81. Euthyphro by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

Socrates has been called to answer for charges of impiety (disbelief in the Gods) and the corruption of the youth of Athens. While waiting on the magistrate’s porch for his trial to begin, he encounters Euthyphro, a religious man and seer, who is prosecuting his own father for the murder of a farmhand, who killed another man in a drunken rage. The farmhand was bound and left in a ditch where he died from exposure and starvation before officers of justice could collect and arrest him. Euthyphro’s father and family believe his prosecution of his own father on behalf of a murderer is unholy. The dialogue has Socrates seeking a definition of holiness.

Euthyphro offers his current action of prosecuting his father as a holy act, but Socrates does not want one or two examples of holiness, but an understanding of what common feature defines all holy things and actions.  Euthyphro obliges with the observation that whatever the Gods think agreeable is holy, whereas what they find disagreeable is unholy, but Socrates soon tears this down by reminding us that the Greek Gods of Homer and Hesiod rarely agreed on anything and were often in conflict over the actions of men, and therefore some could approve of a certain act which other do not, so that act could be both holy and unholy according to Euthyphro’s definition. The definition is refined to that which all the gods approve is holy, while that which they all disapprove is unholy, which then dissolves into a circular argument about the Gods’ approval of a holy thing because it is holy or because it has been approved as holy.

Giving up on that, Socrates asks Euthyphro if the holy is a subset of the just, and if so, to describe on that basis, to which Euthyphro suggests that the holy is that part of the just which looks after the gods, while the rest of the just looks after men. This leads to Socrates questioning how men can “look after” the Gods and to what divine service do we contribute? An excellent question! Euthyphro counters by saying that our prayers and sacrifices please the Gods, not just individually but collectively, so that failure to worship by an individual impacts on the whole city, and we start to see why Socrates’ views on the Gods will bring him into peril.

Euthyphro is the first of four works often associated together depicting the trial and death of Socrates. These versions of events are written by Plato, one of Socrates’ students, but were also covered by other authors of the time such as Xenophon, in his Apology.  My version is the Penguin Black Classic The Last Days of Socrates, (ISBN 0140449280) containing Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, as translated by Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant.

Favourite lines/passages:

Euthyphro : “But Socrates, I have no way of telling you what I mean; whatever explanation we set down, it always seems to go around in circles somehow, and not to be willing to stay where we positioned it”  (page 22)

Personal rating:  While I still got lost in some of the circular logic about defining the holy, I enjoyed and felt in tune with Socrates over this discussion, which means I probably would have been up for a hemlock cocktail as well.   5.

Also in that year: The actual trial and execution of Socrates took place in 399 BC. Plato is obviously writing some time after that, probably within ten years, so say 389 BC. The Athenian navy is rebuilding strength and gaining territory for Athens by then. while the Gauls have sacked Rome in 390 BC but retreated after being paid off.
Next :  Socrates faces trial in Plato’s Apology.

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