves? A Being who wipes out villages with volcanic eruptions, plagues and inundations, and stands idly by while humans torture children and animals, is too inscrutable, if not outright cruel or indifferent, for me to find any guidance therein. (I’m with Ivan Karamazov on that one!) If I had total knowledge of what my actions, actual or contemplated, would lead to, and also had the power to do anything I wished, then if my heart were pure I presumably would know exactly what I ought to do and then do it, being guided solely by the best welfare of all. But since I am sunk in a vat of ignorance, with mixed motives to boot, any pretence to such a condition could only end in disaster except by sheer dumb luck… or by the further circumstance that, thank God, I also lack the power to accomplish whatever I wish!
So to me as a philosopher is left the humble task of constantly questioning my surmises about what is true and what is good and what it is right or wrong to do. And when I contemplate real flesh-and-blood human beings, such as the aforementioned three, I can only marvel at their ability to affirm and act in the face of rational doubt, and to do so in a way that appeals to my own deepest ethical intuitions.
Let me also acknowledge that there could be a ‘mystical’ element to their wisdom, which may in fact be what sets them apart from ‘mere’ philosophers. All three seem to have been meditators and in touch with something that gave them their vision, strength, and charisma. If you would like to call that something ‘God’, I have no great objection. Is being in touch with it a necessary condition of what I have been calling religion (that is, genuine religion)? I’m not sure. Sometimes I think that meditation is simply a quieting of the mind to enable reasoning to take place in an ideal way. But if one prefers the idea of a clearing-out of mental, selfish clutter to make room for divine power to pour in, I see no harm... provided one does not hold the process sacrosanct – that is, above and beyond the reach of philosophy and all its questioning. Absolutely not, I can affirm without doubt! With regard to that point I think I can also rely on explicit endorsements from at least two of the three exemplars; and if I were enough of an exegete, perhaps I could make the case for the third as well.