The dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro in front of the King Archon’s court presents two individuals in an argument on how to define and comprehend holiness. The two were to attend court hearings on different cases. During their discussion, they reveal to each other reasons why they are to appear in court.
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According to Burrington (n.d.), Socrates was to attend a court hearing in which Meletus accused him of distracting the attention of young people from believing in the gods that the state religion recognized. Instead, Socrates was propagating the belief in new gods. On the other hand, Euthyphro was at the court to file a case against his father, who, he argued, had caused his family and friends be unkind to him.
The father had placed a servant who murdered one of the slaves in isolation to prevent the sin from spreading around. Later, the servant died even before the messenger could report on what religious steps could be taken against the servant. Euthyphro explained that it was wrong, in line with his accepted beliefs, to protect a manslayer. In addition, he said that his actions would prevent poisoning his father’s associates. According to Socrates, it was a taboo to lodge harmful proceedings against one’s father.
However, Euthyphro claimed that family relationships were not important when a man was unjustly murdered (Geach, 1966, p.369). This paper examines the attempts at providing a logically sound and universal definition of piety as they are presented in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro.
Socrates wanted to understand the interpretation of the term holiness from other people’s standpoint. This step could help him in defending himself at the court (God, 2009). Socrates wanted to gage whether his action of preaching to the youths to accept foreign gods could be viewed as holy or not. He also wanted to know whether his act was appeasing or annoying all the gods, and whether it was right or wrong.
The concept of holiness also took major position, as Socrates wanted Euthyphro to evaluate his decision of accusing his father of murder. In the dialogue, Socrates aimed at making Euthyphro back his actions with solid religious premises. According to Socrates, many people have confused religious actions that are wrong or right, as they argue from archaic religious contexts. Remarkably, these two characters were faced with cases, which required deep philosophical explanations and comprehension.
The first definition
Socrates requested Euthyphro to define what is meant by piety. In his first response, Euthyphro defended his ‘religious’ actions by alluding that even Zeus punished his father the same way.
Socrates refuted this response by saying that even though it can be genuine, the exemplification cannot be part of the definition. Therefore, Euthyphro needs to understand the difference between what he considers religious, and what he considers moral. Further, Socrates adds that he had difficulties in comprehending how misunderstanding arises among the gods.
The second definition
In the second definition, Euthyphro suggested that pious is what pleases the gods (God, 2009). Socrates finds that this definition is much more logical since it appeals to generalization, rather than one particular example (Koukl, n.d.). He mentions that he needs to find a formulation that could serve as a standard against which people could measure all their acts, and see whether they have acted piously or not.
The idea that Socrates presents is a very important one, and it lies at the core of the method that we try to use when governing our society. We need an objective formulation of our laws and regulations to be able to tell with confidence if someone has broken them. However, despite the fact that the definition is logically more valuable, Socrates responded by indicating that what is appealing to one god could be unappealing to another god. Therefore, this definition tells us little about the essence of piousness.
The third definition
Euthyphro felt frustrated and defined piety as that which pleases all the gods. This definition prompted Socrates to ask Euthyphro the question, “Is what is pious loved by (all) the gods because it is already pious, or is it pious merely because it is something loved by them?” (Burrington, n.d.). Socrates is aware that if an act is pious just because gods love it, then we know nothing about what piety in itself is. This idea is a bit difficult to grasp, but it might help if it is viewed through examples.
For instance, Socrates mentions that there is nothing in the essence of a carried thing that is determined by that particular condition in which it temporally finds itself. Similarly, gods may love an action, but that action is not in its essence pious for that reason, it is rather in a state of being loved and nothing more. One might think that Socrates is chasing unimportant nuances here, but what he is really doing is indicating how precise we have to be in defining our laws and morals if we want to be able to condemn someone of breaking them.
