Friday, April 08, 2011

Euthyphro: to be laughed at does not matter

My earlier posts on Euthyphro provide links to the text and commentary. They also cover some of the drama, arguments and general online resources on Plato.

This post covers some final thoughts on Euthyphro. All quotes from the dialogue in this post are from the translation by G.M.A. Grube.

Since the Euthyphro ends in an aporia (without resolution), what can be learned about from the dialogue? James Henderson at The Frugal Chariot has a post on the dialogue and he comments: “Do we get a definition that works? No, but we find the struggle itself is one that defines the dilemma of the limits of our knowledge, Humility and respect for these limits are the gifts bestowed to the attentive reader - Euthyphro leaves unbowed.” Even though we may not achieve true knowledge, that does not mean we shouldn’t try. It’s the examination…the journey…that’s more important than reaching the destination although Euthyphro proves to be an inept traveller. Euthyphro begins describing his experiences by drawing similarities with Socrates but the reader comes to realize they are very different characters. During the dialogue Socrates pleads ignorance on defining piety while Euthyphro claims to know all about it but has trouble articulating just what piety means. Examples, while helpful, do not provide the essence, what makes x and only x be x.

Euthyphro claims to understand piety using poetry and prophecy. Socrates rejects the poetry approach by pointing out the contradictions within the body of religious stories, reinforcing this by pointing out how a particular (invented?) quote is wrong. Plato doesn’t even address the claims of prophecy, probably assuming Euthyphro is as bad at it as he is at definition. The “Euthyphro dilemma” proves to be fairly simple for Socrates to overcome: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?” If piety depends on the gods’ love, then it is an arbitrary concept dependent on outside forces to legitimize it. If the gods love something because it is pious then there is an independent set of values to determine what is pious. If this option is true, is it possible to learn the criterion and distinguish pious actions through reason?

Mark Anderson and Ginger Osborn at Approaching Plato point out the irony in the dialogue about the charges against Plato of corrupting the youth of Athens: “Who is corrupting whom here?” The intergenerational strife flows in one direction in both cases—from youth toward their elders (although I believe the age of Socrates’ accuser Meletus is implied as younger because of the mention of his weak beard). Their comparison to Sophocles’ Antigone sounds similar to Euthyphro’s case (and, by implication, Meletus’ case), driven by hubris and anger, not piety.

Euthyphro turns out to be a rather pointed attack on Socrates’ accusers as well as the Athenians who will judge him, demonstrating they have no idea how to judge what is or isn’t pious through the title character. My first reading of this dialogue leads me to believe that Socrates thought a wise man, or at least one striving to be wise, can discover what is good and just with reason. That doesn’t mean gods don’t exist but implies what is good and just does not depend on the gods to make it so. Socrates also makes a pointed attack on citizens who wield piety as the ultimate authority since piety is only a subset of “the just”. I like the way John M. Cooper (the editor of the Plato: Complete Works edition I’m reading) frames the ending:
Euthyphro frustrates Socrates by his inability to develop adequately his final suggestion, that piety is justice in relation to the gods, in serving and assisting them in some purpose or enterprise of their own. Socrates seems to find that an enticing idea. Does Plato mean to suggest that piety may be shown simply in doing one’s best to become as morally good as possible—something Socrates claims in the Apology the gods want more than anything else? If so, can piety remain an independent virtue at all, with its own separate standard for action? These are among the questions this dialogue leaves us to ponder.

Some random notes:
Euthyphro means “straight thinker”, although he seems to be anything but that. I was surprised at the amount of humor in the dialogue.

Several times in the dialogue Socrates turns to mathematics when wanting to establish a rock-solid basis or a valid comparison.

I read the first few lines of the Apology and I noticed a few items that tie directly to Euthyphro. The points I want to bookmark from Euthyphro are mentions of location and laughter. Location: Euthyphro acts surprised to see Socrates at the court instead of his usual haunt at the Lyceum (gymnasium). This will be important when Socrates mentions to the jury where they might have heard him speak. Laughter: Socrates tells Euthyphro “to be laughed at does not matter”, at least as long as the person being laughed at is not attempting to persuade others to think like him. Socrates will confirm this statement but will also undermine the “does not matter” claim, or at least in his case. I’m sure there will be additional comparisons but I wanted to mention these.

Plato essentially calls Socrates an artist when Euthyphro compare him to Socrates’ ancestor Daedalus. In addition, Socrates (Plato?) degrades Daedalus to some extent by saying Socrates achieves more than his ancestor.

Does Socrates convince Euthyphro to drop the charges? We don’t find out here, but Socrates raises the issue that Euthyphro would/should not prosecute his father out of fear for the gods unless he was absolutely certain that what he was doing was pious. There is a chance that enough doubt has been raised to drop the charges but, given Euthyphro’s performance with Socrates, there isn’t much hope.

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