Introduction to Philosophy: Plato’s Euthyphro



   As readers of the dialogues, we are supposed to see the answers for ourselves to questions such as “What is piety?” Answers are indeed presented in the dialogues.

    I am able to comment on the Euthyphro at all for publication because we translated the dialogue, with Dr. Sweet back at the University of Dallas. Irving Wasserman introduced us to the study and love of Plato, in his 1981 course called the Introduction to philosophy, back at Grand Valley, here in Michigan. Thomas G. West has provided a good translation, after the fashion of Allan Bloom, Thomas Pangle and Eva Brann, which attempts to be as literal as possible, restoring respect to the texts of these great authors.



   For my course called Introduction to Philosophy, I would attempt to deliver the student to the porch of the King, where the dialogue Euthyphro begins, catching up on the history that leads up to the meeting of Socrates and Euthyphro at that time and place. In order to do this, I wrote up, and would follow in the first class, an account of “What Philosophy Is” and “Why Plato wrote Dialogues.”


What Philosophy Is

   The word philosophy comes from Greek, and means the love (philo) of wisdom (sophia). The word for love is that used for friendship, as the Greeks have many words for love. So philosophy is the friendship with wisdom. Philosophy also involves an eros and a quest, the quest for the knowledge of “all things” or of “the whole.” As Aristotle and Plato both write, philosophy begins in wonder (Metaphysics, 982b10; Theatetus, 155d). Philosophy can also mean the study of nature, and philosophy is especially the quest for the knowledge of the principles or the first things according to nature, rather than according to myth. It seeks the comprehensive causes and the principles distinguishing the subjects, rather than being a particular subject or an inquiry within a subject. It is asking, for example, not “What time is it,” but “What is time.” The word philosophy was first used by Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher of the generation just after Thales. Before Pythagoras, the great students of nature were called “sophoi” or wise men. Pythagoras famously said that he was not wise, but a lover or seeker after wisdom. This moderation of our own opinion is one of the first things one learns when he first comes in contact with philosophy. Socrates, in Plato’s Apology, says “the god is wise…but human wisdom is worth little or nothing” (23a).

   Following the account of Leo Strauss in Natural Right and History (Chapters III and IV, pp. 82-88), Greek philosophy began when nature was discovered, or, the first philosopher was the first one to discover nature. Thales (640-546 B. C.) is said to have thought that the primary element, from which all things come to be, is water. Most of the first philosophers, like our modern scientists, tended to think that the first principles which are “of a kind with matter” are the only principles, as Aristotle tells the story in opening his Metaphysics (983b 7-9).

   The philosophers turned away from the explanation of the causes of things in terms of gods in order to search for the natural causes. In medicine, for example, Hippocrates, a contemporary of Socrates, looks to natural causes such as diet rather than to superstitious causes such as spirits. Anaxagoras, a teacher of Plato and Euripides, was tried for impiety in part for his teaching that the sun is not a god but a burning stone. (Apology,  Diogenes Laertes,  ). The best example may be the question of the cause of thunder and lightening. Rather than rest content with the account that Zeus hurls thunderbolts as if to punish injustice, the first philosophers sought a natural explanation, in terms of weather. On the heath, King Lear asks his philosopher “What is the cause of thunder?” Our own Ben Franklin demonstrated that lightening is electricity. There are still many wonders about thunder and lightening we only begin to unravel. The difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound is the cause of the difference between the instantaneous light and the rumbling thunder, as different parts of the instantaneous sound of the bolt reach our ears at different times, especially if the light goes across the sky and away from us. The closer strikes by contrast do not rumble but crack. The proportion of the speed of light to the speed of sound is visible in thunder and lightening, for us in hindsight, because science has otherwise told us of the speed of light and sound, and we believe the account of science.

   The city or convention assumes that the first things and the right way are known. That is, the city depends upon certain assumptions about these most important things being taken as known when they are not known. Philosophy tended to undermine the conventional account of the world or of the whole, appearing to reveal by the way that there is no basis or cosmic support for justice– no gods that assure that justice and injustice will be rewarded or punished by good or ill fortunes. Here we see the basic conflict between philosophy and the city. The city depends upon the authority of opinions regarding the first things, or even on the equation of the ancient with the good, and of these opinions with knowledge. A good example is the debate between the evolutionists and the creationists, where the literal poetic account of the origins as this is read and commonly imagined seems to be what upholds the ethical law. If there were not simply two persons this many thousand yeas ago and no others, with the Bible a text on the visible world, biology and natural history from the limited human view, the authority of the Bible and the commandments appear undermined. “Survival and reproduction,” or self interest in terms of the body, then appear to be the goals or the good, because humans are chained within a cave (Republic Book VII) or trying to see the sun while the moon is in front of it (Phaedo 99d). In ancient Greece, “Sophists” emerged, teaching, among other things, that one ought disregard justice and seek his own advantage, especially by skillful speaking in the law courts. And so the sophists taught rhetoric for pay, aiming to win rather than to state the truth, much like our modern legal training for the adversarial trial system. So the turn to natural philosophy undermines the authority of the city, on which common justice turns out to depend. Hence the accusation, for example of Rousseau in his second discourse, that science is bad for culture, destructive to the virtue of simple souls, or, later, a symptom of a civilization in decline.

   Socrates is sometimes said to have turned away from this sort of the study of nature to the study of the human things: the just and noble things, or what we now call ethical and political philosophy. But it is also said that Socrates “realized that nature is primarily “form” or “idea,” and that he “originated a new kind of the study of the natural things– a kind of study in which, for example, the nature and idea of justice, or natural right, and surely the nature of the soul or man, is more important than, for example, the nature of the sun (Leo Strauss, The History of Political Philosophy, p. 5). The human things turn out to be “the key to understanding all things,” (Thoughts on Machiavelli, p. 19; 78). It is through the image that is man that we see the divine and natural things in reflection, though not yet directly. Justice or the right way becomes no longer something assumed or taken as known, nor something assumed not to exist, but the object of a quest. The Socratic turn, from pre-Socratic philosophy, is a turn from material and efficient causes to formal and final causes, or the discovery of the forms as causes (Phaedo 99). From the city and the poets, or the philomythoi, philosophy takes the concern with the human, but from science or natural philosophy, the appeal to nature and truth regarding the natures of the human things.

   The philosophers also say that this theoretical enterprise is human happiness or the health of the soul in one sense. The soul turns out to be formed by nature to contemplate the natures of things, and so this is also the highest pleasure. A section which we will soon cite, from Plato’s Seventh Letter describes the study as being “like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark which, once generated in the soul, becomes self-sustaining (341d).”

   Also in the Seventh Letter, Plato describes an experimental test for determining whether a student is really “on fire with philosophy:”

   One must point out to such men that the whole plan is possible and explain what preliminary steps and how much hard work it will require, for the hearer, if he is genuinely devoted to philosophy and is a man of God with a natural affinity and fitness for the work, sees in the course marked out a path of enchantment, which he must at once strain every nerve to follow, or die in the attainment. Thereupon he braces himself and his guide to the task and does not relax his efforts until he either crowns them with final accomplishment or acquires the faculty of tracing his own way, no longer accompanied by the pathfinder. When this conviction has taken possession of him, such a man passes his life in whatever occupations he may engage in, but through it all, never ceases to practice philosophy and such habits of daily life as will be most effective in making him, an intelligent and retentive student, able to reason soberly by himself. Practices other than these he shuns to the end.

