Plato’s Euthyphro

by Jerry Salyer on November 20, 2011 · 5 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

If you haven’t read Euthyphro, then you should.  If you have read it, then you should read it again.

In this early Platonic dialogue, Socrates encounters a young man named Euthyphro, who intends to drag his own father into court and charge him with impiety.  This opens up a discussion of what piety is, as well as whether or not the know-it-all Euthyphro should submit to  tradition, which tends to frown upon sons attacking their sires.  In addition to investigating piety, the dialogue also illustrates the art of dialectic — i.e., rational discussion.

Via the Chronicles website, Thomas Fleming will be leading a discussion of this classic work.

{ 5 comments }

avatar John Médaille November 20, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Euthyphro is charging his father with murder (of a slave), not impiety. Euthyphro’s actions are deemed impious, since one doesn’t charge one’s father. Since Euthyphro “knows” enough to commit this sin, Socrates becomes his student, seeking some line of defense, since he himself is at court on a charge of impiety. He will let Euthyphro be his attorney after, of course, he has asked him a few questions. The answers to which turn out to be unhelpful, and Euthyphro ends up abandoning both the prosecution of his father and the defense of Socrates. My own take on this: http://www.medaille.com/neweuthyphro.htm

avatar JD Salyer November 20, 2011 at 8:16 pm

If I remember right, the dialogue presents unlawful bloodshed as a subcategory of impiety. It’s been a while, though, so I’ll have to take another look at it.

At any rate, I do look forward to taking a look at your commentary. I wish I’d known about it sooner — it could have come in handy this past semester.

avatar John Haas November 21, 2011 at 11:36 pm

It’s beyond brilliant. And it’s also hilarious. Socrates ROCKED.

avatar djr November 23, 2011 at 10:20 am

Yes, it has been a while. Murder may be impious, but impiety and murder were different categories of offense in Athenian law. What’s allegedly impious is prosecuting your father for murder. The victim was not a slave, but a hired laborer who was not an Athenian citizen. When he killed one of the family’s slaves, Euthyphro’s dad tied him up and left him to starve to death. So Euthyphro is prosecuting his father for murder on the assumption that it’s still unjust to murder someone even when he isn’t a fellow citizen and that it’s not impious to prosecute the murderer just because he is your own father. We aren’t told whether Euthyphro abandons his prosecution of his father; that point seems left deliberately ambiguous, as the dialogue ends when Euthyphro suddenly decides that it’s time for him to go “somewhere.” The initial problem it begins from is hardly a conflict between good ol’ tradition and presumptuous little Euthyphro; the opening section of the dialogue is in fact part of a venerable Greek tradition of illustrating the conflicting demands of tradition. If you’ve read this dialogue and come away thinking of it as an amusing unmasking of Euthyphro’s arrogant ignorance peppered with an illustration of how to do dialectic, then I submit that you have overlooked the implications of Socrates and Euthyphro’s failure to resolve that problem. Perhaps that’s the test of Euthyphro’s ambiguous departure: do you, the reader, leave the discussion with your own smug complacency at revealing other people’s pretenses, or do you go away worried about what your own inability to answer Socratic questions might mean for your own convictions?

In other words, everyone should take Jerry’s advice and read the Euthyphro again. Especially Jerry.

avatar Jerry Salyer November 23, 2011 at 4:35 pm

I had not realized the burden of proof was on me to demonstrate that, while no authority on it, I have read the dialogue enough times to be familiar with the basic outline — Socrates meets Euthyphro before the porch of the Archon, he hears of the death of Euthyphro’s father’s servant at the hands of Euthyphro’s servant, of Euthyphro’s father clapping the killer in chains, of the killer’s own death, Euthyphro’s relations all thinking him (that is, Euthyphro) impious for seeking to indict his own father, etc. etc. According to Thomas Fleming — who, love him or hate him, knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the Greeks — “Euthyphro is less interested in the legal aspects of the homicide than in the impiety involved.”

But more importantly, for some reason my intention here seems to have been misunderstood. My aim was to prod FPR readers — many of whom are otherwise indifferent to classical thought — into joining in an online discussion of Euthyphro at Fleming’s Booklog.

I had thought it clear that I was not purporting to give, in a very very short blog post, an encapsulation of the sole and ultimate meaning of a major Platonic dialogue. It is always dangerous to try pinning down any one single, clearcut “moral of the story,” as if philosophy is something which must fit tidily onto a bumper-sticker. Every interpretation has its limits.

I can’t help mentioning that this applies not only to my reading but also to djr’s, which is the reading one commonly encounters in academia — and one with which I’m quite familiar, thanks. Yes, Socrates sows doubt and disturbs cherished convictions. But it’s likewise pretty clear — and worth noting, as I did in the original post — that Euthyphro is a very modern figure, insofar as he thinks his special insight places him above the conventions & customs of the common herd. It’s also worth adding that Socrates’ effort to understand piety — and in other dialogues, other universals such as love, justice, and virtue — presumes that there is such a thing, even if it eludes precise definition — he asks questions because he genuinely pursues answers. I’ve no doubt that I don’t fully understand the dialogue in all its dimensions; on the other hand, I also doubt that djr understands it quite as well as he thinks he does.

In any case, I’m baffled as to why anybody would want to waste his time dissecting the 73 words I casually devoted toward introducing the text in question. If really interested in the subject matter, critics would be better off putting their erudition and aggressive energies into the fascinating and much more fruitful Euthyphro discussion going on at the Chronicles website.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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