Plato’s Euthyphro: Introduction

It has been a while since I posted a Booklog entry.  It is not for lack of reading, on my part, but most of my reading has been either rather technical–Sicilian history, Pre-Socratic philosophy, the history of marriage–or too light to merit discussion.  In preparing for our own Sicilian Expedition, though, I reread Plato’s 7th Letter and was struck, again, not only by Plato’s awakening common sense but also by his often conventional instincts–judge a leader by who well he keeps his friends.

Rather than take up the 7th Letter immediately, I am going to look at several early dialogues, not so much for any positive understanding we can gain concerning piety or courage, but to learn Plato’s dialectic.  This is my primary reason for doing this.  It seems to me, reading newspaper columns and online comments, that the most rudimentary reasoning skills have disappeared.  Even literate and intelligent people cannot see to the heart of an argument or subject their own opinions to rational scrutiny.

I considered setting up a course on practical reasoning, but that would have taken much too much time, and, besides, the West was taught to think by Plato and Aristotle.  Why not use the tools that are available.  That Plato is a charming and brilliant writer is no drawback, either.

Later, I hope to show where Plato goes wrong in applying his methods to everyday social and political questions, and, afterwards, to take up the 7th Letter.  We’ll have to see  how much interest there is in this.

Then let us start with Plato’s Euthyphro.  Jowett’s somewhat stodgy but clear translation is available everywhere, and I shall quote from that where  I find it useful.  Otherwise, I’ll just translate the Greek in my own fashion.

I’m not going to give a lot of historical background, which would distract us from the main objective.  The dramatic setting of this early dialogue is very striking.  Socrates runs  his young friend Euthyphro, who is undertaking a prosecution for homicide.  Socrates also has a date in court, since Meletus (among others) has accused him of impiety and of corrupting the youth.  Socrates’ trial, conviction, and death are, of course, beautifully commemorated in the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, and this dramatic context is entirely relevant for a debate on what constitutes the virtue of piety.

The discussion begins.

I am going to begin the discussion with some paragraphs from a chapter of any unpublished book of mine on love and hate, family and kinship.  They come from what is now chapter three, “Kith and Kin.”

We have sketched out an idealized topography of ancient Athens that is a landscape expression of the tension between friendship and strife, between the religious and familial solidarity of the Acropolis and the economic and political competition of the Agora.  Imagine we are now in the Agora, where a troublesome philosopher has gone to the basileios stoa for some business involving a suit that has been lodged against him.  He is accused not only of teaching atheism but of making religious innovations (which may seem contradictory).  Worse of all, he is to be put on trial for corrupting the young.  The philosopher meets a young acquaintance, who asks what business takes him to the court, and when Socrates (the philosopher facing a trial) ironically praises his accuser as a man who knows enough about politics to start at the right end—with the education of the children—Euthyphro (for that is the young friend’s name) misses the joke and declares that in accusing Socrates, the politician Meletus is destroying the city “from the hearth,” that is, by attacking the very center of civil life.

Young Euthyphro’s court business turns out to be even more curious than the prosecution that will cost Socrates his life; he is prosecuting his own father for homicide. Since homicide prosecutions at Athens had to be instigated by private individuals, generally by the victim’s relatives, Socrates tries to find out what connection there was between Euthyphro and the victim.  The young man responds by mocking the philosopher, insisting that the gods do not make such distinctions.  The pious young man, who is all for a strict interpretation of the law, is (like the gods) no respecter of persons.  He is, like most modern ethical philosophers, a universalist who believes that, when we are making moral decisions, such distinctions as kinship, ethnicity, and nationality are irrelevant.

As it happens, there are, circumstances that mitigate the father’s guilt.  A servant, it seems, had killed a slave, and Euthyphro’s father had tied up and neglected the guilty party until he could receive official instructions.  In the meantime, the murderer died.  The case really comes down to an accidental homicide that resulted from an attempt to comply with Athenian law.  None of this–motive, legality, or filial piety–carries any weight with a young man convinced of his own righteousness.

The rest of the conversation turns on the question of piety, and it is hard to miss the connection between Socrates’ accuser and Euthyphro.  Both of them assume that they know what is right and best for the city, and both are in fact destroying the city “from the hearth”:  Meletus, in the metaphorical sense that in prosecuting an honest moral philosopher, he is undermining justice, which is the foundation of civil life, while young Euthyphro is literally attacking his own household in the person of his father.


(The exact circumstances of Euthyphro’s case have been the object of controversy.  See Ian Kidd, “The Case of Homicide in Plato’s Euthyphro in Owls to Athens”: Essays on Classical Subjects Presented to Sir Kenneth Dover, edited by E.M. Craik (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990) pp. 213-21.

Socrates begins to get down to business quite quickly in 5, where he ironically expresses admiration for what must be Euthyphro’s prodigious expertise in all things divine.  The young man responds that if he did not have such knowledge he would be no better than other men, who in his estimation are mere chumps. In these early dialogues, Plato is concerned to show that the expertise claimed by traditional specialists—soldiers, poets, priests, rhetors—is false.

