64. Socrates’ Authentic Search for Piety in Plato’s Dialogue ‘Euthyphro’

Socrates found himself in some trouble in Plato’s Euthyphro. He had just been indicted on serious charges by a relatively unknown Athenian citizen. Miletus, his principle accuser, was simply a mouthpiece and puppet for Socrates’ true arch-enemy Anytus, a powerful Athenian politician.1 Miletus’ affidavit stated that Socrates was guilty of corrupting the youth and also of impiety towards the gods – both serious offenses, the impiety charge being especially so.

When the dialogue opens, we find Socrates at the king-archon’s court to answer his indictments. King-archon was one of the nine principle magistrates of Athens.2 This particular court had oversight of legal cases involving alleged offenses of impiety toward the Olympian gods. The worship of the gods, which included various rituals and purifications, fell under the purview of the civil government.

At the court, Socrates just happened to run into Euthyphro, a professional priest who considered himself, and was considered by others, to be an expert in such matters of piety and ritual.3 Euthyphro tells Socrates that he is there to file murder charges against his father.

What is the purpose of this dialogue? At the end, I will give you my unique perspective that I have not seen anywhere else.

Euthyphro is the first to speak:

What’s new, Socrates, to make you leave your usual haunts in the Lyceum and spend time here by the king-archon’s court? Surely you are not prosecuting anyone before the king-archon as I am?

Euthyphro, 2a

Socrates Explains the Indictments Against Him

Socrates goes on to explain how the young accuser, Miletus, who is “wise compared to Socrates’ ignorance,” knows not only how young men are corrupted but also who corrupts them. Miletus claims it is none other than Socrates. Socrates sarcastically explains that after Miletus purges Athens of those like himself who corrupt the youth, Miletus will become “a great source of blessing for the city.” When Euthyphro asks Socrates in exactly what way Socrates corrupted the youth, Socrates responds,

Strange things, to hear him tell it, for he says that I am a maker of gods, and on the ground that I create new gods, while not believing in the old gods, he has indicted me for their sake, as he puts it.

– 3b

This is interesting because in most cases, the two charges are always presented as two separate and distinct charges, but here Socrates links the two together. Miletus accused Socrates of corrupting the youth by introducing new gods.

Euthyphro thinks it strange because whenever he mentions divine prophecies in the assembly, he reports that the assembly finds it amusing and just laughs at him. Maybe, muses Euthyphro, that is because Socrates is always talking about his “divine sign” that prevents him from doing things that he should not do.

This divine guide has been with Socrates since childhood. I discussed this in the previous post as well as earlier posts on Socrates. The divine sign never tells Socrates any positive action that he should take; it merely has a restraining effect on him. For example, his divine guide restrained him from getting involved in politics.

Socrates thinks that there is a different reason for the assembly’s animus toward him:

My dear Euthyphro, to be laughed at does not matter perhaps, for the Athenians do not mind anyone they think clever, as long as he does not teach his own wisdom, but if they think that he makes others to be like himself, they get angry, whether through envy, as you say, or some other reason.

– 3c-d

The truth was that Socrates loved interacting with people, and the young people responded to him. He had developed a following in Athens which was not only a threat to the government but something that incited envy among the rulers. Autocratic rulers desire to have a monopoly over what people think and believe, especially young people. Any such encroachment upon that monopoly is sure to invoke envy, which becomes the root of all sorts of evil. We have a parallel example with Jesus who was handed over to Pilate out of envy by the Jewish leaders.4

Euthyphro Justifies the Charges Against His Father

Socrates’ straightforward story becomes sort of a foil to highlight the strangeness of Euthyphro’s. Socrates enquires and discovers that Euthyphro is there to file charges against his own father. He is flabbergasted at this information, to say the least:

My dear sir! Your own father?

– 4a

Without yet knowing the charge, Socrates is already floored by the fact that someone like Euthyphro would actually prosecute his own father. Even when he finds out that the charge is murder, he says something that we would not expect:

Good heavens! Certainly, Euthyphro, most men would not know how they could do this and be right. It is not the part of anyone to do this, but of one who is far advanced in wisdom.

– 4a-b

Even considering the heinous crime of murder, Socrates still does not see a justification for Euthyphro’s actions. He states sarcastically that because Euthyphro stands alone in this, he must be “far advanced in wisdom.” Socrates then softens a bit when he considers that the murdered person must have been a relative, but then finds that this was not the case. Not only was the victim not a relative, but he was a laborer of his father’s who was guilty of committing murder himself. He killed a household slave in a drunken rage. Euthyphro’s father then tied him up so that he could find a priest and inquire as to what he should do with the man. When he returned, he found that the accused man had died. So, one could say that the servant’s death was not intentional, but accidental.

