It’s Plato Time!

Last night I was reflecting on Plato’s socratic dialog Euthyphro… NOW I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION, DON’T I?!

And you’re probably thinking, “Hmmm… Euthyphro… is that one where Socrates corners some poor schlep, pelts him with unanswerable questions until the guy wanders away confused and ticked off?”

Yep, that’s the one…

However, if some of you are still cloudy on the finer points, here’s a quick run-down:

Euthyphro is an interpreter of the gods, a priestly sort who knows what is right and wrong without the need for debate or examination—he (believes he) has a particular (and pompously) pious connection to the gods that informs his every decision and judgment. Socrates meets up with Euthyphro at court where Euthyphro has come to accuse his own father of murder! Bang! Oh yeah, good stuff…

Actually, the story behind the accusation is less important than Euthyphro’s certainty of his righteousness and piety, and it is this certainty that attracts the interest of Socrates (like a dung beetle to you know what). And after an initial Socratic needling, Euthyphro produces this definition of piety: “Piety is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.” Now clever Socrates observes that the gods “have differences of opinion about [what is] good and evil, just and unjust, honourable and dishonourable” which forces Euthyphro to decide whether what is pious is pious independent of the judgment of the Gods—to which Euthphro assents that it is. Yeah, I know, it’s getting good now…

So having established the existence of piety independent of the gods judging it so, three times Socrates implores Euthyphro to define piety and three times Euthyphro invokes the same ol’ “because the gods deem it so” (which Socrates has already shown to be a bogus reason). 


To me, this is interesting stuff. You see, Socrates can’t begin to hassel Euthyphro about whether accusing his father of murder was really a pious act until they establish what piety is. Euthyphro being the self-proclaimed expert is the logical choice to produce the definition, but he can’t because faith “as a way of knowing” is an illegitimate prosecutor in a court of law and it is an inadequate defense. Euthyphro can’t (or won’t) understand this, so the conversation ends before it even gets started.


Now here is the really interesting thing…


Unless we are open to admitting what we do not know, we get stuck in a kind of pre-ignorant state — unable to move forward because we cannot move back. There is nothing in Euthyphro’s convictions but conviction, and so the discussion is not even discussable. Socrates brings him to the wall of ignorance, and Euthyphro simply bangs his head against it.


I love that. I love that the pathway to knowledge really is through ignorance. And I particularly love that Plato was onto this almost 2500 years ago.


If we are not open to questioning, and we are not open to our own ignorance, we are not open to knowledge. That is good stuff.


One Response

  1. What you say is so true … so many people subscribe to a belief that they really have no idea “what it is.” And, to their defense, “belief” does have strong ties to “faith,” which is a belief in something that cannot be “proven.” (hence the absurdity of trying to “prove” the existence of God — you either have “faith” or you don’t). That’s why I respond to the “religious” tag with exactly how I “believe” and what I have “faith” in. You can’t disprove genuine faith. Anyway … thanks for the introduction to Euthyphro story. I only had beginning philosophy (at a Christian college, no less) and haven’t heard that! Thanks for expanding the mind of a fellow seeker of truth.

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