- Socrates is being prosecuted for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens by, among others, Meletus. Socrates agrees with Meletus that ‘it’s quite right to make young men and their future excellence your first concern’. Meletus’ justification for the prosecution of Socrates is the claim that Socrates is manufacturing gods and doesn’t recognise the old ones. Socrates wants Euthyphro, as a known expert on religious matters, to educate him on the nature of holiness and piety so that Socrates can strengthen his case in court, or else know where he has gone astray, so that he can correct his path.
- Socrates believes that the Athenians aren’t concerned about someone who is clever, but only when that person is clever and teaches these skills of his to others – and that this is the cause for his prosecution.
- Euthyphro has another case of his on in which he himself is the prosecutor of his own father for homicide. Socrates states that Euthyphro must surely possess great wisdom on holiness if he goes as far as prosecuting his own father. Euthyphro must be prosecuting his father on the grounds of a murder of one of his own household Socrates continues in order to provoke a prosecution from his own son. Euthyphro rebukes Socrates for thinking one should look at family relations in such matters – claiming that one should only look at the killers’ justification of his murder, not his relations to oneself. The grounds of Euthyphro’s prosecution is that his father had neglected a hired hand of Euthyphro’s who then died of starvation after the man had killed one of his servants.
- Socrates is bewildered by Euthyphro’s expert knowledge of religious matters if he can truly justify his prosecuting his own father in such a case. Socrates thus wants him to tell him what holiness is. Euthyphro gives him an example by saying that prosecuting unjust criminals, regardless of their relations to you, is holy. He backs it up by pointing to religious myths such as Zeus’ and Kronos’ conduct towards their own fathers.
- Socrates finds it hard to believe some of the stories about the gods, such as their civil wars, and fearful hostilities and battles, not finding the gods’ conduct in them to be just. Euthyphro wholeheartedly believes these myths and many more, holding them to be wonderful. But Socrates goes on to ask him for a more general definition of holiness as a standard for all situations and to be acted upon in order to be holy.
- Euthyphro gives him the definition that what is agreeable to the gods is holy, and what is not agreeable is not unholy. Socrates goes on to say that while, for example, disputes about weight can be resolved by weighing the things, or disputes about length by measuring the things in question, disputes about morality cannot be resolved like this as the gods referred to quarrel about the exact same things. By Euthyphro’s definition, the same things would thus be both holy and unholy. In Euthyphro’s case against his father, he could then be doing something that would, for example, be approved of by Zeus, but offensive to Kronos etc. The answer doesn’t get us any closer to discovering the nature of holiness.
- Euthyphro claims that none of the gods would dispute that whoever kills someone unjustly should be punished, as in his own case. Socrates goes on to say that the gods, as well as men, don’t really dispute that a person who unjustly kills should be punished, but they dispute about whether or not the deed was unjust and what the facts of the matter was.
- Euthyphro then holds that what is holy and what is unholy are those things all the gods approve of being holy or unholy. Socrates then asks whether the things are holy as a result of them being holy, and that that’s why the gods approve of them, or are they holy as a result of the gods approving of them being holy.
- There is a difference between i) of things themselves being holy and ii) of them being holy as a result of them being ‘divinely approved’. The former i) leads to the conclusion that morality is independent of the gods and that, at best, all they do is recognise it. The latter ii) leads to the conclusion that morality is completely arbitrary and that the gods can decide all that is good despite its consequences – can even decide that adultery or murder is moral. This is the so called Euthyphro dilemma.
- Euthyphro agrees that the gods approve of the things being holy because they are holy, not that they’re holy as a result of the gods approving them to be holy. But this doesn’t get us any closer to resolving the argument or discovering the essence of holiness, that the gods approve of holy things could only be an attribute of holiness, not its essence.