Euthyphro states that his whole family is angry with him since his father did not intentionally commit murder. They considered the unfortunate circumstances simply an accidental death – what we would call “manslaughter” today.

Why does Euthyphro seem to be so unreasonable in this matter by pressing more serious charges than seem warranted, and against his own father? What is the purported underlying principle motivating him? The following excerpt uncovers this principle and establishes the central theme of the dialogue:

Euthyphro: For my relatives say that it is impious for a son to prosecute his father for murder. But their ideas of the divine attitude to piety and impiety are wrong, Socrates.

Socrates: You think, Euthyphro, that your knowledge of the divine, and of piety and impiety, is so accurate that, when these things happen as you say, you have no fear of having acted impiously in bringing your father to trial?

Euthyphro: I should be of no use, Socrates, and Euthyphro would not be superior to the majority of men, if I did not have accurate knowledge of all such things.

– 4e-5a

This entire dialogue revolves around the Greek concept of piety. Both men are accused of impiety, Socrates by the state and Euthyphro by his relatives. Euthyphro seems confident that he is acting in a pious manner, even in the prosecution of his own family. Socrates needs to formulate a definition of piety if he is to make a defense against such charges as those brought by Miletus. Confessing his ignorance on the matter, Socrates asks to be Euthyphro’s pupil since Euthyphro is so confident about it. Euthyphro sees nothing wrong with an older man wanting to be the student of a much younger man. That Euthyphro accepts such an arrangement smacks of impiety itself. But, of course, we know who the real teacher is.

Socrates then poses the central question of the dialogue:

Tell me then, what is the pious and the impious, do you say?

– 5d

This dialogue reveals, once again, Plato’s genius as a dramatist. He uses the interaction of Socrates and Euthyphro, each embroiled in their own intense controversies, in an attempt to flesh out for us the essence of piety. And lest we think that this was merely an academic matter, we must remember that the lives of two men were at stake, that of Socrates and that of Euthyphro’s father.

The Greek Concept of Piety

Before attempting to understand the essence of piety, it is good for us to review what the Greeks had in mind culturally when they thought of piety. We can start with a dictionary definition of piety as a peg to hang our hats on.

The world “piety” itself is a Latinized version (pietas) of the Greek word ὅσιον, or “hosion.” Hosion can be translated “holiness” or even “righteousness.” Socrates was being accused of “anosion” or impiety of actions, conduct, or duties. To get a little more concrete, both the Latin and Greek words, although differing slightly, can be summarized in the idea of having reverence and awe for the gods as the basis of and motivation for our conduct and duties, not only to the gods themselves but also toward our parents, family, community, and country.

Hosion was steeped in tradition and served as a guide to all social interaction – from parents and children, slaves and masters, and even between a buyer and seller at a market. This was the broad sense of the word and how it is used in this dialogue.

In the narrow sense of the word, it merely described religious practices such as cult worship, festivals, prayers, sacrifices, public devotions. Picture hosion as the hub of a wheel with all of the various duties emanating from that hub. All of the spokes go to support the wheel, which is the smooth functioning of society. Consider it also as the glue which holds society together, without which the society falls apart.

Today, the Latin-derived term “piety” that has come down to us has become limited to religious devotion only. This is because in a secular society, anything spiritual has become compartmentalized and separated from the rest of society. For the Greeks and Romans, it was like the atmosphere that they breathed; it permeated everything they did. This begs the question: What is the hub of the wheel in the West, or is there one?

The First Definition of Piety – Euthyphro’s Example

In his first attempt to answer Socrates’ question on the nature of piety, Euthyphro simply points to his example, saying:

I say that the pious is to do what I am doing now.

– 5d

Socrates immediately dismisses this as a mere example and not a true definition. It is like defining courage by merely pointing to the example of Odysseus. Socrates replies:

Bear in mind then that I did not bid you tell me one or two of the many pious actions but that form itself that makes all pious actions pious . . . tell me then what this form itself is, so that I may look upon it and, using it as a model, say that any action of yours or another’s that is of that kind is pious.