                                                                     (Plato, Letter VII, 340c-d)


Why Plato Wrote Dialogues

   Plato wrote dialogues or dramatic conversations rather than treatises or systematic arguments in writing with a thesis. The dialogues are like plays, and arose out of the earlier career of Plato before he met Socrates and burned his tragedies, as the story goes (Diogenes Laertes III.5). The reason that Plato wrote dialogues is related to what philosophy is: a way of life, a quest, and the friendship. Philosophy is not, as the word is now commonly used, a certain doctrine or the writing of certain doctrines, as it is in German philosophy, as that to be written at some assumed apex of history. Plato seems to have written dialogues rather than treatises because he thought that philosophy cannot be written. He wrote almost nothing in his own name, and so our teachers have shown us to be skeptical whenever we are told what Plato says or teaches, including the theory of the ideas. He shows Socrates saying this or that to this or that person in a certain circumstance, and there is little reason to suppose that Plato uses him as his own mouthpiece, rather than attempting to immortalize the philosophizing of Socrates.

   Socrates did not write philosophy at all. In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus (275d-e), Socrates discusses the defects of the written word. He tells Phaedrus that writing is like painting, and the written word is an image of the spoken word, as a painting of a man is an image of a real man. Written words seem to talk to us and to possess intelligence, but if we question them they do not answer, but only continue saying the same thing. Second, written words do not know when to speak and when to keep silent, or how to address the right people and not the wrong people. Third, if the written word is unfairly abused, it cannot defend itself, but always needs its parent, the writer, to come to its defense.

   Socrates compares the “dialectician,” or one who teaches through spoken rather than written words, to a farmer who has intelligence. He would not plant seeds in an unsuitable place and expect to enjoy watching them produce fruit in eight days, but rather, he would plant the seeds in suitable soil, and be content if they could reach maturity in eight months. He describes this planting in another section:

The dialectician selects a soul of the right type, and in it he plants and sows his words founded on knowledge, words which can defend both themselves and him who planted them, words which instead of remaining barren contain a seed whence new words grow up in new characters, whereby the seed is vouchsafed immortality and its possessor the fullest measure of blessedness that man can attain unto.

                                                                          Phaedrus, R. Hackforth translation (276e-277a)

Dionysius has written on subjects in which Plato instructed him. Plato writes to the friends of Dion:

   One statement at any rate I can make in regard to all who have written or may write with a claim to knowledge of the subjects to which I devote myself- no matter how they pretend to have acquired it, whether from my instruction or from others or by their own discovery. Such writers can in my opinion have no real acquaintance with the subject. I certainly have composed no work in regard to it, nor shall I ever do so in the future, for there is no way of putting it in words like other studies. Acquaintance with it must come rather after a long period of attendance on instruction in the subject itself, and of close companionship, when, suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and at once becomes self-sustaining.

   Besides, this at any rate I know, that if there were to be a treatise or a lecture on this subject, I could do it best. I am also sure for that matter that I should be very sorry to see such a treatise poorly written. If I thought it possible to deal adequately with the subject in a treatise or a lecture for the general public, what finer achievement would there have been in my life than to write a work of great benefit to mankind and to bring the nature of all things to light for all men? I do not however think the attempt to tell mankind of these matters a good thing, except in the case of some few who are capable of discovering the truth for themselves with a little guidance. In the case of the rest to do so would excite in some an unjustified contempt in a thoroughly offensive fashion, in others, certain lofty and vain hopes, as if they had acquired some awesome lore.

                                                  (Plato, Letter VII, L. A. Post translation 341c-342)

    The dialogues are said to be Plato’s answer to the paradox that philosophy cannot be written. He apparently did not want the memory of Socrates to pass away. While very young, Plato studied in the school of Heraclitus and wrote tragedies, but at the age of twenty, having heard Socrates speak, he burned his tragedies. After studying with Socrates, and seeing his trial and death, he traveled a while, then recalled his ability as a dramatist to write the dialogues. In his second letter, Plato writes that the dialogues are not his own work, but the work of Socrates made “new and beautiful” (314c).

   The dialogues imitate conversations, rather than single speeches. The words and actions together present a study or a teaching, but the reader must participate in the conversation, actively asking questions, rather than passive, as when one listens to words or watches television. The reader should look not only to what is said, but also to what is done in the dialogue, putting the two together, as Jacob Klein has taught. It is also said that the dialogues are written very precisely, so that “every word is laid in like a brick.” For example, the dialogue Euthyphro begins with the words “What is new” or “What new thing has happened…” We can wonder what, beyond a simple manner of speaking, this might mean. Fourth. the dialogues often contain analogies or symbolic meanings. Socrates talks to Euthyphro about a good farmer, and we can wonder what this might have to do with the sower of words, with whom we are now familiar from the analogy in the Phaedrus. And we, of course, will think of the parable of the sower and other parables (Matthew 13).


Euthyphro and Apology

   Socrates in the Apology is presented as a servant of the god sent to Athens. The piety of Socrates is demonstrated in his service to the god by showing that others are not wise, reprimanding his fellow Athenians, and teaching them to care for their souls more than money. He tells them, “…the god orders this. And I suppose that until now no greater good has arisen for you in the city than my service to the god” (Apology 30a). If this is true, and piety is the serving of the gods, piety is not simply worshiping the gods according to ancestral custom. This essay is undertaken especially because I think I see something at Stephanus page 13-14 of the Euthyphro. Socrates says that Euthyphro turned away at just the point where if he would have answered, Socrates would have “learned piety sufficiently” from Euthyphro. The discussion of the dialogue has nearly come around again to where Euthyphro is, with a little help, saying that the pious is what is dear to the gods, when Socrates says they had seen that the pious and the dear to the gods are not the same. This point is where Socrates has got Euthyphro to agree that piety is a “skillful service to gods,” and has asked him that, as the skillful service to doctors would be a skillful service in producing health, and service to shipwrights would be in producing ships:

The skillful service to gods would be a skillful service for producing what work? …What is that altogether noble work which the gods produce, using us as servants?

   This question, we believe, is entirely serious. That is, if Euthyphro would answer this, Socrates would know what piety is, for piety is a service to the divine. This answer comprehends not only what is said in the Apology about the Socratic service, but also what is said in the Theatetus (150-151) and Symposium about the midwife.

 The Euthyphro is deceptively simple and elementary. It contains many profound thoughts we cannot attain. In addition to what we take to be the profundity regarding divine service, the Euthyphro is also responsible in part for the dethroning of Paganism among the Greeks, the refutation of polytheism and the refutation of voluntarism, the idea that the will of God is more fundamental than the reason of God. Socrates to the Greeks is then in part like Abraham to the Hebrews, seeing through the then almost universal primitive polytheism and rejecting the belief in many gods. The suggestion is that a thing is not good because God wills it, but rather that God wills it because it is good. God can no longer be the Zeus imagined in the image of a man, but must be the “I am,” or what is, of the same stuff as justice itself, the good or the truth, the forms that imply Justice. Otherwise, He would not be the Most High, but there would be being above Him. He and his word are somehow one, and there is being above the creation, eternal things.



I) 2a- 3e: The Opening

   In the Euthyphro, Socrates meets Euthyphro on the porch of the King Archon, where he is going for preliminaries regarding his trial. The office is called “king” as a vestige of the ancient kings authority in Athens (West, p. 41), before the founding of Theseus which established popular government, when authority over religious things was given to the nobles (Plutarch, Life of Theseus).

