Plato’s “Euthyphro”: The Death of Piety and the Triumph of the State

18-05-2019 19:05

Plato’s Euthyphro is one of the more famous of the shorter dialogues.  Several of the major themes are brought up in the dialogue include theology, ethics, and filialism.  As such, we will briefly examine the major themes and their impact on philosophy and, by the end, we shall see how these seemingly unrelated issues are, in fact, all related together with sweeping implications for political life.

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The beginning of the dialogue is Socrates seeking an answer to the question of “what is piety” (or duty) from a gentleman named Euthyphro.  Piety is the word from the Latin pietas, which means duty. In Greek, as used in Plato’s dialogue, it is ευσέβεια (eusebeia), which means devotedness. Plato is asking the question what should we be devoted to? To the gods, to the laws of our city, or to our family. It is a cosmic battle for the soul, the dedication, the activity of man. The timing of the dialogue is just prior to Socrates’ trial, from which he will later die from drinking hemlock.  This is equally important for the reader to know because it is as if Socrates is on his last search for wisdom as he is about to die, and he wants to know what he should be devoted to in his upcoming struggle between life and death. Thus, it is unsurprising that Socrates is examining the question of piety, or holiness, at this late moment in his life.

The theme that is hidden behind the text is the crisis of agnation.  Agnation, or the agnatic relationship, is the ancient idea that the family is the basis of all civilization.  This idea is very strongly defended by Aristotle, especially in The Politics.  After all, when Socrates first meets Euthyphro and asks for an understanding of what piety is, Euthyphro responds that his prosecution of his own father is what is pious.  Socrates, however, rejects this because it is only an example of supposed piety but does not allow one to understand what true piety is. But in this first question and answer we see the larger theme that the dialogue is torn with: To whom should we be devoted? Our father and family or the state and its laws?

In the first exchange between Socrates and Euthyphro we see Euthyphro rejecting the importance of agnatic relationships for the primacy of the state and its laws.  Though his father is being tried for manslaughter, Euthyphro’s answer of holiness being his own prosecution of his father highlights the tension between filial loyalty and legal prerogative.  What is the right thing to do: (1) protect your family, or (2) be obedient to the law of the land in which you live?  This is a contest of competing loyalties that Euthyphro is torn by, but he has clearly sided with obedience to law as the embodiment of piety over and against the protection of his own father.  Hence why the Euthyphro is a dialogue concerning the crisis of agnatic relationships: kith and kin or law?

It was common in the ancient world, and of ancient religion, to see piety through ancestral worship (filial pietism).  To be pious was to honor and love one’s parents. The “eternal family” idea was very powerful in the ancient world, and still is today in certain circles.  Thus, for Euthyphro to confront his father is also to confront and challenge the idea of the eternal family and the ideas of filial pietism which were prevalent in the ancient Mediterranean world of the time.  To attack one’s family, in essence, was to break down the very fabric and foundation from which society was structured if family is that cornerstone of society. The dialogue reveals, already in ancient Athens, the movement to statism in placing conventional laws above that of the family. (This is revealed in full detail in Crito with Socrates’ imagined dialogue with the Laws of Athens who take on a filial aspect as well as a political one.)

We can ask whether or not the disintegration of the family is what always precedes the rise of state power and control over society? Aristotle and Cicero certainly thought so. And it seems, though he is less explicit about it, Plato was the first to recognize that reality of the dissipation of the family leading to the weakening of the civil society and the expansion of the state in its place.

Unsatisfied as always, Socrates presses Euthyphro for additional explanations as to what piety is.  If being obedient to the law over and against one’s father (family) was not piety, then what is? (The argument of being true to law over and against any human, even a family member, is the idea that any action against injustice (i.e. the breaking of public law), is what piety is.) Euthyphro then turns to offer up a common idea that is prevalent in religious circles today: piety is whatever pleases the gods or God.

The problem with this, as Socrates rebuts, is that there are many gods and all differ in their wants and needs.  Therefore, what pleases one god may not necessarily please another god.  One god might demand child sacrifice as piety.  Another may simply want a festive party.  Yet another may want you to nurture your children.  Furthermore, this is just an expansion of his first definition: it is locating piety in action rather than embodiment.  Piety is something external rather than internal. If true then piety, duty, is always just an external action and has no relationship to the interiority of man, his soul, and his nature.

Euthyphro responds to the challenge from Socrates by universalizing the gods: all gods love piety and hate impiety he charges.  (In this we also see why paganism would eventually collapse into monotheism anyway through the universalizing of the gods and the gods merging to single definition of the Divine.)  This leads to the famous Euthyphro’s Dilemma in ethics and especially in theological ethics.  This in theological ethics known as “divine command theory.”

Euthyphro’s dilemma can be summarized as this: is it good because it is universally good (i.e. universally true), or is it good simply because the gods, or God, willed it?  If a god, or God, willed impiety, would that become what “piety” is because a god willed impiety?  In other words, Euthyphro’s response to the problem of many gods seeking different things to “all gods love piety and hate impiety” has led to a larger problem, namely can a god love impiety and therefore, by Euthyphro’s own definition, turn impiety into piety?

