The Dining Philosophers, rebooted


Epicurus muttered, “None of this affects me at all,” excused himself, and slipped out the back door practically unnoticed. That left the table unbalanced. On one side were the ancient worlders: Plato and Aristotle, heads together in deep discussion, and Socrates, who appeared to be gently questioning Miletus while Sextus Empiricus studiously withheld judgement on the proceedings.

The opposite end of the table was mostly held by the enlightenment gang, with Lao-Tze as the sole outlier, holding down the farthest end of the table as he watched the proceedings, imperturbably. Voltaire had given up on his hopes of getting Lao-Tze to appreciate his witticisms, and shifted his focus to Rousseau, who was trying to hide behind the equally imperturbable bulk of David Hume. Neitzsche was berating Hume, loudly, and making wickedly poetic assertions that made Spinoza occasionally put his head down and “facepalm” though he quickly converted the gesture to what appeared to be a thoughtful forehead-rub. Lao-Tze caught his eye on one of these occasions and his face lit with a brief smile of utter joy, which Spinoza found himself sharing.

In the center of the table, of course, was the guest of honor’s seat. When Jesus arrived and sat down, quietly, you could hear a pin drop. The assembled lovers of wisdom stopped what they were doing, Voltaire with his hand raised and crooked, frozen in the middle of an elegantly airy gesture, and Hume with a very fine piece of smoked fish halfway to his mouth. Sextus Empiricus raised a sardonic eyebrow, as The Nazarene made a gesture encompassing them all, “I greet you!” he said.

The silence in the room would make your ears ring, until Socrates stood and asked gently, “Whence, therefore, Evil?”  Neitzsche blew his breath out through his mustache and sat back, “ah!” and Lao-Tze’s smile became more joyful, if such a thing was possible, still. Everyone in the room waited for The Nazarene’s reply.

If The Bible Contains Philosophy, It’s Pretty Thin Gruel

If the son of god were a philosopher, and showed up on earth in a form whereby he could be questioned by humans, he’d immediately be barraged with important and interesting questions. Not the little piffle like “hey, check out this adulterer we’re going to stone, derp, derp!”  or  “can you turn this water into some more wine? Perhaps a good Zinfandel?” but, as Socrates would ask, “Whence, therefore, Evil?”

I’ve seen deeper and more serious discussions about philosophical topics on FtB, than you find in the bible, where the apostles supposedly think this guy that they are hanging around with is an avatar of the all-powerful universe-creating diety that established what is right and wrong and designed foreskins but wants them cut off, etc. In my little fiction above I (of course) place Socrates as the philosopher who’d lead the charge because he was fearless like that, but not a single one of the characters I put around the table would hesistate to grapple with Jesus on the big questions.

Jesus’ apostles were a bunch of hacks, who weren’t sophisticated enough to raise a hand and ask the introductory Philosophy 101 stuff. Admittedly, Philosophy 101 is just a footnote to Plato, anyway, but can you imagine Socrates standing by while Jesus preached the sermon on the mount?
“Blessed are the peacemakers… Um. Yes, Socrates?”
“I have one question, messiah. Are the peacemakers blessed because peacemaking is beloved of the gods, or is peacemaking a good in and of itself, that the gods bless because they answer to a higher power?”
“Socrates, we’ve been over this a dozen times…”
“Yes, and your definition appears to be circular. I’m just trying to understand!”
“Socrates, don’t make me call down the lightning on you.”
“Messiah, don’t make me call Ben Franklin on YOU  like I did last time you called the lightning.”

None of the philosophers I’ve read have ever mistaken “because I’m god and I say so” for an argument. In fact, one of the first things you learn in philosophy boot-camp (along with the low crawl and epistemological sniping) is that arguments from authority don’t carry any weight. The reason philosophers don’t accept arguments from authority is because of exactly what I’m talking about – authority has to be rooted in something, and historically philosophers have never been able to get the straight poop from a diety. Arguments from authority get rejected because the arguer is trying to act in the role of a god: “Blessed are the peacemakers”  Oh, right, gotcha. Thanks. If I were convinced that I was dealing with a superpowered alien that could make universes with a one-week cooldown, and they told me “Blessed are the peacemakers” I’d take that under a lot more advisement than if one of the commenters on a blog said it. But I’m no Socrates.

Cast:

