By Omar Chishti '22
Edited by London Johns '25 and Natalie Simpson '23
EUTHYPHRO: “I would certainly say that the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate is impious.”
SOCRATES: “But now you see that they are in opposite cases as being altogether different from each other: the one is such as to be loved because it is being loved, the other is being loved because it is such as to be loved.” (9e-11a)1
. . .
The Euthyphro is a dialogue between Plato’s teacher, Socrates, and the eponymous Euthyphro. The two characters meet outside the king-archon’s court just before they embark on two separate trials: Socrates as a defendant and Euthyphro as a prosecutor. The nature of these trials is central to the theme of this dialogue, for Socrates must defend himself from a charge of ‘impiety’ whilst Euthyphro maintains it is ‘piety’ that compels him to try his own father. This incongruity foreshadows an elenctic2 discussion between the two regarding the nature of piety and an attempt to arrive at the ‘form’ or ‘eidos’ of piety (although the Platonic theory of forms is not fully delineated in this dialogue).
The portion of the dialogue this paper’s analysis focuses on contains one of the six definitions of piety raised by Euthyphro in response to Socrates’ examination. This definition (“the pious is what all the gods love”) is arrived at ad hoc from a prior one (“Piety is that which is dear to the gods”) when Socrates raises the capricious nature of the Greek pantheon — leading to differences between what gods consider dear to themselves — as a flaw in the prior definition.
For the sake of clear philosophical analysis, the argument of the assigned passage is reproduced in part on the following page, omitting auxiliary comments by Euthyphro, and grouping sections of the argument together into distinct sections. Although [spoiler alert] the dialogue ends in aporia,3 without a perfect universal definition of piety left for the reader, the arguments contained therein hold a utility independent of their faithfulness to a final function, and it is this utility that this paper hopes to bring to focus and explore.
I) Definition —
E: I would certainly say that the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is the impious.
II) The Euthyphro Dilemma —
S: We shall soon know better whether it is. Consider this: Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?
III) Analogy Is Introduced —
S: I shall try to explain more clearly: we speak of something being carried and something carrying, of something being led and something leading, of something being seen and something seeing, and you understand that these things are all different from one another and how they differ?
IV) Distinction between Subject and Object —
S: So there is something being loved and something loving, and the loving is a different thing.
S: Tell me then whether that which is being carried is being carried because someone carries it or for some other reason.
S: And that which is being led is so because someone leads it, and that which is being seen because someone sees it?
V) The Present Participle; Subject Affects Object —
S: It is not seen by someone because it is being seen but on the contrary it is being seen because someone sees it, nor is it because it is being led that someone leads it but because someone leads it that it is being led; nor does someone carry an object because it is being carried, but it is being carried because someone carries it. Is what I want to say clear, Euthyphro? I want to say this, namely, that if anything comes to be, or is affected, it does not come to be because it is coming to be, but it is coming to be because it comes to be; nor is it affected because it is being affected but because something affects it. Or do you not agree?
S: What is being loved is either something that comes to be or something that is affected by something?
S: So it is in the same case as the things just mentioned; it is not loved by those who love it because it is being loved, but it is being loved because they love it?
VI) Return to the Euthyphro Dilemma —
S: What then do we say about the pious, Euthyphro? Surely that it is loved by all the gods, according to what you say?
S: It is loved then because it is pious, but it is not pious because it is loved?
S: And because it is loved by the gods it is being loved and is dear to the gods?
S: The god-beloved is then not the same as the pious, Euthyphro, nor the pious the same as the god-beloved, as you say it is, but one differs from the other.
S: Because we agree that the pious is beloved for the reason that it is pious, but it is not pious because it is loved. Is that not so?
S: And that the god-beloved, on the other hand, is so because it is loved by the gods, by the very fact of being loved, but it is not loved because it is god-beloved.
VII) Conclusion —
S: But if the god-beloved and the pious were the same, my dear Euthyphro, and the pious were loved because it was pious, then the god-beloved would be loved because it was god-beloved, and if the god-beloved was god-beloved because it was loved by the gods, then the pious would also be pious because it was loved by the gods; but now you see that they are in opposite cases as being altogether different from each other: the one is of a nature to be loved because it is loved, the other is loved because it is of a nature to be loved.
Socrates begins his systematic dismantling of Euthyphro’s proffered definition of piety (I) by raising the question immortalized as the ‘Euthyphro Dilemma’: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (II). There are two alternatives offered here. One is Euthyphro’s opinion that the pious is pious because it is loved by the gods. The other implies that it is an inherent quality of the pious which makes the gods love it, and that it is not divine love which makes the pious pious. Already the conflicting definitions and abstract nature of concepts being discussed make the argument difficult to follow, so Socrates resorts to an analogy (III) to make the distinction between his view and Euthyphro’s view more apparent.
