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This article is about Plato's dialogue. For the prophet for whom the dialogue is named, see Euthyphro (prophet).

Euthyphro (/ˈjuːθɪfr/; Ancient Greek: Εὐθύφρων, Euthuphrōn), [ca. 399–395 BCE], by Plato, is a dialogue that occurs in the weeks before the Trial of Socrates (399 BCE), for which Socrates and Euthyphro attempt to establish a definitive meaning for the word piety (holiness).[1]


The Euthyphro dialogue occurs near the court of the Archon basileus (Magistrate–king), where Socrates and Euthyphro encounter each other; each man is present at the court for the preliminary hearings to possible trials (2a).

Euthyphro has come to present charges of manslaughter against his father, who had allowed one of his workers to die of exposure to the elements without proper care and attention. (3e–4d) The dead worker, earlier had killed a slave from the family estate on Naxos Island. As Euthyphro's father awaited to hear from the exegetes (cf. Laws 759d) about how to proceed, the bound-and-gagged worker died in a ditch. Socrates is astonished by Euthyphro's confidence in being able to prosecute his own father for the serious charge of manslaughter, despite the fact that Athenian Law allows only relatives of the dead man to file suit for murder. (Dem. 43 §57) Euthyphro misses the astonishment of Socrates, which confirms his overconfidence in his own critical judgement of matters religious and ethical.

In an example of Socratic irony, Socrates says that Euthyphro obviously has a clear understanding of what is pious (τὸ ὅσιον to hosion) and impious (τὸ ἀνόσιον to anosion).[2] Because he is facing a formal charge of impiety, Socrates expresses the hope to learn from Euthyphro, all the better to defend himself in the trial.

Euthyphro says that what lies behind the charge of impiety presented against Socrates, by Meletus and the others, is Socrates' claim that he is subjected to a daimon, (divine sign) which warns him of various courses of action. (3b) From the perspective of some Athenians, Socrates expressed scepticism of the accounts about the Greek gods, which he and Euthyphro briefly discuss, before proceeding to the main argument of their dialogue: the definition of “piety”. Moreover, Socrates further expresses critical reservations about such divine accounts that emphasise the cruelty and inconsistent behaviour of the Greek gods, such as the castration of the early sky-god Uranus, by his son Cronus; a story Socrates said is difficult to accept. (6a–6c)

After claiming to know and be able to tell more astonishing divine stories, Euthyphro spends little time and effort defending the conventional, Greek view of the gods. Instead, he is led to the true task at hand, as Socrates forces him to confront his ignorance, by pressing Euthyphro for a definition of “piety”; yet, Socrates finds flaw with each definition of “piety” proposed by Euthyphro.(6d ff.)

At the dialogue's conclusion, Euthyphro is compelled to admit that each of his definitions of “piety” has failed, but, rather than correct his faulty logic, he says that it is time for him to leave, and excuses himself from their dialogue. To that end, Socrates concludes the dialogue with Socratic irony: Since Euthyphro was unable to define “piety”, Euthyphro has failed to teach Socrates about piety. Therefore, from his dialogue with Euthyphro, Socrates received nothing helpful to his defense against a formal charge of impiety. (15c ff.)

The argument[edit]

A Roman bust of Socrates (Louvre)

The argument of the Euthyphro dialogue is based on “definition by division”. Socrates goads Euthyphro to offer definitions of “piety”. The purpose of establishing a clear definition is to provide a basis for Euthyphro to teach Socrates the answer to the question: “What is piety?” Ostensibly, the purpose of the dialogue is to provide Socrates with a definitive meaning of “piety”, with which he can defend against the charge of impiety in the pending trial.

Socrates seeks a definition of “piety” that is a universal (universally true), against which all actions can be measured to determine whether or not the actions are pious. That, to be universal, the definition of “piety” must express the essence of the thing defined (piety), and be defined in terms of genus, species, and the differentiae.

Hence, the Euthyphro dialogue is technically important for the dialectics of theology, ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. Indeed, Plato's approach in this dialogue is anachronistic, because it is unlikely that Socrates was a master metaphysicist; nonetheless, Aristotle's expositional treatment of metaphysics is rooted in the Platonic dialogues, especially in the Euthyphro.

Piety defined[edit]

Ostensibly in order to better defend himself in an upcoming trial for being an impious citizen of Athens, Socrates asks Euthyphro for a clear definition of piety (holiness); he offers Socrates four definitions.

First definition[edit]

Euthyphro's first definition of “piety” is what he is doing now, that is, prosecuting his father for manslaughter (5d). Socrates rejects Euthyphro's action, because it is not a definition of “piety", and is only an example of piety, and does not provide the essential characteristic that makes pious actions pious.

Second definition[edit]

Euthyphro's second definition: “Piety” is what is pleasing to the gods. (6e-7a) Socrates applauds this definition, because it is expressed in a general form, but criticizes it saying that the gods disagree among themselves as to what is “pleasing”. This means that a given action, disputed by the gods, would be both pious and impious at the same time — a logical impossibility. Euthyphro argues against Socrates' criticism, by noting that not even the gods would disagree, among themselves, that someone who kills without justification should be punished. Yet Socrates argues that disputes would still arise — over just how much justification actually existed; hence, the same action could be pious and impious; again, Euthyphro's definition cannot be a definition of “piety”.

