Plato – Euthyphro

Euthyphro’s father detained, and then neglected, a servant that murdered one of the family slaves. The servant died of hunger and cold. Euthyphro, out of piety, felt obligated to turn in his father. The rest of his family asked him to keep quiet. In their eyes’ Euthyphro’s father’s actions were not that big of a deal. Family should not turn on family.

When Socrates ran into Euthyphro, and found out what he was doing, he responded to Euthyphro as if he trusted Euthyphro, as if Euthyphro really knew what was right, and asked Euthyphro to teach him. Socrates was known for claiming to “know nothing.”

Socrates asked Euthyphro what the definition of piety was. Euthyphro answered that it was the actions loved by the gods. Socrates, happy to have found the answer, asked a few clarifying questions, as per his reputation, just to make sure he had actually found the truth. Of course, under further examination, Euthyphro revealed that he did not know (1) if an action was pious because it was loved by the gods, or (2) if the gods loved it because it was pious. If (1) was true, how could one argue that the preference of the gods was not arbitrary? If (2) was the case, one must concede that “the good” does not originate with the gods, which puts into question the greatness of the gods. Also, why do the gods love it when humans behave piously? Are they improved by human behavior? If not, then why do they care what humans do? If so, then it sounds like they are not as great and powerful as the Greeks generally thought of them.

Plato’s writings have played a tremendous influence in Christian thought and Western philosophy. Although Christian theology is not vulnerable to the idea that the gods disagree with each other (in the way that the Greek gods did), “Euthyphro’s dilemma,” and other themes brought up in this dialogue, still apply. Christian philosophers, especially during the Middle Ages, fought to defend the idea that God’s greatness does not depend on human effort, while retaining the idea that God was all-powerful, all-knowing, acting out of free will, gracious, loving, good, and the source of all goodness. Is there a way to respond to Socrates without running away anxiously to another meeting like Euthyphro?

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