Did Socrates "Teach New Deities"?

Or: Homer's Gods, Plato's Gods*

A Public Talk by Dr. Jan Garrett


The Charges Against Socrates

Socrates, as is well known, was convicted and sentenced to death in 399 B.C. on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. Of his three accusers, one was Meletus, who spoke for the poets of Athens. What kind of gripes would the poets have against Socrates?

A clue is provided by the part of the indictment involving impiety. Apparently it said something like this: "Socrates is guilty of believing in deities of his own invention instead of the gods recognized by the city." (Apol. 24b) In effect, then, Socrates is accused of teaching new gods. This point is often lost sight of because during the trial, when Socrates actually confronts his accuser, Meletus shifts his ground and accuses Socrates not of teaching new gods, but of not believing in any gods at all. Yet the charge that Socrates taught new gods was probably in the original indictment.

Socrates and the Poets

To figure out what the poets had against Socrates it helps to reflect upon what the poets customarily did. Their occupation was to compose stories about the gods and heroes. Plato's Republic shows Socrates criticizing what the poets said on these topics. And apparently the poets were sometimes the targets of Socrates' embarrassing questions. When he could buttonhole a poet, Socrates would ask him questions that he could not answer without revealing that his stories, as colorful and memorable as they might be, contained a mass of contradictory notions concerning the gods and how human beings ought to live.

The poets, through their stories and plays, were the educators of the classical Greeks, as nursery rhymes and Sunday School teachers or Bible stories used to be, and as TV now is, the educator of American youth. But Socrates represented a new kind of teacher, who challenged the poets for their place in the culture.

What, in the poets' portrayal of the gods, did Socrates criticize? And what vision of the gods did he himself have? These are questions I shall try to answer in this talk.

The Poets' Picture of the Gods

Though more than two and probably at least three centuries separate Socrates from Homer and Hesiod, their compositions concerning the gods and the heroes of the past continued to be influential and the model for the poets of Socrates' time. Homer of course is familiar to us as composer of the Iliad, the account of the Trojan War, and of the Odyssey, the story of Odysseus' ten year journey from Troy to his home.

Hesiod composed a poem called Theogony, whose title means the Births or Origins of the Gods. This composition tells how all the major, and many rather minor, gods and goddesses came into existence by reproduction, essentially without sex in one branch, but in the other branch sexually, beginning with the Union of Earth (Gaia) and Heaven (Ouranos). It is in this second branch of the divine family tree that we find the origin, according to Hesiod, of the Olympian gods, Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, etc.

What are the gods of Homer and Hesiod like? Most of Homer's gods or goddesses and the most important of Hesiod's can be described as being very much like human beings, except that they are much more powerful and they never die.

They are often depicted on vase paintings from archaic and classical Greek times as human beings, though they are supposed to be far more handsome or beautiful. They have bodies. The females among them give birth. They feel sexual desire and engage in sexual love. They even fall asleep after having sex.

These gods, moreover, are quite competitive: they get jealous, they are envious, they quarrel with one another, they wish to hurt one another and occasionally succeed. In the dim past, before Zeus became king of the gods, there were struggles for dominance among the gods. Even now that Zeus is king among the gods, other gods can get around him for a short period of time. Other gods are afraid of Zeus; occasionally even Zeus is afraid, fearful that he might be overthrown as he overthrew his own father.

These gods know much more than mortals do--they generally see whatever is happening among human beings. But they can hide things from one another and apparently they miss seeing things when they are asleep.

The gods are not above deceiving one another or mortals in order to get their way. In Homer's story of the Trojan War, Zeus, for example, sends a false dream to the Greek leader Agamemnon. On the basis of this dream, which Agamemnon takes to be prophetic, the Greek leader makes a military decision that turns out to be disastrous.

These gods are willing to engage in bribery of human beings to achieve their ends. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each try to bribe Paris, prince of Troy, to choose her as the most beautiful in a contest between these vain goddesses. And the gods are willing to let human beings massacre one another in wars in order to injure human beings aligned with rival gods.

The gods, and especially the king of the gods Zeus, begets children on an indefinite number of females other than his wife, some of them goddesses, many of them human. In at least one famous case Zeus takes the guise of a swan and rapes Leda, a young woman whom he fancies. And in Hesiod's story of the origin of the gods, Gaia or Earth is the mother of Heaven, yet Earth mates with her son to produce the race of Titans. Kronos, the leader of the Titans overthrows his father Heaven, cutting off Heaven's private parts, from which, incidentally, Aphrodite, the goddess of Love, emerges.

