Lecture Supplement on Plato’s Euthyphro  


Copyright © 2017 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Euthyphro Introduction:


While it is often claimed that this dialogue is set on the steps of the court building as Euthyphro and Socrates are going into their respective trials, in their “Introduction” to The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies, Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith maintain that:


…the Euthyphro depicts a conversation Socrates has as he waits at the office of the King archon to be given his court date….[1] 


This dialogue provides us with a picture of the Socratic process of elenchus (refutation).  A view about piety is advanced by Euthyphro, and Socrates subjects it to a critical analysis.  Socrates, of course, is willing to accept only justified, reasoned claims.  But Euthyphro advances a claim to knowledge which he justifies due to his special position (as a “priest”).  He claims to know (what piety is) and Socrates shows that he does not know this. 


Think of the Apology—Socrates is testing to see if Euthyphro knows....


If Euthyphro doesn’t know, how will Socrates show him that he doesn’t?  Stanley Cavell points out that:


Socrates gets his antagonists to withdraw their definitions not because they do not know what their words mean, but because they do know what they (their words) mean, and therefore know that Socrates has led them into paradox.[2] 


Here we have the problem that Plato’s Meno is centrally concerned with—how is learning possible? 


     The Euthyphro comes to no positive conclusion as to the nature of piety.  Indeed, it does not even reach the second of the three stages of Plato’s dialectical process (aporia [perplexity, negativity, or inconclusiveness]).  As the dialogue ends, it is clear that Euthyphro is annoyed with Socrates, but still believes he possesses a special knowledge as regards piety.  Why doesn’t the dialogue go beyond the first stage?  Euthyphro is not a philosopher!  [The name is used to indicate a character trait—not a profession].  Here, then, is a valuable result of the dialogue—it points out the fact that the process of Socratic dialectic requires a sincere desire for truth.  Steven Nathanson maintains that we can see something central about Plato’s commitment to the ideal of rationality in this dialogue:


there are many questions that could be raised about the manner in which Socrates questions Euthyphro and about the criterion of knowledge that Socrates assumes.  What I want to focus on, however, is the impression conveyed to the reader about the characters of the dialogue and the connection between this impression and the ideal of rationality.  Plato suggests that although Euthyphro holds strong views and is willing to act on them, he is unable to provide a justification for either his belief or the action based upon it.  Even if he is correct that his father ought to be prosecuted, his confidence is still misplaced because it lacks a rational basis.  Though Euthyphro’s belief may be true, he has no reliable grounds for thinking that it is true.  Once Socrates exposes the lack of a justification for his belief, it is both irrational and irresponsible for Euthyphro to continue to hold it.[3] 


-Cf., in this regard, Plato’s Socrates’ speech at the end of the dialogue (15e-16a).[4] 


Note that while the dialogue does not reach a satisfactory dialectical resolution, it is telling that Euthyphro indicates that he is going to pursue the course of action that he describes to Socrates (even though he appears to lack a rational justification for doing so).  The dialogue shows that a consequence of not reaching aporia is that one may act on one’s ignorance, and the consequences (both for oneself and for others) may be terrible! 


     The dialogue also introduces us to Plato’s doctrine of the Forms—introducing the notion and making clear what he takes to be the objective character of these “things.”  The distinction between accidental and essential characteristics is also introduced and its tie to the Forms is made explicit.  For Plato, the Forms are objective, basic, unchanging, and transcendent. 


     Another important aspect of the dialogue is that it portrays Socrates on the verge of his trial and presents his attitude or frame of mind—he is not affected.  Note what he is accused of—he continues to do it as he prepares to go to court! 


     Within the dialogue we find a distinction between something being good because the gods approve of it and the gods approving of something because it is goodremember this whenever you read of god or gods in Plato!  His forms (their objectivity) are outside of the god(s)—tie this to talk of the forms.[5]  Here a comment from George Sher, in his “The Meaning of Moral Language,” is worthy of note:


many [now] believe that what makes an act right is just the fact that God approves of it or commands us to perform it.  However, this theory—the divine command theory—is often said to be vulnerable to an objection that was first advanced by Plato.  As Plato argues in [The Euthyphro], if acts like theft and murder are only wrong because God forbids them then God cannot forbid such acts because they are wrong.  In that case, God’s commands are simply arbitrary.  Because it is unclear how arbitrary commands could have authority, Plato concludes that we should reject the divine command theory.[6] 


Not all proponents of the Divine Command theory, of course, believe that Sher is correct here, but I think that he correctly captures Plato’s concern—and it is important to note that at the time Plato is writing, the concern is not with the commands of a single deity, but with those of a large number of such. 


     As we read the Crito, we will come to see that there is some special obligation which individuals “owe” their parents in ancient Greece.  Richard Kraut confirms this: “the Laws are relying on the assumption, widespread in ancient Greece, that although there is no general objection to violence and killing, attacks upon one’s parents are absolutely forbidden.”[7]  In a footnote Kraut continues: “the special inviolability of parents was built into the legal system.  Whereas the normal penalty for assault in Athens was a fine, it was far more serious—disenfranchisement—when the victim was a parent or a grandparent of the accused.”[8]  This means, of course, that Socrates’ wonder at Euthyphro’s certainty regarding the rightness of his case is even more understandable. 


     In thinking about the phrase “what the gods like,” we should consider what Mark McPherran maintains in his “Does Piety Pay?  Socrates and Plato on Prayer and Sacrifice:”


…it is important to note that sacrificial activity [in ancient Greece] was often not so much aimed at obtaining specific goods or evils as maintaining an ordered relationship with the gods and ensuring their general good will, a will that (it was generally agreed) could not be reliably influenced by such activity.[9] 


In view of his commitment to the idea that the only real (or at least the most essential) good is virtue (and that an object’s goodness hinges on its wise, virtuous use), [Plato’s] Socrates must reject the purely mercantile tendencies of popular religious practice—namely, those resting on the incorrect assumptions that sacrificial items are themselves god-valued and that our requests for particular material gains and physical protection will be given significant weight by the gods.  Rather [Plato’s] Socrates’ gods cannot care for any material sacrifice per se, and whether or not any particular request will be granted depends on whether or not the gods’ doing so will further the overall good.[10]  


In short, it would be wrong to assume that Socrates’ (or Plato’s, or Plato’s Socrates’) view of piety and “what the gods like” is like that of Euthyphro’s (or the typical Athenians). 


2. The Text:


2-4 Euthyphro and Socrates meet and it is established that Socrates has been indicted while Euthyphro has indicted his father for murder.  [A servant kills a slave in drunken anger and Euthyphro’s father ties the servant up, throws him in a ditch, and sends for a priest for advice as to what is to be done with him.  In the time before the answer from the priest arrives, the servant dies.  Euthyphro is now prosecuting his father for murder (against the wishes of his family).] 


4e Euth: “But their (Euth’s father, relatives) ideas of divine attitude to piety are wrong, Socrates.” 


Soc: “Whereas, by Zeus, Euthyphro, you think that your knowledge of the divine, and of piety and impiety, is so accurate that when those things happened as you say, you have no fear of having acted impiously in bringing you father to trial?” 


5d Soc: What is piety?[11] 


Euth: “...The pious is to do what I am doing now” (accusing his father).  After all, Zeus punished his father. 


-6a Soc: I find these things and others (e.g., war among the gods) hard to believe. 


-6d Euth: Such things (and more) happen with the gods! 


-Socrates is incredulous, but he continues by asking for the nature (common characteristic—Form) of piety.


What is the common characteristic or Form)—in the early dialogues they are viewed as immanent (later they are treated as transcendent). 


-6e Bear in mind then that I did not bid you tell me one or two of the many pious actions but that form itself that makes all pious actions pious, for you agreed that all impious actions and impious and all pious actions are pious through one form....” 


7a Euth: “What is dear to the gods is pious.” 


Soc: Excellent, but let us examine what you mean by this so that we can see whether it is true. 


-7b You have stated that the gods war with one another, “what are the subjects of difference that cause hatred and anger?” 


-7c Surely they don’t war over objective things like the size, weights and measures of things? 


-7d The things about which differences cause hatred and anger, surely, are disagreements about “...the just and unjust, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad.  Are these not the subjects of difference about which, when we are unable to come to a satisfactory decision, you and I and other men become hostile to each other whenever we do?” 


--Note that it is exactly these subjects, of course, which the philosophers would practice their dialectical activities upon.  Moreover, it is exactly these topics upon which Socrates (and Plato’s Socrates) and the other Athenians disagree (with the results of anger and hatred on, at least, the others’ part).  It is the claim of Plato’s Socrates that unless we approach these topics rationally, we will have no real opportunity of resolving our disagreements except by force.  Euthyphro, on the one hand, and Socrates and Euthyphro’s family (and, as I have noted, other Athenians), on the other hand, disagree about what piety is and requires.  Note that Euthyphro is prepared to go to court and “force” the issue, while Plato’s Socrates would settle the disagreement through the use of reasoned dialectic. 


--7e-8c But, then, the same thing may be pious or impious depending on the god! 


