Saturday, July 23, 2005

Socrates' praise

Summing up what he takes to be Socrates' greatest achievement, Frederick Copelston writes that the most famous of the ancient Greeks philosophers was one of the first to recognize the existence of a universal Human Nature, and relatedly, the Natural Law:
While we cannot accept the over intellectualist attitude of Socrates, and agree with Aristotle that moral weakness is a fact which Socrates tended to overlook, we willingly pay homage to the ethic of Socrates. For a rational ethic must be founded on human nature and the good of human nature as such. Thus when Hippias... remark[ed] that the prohibition of sexual intercourse between parents and children is not a universal prohibition, Socrates rightly answered that racial inferiority which results from such intercourse justifies the prohibition. This is tantamount to appealing to what we would call "Natural Law," which is an expression of man's nature and conduces to its harmonious development. Such an ethic is indeed insufficient, since the Natural Law cannot acquire a morally binding force, obligatory in conscience - at least in the sense of our modern conception of "Duty" - unless it has a morally transcendent Source, God, Whose Will for man is expressed in the Natural Law; but although insufficient, it enshrines a most important and valuable truth which is essential to the development of a rational moral philosophy. "Duties" are not simply useless or arbitrary commands or prohibitions, but are to be seen in relation to human nature as such: the Moral Law expresses Man's true good. Greek ethics were predominantly eudaemonological in character (cf. Aristotle's ethical system), and though, we believe, they need to be completed by Theism, in order to attain their true development, they remain, even in their incomplete state, a perennial glory to Greek philosophy. Human nature is constant and so ethical values are constant, and it is Socrates' undying fame that he realised the constancy of these values and sought to fix them in universal definitions which could be taken as a guide and norm in human conduct.
I also find the notion of "human nature" to be very intriguing when thinking about ethics. I like that it contains a mix of ideas and factual observation, tied together. An ethic based on ideas will be a rough job, and seek to make us conform to it; and it will more than likely be overly simple. An ethic based only on observation is itself simply another kind of idealized simplicity, doomed to miss the forest for the trees. Together, however, I think the two can form a dialectic, each informing the other and providing a corrective or, even - a new step in our knowledge of what we are and what that asks of us. Interestingly, according to Plato's Apology, when Socrates was tried and sentenced to death, he was asked what he did in his profession. Socrates' answer was that he sought:
to persuade every man among you that he must look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests, and look to the State before he looks to the interest of the State; and that this should be the order in which he observes in his actions
He thought a man had to know what he was before he could act properly, and before he could take care of his political duties, he had to know what the state was. Well and good - I think this is quite correct, and I agree also that knowing human nature comes before human government. You can't deal with Macro problems if can't deal with Micro problems! It seems simple enough. Where and how is this knowledge of human nature to be sought? Well, through interactions with other seekers, of course. What would such interactions look like? Family, Church and Community - in that order. The ancient Greeks did not like this answer. Socrates was charged with 1) not worshiping the Gods whom the State worships, and 2) of corrupting the young. For those offenses he was sentenced to death. That was in 400 B.C. Isn't it gratifying that we've come so far since then? Now we have religious freedom, and the state does not tell you what you must think. Of course, human nature being a constant, there are always going to be those - such as this particular fool - who either didn't get the memo or failed to understand it.

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