Ethics Study Guide: Socrates in the Euthyphro

"But, Socrates, I do not know how to say what I mean. For whatever statement we advance, somehow or other it moves about and won't stay where we put it."

The Euthyphro is another dialogue devoted to the attempt to define a particular virtue -- in this case, holiness or piety. This dialogue has particular significance because it was precisely on the charge of lacking piety/holiness that Socrates was brought to trial and condemned, and indeed as the dialogue begins Socrates is already preparing to face his upcoming trial. This dialogue tells us a bit about Socrates’ religious views: the “divine monitor” is mentioned -- i.e., the voice that Socrates claims often comes to him to give advice -- and we are also told that Socrates rejects the traditional Greek myths that portray the gods as being constantly in mutual conflict. (Later in the dialogue Socrates appeals to the mythological picture as a premise in one of his arguments, not because he believes it however, but because Euthyphro does, and Socrates is trying to expose the inconsistencies in Euthyphro’s beliefs.) We learn more about Socrates’ religious beliefs from Xenophon’s account of Socrates’ interrogation of a person named Aristodemus, who “was not known to sacrifice or pray or use divination, and actually made a mock of those who did so.”

[1.4.2] SOCRATES: Tell me, Aristodemus, do you admire any human beings for wisdom?


[1.4.3] SOCRATES: Tell us their names.

ARISTODEMUS: In epic poetry Homer comes first, in my opinion; in dithyramb, Melanippides; in tragedy, Sophocles; in sculpture, Polycleitus; in painting, Zeuxis.

[1.4.4] SOCRATES: Which, think you, deserve the greater admiration, the creators of phantoms without sense and motion, or the creators of living, intelligent, and active beings?

ARISTODEMUS: Oh, of living beings, by far, provided only they are created by design and not mere chance.

SOCRATES: Suppose that it is impossible to guess the purpose of one creature's existence, and obvious that another's serves a useful end, which, in your judgment, is the work of chance, and which of design?

ARISTODEMUS: Presumably the creature that serves some useful end is the work of design.

[1.4.5] SOCRATES: Do you not think then that he who created man from the beginning had some useful end in view when he endowed him with his several senses, giving eyes to see visible objects, ears to hear sounds? Would odours again be of any use to us had we not been endowed with nostrils? What perception should we have of sweet and bitter and all things pleasant to the palate had we no tongue in our mouth to discriminate between them? [1.4.6] Besides these, are there not other contrivances that look like the results of forethought? Thus the eyeballs, being weak, are set behind eyelids, that open like doors when we want to see, and close when we sleep: on the lids grow lashes through which the very winds filter harmlessly: above the eyes is a coping of brows that lets no drop of sweat from the head hurt them. The ears catch all sounds, but are never choked with them. Again, the incisors of all creatures are adapted for cutting, the molars for receiving food from them and grinding it. And again, the mouth, through which the food they want goes in, is set near the eyes and nostrils; but since what goes out is unpleasant, the ducts through which it passes are turned away and removed as far as possible from the organs of sense. With such signs of forethought in these arrangements, can you doubt whether they are the works of chance or design?

ARISTODEMUS: No, of course not. [1.4.7] When I regard them in this light they do look very like the handiwork of a wise and loving creator.

SOCRATES: What of the natural desire to beget children, the mother's desire to rear her babe, the child's strong will to live and strong fear of death?

ARISTODEMUS: Undoubtedly these, too, look like the contrivances of one who deliberately willed the existence of living creatures.

[1.4.8] SOCRATES: Do you think you have any wisdom yourself?

ARISTODEMUS: Oh! Ask me a question and judge from my answer.

SOCRATES: And do you suppose that wisdom is nowhere else to be found, although you know that you have a mere speck of all the earth in your body and a mere drop of all the water, and that of all the other mighty elements you received, I suppose, just a scrap towards the fashioning of your body? But as for mind, which alone, it seems, is without mass, do you think that you snapped it up by a lucky accident, and that the orderly ranks of all these huge masses, infinite in number, are due, forsooth, to a sort of absurdity?

