Excerpt from Plato's Euthyphro
The following is an excerpt from a dialogue by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato called the Euthyphro. Let me tell you what's going on the dialogue since I have given you only an excerpt. There are two characters, Socrates and Euthyphro. Euthyphro, a prosecutor, has been accused of being impious for prosecuting his father for murder. Socrates and Euthyphro begin talking about it. In his characteristically Socratic way, Socrates asks, "What is piety?" A good deal of the dialogue is taken up trying to answer this question.
You might ask, Why do we care about piety? The answer is that Socrates' remarks about piety apply equally well to morality. We might take Socrates as asking, "What is morality?", or perhaps even, "What makes an action morally right?" This, of course, is the question we're investigating in the course right now.
Some people have tried to connect morality with religion. They say that what's makes an action right is that the action is approved by God (this is one way of stating the Divine Command Theory). In the dialogue, Euthyphro proposes a similar answer to the question of what makes an action pious. Socrates argues against this proposal. Try to figure out what Socrates' argument is.
I have underlined some portions of the text that I think are of particular importance or interest.
P.S. If you want to read the whole dialogue, you'll find it here: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html.
[Euthyphro plans to prosecute his father for murder. Some have thought this to be wrong, or "impious." Socrates comments on this common opinion. By the way, Meletus, whom they mention, is a guy who has charged Socrates with impiety for, among other things, "corrupting the youth." -ch]
Soc. By the powers, Euthyphro! how little does the common herd know of the nature of right and truth. A man must be an extraordinary man, and have made great strides in wisdom, before he could have seen his way to bring such an action.
Euth. Indeed, Socrates, he must.
Soc. I suppose that the man whom your father murdered was one of your relatives-clearly he was; for if he had been a stranger you would never have thought of prosecuting him.
Euth. I am amused, Socrates, at your making a distinction between one who is a relation and one who is not a relation; for surely the pollution is the same in either case, if you knowingly associate with the murderer when you ought to clear yourself and him by proceeding against him. The real question is whether the murdered man has been justly slain. If justly, then your duty is to let the matter alone; but if unjustly, then even if the murderer lives under the same roof with you and eats at the same table, proceed against him. Now the man who is dead was a poor dependent of mine who worked for us as a field labourer on our farm in Naxos, and one day in a fit of drunken passion he got into a quarrel with one of our domestic servants and slew him. My father bound him hand and foot and threw him into a ditch, and then sent to Athens to ask of a diviner what he should do with him. Meanwhile he never attended to him and took no care about him, for he regarded him as a murderer; and thought that no great harm would be done even if he did die. Now this was just what happened. For such was the effect of cold and hunger and chains upon him, that before the messenger returned from the diviner, he was dead. And my father and family are angry with me for taking the part of the murderer and prosecuting my father. They say that he did not kill him, and that if he did, dead man was but a murderer, and I ought not to take any notice, for that a son is impious who prosecutes a father. Which shows, Socrates, how little they know what the gods think about piety and impiety.
Soc. Good heavens, Euthyphro! and is your knowledge of religion and of things pious and impious so very exact, that, supposing the circumstances to be as you state them, you are not afraid lest you too may be doing an impious thing in bringing an action against your father?
Euth. The best of Euthyphro, and that which distinguishes him, Socrates, from other men, is his exact knowledge of all such matters. What should I be good for without it?
Soc. Rare friend! I think that I cannot do better than be your disciple. Then before the trial with Meletus comes on I shall challenge him, and say that I have always had a great interest in religious questions, and now, as he charges me with rash imaginations and innovations in religion, I have become your disciple. You, Meletus, as I shall say to him, acknowledge Euthyphro to be a great theologian, and sound in his opinions; and if you approve of him you ought to approve of me, and not have me into court; but if you disapprove, you should begin by indicting him who is my teacher, and who will be the ruin, not of the young, but of the old; that is to say, of myself whom he instructs, and of his old father whom he admonishes and chastises. And if Meletus refuses to listen to me, but will go on, and will not shift the indictment from me to you, I cannot do better than repeat this challenge in the court.
Euth. Yes, indeed, Socrates; and if he attempts to indict me I am mistaken if I do not find a flaw in him; the court shall have a great deal more to say to him than to me.
Soc. And I, my dear friend, knowing this, am desirous of becoming your disciple. For I observe that no one appears to notice you--not even this Meletus; but his sharp eyes have found me out at once, and he has indicted me for impiety. And therefore, I adjure you to tell me the nature of piety and impiety, which you said that you knew so well, and of murder, and of other offences against the gods. What are they? Is not piety in every action always the same? and impiety, again- is it not always the opposite of piety, and also the same with itself, having, as impiety, one notion which includes whatever is impious?
Euth. To be sure, Socrates.
Soc. And what is piety, and what is impiety?
Euth. Piety is doing as I am doing; that is to say, prosecuting any one who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or of any similar crime--whether he be your father or mother, or whoever he may be--that makes no difference; and not to prosecute them is impiety. And please to consider, Socrates, what a notable proof I will give you of the truth of my words, a proof which I have already given to others:-of the principle, I mean, that the impious, whoever he may be, ought not to go unpunished. For do not men regard Zeus as the best and most righteous of the gods?--and yet they admit that he bound his father (Cronos) because he wickedly devoured his sons, and that he too had punished his own father (Uranus) for a similar reason, in a nameless manner. And yet when I proceed against my father, they are angry with me. So inconsistent are they in their way of talking when the gods are concerned, and when I am concerned.