Socrates and Plato

Fun stuff. Yet Socrates and his follower Plato have little use for it. Since Socrates himself wrote nothing, we have to rely on other sources, primarily Plato, in order to guess at Socrates' views about the gods. Plato knew Socrates well and tried, in his own dialogues, to preserve Socrates' memory and do him honor by using him as the main character. So there is some ground for thinking that the real Socrates believed much of what Plato's character Socrates says about the gods.

Socrates' Idea of His Philosophic Mission

In Socrates' defense speech, Socrates describes his mission as a philosopher: to get people to examine their own lives, not to be satisfied with popular stories, but to think and inquire about ethical questions, about what it takes to be a good person and what the ingredients of true happiness are. He says that he was attached to his city by the gods--meaning he was stationed there as a soldier is ordered by his commander to stay at his post, except that Socrates' concern is with the souls of human beings, not their physical lives and possessions. Because he is attached to his city by the gods with a command to do philosophy, he will not give it up, even if it costs him his life; which, we know by hindsight, it does.

What kind of gods would command that? Gods that care about human beings and the condition of their souls, i.e. whether we are good and just persons or not. Indeed, in Plato's mind, the gods want us to be good and just.

We can gain further insight by examining passages from the dialogue Euthyphro. This dialogue, like many others by Plato, has certain dramatic elements: in this case, it has two characters and their conversation is described as taking place just before Socrates goes on trial for impiety. That fact is significant. So is the identity of the second person, Euthyphro, after whom the dialogue is named. Euthyphro is an Athenian religious official; if anyone should know about piety, he should. So Socrates asks Euthyphro to define piety for him (as if knowing the definition might help him at the trial).

The Search for a Definition of Piety

Piety, incidentally, is a word for one of virtues of a good human being in ancient Greece. Piety here is roughly the same as righteousness in parts of the Old Testament. Piety may not be as important in the history of ethical thought as justice, but it's nevertheless important. And, as you might guess, piety is a virtue that has something to do with religion and with the gods.

In trying to define piety, Euthyphro has great difficulty. At one point he says that piety is what pleases the gods and impiety is what displeases them. This is a problem for anyone who believes the myths of Homer and Hesiod. The gods of the poets often quarrel with one another; in the Trojan War, the Greek victory pleased the gods aligned with the Greeks, but displeased those aligned with the Trojans. If we use Euthyphro's definition, then the same thing must be both pious and impious.

Euthyphro does not want that result because he also thinks that all pious things are good and morally right; he wouldn't want to say that the same thing is both good and bad or both right and wrong. So Euthyphro makes another attempt to define piety. He says that piety is what pleases all the gods (there cannot be any dissenters). Socrates, however, challenges this. Remember, he is looking for a definition of piety. If what Euthyphro says is a definition, then it means that pleasing all the gods is the reason for something's being pious and just.

This bothers Socrates. He does not object to the idea that pious, and thus praiseworthy, things please all the gods, but he does not think pleasing all the gods gives the meaning of pious and praiseworthy things. So Socrates asks Euthyphro: are pious things pious because those things happen to please the gods or are the gods pleased by those things because those things are pious, i.e., because of some value they have independent of the gods liking them?

This question is parallel to the question which people might ask today: Is refraining from murder right because God favors or commands it, or does God favor it or command it because it is inherently right (the idea being that first an act is right and then God endorses it, since He is good and wishes us to do what is right). Under Socrates' questioning, Euthyphro takes the second option. This is probably the more reasonable option, but it can't possibly give us a definition of piety.

Are Platonic Forms Gods?

Now it is Plato's view, and perhaps it was Socrates' too, that there is such a thing as an objective Good. For Plato, Justice, Wisdom, Courage, Moderation, and Beauty, are realities, even more real than the physical things we see and touch. In fact, Plato will say that the things we see and touch are only half-real: they knock about in the middle realm between reality and unreality, while what Plato calls the Forms, such as Justice, Beauty, etc. are fully real. A person's soul can bridge the two levels, the level of body and the level of the Forms. We are tied to the body during much of this life, especially by our appetites, but by philosophical reflection, by asking and trying to answer the right sort of questions, the soul can gradually rise to a plane on which it can perceive the Forms. They are not visible to the senses, but intelligible, which is to say, they can't be seen by the body's physical eye; they can only be seen by the mind's eye.

