Giambattista Vico, the 18th century philosopher of history and civilizations who fully understood and explained the connection between myth and religion, points out in his New Science (1725) that the burial of the dead, hinting at belief in an after-life by primitive man, is a credible and concrete sign of some archaic form of religion, what he considers a sine qua non (together with language and the institution of marriage and family) for the beginning of any kind of primordial civilized society.
Indeed, religion and atheism (see Lucretius' De Rerum Natura) have been around from time immemorial, but it is only with the arrival of nihilism in the 20th century that we witness the political installation and practice of the religion-less State, to wit Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union which descend into the cult of self-worship or race worship, not too dissimilar from that of the ancient Romans worshipping goddess Rome. The ideology is substituted to religion and given a name (Nazism or Marxism, for example) while religion is deemed as poisonous to the body-politic, a rival ideology of sort to be dispatched. We know quite well the nefarious fruits of those social experiments. Indeed, it is by their fruits that the wolves in sheep's clothing are best known, not by their alleged good intentions and goals. Some of those wolves were brought to the Hague’s International Court of Law after World War II and most received quick justice. Others followed after Kosovo some fifty years later. The issue remains.
Christianity is not native to Europe, it arrives via the Middle East but, as hinted above, however, there were in Europe native archaic religions (called pagan religions by Christians) which can be traced back to the the Stone Age. Moreover, as Klaus Held points out in his essay on the origins of European culture, never was religion so discussed in ancient Greece as when science and democracy were making their debut in the 4th century BC. Perhaps the best example to support this assertion is Plato's dialogue called Euthyphro. There we read about Socrates and Euthyphro discussing the nature of holiness. After some debating back and forth they finally come to agree that the holy is what all the gods agree in approving. Socrates however, true to form, follows with another more penetrating question: "Is the holy such because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy"? At first Euthyphro misses the import of the question. For this is the question of the "reasonableness" of the gods (or God as the case may be). To ask the same question in a slightly different way: "Would absolutely anything the gods approved of, be holy just because they approve of it, or are they also bound to approve only what is holy"? Which is to say, are they free to approve or disapprove or are they bound by reason just as humans are. For humans to remain ethical and human, they need to follow reason in assessing their own actions. Does this apply to the gods too; and if so, are they free or determined?
As Nietzsche well grasped in his Geneology of Morals, with that penetrating question Socrates has discovered the basic dilemma of the relationship between religion and morality. The dilemma is basically this: either goodness cannot be explained simply by reference to what the gods want, or else it is an empty tautology to assert that "the gods are good." In that case the praise of the gods is simply power-worship. Those who have the power to do so impose their will; those who do not simply obey those who have it. Enter Machiavelli and modern political science.
For us moderns the question may be put thus: is Aquinas right in his faith in reason that leads him to found his theology on the scaffolding of Aristotelian rationality and discern no innate enmity between faith and reason? With that question we arrive at the statement of the US founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Which is to say, it is universally evident to reason that human rights are universal and inalienable, independent of agreements among men or even among gods. If God created us human creatures with reason, She expects us to use it as a way of reaching the truth, and the truth shall make us free. Even God, if She respects truth, cannot let a Lucifer out of hell, the reprobate angel who said "evil be thou my god" (see Milton's Paradise Lost).
Moreover, was Aquinas right in pointing out that Truth can be distinguished as scientific, religious, and philosophical but it neverthless remains one and indivisible? Perhaps the most important point of his Summa is that religious faith cannot contradict reason; when it does, then we have separated truths and we may be dealing with a fanatical cult of sort leading to falsehood.
By the 12th century the Olympian and Nordic gods have dwindled to one God and Western civilization is entirely monotheistic and Biblical. The Enlightenment however begins the work of God’s liquidation culminating with Nietzsche's madman shout: "God is dead" at the end of the 19th century. Leibnitz basically poses the same dilemma as Socrates when he writes that: "Those who believe that God has established good and evil by an arbitrary decree.... deprive God of the designation "good": for what cause could one have to praise him for what he does, if in doing something quite different he would have done equally well?"
The problem here, as Nietzsche and others within a Christian Western Civilization also saw quite well, is that Socrates really believes that "knowledge is virtue," and that by merely discussing the virtues and clarifying their essence, one is then bound to become a virtuous person. Plato, who is actually the one who presents Socrates to us and narrates his trial, is more skeptical. He posits the irrational in the human soul which needs to be rained in (see the image of the charioteer and the two winged horses in The Phaedrus). He had observed the likes of Critias, Charmides and even Alcibiades, converse at length with Socrates and then go off and become elitist sophists, corrupt people who use language not as a means to a sincere dialogue aiming at truth, but as a tool to control and manipulate others. They were the precursors of Machiavelli and his philosophy, and our modern politicians, a philosophy alive and well within current Western Civilization.