- Socrates helps Euthyphro in trying to define holiness, as Euthyphro finds his arguments going in circles. He starts by defining holiness as a division of justice – all holy things being just, but not all just things being holy, just as odd numbers are a division of numbers. He now asks Euthyphro to give his definition so that Socrates can be able to know what piety is and thus defend himself against the attacks of Meletus.
- Euthyphro believes that holiness is the part of justice that is concerned with looking after the gods, while the part of justice concerned with looking after men is the remaining part of the just. Socrates’ response is that, just as cattle benefits from the looking after of cattle farmers, do so the gods benefit from our ‘looking after’ them? Can the gods be improved with you doing what is holy?
- Euthyphro says that by ‘looking after’ he was in fact relating to something completely different. By ‘looking after’ he was referring to it in the same way as slaves look after their masters. But doesn’t the same problem arise here again? But also, farmers achieve a multitude of great things from their endeavour, but you can specify that their principal achievement is food from the earth. What then are those great things which holiness achieve?
- Euthyphro now asserts that it is too great a task to learn with accuracy the nature of holiness. He goes on to say that if one knows how to say and do things gratifying to the gods in prayer and sacrifice, that is what is holy, and that ‘such conduct is the salvation not only of private households but also of the public well being of cities’. The opposite of this being unholiness, turning everything upside down and wrecking it. Socrates says that this definition can be reduced to a science of requests and donations to the gods, a kind of trading-skill. Again, socrates what the gods will gain from such transactions with humans.
- Euthyphro states that, as he said before, our gifts give them gratification and that it is therefore approved by the gods. Euthyphro is therefore stating that the holy is that which is approved by the gods. The argument has now gone full circle. Socrates wants a new start to the argument, as Euthyphro must possess knowledge of holiness if he is willing to prosecute his own father. But Euthyphro has now had enough and says that he has an urgent engagement somewhere else. Socrates is disappointed in having lost his chance of discovering the nature of holiness before his trial where he is accused of impiety.
I first read this dialogue over a year ago and back then I didn’t think the work had much of value to offer. This time around I decided to try to go through it much more thoroughly and try to really put myself into the conversation and try to answer the questions the dialogue brought up myself before reading Socrates’ and Euthyphro’s answers. The first time I read this dialogue I pretty much took Socrates’ side on all the issues by default. But this approach is not what philosophy is about, and definitely not how Plato would have wanted his works to be read. The main reason Plato wrote most of his books as dialogues is so the reader can see both sides of the issue and think about the questions they pose himself – although the dialogues make you feel inclined to take Socrates’ viewpoint most of the time.
The Euthyphro dilemma all but destroys the divine command theory. Trying to work around the dilemma makes the arguments go in circles, as the dialogue demonstrated. One of Euthyphro’s attempts at defining holiness stated that if one know how to say and do things gratifying to the gods in prayer and sacrifice, that is what is holy, and that ‘such conduct is the salvation not only of private households but also of the public well being of cities’. The opposite of this being unholiness, turning everything upside down and wrecking it. Even if Euthyphro cannot defend his definition, the words he uttered almost became true for Greece as they lost the Greeks started questioning their own beliefs and so lost almost all unanimity of beliefs, which is what holds societies together and provides stability in the culture. Might the traditions we follow hold more truth than we really know? Or is it wrong to believe things which, when put under scutiny, you can’t defend and prove inconsistent? Answering such questions is a great task and one Socrates seemed to be the first person in history to know the difficulty of resolving as a result of him trying to explore and define our deepest beliefs and values. Perhaps this is why the Oracle at Delphi proclaimed him to be the smartest man alive – simply because he knew how difficult the examined life can sometimes be, and so knew that he, in fact, knew nothing.
The problem of what piety is and where morals originate is, as Socrates lamented near the end of the work, left unanswered. But the beauty of the Euthyphro lays in just that. The dialogue seeks more to pose questions to the reader than to provide definitive answers. The reader is guided through a few possible answers, but ultimately it is up to the reader to work through these problems himself and so decide for himself what is true.