On his way to his trial, Socrates runs into his friend Euthyphro, there to prosecute his own father for the murder of a slave. From this state of affairs, Socrates engages Euthyphro in a dialogue that begins with questions regarding piousness and ends up unsatisfactorily attempting to come to a true answer. In the course of this discussion, definitions of concept of holiness emerge, only to be picked apart by Socrates. Ultimately, Socrates’ goal is a new definition of piety and subtle rejection of the very idea of gods, paving the way for Plato’s defense of his wrongly accused teacher.
Socrates is shocked to learn that Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father. Euthyphro defends his actions, believing that it is just to do so even though his acquaintances maintain that “it is impious for a son to prosecute his father for murder” (Plato, 8). Quickly, Socrates gets to the heart of the matter. Euthyphro is positive in his belief, therefore Socrates asks him directly: “what is the pious, and what the impious? ” (9). Euthyphro’s first definition of piety is simple: “the pious is to do what I am doing now, to prosecute the wrongdoer” (9). Socrates is quick to show Euthyphro that such an explanation is but an example.
“I did not bid you tell me on or tow the many pious actions but that form itself that makes all pious actions pious” (10). This lies at the heart of Plato’s philosophy: that all things have an ideal form, and that one can gain knowledge of that form through examination. The argument being refined, Euthyphro delivers his second definition: “what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious” (11). Socrates points out that “different gods consider different things to be just,” noting how in Greek mythology, the gods are as quarrelsome and fickle as human beings.
“Try to show me a clear sign that all the gods definitely believe this action to be right,” Socrates demands (13). Euthyphro cannot, and so Socrates presses him to further refine his definition. Therefore, Euthyphro delivers his third definition: “the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is the impious” (14). Socrates must quickly turn this definition on its head: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? ” (14). There is a circular reason here that Socrates traps Euthyphro in.
By seeking to attach piety to the desires of the gods, one cannot separate the effect and cause. Does piety exist in some form, that the gods maintain and uphold, or is piety defined by the agreement of the gods? “It is not loved by those who love it because it is being loved,” Socrates asks, “but it is being loved because they love it? ” (15). Now Euthyphro must admit that there is a difference between what is “god-beloved” and what is pious. Since what the gods love and piety are different ideas, Socrates puts for the connection between justice and piety.
“Is then all that is just pious? ” he prompts (17). Concerning piety and the gods, Socrates eventually sums Euthyphro’s beliefs as “piety would be a knowledge of how to give to, and beg from the gods” (20). In establishing this premise, Socrates is driving towards the very notion that got him indicted by Meletus: corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods. Of course, when pressed in a court, Socrates will maintain that he believes in the gods. He later states that his public career was at the behest of the gods, who challenged him to find one wiser than he.
However, Socrates’ line of reasoning suggests that he does not actually believe in the gods. “What benefit do the gods derive from the gifts they receive from us? ” he asks (21). Socrates is constantly pointing out to Euthyphro that piety and the notion of the gods are two separate notions. For example, when he asks: “Would you agree that when you do something pious you make some one of the gods better? ” it appears that he is reducing the notion of what a god supposedly is to that of a changing and corruptible being (19).
If the gods are what they are supposed to be, how can they be improved by a pious action of a mortal? It would seem only that some god-delivered idea of piety would transform the mortals, and not the other way around. Piety, then, my dear Socrates, is that which finds universal approval as a good among human beings. If we remove the gods from the equation, then piety becomes an idealized notion of goodwill between human beings. If we are to seek out a form of piety, then there cannot be infallible gods who change their minds and respond differently to different situation.
Socrates: Yes, my friend, perhaps there is indeed a form of piety, as we have been seeking. However, by what measure do you define universal approval? Simple majority? Are we to vote on a common definition? If a majority of people go to war, and sanction the killing of others, is it pious to do so? If the cause is just, one must say yes. Socrates: If war can be pious, then what cannot fall under this definition? What is just and what are pious must be two different notions, as we have already discussed. Indeed you are correct, Socrates. Piety is fidelity to the truth.
Perhaps if there is indeed a form of it somewhere, then we have instinctive knowledge of piety without being able to define it in human language. If Euthyphro has “no clear knowledge of piety and impiety” despite his convictions, is it possible that each one of us defines such morality on our own (22)? Perhaps, then, there is no form in the universe, and each one of grasps at straws attempting to satisfy an inner desire to make sense out of the chaos that is life. References Plato. Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Translated by G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981.