Monday, October 8, 2012

A picture of piety?

It is possible while waiting to learn the truth to let the crucial moment for action slip away. But it may also be possible that this very waiting is in some cases the most essential action.

The eponymous agonist of Plato's Euthyphro tells the story of his father's crime:
The victim was a dependent of mine, and when we were farming in Naxos he was a servant of ours. He killed one of our household slaves in drunken anger, so my father bound him hand and foot and threw him in a ditch, then sent a man [to the king-archon] to inquire from a priest what should be done. During that time he gave no thought or care to the bound man, as being a killer, and it was no matter if he died, which he did. Hunger and cold and his bonds caused his death before the messenger came back from the seer.
Well, Euthyphro, what ought he to have done? Perhaps it was not the god's will that this polluted man be fed and sheltered.

Suppose that someone dearer to you than a household slave—say, a great teacher and pious man—were killed by your city, if not in drunken anger then under the influence of distorted ideas of the good. How might you then treat this city? Could you do worse than to let it lie in bondage to its own madness while you turn away and wait for the good itself to reveal itself to you?

Perhaps this treatment would be only just. The city that killed Socrates deserves what it gets. But such a judgment could only be made after the messenger returns.

On the other hand, what is one to do in the meantime in such a case? Is there a pious waiting in contrast to an impious presumption on the message yet to be delivered (as perhaps we must attribute to Euthyphro's father)?

These times in which no action is possible—perhaps they are the most crucial times. It may be that the one who acts most piously is the one who may later say, "I refrained from action, waiting for the proper time" (Plato, Seventh Letter, 326a).