Plato’s Euthyphro

Plato’s Euthyphro is one of the more famous of the shorter dialogues.  Several of the major themes are brought up in the dialogue include theology, ethics, and filialism.  As such, we will briefly examine the major themes and their impact on philosophy.

The beginning of the dialogue is Socrates seeking an answer to the question of “what is piety” (or holiness) from a gentleman named Euthyphro.  The timing of the dialogue is just prior to Socrates’s trial, from which he will later die from drinking hemlock.  Thus, it is unsurprising that Socrates is examining the question of piety, or holiness, at this late moment in his life.  That said, the question of piety is really an ethical one.  The question regarding the nature of piety is one of virtue: what is the “right” thing to do?

The theme that is hidden behind the text is the crisis of agnation.  Agnation, or the agnatic relationship, is the ancient idea that the family is the basis of all civilization.  This idea is very strongly defended by Aristotle, especially in The Politics.  After all, when Socrates first meets Euthyphro and asks for an understanding of what holiness is, Euthyphro responds that his prosecution of his own father is what is pious.  Socrates, however, rejects this because it is only an example of supposed piety but does not allow one to understand what true piety is.

In the first exchange between Socrates and Euthyphro we see Euthyphro rejecting the importance of agnatic relationships.  Though his father is being tried for manslaughter, Euthyphro’s answer of holiness being his own prosecution of his father highlights the tension between filial loyalty and legal prerogative.  What is the right thing to do: (1) protect your family, or (2) be obedient to the law of the land in which you live?  This is a contest of competing loyalties that Euthyphro is torn by, but he has clearly sided with obedience to law as the embodiment of piety over and against the protection of his own father.  Hence why the Euthyphro is seen as a dialogue concerning the crisis of agnatic relationships: kith and kin or law?

It was common in the ancient world, and of ancient religion, to see piety through ancestral worship (filial pietism).  To be pious was to honor and love one’s parents (which extended to one’s country since one’s country was like an adoptive parent which nurtured and protected you – this is especially the case in Cicero’s Republic).  The “eternal family” idea was very powerful in the ancient world, and still is today in certain circles.  Thus, for Euthyphro to confront his father is also to confront and challenge the idea of the eternal family and the ideas of filial pietism which were prevalent in the ancient Mediterranean world of the time.  To attack one’s family, in essence, was to break down the very fabric and foundation from which society was structured.

Unsatisfied as always, Socrates presses Euthyphro for additional explanations as to what piety is.  If being obedient to the law over and against one’s father (family) was not piety, then what is? (The argument of being true to law over and against any human, even a family member, is the idea that any action against injustice (i.e. the breaking of public law), is what piety is.) Euthyphro then turns to offer up a common idea that is prevalent in religious circles today: piety is whatever pleases the gods or God.

The problem with this, as Socrates rebuttals, is that there are many gods and all differ in their wants and needs.  (This was a common criticism against pagan religion by both the philosophical monotheists of the day: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, etc., as well as from Judaism and Christianity.)  Therefore, what pleases one god may not necessarily please another god.  One god might demand child sacrifice as piety.  Another may simply want a festive party.  Yet another may want you to nurture your children.  Furthermore, this is just an expansion of his first definition: it is locating piety in action rather than embodiment.  (This is a running theme in Plato’s dialogues where Plato believes the answers of justice, piety, and law, are things that rest inside of us and not outside of us.)

Euthyphro responds to the challenge from Socrates by universalizing the gods: all gods love piety and hate impiety he charges.  (In this we also see why paganism would eventually collapse into monotheism anyway through the universalizing of the gods.)  This leads to the famous Euthyphro’s Dilemma in ethics and especially in theological ethics.  This is also a problem in theological ethics known as “divine command theory.”  Euthyphro’s dilemma can be summarized as this: is it good because it is universally good (i.e. universally true), or is it good simply because the gods, or God, willed it?  If a god, or God, willed impiety, would that become what “piety” is because a god willed impiety?  In other words, Euthyphro’s response to the problem of many gods seeking different things to “all gods love piety and hate impiety” has led to a larger problem, namely can a god love impiety and therefore, by Euthyphro’s own definition, turn impiety into piety?

The larger issue at hand here is one that was challenged in Christianity.  The idea of natural law is what gets around divine command theory, but then this necessitates us to answer whether there is a natural law to begin with.  That said theological ethics has often been plagued by this question of can God, or any god, will something “immoral”?  The classical theist response is also to claim that this is a false dilemma, or false dichotomy.  God doesn’t conform or invent moral order at all.  God’s nature is the standard of value itself and the natural law in-of-itself.  The problem with the classical theist response is that it is anachronistic within the context of the times of this dialogue.  That answer may be fine and dandy in the monotheistic world we now inhabit, but in Socrates’s, Plato’s, and Euthyphro’s day, it would have been scandalous and shocking to assert such a thing.  (In fact, Socrates’s teachings that there is only one God is what got him arrested and eventually executed by poison-suicide.)

Needless to say, Euthyphro’s argument that piety is being in accord with whatever pleases the gods, or being in accord with whatever the gods will, is unsatisfactory for Socrates and has opened up additional problems for us in ethics and theology.  Angered and agitated, Euthyphro then responds with his third definition of piety: piety is a genus of justice.  But Socrates retorts with the famous Platonic injunction: what is justice?  Euthyphro then responds with his fourth definition: piety is self-sacrifice and prayer.  In this idea of holiness Euthyphro is arguing that piety reflects the interactivity of persons.  However, this can led piety to becoming nothing more than a form of petty commercialism and the idea that our prayers and ‘sacrifices’ are only done for some sort of self-gain or reward.  Even in our interpersonal activities with others, such as praying and sacrificing together, may be undertaken simply because we are seeking to gain something from the person whom we are praying and sacrificing with.

In the end, Euthyphro is unable to answer Socrates’s question as to the nature of piety.  As Socrates is about to press again, Euthyphro, who seems to be attune to his unsatisfactory answers, claims that he has another appointed to get to and therefore leaves Socrates exactly where he began.  For us, however, as is the genius of Plato, we are meant to think and understand, appraise and critique, the arguments that are being put forth in the dialogue.  It gets our minds thinking – which was always the intent of Socrates to begin with: to get Euthyphro thinking of the deep questions of theology, philosophy, and ethics, rather than remain confident in the conventional answers that he had initially come prepared with.

The Euthyphro dialogue has left us with two important legacies, ironically, none of related to the question of piety (which was more or less the medium by which Socrates was using to engage in dialectical conversation).  The first is what should our relationship to family and law be?  This is a question as to what is the foundation of society: law or family?  This problem was laid forth in the first conversation in which Euthyphro has clearly sided on the side of law over family (and therefore obedience to law is what piety is).  The second legacy is Euthyphro’s dilemma.  What is virtue, or the right action?  What is the nature of morality?  Is there are universal moral order, or is morality a convention of the will of the gods?  Both questions remain alive and well today.  And we still ask ourselves today: what is the right thing to do?

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