A superficial acquaintance with Plato might lead one to think that these Forms are the new divinities which Socrates was accused of teaching. Now, the Forms are divine in a way: they are perfect; they are beautiful; they are eternal; they do not pass away. But the Forms are poor substitutes for gods and goddesses: they are not active and they are not alive. The Forms are intelligible, they can be known by the wise; but they themselves neither move nor think. If Socrates had substituted the Forms for the gods of the poets, then Meletus might actually have been right in thinking him an atheist.

What Does Plato Think the Gods Are Like?

But in fact, in Plato's picture of things, the Forms do not replace the gods; in his view, there are gods in addition to visible bodies, human souls, and Forms. So, what are these gods like? There are some clues to this in Plato's Republic. In book 2 Socrates examines the kinds of stories the poets traditionally told regarding the gods and finds them wanting.

He starts from the assumption that the gods are perfect beings. He then considers stories told about the gods, for example, Zeus' disguising himself as a swan and raping Leda, and constructs an argument against this story. No being willingly makes itself worse. To take on an inferior outward form is to worsen oneself. The gods do nothing unwillingly and their forms are perfect. A lower animal (indeed, even a human being) has a form inferior to that of the gods. Therefore the gods do not take on other forms. Thus, the story of Leda and the Swan alias Zeus must be false. (And the poets who tell this story are the real corrupters of the youth, not Socrates.)

Next Plato refutes Homer's story about Zeus as a liar (sending the falsely prophetic dream to Agamemnon). There are two kinds of falsehood, he says, internal and external. Internal falsehood is ignorance. Surely the gods, being perfect, are not ignorant. How about external falsehood?

External falsehood occurs when one knows the truth but makes use of falsehood. Socrates admits that this kind of falsehood (deception) is sometimes acceptable for human beings. Sometimes we have to deceive fools or madmen to prevent them from doing harm. Moreover, in warfare, it is not wrong to mislead enemies concerning one's military strength or the exact location of one's forces. Finally, sometimes we have to tell children stories that are literally false in order to make a point. An example from our history is the familiar story of the youthful George Washington and the cherry tree. The event never occurred; yet the story conveys an important lesson.

Plato's point is that humans sometimes are justified in uttering things that are not exactly true. But do the gods need to fear fools or madmen? Not at all. Can they have enemies as humans can--i.e., persons who can harm them? Not at all. Do they tell stories to children? Not at all. Thus the gods would have no reason to lie, and any poet who says they do is himself either ignorant or a liar.

From this passage we could make some educated guesses about Plato's and perhaps Socrates' positive conception of the gods: the gods are perfect beings, with perfect bodies, far more beautiful than our own; they cannot be killed--in fact, they cannot be harmed in any way. Their bodies are incorruptible. What is more, since they do not die, they need not replenish their population; thus they do not beget child gods to whom they might need to tell stories.

A brief remark later in Plato's Republic is also informative. Socrates is about to introduce a famous comparison between the Sun and his highest Form, the Good. In passing, he refers to the Sun as a "visible god." This is not a concession to the popular religion. Plato regards the Sun, the Moon, the planets and the stars as gods, though not as the only gods. Why? They are everlasting. Their bodies do not come into being and pass away. So far as the ancient Greeks knew, they had always been there. They are alive: we can believe this because they run in an intelligible course and an intelligible course is evidence for control by intelligence, which Plato attributes to divine souls in the heavenly bodies themselves. In fact, circular courses are quite proper for their everlasting life; there need be no end to circular motion. Plato never gives a knockdown proof that Zeus, Athena, and Hera exist, but he does give a proof, in the last book of the last work he composed, the Laws, that there are gods. In doing so, he appeals directly to the visible evidence of the gods in the sky. Surely there are gods; everybody can see them!

