Plato’s Dialogues: Euthyphro

So, we’ve made it to one of Plato’s most famous dialogues, Euthyphro. Socrates is on his way to court, having been charged with corrupting the youth of Athens, when he meets a young man, Euthyphro, who is there to charge his father with murder. The primary question here is how to define piety, but with a theme throughout the dialogue of intellectual humility, even more so than in the other works so far.

Now, Euthyphro’s case is a difficult one. One of his father’s servants had killed a man, so his father had bound him and, while deciding what to do with him, the servant died. He certainly caused his servant’s death, though not intentionally, and few would find much sympathy for the murderous servant. There’s also, of course, the question of whether one should charge one’s father with a crime at all. Socrates doesn’t seem to think so, at least in most cases, and he says to Euthyphro in astonishment, “And the man your father killed, was he a relative of yours? Of course he was? You never would prosecute your father would you, for the death of anybody who was not related to you?”

It may be helpful to compare another philosopher’s opinion on a similar subject; the situation reminds me of an exchange in The Analects, in Book XIII:

The duke of Sheh informed Confucius, saying, ‘Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact.’

Confucius said, ‘Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.’

Translator James Legge notes, “[Confucius’] expression does not absolutely affirm that this is upright, but that in this there is a better principle than in the other conduct. Anybody but a Chinese will say that both the duke’s view of the subject and the sage’s were incomplete.”

I expect that most modern Westerners would prefer the view of the duke of Sheh, because we tend to value the rule of law over all else, and we’re not at all a clannish people. However, there is something to be said for the other opinion. The most important relationship a man has is that with his immediate family, and especially with his father. One should, by both Socrates’ and Confucius’ view, value these immediate relationships over more remote relationships, like that to the State. Indeed, the relationship of sovereign to subject is a type of the relationship of father to son. That is, the sovereign is the “father” of a nation, but in a more abstract way than the father of a family. After all, even in Christian terms, the Fourth Commandment tells us to honour our mother and father, and it only applies to other authorities like the state as an extension of that.

Of course, the Christian interpretation of the Fourth Commandment is that we are to obey our parents in all that is not sinful, and concealing theft or murder certainly looks rather sinful.

Socrates, of course, is astonished not only at the charge itself, but at Euthyphro’s unshakeable confidence in his own judgement. In the previous four dialogues, Socrates is amiable to his interlocutors, but here, though he still treats Euthyphro fairly, he also treats the young man’s attitude with some sarcasm. He says to him at one point, while discussing the relationship between justice and holiness:

Then try to show me in this way what part of the just is holiness, so that we may tell Meletus [Socrates’ accuser] to cease from wronging me, and to give up prosecuting me for irreligion, because we have adequately learned from you of piety and holiness, and the reverse.

Euthyphro is far from Socrates’ first overly confident interlocutor, but he’s the first to be disingenuous. For example, when Meno realises that his definition of virtue is untenable, he’s fairly humble for the rest of the dialogue. When Euthyphro comes to much the same realisation, he almost literally just runs away, saying “Another time, then, Socrates, for I am in a hurry, and must be off this minute.”

The central question of this dialogue has become known as the “Euthyphro Dilemma,” that is, as Socrates puts it, “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?” From a Christian perspective this isn’t really a question, because God is goodness. I sense that Socrates is, in a way, working toward monotheism, though this may just be me reading my own ideas back into Plato’s work. One interesting point Socrates raises is about the conflicts between the gods, so common in Greek mythology and storytelling. If I follow him correctly, Socrates assumes that the gods, by their nature, must perfectly understand justice. Conflict, though, arises from differing understandings of justice; therefore, the stories about conflicts between the gods must be false. Of course, questioning the traditional stories told about the gods would, I assume, sound like atheism to people who take these stories seriously, even if Socrates (again, if I’m following Plato correctly) is objecting not to the existence of the gods, but to how poets and storytellers portray them, which seems to me not an act of impiety, but of piety – because the implication of this argument is that the gods are more perfect than how the myths portray them.

It’s a question I hope to be able to answer better as I continue through more of the dialogues. Up next is the Apology.

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