The ancient Greeks had no one, abstract word for “religion,” which has a Latin origin in religio, the attention to the worship of the gods. Instead, we know from Socrates that there are two words that include what we call religion: First, there is piety (to eusebes); the second is holiness (to osion). On the face of it, without having to analyze much, we can say that the holy or holiness is the most comprehensive term for the regard of the gods or god. To be pious is a fervor of the mind. A holy man is a man who truly lives in the heavens and not on earth. A pious man applies what is holy as an homage of the heart.
Leo Strauss’s commentary “On the Euthyphron” begins: “The subject matter of the Euthyphron is piety.”
Later, Strauss will note: “The Euthyphon deals with piety, and leaves upon the question of what piety is.” Of course, Strauss in the course of the essay tells us. But that is not important here.
Euthyphron asserts that holiness is a part of justice appertaining to the gods, giving the gods their due. He also argues that piety and holiness are a therapeia of the gods. We derive our word therapy from this word, but it is generally translated in this case as a tending or tendance of the gods. This tendance or tending, Socrates continues, is a kind of service of, ministration of, the gods, and Euthyphon is pressed into saying that that holiness is simply understanding how to please the gods, basically through the arts of sacrificing and prayer. It is a matter of asking and giving, Socrates forces Euthyphron to admit. At the heart of this religion is asking and giving, a kind of business. With great discomfort, Euthypron, apparently a very pious man, agrees that that gods demand their quid pro quo. And Euthyphron attempted to convict his own father of impiety, a serious crime warranting death, part of the reason Socrates was executed.
Socrates goes to the weakest part of the ancient pagan religion. That notion of therapeia, service is very kindly, and the tendance of the gods contains no fear. If man does his part, then the gods will do theirs. There is no reference at all to sin, repentance, purification, no fears of judgment, atonement, and no longing to be a saint. Man in his incomplete knowledge or ignorance simply just does therapeia to the gods as humanly and rational as man can. There is no skepticism about the gods. If there were no gods, then you would not service them.
This kind of religion is not one of love or anything like that. It is rational and mutual, man and gods. There is another part of the religion, which is not directly discussed in the Euthyphron. It is the notion of deisidaimonia, fear of spirits, fear of the supernatural. The word quickly becomes known as the superstitious man. There is a darker side as well. Aristotle, in the Politics, says that an absolute ruler will be more powerful “if his subjects believes he fears the spiritual beings.” Moreover, Aristotle says he most show himself in this way without fatuity.
According to Plutarch, the fear of the supernatural is superstition and it is this fear of the supernatural that is the danger and weakness of this pagan religion, the therapeia of the gods. The problem is that superstition can be cruel and extreme. It is not just an error, like atheism, but it inflames the passions. Superstition is a “dislocation, complicated, inflamed by a bruise.”
Most importantly, Plutarch remarks, “Atheism is apathy towards the divine which fails to see the good; superstition is an excess of passion which suspects the good to be evil; the superstitious are afraid of the gods yet fly to them for refuge, flatter, and yet revile them, invoke them and yet heap blame upon them.”
Plutarch was upset at superstition because it terrified men and terrified men are dangerous to others and themselves. Plutarch was a solid Platonist who deleted the fear of the gods from the gods themselves. If a poet invokes Ares, the fear of Ares is not that of the god, but of human war. All the fearful things that are said of the gods are not of the gods, but of human life. The atheist is impious, but what are we to say of the superstitious man? Is he really pious?
Plutarch’s great humanity is seen not in his therapeia of the gods (which he did splendidly), but his compassion for human beings. He spurns atheism, because it deprives man of many pleasant things, especially the rites and rituals and festivals of religious life. “He that dreads the gods dreads all things, earth and sea, air and heaven, darkness and light, a voice, a silence, a dream. Slaves forget their masters in sleep, sleeps looses their fetters, salves their gangrenous sores, but for the superstitious man his reason is always adreaming but his fear is always awake.” How horrible it is that this fear of the supernatural would become the core of many religions.
For Strauss, therapeia of the gods, this art, is also at the heart of why men need the gods, He notes that there are two ministering arts of which Socrates speaks, farming and generalship, whose goods are a rich harvest and victory. “Yet generalship and farming are not enough for producing victory and good harvest,” Strauss writes. “For these arts cannot guarantee the outcome,and the outcome is, in these arts, the only thing that matters. Whether the outcome of the use of generalship or farming be good or bad depends upon chance. Chance is that which is in no way controllable by an art or knowledge, or predictable by art or knowledge. But too much depends on chance for man to be resigned to the power of chance. Man makes the irrational attempt to control the uncontrollable, to control chance. Yet he knows that he cannot control chance. It is for this reason that he needs the gods. The gods are meant to do for him what he cannot do for himself. The gods are the engine by which man believes he can control chance. He serves the gods in order to be the employer of the gods, or the lord of the gods.”
Prayer is asking. As Alain says, “Asking is just the means. Knowing how to ask is the first knowledge. And language, to be exact, is the most ancient of action.” For Indo-Aryans and the ancient pagans, the act of all actions, that act that defines action itself, is sacrifice. In truth, sacrifice is an essential part of asking with prayer. The question then comes, can you sacrifice without fear?
Strauss remarks, “A slight bias in favor of laughing and against weeping seems to be essential to philosophy. For the beginning of philosophy as philosopher understood it is not the fear of the Lord, but wonder. It spirit is not hope and fear and trembling, but serenity on the basis of resignation. To that serenity, laughing is a little bit more akin than weeping.” Socrates, it appears, then, was not impious, because he tended to what was truly divine. Beneath what appears to be chance alone, there is a deeper order that can be tended through knowledge and art, whose apparent kin, respectively, are sacrifice and prayer, holiness and piety.