An Analysis of Piety in Plato's "Euthyphro"

Updated on April 3, 2017
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Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

Is something good because it is approved, because it benefits someone, or because it has the intrinsic qualities of goodness?

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Introduction: Plato's "Euthyphro"

This essay is designed to examine Plato’s “Euthyphro,” and to discuss the ideas of piety which are presented through an elenchus between Socrates and Euthyphro. Throughout Plato's critique and review of philosophical dilemmas, it often seems as though he speaks through the voice of Socrates' himself. A further example of Plato's thought experiments being verbalized by his muse, Socrates, is found in my analysis of Plato's Republic. What's important to realize is that the question of whether Socrates was a real character in history, or whether Socrates was a projection of Plato's mind bears little importance when analyzing Plato's overall work and thought experiments. So, without further ado, let's begin.

I will begin my essay by stating what Socrates means when he refers to the ‘form’ of piety. Next, I will explain the difference between "the gods loving the pious because it is pious" and "the pious being pious because the gods love it". Third, I will discuss Euthyphro’s response to this question, and the problem Socrates finds with his response. After, I will examine the ‘what if,’ and consider what would have happened if Euthyphro would have chosen the other option that Socrates presented to him. Finally, I will give my opinion as to what I think the pious can be explained as.

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The Form of Piety and Holiness: Eidos

To begin, Socrates urges Euthyphro to examine his ideals of what piety or holiness are. Euthyphro concludes that what is holy is what all gods agree upon, and that which is not agreed upon is unholy. This, however, perplexes Socrates, because it seems that there are disputes among the gods as the what is deemed right or pious.

It seems that we are now faced with the question of whether or not holy is something that becomes holy because it has been ‘divinely approved,’ or, rather, holy is something outside the gods–something that does not need divine approval. The question which asks the either or question of ‘holy’ is a question of form, sometimes referred to as eidos. What Socrates wants to understand is the form of holy. The form of holy would have to be the same in all instances. It is what ‘holy’ is without anything else attached to it or it attached to anything else.

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Piety as Approved by the Gods

Socrates tries to explain his search for the form more clearly when begins comparing that, “Then it [piety] gets approved because it’s holy: it’s not holy by reason of getting approved” (lines 10d-10e). This is a conclusion Socrates comes to when he examines whether the holy is approved by the gods because it’s holy, or if it’s holy because it’s approved.

After, Euthyphro needs further explanation. Socrates explains the difference by stating that being approved is an example either of coming to be so or of being affected by something. So, if the gods unanimously agreed on one thing being holy, it would be holy because they say so, not because it is holy in form. On the other hand, there can be something that is holy, yet all of the gods might not agree upon it. In this case, those who do not agree would be mistaken, since they would be rejecting the true form of holy; a form outside of the gods themselves. Socrates then ends with the conclusion that, “Then the ‘divinely approved’ is not holy, Eythyphro, nor is the holy ‘divinely approved’, as you say, but it’s different from this” (lines 10d-10e).

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Do the Gods Benefit from Piety?

After some thought, Euthyphro comes up with a response to what Socrates has just posited. Euthyphro says that holiness is the part of justice which looks after the gods. To further elaborate, he states ‘looking after’ in terms of serving them, like a slave does his master. Here, ‘looking after’ does not benefit the gods, as a groom would a horse, but, rather, it is a kind of service to the gods.

This, too, is not sufficient for Socrates’ analysis of piety. So, Socrates then makes the comparison and analogy of other services, such as shipbuilders achieving the creation of boats. This shows that services create a multitude of good things for those who partake in such endeavors. Socrates points out that this may also be a problem, because it is not the fact that whenever you do things that are holy, you are improving the gods in some way.

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Do the Gods Gain Gratification from Piety?

Euthyphro sees this problem, and then chooses to say that while the gods get no benefit from our services, they do get gratification. When understanding gratification, Socrates suggests that explaining holiness in terms of gratification of the gods is similar to explaining it in terms of their approval. Euthyphro states that what the gods find gratifying is most holy, is what’s been approved by the gods. With this, Socrates must have chuckled, because we are now back to the statement that what is holy is what is approved by the gods.

