Joshua J. Mark
published on 18 January 2012
Plato's Euthyphro is a dialogue between Socrates and the young 'prophet' Euthyphro outside the court in Athens just before Socrates is to go to trial. As Socrates has been charged by the Athenians with 'impiety', and as Euthypho claims to understand piety perfectly (5a) Socrates, sarcastically, asks the younger man to explain "what is piety and what is impiety?" Having at first stated that he can easily define 'piety' as well as "many other stories about divine matters"(6c) it soon becomes clear that Euthyphro has no idea what piety is and no clear idea about "that accurate knowledge" (14b) of the will of the gods he boasts of repeatedly.
The importance of understanding the meaning of this concept of 'piety' is impressed upon a reader in that Euthyphro is at court to prosecute a case against his own father for impiety (his father allowed a laborer, who had killed a slave, to die, bound in a ditch, while he awaited word from the authorities on how he should proceed against the man) while Socrates, of course, is there to defend himself against the same charge of impiety for "corrupting the youth" and "inventing new gods" (3b). The man prosecuting Socrates, Meletus, is presented as being about the same age as and having the same understanding of piety as Euthyphro does; so in questioning the young man on the meaning of piety, Socrates is symbolically questioning his own accuser and, more importantly, questioning that complacency of accepting easy answers to the most difficult problems.
Piety in Ancient Greece
The concept under discussion, translated as 'piety', was known as Eusebia in ancient Greece. The word 'piety' comes from the Latin pietas and means 'dutiful conduct' while, today, 'piety' is usually understood as "religious devotion and reverence to God" (Ameican Heritage Dictionary) but, in ancient Greece, Eusebia meant neither of these exclusively and, at the same time, meant more. Eusebia was the ideal which dictated how men and women interacted, how a master should speak to a slave, how one addressed a seller in the marketplace as well as how one conducted oneself toward the gods. When Socrates is charged with impiety (Dyssebia in Greek), however much one, today, may find unjust with the charge, in encouraging the youth of Athens to question their elders Socrates would, in fact, have been guilty under the law. In the dialogue of the Euthyphro, in fact, a reader gets a first-hand view of Socrates 'corrupting' the youth of Athens as he tries to lead the young man to the realization that what God wants is not as easily grasped as conventional wisdom would have it. The question, "Do the gods love piety because it is pious, or is it pious because they love it" (10a) is never fully answered and, indeed, remains unanswered today.
Before he met Socrates, Plato intended on pursing a career as a playwright and in the Euthyphro a careful reader will appreciate the talent of the comic dramatist. While initially boasting that he knows everything about piety, it becomes clear, after four different definitions of the concept are introduced, that Euthyphro knows nothing of piety other than the conventional definition he has been taught by others, most notably the very father he is now prosecuting for impiety. The father of the household was Lord (Kyrios) and had the responsibility of teaching his sons the importance of eusebia, among other things. That Euthyphro should prosecute his own father for impiety, without fully understanding the concept he is allegedly defending, would not succeed so well as comedy if Plato did not draw the character so carefully and so accurately.
One recognizes having known a Euthyphro at one point or another in one's life: the sort of person who speaks loudly and with confidence on matters he does not know and, often, matters no one can possibly know. That Euthyphro's pretension is so profoundly annoying throughout the dialogue is testament to Plato's skill as a writer; in this dialogue one meets a young man one already knows because he is a type who is still with us and, more importantly, is a type who is us. Plato's Euthyphro is a potent, while comic, warning against the pretension of speaking - and acting - on subjects one knows nothing about.
This article was first published on the site Suite 101. C. 2009 Joshua J. Mark