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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.

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Piety and Impiety

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 746

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 caught the murderer, tied him up, and threw him into a ditch. The father then sent a messenger to Athens to find out what to do. While waiting for an answer, he completely neglected the bound murderer, who died from cold and hunger before the messenger returned. Euthyphro’s family insisted that the father did not actually kill the laborer, and even if he had, the laborer was a murderer anyway, so he probably deserved death. Also, they maintained, Euthyphro should not get involved, because it is impious for a son to charge his own father with murder. Euthyphro, on the other hand, insisted that he was doing the right thing.

Socrates is so impressed by Euthyphro’s assurance that what he is doing is right and pious, that he asks Euthyphro to instruct him so that he will be able to go to his own trial and explain to his accusers and his judges what is right and wrong. Because piety and impiety must have the same characteristics in all actions that are pious or impious, Socrates asks Euthyphro to explain the distinction between piety and impiety.

The first definition that Euthyphro offers is that piety consists of doing what he is doing; namely, prosecuting an unjust person who has committed a serious crime, even if such a person is a parent. Impiety, on the other hand, consists of not prosecuting such an individual. To justify what he is doing, Euthyphro also points out that the Greek god Zeus bound up his own father, Cronos, for committing the crime of devouring some of his children, and that Cronos also punished his father for wrongdoing.

Socrates points out that Euthyphro’s statement does not actually constitute a definition of piety but is only an illustration of one pious action. Such a statement does not really help in ascertaining if other actions are pious or impious. What is needed, instead of an example, is a statement of the essential characteristic of piety that makes all pious actions pious. Such a statement would allow one to classify all actions because it would provide a general standard by which to judge which actions are pious and which are not. As Plato points out over and over again in his dialogues, one does not actually know a general concept like piety, justice, or courage if one can only cite examples of pious, just, or courageous activity. One cannot even be sure that these are examples of what one thinks, unless one also knows the meaning of the concepts; hence, general knowledge is crucial for identifying and comprehending the particular examples with which one is acquainted.

Pleasing the Gods

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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 unjust. Even if Euthyphro is sure in his own case that the gods agree that his father’s action was unjust, and that Euthyphro’s action is just, it is still evident that Euthyphro’s second definition of “piety” is inadequate. In view of the fact that the gods disagree about some of the actions that are pleasing or displeasing to them, an action cannot be pious simply because it pleases some gods because the same action would have to be classed as “impious” if it displeased other gods.

Another definition is presented to overcome the problem of divine disagreements. Something is pious if all the gods love it, and it is impious if they all hate it. In cases in which there is disagreement among the gods, the item in question is to be classed as neither pious nor impious.

Socrates immediately begins examining this new definition by raising the most serious point that is brought up in the dialogue. He asks Euthyphro whether the gods love piety because it is pious, or whether it is pious because the gods love it. The question at issue is whether the basic characteristic that determines piety is the fact that the gods love it, or whether piety has in itself some characteristic that accounts for the fact that the gods love it.

Euthyphro holds that the gods love piety because it is pious. Socrates then shows him that he has not offered a definition, but only an effect of piety in pointing out that the gods love it. Because, according to Euthyphro, piety has certain characteristics that make it what it is, and because those characteristics are what makes the gods love it, then he still has not given an adequate definition of “piety.” He still has not revealed what the essential characteristics are that make it what it is.

Then Socrates asks Euthyphro once more to tell him what Euthyphro claims to know—namely, what piety and impiety are. By this point in the discussion, Euthyphro is bewildered; he complains that whatever he says in answer to Socrates’ persistent questioning just gets up and moves away. His words and his ideas do not seem able to stay fixed and permanent. Socrates then offers to help by suggesting another way of approaching the problem.

Piety and Justice

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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 them. Euthyphro insists this is exactly what he means, so Socrates proceeds to explore this latest definition of piety. To ask rightly of the gods is to ask of them what people need from them, and to give rightly to the gods is to give to them what they need from people. When Euthyphro agrees to this view, Socrates points out that piety is the art of carrying on business between the gods and people. However, it is a strange kind of business, since one side, humanity’s, appears to receive all of the benefits. People are obviously benefited by what the gods give them. However, what do people give in return? Also, are the gods benefited by it?

Euthyphro answers that what people give in return are honor and praise, which are gifts acceptable to the gods. Then, Socrates argues, piety is acceptable to the gods, but it does not benefit them nor is it loved by them. Euthyphro disagrees and insists that nothing is more loved by the gods than piety. So, Socrates asserts, piety means that which is loved by gods. Euthyphro agrees wholeheartedly.

Socrates then goes on to show Euthyphro that he has simply been talking around in a circle, and it is his own fault that his words will not stay put. They had agreed earlier in the discussion that the gods love piety because it is pious, and it is not pious because the gods love it. The fact that the gods love it is an effect of its nature and not its essential characteristic. Hence, there must be something that constitutes the fundamental characteristic of piety, that makes it what it is and causes the gods to love it. Either this conclusion is wrong, or Euthyphro has yet to answer the question, “What is piety?” Then Socrates begins all over again by asking that question.

Socrates points out once more that Euthyphro must know the answer in order to pursue his case against his father. Surely, he would not risk doing the wrong thing and offending the gods. Euthyphro wearily protests that he has no more time for the discussion, and he must rush off about his business. Socrates protests that he is left without the help he needs for his trial so that he can report that he knows what piety is and hence will not commit any impieties in the future. At this point the dialogue ends.

Euthyphro is one of the several superb short early dialogues that portray Socrates exposing the ignorance of supposedly wise people. When pressed, they are shown not to know what they are talking about. They cannot define basic concepts they deal with, such as “piety,” “justice,” and “courage,” yet they are sure that what they are doing is pious, or just, or courageous. They are unwilling to undertake the difficult task of seeking to discover the meanings and natures of these terms. Their actions, based on their ignorance, can be disastrous, as is illustrated by both Euthyphro’s charges against his father and the impending trial of Socrates.


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Additional Reading

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.

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.

Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.

Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.

Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.

Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.

Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.

Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.

Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Bibliography.

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