Euthyphro, cont.

Euthyphro: I confess that I cannot explain what my duty is to the gods, but I still know that I have such a duty, even if I can’t say what it consists in, or ground it in some more basic reality, like what the gods love.

Socrates: And by a duty you mean that you owe something to the gods? That they have some right to your action?

E: That is exactly how I feel.

S: But you still agree that there is no commerce or exchanging things with the gods?

E: Yes.

S: But how can I owe you something without giving it to you? And how could I give you what I owe without settling my debt?

E: That seems to be a problem.

S: Indeed. How can we give what we owe without this being the settling of a debt?

E: Can you see a way, Socrates? It seems like I am saying we must pay our debts to the gods, but they can never be payed.

S: That is just what I find so hard to accept about what you are saying, Euthyphro, though I did not see it until now. You want to settle your account with the gods, but it seems to me that the only reason one would do so is if he wanted to be free of the gods. You call this action you are doing pious, but I see it as impious.

E: But how can you possibly say that, Socrates? I would never feel like I had paid my debt to the gods, and could be done with them!

S: And why not, Euthyphro? You clearly think you have paid your debt to your own Father, and now can be done with him! You would even now expose him to the penalty of death!

E: … But that …I don’t … I don’t think that at all. I would merely put the gods before anyone, even my father.

S: And so are the gods usurers? Or loan sharks?

E: I don’t see what you mean! You keep saying ridiculous things.

S: Not at all, dear Euthyphro. I only mean to ask you this: when the gods give you a debt that you can never repay, do they do this like loan sharks, shackling someone with crippling interest rates, and other pernicious and unjust tricks?

E: Absolutely not. It is in complete justice that we cannot ever repay the gift to the gods.

S: Yes. But if there could be any just debt that one must pay but could never repay, it would certainly be due to the one who gave him his own existence. But your very presence here in court denies that you owe any such thing to the one who gave you your own existence. You feel free to offer him up to executioners for murder.

E: So what should one do then? Do we have to consult our family tree before we can know whether to let someone get away with murder?

S: No, but you can never show your piety to the gods by raising your hand against your own father. I truth, this is all I wanted you to see from the beginning.


  1. Joe Grimer said,

    May 22, 2015 at 5:49 am

    I love this post… but I assume that can’t be the real conclusion.

    I mean, isn’t one’s father a cause of one’s existence, but it’s really down to God, therefore putting God’s will (: Justice) before your father is appropriate?

    • May 22, 2015 at 10:15 am

      Socrates’s argument here amounts to saying that even though it is true that one must put God’s will before your own father’s, it can’t be God’s will to hand over one’s father to the power of the state. If a child were concerned for his safety or the safety of others this would trigger other concerns, but Euthyphro is not in that position. If your father – or anyone in your family – kills someone, let the state figure it out.

      I don’t take this as an exception to justice but the fulfillment of it. Both piety and friendship transcend justice and better assure it, and the pious can no more inform on the other than an intimate can. The same reason that we can’t ask spouses to inform on each other applies to all other relationships that we want to be founded on intimacy and piety. The problem that the Euthyphro points to (and how much more profound it is than the supposed “Euthyphro problem”!) is really that all piety, whether to fathers or gods, and even all intimacy with others and friendship, is based on an obligation that transcends and fulfills the obligation of justice. In other words, it does all that justice does (i.e. uniting us to others by a sort of duty or obligation) but in a relationship that can never be “paid back” and thus negated.

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