A short Socratic dialogue by Plato. One of my personal favorites. Socrates encounters a priest, Euthyphro, and asks him to define the concept "piety" that he might understand the charges brought against him by Meletus that he faces in the trial written about in The Apology (Apologia).

Socrates employs the elenchus (refutation), sometimes known as The Socratic Method, to show Euthyphro the contradictions in the set of beliefs that he holds in his area of expertise.

"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, for you agreed that all impious actions are impious and all pious actions pious through one form ... 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, and if it that it is not."

At this inquiry, Euthyphro proceeds to recite several versions of The Divine Command Theory, and Socrates promptly fillets him.

The Euthyphro, Plato’s first dialogue, is often regarded as the unloved precursor to his masterful Apology.  Read the Euthyphro with a bit of understanding of his later philosophies and a bit of thought about human nature, and a different picture emerges.  The Euthyphro is Plato’s argument against a sort of democratic thought – thought that is prevalent in our time, and must have been so in his, in order to justify this dialogue’s primary placement.  The Euthyphro is an argument against equality and the appeal the powerless have to a higher moral authority.

It is fashionable, at least when introducing them to the hoi polloi, to attempt to group Plato’s dialogues into some set of chronology based upon when it is imagined that he wrote them.  Despite the seemingly unimaginable absurdity of this project, certain of my betters have made the attempt; and based upon the length, style, content, and attitude of the Euthyphro, very learned and important people have decided that it is one of Plato’s earliest dialogues.  This conclusion suits my argument nicely, so I shall not challenge it, although I retain the right to think that they are being silly.  In actuality, we do know the exact details about the correct order of Plato’s dialogues from the one authoritative source in which they come down to us, the first century CE Egyptian Platonist, Thrasyllus1.  Thrasyllus did not leave us the dialogues in the order in which they were written (which might be more helpful to a researcher), but rather grouped them as a collection of lesson plans (which is most helpful to students and teachers).  The Thrasyllus canon groups Plato’s dialogues into groups of four (tetralogies), of which the trial and death of Socrates is first, and of the four dialogues in the first tetralogy, the Euthyphro is first.  After reading, and re-reading the Euthyphro, reading several books on Plato’s politics, a good deal of the Platonic dialogues, and re-reading the Euthyphro yet again, I can see why Euthyphro deserves its primacy.  Euthyphro serves to both inform the new student of the ways of thought in which one must engage in order to understand what follows, and begins to indoctrinate him in the most fundamental beliefs necessary for the establishment of the ideal proto-fascist state Plato would later describe more fully in The Republic and The Laws.

We must read the ancients better – there is an odious tendency to read them with naïve eyes while proclaiming their greatness.  Plato was fundamentally a politician (or one could say a propagandist)2.  Looking at our own politicians can give us a sense of why we ought to read Plato more carefully.  During the second debate in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election, President Bush uttered what seemed to most observers to be a fantastically odd comment regarding the 1857 Dred Scott case.  In essence, he announced that he would not appoint judges who would uphold slavery.  Most mainstream media outlets ignored this comment, while a few liberal enclaves mocked it as just another example of the President’s loose command of the issues.  But to his pro-life supporters, this was probably the most important statement that President Bush made during the entire campaign.  For at least the past twenty years (and probably longer), Roe v. Wade has been equated with the Dred Scott decision in activist pro-life circles.  Nearly every pro-life voter in American thought President Bush had promised to appoint only pro-life judges to the Supreme Court if re-elected, despite the fact that Bush never uttered a word about abortion during the campaign (and indeed, all of his statements from previous campaigns would seem to indicate a preference for the status quo).  This is merely one recent example of the power of coded language.Every racist knows what a politician means when they say they believe in “States’s Rights”.  And every gay couple knows what the current chairman of the Democratic Party means when he says he wants “Equal Rights for All Americans”.  For better or for worse, people (and especially politicians) aren’t always honest about their political opinions, especially if those opinions aren’t particularly popular.  Others have done the heavy lifting on this point before me (most famously Popper, Russell, and Stone), but let it suffice to say that Plato’s political opinions were not very popular in democratic Athens.

It is foolishness, in light of human behavioral tendencies, to assume that Plato was interested in being truthful to his audience.  It is utter foolishness, considering the existence of anti-democratic secret societies in Athens (which Plato was probably a member of, and at least sympathized with), to think that Plato was interested in being truthful to his audience.  It is complete and total foolishness, after reading Book Three of The Republic (in which Plato openly advocated lying to anyone and everyone in order to maintain the State), even to entertain the idea that Plato was interested in being truthful to his audience.  With this justifiably skeptical attitude in place, one approaches Plato’s dialogues with a differing attitude.

