Plato: Euthyphro

  • 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.


Plato’s Republic, Book I – A few notes

This is only a short overview of some of the interesting ideas I got out of the book. This post is intended for those who’ve read the book and would like to see what other people have extracted from it. Overviews of the book can be found elsewhere.

First definition of morality: always telling the truth and giving back what one has borrowed. – But what if an insane man asks you where another man is with the intention of killing him? What if a man lets you borrow his knife and then asks for it back with the intention of killing himself or others?

Second definition of morality: doing good to friends and evil to enemies. – When you inflict real harm upon an individiual he becomes a worse man. The true virtue of man is morality. When you harm a man you therefore make him less moral. Can moral people use morality to make people less moral? Socrates’ answer is that moral people never commit immoral acts, only immoral people.

Third definition of morality: morality is the advantage of the stronnger pary, since governments put laws in place to their own advantage, telling its citizens what is just and moral. But what if the rulers accidentally pass laws which are contrary to their actual goals?

Thrasymachus asserts that rulers are not actual rulers when they pass laws contrary to their own benefit. In the strict sense of the word “ruler”, they rule perfectly. Socrates compares rulership to other expertise – doctors, in the strict sense of the word, only care for their subjects.

Thrasymachus decides to change tactics and asserts that morality is in fact bad for the person in possession of it, and that immoral people always come on top economically and socially over the moral people.

Socrates states that perfectly immoral people are incapable of working with one another, or with anyone else for that matter. They fall out with everyone and those qualities still hold power within a single individual. Immorality is, therefore, a bad mental state.

A mind’s tasks are many: finance, authority, management, etc. To perform those tasks aptly, and to live well, the mind needs its special function. Following the arguments of the last paragraph, immorality is a bad mental state, and morality a good one. Therefore, a moral person will live a more rewarding and fulfilling life.

  • Cephalus provides some timeless wisdom about life and old age. Many people blame old age for their troubles, such as less interest and capabilities in physical activities, or decreased social bonds. Cephalus, on the other hand, looks at it as an opportunity to inquire into human virtues, and finds conversation as enjoyable as he used to find physical activities. He asserts that anything bad that old age might bring can be canceled by having a good-temper and self-discipline.
  • Socrates defines three modes of payment: money, honor, and punishment. Moral people are not hungry for money or honor. The only payment they take for ruling will be punishment; the punishment of worse men then themselves ruling.
  • Throughout this book/chapter, Socrates makes his interlocutors define morality as an expertise, and therefore they all have a difficult time trying to define what morality actually is (not just some superficial parts of it). The truth is that morality is far wider than any field of expertise and has a different purpose.


‘In my case, you see, declining interest in physical pleasures is exactly matched by increasing desire for and enjoyment of conversation.’

‘I do in fact enjoy talking to very old people, because I think we ought to learn from them. They’ve gone ahead of us, as it were, on a road which we too will probably have to travel, and we ought to find out from them what the road is like – whether it is rough and hard, or easy and smooth.’

‘But to my mind, Socrates, they are holding an innocent responsible. If old age were to blame, then I too would have had the same experiences as them…’

‘”How do you feel about sex, Sophocles? Are you still capable of having sex with a woman?” He replied, “Be quiet, man! To my great delight, I have broken free of that, like a slave who has got away from a rabid and savage master.”‘

‘When the desires lose their intensity and ease up, then what happens is absolutely as Sophocles described – freedom from a great many demented masters.’

‘If someone is self-disciplined and good-tempered, old age isn’t too much of a burden; otherwise, it’s not just a question of old age, Socrates – such a person will find life difficult when he’s young as well.’

-When a Seriphian says that Themistocles was only famous because he was Athenian, ‘”It is true that I wouldn’t have become famous if I were a Seriphian, but it’s also true that you wouldn’t if you were an Athenian.”‘

‘Anyone who discovers that during his life he has commited a lot of crimes wakes up constantly in terror from his dreams, as children do, and also lives in dread; on the other hand, anyone who is aware of no wrong in himself faces the future with confidence and optimism which, as Pindar says as well, “comforts him in old age.”

‘Can a moral person harm anyone?’

‘Because immorality makes for mutual conflict, hatred, and antagonism, while moral behaviour makes for concord and friendship.’

‘The ultimate punishment for being unwilling to assume authority oneself is to be governed by a worse person, and it is fear of this happening, I think, which prompts good men to assume power occasionally.’

‘If it’s a function of immorality to generate hatred in its train, then wherever it arises among people – people from any walk of life – won’t it make them hate one another and clash with one another and be incapable of doing things together?’

