September 20, 2005

The Great Euthyphro

Plato's character of Euthyphro does not receive much praise from scholars. I have seen him variously referred to as an "idiot", as "stupid" and as a "fool". Even Socrates' prosecutors, Anytus, Meletus and Lycon, do not usually receive such contempt. The assumption is that this prophet is being presented as a bumbling idiot by Plato and that any praise that Socrates gives him is purely ironic. This is seen as evidence of Platonic and Socratic contempt for religious inspiration. However, I would suggest that this interpretation is evidence for modern contempt for religious inspiration, not Platonic or Socratic contempt. Rather, the reference to Euthyphro in Cratylus 396d as the "great Euthyphro" and Socrates' request that Euthyphro become his teacher Euthyphro 5c are at least semi-serious. Nothing that Euthyphro does in the epynomous diologue portrays Euthyphro as a fool. Instead, Euthyphro is one of Socrates' most clever interlocutors, understanding Socrates' objections and correcting his own definitions intelligently. In the essay, I will go through the four definitions of hosiotes or "holiness" (usually translated as "piety") that Euthyphro provides and how each of his definitions is a natural clarification of his position.

The first definition of "holiness" that Euthyphro provides is "what I am doing", referring to his prosecution of his own father for murder. He believes this prosecution for murder is necessary, as murder incurs significant religious pollution (take, for instance, the plague in Oedipus Tyrannus). This is usually cited as evidence of Euthyphro's dimness, as an example is a spectacularly bad definition. However, three things must be said in Euthyphro's defence. First, Socrates' question is ambiguous in Greek. He asks what to hosion is, which is a neuter substantive use of the adjective hosios or "holy". This could mean "holiness", but could also mean "the holy thing". Second, given that the topic of discussion has been largely why Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father, interpreting the question to mean what is the holy thing to do in this instance is not only a possible but even the likely way of interpreting Socrates' question. Third, pointing to an instance when asked for a definition is not necessarily a sign of foolishness. If, for example, someone were to ask me what a cat is, and I happened to have a cat handy, I'd likely simply pick up the cat and say "this is a cat". If the person were then to clarify and ask for the Linnean classification, I would clarify, but that would not make a fool for first having grabbed an available feline.

Euthyphro's second and third definitions of "holiness" are "what is loved by the gods" and then "what is loved by all the gods". The clarification is required because polytheism includes gods who disagree with each other, at times violently (for example, the entire Iliad). Euthyphro quickly makes this clarification when challenged, but his use of the phrase is not a sign a stupidity. If a leader were to say his or her job was to "benefit the citizens", one would rightly point out that citizen's interests are often in conflict, so a clarification to "benefit most of the citizens" would not be a sign of a weak mind, but rather one who is willing to clarify the fuzziness of ordinary speech.

Euthyphro's third definition, that holiness is "what is loved by all the gods" is challenged with an argument from Euthyphro 10a-d that something holy "is not being loved by those who love it because it is something loved, but it is something loved because it is being loved by them". It includes a long argument about how things are being carried because someone is carrying them and they someone is not carrying them because they are being carried. I challenge anyone to follow this argument on a first pass. This argument is the toughest argument in the Euthyphro and Euthyphro follows it through without blinking. Aside from the keen intelligence Euthyphro shows in following Socrates' argument, his claim about piety is not the claim of a fool, even if it is incorrect. Socrates' argument here points to a weakness in "divine command"-type theories, but it is hardly a knockdown argument. If he is correct, there are several other definitions that would be incorrect. For example, one could not define "food" as "something that is eaten by people" or "fun" as "something that is enjoyed by people". Socrates' argument is an argument against all passive definitions whatsoever and cannot just be used arbitrarily when one wishes to argue against divine command theory.

Euthyphro's final definition runs into problems because he backs into his third definition again. He argues that holiness is justice toward the gods. Socrates points out that this definition ends up as the same definition. Doing justice towards someone is benefiting them and people love what benefits them. Therefore, one cannot know how to be holy without knowing what the gods love, which brings us back to definition three. That Euthyphro fell into this trap, though, is not a sign of foolishness. That a definition of justice would collapse into a definition of benefit is not immediately obvious, and Euthyphro again accepts defeat here. However, it is not an ignoble defeat, and hardly one that deserves the contempt usually foisted on him. It also leaves Plato with an "out", if you will, that will serve him elsewhere, as the holy is what benefits the gods. This is an active rather than a passive definition, and while it is empty, it is at least a start.

Euthyphro then leaves. Interestingly, the verb Euthyphro uses apienai which is to go (ienai) away (ap-). Since they are already at the courthouse and since Euthyphro has yet to press his indictment, it appears he is not going to press his indictment against his father after all. Diogenes Laertius confirms this in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Socrates persuades Euthyphro to abandon his indictment of his father. This gives us a final look at Euthyphro's character. Having been refuted, he undergoes a philosophical conversion. This is more than can be said for characters such as Alcibiades, Charmides and Critias, to name only a few. Throughout the dialogue, he appears as a keen dialectician, clever enough to quickly follow complex arguments, humble enough to abandon or correct positions when refuted, and inventive enough to provide new definitions in their place. Socrates' reference to Euthyphro as "the great Euthyphro" in the Cratylus may not be so ironic, after all.


Clark Goble said...

Out of curiosity, how was he viewed in the 19th century when Platonism was popular and religion was taken more seriously in mainstream academia?

Clark Goble said...

I should add that I have read a lot of commentary on Socrates that tends to treat the daemon and so forth rather at face value. i.e. that Socrates is really embracing religion and inspiration, albeit as seen more in the Pythagorean mysteries.

Scott Carson said...

I'm a little curious--your final paragraph appears to suggest that you take this dialogue to be at least quasi-historical and, perhaps, fully historical. I'm thinking this both because of your mentioning of the verb apienai and the passage from Diogenes Laertius. Do you have any reason to think that the dialogue is historical rather than a dramatic fiction? I know there are some scholars who think that some of Plato's works are historical, but I've not heard this with respect to this particular dialogue.

Don Paarlberg said...

This interpretation of Euthyphro's character seems wildly implausible.

1. If Socrates did persuade Euthyphro not to pursue the indictment against his father, we would expect his contemporary admirers to have reported the fact. Phlegmatic Xenophon definitely would have done so. And it would have been at least strange for ironic Plato to have downplayed such a striking fact. So how is it that Diogenes Laertius, writing 500 years later in the third century AD, learns of an important anecdote that Socrates' contemporaries apparently didn't believe worth mentioning? Those who read Diogenes Laertius see why: the man is a gossip, who obviously doesn't know and doesn't care as to the truth of the countless bizarre and entertaining stories he serves up to us.

2. Plato's references to Euthyphro are not "at least semi-serious". In the Cratylus, Socrates is utterly sarcastic, proposing a long list of obviously ridiculous etymological claims which he attributes to Euthyphro's inspiration. In the Euthyphro, Socrates' 5c request that Euthyphro become his teacher is a standard ironic pose that he frequently adopts.

3. And Euthyphro is not "one of Socrates' most clever interlocutors". He merely does as well as the young boys that Socrates sometimes talks with, allowing himself docilely to be led from one hypothesis to another and ending in complete bewilderment. Many of Socrates' adult interlocutors are much more able - e.g., Protagoras, Callicles, and Thrasymachus.

Paul said...

Hello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).

Mavis Asamoah said...


I have a question about Socrates' idea of what holiness is. In the Platonic Dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates disagrees with Euthyphro about Piety or Holiness being that which pleases the gods. What is Socrates’ view of Holiness, when he says it is a form of Justice?

site said...

Quite useful information, thanks for your post.