-What Is It?-
The Euthyphro is a Socratic Dialogue written in the late 300s by the Athenian philosopher and writer, Plato. It is the first of what will be called in this series “The Core Four,” the four Dialogues written by Plato that detail the final days of Socrates’ life.
Socrates was the teacher of Plato, and he was a renowned itinerant philosopher, orator, and teacher in Athens for much of his life. He wrote nothing down himself, and so everything we know of him either comes from Classical Greek histories, or Platonic Dialogues. These Dialogues are written much like plays, and often feature Socrates as a central character, who is discussing some matter of politics, metaphysics, culture, or overall life with another individual or a group of individuals. Each Dialogue is meant to explore a specific philosophical idea or theme that was prevalent at the time in ancient Greece, and Socrates usually plays the part of both an ironic critic and a careful teacher, both deconstructing and asserting various philosophical and metaphysical points of view in conversation with the other characters.
The Euthyphro opens with Socrates sitting on the porch of the King Archon, the steps of the Supreme Court of Athens. He has been called to trial on the charges of impious action and corrupting the youth, and while he waits, he ruminates on how he will defend himself.
An answer appears in the form of Euthyphro, a young lawyer/diviner, who is coming from a case he brought to court himself. Socrates is ecstatic, not only because he knows Euthyphro, but because, after asking Euthyphro if the lawyer can help him build a defense, the man agrees.
Socrates and Euthyphro discuss throughout the Dialogue what makes an action pious or impious, and it becomes apparent that Euthyphro does not have a working definition. The actual points of the Dialogue are somewhat complex and beholden to context, but one of the most salient points is the idea that, to define the state of an object, an action must first be committed to render the object in that state. For example, in order to say an object is carried, the action of carrying must first take place; the reverse, that someone is carrying something because it is carried, is nonsensical.
This may seem obvious and convoluted, but it cuts to the a point Socrates continually drives home about the proper definition of a quality—namely, that it cannot be used to define itself. The question of why something is worthy of carrying, what makes someone want to carry it, can be tied to the idea of piety, where the central question Socrates asks is: is what is loved by the gods holy because it is loved by them, or is it loved by the gods because it is holy?
There is a microscopic but incredibly vital difference between these two ideas. Put a little more simply: is something made special because someone chooses to love it as such, or does someone choose to love something because it is special? How can you differentiate the two? Is one superior to the other? Are they equal? What are the situations that would determine them as one or the other?
And again, these are small tee-ups to the larger question at hand, one that goes unanswered by Euthyphro: what is piety? What makes an action pious? Can a working definition for the quality of piety, the isolated element, be found?
Unfortunately, at least in the Dialogue, it cannot. Euthyphro becomes overwhelmed by Socrates and says goodbye to him, rushing away to attend to other matters, and leaving the old man to sit back down on the steps and contemplate how he is going to defend himself at trial.
-Why Is It Important?-
This Dialogue, the first of the Core Four, provides a view into a major component of Socratic—and by lineage—Western Philosophy: what does meaning mean, and how do you define it?
To some extent, this question may have no real answer that is intelligible, or at least quantifiable, beyond a certain point. Socrates himself makes a point across many Dialogues to not provide many concrete answers, at least not in a definitive form; like the teaching style he developed, he preferred to let his students and listeners find their own conclusions, and acted as a sort of guide along the way to get them there. In all Socratic dialogue, there is an implicit intuitive faculty that is activated and exercised alongside the rational, one that forms a unique and indispensable part of his teachings. This is why, perhaps, his conversations are often girded with heavy frameworks of irony—he does not always mean what he says, and it is up the reader to determine when Socrates is making a sincere point, when he is asserting a caricature of his opponents, when he takes his opponents seriously, and when he has decided to make fun of himself.
That being said, there is a certain level to Socratic discussion that reads as incredibly hard-boiled and logical, one that was meant to convey a sort of universal, at least fundamental, line of thought. This sentiment especially comes through when Socrates is confronted with someone who wields a position of authority, power, or influence, either institutional, social, cultural, or otherwise, and he believes them to be in poor use of it.
And the Euthyphro presents such an example. Euthyphro himself is relatively harmless—he isn’t arrogant, or smug, or even really mean. Socrates even seems to somewhat like him.
But the young lawyer-priest does, in the Dialogue, act as a microcosmic representative for the greater Athenian legal system. If a lawyer cannot answer, in the definitive, the underlying meaning of a law—not only what makes it necessary, but moreso than that, what aspect of natural law it correlates to, what it actually means—and instead relies on the deployment of a subjective convention—“The definition of the law is doing as I am doing.”—then either that lawyer should not be practicing, or the overarching legal system is not doing its job of enforcing laws that have clear and definitive attributes.
A convention is fine in certain cases. Moral aphorisms, common sense, ironic expressions—these are all conventions, and they serve and important cultural and social role in dispensing basic wisdom.
But if a convention is allowed to exist in a legal setting—if the truth of a matter is not, or even worse, cannot, be investigated in the space that it is designed specifically to investigate truth, if the meaning of something is taken on name alone and nothing else—that is a flagrant abuse of the power of the law at the hands of those who are supposed to tend to it. At best, it’s a sign of lazy and indulgent ignorance or arrogance that is unbecoming of the highest courts and authorities; at worst, such an action points to potentially malicious corruption and willful manipulation of a system that is supposed to see for the good of all, and is instead in the hands of those who would use it for their own personal ends.
This thought is one that Socrates carries into the following Dialogue, the Apology, and it will be discussed in greater detail in the next recommendation.
The Euthyphro is a fantastic piece of both fiction and philosophy, and in this author’s opinion, an excellent starting point for anyone who is either interested in reading more of the Classical Canon, or who simply wants a piece that will make them think. It’s a relatively short work that manages to explore, in a brief but depthful manner, the idea of what meaning means in a society, and how we can begin to talk about it, so as to avoid the tragedies that occur when we don’t.
“Euthyphro.” Euthyphro, by Plato, Project Gutenberg, 23 Nov. 2008, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1642/1642-h/1642-h.htm.
Link to Euthyphro Podcast – Apple Podcasts
Link to Euthyphro Podcast – Libsyn