---Does Socrates contradict himself here?  At 6a above he questions whether the gods have done the sorts of things which Euthyphro says they have done (war amongst themselves, etc.), but now (7e) he says that they do so.  Note: an argument which uses an opponent’s premises or basic notions and comes up with a problem is a stronger argument against the opponent than is one which relies upon premises which the opponent might not accept [contrast “internal” and “external” critiques].  Note also Grube’s footnote here regarding Zeus’ defeating his father, Cronus; and Cronus’s defeating his father, Uranus.  Euthyphro used these examples at 6a to defend his claim that his treatment of his own father is pious!  The fact that these examples are mentioned again, here (this time by Plato’s Socrates) should be attended to as most Greeks reading or hearing this dialogue would surely readily recognize these stories, and would, perhaps while being a bit shocked by Euthyphro’s proposing to try his father for murder, would also recognize that harsh treatment of fathers is not without precedent. 


8c Euth: On this issue (the piety of accusing my father) no god would disagree. 


9c Soc: Even if we could establish this, we would be no closer to a definition of piety.  We have merely established so far that what all the gods love is pious, what they all hate is impious, and what they differ on is neither. 


10a “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? 


-Here he is distinguishing between essential and accidental characteristics. 


-10c Various examples are offered which incline us to the conclusion that piety is loved by the gods because it is pious. 


-G.M.A. Grube maintains that: “...it gives in a nutshell a point of view from which Plato never departed.  Whatever the gods may be, they must by their very nature love the right because it is right.  They must conform to it as we must, but more rigidly because they are more perfect.  The universe is not ruled by the divine will, since he who must conform cannot be omnipotent.  He cannot love the right at his will, he must do so.  This separation of the dynamic power of god from the ultimate reality, this setting up of absolute values above the gods themselves was not as unnatural to a Greek as it would be to us.  It did not require any great mental effort or originality, for the Greek gods never claimed to have created the world.  The gods who ruled on Olympus in historical times had obtained their power by conquest over a previous generation of gods, and even those were not creators but created beings.  As in Homer Zeus must obey the balance of Necessity, so the Platonic gods must conform to an eternal scale of values.  They did not create them, cannot alter them, cannot indeed wish to do so.[12] 


--While I think that Grube is correct in part of what he contends here, I think he overemphasizes the extent to which fellow Athenians would find what Plato is saying to be comprehensible (but note, he is the expert).  While we have little trouble accepting the idea of eternal, unchanging, objective laws of nature, this was not something they would have found to be at all clear.  They did attribute to the deities superior powers over those of men, but their conception of the deities was distinctly anthropomorphic—their gods behaved as human beings do, and they would, I believe, not naturally think that either deities or men obeyed eternal, unchanging laws of nature.  Plato’s suggestion that the gods would be good only if they measured up to some independent, objective, unchanging standard would have led many to believe he did, indeed, worship something other than the gods of his city. 


11a-b Soc: But, then, Euthyphro, you have not defined piety for me.  Its being loved by the gods is an accidental and additional characteristic—we’ve not been given the form or common characteristic.  Next Plato does something unusual (at least for the Plato of the early dialogues—the Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, for example), he offers the beginning point for a definition rather than (simply) criticizing the definitions offered by others.  This shows us something about what (the early) Plato takes the nature of “piety” to be! 


11e Soc: “Is all that is pious necessarily just?  Yes.” 

       “Is all that is just pious?  No.” 


Thus, the pious is a part of the just[13]—what part? 


-12e Euth: The godly and pious is the part of the just which is concerned with the care of the gods; while that concerned with the care of men is the remaining part of justice. 


-13a-d Soc: What kind of care? 



--14-15 Do the gods benefit from our care?  No! 


-15b Euth: it is rather like the care of slaves for their masters: sacrifice and prayer, honor, reverence, gratitude.  These things are most dear to the gods. 


15b Soc: We’ve come full circle.  Now you say that the pious is what the gods love.  But we have already agreed that the fact that the gods love the pious is an accidental characteristic and what we want is the form.  Let’s start again. 


15e Euth: “Some other time Socrates!” 


15e-16a Note the irony in the final statement by Plato’s Socrates—it is relevant to the Apology, and to Meletus’ charge against him:


-“What a thing to do, my friend!  By going [now] you have cast me down from a great hope I had, that I would learn from you the nature of the pious and the impious and so escape Meletus’ indictment by showing that I had acquired wisdom in divine matters from Euthyphro, and my ignorance would no longer cause me to be careless and inventive about such things, and that I would be better for the rest of my life.” 




