A reflection on Plato’s Euthyphro

Through the last few reflections, I have examined how ‘sacred’ objects impact on our ability to develop, primarily through the lens of debate. In examining these intellectual ‘idols’, I have attempted to focus on the need to keep the flame of inquiry alive as long as possible. When confronted with a dead end I emphasised recognition of the roadblock, followed by giving yourself some distance before returning to the problem from a new perspective. However, there will come a time where – confronted with a wrong opinion fiercely held – we need to break through to continue to grow.

When a sacred object is injected by an external actor into either debate or reflection, stasis is the inevitable result. Although I have talked about the necessity (see on Failed Inquiry) of working your way around others’ argumentative natures and biases, there is only so much intellectual progress that can be made with another who is unable to submit their core beliefs to examination. If you are fortunate enough to live in a society that, at least for now, values heterodox positions, then you can merely cease to engage an interlocutor in debate – although you need to recognise that when you do this, you are condemning them as intellectually fossilised, incapable of further development.

If you are unfortunate enough to live in a society or group which enforces dogmatic orthodoxy, then the issue of ‘sacred’ objects becomes an issue of oppression. As I have previously discussed, (see on Obedience) in a system of oppression you are presented with three choices: submission, loyal dissent and rebellion. It becomes a query as to whether you are willing to engage in tranquil self-contemplation, vocal dissent to open up lines of dialogue or rebellion, either withdrawing yourself from the system entirely or attempting to overturn it from within. The question of which of these paths you take is entirely dependent on your own intellectual courage, an issue I want to touch on in a later reflection. However, the issue of external barriers is really secondary to the most important threat to one’s self-development – internal idols.

Our minds are built on a foundation of genetic predisposition, evolutionary instinct and acculturation which, for better or worse, guides and directs how we think and the paradigm through which we see the world. To undo the internal idol is to erode the very substance on which our worldview is built, and as such it easy for the inquirer to overlook the sacrosanct under our very noses. This is why I believe the external debate is so fundamental to intellectual growth – it is challenging to pick apart your own flaws.

For those of us who have nascent or even fully-fledged convictions, to question our beliefs is an anathema, inviting the destruction of self. For those of you who feel hesitant about offering up your dearly held opinions to the sacrificial altar of debate, I recommend you to ask yourselves this question: is something worthy of worship, secular or otherwise, if it cannot stand up to questioning? And if even this is too difficult to stomach, then paraphrase – are you willing to ignore the possibility of enriching your own understanding of a topic due to your own chauvinism?

With all this talk of holiness, one could be forgiven for thinking that I was on a tirade against the theological. However, I believe that the most problematic idol to shatter is the one which is the most significant hindrance to our own development – the concept of self. If we accept as carved in stone who we are as a person, what moral code that we subscribe, and the limits of identity which we cleave to, we have in some ways committed ourselves to intellectual death. But already, I can sense the wave of argument swelling, threatening to break, a violent backlash against this gnawing worm – is not the idea of inquiry a sacred object?

In truth, I cannot yet provide a satisfactory answer to this question, as I cannot quieten the little nihilistic voice which repeats over and over that maybe – just maybe – there is no purpose or reason for inquiry and growth. Perhaps the struggle to understand is futile from the outset, our capacities too limited to grasp real truth. But in retort, I can offer this: the alternative of inquiry is to lapse into parochial self-satisfaction, to allow the cancer of ignorance to metastasise in both our mind and society. Although I cannot be confident of inquiries outcome – perhaps insanity – I draw cold comfort from the fact that the opposite path would, for me, be equally maddening.

Original text

Plato’s Euthyphro

Painting

François de Nomé, King Asa of Juda Destroying the Idols, First half of the 17th Century

3 Replies to “On Smashing Idols”

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