When Philosophy Confronts the Practical

Socrates, the gadfly of Athens, was put to death for being annoying. Well, it wasn’t necessarily that simple of a trial or an indictment, but in the end, that’s what it boiled down to. He was annoying the older generation, even saying that if they kill him, they will simply spur the younger generation to carry on his work. Not only would they do so, he says, but they would be even more aggravating in doing it because they wouldn’t have the wisdom, patience, and experience Socrates had.

Our own students are sometimes young Socrates. They barrage us with why questions, or try to make us define our terms, when we want to rest on the assumption that we all know what that word means. In the classroom, those young Socrates can be annoying because we have a lesson to get through, material to cover, or a test to prepare for. In a homeschool, those young Socrates can be annoying for the same reasons or because we have laundry to do, diapers to change, dishes to wash, or—by golly—stuff to get on with! I find, in my own case, that what makes the question annoying is that I just don’t know the answer to it!

In his dialogue, Euthyphro, Plato writes of Socrates’ own confrontation with such practical matters. It is the day of his trial, the day that will be recounted in Plato’s Apology, and he is at the courthouse early. While waiting, he encounters Euthyphro and asks why he is there. Euthyphro is there to try his own case, a case in which he is charging his father with murder. When Socrates asks him why he would do that, Euthyphro says it is his duty because of the demands of piety. At this point, Socrates realizes that if he and Euthyphro can define piety then he might have testimony he can use in his own defense. So he asks Euthyphro to help him understand what it is.

As they work through the dialogue, a rather short exchange, Socrates realizes that Euthyphro is not answering the question—in fact, they keep circling back to the same definition. Euthyphro argues that piety is whatever the gods love. Socrates, however, wants him to see that he is simply raising the question, “Is something pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious?” In Christianity, we encounter a similar question when someone asks, “Does God call a thing good because it is good or is it good because God calls it good?” Philosophers refer to this as the Euthyphro dilemma.

In the final round of questioning, when Socrates points this dilemma out, he pleads with Euthyphro,

So we must investigate again from the beginning what piety is, as I shall not willingly give up before I learn this. Do not think me unworthy, but concentrate all your attention and tell the truth. For you know it, if any man does, and I must not let you go, like Proteus, before you tell me.

To which Euthyphro responds, “Some other time, Socrates, for I am in a hurry now, and it is time for me to go.” John M. Cooper, editor of Plato: Complete Works, writes in his introduction to the dialogue,

Thus, predictably, Socrates’ hopes are disappointed; just when he is ready to press further to help Euthyphro express his knowledge, if indeed he does possess it, Euthyphro begs off on the excuse of business elsewhere.

Socrates is not actually trying to be philosophical or facetious. The answer to the question, “What is piety,” is eminently practical. In fact, the distinction between the philosophical and the practical is far more imagined than we allow ourselves to believe. For what can be more practical than to know what piety is that I may know whether my next act will be considered pious or not? What can be more practical than to know what justice is that I may know whether my next act will be thought just or not?

Yet we pretend these philosophical questions (what is…, why…, how come…) are getting in the way of our need for practical knowledge. When, in fact, what I am calling practical knowledge is often nothing more than someone just telling me what to do, liberating me from having to make choices and from the responsibility of decision-making.

In Socrates’ case, however, the philosophical question, “What is piety,” ended up being a life or death question. For, later that day, he would face the jury and be sentenced to death, possibly because he could not tell them that what he was doing was pious.

It is unlikely, in any given moment with any given question, that my student is asking me a life or death question. It is not true, though, that the culmination of having many questions go unanswered by me and others, on no other grounds than that I have other things to worry about, will not mean the difference between the life well lived and its alternative.

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