The fourth definition
In an attempt of providing a better definition, Socrates appeals to logic and the relations between notions. He tries to define the notion of piety as belonging in its entirety to the notion of justice. He and Euthyphro agree that piety belongs to the domain of justice, but this does not mean that every just action is at the same time pious. They locate several types of behaviours that can be regarded as morally right, but do not belong to the domain of piety; for example, caring for other human beings.
The next thing that is necessary for a good definition, in Socreates’ view, is to differentiate pious acts from other just or ethical acts. However, he does not seem to be able to find such a characteristic that makes pious acts stand apart (Burrington, 2012, p.3). What I also find necessary when defining piety in such a way is to provide a formulation of justice or moral rightness which is an incredibly difficult task in its own right; however, Socrates and Euthyphro do not try to accomplish that.
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Final attempts at definition
In the end , Euthyphro makes two more attempts at giving Socrates a satisfactory answer. Firstly, he argues that when acting piously, people look after the gods. Socrates immediately spots that such a definition would imply that in each particular action people contribute to one particular god which makes him stand out from the rest of the gods, which is something that gods forbid.
Secondly, Euthyphro also mentions that humans act piously in order to satisfy gods so that they could pray to gods, and expect them to grant their wishes in return (Burrington, 2012, p. 3). Following Kant’s deontology, I would say that if this were true, it would move the notion of piety from the domain of morality to the domain of rationality. This is because if one performs an action in order to profit from it, then it is a merely rational action, which involves no moral value.
Kant says that an action counts as moral only if a person performs it because they feel that it is their duty to act in that particular manner (Kant & Pluhar 2002). When finally pressed to present overtly what is at the core of piety, Euthyphro again puts forth the idea about piety being intrinsically connected to what gods love, which means that the conversation ends with a version of the third definition.
Socrates’s objective in this dialogue was to show Euthyphro that there are different perspectives of viewing or understanding a concept. In that light, he wanted to understand the religious expert’s argument, and widen his points of argument. This was Socrates’ intention because he assumed the role of a student or learner in the dialogue.
From this scenario, Euthyphro was fully able to give his understanding of piety and morality. In the dialogue, Socrates played a passive role, so he could allow Euthyphro to respond to his questions, and then he offered suggestions to provoke further response from Euthyphro. There is no point at which Euthyphro asked Socrates questions.
In my opinion, holiness refers to a state or an act that is morally right in itself and that the gods love. The definition fails to give the level or point at which an act qualifies to be morally right. Who qualifies an act as morally right? Is it not the people? Is what is morally right loved by gods precisely in order to make it morally right?
On the other hand, is it morally right because people have accepted it to be so? In most cases morals are defined differently as each person has their own set of standards they govern themselves by. There are individual differences in people’s arguments, cultures, perceptions, and understanding.
In the dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates tries to reach a universal and logically sound definition of piety which could stand as a standard against which people could measure all their actions, and be able to tell with absolute precision whether the action is pious. He does so through his famous dialectical method in which he only asks questions, and together with the interlocutor tries to arrive at truth.
He points out that it is wrong to define notions through examples because such definitions are of little use in different situations. Socrates also mentions that a definition needs to be universal, and that claiming that an action is pious just because it is appreciated by one god is not enough to define piety since the same action can be hated by another god. After that, in the second definition, he claims that defining notions through their external states is also wrong since a good definition needs to capture the essence of the thing itself.
The idea that one can appeal to the relationships of superiority and subordination between notions as in the case of saying that piety is subordinate to justice is also presented in the dialogue. In the end, final definition is not reached, but the reader has learned a lot about all the different factors that have to be taken into account when trying to define an abstract concept.
Burrington, D. E. Guides to the Socratic Dialogues: Plato’s Euthyphro. Hartwick College. Web.
Geach, P. (1966). PLATO’S” EUTHYPHRO”: An Analysis and Commentary. The Monist, 50(3), 369-382.
God, F. (2009). Socrates versus Euthyphro. No Double Standards. Web.
Kant, I., & Pluhar, W. S. (2002). Critique of practical reason. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.
Koukl, G. Stand to Reason: Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Stand to Reason: Stand to Reason Homepage. Web.