The Euthyphro is a much studied text of Plato’s, which unfortunately has left many people with some very serious questions. Primarily, why does the Euthyphro end in failure? Socrates was the wisest man alive, and for some reason his quest for understanding falls short. Yet somehow, I doubt that this has anything to do with a fault in the argument, but rather, the reason for the failure lies with Socrates main line of questioning. The problem is introduced with the idea of an “essence. ” As Euthyphro comes to understand, it is a nigh indefinable idea.
At the end of hours of looping questions, the only thing anyone has accomplished is a kind of hazy confusion about things you once thought you, understood. To be frank and realistic, I question whether anyone can define an “essence. ” I personally tried to define the essence of something simple, anything would do. Unfortunately, now I’m no longer quite sure what a biscuit is. To try and define the “essence” of anything, especially something as complex as piety confuses the issue. Socrates is presented with Euthyphro’s idea of piety.
That, in and of itself would not be enough, in my mind to define piety. Yet I’ll assume that Socrates, being the curious individual that he was, asked others about piety, and that should be enough to find a definition. Ethical relativism, an idea that Socrates uses to make several arguments, is in a sense, the “essence” of piety. Piety is different from person to person, so much so that there cannot be a standard to measure it by. The only universal standard of piety is that it is relative to each individual.
Yet Socrates refuses to accept this conclusion, no matter which argument is presented to him, or no matter how clearly the answer is laid before him. Take for example, the argument that piety is defined as ‘that, which is dear to the gods’. Euthyphro believed he had identified the “essence” of piety by bringing up the fact that the actions and things loved by the gods. Socrates refuted this argument quite skillfully by saying that the gods disagree, thus leaving one with a dilemna.
Yet people picked which gods to worship above the others (for example, Socrates worshiped Apollo above all other gods), and thus people also picked what was pious. For Euthyphro, to a degree, that was in fact piety, as defined by his religious convictions. Yet as was proved in other arguments by Euthyphro, it was not all that comprised his ideals. Another prime example of the varied ways which piety can be defined by an individual, is when Socrates and Euthyphro discuss the trial of Euthyphro’s father.
To Euthyphro, phillial piety is not an issue. In this example, loyalty to law and order is a direct reflection of Euthyprho’s ideals of piety. It is again relative, and Socrates can illustrate quite artfully, how it doesn’t reflect the “essence” of piety. However, I can see no better example of piety, or at least of ethical relativism. For in this instance Euthyphro is following his own personal ideal of piety, with no regard for anything beside that. The basis of Socrates questioning is why the whole argument falls apart.
If you persist in a line of questioning that cannot have an answer, you’ll never reach a conclusion. Even more to the point, if you constantly dispute the answer which recurs in every angle of your arguments, you’ll be hard pressed to find an answer which makes sense. What Socrates did in the Euthyphro would be like a mathematician refusing to accept pi as a number, while still using it in calculations. There is however a chance that Socrates understood all of this, ultimately wanted people to figure it out for themselves.