‘What is at stake is far from insignificant: it is how one should live one’s life.’


Plato’s Crito – A few notes

This is only a short overview of some of the important ideas I got out of the book. This post is intended for those who’ve read the book and would like to see what other people have extracted from it. Overviews of the book can be found elsewhere.

‘But my dear Crito, why should we pay so much attention to what ‘most people’ think? The most sensible people, who have more claim to be considered, will believe that things have been done exactly as they have.’

‘They cannot make a man wise or foolish; they achieve whatever luck would have it.'(Of the multitude)

‘I cannot abandon the arguments which I used to expound in the past simply because this accident has happened to me.’

‘So he ought to regulate his notions and exercises and eating and drinking by the judgement of his instructor, who has expert knowledge, rather than by the opinions of the rest put together.’

‘Do we say that there is no way one must ever willingly commit injustice, or does it depend upon circumstance?’

‘Because, I suppose, there is no difference between injuring people and doing them an injustice?’

‘”You will confirm the opinion of the jurors, so that they’ll seem to have given a correct verdict – for any destroyer of the laws might very well be supposed to have a destructive influence upon young and foolish human beings.”‘

‘”And will no one comment on the fact that an old man of your age, probably with only a short time left to live, should dare to cling so greedily to life, at the price of violating the most stringent of laws?”‘

‘”No, Socrates; be advised by us who raised you – do not think more of your children or of your life or of anything else than you think of what is just.”‘

  1. Socrates stays by his views on life, whatever the circumstances. He will not escape prison unless that is proven to be the just course.
  2. A man ought only to give heed to the advice given by experts. Public opinion sways with every gust of wind, ‘achieving whatever luck would have it.’ If a man only considers the opinion of the multitude, both his body and soul will deteriorate.           ‘I have always been of the opinion that unpopularity earned by doing what is right is not unpopularity at all, but glory.’ – Cicero
  3. According to Socrates one must never commit injustice willingly, even when one has been wronged himself. As Plato noted in the Republic, a moral person could not use his morality to make people less moral.
  4. Reasons why Socrates’ staying in prison is the just course:
  5. 1. Socrates could have left the city at any point he’d like. With him staying in Athens his whole life he’s made an agreement with the Laws to follow them, whatever their course (somewhat tyrannical?). Even during Socrates’ trial he could have proposed his punishment to be exile, and the jurors would surely have allowed it. Escaping prison would mean Socrates breaking his 70 year pact with Athens.
  6. 2. By breaking the laws of Athens Socrates would go against much of his own philosophy to save his own life, proving himself to be a coward.
  7. 3. By escaping prison Socrates would set a bad example to his followers, proving his jurors’ accusations right.

Plato’s Apology – A few notes

This is only a short overview of some of the interesting ideas I got out of the book. This post is intended for those who’ve read the book and would like to see what other people have extracted from it. Overviews of the book can be found elsewhere.

‘At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.’

‘So I made myself spokesman for the oracle and asked myself whether I would rather be as I was – neither wise with their wisdom nor ignorant with their ignorance – or posses both qualities as they did.’

‘You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action; that is, whether he is acting justly or unjustly, like a good man or a bad one.’

‘To be afraid of death is only another form of thinking that one is wise when he is not; it is to think that one knows what one does not know.’

‘If on the other hand I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others is really the very best thing a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living, you will be ever less inclined to believe me.’

‘But I did not think that I ought to stoop to servility because I was in danger.’

‘Now if there is no consciousness but only a dreamless sleep, death must be a marvellous gain.’

  1. Socrates won’t accept any arguments or values unless they pass his logical scrutiny. He does not claim that his wisdom is superhuman, only that it is based on argument rather than belief.
  2. Socrates does not give heed to anything but for what is just, sticking to his principles even in the face of death.
  3. Instead of trying to enlighten Socrates on his own supposed vices, Meletus drags Socrates to court. He does not try to instruct Socrates, but rather punish him.
  4. Socrates does not bring pitiful appealers to the courtroom since that would cater towards the jurors’ emotions instead of their logical thinking.
  5. The reason for Socrates’ trial and death were ancient slanderers who appealed to young, impressionable men who could not make their own counter-arguments.
  6. Socrates refuses to go on living without exercising his own personal excellence – philosophy.
  7. According so Socrates, fear of death is only a claim to knowledge when you are in fact ignorant.
  8. By condemning Socrates to death the jurors got much more of what they were trying to rid themselves off, making Socrates a martyr for philosophy when he would have died naturally in the course of a few years.