Euthyphro

Euthyphro

Euthyphro is one of Plato's early dialogues, dated to after 399 BCE. It features Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates and Euthyphro, a man known for being a religious expert. They attempt to pinpoint a definition for piety.

Background

The dialogue is set near the king-archon's court, where the two men encounter each other. They are both there for preliminary hearings before possible trials.

Euthyphro has come to lay murder charges against his father, as his father had allowed one of his workers to die without proper care and attention. The worker had killed a slave belonging to the family estate on the island of Naxos and, while Euthyphro's father waited to hear from the authorities how to proceed, the man died bound and gagged in a ditch. Socrates expresses his astonishment at the confidence of a man able to take his own father to court on such a serious charge. In what may be perceived as a tongue-in-cheek fashion, Socrates states that Euthyphro obviously has a clear understanding of what is pious (ὅσιος to osion) and impious (τὸ ἀνόσιον to anosion). Since Socrates himself is facing a charge of impiety, by worshipping gods not approved by the state, and is unclear on what holiness is, he hopes to learn from Euthyphro.

Euthyphro claims that what lies behind the charge brought against Socrates by Meletus and the other accusers is Socrates' claim that he is subjected to a daimon or divine sign which warns him of various courses of action. Euthyphro is right; such a claim would be regarded with suspicion by many Athenians. So too would Socrates' views on some of the stories about the Greek gods, which the two men briefly discuss before plunging into the argument. Socrates expresses reservations about those accounts which show up the gods' cruelty. He mentions the castration of the early sky god, Uranus, by his son Cronos, saying he finds such stories very difficult to accept.

The argument

Socrates' inductive method of arguing can be seen in the main part of the dialogue, in which Socrates invites Euthyphro to put forward definitions of holiness which the two can then discuss. From the definitions offered and discussed, an acceptable account of piety will be built up. It is clear that Socrates wants a definition of piety which will be universally true. It will be a standard or template against which all actions can be measured in order to determine whether they are pious or not.

The stages of the argument can be summarised as follows:

First definition

Euthyphro offers as his first definition of piety what he is doing now, that is, prosecuting his father for manslaughter (5d). Socrates rejects this because it is not a definition; it is only an example or instance of piety. It does not provide the fundamental characteristic which makes pious things pious.

Second definition

Euthyphro's second definition: piety is what the gods approve of (6e). Socrates applauds this definition because it is expressed in a general form, but criticizes it on the grounds that the gods disagree among themselves as to what meets their approval. This would mean that a particular action, disputed by the gods, would be both pious and impious at the same time — a logically impossible situation. Euthyphro tries to argue against Socrates' criticism by pointing out that not even the gods would disagree amongst themselves that someone who kills without justification should be punished, but Socrates argues that disputes would still arise — over just how much justification there actually was, and hence the same action could still be both pious and impious.

Third definition

Euthyphro overcomes Socrates' objection by slightly amending his second definition (9e). Thus the third definition reads: What all the gods approve of is pious, and what they all disapprove of is impious. At this point Socrates introduces the "Euthyphro dilemma" by asking the crucial question: "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods (10a)? He uses a typical Socratic technique, analogy or comparison, to make his question clearer and gets Euthyphro to agree that we call a carried thing carried simply because it is carried, not because it possesses some inherent characteristic or property that we could call "carried". What he is trying to get Euthyphro to see is that we carry something that is already there. This thing exists without our carrying it; our carrying does not bring it into existence. So as far as piety is concerned, we approve or disapprove of something which is already, in some sense, there; our approving, by itself, does not make an action pious. The approval follows from our recognition that an action is pious, not the other way around. Or, to put it more simply, the piety comes before the approval, yet in Euthyphro's definition it comes after the approval and is a consequence of the approval. Euthyphro's definition is, therefore, flawed.

Without realising that it contradicts his third definition, Euthyphro at this point agrees that the gods approve an action because it is pious. (Later he will return to his earlier definition.) Socrates argues that the unanimous approval of the gods is merely an attribute of piety; it is not part of its defining characteristics. It does not define the essence of piety, what piety is in itself; it does not give the idea of piety.

Socrates' definition

In the second half of the discussion Socrates himself suggests a definition of piety, namely that piety is a part of justice:

Piety belongs to those actions we call just or morally good. However, there are more than simply pious actions that we call just or morally good (12d); for example, bravery, concern for others and so on. What is it, asks Socrates, that makes piety different from all those other actions that we call just?

Euthyphro's response

Euthyphro then suggests that piety is concerned with looking after the gods (13b), but Socrates immediately raises the objection that "looking after", if used in its ordinary sense, which Euthyphro agrees that it is, would imply that when you perform an act of piety you make one of the gods better — a dangerous example of hubris, which gods frowned upon (13c). Euthyphro claims that caring for involves service. When questioned by Socrates as to exactly what is the end product of piety, Euthyphro can only fall back on his earlier claim: piety is what finds approval amongst all the gods (14b).

Final definition

Euthyphro then proposes another definition: Piety, he says, is a sort of sacrifice and prayer. He puts forward the notion of piety as a form of commerce: giving the gods gifts, and asking favours of them in turn (14e). Socrates presses Euthyphro to state what benefit the gods get from the gifts humans give to them. Euthyphro replies that they are not that sort of gift at all, but rather "honour, esteem and gratitude" (15a). In other words, as he admits, piety is intimately bound up with what the gods approve of. The discussion has come full circle; Euthyphro rushes off to another engagement, and Socrates faces a charge of impiety.

Notes

Literature

  • R.E. Allen: Plato's "Euthyphro" and the Earlier Theory of Forms. London 1970, ISBN 0710067283.

See also

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