Plato’s Euthyphro (you-thi-fro)
(1) Euthyphro is prosecuting his father in a murder case. His father beat up and then neglected a worker who had previously attacked a servant in a drunken haze. The Athenians would generally disapprove of Euthryphro’s actions, and view Euthyphro suspiciously (“Who do you think you are, prosecuting your own father? A god?).
(2) Socrates has been charged by Meletus with corrupting the youth by teaching against the old gods and introducing new ones.
The question: What is piety (holiness, righteousness)? While the question is deep and philosophical, it also has a practical pay-off: If we know what piety is, then we can decide whether Euthyphro is pious and whether Socrates is pious.
What Socrates wants: Socrates wants a definition of piety that specifies a feature (or set of features) which ALL pious acts have and that ONLY pious/holy acts have. This feature will enable us to determine what is pious (if it has the feature, then it is pious). And we will know what makes an act pious. What makes it pious is having this feature.
Euthyphro’s first try: He points to his own action (i.e., prosecuting his father) as an example of piety. Socrates objects that this does not tell us what piety is (it does not specify the one feature which all pious actions have in common).
Euthyphro’s second try: ‘Piety is that which is dear to the gods.’ Problem: What happens when the gods disagree? How do we decide?
Euthyphro’s third try: ‘Piety is that which is dear to all the gods.’ This successfully answers Socrates’ question. The ‘piety-making’ feature is this: Being dear to all the gods. An action is pious if and only if it is dear to all the gods.
Socrates offers a complicated response. Basically, he tries to show that this definition leads to a contradiction. He does this by getting Euthyphro to agree to some claims and then showing him that his own definition leads to a contradiction. (This style of argumentation is known as elenchus). Socrates thinks we should accept a deep (interesting, and somewhat philosophically controversial) claim and a superficial (and somewhat silly but true) claim.
(A) Deep claim:
A1: The pious is loved by the gods because it is pious,
A2: The pious is not pious because the gods love it.
Note: The idea behind the claim is that generally we like things because they are
good, they are not good because we like them)
(B) Superficial claim:
B1: That which is dear to the gods is dear to the gods because it is loved by them.
B2: That which is dear to the gods is not loved by the gods because it is dear to them.
Note: The idea is this. Something is carried (i.e., is in the state of being carried) because something carries it; it is untrue
that something carries something else because that something else is being carried (i.e. is in the state of being carried).
But this is the DEFINITION that Euthyphro has provided:
Definition: The pious = That which is dear to (all) the gods; pious = dear to (all) the gods.
Since all of these expressions are supposed to MEAN THE SAME THING, we can freely substitute one for the other. But then we find that A1 contradicts B2 and A2 contradicts B1
Take A1: The pious is loved by the gods because it is pious
Now replace 'the pious' with 'that which is dear to the gods '. We get:
C1 (formerly A1): That which is dear to the gods is loved by the gods because it is dear to them . Contradicting B2
B2 That which is dear to the gods is not loved by the gods because it is dear to them.
Now Take A2: The pious is not pious because the gods love it.
Replace 'pious' with 'dear to the gods'. We get:
C2 (formerly A2): That which is dear to the gods is not dear to the gods because the gods love it. Contradicting B1.
B1: That which is dear to the gods is dear to the gods because they love it.
NOTE: Socrates' core point is this: If we agree with the deep claim (the pious is loved by the gods because it is pious and the pious is not pious because the gods love it) then we have basically accepted the view that pious is independent of the the gods' love! However Euthyphro's definition requires that pious be dependent upon the gods' love! In Socrates' view, love of the gods is NOT ESSENTIAL to the pious.
Euthyphro’s fourth try (with the Help of Socrates): This time Socrates provides a genus (piety is a kind of justice) as well as differentia (that which distinguishes piety from other forms of justice). Piety is not service to other human beings (that would be one type of justice); rather it is service to the gods.
Socrates’ Response: If the gods are truly divine, then they are complete and need nothing from mere mortals. So either our service is pointless or else it simply amounts to pleasing the gods (i.e. doing what they love). If so, we are back to the problem of the contradiction discussed above.
Ending Situation: Euthyphro leaves quickly. He realizes that he cannot answer Socrates’ question. The reader is left ignorant; Socrates is left ignorant. Socrates seems to think there is a right answer, but he does not know what it is.
Note: Is it coincidental that the charge against Socrates is that he teaches against the gods? The entire dialogue has raised serious worries about holiness and what it means to serve the gods.