Updated 7/30 (missing text in fifth paragraph entered)

Socrates and Euthyphro discuss piety. They meet before the offices of the magistrate in Athens who hears charges of for court cases involving religion. Socrates has been charged with impiety, for corrupting the youth by creating new gods and not believing in the old. Euthyphro is a self-proclaimed prophet and expert in religious matters. He is present to submit a murder charge against his own father. Murder was a religious crime because it involved pollution that needed to be ritually cleansed in order to appease the gods. Euthyphro, however, is considered impious by his relatives and community for prosecuting his own father, but defends himself as acting justly and piously for prosecuting an unjust murder.

Both Socrates and Euthyphro are in conflict with others about piety and the divine. Euthyphro for his part claims special knowledge of the divine, of piety and impiety. Socrates invites Euthyphro to teach him, so that he too can be have knowledge of the divine and so answer his own accusers. Socrates asks Euthyphro to teach him what piety and impiety are, what being pious and impious are.

Euthyphro first says that the pious is doing what he is doing now, prosecuting a wrongdoer, no matter who the wrongdoer is. Euthyphro cites the myths of Zeus punishing his father Kronos for wrongdoing and of Kronos punishing his father Ouranos for wrongdoing as justification for his action and calls his critics contradictory because they accept these myths, but now criticize Euthyphro for prosecuting his father for wrongdoing. Socrates rejects those sorts of stories about the gods and alludes that this is why he is being put on trial, though he does not expand on that. He instead presses Euthyphro for a general definition of the pious, its form, so he can use it as a model to tell whether actions are pious or impious.

Euthyphro first defines the pious as what is dear to the gods and the impious as what is not. Socrates points out that traditional mythology, such as the ones Euthyphro cited above to defend his prosecution of his father, creates a problem for this definition of the pious and the impious. Traditional mythology shows that some gods love some actions, while other gods hate those actions. For example, punishing one’s father will be pleasing to Zeus, but not to Kronos, in the myth alluded to above.

Euthyphro tries to define more narrowly that all the gods would agree that unjust murder should be punished. Socrates appears to doubt that all the gods agree that Euthyphro is acting rightly in his particular case and challenges Euthyphro to prove it. Euthyphro dodges the challenge and Socrates realizes that they have wandered away from a definition of piety and impiety and that his line of questioning doesn’t really matter, since it can only show that all the gods hate a particular action, but will not make clear the nature of the pious and the impious.

Next they try out defining the pious as what is loved by all the gods and the impious as what is hated by all the gods. Socrates then moves to a new line of questioning: is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? In other words, is piety inherent in someone or action and is loved by the gods for that inherent quality or does it only become pious because it is loved by the gods? Socrates then leads Euthyphro to agree that something loved is so because of the action of loving done by another to it, not because of some inherent quality of being loved. Euthyphro is then lead to agree that the pious is loved by the gods because it is pious (i.e. an inherent quality), but that it is something loved by the gods because of the action of loving done by the gods. Therefore Socrates concludes that the pious and the god-loved are not the same because the pious is loved because of it being pious, while the god-loved is god-loved because it is being loved by the gods.

Euthyphro accuses Socrates of being intentionally confusing, while Socrates accuses Euthyphro of doing the same. Socrates tries a new line: is all that is pious also just and all that is just also pious? Euthyphro agrees that piety is a part of justice; the pious is always also just, but the just is not always pious. What part of justice, then, is piety? Euthyphro says that it is the part of justice that is concerned with the care of the gods, while the other part of justice has to do with the care of men. Socrates wants to know what this ‘care’ is. Euthyphro redefines it as the kind of care that slaves give to their masters, as ‘service’. Socrates presses him to explain what the gods accomplish through this service. Euthyphro avoids answering specifically for a bit, but eventually says that, among other things, service to gods means saying and doing things pleasing to the gods at prayer and sacrifice, with the result that both private and public affairs are preserved.