The larger issue at hand here is one that was challenged in Christianity.  The idea of natural law is what gets around divine command theory, but then this necessitates us to answer whether there is a natural law to begin with.  That said theological ethics has often been plagued by this question of can God, or any god, will something “immoral”?  The classical theist response is also to claim that this is a false dilemma, or false dichotomy.  God doesn’t conform or invent moral order at all.  God’s nature is the standard of value itself and the natural law in-of-itself.  The problem with the classical theist response is that it is anachronistic within the context of the times of this dialogue.  That answer may be fine and dandy in the monotheistic world we now inhabit, but in Socrates’, Plato’s, and Euthyphro’s day, it would have been scandalous and shocking to assert such a thing.

Euthyphro’s argument that piety is being in accord with whatever pleases the gods, or being in accord with whatever the gods will, is unsatisfactory for Socrates.  Angered and agitated, Euthyphro then responds with his third definition of piety: piety is a genus of justice.  But Socrates retorts with the famous Platonic injunction: what is justice?  Euthyphro then responds with his fourth definition: piety is self-sacrifice and prayer.  In this idea of piety Euthyphro is arguing that piety reflects the interactivity of persons.  However, this can lead piety to becoming nothing more than a form of petty commercialism and the idea that our prayers and ‘sacrifices’ are only done for some sort of self-gain or reward.  Even in our interpersonal activities with others, such as praying and sacrificing together, may be undertaken simply because we are seeking to gain something from the person whom we are praying and sacrificing with. This may unintentionally lead to our objectification of others to get something out of them rather than see them as embodied subjects and souls.

In the end, Euthyphro is unable to answer Socrates’ question as to the nature of piety.  As Socrates is about to press again, Euthyphro, who seems to be attuned to his unsatisfactory answers, claims that he has another appointment to get to and therefore leaves Socrates exactly where he began.  For us, however, as is the genius of Plato, we are meant to think and understand, appraise and critique, the arguments that are being put forth in the dialogue.  It gets our minds thinking—which was Socrates’ original intent: To get Euthyphro thinking of the deep questions of theology, philosophy, and ethics, rather than remain confident in the conventional answers that he had initially come prepared with. Euthyphro is challenged as to what he should be devoted to: the law or his father?

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Plato’s Euthyphro has left us with two important legacies, ironically, both are related to the question of piety (which the medium by which Socrates was more or less was using to engage in dialectical conversation).  The first is what should our relationship to family and law be?  This is a question as to what is the foundation of society: law or family?  This problem was laid forth in the first conversation in which Euthyphro had clearly sided on the side of law over family (and therefore obedience to law is what piety is).  The second legacy is Euthyphro’s dilemma.  What is virtue, or the right action?  What is the nature of morality?  Is there are universal moral order, or is morality a convention of the will of the gods?  Both questions remain alive and well today. While most will immediately realize Euthyphro’s Dilemma, the real question, the more central theme of the dialogue, is this contest between the family (and the gods) vs. the state and its laws.

That Euthyphro promotes nomos, law, over the family, is the most damning moment in the dialogue. It is subtle but it consequential. In Euthyphro’s answer we see the triumph and primacy of the state over the human being. It is the state that we owe our allegiance to, our duty to, our piety to. As the Laws state to Socrates in Crito, it would be impious to abandon your parents, and this is doubly-so for the Laws of your country because your country is like your father and mother writ large.

Considering that Socrates eventually accepts the supremacy of law over friends and family in Crito, we must wonder if he sided with Euthyphro in the end despite not doing so in the dialogue. We can also ask, alongside Plato, whether the movement of the political is always the disintegration of the family and the supremacy of the state. This movement of the state’s supremacy is seen through the two-fold act of the fall of original piety: the gods and family.

In Virgil’s Aeneid, and in traditional Roman conceptions of pietas, to be pious was to dutiful to the gods and the family which are intertwined together. Aeneas flees Troy to eventually found Rome with his father on his back and the household gods (his ancestors) with them. To be dutiful to the gods was, ipso facto, and de facto, to be dutiful to your parents. The end of piety to the gods eventually destroys all sense of piety and this inevitably spills over into a lack of piety to one’s family. Once the gods and family have been destroyed, all that is left is the state. And that was the third leg of piety: the gods, your family, and your country. With the gods and family out of the picture all that is left is the state which becomes god and family in life. The state is the object of your duty and worship, the state is your family which nurtures you from cradle to grave, the state is what protects you like the gods or father and siblings would have done in times past.

The Euthyphro is an intensely political dialogue and it reflects, more than argues, about how the state becomes the supreme reality in our lives. Plato does not—on the whole, especially given the context of all his dialogues—see this as a wholly good thing. There are problems with this type of state supremacy over our lives (just look at what happened to Socrates or the control of the Athenian government by the tyrants). Nevertheless, Plato is describing a stark truth about the nature of the political. When duty, loyalty, and reverence to the gods and family dissipates, the state always triumphs over us and becomes the object of our piety. At this point we become shackled to the Cave, the the jail cell, in which we are instrumentally depreciated as mere cogs to power of the state.

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