 The first word is ti neoteron, “what new thing, Socrates, has happened or come to be that you have left the places in Lyceum where you usually spend time, and are now spending time at the Porch of the King.” The Lyceum was a gymnasium in the suburbs of Athens (West, p. 41), where Socrates would practice wrestling and voluntary discussion. As distinct from a system or the study of a system, philosophy is a way of spending time, a diatribeis, a quest or pursuit as well as the way of life that is the love of wisdom. Again, following Pythagoras, the philosophers say that they are not sophoi, wise men, but lovers of wisdom, as only the god is wise. But philosophy is also a way of life, said to be the best way of life, or human happiness simply. Socrates is accused of bringing new divinities into the city, but the new thing that is occurring is rather that Meletus is prosecuting philosophers, or, since Anaxagoras too was prosecuted, dragging Socrates before the court like a criminal. Socrates famously compares the trial to that of a doctor by a pastry chef before a jury of children (Gorgias 521e). The conflict of philosophy and ancient monarchy is present here from the beginning of the trial and death of Socrates.

It is quite possible that Socrates would never sue anyone, and one is reminded of the teaching of Jesus regarding lawsuits (Matthew 5: 25-26). A dike is a lawsuit prosecuted by an individual, while a graphe, as in the case of Socrates, someone prosecutes on behalf of the city (West, p. 41, David Sweet).

   Sarcasm, a part of Socratic irony, speaks a profound truth while also asserting that something obviously false is true, making up the joke. Socrates sarcastically says that Meletus is probably someone wise who has discerned Socrates ignorance and goes before the city as before a mother to accuse Socrates of corrupting those who are young like Meletus. Meletus alone of the politicians, appears to him to proceed correctly. Socrates speaks truthfully about politics, but falsely asserts that Meletus is an example of a politician that proceeds correctly. In caring for mankind, a good farmer takes care of the young plants first, clearing away corrupting influences, (so the plants can grow according to nature). Socrates teaches this, while ridiculing Meletus for not knowing who the corruptors of the youth are. He is perhaps weeding out the best farmer, which is the meaning of the Socratic sarcasm. A politician who is wise, like Socrates, might do as Meletus is doing, only he would be accurate about the particulars. In this first appearance of the word wisdom in the traditional order of the reading of the Platonic dialogues, we have a profound and serious Socratic or Platonic teaching as to what political wisdom is.

   Socrates jokes that after Meletus has cleared out the corruptors of the young, he will go on to care for the older ones, becoming “the cause of the most greatest and good things for the city.” Eurthyphro in his response indicates his good will toward Socrates, saying “For he seems to me simply to be doing evil to the city, beginning from the hearth, by attempting to do injustice to you.”

   Socrates does not himself mention the impiety part of the charge, but Euthyphro asks what it is they say he does to corrupt the young. “He asserts that I am a maker of gods, and on this account, that I make new gods and don’t believe in the ancient ones, he has indicted me” (3b). Socrates is accused of corrupting the youth by being a maker of new gods, while not believing in the ancient ones. As Euthyphro suggests, the first part of the charge is because he says that the daemon (Apology 31c-d) comes to him on occasion. Euthyphro suggests that Socrates is being charged because “such things are easy to make slander about before the many.” Euthyphro compares himself to Socrates, explaining that whenever he comes before the assembly predicting for them what will be, they laugh at him as though he were mad though of the things he has foretold, he has spoke nothing that was untrue. “They envy us all who are of this sort.” But Socrates suggests that he aroused the anger of the Athenians, and so they have accused him rather than Euthyphro, because they do not care if one is not because they think he is “clever,” but their anger is aroused against anyone who they suppose makes others like himself…” Socrates suggests that this may be for a reason other than envy, which Euthyphro suggested was the cause. What this reason might be is not said, but the question points to ignorance and custom at the root of conventional piety, and the annoyance of the gadfly in teaching the Athenians that Athens does not have knowledge regarding the gods.

   Here is a second piece of the Socratic teaching regarding political wisdom. Socrates is like a farmer who raises plants to become farmers, or grows farmers. The wise politician is like a farmer of men, and is also a man. The word for plant is phutos, the same root as the word for nature. Gardening is an ancient analogy for wise political action, as when the Gardener in Shakespeare’s Richard II speaks of the “caterpillars of the commonwealth.” This care, from philanthrope, is the Socratic service to the divine.

   Socrates then brings the principle to bear on the original point of Euthyphro. Perhaps, he says, the difference is that Euthyphro makes himself scarce and is not willing to teach his own wisdom, while due to his philanthropy, Socrates seems…

To say profusely whatever I possess to every man, not only without pay, but even paying with pleasure if anyone is willing to listen to me.

   This is the opposite of what Socrates says in the Apology, where he denies conversing about the things aloft and under the earth, but says he rather is a teacher of human wisdom, the knowledge of ignorance. Perhaps the things he says profusely are only the human things. Can Euthyphro, or the diviner in general, make others diviners? There is a Hebrew tradition of something like a science of prophecy, where by a certain study, prophecy might be cultivated. If Euthyphro could prophesy according to knowledge, would he not be able to make others, or at least certain others, like himself? The daemon makes Socrates something like a diviner, because the daimon, a voice, would seem to know something about the future, though in Plato, it only restrains Socrates from doing something he might do because it appears, from human wisdom, to be correct, although the daimon would seem to think it wrong. That is, the daimon does not tell Socrates what to do, at least in Plato, but works like a farmer pruning a natural growth. Socrates then reasons from the lack of opposition of the daimon that what he is doing must be good, and in the Apology, he says he concludes that therefore death must not be bad, or at least that what he is doing must be good. Yet, to those who vote against him, and regarding his accusers, he does prophesy (Apology 39c-d).

   Socrates concludes saying that if they are going to laugh at him as they do Euthyphro, they will have a pleasant time joking in court, but if they are serious, the outcome will be unclear, except to the diviners. Euthyphro then, famously, delivers the cryptic prediction that their cases will both proceed as they “have a mind for it to do.” This is the first appearance of the word mind, Nous in the Stephanus corpus of the Platonic texts. Words with the gnos- root have appeared, first for thinking down about someone, then for acquaintance, then for coming to know the matters of corruption, before oida, with the root of seeing, is used for the theoretical knowledge of in what way the young are corrupted and who their corrupters are. Socrates’ case will proceed according to his mind regardless of what the Athenians do, which means that he will lose his case, and Euthyphro cannot yet imagine that he will give up his own case, as is reported, after the conversation with Socrates that is about to take place.


II) 4a- 5b Socrates becomes the Student of Euthyphro

   Before hearing much of the particulars of the case of Euthyphro, as soon as he is told that Eurthyphro is prosecuting his father for murder, Socrates is astonished, and ridicules Euthyphro by calling him wise. “Surely the many are ignorant….” One would surely have to be wise to do such a thing correctly. West explains that murder cases were usually brought by the family of the alleged victim, not by the family of the murderer. Socrates guesses that the victim must be a member of Euthyphro’s family, but Euthyphro says it is laughable that Socrates thinks it matters whether the victim is an outsider or the member of ones own family, because all that matters is whether the killer killed “with justice” or not. If not, one must proceed against him.

   The writers all assume that Euthyphro is obviously ridiculous. But is it unimaginable, say, to report one’s father for murder in any circumstance? We all assume that if one’s father were to commit murder, in most circumstances it would be right to report the matter, though not to press charges oneself, unless one happened to be the prosecutor. But what if one were the county prosecutor? There were not official prosecutors in Athens, but citizens brought charges, as is clear too from the case of Socrates.

   Euthyphro, though, says that the pollution is the same, and so one must purify oneself by prosecuting the murderer. It is then a kind of self interest that motivates Euthyphro, enflamed by an active religious and poetic imagination.

