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.
Piety and Impiety
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...
(The entire section is 2,787 words.)