My initial impulse was to throw Plato’s dialogues onto the bonfire and watch his lies go up in smoke.  But just as I had earlier rescued The Bible and the works of The Brothers Grimm (both, in their way, treatises of human meanness), I grabbed Plato back as soon as I threw him in, stamped out the burning embers, and tried to make sense of him.  No matter the vileness of the books, they matter.  History will remember Plato long after I am dead.  This recognition alone requires a conscientious student of history to attempt to make some sense of Plato.  There’s also that other argument, that no matter how odious his political beliefs may be, the Philosophy (separated from the Politics) is top notch.  I won’t argue that Plato’s philosophical rigor isn’t first rate.  But I will argue with any attempt to separate it from his political beliefs.  One cannot separate Protaroras’s belief in each individual’s equality in matters of epistemological judgment, from his belief in democracy.  One cannot separate Hobbes’s belief in a brutish state of nature from his belief in a brutish state of government.  And one cannot separate Plato from his Politics.  One should study the history, but be supremely skeptical of the philosophy.  However, there is one more consideration, a synthesis of these two: one must study the masterful fabulist.  We must examine Plato, hopefully with two open eyes.  If we should happen to find something of value there, whether of historical or philosophical merit, then so much the better for us.  If we should happen to find only lies, then we shall become better at detecting lies from those less skilled than Plato. 

Others, more skilled than I, can undoubtedly write at great length about the value and meaning of Plato’s important dialogues.  The great political theorists have (and one should hope they continue to) analyzed the Republic.  But I am merely a student, and so I shall start where students ought to start – at the Euthyphro.  The Euthyphro is usually taught either as its own entity, a fun little Platonic bedtime snack, or as the irrelevant first part of the trial and death of Socrates

In the first understanding of the Euthyphro, what is usually emphasized is the dramatic assault that Socrates levies against Divine Command Theory, by way of the extremely clever Euthyphro Dilemma.  It is, of course, very nice for introductory instructors to have something nice and old and respectable to use to loosen up student’s hardened religious beliefs with.  This probably held true for the ancients as well, and Euthyphro may owe its place as number one in the Platonic canon to the helpfulness it offers teachers and new students.  But Plato is not the least bit interested in destroying the Divine Command Theory.  Indeed, Socrates will argue in the Apology that he is merely following the will of the gods.  In the Euthyphro, Plato is challenging a particular type of religious belief, belief that is harmful to his politics.

The second understanding of the Euthyphro is as a footnote.  Here we find the charges levied against Socrates, and little else.   The long, rambling, inconclusive discussion that Euthyphro and Socrates have regarding the nature of Piety can be dismissed as merely a long, rambling, inconclusive discussion of the nature of Piety.  The introduction of the charges against Socrates itself is a long and winding discussion between Socrates and Euthyphro, which can be summed up in one sentence: Socrates has been charged with disbelief in the old gods and the creation of new gods; and he has corrupted the youth of the city with these beliefs.

Both of these simplistic accounts of the Euthyphro are flawed, but both hold an element of truth for a more accurate interpretation of the Euthyphro.  The Euthyphro is the first dialogue of the first tetralogy, and the order matters.  In each of the dialogues of the first tetralogy (and arguably, in every one of his dialogues) Plato is attempting to muster a defense of Socrates and an argument for the political system espoused by his disciples.  The ideas contained within the Euthyphro will be explored by more fully in later dialogues.  If one accepts that the Euthyphro is one of Plato’s earlier written works, this can be seen to represent the maturation of the author.  But regardless of the historical chronology, the Euthyphro represents (at least to the ancients) the proper starting place for Platonist studies

Plato’s defense of Socrates is incredibly awkward.  Plato cannot argue, as one would prefer, that Socrates is innocent of the charges.  Even in the Euthyphro, Socrates’s guilt is obvious – the disdain with which he treats Euthyphro’s knowledge of the gods, and the clear attempts to make Euthyphro doubt his faith are enough to make poor Euthyphro beg off in the middle of their discussion.  Plato also cannot argue that Socrates was guilty, because he doesn’t think Socrates deserved to die.  Plato must argue that Socrates was right.  Other writers and philosophers would have an easier time with this problem, by challenging the legitimacy of the court itself, and to a certain extent Plato does do this.  But Plato’s views, being fundamentally totalitarian, cannot challenge the authority of the civil courts.  He only challenges those who illegitimately run the machinery of the state, the citizens, not the polis.  Plato directly accomplishes this task in The Apology, but before the civil authority is questioned, first its moral and spiritual basis must be attacked.  This is the job of the Euthyphro.

Something is odd from the very beginning at the doorstep of the King Archon’s Court.  We can gather from the dialogue that this is the place where religious matters were settled in the ancient city of Athens.  If we are unaware of Athens’s general history of religious tolerance3 it might seem understandable that Socrates was being charged with blasphemy or heresy.  But if this was the sort of court that Socrates was to be prosecuted in, why then did Euthyphro come to bring murder charges against his father to the same place?  Murder, it seems, was also a religious crime involving “pollution” of the body.  The cases of Euthyphro’s father’s crime and Socrates’ crime are intertwined in the argument about Piety. 

