Posts Tagged ‘Euthyphro’

Euthyphro and Compassion

August 25, 2009

My Facebook friend wrote:

The class was on the Euthyphro, and I was discussing whether being able to define an ethical concept made you more ethical. I then described compassion as an automatic process and easy to define concept. “But is it really?” the student asked, “I mean, do those people in Iraq really understand compassion the way we Americans do.”

I want to comment during the coming days on this interesting issue.


Camus and The Sanctity of Unity

August 9, 2009

One morning, I began to think about “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus.

Albert Camus (1913–1960) is not a philosopher so much as a novelist with a strong philosophical bent. He is most famous for his novels of ideas, such as The Stranger and The Plague, both of which are set in the arid landscape of his native Algeria.

Like existentialism, phenomenology influenced Camus by its effort to construct a worldview that does not assume that there is some sort of rational structure to the universe that the human mind can apprehend.

Camus, when he first wrote about exile, was a man, far from his home, who was struggling against a seemingly omnipotent and senselessly brutal regime.

The central concern of The Myth of Sisyphus is what Camus calls “the absurd.” Camus claims that there is a fundamental conflict between what we want from the universe (whether it be meaning, order, or reasons) and what we find in the universe (formless chaos). We will never find in life itself the meaning that we want to find. Either we will discover that meaning through a leap of faith, by placing our hopes in a God beyond this world, or we will conclude that life is meaningless.

Camus opens the essay by asking if this latter conclusion that life is meaningless necessarily leads one to commit suicide. If life has no meaning, does that mean life is not worth living? If that were the case, we would have no option but to make a leap of faith or to commit suicide, says Camus. Camus is interested in pursuing a third possibility: that we can accept and live in a world devoid of meaning or purpose.

I wonder if our purpose in a meaningless universe is to find meaning in the meaninglessness, create meaning where there is no meaning, and impose meaning upon that meaninglessness. Perhaps meaninglessness is a necessary ingredient for freedom. If there is a pre-existing meaning and order, then that which pre-exists becomes law
for us, and law constricts our freedom.

If we reject conventional theology and philosophy, then what remains for us?

Perhaps Camus had the answer!

Stop and think how even the omnipotence of God is threatened by laws and order. There are two verses in the Bible (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18) which state that “God cannot lie.”

Allah of the Qu’ran, on the other hand, is more free and potent than such an honest-Abe Jehovah, for Islam states that Allah has the power to abrogate and overturn any and every established rule or command.

Sura 2:106 “Whatever communications We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or like it. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things?”

Plato presents us with the famous “Euthyphro Dilemma” which asks: “Is what you’re doing pious because it is loved by God, or does God love what you’re doing because what you’re doing is pious?”

Honest-Abe-Jehovah is forbidden to lie because of the pre-existing absolute standard of good and evil to which even God is subject. So Jehovah loves virtue because of its intrinsic objective absolute nature as something good. Allah on the other hand, is more powerful since Allah is free to designate whatever Allah pleases as pious and virtuous, and is not even bound by Allah’s own judgment, but may abrogate that judgment at any time and designate something completely different as pious and virtuous.

Confronted by meaninglessness, we seek transcendence to rise above and escape.

Sisyphus must struggle perpetually and without hope of success. So long as he accepts that there is nothing more to life than this absurd struggle, then he can find happiness in it, says Camus.

Camus gives four examples of the absurd life: the seducer, who pursues the passions of the moment; the actor, who compresses the passions of hundreds of lives into a stage career; the conqueror, or rebel, whose political struggle focuses his energies; and the artist, who creates entire worlds. Absurd art does not try to explain experience, but simply describes it. It presents a certain worldview that deals with particular matters rather than aiming for universal themes.

Camus discusses the very meaning of existence and life itself. I observe that to justify absurdity is to impose a measure of order upon it.

We can be certain of only two things: our “nostalgia for unity” and our inability to find an answer in the world.

