There be dragons!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Be Still and know that I am God




“An inconceivable beauty you speak of,” he said, “if it is the source of knowledge and truth, and yet itself surpasses them in beauty. For you surely cannot mean that it is pleasure.”
“Hush,” said I...
- Republic Bk IV: 509a

αὐτὸ δ᾽ ὑπὲρ ταῦτα κάλλει ἐστίν: οὐ γὰρ δήπου σύ γε ἡδονὴν αὐτὸ λέγεις.

εὐφήμει, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ:

Socrates' response to Glaucon is commonly read to mean "shut up" or "don't blaspheme" for Glaucon, in the midst of the discussion of The Good has misunderstood and suggested that this "inconceivable beauty" (hyper tauta kallei) is nothing more than pleasure. His knuckleheaded response is understandable, though, given his character; pleasure IS all he knows.

Socrates' response, however, is surprising. He is normally very tolerant of the obtuse incomprehension of his interlocutors. The severity of his response seems to indicate that he takes this matter very seriously. Indeed to reduce this greatest of visions to something so base and transitory is itself akin to blasphemous speech. IF all our vision of greatness is only another form of pleasure, being good only in that it pleases us, then not only does the whole native hue of resolution get sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, but our very standard for what is good or evil becomes a subjective gratification of what appeals to us. Consequently The Good becomes theft, power, sloth, rapine, murder or any other host of evils dared by Gyges. Indeed, to subjectify this concept of The Good is to verify the rightness of what Gyges in Book 2 does. He is right in rapine and murder, Hugh Hefner is right in polygamy, Karl Miewis is right in cannibalism, Pol Pot is right in genocide, and no one can tell anyone else anything certain of what is good, true or noble.

But the command "euphemei" in Greek has another connotation besides "hush" - literally it translates as "use words of good omen" or "abstain from evil words" and comes from the combination of "eu" (good) and "phemei", meaning a voice of unknown or prophetic origin. ("euphemism" in English is a direct derivative) So what Socrates says to Glaucon isn't just "shut up" or "be silent", it is "prophecy well". He is commanding Glaucon at this critical moment to become a prophet of The Good - to allow the truth that inspires to speak through him, rather than let his own vision clouded by desire ruin the greatness of the conversation (and of the work). So one could extract from this command something of the prophetic calling of Glaucon by Socrates.

Nevertheless, the common use of the imperative (according to Liddell & Scott) is normally "hush!" or "be still!". Such a command at this moment rings harmoniously with the command in Psalm 46.10 "Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth." This too is a command from the speaker (God) to the interlocutor (us) to "hush!" in the midst of all our babble.

I can't help but think that in both texts, Republic and Bible, the hush is something more akin to a formula. How does one know God? How does one become a prophet? Is it in argument? Conversation (as Socrates seems to ironically proclaim)? Being busy with good works? Reading voluminously? - what both the Psalm and Socrates indicate is that the only way to know God is in the midst of stillness. What is sin but constant noise and business, hurriedness, worry, the cacophony of the world., the imperative to buy, the injunction to neither stand nor lie nor sit.

"O figliuol", disse, "qual di questa greggia

s'arresta punto, giace poi cent'anni

sanz'arrostarsi quando 'l foco il feggia."

In such a din there is no way to know God any more than it is possible to know the Good of which Socrates speaks.

The evening prayer of John Henry Cardinal Newman has stuck with me since my youth. Newman writes

May the Lord support us all the day long,
Till the shades lengthen and the evening comes
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.

Then in his mercy may he give us
a safe lodging
and a holy rest,
and peace at last.

True insight comes in silence, not in fever, and what we long for, safe lodging, holy rest, peace at the last, seem to come not through the busy machinations of the world's materialism and pleasure, but only at silent reflection and meditation on the fact that God is Good. So mote it be (or in the vernacular: Amen).



1 comment:

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