[1.4.9] ARISTODEMUS: Yes; for I don't see the master hand, whereas I see the makers of things in this world.

SOCRATES: Neither do you see your own soul, which has the mastery of the body; so that, as far as that goes, you may say that you do nothing by design, but everything by chance.

[1.4.10] ARISTODEMUS: Really, Socrates, I don't despise the godhead. But I think it is too great to need my service.

SOCRATES: Then the greater the power that deigns to serve you, the more honour it demands of you.

[1.4.11] ARISTODEMUS: I assure you, that if I believed that the gods pay any heed to man, I would not neglect them.

SOCRATES: Then do you think them unheeding? In the first place, man is the only living creature that they have caused to stand upright; and the upright position gives him a wider range of vision in front and a better view of things above, and exposes him less to injury. Secondly, to grovelling creatures they have given feet that afford only the power of moving, whereas they have endowed man with hands, which are the instruments to which we chiefly owe our greater happiness. [1.4.12] Again, though all creatures have a tongue, the tongue of man alone has been formed by them to be capable of contact with different parts of the mouth, so as to enable us to articulate the voice and express all our wants to one another. Once more, for all other creatures they have prescribed a fixed season of sexual indulgence; in our case the only time limit they have set is old age. [1.4.13] Nor was the deity content to care for man's body. What is of yet higher moment, he has implanted in him the noblest type of soul. For in the first place what other creature's soul has apprehended the existence of gods who set in order the universe, greatest and fairest of things? And what race of living things other than man worships gods? And what soul is more apt than man's to make provision against hunger and thirst, cold and heat, to relieve sickness and promote health, to acquire knowledge by toil, and to remember accurately all that is heard, seen, or learned? [1.4.14] For is it not obvious to you that, in comparison with the other animals, men live like gods, by nature peerless both in body and in soul? For with a man's reason and the body of an ox we could not carry out our wishes, and the possession of hands without reason is of little worth. Do you, then, having received the two most precious gifts, yet think that the gods take no care of you? What are they to do, to make you believe that they are heedful of you?

[1.4.15] ARISTODEMUS: I will believe when they send counsellors, as you declare they do, saying, “Do this, avoid that.”

SOCRATES: But when the Athenians inquire of them by divination and they reply, do you not suppose that to you, too, the answer is given? Or when they send portents for warning to the Greeks, or to all the world? Are you their one exception, the only one consigned to neglect? [1.4.16] Or do you suppose that the gods would have put into man a belief in their ability to help and harm, if they had not that power; and that man throughout the ages would never have detected the fraud? Do you not see that the wisest and most enduring of human institutions, cities and nations, are most god-fearing, and that the most thoughtful period of life is the most religious? [1.4.17] Be well assured, my good friend, that the mind within you directs your body according to its will; and equally you must think that Thought indwelling in the Universe disposes all things according to its pleasure. For think not that your eye can travel over many furlongs and yet God's eye cannot see the the whole world at once; that your soul can ponder on things in Egypt and in Sicily, and God's thought is not sufficient to pay heed to the whole world at once. [1.4.18] Nay, but just as by serving men you find out who is willing to serve you in return, by being kind who will be kind to you in return, and by taking counsel, discover the masters of thought, so try the gods by serving them, and see whether they will vouchsafe to counsel you in matters hidden from man. Then you will know that such is the greatness and such the nature of the deity that he sees all things and hears all things alike, and is present in all places and heedful of all things.

-- Xenophon, Recollections of Socrates

Notice that Socrates’ conception of divinity is as a Universal Mind, which rules the universe in the same way that an individual’s mind rules the body. This is rather different from the traditional Greek conception of anthropomophic deities.