Think about “unity.” We study the “UNI”verse in a “UNIV”ersity where we constantly strive for a “G.U.T.” (Grand Unifying Theory) Our various religions stress “MONO”theism, or the “UNITY” of the Trinity. Our
government adopts the maxim “E Pluribus Unum” (From the many, one.) We preach a creed of one God, one faith, one baptism, one wife, one husband, one nation under God, indivisible, and so forth. My very deployment of the word “one” with such frequency becomes onerous to the reader. We even make “top ten lists” of novels and many other things, which implies that there is a NUMBER ONE at the top of the list. We speak of “the great American novel.” It is amusing to note that, even though we have TWO eyes and TWO ears and TWO cerebral hemispheres, yet we experience only ONE unified field of vision and hear only ONE harmonious composition and have only ONE stream of consciousness. The number one seems to have a sanctity all its own. The sanctity of unity gives a new and different meaning to the one greatest prayer of Judaism, the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is ONE.” Numero Uno is a god for us in many ways.

If the absurd man does not need to explain or justify his life and behavior, why did Camus write this essay, which is, essentially, an explanation and justification of the absurd worldview? The irony of writing an essay to justify the absurd reminds me of an episode from the Simpsons, “Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming,” in which the side-kick of Crusty the Clown, Sideshow Bob (voice of Kelsey Grammer), a frustrated Shakespearean actor, seizes control of all the television stations, in an attempt to censure and silence the very medium which enslaves him to the absurd role which he plays.


Bob: Oh, and one more thing. I’ve…stolen a nuclear weapon. If you do not rid this city of television within two hours, I will detonate it. Farewell.

— Bob’s evil parting words, “Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming”

The TV turns off. The crowd begins to panic. The TV clicks back on again.

Bob: By the way, I’m aware of the irony of appearing on TV in order to decry it. So don’t bother pointing that out.

There is irony in the use of the logical vehicle of exposition, the essay, to justify the position of one who embraces absurdity.

There is an irony in using the very medium which one seeks to decry.

To embrace absurdity is to decry reason. To use reason to justify embracing absurdity is ironic. Perhaps the universe cannot exist without some speck of absurdity in its foundation.

One must consider Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem which suggests that, beyond math, any logical system (a philosophy, a religion, etc.) must be either incomplete or contain antinomies.

The seed of chaos is the mote in the oyster’s eye which the pearl of order soothes and conceals.

Tom Wolfe blinks, perplexed, at his nacreous dawns.

Perfection is the greatest flaw.

I should not leave any reader behind, bewildered by my mention of Tom Wolfe.

I am quite happy with the sentence above which came to me only this morning as I wrote: The seed of chaos is the mote in the oyster’s eye which the pearl of order soothes and conceals.

One of my Internet friends, in Yahoo chat, asked me the source of that quote. I explained that I made had made it up just now. I realize the idea is not new or unique. I have seen other metaphors and parables regarding oysters and pearls.

I was about to use the word “speck” or “grain” but suddenly I remembered the words of Jesus: “You attempt to remove the mote in your brother’s eye, yet you have a plank in your own eye.”

If you do a Google search, as I did just now, you will find the following link which quotes Carl Sagan.

Carl Sagan’s Mote

Our planet is a mote, a speck, a grain in the universe. Thanks to the King James translation, and its power over our English language, the word mote will forever connote Jesus’ censure. A speck and a grain are simply small particles, morally neutral, but a mote is a moral flaw, and one which afflicts us, impairs our vision and causes us suffering, or at the very least, annoyance.

The oyster applies layer upon layer of nacre year after year upon this mote until the mote is no longer small and annoying, but large and lustrous, a thing of beauty, much sought after.

We are like Tom Sawyer and his friends with our buckets of nacre and brushes, white washing that old fence until it becomes the “pearly gates” of heaven itself. That is, we apply logic and reason and order to cover up all that ugly chaos and absurdity, and transform it into some metaphysical system, or a revealed religion, or a constitutional democracy.

If our world is a mote in the eye of the universe, then perhaps human consciousness is the gland which whitewashes the irritant with nacre.

When I recently began to read Tom Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel” I noticed that he was fond of the word “nacreous.”

Nacreous means shiny and bright without glittering or sparkling, like mother-of-pearl. Mother-of-pearl is the hard, pearly layer that is found inside certain marine shells, such as oysters. Nacreous is also used to
describe certain groups of bacteria. Nacreous comes from the Greek word “nacre” meaning “mother of pearl,” and the Greek word “osus” meaning “characterized by.” Put the two words together and you have “characterized by mother-of-pearl.”

When Tom Wolfe writes of a “nacreous dawn” I immediately think of Homer’s frequent phrase, the formulaic “rosy-fingered dawn.”

Camus once said, “Perhaps the greatest sin of all is to yearn for some after-life and ignore the implacable grandeur of this life which we already possess.”