Monday, September 28, 2009

Atheism and Hetero-theism

In Plato’s Apology, one of the charges against Socrates is that he preaches about different gods than those of the city, and in this respect doesn’t believe in God and is impious. During his defense, he points out that if he believes and teaches certain divinities, but not those of the city, than he can’t be said to be an atheist.

This episode was interesting to me, in part, because I encountered the same confusion when Spinoza is called an atheist during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. For it seemed so strange to me that one could be an atheist and yet at the same time so clearly and unequivocally speak repeatedly of God, even if it were “sive Natura”. Still, today, when philosophers write about Spinoza’s pantheism, this is immediately identified with a certain atheism. My own position on Spinoza’s pantheism and atheism I will here defer until another time.

But there is a certain necessary slippage in speaking of what I might call “hetero-theism” and its indistinction from “atheism.” The reason is this. If we are theists, then we must deny the existence of gods other than our own. Thus, all those whose gods are unlike ours are necessarily pagans, atheists. Whereas, were we to admit the existence of other gods, then we would be admitting doubt about the singular nature of our god. Thus, the hetero-theist shall always be an atheist.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Quickly: On a line of poetry, vaguely recalled, by Robert Hass

It goes:

Language is a moral cloud-chamber, through which the world passes, emerging charged with desire.

I love that line. It is lovely, perhaps for its imagery. I imagine that shiny earth passing into a mist, within staticky exchanges of electricity go back and forth. The earth comes out of the cloud, and the remaining films of the cloud pull away.

But what does Hass mean my "moral" cloud-chamber (and why do I insist on hyphenating it? and I do)? I like to think that it is an image meant to correct the notion of morality as something silent, like two orbs flitting through space, self-same and immutable. Whereas good and evil are always objects of desire--and repulsion. And the desire is not there by accident, but makes good and evil into what they are. The good is always an object of desire ... and the evil is always an object of desire.

And mediocrity is the neutralizing cloth that kills all life (and desire).

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Quickly: The Myth of Equality and Plato's Republic

Perhaps this will be the format for a number of soon-to-be blog posts, but since time is short, they will take the form of "quickly."

Every now and again Y and I see children and I comment on their aptitude and say, oh, he's part of the bronze cast, or she's silver, recalling the "myth of the metals" described at the end of Book 3 of Plato's Republic. As you shall remember, according to the myth of the metals, individuals in the community are differentiated in their education, at birth, based on the metal in their soul. Should you have gold, you shall be trained to be a guardian; silver, an auxiliary; and bronze, a craftsperson. I think this is a funny joke, but Y mentioned the other day that it made her a bit anxious.

I explained to her that Socrates proposed this myth in order to best organize the city that he and his interlocutors are describing. In other words, it is not that Socrates necessarily thinks that there is such a differentiation of individuals according to metal (or blood), but that there needs to be in order to train people properly, create the just regime, etc. As well, I mentioned, the consequence of this myth is that each occupation is treated and valued for herself insofar as they fulfill their occupation, not in relation to other occupations. Namely, that the craftsperson is judged as a craftsperson and not as a guardian. I summarized, drawing from my lectures, that this is the myth of difference.

In my lectures I counterpose this to our own myth of equality. Namely, that all people are equally capable of doing anything, via bootstraps or saving their pennies or education or whatnot. Yet it seems to me, and I didn't realize this until the conversation with Y, that the myth of equality has the unforeseen and unintended consequence of devaluing the different occupations of others. Instead, it treats only the highest, most lucrative, most powerful, occupations as those worthy of esteem. Thus, the myth of equality has the unintended consequence of making all except those who have "succeeded"--which by nature must be a limited number--failures.