The application of an analogy to resolve a question hinges on the assumption that conclusions reached from considering the analogy may freely be applied back to the original problem. The analogy used by Socrates leaves out notions of piety for the time being, and focuses on the ‘god-beloved.’ This conscious decision to resolve the conflict through a concept whose definition the debaters can agree upon (the god-beloved) instead of one whose meaning is as yet contentious (the pious) is commendable. Socrates invokes first the grammatical concepts of subjects and objects in terms of traditional grammar, which defines the object (‘something being carried,’ ‘something being seen,’ ‘something being led’) as the entity that is acted upon by the subject (‘someone carries,’ ‘someone sees,’ ‘someone leads’). After establishing the distinction between subject and object, Socrates also clarifies that it is the subject that is the agent of the verb affecting the object — the object is affected not because it is being affected but because something affects it (V). It is a necessarily abstruse way of saying that it is not an intrinsic characteristic of a thing which makes it the object of a verb, but the fact that a subject acts upon it that makes it the object. In order to set up the bridge back to the question that the analogy was introduced to resolve, the conclusion reached in this analogy is stated in terms of something that is ‘being loved’: Something is being loved because someone loves it, and the reverse is untrue (someone does not love it because it is being loved).
The conclusions of the analogy are now applied in The Return to the Euthyphro Dilemma (VI), and, as shown in the following paragraph, one view (that of Socrates) is shown to triumph over the other (that of Euthyphro’s definition). There are no clear flaws in the application of the analogy’s conclusion to the original problem, since the analogy is only a generalized form of the original problem. A possible point of contention in the argument occurs, however, when Socrates introduces the “god-beloved” to stand in for what Euthyphro’s definition calls “what all the gods love’. This is an inversion of the active voice to the passive voice, and although logically equivalent (allowing the argument to proceed), it is a tricky swap.This is especially true given that the entire semantic argument in the Analogy (IV & V) hinges upon grammatical specifics and the agent/acted-upon relationship between elements in a sentence. Socrates sets the views from the Euthyphro Dilemma apart following the bridge from the analogy back to the Dilemma, saying that the “pious is beloved for the reason that it is pious, but it is not pious because it is loved” while the “god-beloved, on the other hand, is so because it is loved by the gods, by the very fact of being loved, but it is not loved because it is god-beloved.” In simpler terms, the pious and the god-beloved are differentiated based on whether they possess an inherent nature that makes them what they are (the pious) or are merely so because something external acts upon them (the god-beloved).
The final section of the argument (VII) employs a proof by contradiction, as Socrates assumes that Euthyphro’s definition is true (“if the god-beloved and the pious were the same”), and substitutes the god-beloved for the pious into the statements about their properties mutually agreed upon in (VI). Applying this equality immediately leads to a statement (“god-beloved would be loved because it was god-beloved”) which contradicts an earlier statement (“it [the god-beloved] is not loved because it is god-beloved”). Since the truth of the earlier statement is upheld by the analogy and the semantic discussion on grammatical rules, this contradiction necessarily implies that the equality (i.e god-beloved = pious) is false, and Euthyphro’s definition fails. The logic at play in this section of the argument may be generalized as follows: When two terms are equal (i.e. they refer to the same thing), then every true statement about the first term must also be true for the second; every statement that is false of the first term must likewise be false of the second. An example of this logic could be statements about a woman who goes by two names: Jacqueline and Jacky. If any two statements (“Jacqueline is from Brooklyn” and “Jacky is not a lawyer”) about this woman are both true, then by the substitution principle, the substituted statements are true as well (“Jacky is from Brooklyn” and “Jacqueline is not a lawyer”). Assuming such an equality between piety and the god-beloved, however, shows that there exists a statement that is true for the pious but false for the god-beloved. Euthyphro’s definition, which equates the pious and the god-beloved, doesn’t stand, since the truth value of a certain statement about the pious changes when applied to the god-beloved.
Although the logic behind Socrates’ refutation of Euthyphro’s definition of piety is clear, the specifics of its implications are left for the reader to piece together. The essential takeaway from the conclusion of this section of the dialogue is that there exists an inherent nature of pious things by virtue of which they attract the love of the divine; Euthyphro’s definition, by choosing to define the pious as that which is loved by the gods, merely indicates a quality of the pious which is a consequence of its nature, and fails to actually capture that inherent nature. The essential reason Socrates finds fault with Euthyphro’s definition, the focal point of this paper’s extract from the Euthyphro, is that it uses one descriptive quality of the concept to be defined, leaving the concept as a whole undefined. An illustration of why such a definition is flawed is provided in the following example: Two characteristics of a Washington apple are that it is a fruit and that it is red. If an apple was defined merely in terms of these two characteristics (“an apple is a red fruit”), no insight is gained by this definition into what separates an apple from other things with those characteristics (cherries, cranberries, strawberries). Another way in which Socrates could have refuted Euthyphro’s definition, immediately suggested by this preceding example, would have been to find a counterexample: any act or object that all the gods love but is not pious. While Socrates, with ease and aplomb, would presumably have found less trivial examples to which Euthyphro would have been forced to nod along, a simple one that comes to mind is ambrosia — the gods all love it, yet it would be difficult for even the most convoluted rhetorical acrobatics to defend the claim that the divine food is pious.