Socrates presses Euthyphro to admit that this definition makes piety into a skill of trading and exchange between gods and men. But how can mortals benefit immortals? Euthyphro says they receive honor, reverence, and what is pleasing to them. Socrates points out that their argument has come back around to defining piety as that which is pleasing to the gods and reminds Euthyphro that they had earlier agreed that the pious and the god-loved were different. Socrates proposes to start the investigation anew from the beginning because he is certain that Euthyphro has clear knowledge of piety or impiety or he would not have risked being wrong in prosecuting his father, an action taken to be impious. Euthyphro, however, tells Socrates that he must go, and the dialogue ends.

The work indirectly critiques the use of piety and impiety in court cases. Euthyphro cannot back up his frequent claims to expert knowledge on divine matters. Socrates implies that his accusers likewise do not know what they are talking about when they accuse him of impiety, and Euthyphro’s inability to explain piety clearly suggests that others are not able to, as well.

The work shows the difficulty of basing a notion of piety in human life on the traditional myths of Greek polytheism. Ancient Greek religion can be said to have a number of uneasily overlapping spheres: the myths, the rituals of sacrifice and prayer, and the expectations placed on individual action to be pious and not impious. The work points to the tension between these areas. First, the work exposes the problem of deciding on universal definitions of piety and impiety in the light of the traditional myths that depict the gods in conflict. Later, the work implicitly wonders what the rituals of sacrifice and prayer actually have to do with determining whether or not the actions of individuals outside of those contexts are pious or impious.

The work questions the link between mundane, daily life acts (pious and impious action) and both traditional mythology and ritual. It is implied that this sort of questioning and making of difficulties with religion is what leads to Socrates to be put on trial for corrupting the youth by making innovations in religion and for not believing in the old gods. The works shows that there’s no good reason for basing legal/moral judgment on traditional mythology and ritual.

There is subtle slandering of Socrates’ accusers and of the Athenians more generally. From 2b-3a:

Euthyphro: Who is he [who has indicted you]?

Socrates: I do not really know him myself, Euthyphro. He is apparently young and unknown. They call him Meletus, I believe. He belongs to the Pitthean deme, if you know anyone from that deme called Meletus, with long hair, not much of a beard, and a rather aquiline nose.

Euthyphro: I don’t know him, Socrates. What charge does he bring against you?

Socrates; What charge? A not ignoble one I think, for it is no small thing for a young man to have knowledge of such an important subject. He says he knows how our young men are corrupted and who corrupts them. He is likely to be wise, and when he sees my ignorance corrupting his contemporaries, he proceeds to accuse me to the city as to their mother. I think he is the only one of our public men to start out the right way, for it is right to care first that the young should be as good as possible, just as a good farmer is likely to take care of the young plants first, and of the others later. So, too, Meletus first gets rid of us who corrupt the young shoots, as he says, and then afterwards he will obviously take care of the older ones and become a source of great blessings for the city, as seems likely to happen to one who started out this way.

Although a youth himself, Meletus’ accusation shows that he claims to understand how it is that the youths are corrupted.

A bit later he describes the Athenians (3c-e):

…the Athenians do not mind anyone they think clever, as long as he does not teach his own wisdom, but if they think that he makes others to be like himself they get angry, whether through envy, as you say, or for some other reason…

Euthyphro is a strange character. He is a self-proclaimed religious expert and quite proud of his claims. Socrates and he are similar in that they both in conflict with the majority of people regarding divine matters and piety. Speaking of Socrates’ accusers, he compares his situation (3b-c):

…[Meletus] comes to court to slander you, knowing that such things are easily misrepresented to the crowd. The same is true in my case. Whenever I speak of divine matters in the assembly and foretell the future, they laugh me down as if I were crazy; and yet I have foretold nothing that did not happen. Nevertheless, they envy all of us who do this. One need not worry about them, but meet them head-on.

Socrates asks Euthyphro about Euthyphro’s case (3e-4a):

Socrates: Whom do you prosecute?

Euthyphro: One whom I am thought crazy to prosecute.

