nothing and the true

Toward the end of Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates says: “I prefer nothing, unless it is true.” Socrates and Euthyphro are discussing the definition of piety, and, on the basis of something Euthyphro has said, Socrates asks whether piety might be “a sort of trading skills between gods and men.” An annoyed Euthyphro replies: “Trading yes, if you prefer to call it that.” It is here that Socrates makes his statement: “I prefer nothing, unless it is true.”

At first sight, this only seems to be a generic statement, perhaps a rhetorical device meant to highlight the weakness in the statement of the opponent, a reactive mode of relating in a conversation. Yet, upon further thinking, it is easy to see that Socrates is speaking philosophically, addressing philosophy’s most important question: that of the truth. The statement must then be taken as absolutely central to the dialogue. Socrates is not simply reacting to Euthyphro; he is characterizing the philosophical attitude. The truth has nothing to do with what we prefer, our likes and dislikes, and so on.

Today we often hear that everybody is entitled to their opinion. But is anyone entitled to the truth? According to Socrates, the answer is negative. The truth is not a matter of entitlement. It is what it is: universal and common. It is not, for instance, something that the most powerful may establish. Indeed, the truth is not established, in the manner of the Sophists. It can be affirmed or denied, but that doesn’t change its fundamental character. The most powerful will use and abuse the law to establish a false truth; he (usually it’s he) will use guns, missiles, and drones. But the truth is, that is not the truth.

Earlier in the Euthyphro, we find the formulation of what is perhaps the most important ethical question: “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?” This is the same question that we find at the outset of Leibniz’s great essay Meditation on the Common Concept of Justice. This is Leibniz’s reformulation of the question: “It is agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just: in other words, whether justice and goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things, as do numbers and proportions.”

Leibniz has no doubt as to what the answer must be. In another essay, Discourse on Metaphysics,  he asks the following question: “Where will [God’s] justice and wisdom reside if there remains only a certain despotic power, if will holds the place of reason, and if, according to the definition of tyrants, justice consists in whatever pleases the most powerful?”

Indeed, that isn’t justice, nor is it truth. Rather, it is the manner of gangsters and thugs.

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