Piety and the “conflict” of the gods

On the very long flight from Florida to Alaska I had time to read three dialogues of Plato…that inspired thought on points of which I will likely be rambling on about in the near future, and the first of which was piety as it is discussed in Plato’s Euthyphro. In the text we find Socrates in conversation with Euthyphro during which, due to the circumstance each are finding themselves, the conversation turns towards piety…what is pious and what not. Socrates charges Euthyphro, who claims understanding of divine things, with giving him a clear definition of piety, which eventually comes about to that he replies that piety is that which is pleasing to the gods. Naturally Socrates returns that, if, the gods are as people presume them to be, as divine beings in conflict with each other, then would not what is pious to one god be impious to another? The end result is that Euthyphro is unable to explain to any satisfaction what piety is.

So having concluded reading the dialogue I sat (for I had no other choice being on a plane) in contemplation for a while. Now I must confess that I am not an individual who looks at the myths in a literal fashion. In fact any regular reader of my blog has seen for themselves how I take apart myths and examine them or certain features of them. Therefore, it is safe to say that as I do not take the myths literally, I do not believe either that the gods are conflict or states of war with each other as Socrates mentions. In fact the question, in the manner in which he poses it, suggests that he may have not saw it as very likely either, and we see further clues to this on his later talks about how the gods are good and so forth. Therefore, if the gods are by their nature good and are acting together in the world and cosmos at large. I do think that scenarios of apparent opposition are meaningful, but not in such a fashion in which the gods are at odds with each other…friction between two different matters acts a stimulus, and as such I see no reason to see such relationships to be more detrimental than a naturally occurring stimulus within nature. The gods themselves are working within, and are a part of, the natural world. As such they are unified in that the govern the world.

Therefore piety becomes less about what is pleasing to the gods, are more to the point to what adheres to the laws of nature, or divine law (for these I see inseperable). Humanity for all of its freedom of will and mind, is one specie of all those that occupy the earth that willfully acts against what is natural. Instead of adapting to our environment we go to all lengths to change the environment to suite our needs (and often with disastrous consequences). Humans murder each other, cannibalize each other, enslave each other. We do things to other members of our own species that other species just typically don’t do. Note of course that I did not include warfare in this list…there is a reason for it, though we have a talent for taking it to extremes, fighting over territory, resources, and the ability to survive and pass one one’s genetic material is something that occurs widely through nature.

Therefore, though warfare can be distasteful via the sacrifice of life that it takes (for which we get the poetic references to Ares as being the most detested of the gods), it is not contrary to nature, nor is the activity of warfare considered impious. However, how it is carried out may be impious as we see in illustrations from the Iliad, where impious activity, that which is counter to divine law, is punished. The greed of Agamemnon is punished, the violation of the guest-host relationship on the part of Paris too is punished, and the murder of supplicants. There is a rather long list of activity that goes on within the text in which we have a violation that is rewarded with punishment. To obey divine law, and hence too the established customs, and laws of the land comprises that which is a pious life. We can infer this from the Delphic Maxims which address what one must do to live a good life. If a life is good, then as we know from Socrates that a good life is a pious life which is blessed by the gods (my summation). As such the Delphic Maxims are a set of moral “laws” for leading a pious life…much of which have to do with obeying customs, refraining from the shedding of kin’s blood or violations upon each other such as rape and murder, observing acts of charity, etc.

In short I would say that piety is the adherence to natural/divine law, social law (aka customs and traditions), and the law of the land if it is just. I add that tag at the end there because there is a certain obligation to refrain from participating in something that is  unjust. An unjust law may typically be identified as one which goes against the natural or divine laws…as such laws which punish violation against each other would be, to my thinking, in adherence to natural/divine law. However, if a law is unjust, one who follows the law is equally guilty of being contrary to natural/divine law…and to follow such a law, knowing that it is unjust, is to act impiously.

For this reason I do think that it is necessary to read Euthyphro and Apology together, as the discussion on piety, which occurs before the courtroom into which Socrates is to enter, essentially on the charges of impiety, is more or less expanded in Apology in which Socrates addresses the fact that since he does in fact believe in the gods, no law has been broken…and goes on to address instances where he did break laws by refusing to take part in unjust activity…and revealing himself to be, contrary to the charges of impiety, as a person of great piety. Yet, as we see he does not try to wiggle out of the laws, nor of pronouncements that are made in the legal system. He adheres to them, and rebukes any idea of fleeing or escape from the consequences as we see in Crito. As such he adheres to legal system, which is established by the gods, and the consequences of his challenges to the system of things (for as he said, he would not promise to not do the same as he had been doing before in his interactions and speech) as pronounced by his peers.

Therefore by taking note of all of this mental wandering of mine, I came to the conclusion that to live piously I would adhere to law, challenge that which is unjust or unreasonable in order to promote change, take part in the judicial system and my civic responsibilities, and adhere to the cultural customs (which includes not only that of my homeland but also the adopted culture that I have assumed upon embracing Hellenismos), and to adhere to the Delphic Maximums as closely as I can as an outline of natural/divine law. This, to me, is piety inspired from reading Euthyphro and Apology.


2 thoughts on “Piety and the “conflict” of the gods

  1. I remember reading the Euthyphro in university, without the Apology; now I have an incentive to re-read the first, and read the second, together!

    I agree with you that incidences of apparent “conflict” between gods are meaningful. I often find lessons for humans in these divine battles.
    To use a terribly dense analogy: runway fashions are outrageous because they firmly imprint the idea of a “trend” by showing its extremest forms. Likewise, stories of gods in conflict – with each other or with mortals – are perhaps extreme, sometimes, to stamp a strong lesson on the mind.

    Will stop babbling now. It’s an excellent and – obviously – thought-provoking post. 🙂

    • Thank you 🙂 And I think you may have a point about extremes. The myths, as allegorical structures, are meant to convey certain messages and meanings within them, but which may be carried better and made memorable by the movement of the story.

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