Piety, Knowledge, and Critical Inquiry in Plato’s Euthyphro (with reference to Plato’s Apology)
August 22, 2012
Every Shimer student in the Weekday program reads Plato’s Euthyphro as their first assignment in preparation for Orientation. This is appropriate, because Platonic dialogues such as the Euthyphro are typical of the sorts of texts that work particularly well in the Shimer classroom. The meanings of such texts are rarely immediately obvious, or at least not completely so; because of this, they reward close reading, critical investigation, and deep reflection. By contrast, a technical manual, such as the ones included with cars and DVD players, aims to plainly communicate a single meaning that can be contradicted only by statements that are patently incorrect. That’s one reason why we don’t study technical manuals at Shimer, or their first cousins, textbooks. With that in mind, I’m going to explore some aspects of the Euthyphro in an effort to uncover at least part of the meaning of the dialogue.
The plot of the Euthyphro is simple, and the text is relatively brief by Platonic standards. Socrates encounters a man named Euthyphro at the site where his (Socrates’) trial is about to take place. Each man tells the other one why he is there. Socrates is a defendant. He recounts the charges against him, charges that will be familiar to readers of Plato’s Apology, including the allegation that he has committed heresy by inventing new gods and failing to acknowledge the old ones (3A). Euthyphro is a plaintiff who is prosecuting his father for manslaughter. When Socrates expresses surprise that Euthyphro would do such a thing, Euthyphro, who claims to be an unrecognized authority on religious matters, responds that reverence for the gods demands it. Socrates then proposes that, since Euthyphro is such an expert on piety, he will become Euthyphro’s pupil in order to prove to his accusers that he is “eager for knowledge about religion” (5A), which will presumably undermine the charge of heresy that has been leveled against him. During the remaining three-quarters of the dialogue, Socrates asks Euthyphro questions about the nature of piety, presumably as pupil to teacher. Euthyphro consistently proves unable to supply an account of piety that meets the standards of Socratic inquiry, and the dialogue ends without such an account having been satisfactorily provided.
Or, to put it more accurately, the dialogue ends without a satisfactory explicitly-stated account of piety. Is there an implicit conception of piety that reveals itself upon deeper investigation? This is the general question I will be investigating this afternoon.
In order to begin this investigation, I’ve selected a passage to serve as a point of departure. That passage occurs near the end of the dialogue, after Euthyphro attempts at Socrates’ request to summarize the achievements of the gods. He does so at some length, in response to which Socrates responds, in part, as follows: “You, Euthyphro, might have answered my question in far fewer words….If you had done so, I should by now have obtained from you all the information I need about piety” (14B-C).
On the basis of that passage, the following question arises: what are those “far fewer words,” and what is that “information”? Nothing in the Euthyphro explicitly answers those questions, so that any attempt to find the answers – indeed, even to discover whether those questions have answers – necessarily involves looking beyond, as well as at, the manifest content of the dialogue. So let’s do that.
First, we’ll examine the evidence concerning Euthyphro’s claim to be a religious authority. We’ve already noted that Euthyphro justifies his prosecution of his father on the grounds of piety. In explaining this to Socrates, he admits that all his relatives disagree with both his prosecution of his father and his justification for it; they have unanimously told him that “it is an act of impiety for a son to prosecute his father for manslaughter” (4D). In response to this, Socrates asks him, “But, in the name of Zeus, Euthyphro, do you think your knowledge about the divine law and piety and impiety is so exact that, when the facts are as you say, you are not afraid of doing something impious yourself in prosecuting your father for murder?” To this, Euthyphro responds, “I should be of no use, Socrates, and Euthyphro would be no better than the common run of men, if I did not have accurate knowledge about all that sort of thing” (4E-5A).
Plato gives us ample reason to be skeptical of Euthyphro’s claim. Earlier in the dialogue, even before explaining the details of his pending court case, Euthyphro tells Socrates, “I have never predicted a word that wasn’t true” (3B), offering his unerring prophetic ability as evidence of his wisdom concerning divine matters. Shortly thereafter, alluding to the prosecution that he is about to undergo, Socrates says, “There’s no knowing how his case will turn out – except for you prophets” (3D). Euthyphro replies, “I daresay it will come to nothing, Socrates, and you will conduct your case satisfactorily” (3E). Given that readers of this dialogue would be well aware of Socrates’ subsequent conviction and execution at the hands of the Athenian court, as rendered in the Apology and other contemporary accounts, Plato could hardly have made Euthyphro’s lack of prophetic ability plainer to his audience. This episode casts considerable doubt on Euthyphro’s subsequent claims concerning his knowledge of religious matters, which in turn implies that his self-confidence on that score is unwarranted.