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The Fallacy in Euthyphro's Argument

Suppose Euthyphro would have begun with this final cyclical statement: that what is holy is that which is approved by the gods. In such an instance, Socrates would have merely had to suggest, as he did, that the gods quarrel and often times do not conclude the same rulings as each other.

If things became holy because of the gods’ approval, then we would be stuck in a debate of whether or not one god’s say is more influential than another god’s. One god may deem Euthyphro’s prosecution as a holy one, while another may deem it as unholy to prosecute one’s own father. So, it seems, knowledge of the form of holy is what remains most important. Form is not something that can be taken from or added to. Thus, it would not have been difficult for Socrates to find the fallacy in Euthyphro’s argument had he taken this route initially.

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Piety as a Form Beyond the Gods

In my opinion, Socrates and Euthyphro were correct in their initial suggestion: that gods love the pious because it is pious. If I were to debate in relational terms to the ancient greek gods, I would say that piety is a form outside of the gods, and that the gods recognize this form to be an unchanging truth that comes from outside themselves and thus accept it as such.

However, if I were to argue it with modern day metaphysics, I would say that all forms that we can possibly know ultimately build up to a single being/existence/reality: God. So, when discussing piety in a modern sense, piety would be a part of this single existence/God and would thus be approved by this God. It is not something that comes about because of its approval, it is something that just is, and the approval can be something that can be said for it.

God does not approve piety, for piety is this God. Instead, humans say that God approves the piety, just as we say anything else. For, in human reality, all things appear separate, and we thus attribute things in relation to this appearance of separateness. So, when we say that God approves pious actions, we are deceiving ourselves unless we truly mean that God is all pious actions that can come about. I say my arm, but I mean my body.

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Conclusion: Gods Love the Pious Because It is Pious

In conclusion, we have analyzed the discussion [elenchus] between Socrates and Euthyphro, as told by Plato. We considered the differences between gods creating the pious with their approval and the gods loving the pious because it is pious. Finally, we examined what the opposing arguments would have looked like had the opposing statement been made, along with my personal opinion on all matters of piety and other such matter as these.

Plato's Euthyphro Dilemma

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 JourneyHolm

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        StratDad 6 months ago

        Thanks for posting this. Piety is still relevant today.

        Let me ask you this, with regards to the idea of dialog leading us forward. We would agree, I think, that piety has an aspect that describes a good relationship between gods (or God) and humans, and the challenge is to understand what makes it good. By the nature of divinity, piety is not symmetric. We submit, gods rule (God rules). The nature of our submission depends on the religion, or in other words, on our understanding of gods (or God). Christians, Muslims, and Jews submit (aka worship) in different ways, yet "pious" can be applied to all of these. From the divine perspective, though, where there is only one Truth, perhaps none of these people submit correctly. But the whole point of pious living is to submit correctly, in order to be in right relationship with gods (God). That is what Euthyphro was doing. Socrates pointed out that unless we know the true nature of the god we submit to (or agree ahead of time as a community), piety is arbitrary. In modern times, the "coexist" banner is exactly this scenario, and we are confused as a culture because those who attempt piety to one nature of god must at the same time offend alternative understandings (or alternative gods). It directly ties to pizza restaurants, bakeries, and marriage. So, the question in front of all of us is whether a baker who refuses to bake a wedding cake on grounds of non-pious actions should be subjected to poision by hemlock because the failure to bake the cake was non-pious in another understanding of the nature of God. Thoughts?

      • Luke Holm profile image
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        JourneyHolm 14 months ago

        Sakira, thank you so much for reading! I'm glad you enjoyed. Plato/Socrates is my favorite philosopher.

      • SakinaNasir53 profile image

        Sakina Nasir 15 months ago from Kuwait

        Greatly researched and well written hub Luke. :) I got to learn so many new things.

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