Type Source
Date BC 0390
Tags philosophy, Kilobook Project, Socratic dialogue


Moving on from the Meno, let’s talk this time about Plato’s Euthyphro. Here, Socrates seeks to have Euthyphro define for him piety. I’m once again reading Grube’s translation.

First, a few words about the concept under discussion. In the Meno, Socrates tries to find a definition for virtue, and in the Euthyphro for piety. Though these are distinct concepts, they seem, to me, to be somewhat related–-if, in some sense, piety is to act rightly, and virtue guides right action, then their definitions may be similarly entangled. Of course, it does not help that definition is exactly what’s being discussed, and worse still that I am reading these works in translation–truly, it is likely to be impossible for me to fully grasp the issue, since I do not understand Greek, and so cannot really understand exactly what was being discussed. Still, it will be helpful to know, at least generally, what the Greeks understood these words to mean. So: the Meno is concerned with ἀρετή, arete, which means ‘goodness’ or ‘excellence’ or, indeed, ‘virtue’, and can also refer to specific virtues; the Euthyphro is concerned with what is ὅσιος, hosios, which means ‘pious’, ‘hallowed’, or ‘sanctioned by the gods’, and, according to Wiktionary, can refer to things which are ‘allowed by divine law but not sacred.’ Of course, Socrates will want much better and more precise definitions than these.

The Euthyphro opens with Socrates standing in the agora, before the king-archon’s court, where he is met by Euthyphro, who (as he will later explain) has come to lay charges of murder against his father. Euthyphro wonders at Socrates’s presence, and asks him whether he, too, is prosecuting someone. Socrates explains that, rather than prosecuting, he has been indicted on a charge of corrupting the youth–of impiety–by a young man called Meletus, who Socrates describes as having “long hair, not much of a beard, and a rather aquiline nose.”

Euthyphro is shocked at Socrates’s predicament, and says that Meletus is “harming the very heart of the city by attempting to wrong [Socrates].” When Socrates asks what business Euthyphro is engaged in, he is shocked at his reply. He says that “most men would not know how they could do this and be right. It is not the part of anyone to do this, but of one who is far advanced in wisdom.” Euthyphro agrees, saying that he “should be of no use . . . and Euthyphro would not be superior to the majority of men, if [he] did not have accurate knowledge of [piety and impiety].”

Upon hearing this, Socrates is eager to have Euthyphro teach him what is the pious, and what the impious. Euthyphro’s first response is, like his earlier words, somewhat arrogant: he says that the pious is to act as he is now, and to do otherwise is impious. In support of this (that is, in support of it being pious for him to prosecute his father), he recalls that Zeus is known to have punished his own father, who was behaving unjustly, just as Euthyphro seeks to prosecute his father.

Socrates is unsatisfied with this, as we may expect. He tells Euthyphro that he “did not bid you tell [him] one or two of the many pious actions, but that form itself that makes all pious actions pious” so that he might “look upon it, and using it as a model, say that any action of yours or another’s that is of that kind is pious, and if it is not that it is not.” Euthyphro answers, then, that “what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious.” Socrates thinks this is a splendid answer, if it is correct, and so seeks to find out whether it is true or false.

The gods are known, Socrates reminds Euthyphro, to make war and be at odds with one another. If Socrates and Euthyphro disagreed, he says, “about numbers as to which is the greater” this would not make them enemies, for they would simply count and resolve the issue. Nor would a disagreement about other such matters than can be readily resolved lead to discord. Rather, he says, the subjects on which a difference of opinion might make them angry and hostile would be “the just and the unjust, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad.” And so, he says, and Euthyphro agrees, must it be with the gods.