Shortly thereafter, in response to Socrates’ request he state what piety is, Euthyphro recounts a well-known portion of the classic Greek foundation myth, whereby Zeus puts his father, Cronos, in chains as punishment for his misdeeds. Euthyphro offers this and similar stories in justification of his own prosecution of his father. Socrates’ response to that story is one of doubt – doubt not about Euthyphro’s attempted justification, but about the veracity of the myth itself. He asks Euthyphro whether he thinks that he (Socrates) is being brought to trial because he “somehow” finds it difficult to accept such stories about the gods. He then concedes that he might be wrong to doubt those stories, and that if religious experts - such as Euthyphro claims to be - believe in such stories, Socrates will be duty-bound to believe them too. This, he says, is because “I myself admit that I know nothing about the subject” (6A). In other words, Socrates’ lack of knowledge leads him not only to doubt received wisdom, but even to doubt his own doubts.
With this, Plato tacitly draws a clear distinction between the two interlocutors in the dialogue. Euthyphro claims to know everything about religion. Socrates claims to know nothing about it. On the basis of his claim to possess religious knowledge, Euthyphro is certain that he can prosecute his father with total confidence, in part on the basis of the analogy of himself with Zeus, the king of the gods, the all-knowing. On the basis of his claim to lack religious knowledge, Socrates professes himself to be certain neither of the veracity of the stories of the gods nor of his own doubts about those stories, and thus is not confident about anything at all concerning that subject. Therefore, as Socrates explicitly states, if Euthyphro actually has the knowledge that he claims to have, that will trump Socrates’ ignorance, and Socrates will accept Euthyphro’s authority on matters concerning piety.
The key word here is “if.” Socrates puts every condition hypothetically, setting the stage for him to try, throughout the rest of the dialogue, to discover whether Euthyphro actually has the knowledge that he claims to have, and for Euthyphro to try to demonstrate that he does in fact have it.
If Euthyphro had his way, it is likely that his demonstration of his self-proclaimed expertise would entail telling Socrates, in addition to the story of Zeus and Cronos, “a great many other facts about our religion, which will astonish you, I’m sure, when you hear them” (6D). But a Platonic dialogue is not a story-telling session, but rather an exercise in critical inquiry. So Socrates doesn’t simply accept Euthyphro’s claim, as we might put it, “on faith”: to do so would appeal to exactly the sort of unquestioning certainty to which he does not have recourse, since, as a self-proclaimed non-knower, he wouldn’t have any basis on which to accept that claim. Instead, he tells Euthyphro that stories about conflicts between the gods do not answer his question, which is about the nature of piety. In order to satisfy Socrates’ request, then, Euthyphro will have to try to demonstrate his religious expertise in a different way – a way, as the rest of the dialogue makes clear, for which he is ill-equipped.
Several other aspects of Socrates’ response to Euthyphro’s story about Zeus and Cronos are worth noting. By asking Euthyphro whether he thinks that his, Socrates’, difficulty in believing such stories is the reason that he has been prosecuted, Socrates shifts the conversation from a declarative to an interrogatory mode – or, as we might say, from a lecture format to a dialogue format. He also subtly and skillfully changes the subject from piety itself to the status of knowledge claims about piety, from dogmatic statements to hypotheses. Dogma consists of authoritative and unquestionable declarative statements; hypothesis, by contrast, regards declarative statements as assumptions subject to critical inquiry. In identifying the heart of the matter with the latter rather than the former, Plato often makes it clear where Socrates doubts, and where Euthyphro - and we – should be doubting as well. For example, as was already mentioned, Euthyphro exhibits absolute confidence in the veracity of the stories of quarrels between the gods of classic Greek mythology. Socrates responds that this puts the Greek gods in the same position as human disputants “assuming that they are divided about questions of right and wrong, as you claim” (8D). The key word here is “assuming.” Socrates neither agrees nor disagrees with Euthyphro’s implicit claim that the gods quarrel, but rather holds it as an hypothesis. This orientation toward hypothetical constructions is reinforced the very next time that Socrates speaks, when he states “that each single act is disputed by the disputants, whether they are men or gods – assuming the gods do dispute” (8E). These back-to-back instances of characterizing statements about the disputes of the gods as assumptions rather than matters of dogma clearly demarcate the difference between Socrates and Euthyphro with respect to their approach to knowledge claims, at least those concerning religious matters. Euthyphro professes himself to be certain that the gods dispute with one another; in fact, he claims to know much more about those disputes than the ordinary Athenian does (6B). Socrates neither affirms nor denies that claim, instead holding it to be an assumption and therefore subject to further investigation.
