Plato Project #4: Euthyphro

[Up next: “First Alcibiades”]

“Euthyphro” is the third and final full Socratic text I’ve spent some time teaching (I’ve also excerpted the analogy of the cave, and the Meno sequence where Socrates teaches a slave-boy geometry, which we’ll come to in good time).  A quick perusal of the internet shows that the substance of the argument in Euthyphro has been distilled into something called “The Euthyphro Dilemma.”

My focus with this text has never been the substance of the argument, though, but with the form.  Nates mentioned the “Socratic method” in an earlier discussion.  It seems to me that “Euthyphro” is as good an exemplar of this method as we have.  To wit – it contains all of the following well-known Socratic features:

  1. A Start in an Everyday Life Setting  – An opening discussion centering around a concrete ethical issue: whether Euthyphro is wrong to try his father for the murder of one of his slaves (also interwoven is Socrates’ worry about his upcoming trial about the corruption of the truth into belief in false gods).  It’s important that they’re outside the courthouse; both interlocutors have legal concerns before them.
  2. Ironic Flattery – Socrates spends much of the early part of the dialogue making fun of Euthyphro’s overconfidence, doing so in a manner that makes Euthyphro open up to the discussion while at the same time giving the reader a chuckle about Euthyphro’s arrogance.
  3. Transition to Philosophical Discourse using a “ti esti?” question – “Ti Esti?” is Greek for “what is it?” And here, we find the question “What is piety?” growing naturally out of the debate about whether Euthyphro should prosecute his father.  Euthyphro offers the explanation “because it’s the pious thing to do,” and then Socrates pounces on the definitional issue.
  4. Destructive Cross-Examination of an Interlocutor’s Definitions (Elenchus) – Euthyphro offers three notable definitions.  First, “piety = what I’m going, and what the gods have often done” (dismissed by Socrates as an example, not a definition of the concept in question) then “piety = what is pleasing to the gods,” (set aside because the gods disagree about what pleases them)  then “piety = what is pleasing to all the gods” (and here’s where the “Euthyphro dilemma” kicks in – the we need to know why the gods love these actions – if it’s because they’re pious actions, this begs the question of why they are, but if it’s the other way around, this begs the question of why the gods love them.
  5. The Moment of Aporia – About halfway through Euthyphro (temporarily) gives up his arrogance:  “I really do not know, Socrates, how to express what I mean. For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn round and walk away from.”  This echoes Socrates’ idea about wisdom in the “Apology” – only once you admit that you know nothing do you stand any chance of knowing anything.
  6. Socrates-led Positive Cross-Examination (dialectikos) – Socrates tries to guide Euthyphro along the way towards a definition of piety that connects up with a larger notion – justice (the subject of the Republic).
  7. A Return to Everyday Life – In this case, Euthyphro retreats to his earlier definition, Socrates points this out, and Euthyphro confesses to being busy and leaves Socrates standing in the street.  One gets the impression that, as so often in ethical argument, Euthyphro’s difficulties in answering the questions raised have done nothing to dissuade him from his present course of action.

I like this dialogue for teaching purposes because it provides very clear examples of some common and important argumentative strategies: the consideration of counter-arguments before the presentation of one’s own preferred argument, the contrast between ostensive and non-ostensive definition, the use of data for examples which both parties accept the relevance of, the notion of a dilemma, the idea that one must recognize one’s ignorance before proceeding onwards to knowledge.

From a literary standpoint, there is also the subtext involving Socrates’ own situation: Euthyphro is so sure about what the gods want, that he is filling to act on that knowledge in a legal context.  Socrates’ accusers, of course, hold similar beliefs.  And the dialogue is adorned with mythological references – to Daedalus, to Zeus, Cronus and Uranus, and to a poet Plato does not name.

I don’t mean to discount the substance of the dialogue – it does raise a timeless theological question – but I’ve just never thought that was its biggest strength.

After my students read this text, I ask them to write a dialogue that follows the argumentative structure of Euthyphro but is about a contemporary issue of concern to them.  That’s a tougher assignment than you might realize: many kids stumble when they try to make the dialogue become abstract.  They begin with the concrete question such as “should I be allowed to stay out after my  curfew?” and then move along to a totally empty dialogue on “what is curfew?” not realizing that the real underlying issue is “what is the source of parental authority?” or something like that.

Which is not to say I haven’t read some good ones: a memorable one was with former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich about what makes for good governorship.  Another perennial favorite is an argument with a teacher about why they’re preferred writing techniques are authoritative.  With that last one, no matter which way it comes out, I win – one of the great pleasures in teaching.

It also seems to me “Euthyphro” suggests a good structure to follow in non-dialogue writing about abstract subjects: and so I’ve done some work with students to get them to write multi-paragraph essays that work the way Euthyphro does.  They have trouble not having a conventional “introduction” but find, when done effectively, such a dialogue doesn’t even need it.

I’ll stop there – I know from painful experience that listening to teachers tell you about their lessons is generally a boring enterprise.  That’s probably why Euthyphro leaves.

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