Euthyphro argues that his father acted impiously in allowing a servant to die, and Socrates immediately challenges him for the audacity to press charges against his own father.  Note Socrates’ values here: he challenges Euthyphro’s actions because Euthyphro is violating the Greek caste structure in favor of an abstract principle.  Euthyphro’s abstract principle is a simple one: equality under the law.  Euthyphro bases this principle upon a very curious understanding of Greek mythology.  Euthyphro feels that the will of the gods is that all people should face the same penalty for the same crimes, even his own father.  From our own vantage point, this is an ideal necessary for the maintenance of civil society.  It is necessary for a democratic society, but is antithetical to the type of oligarchical totalitarian state that Plato and Socrates admire.

Plato also cannot argue against all mystical or religious arguments since he later will want to argue for the intellectual superiority of the quasi-mystical philosopher.  His interest then, in the Euthyphro, to prepare us for later arguments, is to attack the universality of mystical principles.  The Philosopher is best fit to rule because he has access to a superior form of knowledge – this statement cannot be accepted if one believes in some sort of universal piety like Euthyphro espouses.  Here one finds the origins of the argument in favor of censorship found in Book III of the Republic:

And observe, Socrates, that I can cite powerful evidence that the law is so.  I have already said to others that such actions are right, not to favor the ungodly, whoever they are.  These people themselves believe that Zeus is the best and most just of the gods, yet they agree that he bound his father because he unjustly swallowed his sons, and that he in turn castrated his father for similar reasons. (5e)
Belief in external standards of truth allow Euthyphro and other Athenians like him a wide moral freedom of movement, with the only limiting factor being the agreement of other Athenians.

Euthyphro represents one half of the democratic order that the totalitarian is forced to confront – the moral half.  With Plato as an umpire, Socrates is lucky enough to have a buffoon as an opponent in this first dialogue.  The central argument picked out of the Euthyphro is often this passage:
Euthyphro: I would certainly say that the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is the impious.
[…]
Socrates: Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods? (9e)
Plato thus avoids addressing Euthyphro’s actual argument, that there is such a thing as external moral truths accessible to everyone in favor of a wandering argument that through its own absurdity seems to invalidate Euthyphro’s original claim: every person is morally deserving of equal treatment.  Plato never attacks the idea of equality in this dialogue, because attacking the moral underpinning was more important, and most of his audience would have assumed the servant was less important than the father.  But by undermining Euthyphro’s fanciful idea of equality between a plantation owner and a servant, Plato launches his first assault against the equality between citizens.  He thus paves the way for his dream oligarchical state ruled by elitist aristocrats calling themselves philosophers. Near the end of the dialogue, however, Euthyphro does come close to answering Socrates’ challenge:
Euthyphro: I told you a short while ago, Socrates, that it is a considerable task to acquire any precise knowledge of these things, but to put it simply, 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.  The opposite of these pleasing actions are impious and overturn and destroy everything.
[…]
Socrates: Piety then would be a sort of trading skill between gods and men?

This back and forth continues for a few lines, and then Socrates intentionally misrepresents the argument that Euthyphro (and presumably Athenian contemporaries of Plato) is trying to make.  Socrates’ rhetorical skills return the debate to Piety merely being what is pleasing to the gods, which so frustrates Euthyphro that he leaves Socrates.  But since this dialogue was written by Plato with an eye to addressing his contemporary political situation, there is enough truth within it to find the real argument a more able Euthyphro could have made: Piety is a relationship with the gods

This relationship implies two things.  The first is an offered understanding of advanced moral principles.  As Euthyphro states earlier in the dialogue:

Euthyphro: I think, Socrates, that the godly and the 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)

Now it may be that the remaining part of justice is quite small4, as the events of men and the gods are so often intertwined, but Euthyphro seems to want to argue that piety is advancement beyond simple interpersonal relations.  The second implied principle is devastating to Plato if believed to be true by a large enough portion of the populace: all men have access to the gods.  All men can pray and attempt to receive guidance from the gods in these moral matters.  The artificial edifice of the Philosopher Kings cannot be created or even argued for if all have equal access to the sort of moral guidance Plato would like to reserve for his rulers.  “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?”  This question, believed by many to be the central question of the Euthyphro, is missing the point.  Euthyphro originally answered the question by saying that the pious is loved by the gods because it is pious.  If this is the case, then why involve the gods in the pious at all, why not just study justice?  To this, one must answer Plato: because the gods help and guide us, so that we may protect ourselves from tyrants like you.





1. John M. Cooper, editor, Plato Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997)
2. Plato’s Letter VII describes his youthful desire to hold political office, and his subsequent decision to stay out of the messy business.
3. In actuality, Athens, like most polytheistic societies, was far more tolerant of diverging religious beliefs than most monotheistic societies. Athens never passed laws expressly allowing religious freedom because (except in the curious case of Socrates) Athens did not charge citizens with religious thought crimes.
4. A negotiation between my roommate and me regarding the rent is generally a simple matter, and does not concern greater principles.  But if we should happen to disagree substantially, we might argue based upon larger moral principles of reciprocity and honoring one’s word.  In the first case we are acting justly, without necessitating piety.  In the second, an understanding of piety might be required to properly resolve our disagreement.

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