Visible and Invisible Gods

But in his view these are not the only gods. These visible gods, he thinks, were the first gods which human beings recognized. They were called gods because they run or course forever through the heavens. The Greek word for "I run" is theô; the Greek word for god is "theos." But later, when cities were founded, other gods were recognized. These are the gods we call Zeus, Athena, Hera, and so forth--the Olympians. We can call them that provided we don't believe everything about them that Homer and Hesiod and their ilk tell us. For one thing, no human being has the slightest idea of these gods' true names, i.e., what they call each other. (It's probably not Zeus, Hera, etc.) These are the gods of civilized life; that's why (says Plato) they are not recognized by most of the barbarians. These are the gods that care about human beings and are aware of whether we are good or wicked.

Like the visible sky gods, these gods are everlasting; they have incorruptible bodies; they do not come into being and pass away. Their minds are in complete control of their bodies. Note the difference from human beings. Our bodies resist the control of our minds, not least when they lead us into temptation.

Now, there are two key differences between this group of gods and the visible sky gods: First, these gods are essentially invisible, but they can reveal themselves to us when they wish. Secondly, these gods care about whether human beings are good or not. Both kinds of god provide us with benefits: The sun's benefits are obvious. The planets and stars help us tell the time of night or season of the year and enable navigators to find their ways on the seas. But the invisible gods, the ones we call Zeus, Hera, etc. care about the well-being of societies and individuals.

Proper Relations Between Gods and Mortals

What is the proper relationship between mortals and the gods? Plato addresses this issue in several places, but especially in the second half of the Euthyphro. Recall that Socrates was trying to get Euthyphro to define piety and that Euthyphro was having great difficulty. Finally, Socrates suggests that piety is a kind of justice. Justice is the more general case, of which piety is a specific case; comparable to the relationship of color, a fairly general quality, to red, a more specific quality. But it is not enough to say what broad category something belongs to: to define it one must say what differentiates the thing that needs to be defined, piety in this case, from other things that belong to that category.

Well, clearly, piety governs our interactions with the gods. That's a start. Euthyphro says that piety involves proper service to the gods. Yet there's a problem with this: service is, of course, service to a master. How does this operate in human life? Human masters have needs, say, for food; and their servants, e.g., cooks, can prepare this food. Yet the gods are perfect and self-sufficient--they lack nothing, so they have no needs. How then can we serve the gods?

Euthyphro is stuck again. Socrates tries to help him. Perhaps, says Socrates, we need to realize that subordinates can serve their superiors in two different ways; one way, the one already considered, is that they can serve their superiors by supplying what these superiors themselves lack, but they can also serve their superiors as a subordinate worker serves a master craftsperson who is trying to provide what a third party needs. A carpenter or mason serves an architect in the construction of a house, not primarily in order to give the architect anything which he or she needs to survive, but in order that the architect may more effectively meet the needs of others, those who will use the house. Socrates' clear suggestion is that human beings might serve the gods in some project of theirs which is meant to benefit beings other than the gods.

Unfortunately, Euthyphro fails to take the hint. And so no answer to the question "What is piety?" is given. Yet a careful reader of this dialogue can figure out what sort of answer Socrates would have had to accept if Euthyphro had given it. That answer is essentially this: Piety is that kind of justice which involves human service to the gods, not in order to provide our masters the gods with anything they need, since they have no needs, but rather to cooperate with our masters the gods to promote well-being in human societies and individuals.

Remember, Socrates had said that he was stationed by the god in Athens in order to prod his fellow Athenians to care for their own souls. The subordinate soldier stationed somewhere by his commander is in the same relationship to his commander as a subordinate craftsperson is to the master builder on a construction site.

Socrates had apparently wanted Euthyphro to teach him what piety is so that he, Socrates, could prove that, contrary to the indictment, he was not impious. He could hardly have objected to a definition that (1) showed that piety is a kind of justice or moral goodness, (2) reasonably related it both to the gods and goodness among human beings, and (3) precisely fit what Socrates saw himself as doing with his own life.

Did Socrates Teach New Divinities?

To return, finally, to the charge that Socrates taught new divinities. In hindsight, we have to say that in some senses he did, and in some senses he did not. He was, apparently, quite willing to pay his respects to the traditional gods, Zeus, Athena, etc.; all evidence points to him being a polytheist. He agreed with Homer and Hesiod that these gods had bodies and would never die.