    The case turns out to be anything but obvious too, as the man his father supposedly murdered was himself a murderer, and his father’s negligence was to bind and neglect the man while appealing to the authorities. His father is guilty of manslaughter, not either first or second degree murder. The word impiety (anhosion) enters the dialogue in Euthyphro’s description of the opinion of his relatives, “for it is impious (or unholy) for a son to proceed against his father for murder– they knowing badly, Socrates, how the divine is disposed concerning the pious and the impious.”

 Socrates asks Euthyphro:

“But before Zeus, do you, Euthyphro, suppose you have such precise knowledge about how the divine things are disposed, and the pious and the impious things, that, assuming these things were done just as you say, you do not fear that by pursuing a lawsuit against your father, you in turn may happen to be doing an impious deed?

But Euthyphro assures him that there would be no difference between Euthyphro and the many if he did not “know all such things precisely” (5a2).

    Socrates signs up to become the student of Euthyphro, saying that he will tell Meletus that even before, he considered it important to know divine things, and now, since Meletus has said that Socrates is doing wrong by acting unadvisedly and making innovations. So, he will tell Meletus, if you agree that Euthyphro is wise, drop your suit, but if not, then sue Euthyphro for corrupting the old and his own father, by teaching me and by admonishing and punishing him.” And if Meletus is not persuaded to drop the indictment or indict Euthyphro instead, Socrates will say these things in court. Euthyphro confidently assures Socrates that if Meletus indicted Euthyphro, he would quickly find out where he is rotten, and the focus of the case would soon be upon Meletus.

   In the comedy of Aristophanes, Socrates is presented as teaching a son to beat his father, because the standard or rule or authority is not age and paternity but knowledge and wisdom (West, pp. 29-30). The reason that Euthyphro should fear doing an impious thing is the law that one should honor one’s father and mother, as in the law of Moses. The reason for this is not clear, though its truth is simply assumed, even, or especially, by Socrates. We especially try to deal with family matters inside the family, without appeal to the city except as a last resort, if one steals from another, for example. Some crimes, though, rise to be of a civil nature. What does one do, for example, if his father assaults his mother? What if children are harmed? One might call the police when one would have to use force to prevent force. But inter-filial relations are different from relations to other citizens to whom one is not related, beginning with the cause of the law to honor one’s father and mother. This is a commandment of the divine law, as distinct from the human law, an obligation not only to the persons but to God.


III) 5d-6e The ideas

   In asking Euthyphro “What sort of things do you say the pious and the impious are concerning murder and concerning other things?” the Platonic corpus introduces the theory of the ideas. The text here reads:

Or isn’t the pious itself the same as itself in every action, and again, isn’t the impious opposite to everything pious, while it itself is similar to itself and has one certain idea in accordance with impiety–Everything, that is, that is going to be impious?

(Euthyphro, 5d, West translation)

Now then, by Zeus, tell me what now you confidently affirm to know clearly, what sort of things you assert the pious and the impious to be, about murder and about other things? Or is not the pious itself, in every action the same as itself, and again, the unholy opposite in its entirety of the pious, itself similar with itself and the same resembling itself, and has one idea according to unholiness, everything whatever that will be impious?

   It is strange that the famous theory of the ideas is introduced in reference to an idea of impiety. The future tense “Everything that is going to be (melle) impious” leads one to wonder whether the pious and the impious are not made so by law or custom. Because of the theory of the ideas, Socrates may be guilty of impiety, as will appear when it becomes clear that the pious would be what it is regardless of being dear to the most just of the gods.

   As a classic Socratic interlocutor in the dialogues, Euthyphro attempts to answer with a particular example “What I am doing now, to proceed against whoever does injustice…whether he happens to be a father or a mother or anyone else…” Meno answers similarly regarding virtue, presenting particular examples until Socrates explains. Euthyphro’s great proof of this being how the law is disposed is that Zeus, believed to be “the best and most just of the gods,” proceeded against his own father Uranos, who did the same to his father Kronos. Euthyphro seems to have read or heard Hesiod (West, p. 47; Hesiod, Theogony, 132-182, 453-506, 617).

   Socrates asks if this is the reason that he is a defendant against the indictment, that “whenever someone says such things about the gods, I receive them somehow with annoyance?” But Socrates says he is willing to concede these things, for what else is he to say, “since we ourselves also agree that we know nothing about them.” Socrates asks Euthyphro, “Before the god of friendship, do you really hold that these things happened in this way? The Greek stories are very strange, and very old, apparently arising from a mix of stories about pre-political ancestors and the imagination of the gods. Their dwelling at Mount Olympus betrays their origin. The Romans, as Pelasgians, have a similar origin, and so similar gods. The Egyptian gods are sometimes translated into Greek gods, though they lack a Zeus, since he comes from Mt. Olympus, just north of the Greeks. Euthyphro says he does believe these things, “and a great many more that the many do not know.” Socrates asks Euthyphro if he holds “that there really is war among the gods, and terrible enmities and battles,” and other like things as are spoken of by the poets and depicted in the adornments of temples and on the robe embroidered and brought to the Acropolis in the great Panathenia, “Shall we assert that these are true, Euthyphro? As Plutarch relates, Theseus introduced the Panathenia, a feast of the united Athens, when he drew together the surrounding villages into a city. So, yes, being annoyed at, and publicly questioning the truth of, the fundamental Athenian stories from the poets that are a part of the official religion of Athens just might have something to do with the reason for the indictment. Euthyphro offers here to explain many other things about the gods to Socrates, and is sure he will be astounded. But Socrates declines, appealing to a time when they are at leisure. At present, he wants Euthyphro to teach him what piety is.

   It is for us to remember that even the Jews see the things that the Christian believe in, the things said about Jesus, as similarly just so many tales, and these things do sound incredible: We believe that Jesus is the son of God immaculately conceived by Mary, that he taught trans-human truths for mankind above the greatest philosophers, and healed many times, and that he rose from the dead, and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and of his kingdom there will be no end. While this is quite different from the tales of the Greek poets, it is equally incredible. And while the Christian things arose contrary to the city, of Jerusalem, these later became the convention of the city, or even of the empire, similar to the stories of Hesiod. It is possible too to believe in our things as a pagan does, and we too have those like Euthyphro who think they are knowers of these things for reading them in the book, having just never been shown by Socrates that we do not know. We also believe in prophesy. So we too can take the disquieting and remedial effect of Plato’s Euthyphro.

   It is interesting that it is Socrates that expresses annoyance without giving a reason. And while he says he knows nothing about these things, we suspect that he does not believe them and does not think it is right of the poets to say such things, to attribute such bad deeds, to the gods. But he will focus on their enmity, and the contradiction implied. But how does Socrates know that these things are false and bad, and that gods would not disagree because they would be knowers?

He reminds Euthyphro that he answered that what he is doing now is pious. But Socrates explains that a great many other things too are pious, and he did not ask to be taught one or two of the pious things, but…

That eidos itself by which all the pious things are pious? For surely, you were saying that it is by one idea that the impious things are impious and the pious things pious…The teach me what ever this idea itself is, so that by gazing at it and using it as a pattern, I may declare that whatever is like it, among the things you or anyone else may do, is pious, and that whatever is not like it is not.