– 6d-e

As an interesting note in this section, Euthyphro uses an example of Zeus who was acting piously when he bound and castrated his father. Socrates then admits that one of the reasons he was on trial was because he “finds it hard to accept things like that about the gods.” It wasn’t that Socrates didn’t believe in a divine being; of course he did and admitted it many times. He just didn’t believe in the mythology of the Olympian gods. Instead, he often talked about “God” in the singular.

The Second Definition of Piety – What Is “Dear to the Gods”

Euthyphro tries again:

Well then, what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious.

– 7a

Socrates is much more pleased with this as he responds that an answer like this was exactly what he was looking for, being more objective. But soon he pokes holes in this argument as well. He gets Euthyphro to admit that the gods are in a constant state of discord and disagreement with one another, having enmity toward each other. This, of course, was a well-known belief in Greek mythology.

The gods could not agree with one another on what was just, beautiful, ugly, good, and bad. Some gods then would call certain actions pious and other gods would call the same actions impious. Since the gods cannot agree unanimously on anything, and the same action would be deemed pious by some gods and impious by other gods, the entire argument is logically inconsistent.

Socrates, bringing this argument to a conclusion, challenges Euthyphro on his decision to prosecute his father:

Come, try to show me a clear sign that all the gods definitely believe this action to be right. If you can give me adequate proof of this, I shall never cease to extol your wisdom.

– 9b

The Third Definition of Piety – What Is “Loved By All the Gods”

Based on Socrates’ argument above, Euthyphro is forced to amend his argument if he wants to stay in the game. As he does, this gets to the heart of the dialogue and brings up some interesting philosophical considerations.

Euthyphro reformulates his argument:

I would certainly say that the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is the impious.

– 9e

This is a little different slant on the argument. Even though the gods cannot agree on which particular actions are pious or impious, they do all love the concept of the pious and they all hate the concept of the impious. By making this claim, Euthyphro tees up the ball perfectly for Socrates to steer the conversation in a way that adds new insights to this topic of the nature of piety.

Socrates then asks the central question to this entire dialogue:

Consider this: Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?

– 10a

This question eventually became known in philosophy as the Euthyphro Dilemma. Ever since Plato asked this question about piety through Socrates, it has posed difficulty for some theists. The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz asked:

It is generally agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just; in other words, whether justice and Goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things.5

We may think that this is an abstract argument with no bearing on everyday life, but nothing could be further from the truth. This has been debated extensively through the ages with some advocating one side of the dilemma while some support the other side. Those who advocated the “it is good and just because God wills it” side were such thinkers as the scholastic philosophers Dun Scotus and especially William of Ockham. Their view is often termed voluntarism or divine command theory.

Although I don’t have time to unpack all of this now, I just want to introduce these ideas because they are important to understanding and explaining how we got where we are today in the West. In summary, voluntarism eventually led to the arbitrary and confused moral landscape that we witness today, as well as the elevation of power over rationality and sound judgment. I would like to expand on this in a future blog post.

The Essence of Piety

To continue with this third definition of piety, Socrates makes a simple yet profound argument to refute Euthyphro’s position. Socrates takes advantage of the passive voice. He states that when an object is carried or seen by someone else, it is in a condition or state of being carried or seen. But the state of being carried or seen is not an innate characteristic of the object that could be called “carried” or “seen.” Rather than being an essential trait of the object, it is only the condition that the object is in while it is undergoing those actions.

The same is true for that which is loved by the gods. If all of the gods love piety, then it is in a state of being “beloved,” but that does not mean that the condition of being beloved is an innate or essential characteristic of piety. It just describes the condition or state that the concept of piety is in.

Socrates questions Euthyphro and gets him to realize that the gods loving the pious because it is pious is not the same thing as the pious being pious because it is beloved by the gods. Therefore being “beloved” and being “pious” are two distinctly different things. To this, Euthyphro concedes. Socrates’ argument can be summarized as follows:

But if the god-loved and the pious were the same . . . then if the pious was being loved because it was pious, the god-loved would also be being loved because it was god-loved; and if the god-loved was god-loved because it was being loved by the gods, then the pious would also be pious because it was being loved by the gods. But now you see that they are in opposite cases as being altogether different from each other: the one is such to be loved because it is being loved, the other is being loved because it is such to be loved.

– 10e – 11a

This again brings Socrates to the main question of the Euthyphro dialogue: What is piety? But more specifically, what is the nature or essence of piety? What is the universal characteristic of piety? This still has not been answered by Euthyphro.

The Fourth Definition of Piety – “A Part of Justice”

Apparently, the “teacher” Euthyphro seems to be at a loss to instruct his “pupil” Socrates on what piety is, so Socrates takes the lead in this section and makes a proposal.

