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Euthyphro Notes

Classics Notes > Plato’s Meno and Euthyphro Notes

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The dialogue of the Euthyphro centres on the discussion of Socrates and Euthyphro about the nature of to hosion (the pious/holy). The dramatic setting is on the threshold of the King Archon where Socrates is about to be indicted on a charge of corrupting the youth of Athens by introducing new gods and Euthyphro is bringing proceedings against his own father. This introduction takes up considerable part of the dialogue for something which does not directly contribute to the central discussion, however Plato clearly meant it to serve a purpose and it does just that. The main concern of the prologue is the fact that Euthyphro is convicting his father for indirectly murdering a hired labourer, who himself murdered, on their farm by neglecting him whilst waiting for religious guidance on his punishment. This, Euthyphro says, was an impious deed and by association to his father he has himself become polluted and so needs to cleanse his house by prosecuting his father. Euthyphro is immediately given a bold and strong personality as he is going against the wish of his family and presumably legal and social convention. He does so because he is deeply conservative and shows later in the dialogue that he adheres literally to old stories about the gods, and perhaps more importantly he claims to have a full and deep knowledge of what makes a man pious. This sets up an inevitable dramatic clash of personalities between this man and Socrates and in many ways he is a perfect interlocutor. He is confident in his beliefs and has a strong personality, which is beneficial because he is not simply a yes-man for Socrates and he provides an apt person for the elenchos method of inquiry. Furthermore what he is doing to his father is perhaps highly controversial and is done with the supposed backing of piety so it provides a good, and necessary, prompt for the question, "What is piety?" The first definition of piety which is put forward comes directly from this, Euthyphro says that what he is doing, undertaking a prosecution for murder (no matter who is the murderer), is what is pious. As evidence he states the behaviour of Zeus who banishes his own father, and Cronos who castrates his. He is thereby taking as his definition of piety the actions of the gods, but he provides no defence as to why their behaviour is appropriate to be imitated by mortals. Just because it is acceptable for gods to act in this way in relation to other gods, doesn't mean it would be for men in relation to other men or to the gods. Socrates also points out that that it is impossible to know whether these things actually happened and so it would be foolish to follow as moral guidance what cannot be proved to be anything more than stories. He also finds it hard to accept the notion of god's civil war and fearful hostility. Maybe he is implying that if the gods were really like this they would not be worth following because they do not appear moral themselves, or that the gods are essentially moral themselves and so this behaviour is inconsistent with that therefore poor as a basis for a theory of piety here. Socrates rejects this first definition of piety because it is only an example of an instance in which one is pious. The type of answer he wants is a standard by which he can judge whether individual actions are pious or not. He does not want an example of it but a concept of it by which he can instantly identify what is pious and what is not. He later says that in an argument over how long something is they can resort to measuring, what he needs is the same sort of general standard so he can do the same with piety.

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