I have become a bit obsessed with Socrates’ dialogue with Euthyphro, in which the former patiently questions and challenges the latter’s methods for defining the meaning of a word: “piety.” The strange context comes in the year B.C.E. 399. Euthyphro arrives at an Athens court to prosecute his father, who has, through neglect and mistreatment, caused the death of a servant who killed one of his slaves. This shocks Socrates. “My dear sir! Your own father,” he exclaims. But he has come to the place because he faces prosecution too, in his case for allegedly corrupting young people with his supposed disbelief of the gods. Hence, one can see why the philosopher would take interest in Euthyphro’s claim that busting his dad represents the “pious” thing to do.
Explain the meaning of “piety,” Socrates asks of his friend. Euthyphro repeatedly attempts to comply, but fails each time. Below I summarize three of his tries.
First attempt: the gods have to love it
“What is dear to the gods is pious,” Euthyphro claims, “what is not is impious.”
Oh really, Socrates responds, but what about the problem that “the gods” seem forever to be quarreling about things? “So it is in no way surprising if your present action, namely punishing your father, may be pleasing to Zeus but displeasing to Cronus and Uranus,” he notes.
Well, Euthyphro replies, “on this subject no gods would disagree with one another.”
You may say so, Socrates retorts, but don’t the gods dispute guilt and appropriate punishments just like men? “Come, try to show me a clear sign that all the gods definitely believe this action to be right.”
Well, “This is perhaps no light task, Socrates,” Euthyphro mumbles, “though I could show you very clearly . . .”
Yeah, right, Socrates more or less says to himself, then moves on to question two.
Second attempt: is love the definition?
Ok, Socrates proclaims, let’s try again and maybe we will do better this time.
“Consider this,” he challenges Euthyphro. “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
The two of them have at it for quite a while about this conundrum. Euthyphro keeps hacking away on behalf of the claim that, somehow, the quality of being loved can substitute for a definition of the quality that makes something loved. But his attempts fall to pieces and he begins mindlessly agreeing with Socrates’ subversive queries.
“Socrates: Is it being loved because it is pious, or for some other reason?
Euthyphro: For no other reason.
Socrates: It is being loved then because it is pious, but it is not pious because it is being loved.
Well, then, Socrates concludes: “I’m afraid, Euthyphro, that when you were asked what piety is, you did not wish to make its nature clear to me, but you told an affect or a quality of it, that the pious has the quality of being loved by all the gods, but you have not yet told me what the pious is.”
Euthyphro protests that their conversation “goes around and refuses to stay put where we establish it.” But in truth he still has no real grasp of the essential meaning of piety. Socrates gives him one last chance.
Third attempt: try a little tenderness
By now Euthyphro has figured out that he needs to come up with a definition of piety that attends to its inherent nature, not some quality that derives from that nature (like its divine loved-ness). Socrates prompts him with a meditation on the relationship between piety and justice. Euthyphro jumps in on that with a fairly elegant thesis on the link between the two:
“I think, Socrates, that the godly and pious is the part of the just that is concerned with the care of the gods, while that concerned with the care of men is the remaining part of justice.”
But Socrates will not give Euthyphro any breaks this morning. If horse breeders give care to horses and cattle raisers give care to cattle, he asks, what kind of care do the pious give to the gods? “Is piety then, which is the care of the gods,” Socrates wonders out loud,” also to benefit the gods and make them better?”
“By Zeus, no,” Euthyphro insists, then compares piety to the gods to the services slaves offer their masters.
Then what, Socrates presses, constitutes the nature of this service? What benefit do they receive from us?
“What else, do you think,” Euthyphro responds, “than honor, reverence . . . to please them?”
Piety then pleases the gods, Socrates continues. That sums up your answer?
Yes, piety represents the thing “most dear to them,” Euthyphro proclaims with satisfaction.
One can almost see Socrates’ sad smile in his retort. “So the pious is once again what is dear to the gods.” Euthyphro has led himself back to the logical fallacy from where he began.
Socrates appears to be having a ball at this point, deriving great pleasure from turning the philosophical screws. “So we must investigate again from the beginning what piety is,” he announces, “as I shall not willingly give up before I learn this!”
Euthyphro, on the other hand, understandably wants to withdraw from the field of discursive battle. “Some other time, Socrates,” he whimpers, “for I am in a hurry now, and it is time for me to go.”
We, on the other hand, should stick around and consider what we can learn from this exchange. Euthyphro’s philosophical demise appears to flow from his refusal to come up with his own definition of piety as something with attributes. Instead, he repeatedly serves up definitions that really just boil down to endorsements from generally accepted authority figures, in this case “the gods.” That just will not do for Socrates. Like everything else, he wants words and ideas to be accountable to reason. He also wants us to take on the hard task of reasoning and figuring out meanings for ourselves. How often do we evade this responsibility by assuming that something must be this or that because someone on high declares it so?
I have summarized this dialogue from Professor John M. Cooper’s edition of Plato’s Dialogues. Wikipedia seems to think Socrates clobbered Euthyphro four times, but I’ve just mentioned three here for simplicity’s sake.