This is the kind of thing I was asking before, whether where there is piety there is also justice, but where there is justice there is not always piety, for the pious is a part of justice.6 Shall we say that, or do you think otherwise?

– 12c-d

Socrates now proceeds to make the point that in order to understand piety, we must know what justice is.7 Socrates then asks Euthyphro to explain what part of justice is piety. This elicits a very interesting response from Euthyphro:

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.

– 12e

The Fifth Definition of Piety – “What Is Pleasing to the Gods at Prayer and Sacrifice”

It sounds like, above, that Euthyphro is implying that the gods are in need of our help. Socrates questions him more and Euthyphro clarifies:

I say that if a man knows how to say and do what is pleasing to the gods at prayer and sacrifice, those are pious actions such as preserve both private houses and public affairs of state.

– 14b

The best that Euthyphro can do is define piety in terms of the cult worship of the various gods. Is does not take long for Socrates to find the weakness of this definition.

Socrates asks then if piety is simply the knowledge of how to sacrifice and pray – sacrifice being the giving of gifts to the gods and prayer the “begging of gods for certain things.” Euthyphro agrees with this definition of piety, but Socrates asks him what the purpose of gift giving to the gods would be if the gods are in need of nothing and asks Euthyphro to enumerate these gifts. Euthyphro replies:

What else, do you think, than honor, reverence, and what I mentioned just now, to please them?

– 15a

Socrates, of course, is not content with such an answer, so he probes more deeply. When he does, Euthyphro finally lands on the following definition of piety:

I think it is all things most dear to them.

– 15b

Which, obvious to anyone following the argument, leads us back to the beginning definition of piety concerning the gods. Socrates closes with the following:

When you say this, will you be surprised if your arguments seem to move around instead of staying put…making them go around in a circle? Or do you not realize that our argument has moved around and come again to the same place?

– 15b-c

Socrates catches Euthyphro committing the fallacy of circular reasoning, thus exposing his ignorance. With that, he goes in for the kill:

If you had no clear knowledge of piety and impiety, you would never had ventured to prosecute your old father for murder on behalf of a servant. For fear of the gods, you would have been afraid to take the risk lest you should not be acting rightly, and would have been ashamed before men, but now I know well that you believe you have clear knowledge of piety and impiety. So tell me, my good Euthyphro, and do not hide what you think it is.

– 15d-e

Euthyphro’s answer is telling and confirms all:

Some other time, Socrates, for I am in a hurry now, and it is time for me to go!

– 15e

The Hypocrisy of Euthyphro

The masterful way that Plato structures this dialogue is such that we feel Socrates’ frustration as we continually ask the same question, only to get a series of tepid and superficial responses. The question is: If Euthyphro really does not know what piety is and doesn’t seem to care to learn, why is he so relentless in wanting to bring murder charges against his father?

If we connect the dots here, it would seem that Euthyphro was attempting to usurp his father’s estate under the guise of piety. This is the only explanation that makes sense based on the evidence. And sadly, throughout history, great crimes and atrocities have been committed under the guise of religion.

For example, Jesus castigated the Pharisees for this very thing. They had a practice of “dedicating” their wealth to God by putting it in the temple treasury. The term was Corban, which meant “devoted to God as a gift.” By declaring it “Corban,” it was off limits for use in taking care of their aged parents. Since the Pharisees had access to the temple treasury, just like magic, they had access to their own money, did not have to take care of their parents, and still “kept” the commandment of “Honor your father and mother.”

This is true in small ways as well; it is easy for us who are religious to justify acting in dishonorable ways by using the pretense of religion. We can ask someone to pray for a specific situation that another person is in, all the while using that prayer request as an opportunity to gossip. Or take, for example, the businessman who takes liberties with his expense report, charging the company more non-business items. He justifies this by saying that he will give ten percent of that extra to the poor.

The most egregious example in history is the condemning to death of the innocent Son of God, all under the guise of piety. The Sanhedrin accused him of blasphemy.

The True Meaning of ‘Euthyphro’

In this dialogue, we see an obvious parallel between both men accused of impiety. The real parallel, though, is between the two accusers, Euthyphro of his father and Miletus of Socrates. Both were young, ambitious men who sought to use the idea of piety that permeated Greek culture for their own selfish purposes. By prosecuting his father, Euthyphro sought to usurp his father’s estate. And by prosecuting Socrates, Miletus sought to score points with Socrates’ arch-enemy – the powerful Athenian politician Anytus – and to climb the political ladder.