In order to understand this dialogue, it is useful to know something about the Athenian legal system. Athens had no lawyers in our sense -- neither private attorneys nor public prosectors. If you had a gripe against a fellow citizen, you sued him yourself, acting as your own representative in court. Nor were criminal cases treated differently from civil cases in this regard. If I thought that you had committed a crime, then I, as a private person, would bring a prosecution against you in court, acting as a representative of the community as a whole. This is both how Meletus is prosecuting Socrates and how Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father. (The “king” that Socrates is appearing before is not a genuine king but a minor official (or “archon”) in charge of certain court procedures; compare our use of “Drug Czar” or “Education Czar” for certain government posts.)

It is also useful to know something about the Greek conception of holiness. The Greeks traditionally believed that there were certain crimes -- “unholy” crimes -- that were especially offensive to the gods. These crimes would bring spiritual pollution on the criminal and on all who associated with him. One action considered especially unholy is to do anything to harm one’s parents. Another is to give shelter to a murderer or share living quarters with him. Euthyphro, then, would seem to be in a holiness-related dilemma. His father has committed murder; if he turns his father in for murder, he’ll be violating the holiness-requirement to refrain from harming his father; but if he doesn’t turn his father in, he’ll be violating the holiness-requirement to avoid sheltering a murderer. The average Athenian, then, would have found this a difficult dilemma. It would have been far from obvious that Euthyphro’s solution -- to bring charges against his father -- was the right one, particularly since the circumstances of the murder tend to be extenuating (the father did not intend to cause death, and the person he killed was himself a murderer). Yet Euthyphro is serenely confident that he is making the right decision, because he regards himself as an expert about holiness. It is this claim to expertise that Socrates sets out to puncture.

Like most of the interlocutors in the Socratic dialogues, Euthyphro was a real person, and really did claim expertise about religious matters. Again like most of the interlocutors, though, he may have been chosen as a character in the dialogue in part because it allows Plato to make a joke about his name. “Euthyphro” means “one who thinks in a straight line,” so there is a certain irony in the fact that Euthyphro keeps complaining that his arguments are going around in circles.

In the Analects of Confucius, we are told: “The Duke of Sheh told Confucius: ‘In my land, there are just men. If a father steals a sheep, the son will testify against him.’ Confucius said: ‘The just men in my land are different from this. The father conceals the wrongs of his son, and the son conceals the wrongs of his father. This is justice.’” Confucius seems to think that loyalty to one’s family should ordinarily take precedence over loyalty to the public. Euthyphro seems to disagree. Who is right?

Nowadays this dialogue is most famous for having posed (a version of) the question “Are actions right because the gods approve of them, or do the gods approve of them because they are right already?” Indeed, this is even known as “the Euthyphro Problem.” The problem has since worried theologians in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions more than it ever worried the Greeks, mainly because Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology attributes to God a radical supremacy more extreme than anything that most ancient Greeks would have granted.

The problem (which is nowadays usually posed as “Are actions right because God commands them, or does God command them because they are right already?”) is as follows:

If one takes the position that actions are right because God commands them (this is known as theological voluntarism, because, deriving from the Latin terms, it regards God’s willing (voluntas) of morality as prior to his understanding (intellectus) of morality), this seems to make God’s commands arbitrary. After all, one might think that if God forbids murder, that’s because there’s something wrong with murder, something about murder that God doesn’t like. But if theological voluntarism is true, then it is God’s forbidding murder that makes it wrong, and so there is nothing wrong with murder until God forbids it. But that in turn means that before God forbids murder, there is as yet no reason to forbid it, and so God has no reason for what he commands. This makes God’s commands arbitrary and random, and that seems like a undesirable conclusion.

But if one instead says that God does have some good reason for forbidding murder, that means that there’s already something wrong with murder before God forbids it. God’s forbidding murder is simply a response to the wrongness that he perceives murder to have. (This is known as theological intellectualism, because it regards God’s understanding (intellectus) of morality as prior to his willing (voluntas) of morality.) But this view has problems too. For it seems to suggest that God is subject to some moral standard that he did not create. But how can this be true if God is conceived as the supreme power over, and explanation of, everything in the universe? How can there be a moral standard independent of God?

