Socratic dialogue of Plato’s, generally considered as early, dealing with the definition of piety (or holiness or reverence).

Dialogue setting

The dialogue is set in 399 BCE, on the day Socrates goes to the King Archon’s court in order to learn what charges Meletus has brought against him. He meets Euthyphro, who is there in order to charge his father with involuntary manslaughter. The dialogue’s form is directly dramatic, involving only two interlocutors, and aims at defining holiness (or piety or reverence). Euthyphro is a conceited and arrogant seer, who is an expert on religious matters; we have no information on him from any other source, yet he was probably a real person, since he is also mentioned with similar traits in the Cratylus.

Structure and content of the dialogue

The Euthyphro seems to follow the standard structure of the early Socratic dialogues. An extensive introduction is offered first, in which the charge of impiety brought against Socrates by Meletus is juxtaposed to the one Euthyphro brings against his father. The dialectical dispute begins with Socrates’ typical question “what is piety”, Euthyphro puts forward four consecutive definitions that are examined by Socrates and rejected, and the dialogues closes without any solution as Euthyphro suddenly claims he needs to leave.

His first definition (piety is what I am doing right now by taking my father to court) is rejected on the grounds that in definition we seek what is universal and not what is particular; the second definition (piety is what is loved by the gods) on the grounds that the gods of Greek tradition often disagree; the third one (piety is what is loved by all the gods) on the grounds that what is sought is not a mere characteristic of piety, but its essence; the fourth definition, which is forced by Socrates himself (piety is a part of the just that deals with caring for the gods), is not rejected by any decisive counter-argument, but by Euthyphro’s inability to defend it adequately. The dialogue is brought to a sudden end, when a tired Euthyphro claims he needs to take his leave.

Date of composition

The Euthyphro is considered to be an early dialogue, because it seems at first to share in all the traits of the Socratic dialogues: Socrates’ role is prominent, the topic concerns ethics, the dialogue’s form is strongly dramatic, the conclusion is aporetic. Nonetheless one needs to note that there is mention of the “forms”, which are said to have many of their principle attributes: they are universal, they are essences, they are models of the sensible, they are parts of wider concepts (text 1). In addition, the aporetic ending of the dialogue is ambiguous, because the last definition seems to echo the Socratic view on holiness, at least as this finds expression in Plato’s Apology.

Now call to mind that this is not what I asked you, to tell me one or two of the many holy acts, but to tell the form [eidos] by which all holy acts are holy; teach me then what this [idea] is, that I may keep my eye fixed upon it and employ it as a model when saying that something is holy.

Interpretation of the dialogue

The Euthyphro is an exemplary Socratic dialogue. The application of the dialectical method is so meticulous, that is justly serves an excellent introduction to Socratic, Platonic, but even to contemporary philosophy. The progress from the first definition to the last is clearly evident, the diminution of our ignorance is impressive and, thus, proof is offered that the Socratic method of refutation is not cognitively empty.

One could suppose that it was Plato’s intention to offer the Euthyphro as a model of using the method of refutation, with which we arrive to definitions of universal concepts -- therefore reverence is just a springing board for Plato to expand on his view on the issue of general concepts. The setting, however, and the development of the dialogue do not support such a reading. The discussion takes place in 399 BCE when Socrates finds out he has been brought to court. Plato does not take lightly Socrates’ last days and the charge that led to his death. We must therefore consider the setting of Socrates’ discussion with Euthyphro as very carefully laid out by Plato.

A seer is, thus, the choice for Socrates’ interlocutor. Euthyphro appears to hold Socrates in high esteem, he sympathises with him as a colleague and a person who shares the same beliefs as himself, and he has no doubts that the reason behind the accusations against Socrates is the well-known daimonion (3b). Regarding Euthyphro’s charge against his father, it is most likely that Plato makes up a judicial case serving his purpose: to have the reader contrastingly associate these two instances of prosecution. Euthyphro the seer, hence, who as is finally shown as not knowing what piety is, does not hesitate to bring charges against his own father for an action that he considers as impious, whereas most of his fellow citizens would clearly not consider it so. In contrast, Socrates the philosopher, who knows quite well what piety is, gets dragged to court by Meletus, but really by the city of Athens, on charges of impiety. We could even carry the juxtaposition further by claiming that Euthyphro accuses his father and Socrates is accused by his mother (the city of Athens, since during the discussion Socrates says that Meletus “proceeds to accuse me to the city as to their mother”, 2c).

Wherein lies, however, Socrates’ impiety? An answer to this question is not easy, because, even though the charges are known, their interpretation is controversial. In this dialogue Socrates leads the discussion toward a seemingly adequate definition of piety: piety is a part of justice (12d), the part that deals with the therapeia of the gods (12e), i.e. with the offering of services to the gods by humans. The pious man, therefore, is he who carries out this “excellent task [pagkalon ergon]” that has been given to him by the gods (13e). And what is this task? At this point Euthyphro responds by recourse to the conventional view on religiosity, which understands the pious person as the person taking part in the established sacrifices and praying to the gods; such an answer does not satisfy Socrates (text 2). What response was Socrates expecting? What response would supply him with the defence argument, which he says he seeks?

TEXT 2 [13e-14c] Tell me then, my good sir, to the achievement of what aim does care for the gods tend? […?] If you were willing, you could tell me in far fewer words the sum of what I asked, Euthyphro, but you are not keen to teach me, that is clear. You were on the point of doing so, but you turned away. If you had given that answer, I should now have acquired from you sufficient knowledge of the nature of piety.

The Euthyphro offers no assistance on this point, since it closes with the question left hanging. The answer, however, has been given in a different Platonic text, the Apology, and it is found precisely in the line of defence that Socrates assumed in his trial. He never tires of repeating in the Apology that he is carrying out a divine command and tending to god and his fellow citizens (Apology 23b, 28e, 30a-e, 33c). Socrates claims that he is innocent, because he is doing nothing but obeying the command to philosophise (given to him by the god); in other words, to examine his fellow citizens as to their way of life and show them that the only thing worth pursuing is caring for one’s soul. If piety is the service the gods impose on human beings for the common good (the definition in the Euthyphro), then Socrates is pious. And the task he carries out as care for the gods (what is left unanswered in the Euthyphro) is philosophy, on the specific Socratic understanding of it as care of the soul.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Allen, R.E. Plato’s Euthyphro and the Earlier Theory of Forms. London, 1970.
  • Σκουτερόπουλος, Ν.Μ. Πλάτωνος, Ευθύφρων. Αθήνα, 1982.
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