Really, this dialogue is about Socrates’ trial and exposing the hypocrisy and ruthlessness of Miletus. It would be too difficult to feature Miletus in a dialogue because of the relationship he had as Socrates’ prosecutor. Rather, we have a similar young man, Euthyphro, who in a parallel fashion is doing the same thing. His story sheds light on the evil machinations of Miletus as Socrates’ unjust accuser.

The lack of resolution of the question opens the door for further inquiry, as is so often the case in Plato’s dialogues, into the concept of piety. But more importantly, the lack of resolution in this instance is unfortunately a grim foreshadowing of the fate of Socrates. And with that sad note, the dialogue ends as it evokes in us pity and compassion for Socrates as Euthyphro walks away from their conversation on piety. This is yet another example of Plato as a brilliant dramatist who utilized comedy in the earlier part of the dialogue as a contrast for a serious and somber ending. Socrates seems resigned to his fate as he states the following:

What a thing to do, my friend! By going you have cast me down from a great hope. I had, that I would learn from you the nature of the pious and the impious and so escape Meletus’ indictment by showing him that I had acquired wisdom in divine matters from Euthyphro, and my ignorance would no longer cause me to be careless and inventive about such things, and that I would be better for the rest of my life.

– 15e-16a

The most important point of this entire dialogue is what most everyone misses, but I will give you my unique perspective. Plato is brilliant here. He seeks to get our anger up over this young man who is totally malicious in condemning his own father under the pretense of piety. We are supposed to get angry at this. But then Plato wants us to connect the dots and transfer this anger to Miletus when we realize that Socrates was condemned in the same malicious manner. Socrates is really interrogating Miletus – not Euthyphro. Plato wants us to come to that conclusion. If he outright told us what we should be thinking, we may offer resistance since nobody should be told what to think. Also, we would say that Plato was Socrates’ student so he was obviously biased.

Plato simply sets up the analogy with Euthyphro and his father and leaves us to come to our own conclusions. Again, it is brilliant and vintage Plato. This rhetorical device was pretty common in the ancient world. Consider Nathan confronting King David on his adultery by using the example of a wealthy man who stole his neighbor’s only sheep.8 David was incensed by this injustice so was more likely to admit fault when confronted with his own indiscretion.

In both of these cases, with David and with Euthyphro, a priori reasoning is utilized. If the lesser is true, so must be the greater. By doing this, one can present the truth in a way that will be more easily received. This, I think, is the true purpose of this dialogue, but yet it’s unfortunately missed by the majority of readers. The main point of Euthyphro is that the trial and conviction of Socrates was an injustice perpetrated under the guise of piety.

Any thoughts? Please comment below and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!

Dr. Ron Gaudio explains how Plato's dialogue Euthyphro juxtaposes Socrates and his accuser Miletus with the titular character and his accusations against his own father in an exploration of piety.

Deo Gratias

Featured Book:

From Amazon: “The second edition of Five Dialogues presents G. M. A. Grube’s distinguished translations, as revised by John Cooper for Plato, Complete Works. A number of new or expanded footnotes are also included along with an updated bibliography.”

All text quotations are taken from the above book.

Footnotes and Endnotes:

  1. The Trial of Socrates by Doug Linder, 2002
  2. Plato, Five Dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, Second Edition, John M. Cooper and G. M. A. Grube translators, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.; October 1, 2002, p. 2, f.n. 2.
  3. Ibid, p. 2, f.n. 1
  4. cf. Matthew 27:18. Also see my post where I discuss over 30 similarities between Jesus and Socrates.
  5. G.W. Leibniz stated, in Reflections on the Common Concept of Justice, c. 1702
  6. Socrates brings this up earlier in 11e -12a
  7. In the previous dialogue Alcibiades, Socrates also brings the discussion to the point of understanding justice, which is a recurrent theme in Plato’s dialogues.
  8. 2 Samuel 12

Bibliography and Internet Sources:

Plato, Five Dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, Second Edition, John M. Cooper and G. M. A. Grube translators, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.; October 1, 2002

Plato, Euthyphro. Apology. Crito. Phaedo, Hardcover, Translated by Christopher Emlyn-Jones and William Preddy, Loeb Classic Library, June 19, 2017

Stone, I.F., The Trial of Socrates, Anchor; Reprint edition, 1989

The Trial of Socrates by Doug Linder, 2002

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