Thought Circles

greek_platoIt’s only the beginning of the second week of classes, but I’m happy to have one of my papers out of the way. It was a relatively small Ethics paper in which I had to reflect on one of Plato’s dialogues, Euthyphro. If you’re wondering why we’re reading Plato in Ethics class, it’s because, really, there’s hardly a field of study in which Plato is not relevant. But also, and more importantly, before coming to what Ethics looks like in our practice, it makes great sense to begin with what Ethics looks like in our thought. As a result, Dr. Van Raalte has spent the first few classes acquainting us with the good, the true, and the beautiful, and how these noble concepts have concerned philosophers through the ages, both Christian and not. Plato’s Euthyphro is a classic text on the good in particular, and how the good relates to God.

The setting of the dialogue is a conversation between Euthyphro and the philosopher Socrates. Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father for murder, an act which his family rejects as “impious.” Euthyphro doesn’t think his family knows the first thing about piety, so he in turn rejects their opinion. Socrates is intrigued that Euthyphro understands piety so well, so the philosopher asks him: What is piety? If you’ve ever read Plato, you’ll know that Socrates loves to trip up his overly assured conversation partners, so it’s no surprise that Euthyphro soon gets stuck trying to answer this simple question.

One of the questions that Socrates puts to him is this: Is an act pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love an act because it is pious?

Put another way: Is the good that which God commands, or does God command it because it is good?

This was the question I addressed in the reflection paper, and it was the question that concerned our class discussion today. For example, when God commands us to obey our parents, does he do so because that is a good thing; or is it a good thing because God commanded it? If God had commanded instead that we obey our parents only when they grace our boerenkool with Johnny D’s farmer sausage, would that be good? In other words, is the definition of good “that which God has commanded?”

There’s a handy trick you can do with definitions to see if they’re valid. gives the definition of bad, for example, as “not good in any manner or degree.” If that’s a valid definition, you should be able to plug it in wherever you see the word bad: I am having a [not good in any manner or degree] hair day. That works. So, too, if the definition of good is “God-commanded,” then we should be able to switch the two around. Let’s see:

“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is [God-commanded].

“Be [God-commanded] to your servant, and I will live.

“Taste and see that the LORD is [God-commanded].

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very [God-commanded].”

But those just sound weird. I concluded, then, that the definition of good could not be “God-commanded.” Regarding our question, the good is not that which God commands, rather, God commands it because it is good.

But then, I went on to wonder, if the good and the God-commanded are not equal, then how are they related to each other? Is the good a part of the God-commanded, or is the God-commanded a part of the good? If you were to draw this on paper, would the God-commanded be the bigger circle, with the good a smaller circle within it, or would it be the other way around? If the God-commanded is greater than the good, then there are things God has commanded that are not good. On the other hand, if the good is greater, then there are good things that God has not commanded.

So which of the two options is the right one? Well, we cannot say as Bible-believing Christians that there are things God has commanded that are not good. On the contrary, every command of God’s is good and gives life. With the psalmist, we affirm this with joy. This must mean, then, that there are good things that God has not commanded. But what would be an example of that? Well, I said… God himself! God has his being from himself, but that doesn’t mean that God commands himself into existence. That would be illogical.

Writing this paper amounted to something like running 3k backwards through the snow, but without the physical results. Still, with two whiskey-cask Scottish ales it amounted to a well-spent Friday night.


2 thoughts on “Thought Circles

  1. Good seems to me to be an attribute of God that can’t really be defined separately from Him – the closest I can come is “in alignment with God”. To pass your test:

    “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is [in alignment with God].

    “Be [in alignment with God] to your servant, and I will live.

    “Taste and see that the LORD is [in alignment with God].

    “God saw all that he had made, and it was very [in alignment with God].”

    To put this back in your version of Plato’s question (slightly modified for grammar’s sake):
    Is that [in alignment with God] which God commands, or does God command it because it is [in alignment with God]?

    To which I think the answer is “yes”. God commands things because they are good, true, but they are good because they correspond to His nature. And because God does not act against His own nature, things are also good because God commands them … both, and, not either, or. Plato’s greek gods were considerably more complicated, so it was probably harder for him to answer this …

    Just my thoughts …

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