His next step is to declare what is by no means a self-evident truth, that a virtue like piety (eusebeia), no matter how varied its expressions, must be based on a single principle of the holy as opposed to the unholy.  Naturally, Euthyphro claims that the holy is the very thing he is doing, namely, prosecuting someone who commits murder or sacrilege, whether the malefactor is your father or mother.  His proof?  That Zeus, the preeminent force of justice, shackled his own father Cronus for swallowing his children.  This rather cuts against Socrates, whose rationalizing and purifying of Greek myth had brought on the charge of impiety.

Euthyphro, by contrast, is rather like the Fundamentalist who not only believes in the stories on which he was brought up but insists that they are all literally true.  But, back to the argument.  Socrates point out that an example (What Euthyphro is doing now ) is not the same things as a definition of a universal virtue.  There must be one ideal or essential form, says Socrates, that underlies all such examples of holiness or any other virtue.


Now, why do I stick at this?  In the most important sense, Plato is clearly right, even allowing for cultural differences.  But one does have to be a bit more careful.  Some virtues overlap a bit, and where one group puts a stronger emphasis on, say courage or even physical strength, it will see the other virtues through that lens.  Few Greeks would have agreed, for example, with Christ’s insistence on humility.  Aristotle would only go so far as to say that man’s pride should not exceed his worth.  This is not to say that Christ is not correct, but that in a purely rational discussion we cannot always take such things for granted.

Perhaps more to the point is that we are sometimes prisoners of language. Let us suppose that instead of the pious or the holy, we were grappling with a word like rough or gentle.  Both have physical as well as behavioral connotations, and in the later case we would have to face the etymology, which clarifies Shakespeare’s use of the word to refer to people of noble family.  Obsolete?  What about our continuing use of gentleman?


If a word like lordship or dominion can be used, as it was in Greek, of both the master of the city and of the master of a household, then doesn’t it follow that such forms of authority are reducible to a single principle?  Maybe, but maybe not. Aristotle was more cautious in these matters.  Conservatives like to say that the state should balance its budget exactly as a homeowner does, but, as much as I agree with the basic principle, it cannot be applied universally.  What if Atilla the Hun is on the way?  A little money, wisely borrowed, might save everyone’s neck.

In general, then, we should be careful about conceding this form of argument until we have examined it more closely, but since Socrates’ point is generally and in the highest sense valid, let’s not quibble.


Provoked, Euthyphro (7a) comes up with a pretty good first shot, one that would please most pious Christians: What which is holy is what pleases the gods, the unholy is what does not please them.  This is parallel to the common Sunday School sentiment that all that morality per se does not really matter, because all that really matters is making God happy.

Euthyphro, as a fundamentalist, has fallen into a trap.  He has already said he agrees with all the old stories about gods fighting each other.  Presumably, their more serious wars would be about such things as the nature of the just, the holy, etc.  The modern “Christian” Zionist has the same problem.  It is fine for the state of Israel today to mistreat Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians, because their literalist reading of the Old Testament has convinced them that G-d orders us to do what would otherwise be regarded as immoral.

Socrates now has recourse to one of his favorite metaphors: that of measurement of distances, weights, etc.  When they disagree about the size or weight of a purchase, for example, they argue and act like enemies until by taking an accurate measurement they resolve the dispute.  By implication, then, it will only be when have found the correct measuring device that we can end the sorts of arguments over virtue that cause not only men on earth but the gods in heaven to quarrel.

Let us pause here to discuss these things.  I will point out that in this dialogue Socrates is making the critique of Greek religion that gave an opening to his accusers, while elsewhere, on such subjects, he is more likely to tear apart the arguments put forward by Sophists and rhetors.  If we are not at all clear about what those arguments were, we should briefly take them up.  If no one needs that instruction, we can pass by.

So, the first thing we learn from studying Socrates’ method that it is not enough to tell anecdotes or list examples.  A truly convincing argument can only be made when we have an agreed upon criterion for truth (our measuring device, again) and a definition of underlying form that can fit all the examples.  By implication, there is no point to any rational argument until we can agree on some first principles.  Thus, it is important for the two parties to come to an understanding of what each believes and on any basis of fact we might have in common.

For example, let us suppose we are arguing with a Randian.  There is no point in dragging Scriptures or Tradition into it, because they reject both.  Presumably, though, a Randian is interested in success and happiness, and we might then have a discussion of what constitutes either.  Some might actually be brought to realize that having a lot of money or fame does not necessarily constitute either success of happiness.  If they agree that men are not merely angelic but natural beings, then we might pursue a line of reasoning about what human nature is.  Was Karen Carpenter successful or happy as she starved herself to death?  Is a childless homosexual happy in a way that, say, that could be justified by a Darwinist?

