Monday, May 01, 2017

Thoughts on Plato's "Euthyphro"

What is “right”? What is “good”? How do you know if what you are doing is right? What is the measure of “good”? Age old problems, age old questions. Nearly four hundred years preceding the birth of Jesus, a Greek priest and a philosopher wrestled with these issues. Specifically, they discussed the matter of piety. What is piety? That’s the beauty of this conversation.

Meeting at Magistrate court, the priest wondered what the philosopher was doing there. The philosopher explains he is being indicted for corrupting the younger generations by rejecting the state gods and replacing them with his own. [I can't resist posting a clip from one of most favorite movies of all time, ever, "Fun With Dick and Jane" . . . I could loop this movie and never tire of it.]

Back to serious. 

What was the priest doing in court? He is prosecuting his father for killing a man who killed another man. How does piety fit into all this? The priest feels he is able to press his case on the grounds that he knows more about divine matters than most men and his prosecution is an act of piety. One can almost picture the philosopher (Socrates) stroking his chin thinking, “oh, really?” Socrates puts Euthyphro (Εὐθύφρω, pronounced “U-thif-ro”) to the test by asking this pompous know-it-all to teach him all he knows about piety, starting with a definition and despite every effort, the priest simply cannot do it.

One feature of the conversation that should not go missed hinges on the reason Socrates is being indicted: he “thinks” and there is no room for this in a pantheon of ancient gods. This is important because Euthyphro is convinced he knows all there is to know about what pleases the gods. First, Socrates rejects Euthyphro’s first definition of piety saying, “you did not teach me adequately . . . but you told me what you that what you are doing now, prosecuting your father for murder, is pious.” There are many pious actions. Next, the priest says, “what is dear to the gods is pious.” Socrates reminds Euthyphro that the gods are known to quarrel with one another, but if they can’t agree on what is beautiful, good and just, then what is dear to them? Zeus may approve of the prosecution, but what if Kronos or Uranus disapprove? The conversation wanders about like a wind-up toy and Socrates (this writer imagines) enjoys watching the man talk himself into revealing his own ignorance. By the way, “Euthyphro” in Greek means, “think in a straight line.”

A major portion of the conversation centers on the question: what do the gods love? If it is the pious, then the gods must not love the impious. Do the gods love the pious because it is something to be loved, or is it being loved because they love it? If sacrifice (giving gifts to gods who already have all they need) and prayer (begging from the gods for what is needed) is piety, then piety is merely a trading skill between gods and men. Euthyphro prosecutes his father for murder because the priest is religious. It’s too bad in the end that the priest literally runs off leaving Socrates ignorant.

What is “right”? What is “good”? How do you know if what you are doing is right? What is the measure of “good”? Socrates gives a hint very early when he begs for an absolute by which to compare all things. We must know what that is because we all agree that something can be called “right” or “good.” We may not agree on what is beautiful, but we all know there exists a thing called “beauty.” I think this measuring tool is connected with the conscience (“con” meaning “with”; and “science” meaning “knowledge”).

Read "Euthyphro" online here.

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