…[Euthyphro reveals that he is prosecuting his own father for murder]

Socrates: Good heavens! Certainly, Euthyphro, most men would not know how they could do this and be right. It is not the part of anyone to do this, but of one who is far advanced in wisdom.

Euthyphro: Yes, by Zeus, Socrates, that is so.

Euthyphro is confident in his knowledge of the divine, while Socrates seems to gently mock him (4e-5c):

Euthyphro: …for, they say, it is impious for a son to prosecute his father for murder. But their ideas of the divine attitude to piety and impiety are wrong, Socrates.

Socrates: Whereas, by Zeus, Euthyphro, you think that your knowledge of the divine, and of piety and impiety, is so accurate that, when those things happened as you say, you have no fear of having acted impiously in bringing your father to trial?

Euthyphro: I should be of no use, Socrates, and Euthyphro would not be superior to the majority of men, if I did not have accurate knowledge of all such things.

Socrates: It is indeed most important, my admirable Euthyphro, that I should become your pupil, and as regards this indictment, challenge Meletus about these very things and say to him: that in the past too I considered knowledge about the divine to be most important, and that now that he says that I am guilty of improvising and innovating about the gods I have become your pupil. I would say to him: “If, Meletus, you agree that Euthyphro is wise in these matters, consider me, too, to have the right beliefs and do not bring me to trial. If you do not think so, then prosecute that teacher of mine, not me, for corrupting the older men, me and his own father, by teaching me and by exhorting and punishing him.” If he is not convinced, and does not discharge me or indict you instead of me, I should repeat the same challenge in court.

Euthyphro: Yes, by Zeus, Socrates, and, if he should try to indict me, I think I would find his weak spots and the talk in court would be about him rather than about me.

Socrates: It is because I realize this that I am eager to become your pupil, my dear friend. I know that other people as well as this Meletus do not even seem to notice you, whereas he sees me so sharply and clearly that he indicts me for ungodliness.

This sort of caricature continues throughout, with Socrates becoming more biting as Euthyphro proves unable to defend his claims.

Euthyphro claims that the traditional mythology is true and that it can be used to justify real world actions. Socrates dissents from this, though he does not expand on it (5d-6c):

Euthyphro: I say that the pious is to do what I am doing now, to prosecute the wrongdoer, be it about murder or temple robbery or anything else, whether the wrongdoer is your father or your mother or anyone else; not to prosecute is impious. And observe, Socrates, that I can cite powerful evidence that the law is so. I have already said to others that such actions are right, not to favor the ungodly, whoever they are. These people themselves believe that Zeus is the best and most just of the gods, yet they agree that he bound his father because he unjustly swallowed his sons, and that he in turn castrated his father for similar reasons. But they are angry with me because I am prosecuting my father for his wrongdoing. They contradict themselves in what they say about the gods and about me.

Socrates: Indeed, Euthyphro, this is the reason why I am a defendant in the case, because I find it hard to accept things like that being said about the gods, and it is likely to be the reason why I shall be told I do wrong. Now, however, if you, who have full knowledge of such things, share their opinions, then we must agree with them, too, it would seem. For what are we to say, we who agree that we ourselves have no knowledge of them? Tell me, by the god of friendship, do you really believe these things are true?

Euthyphro: Yes, Socrates, and so are even more surprising things, of which the majority has no knowledge.

Socrates: And do you believe that there really is war among the gods, and terrible enmities and battles, and other such things as are told by the poets, and other sacred stories such as are embroidered by good writers and by representations of which the robe of the goddess is adorned when it is carried up to the Acropolos? Are we to say these things are true, Euthyphro?

Euthyphro: Not only these, Socrates, but, as I was saying just now, I will, if you wish, relate many other things about the gods which I know will amaze you.

Socrates: I should not be surprised, but you will tell me these at leisure some other time.