Some philosophers have even used the Euthyphro Problem as an argument against the existence of God, as follows:

1. If there is a God, then either actions are right because God commands them or else God commands actions because they are right. (Premise)
2. If actions are right because God commands them, then God’s commands are random and arbitrary. (Premise)
3. God’s commands cannot be random or arbitrary. (Premise)
4. It is not the case that actions are right because God commands them. (2, 3)
5. If God commands actions because they are right, then God is subject to a moral standard beyond himself. (Premise)
6. God cannot be subject to any moral standard beyond himself. (Premise)
7. It is not the case that God commands actions because they are right. (4, 5)
8. It is not the case that actions are right because God commands them, nor is it the case that God commands actions because they are right. (4, 7)
9. There is no God. (1, 8)

We shall be looking later in the course at some attempts to answer this argument. (Thomas Aquinas, for example, is a theological intellectualist who tries to refute (5), while John Locke is a theological voluntarist who attempts to refute (2).) What’s worth noticing, however, is that the so-called “Euthyphro Problem” causes no puzzlement to either Socrates or Euthyphro; once they clearly see the issue, both unhesitatingly accept theological intellectualism, regarding divine approval as a response to the moral value of actions, rather than its creator. The most likely reason for this is that the Greeks did not regard divinity as involving the kind of supremacy that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians attribute to God; thus they had no particular inclination to affirm (6). (In Homeric epic, for example, Zeus, while supreme over the other gods, is subject to the requirements of Fate.)

In Greek thought, the virtue of holiness is always regarded as having something to do with the gods. If holiness is not obedience to divine commands, however, but such commands are rather a response to certain actions’ being holy already, what does the holiness of those actions consist in? Socrates several times hints that the virtue of holiness should be defined in terms of its end, i.e., whatever product it produces. He even gets Euthyphro to describe that end as “salvation to individual families and to states,” i.e., as human welfare. Although this dialogue is like the Laches in that it ends in apparent puzzlement, there is some evidence that Socrates is trying to get Euthyphro to recognize that holiness is the art of promoting human welfare -- in which case it would, predictably, be identical with that knowledge of good and evil which Socrates says is the essence of all virtue. If this is the intended moral of the Euthyphro, then Socrates is steering us toward a definition of holiness from which, unexpectedly, all reference to the gods drops out.

We will get a better picture of Socrates’ views on holiness and service to the gods, however, in the next dialogue: the Apology.

Study Questions

1. Why does Socrates think Euthyphro must be an expert on piety? (4 e-5 b)

2. What argument does Euthyphro give for defining holiness as prosecuting a wrongdoer even if he is your father? (5 c-6 a)

3. What objection does Socrates give to the argument? (6 a-c)

4. What objection does Socrates give to the definition? (6 c-e)

5. What objection does Socrates give to Euthyphro’s definition of holiness as that which is dear to the gods? (6 e-8 b) Does Socrates accept the premises of this argument?

6. What objection does Socrates give to Euthyphro’s definition of holiness as that which all the gods love? (9 c-11 b) [Be careful not to confuse question 6 with question 5 -- a mistake frequently made on quizzes.]

7. What does Socrates say about the relationship between the right (or justice) and holiness? (11 e-12 e) Does this represent Socrates’ real view? (Remember what Socrates says about the Unity of Virtue in the Protagoras.)

8. What objection does Socrates give to Euthyphro’s definition of holiness as that part of justice that involves attending the gods? (12 e-13 d)

9. What question does Socrates ask about Euthyphro’s definition of holiness as service to the gods? (13 d-14 b)

10. What objection does Socrates give to Euthyphro’s definition of holiness as expertise in sacrificing and praying to the gods? (14 b-15 c)

Back to Study Guide index