Euthyphro deals with some of the events culminating in Socrates’ trial and death, portraying Socrates just before his trial. Euthyphro forms a sequence with the dialogues Apologia Skratous (early period, 399-390 b.c.e.; Apology, 1675), dealing with the trial; Kritn (early period, 399-390 b.c.e.; Crito, 1804), dealing with Socrates’ incarceration after his conviction; and Phaedn (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Phaedo, 1675), dealing with the execution of Socrates by the drinking of the poison hemlock.
Euthyphro is one of the best examples of the Socratic method. Socrates is portrayed as seeking wisdom about the meaning of the terms “piety” and “impiety” so that he can defend himself against the charge of being impious. Euthyphro, presumably, knows what these terms mean. Socrates tries to learn from him by asking questions and by asking him to define the terms. Each answer given by Euthyphro is scrutinized by Socrates and found to be faulty. Euthyphro complains that Socrates will not let his statements “stand still.” Instead, by his persistent questioning, he makes the statements “move away,” until Euthyphro no longer knows what to say. Euthyphro finally quits the discussion, refusing to recognize his own ignorance concerning the matter in question and refusing to see how dangerous it is for him, or for anyone else, to act on the basis of such complete ignorance.
The discussion begins when Socrates and Euthyphro meet at the Porch of the King Archon, where cases dealing with crimes affecting the state religion are judged. Euthyphro expresses surprise at encountering Socrates in such a place. The latter explains that he is there because he has been charged with corrupting the youth of Athens and with inventing new gods while not believing in the old, official ones. In contrast, Euthyphro has come to court to charge his own father with murder. Socrates suggests that Euthyphro must be very wise if he knows that he is right in prosecuting his own father. Such wisdom about what is right and wrong can be of great assistance to Socrates in his own case, so he requests details from Euthyphro.
The charge that Euthyphro is bringing against his own father is based on a very strange story. A drunken laborer, who worked on the family farm, killed one of the slaves. Euthyphro’s father...
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Euthyphro sees that he has not given a satisfactory definition of the term “piety” by citing the example of his case against his father. Therefore, he offers Socrates a more general statement about piety, saying that “what is pleasing to the gods is pious, and what is not pleasing to them is impious.” Socrates congratulates him for giving him the kind of answer he wanted. All that remains, he states, is to find out if this definition is the true one. The truth will be ascertained by asking questions about the definition given.
Because Euthyphro accepts all the Greek mythological tales about quarrels and disagreements among the gods, Socrates asks him whether the gods disagree about matters of fact or matters of value. The latter, says Euthyphro. Then, Socrates argues, they are disagreeing about what pleases or displeases them. The same action is pleasing to some gods and displeasing to others, and hence, according to Euthyphro’s second definition of “piety,” that which is pleasing to the gods, the same action can be both pious and impious.
Euthyphro insists that this contradictory conclusion does not follow because the gods all agree on certain matters, such as that if one person unjustly kills another, that individual is to be punished. The gods may all agree, Socrates admits, about certain universal laws regarding punishment, but a disagreement still exists among both people and gods as to which cases fall under these laws. They disagree in their evaluations of various acts, some saying the acts are just, some that they are...
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He asks Euthyphro whether whatever is pious must also be just. When Euthyphro gives an affirmative answer, Socrates inquires whether piety is the same as justice, or whether piety is only part of what constitutes justice. The latter, he is told. In turn, Socrates demands to know what part of justice piety is. If he could find out, he tells Euthyphro, then he could go to his own trial and show his accusers that they should not prosecute him for impiety because he would then know what piety is and would act accordingly.
In answering the question, Euthyphro offers another definition of piety and states that righteousness and piety are that part of justice dealing with the careful attention that should be paid to the gods. The remaining portion of justice deals with the careful attention that ought to be paid to people. Socrates requests a clarification of the meaning of the phrase “careful attention.” A clarification is needed, he points out, because in most cases where careful attention is paid to some object, such as a horse or a person, the object is benefited or improved by the attention. Is this also true of the gods? Are they benefited or improved by piety? No. Therefore, it must be a different kind of attention that is involved.
To make his point clear, Euthyphro says that the kind of attention he has in mind is that which slaves pay their masters. Then, Socrates points out, piety is a type of service to the gods. Every service aims at accomplishing something. A doctor’s service produces health; a shipwright’s service produces a ship. However, what does piety, which now seems to be a service, produce? Generally speaking, Euthyphro answers, the principal result achieved through piety, by means of words and actions in prayer and sacrifice that are acceptable to the gods, is the preservation of the state and of private families. The results of impiety are the undermining and destruction of everything.
In terms of this latest answer, Socrates again asks what piety and impiety are. Euthyphro now seems to be offering the view that piety is a science of prayer and sacrifice, a science that deals with asking of the gods and giving to...
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Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.
Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.
Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.
Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.
Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.
Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. Vol. 1 in A History of Western Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. A reliable introduction to the main themes and issues on which Plato focused.
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