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Three Euthyphros, and other shorts

January 16, 2017

[Third in an occasional series (one, two). Think of these as something between a Wittgensteinian aphorism and a McLuhanite apercu. Contents: Three Euthyphros and Six Tetralogues.]


Plato’s Socrates asks Euthyphro (10a): “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”

We tend to agree with Socrates on the absurdity of divine command theories, and so insist that, if “the pious” means anything, its defining feature must precede the gods’ love for it. But this form of argument is not limited to “the pious” (ie ethics). Consider: “Is the world created by the gods because it is the world? Or is it the world because it is created by the gods?”

This extension of the question’s structure to metaphysics ought not to surprise us; creation ex nihilo is pretty close, after all, to divine command theory. Now is a good time to remember that being, truth, and goodness are convertible. Indeed, for the Christian, who believes both God’s world and His love come into being through His Word, these are just variations on an old trinitarian paradox: “Is God’s Word His because it is a Word? Or is it a Word because it is His?”

Well, I suppose the orthodox answer is that the Father precedes the Son logically, but not temporally. Whatever that means.


Aristotle posits four kinds of “causes” (meaning something like, things that could follow “because” as an answer to “why?”): material, efficient, formal, and final.

These can be understood through a grammatical analogy. A material cause is like a place, a basis upon which something can come to exist. An efficient cause is like a person, an agent who will bring the something to exist. A formal cause is like the thing itself. And a final cause is like an event, what the something is doing.

A work of art is something, but what? Those who talk about art often use just one of the causes to understand their subject. Material theories of art are mimetic, focusing on how the artwork is made up of things from the world around them. Efficient theories are expressive, focusing on how the artwork is made by an artist. Formal theories are objective, focusing on how the artwork is make as a complex structure. Final theories are pragmatic, focusing on how the artwork is made for a purpose.

We might also say—though it’s a bit cute—that mimetic art attempts to bring about reflection; expressive art, reception; objective art, reproduction; and pragmatic art, recreation.

Each of these theories has its characteristic metaphor. Mimetic art is imagined as a mirror held up to the world; expressive art as a lamp colored by the author’s act of perception; objective art as a monument standing alone; pragmatic art as bread providing nourishment.

The structure of the Gospel resembles that of an artwork, in this way: it shows us our privation; but offers to color us with God’s love; in proof of this sets up the sign of Christ crucified; which we consume to enter into redemption.


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