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Eliminating Differences: Socrates and Euthyphro

Socrates found Euthyphro in the agora and after very brief rapport launched straight into asking the question of what is virtue; in the case of Euthyphro, the specific virtue being discussed is piety. Socrates was able to look at his subjects, including Euthyphro, in such a critical light which stems back to his statement that “I do not think I know what I do not know” (Apology 21d). This statement shows Socrates’ acknowledgment that he doesn’t know everything and provides a theory as to why he is always trying to learn from his interlocutors. He tends to avoid assertions and instead favors an investigation into the position of the interlocutor, which helps him to uncover that person. He usually lets the character of his interlocutor and their willingness to learn (or lack of) direct the discussion. However, in the end, Socrates tends to teach his interlocutors more than they teach him. Socrates seems to be well aware of these roles he plays. He was placed in Athens for a reason and was able to rouse everyone around him (Apology 30e).

Euthyphro provides a perfect example of Socrates’ willingness to learn from his interlocutor and his ability to teach the interlocutor in the process. In this particular dialogue Euthyphro is the interlocutor. He is very orthodox and stubborn when it comes to his religious beliefs. Euthyphro holds the belief that he is “superior to the majority of men” when it comes to matters of piety (Euthyphro 5a). He believes that it does not matter who the victim of a crime is (Euthyphro 4b), the perpetrator should be prosecuted regardless. Euthyphro believes that if anyone disagrees with this stance, “their ideas of the divine attitude to piety and impiety are wrong” (Euthyphro 4e). This is what gives Socrates motivation to delve deeper into the issue of piety. He wants to show that someone like Euthyphro, who thinks he knows what piety is, really has no idea what it is; there are so many subtleties and implications surrounding the word that Euthyphro is completely overlooking.

It is with this statement that Socrates’ commitment to a reasoned argument starts to emerge. This commitment is at one point stated directly by Socrates: “I am the kind of man who listens to nothing within me but the argument that on reflection seems best to me” (Crito 46b). Socrates wants to make sure that his interlocutors fully understand the definitions they are presenting and how they relate to virtue, as they attempt to logically argue their point. The ability to argue their point is something that the majority of Socrates interlocutors initially struggle with, and is definitely evident in the case of Euthyphro as he tries to define piety.

Euthyphro’s initial assertion on piety is that what he currently is doing, prosecuting his father for murder, is pious (Euthyphro 6d). Socrates is able to very quickly reject this definition of piety on the grounds that it is only a very specific example of piety and fails to let anyone know what piety is on a fundamental level, essentially what makes pious things pious. As is Socrates way of doing things, he tells Euthyphro to try again. In his second definition, Euthyphro asserts that pious is what is pleasing to the gods, and impious is what is not (Euthyphro 7a). This definition is initially more pleasing due to its more general nature. However, the gods are in discord, so therefore this definition is not correct since an action cannot be both pious and impious at the same time.

At this point it should be clear that Socrates is employing his usual method of debate, known as the Socratic (or elenchus) method. He is engaged in a conversation with Euthyphro that consists of Socrates asking Euthyphro a lot of questions in an attempt to stimulate critical thinking and illuminate the ideas at hand. Socrates’ method is one of hypothesis elimination, by using a very systematic method Socrates is steadily identifying hypotheses that have inconsistencies and pushing Euthyphro to realize the nature of these inconsistences and come up with new definitions; as it would be not logical to hold a belief that does not make sense. Elenchus has 4 steps; which can be examined using Euthyphro’s second definition of piety.

Firstly, Euthyphro asserts the thesis that “what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious” (Euthyphro 7a). Next Socrates has Euthyphro agree to additional premises which include that “the gods are in a state of discord” (Euthyphro 7b). Socrates then went on to show that this further premise contradicts Euthyphro’s original thesis. Lastly, Socrates makes the claim that Euthyphro’s thesis is incorrect on the grounds of the additional premises. Socrates follows this method quite closely for every definition of piety that Euthyphro puts forth for examination. The majority of Plato’s other dialogues that involve Socrates and interlocutors also use this method of inquiry.

From here Euthyphro moves on to his third definition of piety: “pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is impious” This is what introduces the Euthyphro dilemma, something that is still widely debated today:

“Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods” (Euthyphro 10a).

