For me the two books we have just read raised a question How to do the right thing. Both books emphasize that acting is important. Dimock tortures us with the need to act and how to know what the right thing is. Kierkegaard focuses on how to know what the right action is. I have struggled with those questions ever since my teenage years and continue to struggle with them today at 72. The first piece I read on how to know what the right thing is (in a philosophy course in high school) was Plato’s The Euthyphro, in which Socrates questions a young Athenian aristocrat who is prosecuting his own father for binding and throwing one of his slaves in a ditch, where the slave eventually died unattended. Socrates wants to know how Euthyphro knows he is doing the right thing. The dilemma associated with this dialogue occurs when Euthyphro proposes that he knows because the gods inform us about what is good. Socrates counters with whether what the gods say is good simply because the gods say so or whether the good is something independent of the gods which they are privy to. I was reminded of this dilemma in our discussion of Fear and Trembling. It is difficult for me to relate to Abraham, precisely because he appears to be doing his god’s bidding by accepting apparently that the right thing to do is what his god directs him to do. If this is faith, then I do not have faith. In contrast, in a late work Parmenides Plato presents a theory of knowledge, developing what he says in The Republic. One of my philosophy professors in college, Robert S. Brumbaugh, is famous for his exegesis of Parmenides. Brumbaugh applies Plato to social and political issues.
When Plato writes about the evil consequences of legislators who see their bank accounts as their first responsibilities, .. there is a prescience which we should not ignore. And in an age, like ours, of explosively increasing individualism and specialization, we might do well to reread Plato, bearing in mind two of his most central political thoughts: until policy makers are also philosophers, there is little hope for the happiness of mankind; and only the person who can see the picture of all things in their interconnection, synoptically, can become a good philosopher.
Here is a link to Brumbaugh’s book, Platonic Studies of Greek Philosophy: Form, Arts, Gadgets, and Hemlock. While this is a Google sample, it does contain Brumbaugh’s central thesis – found where you scroll past Neville’s preface to Brumbaugh’s introduction. The relevance to what we frequently talk about in our club, including the political situation, is right there on page 9.
What I recall from his lectures (more than 50 years ago!) as being relevant to what we are discussing is that we can gain answers to what is good by love – love of the One, the unity of knowledge. One comes to know the Good by a achieving a direct relationship to the Good. To develop this relationship requires study of philosophy – of logic and aesthetics among other subjects – and hard work. This sounds like Theo Fales!
I know we are just a book club, but such a book club! With nearly everything we have read since I joined, I come away thinking about how to view the world and how to act in the world. I had planned in this note to suggest by way of a real example how one might use Fales’ method to decide how to act in the face of the events in Syria, in particular how to react to the actions of our president in responding to the gassing of civilians in Syria. But it was becoming a huge project to fill in the Master Narrative, Historical Subjects, Seven Truths and Four Constructive Pairs – Let alone to construct musical notes. I will never complete that exercise, but I certainly will carry with me the ideas of putting a thing in its context richly, as both Fales and Kierkegaard did, before deciding what is right to do and then acting on that decision short of certainty, perhaps bordering on absurdity, but with a commitment commensurate to my understanding born of the struggle.