(Euthyphro, 6d-e)

 In place of the reference to a possible idea of the impious, the elaboration shows that there is one idea that works as a pattern (paradeigmati) to judge the pious and the impious by what is like or unlike the idea as a pattern. So the definitions are patterns, and the meanings of the ideas as universals and as the best or perfect examples guiding action are both present. But a pattern is a particular. A doctor, for example, is a universal category and we can tell which particulars belong to that category. But at the same time, Irv would say, we say, “Now that’s a real doctor,” because the best example shows the form and is the visible paradigm. Aristotle too writes of ultimate particulars in both thought and action, and the one right thing to do in any circumstance (Ethics  ; Poetics  ). Hence, on the philosophic question of whether piety is a virtue, the gossipy question of whether Socrates was pious, Strauss writes, “…if the philosopher is pious, piety is a virtue. And if he is not pious, piety is not a virtue.” Similarly, in the face of the irritating half truth of the Euthyphro, “Plato’s moral character is the guarantee that the final result…the complete account of piety, would be absolutely satisfactory and in no way irritating.” (p.187).

   It is interesting that Euthyphro has used the gods as such a pattern, and stated that his particular action is pious or right because it is like what the gods did, Zeus and Uranos rebelling against and punishing their fathers. Leo Strauss famously explains that Euthyphro thinks piety is doing what the gods do, rather than doing what they tell us to do, or obeying them (“On the Euthyphro,” p. 197). “Don’t do as I do, do as I say” is what parents tell their children when they say, “But you did that.” Strauss teaches: “The gods are not pious. By imitating the gods, one ceases to be pious” (Ibid, p.198). The other word, though, is “holy,” and these two words, eusebas and osion, are overlapping, sometimes synonymous, and sometimes not. Osion is the more serious word. The subtitle, not necessarily given by Plato, is “On the holy,” osion. The word piety, eusebas,  is like the word religion, not used in a positive sense in scripture at all. The word holy, though, does occur in the Bible, as the angels are called holy ones,” and Israel is to be a holy people, though in the Old Testament, no men are called holy. Agios and Agnos are the New Testament words for “holy.” More study of this is called for, but Strauss writes that for the Greeks, there is no holy God. In the Euthyphro, the word eusebas disappears toward the center of the dialogue, which ascends from the pious toward the holy, then returns to the pious. The ideas replace the gods as objects not of obedience, but of imitation. We have a teaching that the soul is an image of God, but this does not mean that we do the things that it is said God does. For example, I have heard it said once that because God wiped out the world in the flood of Noah, political mass murder might be acceptable. Rather, it means first that the imago Dei is the essence of the soul, and second that our contemplative access to the Most High is through self-knowledge. Where we imitate the divine is in laying down our lives for our friends, and in loving our neighbor. But that the soul is an image of God is a mystery. It is what occurs, as in Romeo and Juliet, rather than what one does: Romeo and Juliet are doing romantic love, contemplating the beautiful or the angel in one another, not intentionally imitating the divine. But then their drama has this pattern. The Socratics, following Strauss, make fun of inspired thought and action or the manifestation of the divine through us when we serve, just because we do not ourselves know what the master is doing. But we think we can serve Him if we offer ourselves in service. We will see how these thoughts, too, hold up through a reading of the Euthyphro.

   When Socrates asks Euthyphro to define piety “in this way,” and Euthyphro answers, “If you wish, Socrates…, Irving Wasserman comments:

[Euthyphro agrees] not because he sees that one must ask this, but, the theologian Euthyphro has never reflected a moment in his life about the nature of piety. He has the gods. He need not.

                                                                                                         (GVSC, 1982)

IV) The First Definition 7a-10e

7a- 8a

   Euthyphro defines piety as what is theophiles, or “dear to the gods, god-loved, in the sense of philos, or friendship. Socrates simply indicates that according to the poets, the gods quarrel and disagree. He further indicates the difference between the things humans disagree about and the things that can be easily settled by counting and weighing, or, calculation. This is another of the profound points of the Euthyphro. What we differ about is “the just and the unjust, the noble and shameful, the good and bad.” The gods also love what they consider to be noble, good and just, so that regarding the more important things, what is loved by some gods will be hated by others, and the pious will be no more what is dear to the gods than what is hated by the gods.

The distinction between the mathematical things, easily visible to all, and the things of dialectic may correspond to a division in the divided line and cave in Plato’s Republic Book VI-VII).


Euthyphro tries to wriggle out of the difficulty regarding disagreement among the gods by saying that all the gods agree that whoever kills someone unjustly must pay the penalty. No one publicly doubts that murder is wrong and must be punished, though there is no account of why murder is wrong. Socrates notes immediately, with the dexterity of a good wrestler, that humans do not disagree about this in the courts, but rather, “who the doer of injustice is, and what he did, and where,” or, “about a certain action, some asserting that it was done justly, others unjustly.” (8d-e). So the topics of disagreement among men and gods are, in theory, the good and bad, and in practice, the just and unjust. There are apparently different kinds of forms. These intelligible things are markedly different from the intelligibility of the things of mathematics, the circle, square and triangle. These are the guiding questions of political philosophy, again at the start of the Platonic corpus.

   Socrates asks Euthyphro to show him that “all the gods believe more than anything that this action is correct.” Euthyphro assures Socrates that he could do this, but it would be no small work. Socrates reminds him that he will have to show the judges “that such things are unjust and that all the gods hate them” (9b). But then Socrates says that even if Euthyphro could teach Socrates that all the gods think such a death unjust, what will he have learned about “what ever the pious and the impious are?” For it has become apparent that the theophiles is also theomise. Socrates says this means that “the pious and the not pious are not defined by this.”

   So Socrates offers to let Euthyphro off on this, and grants “let all the gods believe it unjust, and let all hate it.”

But is this the correction that we are now making in the argument: that whatever all the gods hate is impious, and whatever they love is pious?

   This would be a sufficient monotheistic correction, getting around the argument that the gods disagree. But to demonstrate how piety is not defined by this, being affected by the gods, Socrates explains the second objection. He begins by asking Euthyphro, “Is the pious loved because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved?

 The argument is about the active and passive and cause, but it is also about definition and cause, and, as Socrates soon suggests, substance and affect. The god’s loving something makes it a thing loved, rather than the reverse (which is not what Euthyphro said). But loving a thing cannot make it pious, nor can any affection make the thing affected what it is. Perhaps by loving children, parents in the long run make the children better, and worthy of love, and hence more loved. But until the love makes them better, they do not become things loved because they are recipients of love, and there are two senses here of love, the first unconditional and the second like admiration, conditional. A plant becomes wet because it is watered, it is not watered because it is wet. But then it grows, causing the gardener to give the bigger plant more water. In the argument, the terms shift, so people have trouble following it. There is a thing carried or led because someone carries or leads it, and a thing worthy of being carried or led, causing one to carry or lead it, causing it to be actually carried or led.

In general, things cannot be defined in this way, by anything foreign to their essence. Clouds might be said to be the non-living objects in the sky below the sphere of the moon, or man defined as the featherless bi-ped, and these might serve to identify the thing to some extent, until there is a meteor or someone throws a plucked chicken over the fence of the academy. There is the name, the definition or description, the picture or example, as the circle drawn, and then there is thing itself (Letter VII, (Though in a sphere too, there are points equidistant from the center, and these are not part of the same circle.) In addition, there is the knowledge, or “knowledge, intelligence (nous) and right opinion” (Seventh Letter).

   But Euthyphro agrees that piety is loved by all the gods because it is pious, not because it is loved. The divine does not make things what they are by any affect, as the same would be true for will, because things are not made what they are by affects, love or will. Not admirable because admired, but admired because admirable The nature of things is “above” the divinity imagined from the paternal human mind.

   Is this the argument of objectivism? For when George Berkely says things are because they are perceived by the mind of God, at the fork in the road that leads to German subjectivism, is the argument not like that of Euthyphro?

