Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Golden Rule Among the Ancient Greeks: Plato against Vergeltungsdenken

THE SOPHIST ISOCRATES IS FREQUENTLY GIVEN THE HONOR of having been the first Greek to promote the "Golden Rule" ethic with some clarity. We saw, however, that the rule as promoted by Isocrates was intertwined with the Greek principle of Vergeltdungsdenke, or "repayment thinking." Under this ethic, one was to do good to one's friends, and was to do evil to our enemies. It was also intertwined with and "us" versus "them" mentality, arising from the internecine warfare between the Greek city states, and, perhaps equally important, the outright prejudice against everything non-Greek, that is, anything barbarian. Thus the world was parted into two, one favored, and one disfavored. Such greater self-regarding, other-exclusionary ethic was inconsistent with the Golden Rule being a general ethical principle. One feels that Isocrates used the rule as a slogan, and not a principle.

With Socrates and Plato (it is hard to tell the two apart, since Socrates is, in the main, presented to us through Plato's dialogues), there appears to have been something different injected into the mix. This "something different" can be seen in three of Plato's dialogues: the Cirto, the Phaedo, and the Laws. (See Wattles, 32-36.)

Plato and Socrates from Medieval Manuscript

In the Platonic dialogue Crito, the issue of justice and injustice is broached in a dialogue between Socrates and his friend Crito. Socrates has been condemned to death by his fellow Athenians, and Crito visits Socrates before the sentence has been carried out to persuade him to escape from prison, flee Athens to a safe harbor at Thessaly/ Thereby, Crito argues, he will spare him the embarrassment of not being able to save his friend. Moreover, Socrates will both spare himself from death, and preserve himself for his friends. But Socrates, who applied reasoning to the moral life, and advanced the notion that virtue (In Greek: aretē, or ἀρετή) was a form of knowledge, and thus it could be taught (Cf. Meno), applies reason to Crito's arguments and finds them wanting. The opinions of men ought not to be regarded in answering the question of right or wrong; it is only the opinions of good men, the wise that ought to be considered. The opinions of the vulgar, or the opinions of the unthinking crowd therefore ought to be safely bracketed from the decision of right or wrong. Socrates rejects the argument that, by fleeing against the laws and judgment of his fellow Athenians, he is acting in accordance with justice. In approaching this question, Socrates begins with a principle that rejects outright the Greek Vergeltdungsdenke, or "repayment thinking" ethic:
Socrates: Then we must do no wrong?

Crito: Certainly not.

Socrates: Nor when injured injure in return, as the many imagine; for we must injure no one at all?

Crito: Clearly not.

Socrates: Again, Crito, may we do evil?

Crito: Surely not, Socrates.

Socrates: And what of doing evil in return for evil (τί δέ; ἀντικακουργεῖν κακῶς πάσχοντα), which is the morality of the many (ὡς οἱ πολλοί φασιν)--is that just or not (δίκαιον ἢ οὐ δίκαιον)?

Crito: Not just.

Socrates: For doing evil to another is the same as injuring him?

Crito: Very true.

Socrates: Then we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him. But I would have you consider, Crito, whether you really mean what you are saying.
Crito 49c. (Jowett, trans.) Then, in the remainder, Socrates applies this principle by personifying the Athenian law and asking whether the law itself (which represents the multitude of Athenians), though it has harmed him by condemning his to death, it had before that done him well, and it would be, in any event, harmed by his escape. He is not to do good to the law (obey it) when it favors him, and to harm the law (disobey it) when it disfavors him. The irony that Socrates rejects the morality of the vulgar, only to end up captive to the will of the vulgar, ought not to escape us. But Socrates's points "remains true, regardless of the controversy about the degree of irony present here." Wattles, 33.

The dialogue Phaedo presents Socrates in similar context. He is being visited by his friends in prison as the death sentence is imminently to be carried out. In this dialogue, the issue of immortality and the legitimacy of suicide looms large. What is particularly fascinating about this dialogue is that Socrates applies the Golden Rule in analyzing our relationship to God. Socrates applies what may be called an analogia moralis or analogia moralium, a moral analogy or analogy of morals in coming to the conclusion that suicide is wrong. Again, the Socratic irony (which always is nearby) is apparent: it is unjust to commit suicide, but it is nevertheless just to suffer the unjust sentence under law which requires forcible suicide by the drinking of hemlock.

The dialogue, in this case between Cebes and Socrates, accepts the existence of the gods and the afterlife. It assumes, further, that we have a duty to the gods, indeed God (in the singular) (τὸ θεοὺς εἶναι ἡμῶν τοὺς ἐπιμελουμένους, Phaedo, 62b); Wattles, 35. We are, as it were, chattels of the gods, Phaedo, 62b, and, just as if we would be upset if one of our possessions destroyed itself, so, likewise, would God be upset if we destroyed ourselves through suicide.
“Well then,” said he, “if one of your chattels should kill itself when you had not indicated that you wished it to die, would you be angry with it and punish it if you could?”

“Certainly,” he replied.
(Phaedo, 62c) (Fowler, trans.) In the dialogue, then, the Golden Rule, which can be applied in relationships which contain a relationship of subordination and not strict equality, is extended by analogy into the context of the relationship between man and God. How is it that we would want a subordinate to act towards us, were we in the position of the a superior or superordinate? The answer to that question may be analogized so as to answer what our duties to God ought to be. Under this concept, the Golden Rule is applicable in guiding our relationship to God. (While there is real insight here, one must remember that the Golden Rule is content neutral, or as Wattles calls it "free-floating," Wattles, 36-37, and so it can be easily corrupted, or improperly recruited, by not being properly founded upon a greater ethic or, worse, upon an erroneous ethic. Thus, for example, a follower of Satan, or one who entertains the erroneous concept of a violent, tyrannical Allah, would apply the Golden Rule with vicious results.)

Stained Glass Window showing The Good Samaritan by Marc Chagall

The "Golden Rule" thinking is also applied by Plato in the context of relationships between men of commerce, where there is equality of relationship, and in the assessment of good laws. Plato does this in his Laws, in addressing the laws that ought to govern property:
In the next place our business transactions one with another will require proper regulation. The following will serve for a comprehensive rule:—as far as possible, no one shall touch my goods nor move them in the slightest degree, if he has in no wise at all got my consent; and I must act in like manner regarding the goods of all other men, keeping prudent mind.
Laws, 913a (Bury, trans.) So does the Athenian say.

In his application of the Golden Rule thinking, Plato avoids the Vergeltdungsdenke of the masses, the hoi polloi, which infected the formulation of that rule, or at least its application, in Isocrates. Rejecting any Protagorean notion that man is the proper measure of things, Plato rests his application of the Golden Rule on a greater ethic. In Plato:
The person using the golden rule thinking, Socrates or the Athenian, is virtuous, loyal to the highest conceivable standard of goodness. The conditions that block the objection [that one ought not to make man the measure of things] are, first, that no free-floating golden rule is presented as a sufficient moral measure; and, second, that the wants of Socrates and the Athenian are hardly unregulated--they both strive for the divine measure. Such idealism would facilitate the insight necessary to apply the golden rule appropriately. Ennobled wants do not exceed what is fair.
Wattles, 36.

The Golden Rule by Norman Rockwell

No comments:

Post a Comment