Achieving Equanimity Against the Spell of Good and Evil
Make the slightest distinction, and heaven and earth are set far apart
People commonly think that some things are good and some things are bad, and that this goodness and badness are properties of those things that they say are good and bad.
The phrase the ancient Greeks used for this kind of relationship is that it was “by nature.” That good and evil existed by nature was the view of many ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and the Stoics. For the Stoics, the virtues were by nature good, the vices were by nature evil, and the “indifferents” were by nature neither good nor bad. The Stoics’ motto was to “live according to nature” — which included living according to what was — by nature — good, bad, and indifferent.
That good and bad are properties of things is intuitively appealing. Because of its intuitive appeal, this idea has been used by religions around the world to justify their faiths. Socrates famously pointed out a problem with this. It’s called the “Euthyphro Dilemma — the central question of Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro. This dialogue is a must-read text for anyone interested in philosophy or ethics. It’s short, easy, and available on audio. Since the dialogues are records of conversations, they’re great to listen to on audio.
The Euthyphro Dilemma is:
Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?
The Euthyphro is called one of Plato’s “aporetic” dialogues because it ends in aporia — a Greek term that has been brought into English. It means being at an impasse, or being at a loss. In other words, the dialogue explores the Euthyphro Dilemma but never solves it. We are left uncertain — an uncertainty that undermines any claim that something is good or bad because some god or gods say so.
An odd thing about good and bad is that none of the things called “good” or “bad” appear to affect everyone the same way. For example, the same politicians are simultaneously idolized by some and demonized by others. Even things as widely condemned as genocide have their ardent supporters who say that they’re good. In terms of what gets called good and bad, the situation is chaotic.