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Euthyphro

Euthyphro is one of Plato's known dialogues.

Shortly before the Greek philosopher Socrates is due to appear in court, he encounters a young man, Euthyphro, who has gained the reputation of being a religious expert. Euthyphro has come to lay a series of charges against his father, that of manslaughter, as his father had allowed one of his workers to die without proper care and attention. The worker had killed a slave belonging to the family estate on the island of Naxos, and Euthyphro's father had let him die bound and gagged in a ditch. Socrates expresses his astonishment at the confidence of a young man able to take his own father to court on such a serious charge. He must have a clear understanding of what is holy and unholy. Since Socrates himself is facing a charge of lacking holiness (worshipping gods not approved by the state) and is unclear what holiness is, he hopes to learn from Euthyphro.

Euthyphro claims that what lies behind the charge brought against Socrates by Meletus and the other accusers is Socrates's claim that he is subjected to a daimon or divine sign which warns him of various courses of action. Euthyphro is right; such a claim would be regarded with suspicion by many Athenians. So too would Socrates's views on some of the stories about the Greek gods, which the two men briefly discuss before plunging into the argument. Socrates expresses reservations about those accounts which show up the gods' cruelty. He mentions the castration of the early sky god, Uranus, by his son Chronos, saying he finds such stories very difficult to accept.

The argument

Socrates's inductive method of arguing can be seen in the main part of the dialogue, in which Socrates invites Euthyphro to put forward definitions of holiness which the two can then discuss. From the definitions offered and discussed, an acceptable account of holiness (Piety) will be built up. It is clear that Socrates wants a definition of holiness (Piety) which will be universally true, that is, it should apply to all people at all times, regardless of race, creed or culture. It will be a standard or template against which all actions can be measured in order to determine whether they are holy (pious) or not.

The stages of the argument can be summarised as follows:

1. Euthyphro offers as his first definition what he is doing now, that is, prosecuting his father for manslaughter. Socrates rejects this because it is an example or instance of holiness, not a definition. It does not provide the fundamental characteristic which makes holy (pious) things holy (pious).

2. Euthyphro's second definition: holiness (piety) is what the gods approve of. Socrates applauds this definition because it is expressed in a general form but criticises it on the grounds that the gods disagree among themselves as to what meets their approval. This would mean that a particular action, disputed by the gods, would be both holy (pious) and unholy (unpious) at the same times a logically impossible situation. Euthyphro tries to argue against Socrates's criticism by pointing out that not even the gods would disagree amongst themselves that someone who kills without justification should be punished, but Socrates argues that disputes would still arise over just how much justification there actually was, and hence the same action could still be both holy (Pious) and unholy (unpious).

3. Euthyphro overcomes Socrates's objection by inserting the word 'all' into his former definition. Thus the third definition reads: What all the gods approve of is holy (pious), and what they all disapprove of is unholy (unpious). At this point Socrates asks the crucial question: Do the gods approve an action because it is holy (pious), or is it holy (pious) because it is approved? He uses a typical Socratic technique, analogy or comparison, to make his question clearer and gets Euthyphro to agree that we call a carried thing carried simply because it is carried, not because it possesses some innate characteristic or property that we could call 'carried'. Carried, that is, is not an inherent quality like weight. What he is trying to get Euthyphro to see is that we carry something that is already there. This thing exists without our carrying it; our carrying does not bring it into existence. So too as far as holiness (piety) is concerned; we approve or disapprove of something which is already, in some sense, there; our approving, by itself, does not make an action holy (pious). The approval follows from our recognition that an action is holy (pious); not the other way round. Or, to put it more simply, the holiness (piety) comes before the approval; in Euthyphro's definition it comes after the approval; it is a consequence of the approval. Euthyphro's definition is therefore flawed.

Without realising that it contradicts his third definition, Euthyphro at this point agrees that the gods approve an action because it is holy (pious). (Later he will return to his earlier definition.) Socrates argues that the unanimous approval of the gods is merely an attribute of holiness (piety); it is not part of its defining characteristics. It does not define the essence of holiness (piety), what holiness (piety) is in itself; it does not give the idea of holiness (Piety).

In the second half of the discussion aiming to bring about a clear and distinct definition of holiness (piety), Socrates does more than just invite and then examine Euthyphro's definitions. It is he who puts forward the next definition of holiness (piety), gaining Euthyphro's immediate acceptance:

4. Holiness/piety belongs to those actions we call just or morally good. However, there are more than just holy/pious actions that we call just or morally good; for example, bravery, concern for others and so on. What is it, asks Socrates, that makes holiness/piety different from all those other actions that we call just?

5. Euthyphro then suggests that holiness/piety is concerned with looking after the gods. Socrates objects immediately. If 'looking after' is used in its ordinary sense, which Euthyphro agrees it is, this would imply that when you perform a holy/pious action you make one of the gods better a dangerous example of hubris, which gods frowned upon. Euthyphro claims that caring for involves service. When questioned by Socrates as to exactly what is the end product of holiness/piety, Euthyphro can only fall back on his earlier claim holiness/piety is what finds approval amongst all the gods.

6. Socrates then proposes another definition. Holiness/Piety, he says, is a sort of sacrifice and prayer. He puts forward the notion of holiness/piety as a form of commerce: giving the gods gifts, and asking favours of them in turn. Socrates presses Euthyphro to state what benefit the gods get from the gifts humans give to them. Euthyphro replies that they are not that sort of gift at all, but rather 'honour, esteem and gratitude'. In other words, as the young man admits, holiness/piety is intimately bound up with what the gods approve of. The discussion has come full circle; Euthyphro rushes off to another engagement, and Socrates faces a charge of unholiness/unpiety!

See also

Divine command theory

External links


Preceded by:
(none)
Five Dialogues
Euthyphro
Followed by:
Apology