Critical inquiry demands the hypothetical mode championed by Socrates; dogma eschews it. In agreeing to be enlisted in Socrates’ project of critical inquiry, Euthyphro tacitly assumes that his claims will ultimately be vindicated. This is hardly surprising, since he is certain that they’re true. But although he is naïve to allow himself to be enlisted in critical inquiry, he is enlisted willingly. For example, midway through the dialogue he offers an amended version of one of his earlier definitions of piety, after which Socrates asks him, “Should we then consider this definition in its turn, Euthyphro, to see whether it is satisfactory, or should we let it pass and simply accept both our own and other people’s assumptions, taking the speaker’s mere word for the truth of what he says? Or should we inquire into the correctness of this statement?” “We should inquire,” Euthyphro replies. “All the same, I think that this definition is now correct” (Euthyphro, 9E).
Euthyphro’s confidence in this latest definition seems disingenuous, since he has already offered a couple of previous definitions in which he expressed great confidence and which subsequently dissipated in a poof of logic. Nevertheless, this is typical of Euthyphro. Unlike Socrates, he claims to be a “knower.” As such, he evidently can’t fathom the possibility that submitting a presumed knowledge claim to critical inquiry potentially undermines it by converting it into an assumption, a hypothetical statement which by definition could be otherwise. This inability appears to be a byproduct of his self-confidence, and Plato gives us extensive evidence that that confidence is unwarranted: Euthyphro’s demonstrably false claim of unerring prophesy, his presumptuous assertion that he is permitted to act in the same manner as the king of the gods, and his manifest inability to present a definition of piety that is sound enough to survive critical inquiry. Nevertheless, Euthyphro continues to state throughout the dialogue that his accuracy in knowledge of divine matters makes him superior to other people. And the fact he is still claiming to have “a better knowledge of religion than anyone else” (13E) as the dialogue approaches its conclusion indicates that he has learned little if anything as a result of his encounter with Socrates.
Socrates’ penultimate statement to Euthyphro implies this in several ways. First, he exhorts Euthyphro to “tell me the truth [about the gods], for you know it if any human being does” (15D). This statement invokes an implicit conclusion based on modus tollens, a valid logical syllogism with the following form: P implies Q; Q is false; therefore P is false. In this particular case, the content of that syllogism is this: If anyone knows the truth about the gods, Euthyphro knows it; Euthyphro doesn’t know it; therefore no one knows it. In other words, the events and arguments of the Euthyphro raise doubt as to whether any human being has the knowledge that Euthyphro claims to have. Second, Socrates turns Euthyphro’s claim to possess divine knowledge into a negative hypothetical: “If you didn’t know all about piety and impiety, you would never have attempted to prosecute your aged father…” (15D). This statement follows thematically from the previous one: after all that has transpired, Euthyphro should recognize that he does not in fact know what he claims to know about piety, which should at least leave him in serious doubt about whether his prosecution of his father is justifiable on religious grounds. Finally, the fact that Euthyphro has made no evident progress during the course of the dialogue leads Socrates to say, “I am sure you think you know all about what is pious” and to exhort Euthyphro to “tell me your opinion” (15E, my emphasis in both cases). That is, it is evident that Euthyphro thinks he knows what he claims to know, but it is by now equally obvious that he does not actually know it. As a consequence Socrates refers to Euthyphro’s claim to be a religious expert, for the first time in the dialogue, as “opinion,” thereby tacitly indicating that Euthyphro should no longer claim to possess knowledge of such matters. At this point Euthyphro departs, and the dialogue comes to an end.
So that’s where things stand at the end of the Euthyphro. Much dialogue has taken place, but nothing concerning the nature of piety has been posited and successfully defended. Socrates doesn’t claim to know it; Euthyphro does, but his claims have been shown to be baseless. Only a negative case has been made – that is, several proposed conceptions of piety have been refuted. But is there a positive case to be inferred? That is, is there in Plato’s view such a thing as true piety, and if so in what does it consist?
