Plato's Euthyphro treats of an encounter at the king-archon's court between the philosopher Socrates and the eponymous seer. Socrates is waiting to defend himself against allegations of blasphemy and corruption of the youth of Athens, while Euthyphro is prosecuting his father for murder, something that, according to Socrates, "most men would not know how they could do … and be right". Euthyphro's claim that he is acting piously – and thus rightly – provokes a search for an accurate account of piety and its role in justice. Euthyphro posits various systems equating moral rightness with the commands and preferences of the gods and Socrates proves each of these in turn to be flawed or insufficient. Euthyphro's sudden exit brings the dialogue to a close and seems to leave its central questions unanswered. I argue, however, that the dialogue implicitly advances a conception of morality anchored in conventional social and civic mores. As such, the debate as a whole is illustrative of the superiority of this foundation for justice over Euthyphro's uncritical equation of just action with good religious observance. This essay will thus focus on Plato's positive conception of a socially-grounded morality and how this view is championed within the ostensibly inconclusive text through the character of Socrates.
It is always difficult to judge to what extent Socrates represents Plato himself. Throughout the Platonic canon, Socrates is hardly an unimpeachable figure – in dialogues like Meno the leading questions he uses to subversively steer the course of the argument make his techniques appear almost sophistical, and there is a satirical element in Plato's rendering of his methods. Elsewhere Socrates mirrors Plato's thought more closely, and I believe Euthyphro operates on this level. Euthyphro is an absurd opponent, his arguments deeply flawed, and Plato demonstrates a serious interest in discrediting a religiously-founded definition of justice by leaving its defense in the hands of such a straw man. Consequently, he is naturally invested in the system he forwards as its alternative. With Plato's own philosophical convictions thus exposed, his 'Socrates' character is deployed straightforwardly, less as an independent entity than as an authorial mouthpiece. Suspending my usual reluctance to equate Plato with his character, I treat Socrates' position on justice in Euthyphro as largely indicative of Plato's own.
Socrates is defined, in both his own and Euthyphro's estimation, in terms of his active connection to the Athenian polis. As opposed to Euthyphro, who "[keeps himself] but rarely available", Socrates' "usual haunts" are "in the Lyceum", a hub of athletic and intellectual activity frequented by the young men of the citizenry, the political lifeblood of the state. Socrates further refers to his "liking for people" and Euthyphro, too, styles him as "the very heart of the city". Although the charges against him seem at first to contradict this reading, they are leveled by the "unknown" and nearly beardless Miletus, who hails from "the Pitthean deme" as opposed to central Athens: essentially, a Classical suburbanite, out of touch with city life. Socrates' sarcastic adulation of Miletus' concern for "the growth of the young," expressed through an explicitly agricultural metaphor, suggests that the youth has little insight into civic activity in Athens, and the reader is invited to view the validity of the charges against Socrates with skepticism.
Euthyphro, by contrast, exemplifies Socrates' civic opposite: his level of social participation is comparatively low. As a seer, his mantle of cultic mystique alienates him from his peers, whereas Socrates eschews rank and title and speaks freely from a position of self-proclaimed inferiority, inviting familiarity and open interaction with his fellow citizens. Although Athenians embraced religious observance formally (a fact underscored by the dialogue's setting at the king-archon's court), too emphatically invoking the gods in civic discourse carried a certain stigma, as evinced by Euthyphro's being openly laughed at for "[speaking] of divine matters in the assembly and foretelling the future". Appeals to piety were presumably most palatable in a supplemental capacity, introduced to support arguments but insufficient as these arguments' sole content. Fathers preparing their sons for the courts employed sophists, not priests, as tutors – practical rhetoricians rather than spiritual dogmatists.
Euthyphro's family emphasizes how out of joint he is with conventional social sentiments, thinking him "crazy" and "impious", and Socrates is himself instinctively surprised at Euthyphro's behaviour:
S: Who is it?
E: My father.
S: My dear sir! Your own father!
S: What is the charge? What is the case about?
That Socrates, a man famous for his open mind, finds Euthyphro's decision immediately and innately disturbing is telling. Despite his pursuant inquiry into the circumstances of the murder, it is doubtful whether any but the most extreme crime would, to Socrates, justify so egregiously violating one's responsibility to a parent.
Indeed, that his father committed murder isn't enough to vindicate Euthyphro's indictment. Socrates maintains that "most men would not know how they could do this and be right" and further investigation into the exact nature of the misdeed is necessary:
S: Is then the man your father killed one of your relatives? Or is that obvious, for you would not prosecute your father for the murder of a stranger.
The appeal to the "obvious" stresses the dialogue's commonsense reading of social morality. Here, too, we find another key detail: only had Euthyphro's father killed a family relation, and thus already have broken the code of family loyalty, would Socrates have found the murder actionable, suggesting these relationships' moral precedence.
Socrates' statement that "where there is justice there is not always piety, for the pious is a part of justice" suggests that religious piety is merely an element of a larger ethical system, unable to supervene that system's social component. Euthyphro's consent to this maneuver steers the dialogue towards such component definitions of piety as something "concerned with the care of the gods" or "a knowledge of how to sacrifice and pray". Even with this reduced ambition, piety is never conclusively defined, though Plato has certainly reduced its standing from its initial role as the sole metric of right action.
Euthyphro's arguments throughout repeatedly and decisively fail; unlike the complex positions held by some of Socrates' opponents in other dialogues, Euthyphro's are never formidable. Plato further privileges his social morality in ensuring that Euthyphro's personal affect itself provokes in the reader a natural (if subjective) distaste for his philosophy. He is self-righteous, arrogant, infirm in his beliefs and emotionally impulsive. Take this early comment:
E: 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.
The hubris of this statement suffices to render Euthyphro a thoroughly unlikeable figure. Furthermore, his selfish motives are revealed in his first definition of piety, one indexical to himself. Piety is simply "what [he] is doing". In the context of his age, Euthyphro's opposition to Socrates and his father – both many years his senior – would have scandalized Plato's contemporaries, and arguably still provokes antipathy today. If Euthyphro's blithe unconcern with the circumstances of the murder does not sufficiently prejudice the reader against him, his callow behavior throughout the dialogue – culminating in his rash, defeated departure at its end – alone makes him deeply unsympathetic. Plato's vilification of his fictive opponent ratifies the dialogue's demonstration of how morality fundamentally lies in communal social values: our visceral dislike for Euthyphro carries over into an emotional reaction against his position, facilitating the reader's alignment with the more socially conscious position that Plato advances through the words of Socrates. The rude, socially-maladroit Euthyphro offends our cultural sensitivities precisely to strengthen Plato's argument that these very sensitivities are at the centre of our morality.
By these methods, the dialogue's philosophical position demonstrates itself despite the lack of formal closing arguments. In the immediate context, Socrates' argumentative sallies have dealt with Euthyphro's beliefs. More broadly, those beliefs have tellingly failed to contend with the greater indictments against them, the purely negative social responses they provoke: the laughter of the assembly, the incredulity and scorn of his family, and, perhaps most importantly, the distaste of the reader. Plato's intention to advance a contrary position necessitates Euthyphro's complete rhetorical destruction, but it is our own lingering sense of Euthyphro's ideological isolation from the common weal, even more than Socrates' specific critique, that ultimately has the last word.