      A thing obeyed is what it is because the one obeyed has said so. It is what is to be done because it was ordered done, or because one said so. What are my orders? These are what they are because the one obeyed has said so. This is similar to what Euthyphro has tried to say about piety. If it is right to obey, the thing to be done is right because the authority has said so, and we, the obedient, must hope that they have said so because it is right. Tyranny will say that the thing ordered is not only the order but is right to do because the tyrant says so, believing in no appeal above his will. He then wills whatever appears to be in his own interest as he conceives this interest, and does not take an interest in what is right. But are the gods like this? Kingship too calls for this sort of obedience, and here the thing may be right, if the king is truly a king. The divine law given to Moses by God is a good example. It is obeyed because He said so, but it is said because it is right, not right because it is said. On the six days on which God spoke, he made the creation, but it is not said that what is right in the permanent sense was made.

 V) 11c-d Daedalus

   At the frustration point, Euthyphro complains that his statement “isn’t willing to stay where we place it.” Socrates says that the things said by Euthyphro are likely to belong to Socrates’ ancestor Daedalus, said to have made statues so lifelike they would move around and run away. Euthyphro blames this moving about on Socrates, “since as far as I’m concerned, they would stay where they are.” Socrates says he must have become more clever at that art than Daedalus, who made only his own things move, since Socrates also makes those of others move about. One is reminded of the earlier distinction between those thought wise and those thought to be teachers, or to make others like themselves. He says, though, that he is involuntarily wise, since he would wish the statements stay still, more than to gain the money of Tantalus in addition to the wisdom of Daedalus. He does not mention piety.

   In the Meno, Meno accuses Socrates of inducing torpidity, a paralysis or a-poria, and it is in this way that he makes others like himself (80c-d).

 VI) 11e- Piety and Justice

Socrates then volunteers to take an active part in helping Euthyphro to teach him about the pious. As if out of nowhere, he asks:

Socrates: See if it does not seem necessary to you that all the pious is just.

Euthyphro: To me it does.

Socrates: And is all the just pious? Or is the pious all just, while the just is not all pious, but part of it is pious, part something else?

(Euthyphro, 12d)

   This is very difficult and very astonishing. We are stumped first because the question makes sense, even while we do not know what piety and justice are, at least well enough to define them. Socrates is indeed the master at reminding us of what we know.

   If for example, we owe it to the gods to be just toward humans as well as toward gods, then all the just would be pious, but that is not what Socrates has in mind. And of the four cardinal virtues, he selects justice, rather than courage or moderation, not to mention wisdom. Piety might include courage and moderation, while these virtues are also displayed in functions not involving our relations to the divine, as in love and war. But again if we owe it the gods to be virtuous, all virtue would be a part of piety in this sense. Is it wise to be pious and pious to be wise is yet another question. But Socrates selects justice.

    The punishment of his father by Euthyphro may erroneously assume that piety and justice are co-extensive, or that the human part of justice, the care not of gods but of human beings, is a part not of justice but of piety. Euthyphro treats all justice as if it were religious pollution. This would make sense of why Socrates raises this distinction, though it would not provide the esoteric knowledge on the basis of which Socrates sees that that is the distinction that Euthyphro needs to make.

   A part of justice concerns our relation to God and a part of justice concerns our relation to humans. The Ten Commandments divide neatly into the first three or four, which concern our regard for God, and the last seven, which concern relations between humans. Hence Jesus summarizes the law into this two: Love God and love your neighbor. The Mosaic commandments regarding the tendance of the divine would be to have no other gods, make no graven images nor to bow and serve them, and to keep the Sabbath. But it is clear in this light that we do not mean that the Lord is tended by these things, but that we are kept right by them. And yet there is a service to God in the New Testament and probably too in the Old.

Socrates too, in the Apology, describes his questioning and demonstrating that we are not wise, he describes this questioning as a service to “the god,” assumed here to be Apollo. There is a switch from the gods to the God in the Apology that allows for the possibility of monotheism. Regarding what the pious is, Strauss comments that Socrates “seems to excuse himself due to the difficulty of the subject matter.”

In explaining to Euthyphro and to us just what he has in mind, he selects an example from a poet with whom he disagrees. Regarding not speaking of “Zeus, the one who enclosed and planted all these things,” You are not willing to speak of the poet said: “for where dread is, there too is awe.” Socrates notes that people fear things like diseases but are not in awe of these things, so rather, “where awe is, there too is dread.” The example is strange because awe, fear and shame are all involved in piety. Strangely, Socrates explains, “For doesn’t anyone who feels awe and shame also fear and dread a reputation for villainy?” The fear of the Lord is not a fear for ones own reputation except in the usual human manifestation. Socrates next turns to a mathematical example of logical categories, odd, even and number, and the example is much more clear. Why does Socrates choose an example that reminds Euthyphro of the awe that prevents us from speaking of Zeus and then why does he turn the conversation to reveal Euthyphro’s concern for reputation and recognition of villainy? Reputation is of course the question of common piety, because of the power of appearance over the common mind. Jesus speaks of those who seek the most prominent place at feasts and in the synagogues (Matthew 23:6). People more often want the reputation for piety and wisdom than they want piety or wisdom.

    Is the reason for the choice of the example related to the saying with which Strauss concludes his Euthyphro essay, the saying from the book of Proverbs that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom? Strauss contrasts this with the statement of Aristotle that wonder is rather the beginning of philosophy or the pursuit of wisdom. But what if the Proverb means reverence, as in, finding something above oneself, like righteousness, to which one is subject? The statement of the Proverb would sound similar to the beginning of Socratic philosophy, since the wonder which is the beginning of philosophy, while being very good for us, does not directly or immediately teach us how to use any thing well. And the effect of philosophy on bad characters can be to undermine the opinions that limit their pursuit of their own interests.

   Why does Socrates first get Euthyphro to recall the dread of the Lord which leads us to fear even to speak of Him, who both wishes and does not wish to be called Zeus? And does he then suggest that the piety of common people is inseparable from their fear of a bad reputation or their concern with reputation.

   Irv wonders whether the dialogue is inconclusive because Euthyphro accepts that piety is a part of Justice. It does seem that all the pious is just, but justice in one sense is the consummate virtue of relations of one among his fellows, and so concerns the relations of one with other humans and not with the gods. Piety and Justice are interrelated from the opening of the dialogue in both cases. Socrates would do an injustice to raise the issue of the impiety charge with Euthyphro. The lawsuit of Euthyphro may confuse filial piety, political justice, and religious piety. According to the division of Socrates, Euthyphro’s suit would not be a question of piety at all, but of justice, and murder may be more properly treated as we do, as an injustice rather than an impiety, or a pollution requiring purification.

But Socrates gets Euthyphro to set up the assumption that the pious is a part of the just, and then they set about to find which part. Euthyphro answers with a fine distinction:

That part of the just is reverent as well as pious which concerns the tendance of the gods, while that which concerns the tendance of human beings is the remaining part of the just.