Soc. May not this be the reason, Euthyphro, why I am charged with impiety--that I cannot away with these stories about the gods? and therefore I suppose that people think me wrong. But, as you who are well informed about them approve of them, I cannot do better than assent to your superior wisdom. What else can I say, confessing as I do, that I know nothing about them? Tell me, for the love of Zeus, whether you really believe that they are true.
Euth. Yes, Socrates; and things more wonderful still, of which the world is in ignorance.
Soc. And do you really believe that the gods, fought with one another, and had dire quarrels, battles, and the like, as the poets say, and as you may see represented in the works of great artists? The temples are full of them; and notably the robe of Athene, which is carried up to the Acropolis at the great Panathenaea, is embroidered with them. Are all these tales of the gods true, Euthyphro?
Euth. Yes, Socrates; and, as I was saying, I can tell you, if you would like to hear them, many other things about the gods which would quite amaze you.
Soc. I dare say; and you shall tell me them at some other time when I have leisure. But just at present I would rather hear from you a more precise answer, which you have not as yet given, my friend, to the question, What is "piety"? When asked, you only replied, Doing as you do, charging your father with murder.
Euth. And what I said was true, Socrates.
Soc. No doubt, Euthyphro; but you would admit that there are many other pious acts?
Euth. There are.
Soc. Remember that I did not ask you to give me two or three examples of piety, but to explain the general idea which makes all pious things to be pious. Do you not recollect that there was one idea which made the impious impious, and the pious pious?
Euth. I remember.
Soc. Tell me what is the nature of this idea, and then I shall have a standard to which I may look, and by which I may measure actions, whether yours or those of any one else, and then I shall be able to say that such and such an action is pious, such another impious.
Euth. I will tell you, if you like.
Soc. I should very much like.
[I have here removed some text in which Euthyphro gave a proposal that Socrates shot down. Immediately following is Euthyphro's next proposal. Try to figure out why Socrates finds this proposal unsatisfactory -ch]
Euth. Yes, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, impious.
Soc. Ought we to enquire into the truth of this, Euthyphro, or simply to accept the mere statement on our own authority and that of others? What do you say?
Euth. We should enquire; and I believe that the statement will stand the test of enquiry.
Soc. We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.
Euth. I do not understand your meaning, Socrates.
Soc. I will endeavour to explain: we, speak of carrying and we speak of being carried, of leading and being led, seeing and being seen. You know that in all such cases there is a difference, and you know also in what the difference lies?
Euth. I think that I understand.
Soc. And is not that which is beloved distinct from that which loves?
Soc. Well; and now tell me, is that which is carried in this state of carrying because it is carried, or for some other reason?
Euth. No; that is the reason.
Soc. And the same is true of what is led and of what is seen?
Soc. And a thing is not seen because it is visible, but conversely, visible because it is seen; nor is a thing led because it is in the state of being led, or carried because it is in the state of being carried, but the converse of this. And now I think, Euthyphro, that my meaning will be intelligible; and my meaning is, that any state of action or passion implies previous action or passion. It does not become because it is becoming, but it is in a state of becoming because it becomes; neither does it suffer because it is in a state of suffering, but it is in a state of suffering because it suffers. Do you not agree?
Soc. Is not that which is loved in some state either of becoming or suffering?
Soc. And the same holds as in the previous instances; the state of being loved follows the act of being loved, and not the act the state.
Soc. And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro: is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?
Soc. Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?
Euth. No, that is the reason.
Soc. It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?
Soc. And that which is dear to the gods is loved by them, and is in a state to be loved of them because it is loved of them?
Soc. Then that which is dear to the gods, Euthyphro, is not holy, nor is that which is holy loved of God, as you affirm; but they are two different things.
Euth. How do you mean, Socrates?
Soc. I mean to say that the holy has been acknowledge by us to be loved of God because it is holy, not to be holy because it is loved.
Soc. But that which is dear to the gods is dear to them because it is loved by them, not loved by them because it is dear to them.
Soc. But, friend Euthyphro, if that which is holy is the same with that which is dear to God, and is loved because it is holy, then that which is dear to God would have been loved as being dear to God; but if that which dear to God is dear to him because loved by him, then that which is holy would have been holy because loved by him. But now you see that the reverse is the case, and that they are quite different from one another. For one is of a kind to be loved cause it is loved, and the other is loved because it is of a kind to be loved. Thus you appear to me, Euthyphro, when I ask you what is the essence of holiness, to offer an attribute only, and not the essence--the attribute of being loved by all the gods. But you still refuse to explain to me the nature of holiness. And therefore, if you please, I will ask you not to hide your treasure, but to tell me once more what holiness or piety really is, whether dear to the gods or not (for that is a matter about which we will not quarrel) and what is impiety?
Euth. I really do not know, Socrates, how to express what I mean. For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn round and walk away from us.