The Euthyphro is, on the surface at least, silent about this question. In order for us to attempt to answer it, we must turn to its sequel: the Apology, Plato’s account of Socrates’ defense in court, the action of which immediately follows the events in the Euthyphro.
Early in the Apology, Socrates tries to account for the reputation that has among the people of Athens, which he believes has led to his prosecution. His explanation begins as follows: “I have gained this reputation, gentlemen, from nothing more or less than a kind of wisdom. What kind of wisdom do I mean? Human wisdom, I suppose. It seems that I really am wise in this limited sense” (20B). Concerning “wisdom that is more than human” – that is, divine wisdom - Socrates goes on to tell the jury, echoing similar statements from the Euthyphro, “I certainly have no knowledge of such wisdom” (20D). And how does Socrates know that he has any wisdom at all? Because “the god at Delphi,” Apollo, famously declared through an oracle that no one was wiser than Socrates (20E-21A).
In Plato’s account in the Apology, Socrates’ reaction to the oracle’s declaration was, typically, to wonder about it. “I said to myself, ‘What does the god mean? Why does he not use plain language? I am only too conscious that I have no claim to wisdom, great or small, so what can he mean by asserting that I am the wisest man in the world? He certainly cannot be telling a lie; that would not be right for him.’ And for a long time I was at a loss as to what he meant” (21B). Socrates subsequently wanders around Athens trying to understand the meaning of the god’s declaration by asking questions of people who consider themselves wise or who are reputed to have wisdom. In other words, Socrates responds to a knowledge claim by wondering about the meaning of the claim, doubting the claim, doubting his own doubt, and then investigating whether the claim stands up to critical inquiry – that is, by utilizing the same process we witnessed in his dialogue with Euthyphro. The one difference in this method from the method employed in the Euthyphro is that, here, Socrates takes for granted that the oracle’s claim must be true if it is properly understood. This, he says, is because the god “certainly cannot be telling a lie; that would not be right for him” (Quotation #6), which implies that a truth claim by a god must be treated somewhat differently from a truth claim by a human being. Nevertheless, doubt, intellectual humility, and critical inquiry are all vitally involved in essentially the same way in both cases.
Socrates then goes on to tell the jury about his encounters with people in various walks of life who were reputed to be wise but, in response to critical inquiry, turned out not to be, because Socratic questioning revealed that their knowledge claims amounted to little or nothing. This leads Socrates to conclude that while no human being has any knowledge to boast of, he himself at least has the modest advantage that, as he says in the Apology, “I do not claim to know that which I do not know” (21D). This trait, which has come to be known as Socratic humility, follows directly from his earlier statement about the limitations of human wisdom.
The allegation that Socrates invented new gods was evidently based on the idea that anyone who questions the knowledge claims of others must presume to know what they do not. As Socrates says in the Apology, “Whenever I succeed in disproving another person’s claim to wisdom in a given subject, the bystanders assume that I know everything about that subject myself” (23A). Such a conclusion is illogical, but the notion that those who refute the arguments of others must think they themselves know the truth is as widespread now as it was then, and just as fallacious. The Shimer faculty refutes this erroneous conception every day. Like Socrates, we don’t think of ourselves primarily as professors, for we have little if anything to profess. But we do know a bad argument when we hear one, and so did Socrates. He knew it when he heard it from Euthyphro, and he also knew it when he heard it from other Athenians who, like Euthyphro, lacked intellectual humility. He had the temerity to point that out to them, and he paid for it with his life.
And why did he do that? A number of passages in the Apology leave no room for doubt: he saw it as a matter of piety. As he tells the jury, once he learned of the declaration of the oracle, “I pursued my investigation at the god’s command” in order to “establish the truth of the oracle” (22A). Once he discovered the meaning of the oracle, namely that “real wisdom is the property of God, and…human wisdom has little or no value” (23A), his reaction was “to give aid to the god” by “undertaking service on the god’s behalf” (23B). Later in his testimony to the jury, he sums up by stating, “God appointed me…to the duty of living the philosophic life, examining myself and others” (28E). Many other statements from the Apology could also be quoted in support of the notion that Socrates regards critical inquiry as his religious duty. He has taken on this duty even though he, as a mere mortal, does not and cannot have the “real wisdom” that belongs to God alone.
