Socrates has been charged by the citizens of Athens of impiety, of corrupting the youth, and in preparation he must go to the porch of the King Archon. There he meets his friend, Euthyphro, and they converse about the serious charges filed against Socrates, and the serious charges Euthyphro intends against, surprisingly, his very own father. Socrates senses that his friend has little idea of the consequences of this action, and that his youthful haste may lead to a miserable and penurious future, and that his friend has pondered little of this drastic action.
The dilemma faced in life when our child or relative or friend is going seriously astray is, How do you tell them? How can you get through to them? Simply shouting, STOP, YOU FOOL, usually does not work, this usually only swells their pigged head. You so wish you could them to think through what they are planning to do a little bit more carefully.
Getting people to think through the problems they face in life is the purpose of Socratic dialogue, indeed this is what make moral philosophy and theology meaningful. Rarely do people listen, rarely does Socratic dialogue work, and more often than not, Plato’s dialogues are failed Socratic dialogues.
But Socrates must try. He precedes his efforts with patience, with kindness, avoiding criticism, avoiding lecturing, he compliments what he can.
“Socrates: By the powers, Euthyphro! How little does the common herd know of the nature of right and truth. A man must be an extraordinary man and have made great strides in wisdom, before he could have seen his way to this.
Euthyphro: Indeed, Socrates, he must have made great strides.
Socrates: I suppose that the man your father murdered was one of your relatives; if he had been a stranger you would have never have thought of prosecuting him.
Euthyphro: I am amused, Socrates, at your making a distinction between one who is a relation and one who is not a relation; for surely the pollution is the same in either case, if you knowingly associate with the murderer when you ought to clear yourself by proceeding against him. The real question is whether the murdered man has been justly slain.”
The point of the dialogue is that the real question is NOT whether the murdered man has been justly slain. We immediately doubt the chances of success by how condescendingly Euthyphro responds, “I am amused, Socrates,” and surely the gods and the audience suspect already he is guilty of arrogance and hubris.
The case against his father is fairly weak according to the standards of ancient justice. A field laborer quarreled with and killed a domestic servant, the father bound him and foot in chains and threw him in a ditch while he sent for a diviner to tell him what to do. While waiting, the guy in the ditch died of “cold and hunger and chains,” as Euthyphro puts it.
Socrates does not argue the guilt of the father, that the father bears guilt is understood and unquestioned. But what about the decision of the loving son? We all must make difficult decisions in life, whether we should divorce an unfaithful spouse, whether to help out a wayward grown son one more time, whether to place an aging parent in a nursing home. Motives matter. Equally virtuous people can make different decisions in very similar circumstances. What matters more than the difficult decision we make, although these decisions are critically important to how we live the rest of our lives, what matters more is how we make the decisions.
What is going on here? The ancient world is not our modern world in more ancient times. In ancient Athens judicial cases were heard of juries of five hundred Athenians, there were no rules of evidence, these cases were public debates of fixed times, the mob decides, his father could lose his property, or be exiled, or be executed, there were no prison sentences, there were no prisons, what would happen to his mother, his siblings, their servants?
What is absolutely certain is we certainly do not know everything. The son is only telling us what he chooses to tell us. The son is impetuous, that we know, we can surmise his father is impetuous, he is probably guilty of the faults he finds in his father, why else would he seek to show in public the faults of his father, if only to hide his own weaknesses? What sort of quarrels has he been having with his father? Where there hurts for which he seeks revenge?
Socrates dangles the bait: “Good heavens, Euthyphro! And have you such a precise knowledge of piety and impiety, and of divine things in general, that, supposing the circumstances to be as you state, you are not afraid that you too may be doing an impious thing in bringing an action against your father?
Euthyphro: The best of Euthyphro, and that which distinguishes him, Socrates, from other men, is his exact knowledge of all these matters. What should I be good for without that?”
The fish bobs the line, Socrates tries to set the hook, he asks his friend, “What is piety, and what is impiety?”
The first definition that Euthyphro offers is piety by example, since he knows that what he is doing is pious, it serves as a good example of piety, why bother with definitions? And besides, we all know Zeus himself “bound up his Father Cronos because he wickedly devoured his sons,” and punished others in his family too.
Socrates succeeded in getting Euthyphro to admit that the gods on Mount Olympus fought and cheated each other, like men who were immortal, and that examples of piety do not tell us what “makes all pious things to be pious.”