My point is not to answer any of these questions but to show that we need to find common ground, and if we cannot, then it is better either to go away or silence those who corrupt the young. Socrates, remember, argued that the Athenians were wrong on the facts, not in sentencing him to death.  He pointedly says that an accused criminal has to deny having done the deed, because if he admits to the crime, he cannot really hope to escape the punishment.


Part  II

In switching gears, Socrates is careful to restate the question.  Euthyphro’s father has inadvertently caused the death of a homicidal slave, by putting him in chains until he can ascertain what he is supposed to do with him.  It is up to Euthyphro to prove that his prosecution is pious and required by the gods.

He then puts the chicken-and-egg question.  Is something holy because it is approved of by the gods or approved by the gods because it is holy?  Since Euthyphro is not used to this sort of discourse, Socrates talks him through to an understanding of active/passive and subject/object.  He persuades Euthyphro that the gods love what is holy and that we do not define its holiness on the subjective grounds that whatever pleases the gods is holy.

I think this is an important point.  Muslims are content with a universe in which a capricious Allah defines good and evil in immediate and not contingent terms.  He tells you what to do and you had better do it.  There are Islamicist Christians who take this view, of course, and the truth of what they think is that our God is incapable of willing anything that is not good, true, and right.  Nonetheless, our God also made a world and saw that it was good, and He established universal laws, accessible to our reason, of moral behavior.  Now, I would argue (with Aristotle) that these laws are not simply abstract deductions but like the law of gravity.  They are in our nature and when we violate them, we are wrong and do harm to our own nature.

So, concludes Socrates, being loved by god or gods is only an attribute of holiness and not its essence.

Are we all on the  same page here?


Socrates has thoroughly confused Euthyphro with his important distinction.  In nearly any serious discussion of art or politics or morals, we run across people who want to define the good in terms either of what they like or as what is pleasing to the Being they worship.  Obviously, what God has made that pleases him is good, and just as obviously it is hard for mortals to distinguish between what is good in itself and what pleases the ultimate Good, but we can never get anywhere in such a conversation if we do not make this distinction.  On the most trivial level, do I prefer  Haydn to Honneger because that is just the way I was brought up to be or because of objective differences?

Euthyphro’s response is to take up Socrates’ joke about Daedalus (who made statues that walked) and claim he makes everything move around.  Obviously, Socrates’ search for stability leads first to the unstable and the uncertain.

Socrates now gets into one of his favorite modes of discussion, the part and the whole.  If justice and piety are related, is it because they are the same or because one is a subset of the other?  To illustrate his point, he quibbles over a line of verse that said that fear was always accompanied by reverence.  Since the context is Zeus, it is the equivalent to “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Logically, however, Socrates insists that while reverence is always accompanied by fear–fear of doing something shameful, for example–the reverse is not true since we fear everything really unpleasant–sickness, slavery, etc.

Justice is a broader concept than piety, thus piety is a part or aspect of justice.  Euthyphro, making some progress, now declares that piety is that part of justice that relates to what we do in regard to the gods.

Socrates now introduces another favorite topos: that of the expert.  In every care-taking activity, there is an expertise, but the expertise of a dog-trainer, for example, aims at the well-being and improvement of the dog, but not the trainer.  But surely, the pious man does not hope to make the gods better than they are?

Although I agree with Socrates’ reasoning, there may be a few loose ends.  Comments?


IV The question Socrates posed here, by the way, is often called “Euthyphro’s dilemma” or the Euthyphro dilemma.”
I don’t see how a creature on a lower intellectual and moral plane
can actually help beings that are superior to him. We cannot speak
of these things as Christians might speak of angels,
because that is irrelevant to Socrates’ case.
The gods in question are simply the gods, and we cannot
take it for granted (as Greeks) that their is power vastly greater.

Then we are agreed so far.
Since the service we bestow on dogs is inappropriate, what about medicine and architecture and generalship and  the other arts as an analogy?  They are broadly beneficial.  Is religious piety like that?

Euthyphro agrees that there is a science or art of piety and it consists of sacrificing and praying.  Thus, Socrates infers, religious piety is the skill or science of properly asking of and giving to the gods.  It is the business of gods and men giving and receiving to and from each other.

But but but..what do the gods actually receive from us?  Euthyphro predicatably says they like to be honored, and this gets us back to his earlier mistake of defining piety or holiness or goodness as that which is dear to the gods.

This is classic Socratic dialectic.  One line of reasoning leads us to say that the holy is good in itself and cannot be defined by the pleasure it gives the gods; the second, a way of reasoning analogically about the arts, leads to the conclusion that the object is to please the gods.

Well, which is it?

Euthyphro:  Gotta go!

Socrates humorously says he can never win his case now, because he has not been sufficiently instructed in what piety and impiety are.  By implication, though, the accusers cannot know either, and they will certainly rely on Euthyphro’s own prejudices.  Perhaps it would be useful to go quickly through the Apology to see what their arguments are and how Socrates responds to them?


To be continued

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