Sunday, 24 July 2011

Euthyphro - Plato

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Disarming The Idolatory of Divine Law
The young Meletus has charged Socrates for corruption of youth, more particularly for impiety in creating new gods, dishonouring old ones and teaching others to do the same. Socrates says that Miletus is wise and his concern noble, for care of the young comes first, but how can he know if Miletus is right? He asks Euthyphro, who professes divine knowledge, for advice about the nature of piety so that he might recognize any error in his ways and avoid it. Euthyphro, whose name literally means right-minded or sincere, is following his divine conscience in the name of Zeus to prosecute his father in a very questionable affair against the wishes of his own family. Both Euthyphro and Meletus are using the powers of the state, one justified by divine conscience the other indicting in the name of the divine. Yet how can we feel firm in our knowledge that what we are doing is right especially when our family or our fellow citizens condemn us? How can we know piety? Socrates really wants to understand. He will effectively put Euthyphro through a philosophical trial to prove the piety of his act, and it is this trial which more closely parallels that which Socrates himself will face from Meletus, except that the latter will result in a conclusive (and fatal) judgment.

Euthyphro argues first by example that what he is doing is pious, citing by way of precedent the actions of Zeus himself. Socrates asks for the universal behind the example. Euthyphro’s response is “piousness is that which is dear to the gods”. Socrates first challenges that the gods themselves argue amongst each other, whereas if there were some measure as there is in numbers or weights, then their differences could be reconciled. It seems then that such a measure could not exist and piousness can only be known if they all agree. But even then, their agreement does not make a thing pious but is because of it, so Euthyphro’s definition is not a definition at all, but a resulting quality of piousness. Perhaps, Socrates suggests, piousness is a type of justice, but the two need not be identical. He gives the example of shame that necessarily engenders fear, but fear need not give rise to shame (e.g. fear of poverty or disease). Euthyphro agrees, suggesting the pious is just, while the just is only pious if it serves the gods. Socrates helps him clarify that it does not care for the gods, nor is it of service to them, but perhaps it honours them. Euthyphro ends as he began with an example defining piety as like sacrifice or prayer, before he excuses himself to escape the terrifying prospect of an endless dialogue when Socrates insists they must begin again. So no satisfactory conclusion is reached, as Euthyphro’s description makes piety seem like some kind of exchange with the gods by which man receives divine favour, and Socrates is still at a loss as to why the gods should hold dear this gift from man, of what things they find pleasing, and so of how piety may be known. If anything, Euthyphro's concept of piety has regressed from doing as the gods do themselves, to doing as the gods would like us to do, but this regression is perhaps a necessary step in order to safeguard against hubris, along the way to reaching some better, as yet undefined, perhaps undefinable, Socratic notion of Good, independent of our belief in the gods.

No doubt, Socrates was very uneasy about the whole concept of piety and how the “wise” and “good” might project their own moral conscience as external, divine and universal, thus imposing it on others. He seeks himself this weapon of divine law by which he might distinguish genuine piety from fabrication, and so defend himself from his accusers. In demonstrating his failure to find it, he attempts to disarm those who think they know it. That is not to say that he does not believe in piety, but that piety in itself must have a disarming and intangible quality. If it exists at all, it is something experienced subjectively by the likes of Euthyphro through the innate vibration of a conviction, sacrifice or prayer, examples elusive to any rational explanations that might let us know it. Ultimately, piety is not something that Euthyphro can share, nor do Socrates or we the reader necessarily agree with his judgment of it. So we are led to doubt whether we should judge others on issues of honoring and pleasing gods, and in particular to question whether Meletus’ charge of impiety against Socrates should be decided by the law courts of men, not least because of the Greek mythological context of gods quite happy to mete out their own form of divine retribution.


  1. But, isn't it strange that the same argument/discussion could be had even today? There is of course a separation (in most nations) between the rational laws of a just social order and the ideal behaviors we imagine the gods expect from us, but the "beliefs" about what is and is not pious still continue unabated. Perhaps because we still don't understand the full repercussions of such beliefs?

  2. It took me a while to see what you mean... Some things could be expected of us, but may not necessarily be good, unless the fact that they are expected makes them good a priori. But what if they are not good? It's the pressure to conform...

  3. And a most extreme example of this would be bad laws which nonetheless must be implemented and obeyed...a lack of flexibility for discretion within the state out of a fear that discretion could open the way for corruption or lead to paralysis as the "wise" argue amongst themselves.

  4. Sorry....rereading what I wrote in light of my cultural bias, your difficulty in following my point is understandable.

    In the US, religiousity (arguments about piety) can be traced back to the founding of the nation. Although the Constitution is based in social justice and freedom born of the Enlightenment, the country was populated by fundamentalists and this obsession with piety infiltrates every public debate and action.

  5. I think we agree with Socrates then...piety's fine so long as it's limited to governing oneself or even for society governing itself, but not for society governing individuals. Some don't see why church and state should be separated, but when they are not, the state "plays God" and throughout history, not only in Christianity, I think this is not only bad for the state, but also for the spiritual integrity of the church. I remember hearing an American professor's lecture saying that this separation and the balance of powers between judiciary, executive etc. were the two greatest things about the American constitution, and third was the Bill of Rights, third because many countries have it but because they don't have the other two as foundations, it just isn't respected and enforced.

  6. I think it's fine for oneself though because it's a form of conscience, the intuitive shame that for example should prevent the ordinary person from harming another. And similarly for government the intuitive shame to not let one's debt continue to grow, and equally not damage the vital infrastructure of society that would harm the most vulnerable.