All ancient Greeks would have heard the story of the war of Troy recited dozens of times at religious festivals, how the goddess Aphrodite started the Trojan war by offering the Trojan Paris the hand of Helen, the most beautiful Helen, married to King Menelaus, prompting the Greeks to fight a protracted war with the Trojans, how some gods supported the Greeks, some the Trojans.
But when he is pressed for a definition rather than examples, all Euthyphro can offer is “Piety is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.” He is pressed further, and Euthyphro said he believes that all the gods would agree that murderers should be punished. Socrates reminds him that his father’s victim was himself a murderer in chains awaiting judgment, that the crime that he was not treated humanely, and he asks how him how he can be so sure that all the gods would be unanimous in their praise of his prosecution?
Right about now Euthyphro is asking himself, What sort of a friend is this Socrates? I am looking for agreement and affirmation, and all I get is arguments? Euthyphro complains, Our arguments, wherever they stand, “seem to turn around and walk away.”
This dialogue is significant because Socrates would later be condemned for impiety towards the gods, for misleading the youth of Athens.
Socrates then notes that if they were going to work that definition they could say that something would be pious if all the gods saw it as pious, and something would be impious if all the gods thought so, but that most of the life in the middle would be muddled. Which leads to an important question, Does the gods love that which is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?
You might think this is a valid question for the ancient Greeks but it not an issue for Christians, don’t we believe that God is Love? But as this dialogue demonstrates, whether we seek to employ God to serve our own selfish egos and interests is as much a moral problem today as it ever was.
What is Christianity? That we should Love God with all of our heart and with all of our soul and with all of our mind and with all of our strength, and we should love our neighbor as ourselves, a definition of piety that dwarfs Euthyphro’s lame attempts, and when we keep this in mind we keep our gaze on the face of Jesus, never turning away, this selfless love is the lens through which we see life. When we turn away from this our morality is alternative truth of deception.
There is more back and forth, and Euthyphro tries another definition, “Piety or holiness could be the justice that attends to the gods, rather than the part of justice that attends to men.”
Socrates asks, that is like says horsemanship is tending to horses, and that being a huntsman is tending to his hunting dogs, and that being an oxherd is tending to the oxen? Likewise, “Is holiness the art of attending to the gods?”
So is life like, God, Let’s make a deal, I will be good, you make my life easy? If we lead a godly life does not guarantee that life will be fair, nor does it guaranty will not suffer needlessly. If you lead a godly life sometimes you will be happy, sometimes not.
Beware, if you fancy yourself a devout Christian, you may think you are trying to please God, but how do you know you are really striving to please the person in the pew next to you? Quiet discretion helps, gossip hurts.
After more back and forth, Socrates asks, “Does your piety or holiness, your attending to the gods, benefit or improve the gods? Do your holy acts make any of the gods better?” “Of the many and fair actions of the gods, which is the chief and principal one?
Euthyphro: I have told you already, Socrates, that to learn all these things accurately is very tiresome. Let me simply say that piety is learning how to please the gods in word and deed, by prayers and sacrifices.”
Tiresome, indeed, it is to learn how lead a godly life, why do we need to learn such things, is it not good enough to get a good job, mow the lawn, and pay our taxes? Why not the preachers learn such tiresome things, they can preach to us, and we can ignore what we think is too hard? But if God gave us the gift of consciousness, gave us the ability to worship God, gave us the ability to ponder questions of right and wrong, gave us the ability to love our God and our neighbor, who are we do deny these precious gifts and choose to live like selfish beasts?
Socrates then asks many unsettling questions, Is “piety the science of asking and giving?” Is piety the “right way of asking of them what we want?” And crassly, Is “piety an art which gods and men have of doing business with one another?”
Socrates has done his best, so he ends the dialogue, “For if you had not certainly known the nature of piety and impiety, I am confident you would never, on behalf of a serf, have charged your aged father with murder. You would not have run such a risk of doing wrong in the sight of the gods, and you would have had too much respect for the opinions of men.”
So the answer is the question, How do you know? How do you know what is right and wrong? Do you start with what you think is right and wrong, and shape your morality around that? Or is there an independent right and wrong out there, that you measure yourself against? Do you start with your interpretation of this right and wrong, and shape your morality around that? How do you know your interpretation is an honest self-judgement, or merely self-justification? How do you know?
Is life like the country song, “God is Great, beer is good, and people are crazy?” So few answers, so many questions.
 Plato, “Euthyphro,” in the Essential Dialogues of Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett (New York: Barnes and Nobles Classics, 2005, first published 1871), pp. 259-274.