September 25, 2007

Philosophers critical of superstition such as Socrates in the Euthyphro, Epicurus, Lucretius, Hume, etc.

larvalsubjects under Politics , Religion
This semester, in a rather ill-conceived plan to change my intro courses a bit, I elected to teach Plato’s Euthyphro and Apology, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, Hume’s Enquiry, and Deleuze’s Nietzsche & Philosophy (the theme is critique). The Euthyphro, of course, is a dialogue about whether or not Euthyphro genuinely has knowledge of piety. De Rerum Natura seeks to free humans of their terror caused by superstition through an understanding of true causes (”superstition” is unfortunately translated in this translation as “religion”, despite the fact that Lucretius isn’t an atheist). Hume devotes a lengthy chapter to the critique of miracles in the Enquiry. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Nietzsche & Philosophy, so I can’t recall whether religion is a central focus or whether the focus is primarily on moral psychology. I should emphasize that this is a new syllabus and that usually I have a component on Augustine, Descartes’ Meditations, and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling or Sickness Unto Death.
At any rate, when I teach philosophers critical of superstition such as Socrates in the Euthyphro, Epicurus, Lucretius, Hume, etc., I’m careful to apply the arguments to a wide range of religious beliefs such as the Aztecs, Christianity, the Kaluli, etc., etc. I find that students often distance themselves from arguments, claiming they only apply to ignorant pagans or those wicked “others”, rather than applying them to their own familiar belief systems as well. For instance, Lucretius begins Book I of De Rerum Natura arguing against the claim that it is a crime to think in these materialistic terms by arguing that tremendous crimes have been propagated by priests in the name of superstition. He evokes Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter to make this point. Drawing on Kierkegaard’s analysis of the tragic hero versus the knight of faith in Fear and Trembling, I then make reference to the story of Jeptha and his sacrifice of his daughter in the Old Testament to show that this point isn’t restricted to the Greek world. Does that cross the line? I don’t know. Do I cross the line when teaching Epicurus’ and Lucretius’ claim that superstition produces dread when encountering unusual phenomena (such as comets, eclipses, earthquakes, hurricanes, plagues, tsunamis, etc), which people who don’t have knowledge of natural causes explain in terms of the wraith of the gods by pointing out that some religious leaders in the United States explained Hurricane Katrina and the recent Tsunami as resulting from God’s wraith? I don’t know.
Regardless of the material I’m teaching, I’m always careful to emphasize that the students aren’t required to accept any of these arguments or endorse any of the philosopher’s positions, only to understand the arguments. The value of this, I claim, is that through an encounter with these different positions we become more aware of our own positions and hone our own arguments in arguing against the premises on which these positions with which we disagree are based. I never penalize students when they evoke their political or religious beliefs in an essay or on a quiz, though I do insist that students not evoke sacred texts to make an argument in a philosophy paper as this violates the “rules of the game” (such arguments inevitably being circular and not addressed to the stranger that doesn’t acknowledge the sacredness of those texts), and that students understand the arguments of the philosopher they’re writing about. Perhaps this crosses the line. Most importantly, how can any philosophy class avoid crossing the line on some point or other? ... 3 Responses to “Whatever You Do, Don’t Allegorize!”
Jake P. Says: September 25, 2007 at 5:17 am When I teach, I always teach in favor of the subject I’m teaching regardless of what I think of it. When I teach Kant, I’m a Kantian. When I teach Mill, I’m an utilitarian. When I teach Marx, I’m Marxist.
Even though I’m an atheist, I will never ridicule Kierkegaard’s faith or philosophy, especially in front of my students. Methinks Bitterman should take some kind of counter legal action.
larvalsubjects Says: September 25, 2007 at 5:37 am I’m the same. I try to fully advocate for whatever position I’m teaching, animating that philosophy or thought and its arguments. I rather like Kierkegaard myself; or he’s one of my heroes anyway.
Jake P. Says: September 25, 2007 at 5:51 am Oh I like Kierkegaard to a degree anyway; that’s one of the reasons I always include him when teaching 19th century philosophy. There are even times I prefer him to his arrogant prick counterpart Nietzsche. (But in front of the students, I’m also Nietzschean ;)

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