Socrates does claim to know a few basic facts about the gods, such as that they are responsible for everything good (“What they [the gods] give us is obvious to anyone, for we have nothing good that they don’t give us,” Euthyphro 15A) and that they cannot lie because it “would not be right” for them to do so (Apology 21B). But when it comes to more complex issues about the attributes and achievements of the gods such as those rendered in the traditional stories of Greek mythology, as he tells Euthyphro, he “somehow” has difficulty believing them. This is entirely consistent with his claim in both dialogues that he does not have knowledge of anything that is “more than human” (Euthyphro 6A-B, Apology 20E). Socrates clearly believes in the existence and goodness of the gods, but he also appears to believe that human understanding of their attributes and achievements is quite limited, and that recognition of that limitation is a sign of proper humility, which is an essential feature of both piety and wisdom. This stands in stark contrast to Euthyphro, whose evident lack of piety and wisdom is manifest in his unwarranted self-confidence and lack of humility.
The Apology concludes with Socrates telling the jury that has convicted him and sentenced him to death the following words: “Now it is time for us to be going, I to die and you to live; but which of us has the happier prospect is unknown to anyone but God” (42A). This is a beautiful coda from a literary standpoint; but, more importantly, it underlines the lessons about piety and wisdom that pervade both the Euthyphro and the Apology. Socrates’ accusers and a majority of the jury are sending him to his death because they are certain that death is an evil – otherwise, why invoke it as a punishment? But, for Socrates, that sort of certainty is a matter of divine wisdom, not accessible by mere mortals. Socrates’ statement therefore stands as a reminder that neither he nor his accusers possess that sort of wisdom. We are reminded of the modus tollens near the end of the Euthyphro: If any human being knows the truth about the attributes and achievements of the gods, Euthyphro knows it; Euthyphro doesn’t know it; therefore no one knows it. This conclusion, simply hinted at in the Euthyphro, becomes explicit in the Apology.
So, returning to our original point of departure, what are the “far fewer words” that Euthyphro could have used to describe the achievements of the gods, the words that, according to Socrates in Quotation #1, would have satisfied him and given him all the information he needed? Those words would have had to say what is common to all of the gods, as against the controversies and intrigues that Euthyphro attributes to them and which set them in conflict with each other. Those words would have had to state, or at least imply, the attributes and achievements of all of the gods. But, as the dialogue bearing his name amply demonstrates, Euthyphro does not know this; and as the Euthyphro intimates and the Apology makes clear, no one else does either. The highest wisdom attainable by human beings, as Socrates declares in the Apology, consists in knowing what one doesn’t know, and one especially cannot know anything which is unknowable by human beings, for example, divine wisdom. Therefore, the “far fewer words” about piety and the gods that would have satisfied Socrates, but which Euthyphro was constitutionally incapable of providing, might well have been these: “I don’t know.”
The process of arriving at this tentative conclusion demonstrates how Plato’s Apology can be invoked to help us address important questions that are asked or implied, but not explicitly answered, in the Euthyphro. If time permitted, we could go on to explore how the Crito, the dialogue whose action follows Socrates’ trial, serves similarly as a complement to the Apology, and how the dialogue that ends with Socrates’ death, the Phaedo, stands in a similar position to the Crito. But I’ve already imposed enough on you for one day, so that exploration will have to wait for another time.
I’d like to conclude by reflecting critically on what I’ve said in the past half-hour or so. I’ve investigated the evidence concerning a question proposed in the Euthyphro and come to a tentative conclusion about how it might be answered. How certain am I of that conclusion? In all honesty, not very certain. And that attitude seems fitting to me. Plato’s Socrates warns us not to claim knowledge beyond our measure. In order to be true to that dictum, I believe, we should exhibit intellectual humility in attempting to understand the meanings of the works of those who are far wiser than we are, especially when those meanings are not entirely obvious. In proposing a possible approach to uncovering part of the meaning of the Euthyphro, I have tried to remain faithful to the evidence Plato offers us while approaching my task with at least some degree of intellectual humility. If, in so doing, I’ve fallen considerably short of the ideal of wisdom represented by Socrates, I hope that I have at least succeeded in avoiding the unreflective and unwarranted “certainty” exemplified by Euthyphro.