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Euthyphro

Plato

2a - 4e

Analysis and Themes

4e - 6e

Note: There are no natural breaks in the text as Plato wrote it. These notes on the text have been divided artificially, sections beginning or breaking off where a new theme or topic is introduced or dropped. Because page numbers may vary from edition to edition, these sections have been demarcated according to the Stephanus numbers, the page numbers from the 1578 complete works edited by Henri Estienne ("Stephanus" in Latin). The Stephanus numbers are the standard page references in scholarly work on Plato, and most editions of his work contain the Stephanus numbers along the margins.

Summary

Socrates and Euthyphro meet by the Porch of the King Archon, one of the judges responsible for overseeing religious law. Euthyphro, surprised to see Socrates, asks what brings him here. Socrates answers that he is being prosecuted by Meletus--a young unknown with straight hair, a sparse beard, and a hooked nose. Meletus believes Socrates is corrupting the youth of Athens, and wants to prosecute him. Socrates remarks what a promising young start this Meletus is making, weeding out the corruptors of the city's youth: Socrates himself believes that the excellence of the youth should be of utmost concern. Meletus has also accused Socrates of inventing new gods and not recognizing those that exist.

Euthyphro remarks that this accusation is probably connected to the divine sign that Socrates claims to be visited by on occasion. Euthyphro, too, is often disbelieved when he speaks about divine matters or predicts the future. He reassures Socrates that one must simply endure these prejudices, and asserts his confidence that Socrates will come out fine in the end.

Socrates inquires as to why Euthyphro has come to court, and Euthyphro answers that he is prosecuting his father for murder (which was considered a religious crime by the Greeks). Socrates is amazed that Euthyphro should want to prosecute his own father, remarking that Euthyphro must have very advanced knowledge of these sorts of matters to be making such a bold move. And, Socrates suggests, his father must have killed another family member: surely, Euthyphro would not go to such pains on behalf of an outsider.

Euthyphro replies that he is indeed an expert in these matters, and that, contrary to Socrates' suggestion, the murdered man is not of Euthyphro's family. All that matters in these cases, Euthyphro asserts, is whether or not the killer killed with justification: we should make no exceptions even if the murderer is our father and the murdered man is not close to us. His father has committed an impious act that pollutes Euthyphro and his whole family, and this sin must be purged by means of prosecution.

It turns out that the murdered man was a hired hand of Euthyphro's, helping with the farming on Naxos. The man got drunk and, in a rage, slit the throat of one of Euthyphro's servants. Euthyphro's father bound this murderer, threw him in a ditch, and sent for the Interpreter, the official who is responsible for dealing with such crimes. But before the Interpreter could arrive, the hired hand died of exposure in the ditch. Euthyphro notes that his family is angry with him for carrying out such a prosecution on behalf of a murderer, but Euthyphro asserts that he knows better than they do the position of divine law regarding what is holy and what is unholy.

Commentary

This prelude is loaded with the Socratic irony that is characteristic of an early Platonic dialogue. These early dialogues normally take place between Socrates and one other person, who claims to be an expert with regard to some field of knowledge or other, usually related to virtue. Socrates then confesses his own ignorance, asking his interlocutor to teach him. Slowly, through questioning, Socrates brings out the truth--that his interlocutor is in fact totally ignorant regarding this field. The irony lies in Socrates' manner of wholeheartedly accepting his interlocutor's word that he is indeed an expert. Here, for instance, we see Socrates suggesting that Euthyphro must be an expert with regard to what is holy and what is unholy, or else he would never dare prosecute his father. Euthyphro assures Socrates that he is indeed an expert, though we shall soon see that Euthyphro does not know how to define what is holy at all. Socrates' expressed confidence in Euthyphro's knowledge stands in ironic contrast to what we (and presumably Socrates) really think: that Euthyphro's decision to prosecute his own father is a sign of dogmatic narrow- mindedness, not evidence of his expert knowledge.

We also find Socratic irony, as well as a distinct touch of bitterness, in the brief mention of Meletus. Meletus (who is more prominent in The Apology) was the person primarily responsible for bringing Socrates to trial, and thus responsible for his subsequent death. One of his principal charges is that Socrates corrupts the youth of Athens, and Socrates here suggests that it is a noble pursuit to prosecute those who corrupt the youth. After all, he remarks, the improvement of the youth is of great importance. This is a standard Socratic belief: most of Socrates' followers--Plato included--were young men who were eager to learn. In displaying the ignorance of others, Socrates hoped to teach these youths how to reason more carefully and more modestly. Since, according to Socrates, knowledge is the greatest good, his teachings were of great benefit to his students. Socrates then gives his conviction that one should strive to improve the youth--an ironic twist, suggesting that Meletus should be lauded for pursuing the same goal. We are supposed to infer, of course, that if Meletus were indeed acting for the benefit of the youth, his cause should be lauded, but in fact he is doing quite the contrary: he is trying to put an end to Socrates' influence.

The Euthyphro was written not long after Socrates' execution, and so we should not be surprised that Meletus is presented in a bad light. Plato has good reason to be bitter toward this man, and refers dismissively to him as a "young unknown," befo re giving a very unflattering description of his physical features. In connection to Meletus' role in Socrates' execution, we should also note Euthyphro's prediction that all should end well for Socrates in this trial. There is a further touch of irony here, as Euthyphro--who claims to be an expert on matters divine and can predict the future--clearly does not foresee the actual, tragic outcome of Socrates' trial, an early sign that he may not be the expert on divine matters that he thinks he is.

The "divine sign" that Euthyphro alludes to is mentioned also in The Apology at 31c-d and 40a. Socrates explains it is a little voice in his head that often warns him not to do things that could be of great danger to him. That, for instance, is why he has always stayed away from politics, having been warned by his divine sign that he would meet with trouble.

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notes

by misshunter2012, September 09, 2013

Socrates is treating Euthyphro as the teacher when in fact Socrates is teaching Euthyphro

notess

by misshunter2012, September 09, 2013

Inconclusive.
Plato suggesting that there is no such thing as a definition of holiness, that there is no one feature that all holy deeds have in common?

Our conception of...

by wwatso10, January 27, 2014

What Plato/Socrates is challenging is Euthyphro's/everyone's knowledge or assumed knowledge of anything, not the can we know anything idea, but have we challenged our beliefs? Are we sure that the conclusion we hold is conclusion enough? Peirce and James pick this up again a few years later.

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