Plato's 'Euthyphro'

Summary and analysis

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The Euthyphro is one of Plato's most interesting and important early dialogues.  It focuses on the question: What is piety?  Euthyphro, a priest of sorts, claims to know the answer, but Socrates shoots down each definition he proposes. After five failed attempts to define piety Euthyphro hurries off leaving the question unanswered.

The dramatic context

It is 399 BCE.  Socrates and Euthyphro meet by chance outside the court in Athens where Socrates is about to be tried on charges of corrupting the youth and impiety (or more specifically, not believing in the city's gods and introducing false gods).

At his trial, as all of Plato's readers would know, Socrates was found guilty and condemned to death. This circumstance casts a shadow over the discussion.  For as Socrates says, the question he's asking on this occasion is hardly a trivial, abstract issue that doesn't concern him.  As it will turn  it will turn out, his life is on the line.

Euthyphro is there because he is prosecuting his father for murder. One of  their servants had killed a slave, and Euthphro's father had tied the servant up and left him in a ditch while he sought advice about what to do.  When he returned, the servant had died.  Most people would consider it impious for a son to bring charges against his father, but Euthyphro claims to know better.  He was probably a kind of priest in a somewhat unorthodox religious sect.  His purpose in prosecuting his father is not to get him punished but to cleanse the household of blood guilt.

 This is the kind of thing he understands and the ordinary Athenian does not.

The concept of piety

The English tern "piety" or "the pious" translates the Greek word "hosion."  This word might also be translated as holiness, or religious correctness.  It has two senses:

    1.  A narrow sense: knowing and doing what what is correct in religious rituals.

 E.g. knowing what prayers should be said on any specific occasion; knowing how to perform a sacrifice.

     2. A broad sense: righteousness; being a good person.

Euthyphro begins with the first, narrower sense of piety in mind.  But Socrates, true to his general outlook, tends to stress the broader sense.  He is less interested in correct ritual than in living morally. (Jesus' attitude to Judaism is rather similar.) 

Euthyphro's 5 definitions

Socrates says--tongue in cheek, as usual-- that he's delighted to find someone who's an expert on piety.  Just what he needs in his present situation. So he asks Euthyphro to say what piety is.  Euthyphro tries to do this five times, and each time Socrates argues that the definition is inadequate.

     1st definition: Piety is what is Euthyphro is doing now, namely prosecuting wrongdoers. Impiety is failing to do this.

Socrates' objection:  That's just an example of piety, not a general definition of the concept.

     2nd definition:  Piety is what is loved by the gods ("dear to the gods" in some translations). Impiety is what is hated by the gods.

Socrates' objection:  According to Euthyphro, the gods sometimes disagree among themselves about questions of justice.

 So some things are loved by some gods and hated by others.  On this definition these things will be both pious and impious, which makes no sense.

     3rd definition: Piety is what is loved by all the gods. Impiety is what all the gods hate.

Socrates' objection.  The argument Socrates uses to criticize this definition is the heart of the dialogue. His criticism is subtle but powerful.  He poses this question: Do the gods love piety because it is pious, or is it pious because the gods love it?  To grasp the point of the question, consider this analogous question:  Is a film funny because people laugh at it, do people laugh at it because it's funny?  If we say it's funny because people laugh at it, we're saying something rather strange. We're saying that the film only has the property of being funny because certain people have a certain attitude towards it.

 But Socrates argues that this gets things the wrong way round.  People laugh at a film because it has a certain intrinsic property--the property of being funny.  This is what makes them laugh.  Similarly, things aren't pious because the gods view them in a certain way.  Rather, the gods love pious actions--e.g. helping a stranger in need--because such actions have a certain intrinsic property, the property of being pious.

     4th definition: Piety is that part of justice concerned with caring for the gods.

Socrates' objection: The notion of care involved here is unclear. It can't be the sort of care a dog owner gives to its dog, since that aims at improving the dog, but we can't improve the gods. If it's like the care a slave gives his master, it must aim at some definite shared goal.  But Euthyphro can't say what that goal is.

     5th definition: Piety is saying and doing what is pleasing to the gods at prayer and sacrifice. 

Socrates' objection: When pressed, this definition turns out to be just the third definition in disguise. After Socrates shows how this is so Euthyphro says in effect, "Oh dear, is that the time?  Sorry Socrates, gotta go."

General points about the dialogue

1.  The Euthyphro is typical of Plato's early dialogues: short; concerned with defining an ethical concept; ending without a definition being agreed upon.

2.  The question: "Do the gods love piety because it is pious, or is it pious because the gods love it?" is one of the truly great questions posed in the history of philosophy.  It suggests a distinction between an essentialist perspective and a conventionalist perspective.  Essentialists we apply labels to things because they possess certain essential qualities which make them what they are.  The conventionalist view is that how we regard things determines what they are.  Consider this question, for instance:

Are works of art in museums because they are works of art, or  do we call them 'works of art' because they are in museums?  

Essentialists assert the first position, conventionalists the second.

3.   Although Socrates generally gets the better of Euthyphro, some of what Euthyphro says makes a certain amount of sense.  For instance, when asked what human beings can give the gods, he replies that we give them honor, reverence and gratitude.  The British philosopher Peter Geach has argued that this is a pretty good answer.

Further online references

Plato, Euthyphro (text)

Plato's Apology -What Socrates says at his trial

The contemporary relevance of Socrates' question to Euthyphro

The Euthyphro dilemma (Wikipedia)

The Euthyphro dilemma (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)