Socrates: Piety and Its Flaws
Piety was an important concept in ancient Greek civilization, as it shaped the culture and actions of Greek citizens. What exactly piety means has varied over time, and the definition differs throughout Greek literature. Characters such as Odysseus from The Odyssey and Orestes from The Oresteia reflect a more traditional view of piety, while Socrates in Plato’s Five Dialogues views piety differently as he questions and challenges previous notions of what is pious/impious. Due to his actions it appears that Socrates rejects traditional notions of piety, although he is still a pious man who has different views of piety than previous Greek figures such as Odysseus and Orestes.
Based on the writings of Homer and Aeschylus, traditional Greek piety is defined as following the will of the gods without question, and one must honor the gods in order to have good fortune. Odysseus exhibits this belief in piety as he and his crew repeatedly make sacrifices and pray to the gods in order to have a safe journey home. Most of the troubles Odysseus experiences is due to him displeasing the gods; Odysseus’s journey is prolonged when he angers Poseidon by blinding the cyclops, and Apollo punishes the crew for eating his sacred cattle. Odysseus tells Eurycleia in reference to the suitors to “rejoice in [her] heart, but do not cry aloud. It is unholy to gloat over the slain. These men have destroyed by divine destiny and their own recklessness” (Homer 349). He believes that since the suitors were being impious by disrespecting the gods’ laws, their deaths were justified by the gods’ will (“divine destiny”). In Homer’s view of piety, one must always honor the will of the gods’, or else they will face their wrath.
Orestes also reflects a more traditional view of piety. When told by Apollo to kill his own mother, Orestes obeys willingly. Although matricide is typically considered an impious act, because it is the will of a god it is thus justified. Even when Orestes questions whether killing his mother would be morally right, he is convinced to do it because “Apollo wills it” and it is better to “make all mankind your enemy, not the gods” (Aeschylus 217). This shows Aeschylus’s view of piety is to always follow the will of gods, because to disobey them would be considered impious and lead to bad fortune. Orestes is at the mercy of Apollo, and it is the knowledge that the god is on his side that gives him the confidence to commit a violent act that would typically be frowned upon.
Socrates however, does not accept these views of piety. He instead seeks a more “universal” definition of piety, and rejects the definitions given to him as being flawed. For example, “when told what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious”, Socrates challenges this notion, as he notes that “gods consider different things to be just, beautiful, ugly, good, and bad, for they would not be at odds with one another unless they differed about these subjects” (Plato 7). Orestes faces this in his worship of the gods; by following Apollo’s will, he puts himself in conflict with the Furies and has to go to trial to defend his actions. Socrates believes that since the gods have conflicting ideals, then it is impossible to determine what is truly pious; thus he disagrees with the more tradition views. He is also unsatisfied with Homer’s ideal that piety is the act of prayer and sacrifice between people and the gods, as he feels that the gods do not actually benefit in this exchange and there is a flaw to the logic.
He also openly disagrees with the views upheld by citizens such as Homer and Aeschylus from traditional societies. When speaking on poets and the writer of tragedies he says “…because of their poetry, they thought themselves very wise men in other respects, which they were not,” (Plato 27). By rejecting the idea that the writers and poets were wise, Socrates is inferring that their lack of proper wisdom means they cannot have the correct definition of piety. Due to his belief that he is possibly wiser than all men, he chooses to follow his own definition of piety until someone else can provide a satisfactory one for him.
Some may say Socrates dissatisfaction with previous views of piety would make him impious; however, while his beliefs may differ from Greek tradition, he is still pious in his own way. Due to his unwillingness to conform to traditional views of piety, Socrates is being accused of corrupting the youth of Athens by “teaching them not to believe in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other new spiritual things” (Plato 30). The jury sees his actions as impious; however, although Socrates has different religious views than them, that does not necessarily make him impious. During the trial he says “I myself believe that there are gods…not, however, the gods in whom the city believes…but others..” (Plato 31). It is clear that the real issue between Socrates and the jury is not that he is acting against the gods, but rather is sharing a different way of religious thinking.
Instead, Socrates lives by his own belief about what is pious. For example, he believes “…that it is wicked and shameful to do wrong, to disobey one’s superior, be he god or man” (Plato 33); therefore, it is pious to be obedient towards the gods because they are superior, and it is what is right. Socrates uses his own interpretations of the gods to shape his spiritual beliefs. He describes his mission as a philosopher is to get people to examine their own lives, to not to be satisfied with popular stories from the past, and to think and inquire about ethical questions such as what does it take to be a good person and what is true happiness. Socrates believes he is completing the will of the gods by questioning other citizens around him, although others reject his way of thinking. While his belief in obeying the gods is similar to the traditional notions of Greek piety, it still differs because Socrates inserts his own wisdom until his actions while others choose to only follow what the gods want them to do. By encouraging others to think for themselves rather than blindly following the gods, the citizens view him as disrupting the norm of society. It is these religious differences, along with previous scrutiny towards Socrates, that cause him to be accused of being impious, when in actuality he is still a pious person–albeit one who does not conform to how others view piety.
Socrates uses the claim of pious motivation for him doing philosophical work, but he does state that human reasoning within his own person is the final arbiter of what he finds to be right and wrong. This manner of operating differs from the actions of Odysseus or Orestes, in which the gods had the final say in what was right or wrong. It could be argued that this belief would make him less pious than previous characters, but the fact Socrates still seeks to obey the gods and service them shows that he is just as spiritual. It also difficult to determine how he can be called ‘less pious’, because due to the lack of a universal definition of piety it is harder to describe whether or not it is Odysseus or Orestes or Socrates who is following the true meaning of piety. Thus, it can be determined that Socrates is just as much as a pious man as the Greek figures before him despite their conflicting beliefs.
Although piety is a subjective concept, by looking at the works of writers such as Homer and Aeschylus, readers can see how ancient Greek society interpreted it. and we can see how the real character of Socrates changed the interpretation. Based on Homer and Aeschylus, the traditional notion of Greek piety is sacrifice, prayer, honor and respecting the gods’ laws/will, and fear of their retribution. Socrates is not pleased with these notions, and instead defines piety based on his own experience of service and obedience towards the gods. He is not necessarily less pious than previous Greek figures such as Odysseus and Orestes, but he does not agree with their way of piety and practices his own.and fear of their retribution. Socrates is not pleased with these notions, and instead defines piety based on his own experience of service and obedience towards the gods. He is not necessarily less pious than previous Greek figures such as Odysseus and Orestes, but he does not agree with their version of piety and practices his own.
Homer, and Stanley Lombardo. Odyssey. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 2000. Print.Aeschylus, and Robert Fagles. The Oresteia. New York: Viking Press, 1975. Print.Plato, and G. M. A. Grube. Five Dialogues. 2nd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 2002. Print.
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