3. Final Comments on the Euthyphro:


In her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education, Martha Nussbaum maintains that:


Socrates' questions generals about courage [Laches], friends about friendship [Lysis], politicians about self-restraint [Charmides], religious people about piety [Euthyphro].  In every case he demands to know whether they can give good and coherent reasons for what they do, and in every case they prove to have been insufficiently reflective.  Socrates shows them[14] that the demand for reasons has a bearing on what they will actually choose.  This demand now begins to seem not an idle luxury in the midst of struggles for power, but an urgent practical necessity.[15] 


In her Plato At The Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, Rebecca Goldstein maintains that:


the argument Plato has Socrates make in the Euthyphro is one of the most important in the history of moral philosophy.  When it is joined with another of Plato’s claims, namely that a person’s action is virtuous only if he can supply a reason for its being so, the Euthyphro Argument demonstrates the need for moral philosophy.  We humans must reason our way to morality or we will not get there at all.  Relying on fiats, even if they emanate from on high, will not allow us to achieve an understanding of virtue.  Any progress in our moral understanding—progress that, in time, would take us some distance away from the slave-abusing, captive—slaughtering, philosopher-executing, misogynistic Athens that held itself up as the very standard of aretē has been made on the basis of an argument Plato put into the mouth of a man awaiting a hearing on charges of impiety and corruption of the young.  This moment in Socrates’ life, as Plato has rendered it, is sufficiently important to step away from it, and reflect.  It has a bearing on the question that is always hovering of-over this book [hers], as it traces the sources of philosophy as we know it, and that is the question of philosophy’s progress.  If one evaluates what the ancient Greek philosophers did solely in terms of Thales and Co., then of course we can conclude….But this is to focus on only one type of question….It is to ignore Plato’s argument that, since religious authority can’t answer these questions, we had better get to work formulating the reasons that make right actions right and wrong actions wrong.  It is to ignore the work that has since been done, not only on normative questions of ethics but on the normative questions of epistemology, the work that is necessary to speak about rationality at all.  It is to ignore the conclusions to which philosophy-jeerers freely help themselves, most certainly when they speak in the name of rationality.[16] 


Notes: (click on note number to return to text for the note)

[1] Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith, “Introduction” to The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 2002), pp. 1-13, p. 11. 

[2] Stanley Cavell, “Must We Mean What We Say?”, in his Must We Mean What We Say?  A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1969), pp. 1-43, p. 39. 

[3] Steven Nathanson, The Ideal of Rationality (Atlantic Heights: Humanities, 1985), p. 4. 

[4] The translation of Plato’s dialogue is G.M.A. Grube’s (revised by John Cooper) and appears in Plato: Five Dialogues (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo) (second edition) (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003).  The marginal page references in the text refer to a collection of Plato’s works (Platonis Opera [Geneva: 1578]) edited by a famed printer and humanist of the time named Henri Estienne (1528-1598), also known by the Latinized version of his name: Stephanus.  This edition’s pagination has become the standard way of identifying and referring to Plato and I will use these references rather than page numbers in the translation. 

[5] Also note that when you confront the singular (‘god’), as opposed to the plural (‘gods’), you can not presume that the deity being mentioned is any of the ones you may generally be familiar with.  The deity of the religions of Abraham (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) was not one of the ones commonly worshiped in ancient Greece! 

[6] George Sher, “The Meaning of Moral Language,” in his Ethics: Essential Readings in Moral Philosophy (Third Edition) (N.Y. Routledge, under review for publication in 2011). 

[7] Richard Kraut, Socrates and the State (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1984), pp. 48-49. 

[8] Ibid., p. 49. 

[9] Mark McPherran, “Does Piety Pay?  Socrates and Plato on Prayer and Sacrifice,” in The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies, eds. Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 2002), pp. 162-190, p. 171.  The article originally appeared in Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy, eds. Nicholas Smith and Paul Woodruff (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 2000), pp. 89-114. 

[10] Ibid. 

[11] As Grube notes in his introduction to this dialogue, “the Greek term hosion means, in the first instance, the knowledge of the proper ritual in prayer and sacrifice and of course its performance (as Euthyphro himself defines it in 14b).  But obviously Euthyphro uses it is a much wider sense of pious conduct generally (e.g., his own), and in that sense the word is practically equivalent to righteousness….” Plato: Five Dialogues (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo), op. cit., p. 1.   

[12] Plato's Thought: With New Introduction, Bibliographic Essay, and Bibliography, G.M.A. Grube [1935], new information by Donald J. Zeyl (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), pp. 152-153. 

[13] In his Gorgias (507a5-b4) Plato also claims that piety is a part of justice. 

[14] Better, I believe, he shows us. 

[15] Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1997), p. 25. 

[16] Rebecca Goldstein, Plato At The Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (N.Y.: Pantheon, 2014), p. 306. 

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Last revised: 07/08/17.