Tendance is what Euthyphro has introduced, and he seems to have long forgotten how this will pertain to his argument that what he doing now is pious. Is he tending the gods, or rather his own perceived self interest regarding pollution? Socrates questions him regarding tendance, since when we tend dogs or horses we try to make them better, again recalling the invocation of politics and the example of gardening. The word here for tendance is therapean, while earlier the word for “takes care” of was epimelle, similar to the name of Meletus (Apology, 24d). Euthyphro surely does not think we similarly make the gods better, so to what kind of tendance could he refer? This is a very famous point, that the divine is not in need but self-sufficient, and so would have no eros nor any need of our service. But Euthyphro answers that it is the sort with which slaves tend their masters. Socrates says, “I understand. It would be a certain skillful service to gods, as is likely. Euthyphro agrees. Socrates then asks what he will later consider the crucial question: Skillful service in producing what work? As doctors might be served in producing health, and shipwrights in producing ships, “the skillful service to gods would be a skillful service for producing what work? Socrates then rubs it in:

It is clear that you know, since you assert that you know at least the divine things most nobly of human beings…then tell me, before Zeus, what is that altogether noble work which the gods produce using us as servants?

(Euthyphro, 13 a)

As generals produce victory and farmers produce food, what is the main product of the gods? Here two things occur at once, and it becomes more clear what two things piety is: Euthyphro, frustrated, returns to a more orthodox conception, though again without a definition:

…if someone has knowledge of how to say and do things gratifying to the gods by praying and sacrificing, these are the pious things. And such things preserve private families as well as the communities of cities. The opposites of the things gratifying are impious.

(Euthyphro, 14b)

Euthyphro here elaborates the “dear to the gods” with orthodox examples, rather than “what I am doing now” and what the gods are said by the poets to have done. Prayer and sacrifice are indeed the pious things. The Webster dictionary defines pious as a characteristic with the synonym “reverence,” especially a reverence “for divine worship,” and the pious things are “sacred as distinct from profane.” West contrasts these two meanings: The pious (hosion) refers in the traditional usage of the Greek to that which is allocated by the gods to men, concerning a0 dealings with one another and b) the relations between gods and men. A second meaning  is the word (heiron,) what the gods reserve to themselves, like ambrosia, in contrast with the pious, which are the profane things permitted ton humans. The Oxford Dictionary states:

  1. Habitual reverence and obedience to God (or the gods); devotion to religious duties and observances; godliness, devotedness, religiousness.”


  1. Faithfulness to the duties naturally owed to parents and relatives, superiors, etc; dutifulness; affectionate loyalty and respect, especially to parents.

   The second sense is prominent in Virgil’s Aenead, as an especial virtue of Aeneas, who carried his father out of burning Troy upon his shoulders. Plutarch’s story of Cleobis and Biton may be another example. Euthyphro may be caught in a contradiction between two senses of piety which are mysteriously related, as our relations with our parents are not without significance for our relations to the divine. Those who side with Socrates in reading the dialogue simply assume that Euthyphro is wrong to prosecute his own father, but the principle is difficult to explain. While the commandment is to honor our parents, we owe obedience to God.

   Prayer and sacrifice too have a meaning deeper than the commerce of Euthyphro. Most realize that the first or usual posture is that in hope of the afterlife, people try to obey the Lord, that is, not for its own sake but for what comes out of it (Republic, II, ), and for one’s own salvation. Knowledge of ignorance is attained by a sacrifice, the extinguishing of the “ego” or the death of penance that leads to rebirth. In the Symposium, Socrates teaches that Love is not a god but a spirit that ascends with our prayers and descends with answers. The good things we receive, though, are first for the care of our souls, as Jesus and Solomon teach, seek first the Kingdom, and all these will be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33). And regarding sacrifice, the teaching of the scripture beginning from the true fast described by Isaiah (58) and appearing again in Hosea 6:6, and Micah 6:6-8 and is “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And, Jesus teaches:

If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and first be reconciled to your brother, and then come offer your gift.”

(Matthew 5:23)

 In church, the gift of money in the tithe is a sacrifice given symbolically, with our penance, and we receive the Eucharist, the bread of life, as that which fell from heaven in the wilderness. The Eucharist is symbolic of receiving the word or truth, and there is milk and meat, greater and lesser mysteries. In addition to the Eucharist, there is the sacrament of the Chrism or oil, being sealed with the Spirit. The pious things are images of the mysteries that pertain to the life of the soul. The rituals of prayer and sacrifice get us looking in the right direction, and teach humility or the way of the cross.

   Piety could be loved because it is pious (rather than being what it is because it is loved) and still be what is dear to or loved by the gods, if the gods were knowers, for then they would not disagree. It would also be dear to others, such as the friends of the gods. In Plato’s Laws, the Athenian stranger discusses piety (IV, 716c) in a more conventional way, presenting communing with the gods in sacrifice and prayer as good for a good man but useless for a bad man, “the great effort spent by the impious on the gods,” so that piety is distinct from effort spent upon the gods. The stranger, who is distinct from Socrates, says:

… for us, the god would be the measure of all things in the highest degree, and far more than some human being, as they assert. He who is to become dear to such a being must necessarily do all in his power to become like him; and according to this argument the moderate man among us is dear to god, because similar, while the man who is not moderate is dissimilar and different and unjust.”

                                                               Laws, 716 c-d

   This is a replacement of the Pythagorean statement that “man is the measure of all things.” But the phrase “no rest from ills” (713 e) indicates the difference between the Athenian stranger and the Laws and Socrates and the Republic.

    Animal sacrifice is very interesting. It is a giving up of something valuable and a replacement for the human sacrifice which seems to have characterized the idolatrous religion of the whole world, including the Greeks. Proteus advises Menelaus to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia when stuck by winds on the coast of Egypt (Odyssey 351-569). On Mount Moriah, Abraham would not hold back even his son from God, and God substituted the ram. Human sacrifice seems here to end, but strangely to have been almost universally practiced by pre-civilized man, as in Britain, Nevada, Mexico, etc.) Jesus is crucified as a sacrifice for our sins, and following Him through death, the old man in Adam dies and the new man is born (Romans 6). The old man is the original ordering of the soul, where the earthly concerns lead reason. Reason is here undeveloped, a calculation in service to things like wealth and reputation, which is related to reproduction. The new man is the eye of the soul awakened, so we can see the kingdom of heaven. This new man is able to serve because the soul is no longer enslaved to the earthly interests. Sacrifice is a giving up of the love of one’s own earthly interests, which originally hold the highest place in the priorities that govern the soul. So penance is sacrifice, and by this we might be subject to the divine, and enter into service. We, the Socratic Christians, hold that this is the same as the turn described by Socrates as central to the beginning of genuine education. Jesus says: “My meat is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish his work” says Jesus (John 4:34). It is both the fulfillment of our self-interest and the divine work, as it is for Jesus, for the ox is not muzzled when it treads the grain.

   What God “lacks” that we can provide him is first ourselves, that we would turn toward the Lord or turn toward His way, to virtue or to righteousness (the same word translated righteousness in the bible is justice in the Greek texts). The evil can always say that by leading others into temptation, they were an instrument of God, but this is not true except in an unusual sense, for which common sense lacks the proper terms. Justice and righteousness are the way of the Lord for man. A father, loving his offspring, needs” for that offspring to be the best possible, in order to complete his own happiness, and he cannot do this for the offspring, but he needs the offspring to freely choose it because it is manifest as the right way. It is conversely his grave misfortune should his son prove to be a villain. This is a different kind of need, based on a fullness rather than a deficiency, a “need” of beneficence, similar to the need of the mortal to have an heir. And we in service can promote this growth or plant among the garden of mankind, watering and cultivating, bringing the fertilizer, keeping watch for the weeds. The parable of the Sower is about the plant that is the word (Matthew 13).

   Jesus taught the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 7:7-14) as a replacement for our heaping up of empty phrases, since the Lord knows already what we need. The Lord’s Prayer begins by addressing the Father. Then we say that the holy name is hallowed, and ask that the Kingdom come, His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We pray to be forgiven as we forgive, and not to be led into temptation but delivered from evil. Jesus at one point tells the Apostles:

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what the master is doing. But I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my father I have made known to you.