A tool Socrates employs to refute the three futile definitions Euthyphro raises following the failure of the one in this extract is recursion:4 an elenctic examination which leads Euthyphro to proceed from a new definition until a statement given and proven wrong within this extract is echoed (“Or do you not realize that our argument has moved around and come again to the same place? Either we were wrong when we agreed before, or, if we were right then, we are wrong now” (15c)). An allusion is made to Daedalus5 with reference to this movement of each argument’s implications back to the flawed premises of a previous argument. This extract, then, by being referred back to in the sections of the dialogue that follow it, takes on a central role in the argument and search for the form of piety in Euthyphro.
Although both piety and impiety are mentioned in Euthyphro’s definition, the dialogue pursues only the form of piety and lets the latter be defined as an antithesis to the former (replacing ‘love’ with ‘hate’). Since the self-same arguments which show that there is a distinction between the god-beloved and the pious can be applied to the god-hated and the impious, the definition fails on both counts. One question which could have been raised about the contrast between piety and impiety is as follows: Is it necessary that all which is not pious be impious? In other words, does the world exist in a strict dichotomy between the pious and the impious, with no neutral ground? Or in terms of Euthyphro’s divine-dependent definition, do the gods vacillate between the poles of love and hate, without indifference to anything? In the Greek conception of the divine, wherein “there really is war among the gods, and terrible enmities and battles, and other such things as are told by the poets” (6c), it is doubtful that they are so different from mortals as to hold such binary opinions on all that happens and all that exists.
Euthyphro propounds definitions and arguments throughout this dialogue which are neither valid nor sound; his definitions are assertions sans premises, as repeatedly discovered on critical examination. This in itself is a delicious irony, because Euthyphro is presumably merely repeating definitions of piety that a mentor figure such as his father taught him — the same father whom Euthyphro is now prosecuting for impious acts. Socrates’ arguments, on the other hand, follow a clear logical organization and progress in this dialogue from universal semantic truths to their natural conclusions. If Socrates’ arguments in the Euthyphro prove one thing, it is that the inherent nature of pious acts is one that is independent of the divine. The implications of this Socratic conception of morality and justice as human constructs rather than divine constructs are obviously troubling to an orthodox theistic society such as that of Athens.
The dogged quest seen in the Euthyphro for the inherent nature of things, or their ‘form,’ is a constant refrain in later Platonic writings, which expound an entire philosophy based on the idea. Ending as it does in aporia, it is easy to question the utility of Socrates’ line of questioning when it fails to yield a suitable definition of piety. In the wider context surrounding this dialogue, however, Euthyphro’s inability to adequately define piety is far more telling than any rudimentary definition of piety ever could be. Socrates doesn’t need a successful definition of piety. By making it painfully apparent that Euthyphro, a self-proclaimed young expert in “piety [and] many other stories about divine matters” (6c), in fact knows little of the true form of piety, Socrates is casting aspersions on the credentials of his accuser Meletus (described as similarly young and head-strong) to prosecute him on charges of impiety. The dialogue, then, is a proxy questioning of Meletus himself. Unsurprisingly, this line of defense (pleading innocence for lack of definition of piety) fails to muster the support of the jury in the Apology, and unfortunately for Western philosophy and Athens (or fortunately for DS students’ reading loads), Socrates is sentenced to death. The allusion to Daedalus (“my ancestor, Daedalus” (11c)) in a section of the Euthyphro after the extract in this paper and the tragic tale of Icarus come back to the reader’s mind with morbid undertones in the dialogues and works that follow the Euthyphro — to mix Plato’s analogies and allusions, did Socrates die because he flew too close to the ‘sun’ (the form of things) and ventured too far outside the ‘cave’ (the realm of unenlightened mortals)?
1. Plato, and G. M. A. Grube. Five Dialogues. Hackett Pub. Co. 2002.
2. Professor Verity Harte. Guide to Philosophical Analysis. Canvas. 2018
1. Plato, and G. M. A. Grube. Five Dialogues. Hackett Pub. Co. 2002.
2. The Socratic method of eliciting truth by question and answer, especially as used to refute an argument.
3. An irresolvable internal contradiction or logical disjunction in a text, argument, or theory.
4. The repeated application of a recursive procedure or definition
5. Ancient Greek inventor famed for making automatons, the Cretan Labyrinth. and Icarus’ wings