But, if this is true, then it must be that “the same things are considered just by some gods and unjust by others” and so “the same things then are loved by the gods and hated by the gods”, and therefore “the same things would be both pious and impious.” Of course, this is impossible-–they had agreed that the impious was the opposite of the pious, and so no thing could be both pious and impious. Socrates points out then that though Zeus might consider Euthyphro just in prosecuting his father, still Cronus and Uranus might think it unjust, that it may please Hephaestus but displease Hera, and so on. He lets this pass, though, in favor of asking Euthyphro whether he is satisfied with the correction he has proposed in response, that “what all the gods hate is impious, and what they all love is pious, and that what some gods love and others hate is neither or both.”

Euthyphro is prepared to accept this definition, but Socrates takes issue again, asking: “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?” After being made to understand what Socrates is asking (through a rather opaque discussion, though it is possibly the fault of the translation), Euthyphro says that the pious is loved by the gods because it is pious, and not that a thing is pious because it is loved by the gods. ‘Pious’ and ‘god-loved’, then, Socrates says, are not the same. He is right, but his reasoning is enough to make your head spin.

At length, Socrates says that “where there is piety there is also justice, but where there is justice there is not always piety, for the pious is a part of justice,” and asks Euthyphro to tell him “what part of the just the pious is.” Euthyphro replies that “the godly and pious is the part of the justice that is concerned with the care of the gods, while that concerned with the care of men is the remaining part of justice.” Socrates presses this definition, asking whether Euthyphro means ‘care’ in the same sense that a horse breeder cares for horses. At first, Euthyphro says that he does, but retracts this when Socrates asks if he then agrees that “when you do something pious you make some one of the gods better.” He says, then, that he means the kind of care “that slaves take of their masters,” which Socrates says is “likely to be a kind of service to the gods.”

Socrates asks then, whether Euthyphro would say that piety “a knowledge of how to sacrifice and pray”, that is, “a knowledge of how to give to, and beg from, the gods.” Euthyphro agrees, and Socrates comments that “to beg correctly would be to ask from them things that we need” and “to give correctly is to give them what they need from us,” and summarizes that “piety would then be a sort of trading skill between gods and men.” When Socrates asks what gifts we could give the gods, Euthyphro says that we can give honor, reverence, and gratitude, and that the pious “is of all things most dear to them.”

Socrates calls out Euthyphro, here, for saying that the pious is what is dear to the gods, when they had already agreed that this could not be so. Therefore, either they were wrong before, or they are wrong now. Therefore, Socrates says, they must “investigate again from the beginning what piety is.” Euthyphro is unwilling, and claims that he must go, for he is in a hurry, upon hearing which Socrates mourns that he shall not “escape Meletus’ indictment by showing him that [he] had acquired wisdom in divine matters from Euthyphro.” And so ends the dialogue.

Well, I agree with Socrates’s objections to Euthyphro’s definitions, though as far as answering Socrates’s question myself, I can certainly do no better. I will note, though, that although Euthyphro declared that it was not being loved by the gods that made a thing pious, it is not logically inconsistent to say the opposite. In fact, the idea that morality is a product of religion (i.e. that moral actions are those demanded by some god or gods and immoral actions are those so proscribed) is known as the divine command theory of ethics, or theological voluntarism.

Though divine command theory is not logically inconsistent, it is, in my opinion, unsatisfactory. If we accept that theory, then an action’s moral status would change if Zeus changed his mind, and any action, however horrible, would be moral if commanded. Furthermore, it does not allow us to say that God is morally good, since that would merely mean that God acts as He chooses to act–-a vacuous statement. If we would judge God’s goodness by other standards, such as whether his actions are benevolent or just, then we are back to the other side of the argument, that the morality of actions is not dependent on divine command. Altogether, an unsatisfactory situation.

The essential question of the Euthyphro is what is the basis of morality. This question has not been satisfactorily resolved by philosophers in the two millennia and change since Plato wrote the dialogue, so I think that Euthyphro may be forgiven for failing to provide an acceptable answer.

Character Type
Euthyphro Main
Socrates Main
Name Role
Plato Author


Relation Sources
Contained in
  • The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy, Eighth Edition (2018-09-17)
Discussed in
  • The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy, Eighth Edition (2018-09-17)