And which are the modern views on virtue? On one extreme, as already hinted, there is Machiavelli's position which takes hold of the Aristotelian concept of virtue (understood as a good habit as opposed to vice, a bad habit) and turns it up-side-down: virtue is nothing else but something well done, with competency and thorough skill. It is perfection of means or techne in any field. The virtuous Prince is he who gets a hold of power and holds on to it at any cost. Pushed to its ultimate conclusion, the logical rationalist who operates by pure reason, (what Vico calls "the barbarism of the intellect") will make the trains run on time and efficiently, will gas millions of innocent women, children and men, and then conceive himself as a "virtuous" person; somebody to be admired and praised for his supreme competence in doing such a thorough and efficient job and meeting the goals he has proposed. Virtue is now power, as the father of the scientific method Francis Bacon well expressed it.
The other side of this coin is the Christian view as expressed by St. Paul: "I know the good but I do evil." In other words, there is something within human nature that is perceived as flawed and less than ideal at its source which makes Socrates' dictum "knowledge is virtue" sound a bit naïve and abstract. Paul and to a certain extent Plato are a bit more realistic about human nature. Plato knows about the irrational part of the soul, Paul knows that there is a garden which has been left behind, and that there is a snake in such a utopian garden and there are fallen angels as Milton points out. As pure spirits, they know what virtue is, rationally unencumbered by the weakness of the senses, but freely embrace evil nonetheless. There is no redemption for them, for there are no mitigating circumstances such as the weakness of the body.
It is conceivably naïve on Socrates' part to think that nobody would choose evil by simply knowing what evil is. In a flawed universe, knowledge is not automatically convertible into virtue. In the same way, it is naïve to think that a Constitution proclaiming the universal rights of man with no appeal to a Creator of human nature (through which they become inalienable, not to be granted and not to be violated by any State no matter how powerful) but simply to abstract notions such “fraternitè” “egalitè” “libertè” is any kind of guarantee that those rights will be universally respected. To wit, the former Soviet Union and the present Russia and People's Republic of China who have wonderful theoretical ideals in their constitutions, portending a utopia or blissful paradise on earth, but it is all on paper so to speak, for the most part violated in practice.
To be sure, these three understandings of virtue were proposed in one form or another under the guise of rationality, piety, morality or holiness at the Plenary Session of the Convention for the EU Constitution held in Brussels a decade or so ago. Unfortunately they were never thoroughly debated. One of the frequent contributors to the forum on the future of Europe (Carlos del Ama, a Spaniard who teaches philosophy in Madrid) submitted a document at the conclusion of the Convention, on which I assisted him with the English version. It showed that, contrary to what the modern anti-religion sophists and rationalists go around peddling nowadays, historically, most of the Constitutions of the world at the very least mention a Creator or a Providence in their preamble as a way of grounding themselves in something more durable than the historical vicissitudes of humankind and its relativistic power politick. The decision not to do so for the EU Constitution while enthusiastically invoking on the part of Mr.Valerie D'Estaing the goddess Europe at the opening session of the Constitutional Convention leaves one wondering if the above examined distinctions were at least discerned. They certainly were not discussed. Too philosophical, in our times the paradigms are usually economic, or political, or military. They are paradigms grounded in power.
And so it was not too surprising that the feast of the gods on the Mount Olympus to celebrate the EU Constitution proceeded full speed ahead on Rome's Capitoline Hill where the draft Constitution was signed by the head of each member state. It contained plenty of lip service to democratic values and human rights but it never debated on what should those principles be grounded?
It now appears that an apple was thrown on the banquet table by an angry rival goddess who had not been invited at the party: the goddess of discord. The old nationalistic ideological centrifugal forces returned. The difficulties continued unabated for a decade and more and as of now one of the member states, of those which originally signed the Constitution, has withdrawn from the Union and others are mulling over the same step. No great surprises there, given that in general the people were not democratically consulted with a universal referendum on it.
Ultimately people get the Constitution and the government they deserve, for better or for worse. There are various ways of escaping from freedom (see Fromm’s Escape from Freedom). The flip side of that phenomenon is the dictum of Thomas Jefferson: "Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom." On November 8 there will be test of fire of that statement in the US, worth pondering by all Europeans who still treasure freedom and democracy.