Third definition[edit]

To overcome Socrates' objection to his second definition of “piety”, Euthyphro amends his definition. (9e)

Euthyphro's third definition of “piety” is: “What all the gods love is pious, and what they all hate is impious”. In reply, Socrates introduces the "Euthyphro dilemma", by asking the crucial question: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (10a) Socrates then applies his typical technique of dialectic: An analogy that clarifies his question.

He persuades Euthyphro to agree that we call a carried thing “carried” simply because it is being carried, not because it possesses an inherent characteristic, which could be called “carried”. That is, “being carried” is not an essential characteristic of the thing being carried; being carried is a condition (a state). Likewise with “piety”: If it is defined as “What is loved by the gods.”, it is liked for some reason, not just because it is liked. Therefore, the fact that the gods like a pious action does not, de facto, make the action pious. Their liking must follow from something, which, in this case, is recognition that an action is pious prior to its being liked, and not the other way around. Piety thus comes before the liking (temporally and logically) yet, in Euthyphro's definition, it is the other way around (an action is pious because the gods like it); therefore, Euthyphro's third definition of “piety”is flawed.

At that juncture of their dialogue, Euthryphro does not understand what makes his definition of “piety” a circular argument; he agrees with Socrates that the gods like an action because it is pious. Socrates then argues that the unanimous approval of the gods is merely an attribute of “piety”, that divine approval is not a defining characteristic of “piety”. That divine approval does not define the essence of “piety”, does not define what is “piety”, does not give an idea of “piety”; therefore, divine approval is not a universal definition of “piety”.

Linguistic note

Moreover, to the modern reader, this part of the “definition by division” argument is convoluted (10a-11a) and "has reduced translators to babble and driven commentators to despair,"[3] because the Ancient Greek language that Socrates spoke did not possess the grammatical terms active voice and passive voice, which would have made Socrates' language more readily accessible;[4] neither can he refer to Aristotle's Categories, which detail this distinction — expressions of state and expressions of secondary substances — instead, Socrates explains with detailed examples of “carried”, “loved”, and “seen ”.

Fourth definition[edit]

In the second half of the dialogue, Socrates suggests a definition of “piety”, which is that “piety is a species of the genus ‘justice’ ” (12d), [5] but he leads up to that definition with observations and questions about the difference between species and genus, starting with the question:

. . . Are you not compelled to think that all that is pious is just?

Yet, Socrates later says that the information provided in his question to Euthyphro is insufficient for a clear definition of “piety”, because piety belongs to those actions we call just, that is, morally good; however, there are actions, other than pious actions, which we call just (12d); for example, bravery and concern for others. Socrates asks: What is it that makes piety different from other actions that we call just? We cannot say something is true, because we believe it to be true. We must find proof.

Euthyphro's response[edit]

In response, Euthyphro says that piety is concerned with looking after the gods (12e), but Socrates objects, saying that “looking after”, if used in its ordinary sense (with which Euthyphro agrees) would imply that when one performs an act of piety one thus makes one of the gods better — an example of hubris, a dangerous human emotion frowned upon by the Greek gods. (13c) In turn, Euthyphro responds that “looking after” involves service to others, and Socrates asks: What is the end product of piety? Euthyphro replies with his earlier (third) definition, that: Piety is what is loved by all the gods. (14b)

Final definition[edit]

Euthyphro then proposes a fifth definition: “Piety is an art of sacrifice and prayer.” He proposes the notion of piety as a form of knowledge, of how to do exchange: Giving gifts to the gods, and asking favours in return. (14e) Socrates presses Euthyphro to say what benefit the gods perceive from human gifts — warning him that “knowledge of exchange” is a species of commerce. (14e) Euthyphro objects that the gifts are not a quid pro quo, between man and deity, but are gifts of honour, esteem, and favour”, from man to deity. (15a) In other words, Euthyphro admits that piety is intimately bound to the likes of the gods. The dialogue has come full circle, and Euthyphro leaves Socrates without a clear definition of “piety” as he faces a trial for impiety (Grk asebeia).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a Greek given name meaning "Right-minded, sincere"; entry εὐθύφρων in Liddell, Scott, & Jones, An English-Greek Lexicon [1].
  2. ^ Stephanus page 5d: λέγε δή, τί φῂς εἶναι τὸ ὅσιον καὶ τί τὸ ἀνόσιον.
  3. ^ Cohen, S. Marc (1971). "Socrates on the Definition of Piety: Euthyphro 10A–11B". Journal of the History of Philosophy. 9: 4. 
  4. ^ John Burnet, Plato: Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, Crito, pp. 127-28
  5. ^ Stephanus page 12d: μόριον γὰρ τοῦ δικαίου τὸ ὃσιον.


  • R. E. Allen: Plato's "Euthyphro" and the Earlier Theory of Forms. London 1970, ISBN 0-7100-6728-3.

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