  •  Socrates would be absolutely fearless in being willing to question a god. He died, apparently quite graciously, because he loved philosophy and did not fear what earthly powers could do to his body. He would not hesitate for a moment to annoy a god, just as he annoyed so many of the politicians and thinkers of great Athens.
  • Plato would no doubt wish to resume the question he voiced through Socrates in my favorite of his dialogs, the Euthyphro, namely, “Is there a piety that the gods love, or is something pious simply because it is loved by the gods?” A real philosopher would not let Jesus stand there without explaining whether he was the source of all morals or whether he adhered to a set of higher morals himself – and, if so, where those morals came from.
  • Aristotle would ask Jesus, in his role as god, “where did god come from?” The great systematizer of philosophy would not allow such an important question to hang.
  • Thales would doubtless have some questions about the nature and origin of the universe.
  • Sextus Empiricus (assisted ably by David Hume) would confuse Jesus unbearably by querying his epistemology: if god is the source of all knowledge, how did god come to know? I am sure that they would do it gracefully – perhaps as a tag team – but Jesus would quickly find himself in an infinite regress (pyrrhonian trope #2) as he attempted to certify his criteria without being dogmatic. I imagine that Hume would watch Sextus at work, while mentally composing a brilliant essay on “Is god naturally dogmatic?” Many of the christian apologists I’ve encountered have claimed that god is the anchor for all claims of knowledge. “Well, how do you know that?” I wish I could watch Sextus Empiricus and David Hume work that particular line of enquiry.
  • Lao-Tze and Epicurus both recognized in their philosophies that the actions of the gods are more or less irrelevant to the affairs of men, and that wise men should act accordingly. After all, if the gods choose to serve you as they did Job, then you’re going to get divinely screwt and there’s nothing you can do about it. Conversely, if they’re going to raise you high and make you mighty, you’re hardly in a position to take credit for it. I imagine that Epicurus and Lao-Tze would wind up in the garden, enjoying the stars and the breeze. Of all the conversations in philosophy that I would want to hear, it would be this one.
  • Spinoza would eventually join Lao-Tze and Epicurus in the garden.
  • Nietzsche would be a potentially delightful interlocutor for Jesus, who could ask him, “so, do I appear dead to you?”  “Not until tomorrow,” would be Nietzsche’s snappiest come-back, though it would be way too brief for him.
  • Rousseau would doubtless have some questions for a god, regarding the origin of its authority. If this were a Monty Python sketch, I could see Rousseau asking Jesus, “Supreme authority comes from a mandate from the masses, not from mere supreme power!” (“Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”)
  • Voltaire would provide a witty, clear, and devastatingly arch summary of the discussion.

tl;dr:

Jesus had OK marketing but his disciples were among the worst the planet probably had to offer. It seems odd that a supremely powerful being would pick such a group of lemons to preach to. Or, maybe he set his messiahship on “casual” level because he didn’t want to have to work. Having disciples like Socrates would have been a challenge. It would have been hard. But remember, this is a supreme being we’re talking about: it could have had any disciples it wanted. Starting with: apostles that were more literate.

 

(Note: This is a version of an old piece I did on DeviantArt back in 2012. I came to slightly different conclusions, then, so I’ve rewritten some of the follow-up argument. I wish Icould write fiction better than I do)

Comments

  1. Bruce says

    The fictional story of Jesus and his disciples is analogous to the old TV show, The Honeymooners, with Jackie Gleason as Jesus, and his wife and friend Art Carney as the collective disciples, deliberately written so as to look stupid, so as to make the joke/parable sound more effective. Jackie/Jesus was always raising his fist up and threatening them to be sent violently “to the moon, Alice.” Of course, this would have brought her to the part of outer space where the demon rulers of “this world” lived, and where the demons executed Jesus near the moon, below the dome that holds Earth’s rain and all the stars.
    The Honeymooners was a metaphor for spiritual transcendence, and Gleason’s fist was every bit as divinely ethical as any part of Mad Men divine domestic abuse. This religious fiction is disgusting slapstick, and I am shocked in retrospect that Gleason would have had anything to do with it.

  2. John Morales says

    Droll is your conceit, and duly amusing and thought-provoking. There is certainly a relationship between philosophy and religion.

    That said, this grates:

    … where the apostles supposedly think this guy that they are hanging around with is an avatar of the all-powerful universe-creating diety that established what is right and wrong and designed foreskins but wants them cut off, etc.

    The apostles clearly held Jesus to be a godman — the “son of God”, even — but not God himself. Trinitarianism is a much latter conceit.

    No, they did not think him an avatar, but rather a divine being subservient to the Almighty.

    (In passing, the easily-defeated incredulity of Doubting Thomas is one of the sillier and most contradictory nonsensicalities of the NT, for mine)

  3. says

    John Morales@#4:
    The apostles clearly held Jesus to be a godman — the “son of God”, even — but not God himself.

    Yes, that’s true. I was being a bit hyperbolic. But we could easily argue that the apostles had next to no idea what Jesus was – his claims were pretty vague (at best) and the whole shambles was retconned after he was safely dead and couldn’t be a further embarrassment. If he existed at all. I want to avoid the historicity battle if possible.

    Oddly, buddha and mohammed also had disciples and people who noted down their profound thoughts. Most of which turned out to be trite and probably would have been shredded by Socrates , Plato, Sextus, or Hume. Unless one of those characters was walking around with a refutation for extreme skepticism in their back pocket and just never happened to play that card.

    According to Matthew 5:17, Jesus spoke as if he knew something about god’s wishes regarding mosaic law. So I think we could reasonably expect him to weigh in on Euthyphro. … Unless he was a lightweight, fraud, poseur, and hardly a philosopher. All we have is edited translations of third-hand accounts of apostles that may or may not have even existed, I suppose Jesus could have resolved all of the philosophers’ epistemological challenges in one of those lost gospels. Dang it.

  4. says

    I imagine that Epicurus and Lao-Tze would wind up in the garden, enjoying the stars and the breeze. Of all the conversations in philosophy that I would want to hear, it would be this one.

    That’s where I would be.

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