Monday, April 04, 2011

Euthyphro: glad to reward anyone who is willing to listen

From the introduction of Euthyphro in Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper:
The scene is the agora or central marketplace of Athens, before the offices of the magistrate who registers and makes preliminary inquiries into charges brought under the laws protecting the city from the gods’ displeasure. There Socrates meets Euthyphro—Socrates is on his way in to answer the charges of ‘impiety’ brought against him by three younger fellow citizens, on which he is going to be condemned to death, as we learn in the Apology. Euthyphro has just deposed murder charges against his own father for the death of a servant. Murder was a religious offense, since it entailed ‘pollution’ which if not ritually purified was displeasing to the gods; but equally, a son’s taking such action against his father might well itself be regarded as ‘impious’. Euthyphro professes to be acting on esoteric knowledge about the gods and their wishes, and so about the general topic of ‘piety’. Socrates seizes the opportunity to acquire from Euthyphro this knowledge of piety so that he can rebut the accusations against himself. However, like all his other interlocutors in Plato’s ‘Socratic’ dialogues, Euthyphro cannot answer Socrates’ questions to Socrates’ satisfaction, or ultimately to his own. So he cannot make it clear what piety is—though he continues to think that he does know it. Thus, predictably, Socrates’ hopes are disappointed; just when he is ready to press further to help Euthyphro express his knowledge, if indeed he does possess it, Euthyphro begs off on the excuse of business elsewhere.

Several versions are available online, including translations by Benjamin Jowett and Cathal Woods and Ryan Pack.

LibriVox has an audio version of the dialogue.

Online guides to the dialogue can be found by Dale E. Burrington or the summary at Wikipedia.

Also, there is my online resources post regarding Plato.

This post will focus on the “drama” part of the dialogue instead of the arguments or definitions, saving those features for a separate post. All quotes use the translation by G.M.A. Grube.

As the introduction mentions, Socrates is outside the court waiting for the hearing resulting from charges by Meletus that Socrates has corrupted the young men of Athens. Meletus brings the charges, claiming Socrates is “a maker of gods, and on the ground that I create new gods while not believing in the old gods” (3b). While this is a serious charge, Socrates (or rather Plato) has some biting comments to make about Athenians. Vowing he doesn’t mind being laughed at, Socrates states “the Athenians do not mind anyone they think clever, as long as he does not teach his own wisdom, but if they think that he makes others to be like himself they get angry”(3c).

Plato’s animosity also comes through in the circumstances of the dialogue, too. Facing charges of impiety, Socrates happens to run into Euthyphro who claims to be pious and a prophet. Yet Euthyphro has no clue how to define piety. He thinks he does but Socrates easily turns him around until Euthyphro flees from the dialogue. Euthyphro constantly demonstrates overconfidence in his own capacities, especially in his attempted reasoning ability. Socrates claims to want to be a pupil of Euthyphro in order to put the fate of the impiety trial in such learned hands and in order to sway Meletus. Plato uses this set-up as a metaphor for how much trouble Socrates will face and, I’m sure, how far Athens has morally degenerated. At one point Euthyphro claims that piety preserves families in addition to cities (14b), oblivious to the contradiction his (pious) murder case against his father offsets that claim. Plato may also intend to show how such unchecked “piety” leads to cruelty. Socrates’ fate relies on citizens in Athens like Euthyphro...not a good sign.

I’m sure you could pick several dialogues as a good place to start for someone wanting to explore Plato, but Euthyphro’s inclusion of several facts about Socrates prove to be useful in that regard (at least for me). Euthyphro mentions the “divine sign that keeps coming” to Socrates (3b), a reference to the inner voice or daimonion Socrates claims to have. In addition, Socrates provides a blended explanation of what he does in Athens, combining how he sees what he does with how others see him: “I’m afraid my liking for people makes them think that I pour out to anybody anything I have to say, not only without charging a fee but even glad to reward anyone who is willing to listen.” (3d) Relevant to his case, Socrates states his belief in the gods while also professing the difficulty in accepting contradictory stories about the gods (6a). Even though this is one of the aporetic dialogues (ending in an aporia, or state of doubt with no resolution), there is much to chew on involving the relationship between rightness and piety.

Socrates’ final quote provides Plato with one more chance for humorous and bitter irony:

Socrates: What a thing to do, my friend! By going you have cast me down for a great hope I had, that I would learn from you the nature of the pious and the impious and so escape Meletus’ indictment by showing him that I had acquired wisdom in divine matters from Euthyphro, and my ignorance would no longer cause me to be careless and inventive about such things, and that I would be better for the rest of my life. (16a)

No comments: