-What is it-
The Euthyphro is a Socratic dialogue written by the Athenian Philosopher and Statesman Plato around the years 399-395 B.C. . The short dialogue describes a meeting between Socrates, the famous Athenian Philosopher, who is waiting to be called into his trial on the porch—the steps of the courthouse—of the King Archon, what amounted to in Classical Greece as the Supreme Justice of Athens. He’s been brought up on charges of corrupting the youth by teaching false gods, or at the very least, by teaching that the gods of Athens are not the only gods that should be worshiped. This was notable in the time of Ancient Greece because the worship of the gods, taken as piety—honoring them through sacrifice and good actions—was the foundation of not only the religious and cultural lives of the Greeks, but also their system of laws as well. In essence, criticizing the gods, or saying there were different ones that could be observed, was akin to digging at the very roots that fed the Athenian society with truth and virtue and divine blessings.
Socrates, while waiting, encounters a young, promising, and precocious lawyer, the eponymous Euthyphro, who has just gotten out from a trial where he persecuted his own father for murder on the grounds of gross negligence. Several days before, his father found a worker who beat a slave to death, bound the worker, and left him in a ditch while sending for a messenger to contact the local authorities. In the time it took the messenger to find the authorities and bring them to the culprit, the man had died of exposure, and Euthyphro’s father himself was instead arrested on the charges of the capital crime.
Socrates is both curious and perturbed, and asks Euthyphro why he would think it proper or noble to prosecute his own father personally, regardless of the crime, in public court. Euthyphro responds that, being a lawyer, and a good one at that, he is bound by both the law and more importantly, the duty of piety towards the gods, to pursue a righteous action—even against his own father.
This opens the dialogue to its central discussion: Socrates begins an investigation on what constitutes piety, and being that, in his own words, Euthyphro is an excellent and intelligent lawyer, most certainly wise beyond his years, he can no doubt help Socrates with this quandary, and perhaps even assist the old Athenian in preparing his own defense for his coming trial.
“Piety”, in the world of the Ancient Greeks, was their equivalent of politically and socially accepted truth; in today’s world, we may even call it “fact”. It was something that, to many Greek citizens, was self-evident, not because they fully understood what it was, but they simply knew that it was—its own existence and function in society proved its veracity and its necessity. To criticize or question what was pious was an effort for many beyond their scope, and for even more, one deemed heretical, as it interrogated the founding myth of their culture, the universal principles of their institutions, the mechanics of their social customs, and even the more intimate facets and practices of their personal lives.
The dialogue bounces between Socrates questioning Euthyphro on what he believes piety is, and Euthyphro in turn answering what he believes – what he states he knows – it to be.
The central question that emerges is this one: is piety what is loved by the gods, or is what is loved by the gods pious?
The question is inherently convoluted and confusing, because it’s dealing with, in a way, the subatomic structure of meaning in a society. Do we believe in truths because they are in themselves true, or are truths valued and considered true because they are loved by institutions or principles which we deem to grant truth? And what is the difference, and how, if there is a way, can we tell which is which?
Ultimately, Euthyphro is unable to answer the question and leaves Socrates on the steps, hurrying away to some other engagement. Socrates waves goodbye and awaits his trial, which will lead to one of the most famous accounts in Western Philosophy—The Apology—and Socrates’ own execution, the old man being sentenced to death by the court forcing him to feed himself a mixture of hemlock, a fatally toxic berry.
-What’s the value today?-
It should be noted that the Socratic Dialogues are often considered both quasi-literary and quasi-historical accounts of actual events. Socrates was a historical figure, but the details of his life, and his most famous speeches such as the Euthyphro or the Apology, were written down by his student, Plato, who went on to teach Aristotle.
Though the text is over two thousand years old, the issues it addresses are perennial ones that every great society must eventually face at a certain point of maturity. The questions of what values a society holds, how they’ve been expressed, and where they come from—and what that means—is one that has played out in the modern era in notable escalation for almost three centuries, after the Enlightenment of the 18th century and its advancements began to categorically erode the universal trust of and belief in institutions such as religion and the dominance and first-begotten loyalty of the citizen to the State and the Nation.
As such, the challenges this text describes are ones we can see playing out in real time, right in front of our very eyes, in the modern day–the problem and/or presupposition of “alternative facts” is one such demonstration of this challenging and persistent phenomena.
And though it may be disheartening to learn that, in a way, our modern problems are neither novel nor specific to our own time as we may wish or believe them to be, it may be, in some way, at least refreshing and a bit relieving perhaps to know that other great societies have eventually come upon these challenges before, and it is at times a sign of perhaps maturity and the possibility of higher development that they mark by their entrance into the public discourse. As much as academics and thinkers and popular online personalities may decry the excesses of modernity, brought on by phenomena such as post-modernism and the fundamental challenges to the nature of truth and being that anchor our current society they bring with them, neither modernity, nor its excesses, nor even post-modernism, are truly original problems that have not had to be faced by anyone else in the history of our civilization, or the histories of others.
We so often claim to know the obvious, that we are well aware that nothing is new and nearly everything is borrowed, stolen, or inherited from the past that precedes us, but it also seems that we, just as often, use the “obvious” as a mere convention—a truth or point of piety—to avoid addressing the perennial change or acknowledgment that clearly needs to be made, and as history has shown, will eventually be made, by either man or nature, in order to move beyond arrested states of development.
Within the Euthyphro is a lesson as humbling as it is pedantic: until we face what we don’t know, we’ll never know what we can know, what we do know, or what more we could know, had we never faced the great unknown to begin with.
-Where to find it-
Luckily, because it’s thousands of years old and the Disney corporation has yet to excavate and refine ancient Greek stories in the way it has medieval European Folklore under the Iron Curtain of Copyright, you can find the Euthyphro for free on Project Gutenberg. I also recorded a podcast where I discuss the points of this reading recommendation and elaborate on some parts I thought were interesting. I will provide links for both at the bottom of this document.
Thank you for reading. There will be another Reading Recommendation on Plato’s Apology coming next week. Let me know what you think below, or message me on Facebook, or come visit me at my home in the scaffolding of the Lower Harbor Ore Dock in Marquette, Michigan.
Euthyphro Project Gutenberg Link: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1642/1642-h/1642-h.htm
Euthyphro Podcast Link: