Plato, in his Socratic dialogue Euthyphro, describes the conversation that takes place between Socrates and Euthyphro immediately preceding the trial in which Socrates is condemned to death. After hearing the story of Euthyphro’s decision to prosecute his own father for the murder of a laborer under his employment and Euthyphro’s justification for his decision to do so, the two agree to begin a sort of teacher-student relationship. Socrates hopes to learn more about piety and the difference between “pious” and “impious”.
Socrates worries whether Euthyphro’s unconventional decision to try his father is in accordance with the Gods, and whether he has the “precise knowledge about how the divine things are disposed” (4e) to make such a decision. This “precise knowledge” of piousness is really what Socrates wants to get to; unfortunately, Euthyphro’s definitions are very vague and unfulfilling. He begins by defining piousness as a fight for justice, no matter the circumstances. He cites Zeus, who castrated his father when he did wrong. This means that Euthyphro’s decision must be wholly pious. However, Socrates is unsatisfied about Euthyphro’s answer. He again asks his mentor for one feature that all pious things have in common, not an explanation as to why this specific situation is right or wrong. Finally, Euthyphro comes to the conclusion that “what is dear to the gods is pious, and what is not dear is impious” (6e). However, this answer is still not satisfactory. According to Euthyphro, the gods are in disagreement over what is just and what is unjust, which would mean that both are impious. This contradiction forces Socrates to point out that this means there would be may be overlap between the impious and pious, even though Euthyphro has already established that they are opposites. He also says that no one really sets out to do unjust things, or defends the unjust. A person’s actions will almost always seem pious to that person. The Gods are not exempt to this.
Socrates attempts to make a distinction between something being pious because it is loved by the gods and being loved because it is pious. He comes to the conclusion that that the latter is true. This, however, is still not satisfactory, and is only one element of the true answer. Socrates asks Euthyphro whether “just” and “pious” are correlated with each other or whether one causes the other. Euthyphro comes to the conclusion that the pious is part of the just. However, this means that there is another part of the just altogether that has not been distinguished yet. Euthyphro says that there is a godly part and a human part; the godly part, of course, is pious. He initially just means to say that the gods determine half of what is just, but Socrates, after careful examination, realizes that his wording that “…that that part of the just is reverent as well as pious which concerns the tendance of the gods…” (12d) may actually mean that justice is a benefit to the gods. Euthyphro vehemently denies this, realizing a mere mortal shouldn’t have this power. Instead, he means it in the way that “slaves tend to their masters” (13d). If this is the case, the masters are giving orders to produce good in the world, and the slaves are carrying out their orders. However, slaves and masters do not have a give/take relationship. Humans pray to gods and, in return, make sacrifices. Socrates asserts that piety is more like an “art of commerce”. In exchange for all the good in the world, humans give back respect and gratitude. These are, according to Euthyphro, not beneficial to the gods, but gratifying and dear to the gods. Now, the two have gone in a full loop; they have come to the conclusion that the pious is what is dear to the gods.
Socrates shames Euthyphro for choosing to persecute his own father, a helpless, elderly man, without even knowing what piety is. After this speech from Socrates, Euthyphro rushes off, most likely because he has realized the error in his decision and must correct it.
Unfortunately, Euthyphro’s psychic disposition and self-involvement keep him from realizing that he is wrong. Socrates has him running in circles, and, as Euthyphro realizes that none of his examples are applicable to the question, he leaves. Perhaps Euthyphro did teach Socrates something after all: He is the wisest who knows not what he knows.
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