Euthyphro shows himself to be a performer of mythology and religious expertise, alluding to and promising many amazing things that he could reveal to Socrates. In a passage above, he also claims to foretell the future. Socrates’ questioning shows that this is largely for show and that he cannot give a consistent and general account of piety. Euthyphro’s justification for prosecuting his father is revealed to be an adhoc one, more supported by bluster than by reasoning. In the context of Socrates’ trial, it is implied that his accusers likewise rely not on a reasoned account of piety, but on the inconsistent mixing of traditional myth, ritual, and individual moral action.

Socrates exploits traditional polytheistic myth that depicted the gods in conflict to create a problem in Euthyphro’s definition of piety (7e-8b):

Socrates: But you say that the same things are considered just by some gods and unjust by others, and as they dispute about these things they are at odds and at war with each other. Is that not so?

Euthyphro: It is.

Socrates: The same things then are loved by the gods and hated by the gods, and would be both god-loved and god-hated.

Euthyphro: It seems likely.

Socrates: And the same things would be both pious and impious, according to this argument?

Euthyphro: I’m afraid so.

Socrates: So you did not answer my question, you surprising man. I did not ask you what same thing is both pious and impious, and it appears that what is loved by the gods is also hated by them. So it is in no way surprising if your present action, namely punishing your father, may be pleasing to Zeus but displeasing to Cronus and Uranus, pleasing to Hephaestus but displeasing to Hera, and so with any other gods who differ from each other on this subject.

Socrates challenges Euthyphro’s redefinition of the pious as that which all the gods love by asking (10a):

Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?

As discussed above, Socrates concludes that the pious and the ‘god-loved’ cannot be the same thing because the pious is something inherent to a person, thing, or action, while the ‘god-loved’ is only so because of the action of loving by the gods (10e-11b):

But if the god-loved and the pious were the same, my dear Euthyphro, then if the pious were 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. But now you see that they are in opposite cases as being altogether different from each other: the one is such as to be loved because it is being loved, the other is being loved because it is such as to be loved. I’m afraid, Euthyphro, that when you were asked what piety is, you did not wish to make its nature clear to me, but you told me an affect or quality of it, that the pious has the quality of being loved by all the gods, but you have not yet told me what the pious is.

Throughout this section, Euthyphro complains that Socrates is being unclear and uncharitable. And we have to agree. The section relies on a confusing set of definitions that are worded in an unclear way. Euthyphro is carried along rather uncertainly by Socrates’ questioning and is not convinced nor satisfied by the end of it. He accuses Socrates of moving the arguments and positions around.

Later Socrates seems to deliberately misinterpret Euthyphro in a mocking way. When Euthyphro says that the pious is the part of the just that is concerned with the care of the gods, Socrates begins to question Euthyphro as if Euthyphro meant ‘care’ in the same way that humans ‘care’ for animals (12e-13c). Then when Euthyphro says that the care is the sort that slaves give to their masters, Socrates begins to question Euthyphro as if he meant ‘service’ in the same way that a craftsman’s ‘service’ is directed towards his craft (13d-14b). Euthyphro becomes more annoyed, and Socrates becomes more openly mocking in turn, saying that Euthyphro clearly does not want to teach him.

Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?

This question would later become a key dilemma in theology, though transposed to ‘is the morally right commanded by god because it is morally right, or is it morally right because it is commanded by god?’ Are morally right actions morally right in and of themselves or are they only morally right because they are commanded by god? Is morality prior to god’s will? This later formulating of the question makes clearer the topic underlying the Euthyphro, of the relation of morality and freewill to the divine.

Some theologians answered that actions that are morally right are morally right in and of themselves, and so god must command them. God is bound by something necessary and external to God. In this answer the moral righteousness is pictured as a like determinism and god is like the agent, compelled by necessity to command morally right actions. This answer was exploited by moralists to argue that there are timeless ethical standards and rules.

Other theologians said that an action is only morally right because it is commanded by god. God is the root cause of everything and whatever god commands is morally right. In this scheme, God is determinism and everything operates in the deterministic scheme of God’s command. This scheme, too, was exploited by moralists. How are we to know what is and what is not God’s will?