But his image of these gods was far more exalted than the image of the gods which one gets from listening to a recitation of Homer and his tribe of god-talkers (theologoi) and storytellers (muthologoi). The gods of the Greek philosophers are perfect, wise, alien to any moral wrongdoing, and the source of good but not of evil among mortals. They are not jealous, they don't get angry, they don't send false dreams, and especially they don't rape women. Good persons recognize the gods as their masters or superiors and carry out their orders, which are, essentially, to act justly and promote human virtue.

Plato on the Gods, Immortality, and Philosophy

Plato elaborates on this picture, borrowing ideas, perhaps from the Pythagoreans, about the immortality and reincarnation of the soul. And in one dialogue, the Phaedrus**, he paints a marvelous picture in words of what happens between lives when the souls who have been good and sought wisdom in their previous lives are freed from their earthly bodies, which are rather like prisons. Philosophy, or love of the good and the beautiful, gives a soul wings, and after death a philosophical soul soars to the place where the race of gods dwell:
Now the great leader in heaven, Zeus, comes first, driving a winged chariot, imposing order upon all things and caring for them; and the host of gods and spirits follows him, marshalled in eleven sections, for Hestia [goddess of the hearth] alone remains in the House of the Gods. But for the others all that are counted among the Twelve Ruling Gods proceed in due order according to rank, each at the head of his own division.

Many and wonderful to see are the orbits within the heavens and the blessed gods constantly turn to contemplate these as each busies himself with his special duties. There follows whoever will and can [this includes good human souls], for envy has no place in the company of heaven. But when they proceed to the divine banquet, they mount the steep ascent to the top of the vault of heaven; and here the advance is easy for the gods' chariots, well balance and guided as they are, but the others have difficulty. (Phaedrus246e-247b)

That's because the human soul consists of three parts, represented here by a charioteer and two horses, one of them being quite unruly, representing the appetites; the good horse must struggle against the unruly one, and the charioteer, representing the rational part of the soul, must exercise constant vigilance over the unruly horse. To continue:

Now when those souls that are called immortal come to the summit, they proceed without and take their stand upon the back of heaven where its revolution carries them in full circle as they gaze upon what is without.

Of that region beyond no one of our earthly poets has ever sung, nor will any ever sing worthily. Its description follows, for I must dare to speak the truth, especially as the nature of the truth is my theme. It is there that Reality lives, without shape or color, intangible, visible only to Reason, the soul's pilot; and all true knowledge is knowledge of her [i.e., of this Reality beyond the heavens]. Now a god's faculty of understanding is sustained by experiencing direct and pure knowledge, as is that part of every soul that is concerned to receive what is akin to that experience. Consequently when the soul has at long last beheld reality, it rejoices, finding sustenance in its direct contemplation of the truth and in the immediate experience of it until, in the revolution of its orbit, it is brought round again to the point of departure. And in the course of the revolution it beholds absolute justice and temperance and knowledge (that is, the eternal forms or ideas). . . . And when the soul(s) [of the gods] have . . . feasted upon all the other true realities, it comes back again within the heavens and returns home. (Phaedrus 247c-e)

In Plato's view, the gods are beings that have no difficulty perceiving the absolute ideals; the gods are not the standards of justice, beauty and goodness, but they are living beings who have perfect knowledge of these standards. Human souls between lives have greater or lesser difficulty perceiving these absolutes--it depends upon how much wisdom they gained in their previous lives; but every glimpse they gain of the absolutes, whether between lives or by philosophical reflection during life, helps to overcome the pressures that drag them back into the body. Until the human soul has lived a philosophical life three times in succession, it must be reincarnated; but when it has done so, it may join the gods for everlasting contemplation of the pure truths that exist beyond the heavens.
July 3, 1997

* In some respects this talk is a synthesis of some of what I have learned in over a decade and a half of teaching Plato's philosophy; but it probably owes more to the insights and documentation collected in Richard Bodéüs' Aristote et la théologie des vivants immortels (Paris-Montreal 1992), without whose discussion of the Platonic background of Aristotle's response to the "god talk" of the poets I could not have put it all together. This book is available in English under the title Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals, trans. by J. Garrett (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000). [This note revised August 5, 2003.]

For a summary comparison between Homer's view of the gods and Plato's view, see Homer's Gods, Plato's Gods (a chart).

** The Phaedrus selections are from Plato, Phaedrus, tr. W.C. Helmhold and W. G. Rabinowitz (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1978).

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