Note to the Reader: This being the first dialogue discussed, I am using it as a testing ground for formatting as well. The pattern will be to lay out the setting and those involved in the dialogue – Socrates’s presence assumed unless otherwise noted – those mentioned in the dialogue, and perhaps some historical context when necessary. I will also make my work much easier by citing the dialogue under discussion within the text itself; footnotes will be used when other sources are cited.
Near the king-archon’s court, located in a corner of the Athenian agora, sometime in 399 BCE.
· Euthyphro, who has come to prosecute his father for the murder – via neglect – of a “dependent” – a servant – of Euthyphro’s (4c-d). He is quite full of himself; when Socrates asks him whether he thinks his knowledge of divine matters – of piety and impiety – is so accurate that he can proceed with what others would see as an impious action without fear of acting wrongly, Euthyphro responds, “I should be of no use, Socrates, and Euthyphro would not be superior to the majority of men, if I did not have accurate knowledge of all such things” (4e-5a).
· Meletus, of the Pitthean deme. He is described by Socrates’s as, “young and unknown,” with, “long hair, not much of a beard, and a rather aquiline nose” (2b). He has brought a charge against Socrates, of corrupting the young men of Athens (2c), and of creating “new gods while not believing in the old gods” (3b).
· Zeus and his father, Chronos, are mentioned early by Euthyphro, who compares his present situation to that of Zeus who had to treat with his offspring-devouring father.
· Daedalus, the legendary craftsman and artisan, inventor of the labyrinth at Minos and the wings of Icarus. Socrates (ironically) compares Euthyphro to this figure late in the dialogue, saying he is, “more skillful than Daedalus,” in making his own arguments go around in a circle (15b).
The first of the tetralogy describing Socrates’s trial, imprisonment, and execution, Euthyphro serves as a prologue in that it relates the initial steps in the process. Meletus has charged Socrates with corrupting Athenian youth and impiety. It is this occasion, combined with Euthyphro’s reasons for being at the king-archon’s court that day, that lead to the central question of the dialogue: what is piety?
This dialogue establishes (in the context of this blog) some of the Socratic means and methods. First, and most obviously, is the use of the Socratic method; Socrates uses questions – and perhaps some baiting – to draw his eponymous interlocutor into a deeper examination of the topic at hand. Always coming back to the notion that he knows nothing useful, Socrates freely compliments the alleged wisdom of his dialectical partner, then questions his conclusions in ways that cause him to revise his views, to the point that he eventually becomes dispirited and unwilling to continue to be so closely examined.
The juxtaposition of Socrates’s legal troubles with Euthyphro’s reasons for being at court early in the dialogue lead directly to the question of piety. Ironically, Socrates, concerned with piety perhaps more than anything else, is accused of being impious, while Euthyphro, ready and willing to commit the impious act of prosecuting his father, claims to know – more than the majority of men – what is pious.
Importantly, Socrates questions Euthyphro’s justifications for his action early in the dialogue, when he asks, “when those things [the death of Euthyphro’s dependent] happened as you say, you have no fear of having acted impiously in bringing your father to trial?” (4e). The event as described by Euthyphro is that his servant killed a household slave while in a drunken rage. Euthyphro’s father bound him and left him in a ditch while a priest could be consulted on the proper course of action. The servant died from hunger and exposure before an answer was received. This would not be defined as murder by contemporary Athenians, and in fact Euthyphro’s relatives have accused him of acting impiously, an opinion with which he disagrees (4c-e). He will go on to compare himself to Zeus, at least in circumstance, seeing his prosecuting his father similar to that god’s treatment of his father, Chronos (5e-6a).
In response to Euthyphro’s self-aggrandizement, we get a taste of what I refer to as Socratic sarcasm or irony. Socrates states, “it is indeed most important, my admirable Euthyphro, that I should become your pupil,” when anyone who has read any of Plato’s Socratic dialogues knows full well that it is Euthyphro who is going to receive a lesson from Socrates, not the other way around (5a). And that lesson will be to show Euthyphro that he does not know what he thinks he knows; that he is not as wise as he claims to be.
In response to Socrates’s questions, Euthyphro provides the following sequence of definitions of what is pious and impious. Socrates wants an every-and-only definition of these concepts; that is to say, he wants a definition that applies only to piety or impiety, and to every thing or case that is said to be pious or impious (5c-d). In response, Euthyphro provides the first of several attempted definitions: “the pious is to do what I am doing now, to prosecute the wrongdoer… whether the wrongdoer is your father or your mother or anyone else; not to prosecute is impious” (5d-e). (It is later in this same passage that he compares himself to Zeus.) To this, Socrates asks whether there other pious actions, above and beyond prosecution of the wrongdoer, reminding Euthyphro that he asked for the definition of the form of piety or impiety, not of instances of them (6c-d).