                                                                                           (John 15:15)

   Here Socrates tells Euthyphro he must not be eager to teach him, “For…

you turned away just now, when you were at the very point at which if you had answered I would already have learned piety sufficiently from you.

   Regretting that “the lover must follow the beloved wherever he leads,” Socrates takes up, with a different hold, the statement of the things gratifying, asking “Isn’t it a certain kind of knowledge of sacrificing and praying? And is praying and sacrificing not making requests or the gods and giving gifts to them? And is this not “a certain art of commerce for gods and human beings with each other. Asking again what benefit the gods get from our gifts, as he had asked how they are made better by our tendance, Euthyphro answers “What else do you suppose but honor and respect, and, as I was just saying, gratitude.” Socrates then turns this statement into dear to the gods: “Is the pious then gratifying, Euthyphro, but not beneficial or dear to the gods? Noting that again like Daedalus he have made the argument go around again in a circle, Socrates reminds Euthyphro that it had become apparent that the pious and the dear to the gods could not be the same.

VII) What Work?

But let us return to the place where Socrates says if Euthyphro had answered, he would have learned what piety is. What is the work in which the gods use us as servants? Is it not the tending of human beings, the very other part of justice? Socrates is sent by the God to Athens as a gadfly to get them to care for their souls (Apology, 30a) and his demonstration of their ignorance is paradoxically described as a service to the god, attempting to refute the statement of the oracle that no one is wiser than Socrates (Apology 22 a). He describes this as a performance of certain labors, like Hercules, going to the craftsmen, politicians and poets, “so that the divination would turn out to be unrefuted.” “…I come to the god’s aid and show that he is not wise.” Again, “I have been ordered to practice this by the god, as I affirm, from divinations, and from dreams, and in every way that any divine allotment ever ordered a human being to practice anything” (33c). These are the things that serve the divine and indicate what work it is in which mortals might be of service according to Socrates. He is in “ten thousand fold poverty because of my devotion to the god.” Rather than fear death, “my whole care is to commit no unjust or impious deed.” Hence, he disobeyed the order to arrest Leon of Salamis. “For I believe, men of Athens, as none of my accusers does.” If they told him to cease philosophizing and they would let him go, he would “be persuaded by the God rather than you” Apology 29d). The same is given as the reason for the religion clauses of the first Amendment by Madison in his essay on Remonstrance. Political liberty requires that we be free to obey God, and so rights regarding the polity are but the obverse of our obligation to God.

   In the Euthyphro, the main hint of the faith of Socrates is when he is asking Euthyphro what benefit the gods receive from us, and whether we have so much the better of the transaction that they receive nothing, “As to what they give, it is clear to everyone, for there is no good for us that they do not give.” (Euthyphro, 15 a). The other great statement is “the just, the noble and the good” (7b). In the Republic, in the purified theology, it is said that the gods cause only good. The difference of this sort of idea and the ideas pertaining to mathematics is that disagreements about these can be settled easily by calculating, while even the gods seem to differ about the human things. And what is so special about these ideas compared to other definitions? Why are these for us the most important things?

The prosecution of his father by Euthyphro may s Our ignorance would seem to make it very difficult to prosecute anyone for what we think they believe. how the relation of his radical conservatism to the genuine authority of the ancestral, represented by the father, and by the Porch of the King. In the Apology, Socrates is guilty of the charge, but the right procedure would be to attack the law that forbids not believing in the gods of the city. That may be why Socrates does not present a defense, but proceeds on the basis of the assumptions of Meletus, showing that on these assumptions, it would be right for Meletus to agree that he does believe in gods.


VIII) Conclusion

Socrates does not give up, but tries to rouse Euthyphro to take up the inquiry again. He must know, since if he did not,

…there is no way that you would ever have attempted to prosecute an elderly man, your father, for murder on behalf of a hired man. Rather, as to gods you would have dreaded the risk that you would not do it correctly, and as to human beings, you would have been ashamed.

   And so we see why the example of dread and awe and of the fear of reputation occurred to Socrates when explaining a point of logic. Contrary to presentation of Aristophanes in his Clouds, where Socrates teaches Strepsiades to beat his father (Clouds, 1377, 1409-1414), Socrates upholds conventional piety regarding the family and does not advocate the replacement of paternal authority with knowledge or make filial relations irrelevant due to categories. The reason for his moderation seems to be that humans do not know the divine things. Concluding with a return to his previous sarcasm, Socrates says that Euthyphro has dashed his hope that by learning the things pious and the things not, he would be released from the indictment:

For I had hoped to show him that I have now become wise in the divine things from Euthyphro, and that I am no longer acting unadvisedly because of ignorance or making innovations concerning them, and especially that I would live better for the rest of my life.”

   How one should live or how one might live better is the Platonic or Socratic question: “What is the best life.” Socrates is famous too for the distinction between divine and human wisdom, as in the Apology (23a-b), and here we see a particular example of what he means by the claim to divine wisdom. Strauss writes “the divine and natural things” as the things Socratic philosophy turns away from in his turn toward the study of the human things (Natural Right and History, p. 122). The theory of the ideas is a replacement or place holder for the worse opinions that otherwise hold this place in metaphysics, as to be human is to have thoughts about the first things. The difficulties with the theory of the ideas are notorious, but so is the deficiency of every formulation to adjust to certain facts known to common sense. When a man or city becomes better, where does that good come from? Let every city be unjust, and try to abstract the nature of justice from the particulars, if there is not something like justice that always is what is, and measures our mistakes and our injustice. The history of metaphysics- including both Medieval and German metaphysics- is an attempt to know the divine things directly.

   Leo Strauss writes that the irritating half-truth of the Euthyphro is that “piety is superfluous and the gods are superfluous except for the many” (p. 205). From the point where Euthyphro turned away, Strauss draws a reading suggested by the arts chosen as an example, farming and generalship, because their outcomes depend upon chance. “Man makes the irrational attempt to control chance…he serves gods in order to be the employer of the gods, or Lord of the gods. The usual human concern is for their own good fortune, and people pray from motives ranging from avarice to terror, from a 5$ printed piece of paper sold in Grand Rapids as a “prayer rug,” sure to bring blessings like a Cadillac and money, to the saying that there are no atheists in the foxholes. Human commerce with the divine is most often praying for good fortune, so much so that Machiavelli is able to present all religion as the worship of Fortuna. This would be a tweak or slightly different twist upon the argument that the purpose of piety is the preservation of the family and the city. People try to persuade God to serve us regarding our own concerns. But if there is a work of the divine in which we can offer ourselves as servants, and the one in whom is begotten practical wisdom and the other virtues might be theophiles, the friend of God or “dear to the god.” As is written in the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Phillip, some both exist just as they are, and make others like themselves, while others simply exist.” It is due to re-entering the cave that the philosopher is in danger from the city.

Xenophon too has Socrates distinguish the things one can know for himself and the things hidden from men. A carpenter knows how to build a house, and need not consult an oracle, but does not know who will live in the house (Memorabilia I, i.8). He also has Socrates say “try the gods by serving them…” (Mem. I, iv.18).


Bibliography   Euthyphro


Strauss, Leo. “On the Euthyphro,” in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism. pp.187-206. This is one of the best essays ever written.

Ranasingh, Nalin. Socrates and the Gods. South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine Press, 2012.

West, Thomas G. Four Texts on Socrates, pp. 12-16. Introduction. Dr West provides the best Introduction, a concise summary with indications of the important points and questions