Plato's Euthyphro and the Question of 'piety'
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Plato's Euthyphro and the Question of 'piety'

Early Platonic texts are characteristically definition dialogues.  They often, though not always include Socrates as the main character discussing a certain term in hopes of finding a sufficient definition.  This term is known as the definiendum.  In this such definition dialogue we find the definiendum to be the topic of piety as Euthyphro prepares to charge his father with murder in order to honor the piety due to the gods.

The scene is set with Socrates heading to his own trial for his life, for which he will later be put to death a month later in 399 b.c.e.

Euthyphro claims he knows what piety is, or even he would not charge his father for ‘murdering’ a slave, who himself was a murderer.  It is important to note that Euthyphro’s father was following the normal Athenian legal process by sending for the oracle to ask what should be done to the slave, when the slave died of exposure.  Euthyphro is  charging his father with what would be manslaughter to us.  Though in Ancient Greek society it was the ‘bad blood’ of murder, regardless of the circumstances that led Euthyphro to the courts that day.

Socrates as becomes normal process in the definition dialogues finds Euthyphro claiming to know the will of the gods, or piety in a more complete sense then the populace who says a son cannot charge a father for the murder of a slave.  With this claim to knowledge of piety Socrates begins his ‘gad fly’ like discourse toward knowledge of piety.

One of the first ideas put down by Euthyphro is the idea that what is loved by the gods is pious.  This stems from the idea that justice is loved by the gods.  Socrates turns this to ask “But if the god-loved and the pious were the same, my dear Euthyphro, then if the pious was 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.”  (Plato, Euthyphro 11a)

If g-l is p, then if p is l-g because p, g-l is l-g because g-l and if g-l is g-l because it is l-g, then p is p because l-g.  P is either l-g because it is p or is p because it is l-g.  For otherwise it becomes circular as to why p is p.

This question asks us if something is ‘good’ is it not good independent of it pleasing ‘god’ or is it good arbitrarily due to the pleasure it gives ‘god’.

If it is ‘good’ independent of the will of ‘good’ then there is a value implicit in the action which is ‘good’.  Where as what value other than, pleasing god, can be found in an action that is ‘good’ only because the will of god says so.  Socrates uses this concept to find that the pious has the quality that it is loved by the gods, but it is not sufficient to say piety is what is loved by the gods.

The same sort of reasoning then follows with the ideas that piety is justice.  Soon this is turned to say that piety is a care for the gods.  Care is simply service to, and Socrates insists there is nothing of which humans can add to the ‘goodness’ of the gods.  Their non-temporal eternal nature forbids the affection or the act of being affected by temporal humans.  Such that just actions are found to be pious, but they are just independent of god.

The conversation is cut short as Euthyphro again says piety is what is loved by the gods, he became frustrated with Socrates’ questioning and stormed off to a ‘prior engagement’.

The Euthyphro is a classic search into meaning and value.  We often value something because it is ‘good’, and we hardly ever investigate the ‘why’ involved in something being ‘good’.

Plato Complete Works.  Edited by John M. Cooper. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis. 1997.

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