The Euthyphro problem that one actually finds in the Euthyphro, pt. 1

In contemporary philosophy, “The Euthyphro Problem” is a question about why things are good and about the difficulties in (a caricature of) divine command theory, but this is a very different question from the question raised in the Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, which treats of various dilemmas that arise in trying to define what piety is. Euthyphro continually fails to define piety by continually failing to describe a being that would be worthy of piety, which is to say that he never comes up with an adequate notion of the sort of being that deserves to be worshiped as divine. This is hardly a hidden teaching of the dialogue, since the first definition of piety that Euthyphro gives is:

Piety is what I am doing, charging my father with murder…. For do not men regard Zeus as the best and most righteous of the gods?-and yet they admit that he bound his father (Cronos) because he wickedly devoured his sons, and that he too had punished his own father (Uranus) for a similar reason, in a nameless manner.

To which Socrates responds:

This is the reason, Euthyphro, why I am a defendent in this case – that I cannot accept these stories about the gods.

In other words, Socrates rejects the whole basis of Euthyphro’s piety, and he suspects that this is the reason why the Athenians are putting him on trial.  The dialogue is therefore a call to reform a false notion of what is divine in order to articulate the nature of a being to whom piety would be due.

Both Socrates and Euthyphro are working from the supposition that one and the same thing or action cannot not be both pious and impious. Following this, the problems that arise in finding an object of piety arise mainly from the problems of understanding the act of the divine will, that is, divine love. If a pious action is an object of divine love, then we require complete singularity and unanimity of the divine will; for without complete and unchanging unanimity, one and the same action can be both pious and impious. Euthyphro could have avoided this problem by stipulating that one and the same action could be pious or not, depending on which god one related it to (and so, famously, killing Trojans would be pious to Athena and impious to Hera), but Euthyphro, much to his credit, is not willing to accept such relativism. There might be some actions that are loved by one god and hated by another, but such actions cannot exhaust all pious actions, and certainly not the loftiest such actions.  However misguided Euthyphro might be about the piety of his own action, he nevertheless is right to never abandon the idea that some actions are just pious, now and forever. Euthyphro isn’t willing to accept the logical consequences of this opinion, however. It makes no sense to think that the pious is not somehow an object of divine love; but if something is absolutely and changelessly pious, what then? Euthyphro would probably make an even stronger claim: there are things which admit no possibility of being impious. But it is very hard to harmonize such an idea with a multiplicity of divine wills, and therefore with a multitude of divinities; and it even becomes difficult to harmonize with a single divinity that could change his will from one thing to another. This, of course, opens a new difficulty and problem, which Socrates develops with a second series of arguments.



  1. thenyssan said,

    December 1, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Maybe I’m jumping too soon into the fire, but isn’t the first object of piety in that dialogue Euthyphro’s father? By charging his father with a crime it appears that Euthyphro is failing his father–and the dialogue quickly advances to the competing demands of piety to father and piety to the gods. I’m wavering in my interpretation as I write this but let me forge ahead with it all the same and take any lumps I have coming to me.

    If my basic take on the dialogue is right, couldn’t Euthyphro argue for a relativism of piety based on the “rank” of the object? Why not say that what is pious toward my father could be impious toward the gods and vice versa?

  2. PatrickH said,

    December 2, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    I’ve always understood the whole dialog to be a full-bore attack on the possibility of any connection between the holy and the Athenian pantheon specifically, not between divinity and the holy in any general way. The extension of the argument to “the divine” in general, “God” in particular, is to completely miss the point of Plato’s attack. A lot of the confusion comes, I think, from dependence on non-Greek readers on Jowett’s entirely unjustified use of “God” in the key argument (what has come to us as the “dilemma”). He translates ‘theophiles’ and various forms of phileo throughout (and after) as ‘the gods’. Come the key argument, suddenly ‘God’ appears. And yet each instance of ‘God’ is a translation of ‘theophiles’ or ‘phileo’, which are translated always elsewhere by Jowett as ‘the gods’. The most egregious example is the sentence where Socrates says (I paraphrase from Jowett’s English ‘It is not the case that the gods love something because it is holy; nor is the case, as you affirm, Euthyprho, that something is holy because God loves it.’ Note the change from the FIRST HALF of the sentence ‘gods’ and the second half of the SAME sentence: God–that is in Jowett. And boy, does the sudden appearance from seeming nowhere of ‘God’ ever startle.

    The sentence in Greek is clearly laying out two ways for ‘theophiles’ and ‘hosion’ to relate, and denying both relations: something is theophiles because it is hosion–denied; and something is hosion because it is theophiles–ascribed to Euthyphro, and he agrees with the ascription–but denied by Socrates too. The two have no connection, Socrates argues. They are ‘two different things’. But the theophiles of the first half is given by Jowett as ‘gods’ and then, astonishingly, in the second half–the ‘euthyphrean’ half–as ‘God’!

    In fact, Plato is clearly attacking the notion that the Athenian gods–specifically them–have any connection to the holy at all. Neither via Euthyphro’s divine command theory – Olympian version, or the other position, i.e, that the Athenian gods love something because it is holy, is any help. There is no necessary connection between the two. If we want to know what is holy, the Athenian gods are no help. As the example of Zeus castrating his Dad was deliberately included to show: the Athenian gods, including the big cheese himself, frequently love what is evil. So the ‘Euthyphro dilemma’ in the dialog–the real one–is not for Euthyphro or divine command theory alone. It is a direct attack on the Athenian gods as being reliable guides to OR sources of the ‘holy’ at all. The dilemma is for anyone who attempt to derive the holy from the gods of Athens–and only them. Why does Plato attack the Olympians so mercilessly: his teacher was murdered by defenders of that pantheon. Plato’s target isn’t just Euthyphro, it’s Meletus and Anytus (and I would argue any relativist today) who tries to anchor goodness or holiness in the relative, even the big powerful Zeusian level relative. The gods, poor Euthyphro aren’t any good to us at all. Not your way. Nor any other. No connection at all, I’m afraid.

  3. PatrickH said,

    December 2, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    I apologize for the length of the previous. Feel free to delete if you wish, Dr Chastek.

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