Brought back on course, Euthyphro next offers that “what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious,” (7a). Simple, and adequate on the surface, but Socrates wants to dig deeper and verify whether this statement holds up as a universal, every-and-only definition, so he draws Euthyphro into the dialectic. He points out that the gods are at odds with one another, at least at times, and that there must be a cause for this enmity. That cause does not come about in things that are measurable – i.e. those that involve mathematics – but in things that are subjective, such as beauty or goodness (7b-e). Socrates concludes, dragging along a Euthyphro that appears to be losing enthusiasm for the discussion, that, since some things are loved and hated at the same time by different gods, Euthyphro’s first definition does not hold up to Socrates’s standards.
Euthyphro tries to salvage the moral high ground by claiming that, on the subject of unjust murder, “no gods would differ [in opinion] from one another, that whoever has killed unjustly should pay the penalty” (8b). Socrates leads Euthyphro to the conclusion that people do not argue over whether an unjust murder should be punished, but whether the murder – or any other action – was wrong in the first place. Coming full circle to Euthyphro’s intended prosecution of his father, Socrates puts the former’s claim to be acting in a way similar to the gods squarely back in his face, noting that the gods behave in a similar way in not being of one voice in matters of subjectivity – in this case, justice – asking him directly for a, “clear sign that all the gods definitely believe this action to be right,” (9b). Euthyphro admits that “this is perhaps no light task, Socrates, though I could show you very clearly,” (9b).
Of course, in the end, Euthyphro fails to justify his actions, regardless of any attempts to define piety or its opposite, and regardless of his claims to be able to do so. He tries, “the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is impious,” and, later, when piety has become associated with justice, “the godly and pious is the part of the just that is concerned with the care of the gods, while that concerned with the care of men is the remaining part of justice,” (9e and 12e). The former creates a circular argument – is it pious because it is loved by the gods, or is it loved by the gods because it is pious – and so fails as a definition; the later leads to the conclusion (whatever one might think of it) that the gods need the care of men for betterment, also an unacceptable result. Euthyphro’s last attempt at a definition, as he become more and more desperate to rid himself of the Athenian gadfly, is, “I say that if a man knows how to say and do what is pleasing to the gods at prayer and sacrifice, these are pious actions such as preserve both private houses and public affairs of state. The opposite of these pleasing actions are impious and overturn and destroy everything,” (14b). Socrates sums up this – rather windy, according to Socrates – definition as, “a knowledge of how to sacrifice and pray,” or, in other words, how to give gifts to and beg from the gods (14c-d). After further discussion in which Socrates questions why gods would need anything from men, he reduces Euthyphro’s final attempt at defining the pious and impious as “a sort of trading skill between gods and men,” (14e).
Euthyphro, who earlier had said in frustration that “I have no way of telling you [Socrates] what I have in mind, for whatever proposition we put forward goes around and refuses to stay put where we establish it,” has come full circle with his definitions, something Socrates will not let pass unnoticed: “do you not realize that our argument has moved around and come again to the same place?” (11g and 15b-c). By this point, Euthyphro is obviously no longer interested in engaging with Socrates, and his answers become more and more terse. His last words, in response to Socrates’s desire to continue, are, “some other time, Socrates, for I am in a hurry now, and it is time for me to go,” (15e). Unlike many of the sophistical interlocutors found in the dialogues, Euthyphro does not merely fall silent, but quits the field.
The Euthyphro is a wonderful introductory dialogue to the Platonic corpus. First, and most pragmatically, it is short. This makes it easier to explore and digest than the long dialogues like Republic or Laws. Carefully read, the dialogue is full of humor and sarcasm; of course, it’s impossible to know for sure whether it is intentional sarcasm, the result of translation, or my reading my modern perceptions into the dialogue, an ever-present hazard to be sure. It also contains foreshadowing of things to come – the discussion of what it means to be pious leads directly to the Apology in which Socrates is accused of – among other things – impiety. Although Euthyphro ends up being aporetic – piety does not get adequately defined in its pages, something Socrates bemoans in the dialogue’s last lines – but is valuable in that it establishes what piety is not. And what it is not is exactly what the Athenians who condemn Socrates think it is, making them even less wise than the egotistical and impious Euthyphro.