Socrates goes on to further draw this point out:

“But if the god-loved and the pious were the same, my dear Euthyphro, then if the pious was being loved because it was pious, the god-loved would also be being loved because it was god-loved; and if the god-loved was god-loved because it was being loved by the gods, then the pious would also be pious because it was being loved by the gods” (Euthyphro 10e – 11a).

Due to what has now been established as Socrates commitment to a logical argument, he goes to great lengths to show how this definition is a logical fallacy. The argument could potentially go in circles forever and is thus known as circular reasoning.

Socrates keeps the discussion moving along as it is clear that neither one of them yet has an adequate definition for piety. It is actually Socrates that proposes the next definition of piety, as piety being a type of justice. He quickly rejects his own definition on the claim of it being too broad (Euthyphro 12d). From here, Euthyphro gives yet another definition of piety which is that piety is “the care of the gods” (Euthyphro 13b). Once again, Socrates uses Elenchus in order to show Euthyphro that his definition is an inadequate one.

Euthyphro then gives one final definition of piety that Socrates summarizes in the statement “that piety would be a knowledge of how to give to, and beg from, the gods” (Euthyphro 14d). Euthyphro points out that Socrates is following what he has to say very well and Socrates responds that he is only desirous of Euthyphro’s wisdom (Euthyphro 14d) which goes back to the initial assessment that Socrates is always trying to learn from his interlocutors. However, after a little more discussion, Euthyphro’s final definition ends up, once again, reducing to what the gods like, making it all the more obvious that Euthyphro has never truly thought about piety.

It can be seen that his dialogue ended up in almost the same place it started out. Socrates, being always eager to learn, states that they need to start again from the beginning in examining piety (Euthyphro 15c). Socrates does not want to give up before finding a suitable definition for piety. Euthyphro on the other hand is eager to leave and not think about the issue any longer. Euthyphro is essentially clueless as to where to go from here; he is so steadfast in his beliefs that he is still having trouble realizing that his arguments are severely lacking.

This whole dialogue provides a very fine example of Socratic irony. Socrates pretended to be completely ignorant on the topic of piety in order to get Euthyphro to share his opinions on the subject. Once Euthyphro’s opinions were out in the open, Socrates was able to tear them apart. However, Socrates was not malicious at all in the way he did so. As aforementioned his main goal was to teach and he did so by getting his interlocutors to examine themselves. Socrates was aware that a good teacher does not simply give his student answers. A good teacher guides his students towards the right answers. This is something Socrates does through asking a plethora of questions and guiding his students through his own reasoning behind everything that he says.

As is seen in the case of Euthyphro, there isn’t always an answer. There is no conclusion, per se, in Euthyphro; it simply ends with the realization that there is more to think about as far as the topic of piety goes. Socrates seems happy enough knowing that they were able talk through logically reasoned arguments and eliminate many different theses as possible definitions of piety. Euthyphro on the other hand seemed unpleased that Socrates had been able to disprove all of his definitions. This probably stems back to his character as an orthodox and dogmatically religious person.

Despite Socrates’ and Euthyphro’s difference in defining piety they have the same basic mission; a desire to carry out pious acts. Socrates is constantly trying to wake up the citizens of Athens, an act he considers to be pious. While Euthyphro considers his purpose to be prosecuting those who commit impious acts. Their differences in carrying out pious acts stems back to their characters, which can be seen throughout Euthyphro. Socrates, being the teacher that he is, concentrates on getting his interlocutors to investigate and consequently correct themselves in an attempt to make them more virtuous. Euthyphro, on the other hand, wants those who are impious to be punished; he believes that his definition of piety is unquestionable. Once again this stems back to his blind commitment to his ideals and stubborn nature; he is so stubborn in his beliefs and unwilling to change, which leads him to the belief that those who are impious are also unwilling to change and thus prosecution is the only option.

Works Cited Plato, John M. Cooper, and D. S. Hutchinson. Complete Works. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1997. Print.

Vlastos, Gregory. Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1991. Print.

Hardwig, John. “Socrates’ Conception of Piety.” Teaching Philosophy 30.3 (2007): 259-68. Web.

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