On Philosophy and Religion

1. On the one hand, philosophy has nothing to do with religion. One can speculate about the cosmos without coming anywhere near a moral teaching. One can have radical political views from what might be considered philosophic insights – you know, much like every other person – and find one’s views or way of life challenged more by comedy or mass media than anything else.

And yet, the tension between philosophy and revelation is twofold. First, some who think a lot about revealed religion consider philosophy its greatest alternative or threat. But the second tension is far more interesting, far more curious. Benardete has a line in his “Strauss on Plato” essay where he talks about Strauss’ reading of Alfarabi. It seems that for Alfarabi this held true: to bring philosophy into a world that did not have the slightest clue about it was also to bring back the “true form” of revelation.

I’ve been wondering about this a lot lately. For me, the problem starts at the level of the obvious. There’s a difference between a culture that purports to be moral and being moral or religious. Everyone knows this – the difference is most manifest in those who kill for their culture or religion and those who feel less threatened, who see grace as a more or less private thing. The difference is huge: we’re talking about incredible acts of savagery, ignorance and bigotry on the one hand and people either embracing ecumenism or a “live and let live” line of thought on the other. It is tempting to say that one set of people is more philosophic and the other less so.

But that line of reasoning is a trap: no matter what, we’re in a debate situated within religion, and philosophy is a hopelessly unclear concept except for some political notion of tolerance. There’s no explanation about how the same thing can create a violent “us vs. them” mentality and at the same time be thought the bearer of universal peace. And I mean “thing” – religion, at this point in the inquiry, is also hopelessly unclear thing. It seems to be either obedience to or love of standards and laws or the mantic interpretation of such laws, the spirit of the law (“what is there but to do justice and walk humbly with one’s God”). To say there’s a bit of a tension regarding what constitutes religion would be a gross understatement.

2. So let’s try the inquiry again and shift some categories around. Forget religion for a second. It is clear people have to fight and die to protect a given society and that they have to believe what they fight and die for is important. Very well. To some degree, we can talk about religious/political phenomena as an unleashing or cultivation of willpower. It’s important, maybe more important than having citizens that are tolerant and peaceable. As wonderful as they can be, the question of survival is pressing, perhaps most pressing when unseen.

None of this gives us the “true form” of revelation. What it does, though, is link the public form with utility for society, as we see in the above paragraph. That leaves the question of what exactly is going on with those who might be considered more passive about religion. Certainly it is the case some zealots will see weakness where others see strength. Can we say those who are more peaceable are just protecting their own interest? That the only thing at play is a private notion of utility?

Maybe, but that’s horribly cynical and unfair to those who are not zealots. And we just defended zealots – for all their savagery, we admit, they might be willing to sacrifice for a common good. So what exactly is the defense of those who are a bit quieter about their faith? That they are the true adherents, citizens of another world?

It isn’t clear what exactly their virtue is in religious terms, even after the centrality of the Beatitudes. We see their humaneness, but religion at times marks that as more or less valuable. Their trueness to the faith is seen by God and God alone. And as noted above, we can’t really call them “philosophic.” They don’t see themselves that way, and we can’t assume they are open to the radical sort of questioning that constitutes a love of wisdom (and is, to be fair, antagonistic to love of humanity at times).

3. Whatever the “true form” of revelation is, it has to do with the private more than the public. The political things and common opinions are worked through, in a sense, to see what is left. There are two things on my mind – I’m sure, if you press the issue, that they do not add up – as I talk about this. First, the famous “big letters/small letters” thing from the Republic. If you looked for justice in the city, wouldn’t it be written on it in big letters? And wouldn’t what is written on it be the exact same thing, writ small, on our souls? It sounds preposterous, but Socrates is more right than one thinks. What he’s pointing to is that the city is knowable morally. When we say “all men are created equal,” we posit a basis for justice that has literally dictated American history. To a large degree, it has dictated our private responses to things and even how we feel. Of course, the small problem exists that it is not clear anything like “all men are created equal” is written on any of our souls. The problem of what justice is, what the best life is, is still outstanding no matter how knowable the city (or where we live) is. The main thing to be gained from the metaphor is that the public things have an indirect value in illuminating the private.

But. There’s always one of these, and this one is way more complicated to discuss. I was reading Christopher Bruell’s thoughtful and provocative essay on Xenophon in the History of Political Philosophy (can you tell I recommend it?). Now that I’ve been working on Xenophon for years, I have notes on each sentence of it – he’s made me think that much more about it all. One of the best things the essay does is show how Socrates shows up directly and indirectly in Xenophon’s corpus, including the works that are non-Socratic. This is not insignificant; in the Cyropaedia, at least one teacher is mentioned who sounds like Socrates (and is put to death for pulling a kid away from his father). The tyrant Croesus is mentioned as one who challenged the truth of Apollo’s prophecy, incurring his wrath. The references in other works go beyond a joking touch. The Hellenica is where we see Socrates stand for the law against mob anger. We know what price he paid for that. When one considers that Xenophon himself retired from public life to sit and write, thinking through yet again what things in his life meant, it is incredible Socrates shows up so much. My own thought is that pagan philosophy did conceive of another world, but it was much less grand than what revealed religion proposes. Socrates and the problems he posed live in thought, live in the questions of how one is living one’s life, for what end, what is achievable. For all these questions, you need all the knowledge in the world and none at all. You need this world, experience, to speak. That requires the life of the mind, and to a much lesser degree, philosophic literature. Then there is the claim that there is a book which has all the answers, period. I don’t want to be uncharitable, though, or unfair. The English Thomist Richard Hooker saw a degrading of Scripture in using it to validate or invalidate every trivial decision. The perfection of Scripture was relative to its supernatural purpose. I don’t know that I’d say Richard Hooker was a philosopher, but he was a decent human being, and I’d certainly like that much.


Bruell, Christopher. “Xenophon” in History of Political Philosophy, 3rd Edition. ed. Strauss/Cropsey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. 90-114.

Forrester, Duncan. “Richard Hooker” in History of Political Philosophy, 3rd Edition. ed. Strauss/Cropsey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. 361.

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