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Initial Impression of Euthyphro

18 June 2020

I just finished reading Euthyphro and would like to collect my first impressions. It is the first of Plato’s dialogues that I have read, besides bits of the Republic in college. It is amazing.

Socrates runs into Euthyphro, a priest and prophet, at an Athenian court. He is suing his father for murdering someone who in turn murdered their slave. Socrates asks him what piety is, for surely he must know if he suing his own father! In the remainder of the dialogue they discuss the nature of piety. After attempting several definitions of the word, all of which Socrates dismantles, Euthyphro must leave since he is “in a hurry.”

Throughout the discussion Socrates is very analytical. After they become stuck, having rejected a few definitions, he approaches the problem from a new angle by comparing piety and justice; if you can not solve a problem, compare it to other related problems. He also uses many examples and analogies; to understand what is meant by “caring for the gods” he considers horse breeders, hunters caring for their dogs, and “cattle-raisers.”

Two passages stuck out. I believe the first is famous:

SOCRATES: Consider this: Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the god? (10a)

It is an important question, for if piety (or righteousness generally) exists apart from the gods, then one can imagine an absolute moral standard apart from the gods.

The second passage shows that Socrates thinks a mathematically simple definition of piety is possible:

SOCRATES: If the pious is part of the just, we must, it seems, find out what part of the just it is. Now if you asked me something of what we mentioned just now, such as what part of number is the even, and what number that is, I would say it is the number that is divisible into two equal, not unequal, parts. Or do you not think so?


SOCRATES: Try in this way to tell me what part of the just the pious is … (12d)

I think Socrates is mistaken, and no simple definition is possible due to how language is produced and used. Euthyphro likely agrees, since after Socrates refutes several definitions, he says:

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. (14b)

Plato probably was aware of the counter-argument that piety can not be defined. Given his belief in ideal forms, he must believe such definitions are possible, or at least that the forms could exist without being definable. I look forward to reading more of Plato’s works to learn his thoughts on this matter.

Throughout the dialogue, Socrates’ earnest and self-degrading comments feel ironically insulting:

SOCRATES: Yet you are younger than I by as much as you are wiser. As I say, you are making difficulties because of your wealth of wisdom. Pull yourself together, my dear sir, what I am saying is not difficult to grasp. (12a)

Early in the book Euthyphro says he has never foretold something that did not happen. How can such sophisticated thinkers also believe they can predict the future if (as seems to be the case) they couldn’t? It is unclear whether Socrates, like the doubting crowd Euthyphro complains about, is skeptical.

It is interesting that Euthyphro knows off-hand, as if it were public knowledge, that Socrates has “divine signs” that keep coming to him. What is this about? It is also strange that they seem distinct from Euthyphro’s prophecy.

Quotes are from G. M. A. Grube’s “Plato - Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, 2nd Ed.” published by Hackett Classics in 2002.