What is Piety?: Notes on Plato’s Euthyphro I

The problem of piety has a long history in Western philosophy and is first addressed by Plato in the dialogue Euthyphro. This dialogue is one in the drama making up the trial and death of Socrates and takes place just as Socrates arrives at the porch of King Archon, the sovereign who shall preside over his trial. Here he meets and exchanges greetings with Euthyphro, a theologian who prises himself on his “exact knowledge” of what the gods consider to be pious, who is bringing a murder suit against his father. His father, we are told, is responsible for the death of one of their servants who himself had murdered another servant in cold blood. The father, seeking some form of justice, bound the murderous servant and threw him in a ditch, sending yet another servant to a “diviner” to seek the will of the gods in the matter. The time it took to reach the diviner was longer than the time it took for the elements to take the murderous servant. Socrates appears ready to dismiss this because the man killed by Euthyphro’s father was akin to a stranger and not a relative. Euthyphro admonishes Socrates for making such a distinction when it comes to murder and goes on to say that he considers it his duty to bring charge against his father, otherwise risk pollution and impiety, while the rest of his family ‘say that he did not kill him, and that if he did, dead man was but a murderer, and I ought not to take any notice, for that a son is impious who prosecutes a father.’ Euthyphro quickly dismisses this charge with the words, ‘Which shows, Socrates, how little they know what the gods think about piety and impiety.’ Thus the confrontation leads to the question of what piety is – Euthyphro claiming to know, his family claiming to know it to be something different, and Socrates, as usual, feigning confusion and ignorance.

There are at least five matters of interest in this confrontation. There is the matter of the servants – the problem of piety is at work amidst questions of work, the relation of a master to his servants and the value of a servant’s life. There is the matter of family – the problem of piety takes place amidst the society of Oedipus – and the matter of duty and the gods – piety is concerned with what counts as sovereignty. There is also the matter of the earth itself – the ditch in which the servant was thrown, the lack of food and water to nourish him, the cold, and the chains which bound him to the earth outside of the Athenian city walls.

Euthyphro’s first definition of piety addresses the tension over locating sovereignty in the earthly father or in a heavenly Father: ‘Piety is doing as I am doing; that is to say, prosecuting any one who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or of any similar crime-whether he be your father or mother, or whoever he may be-that makes no difference; and not to prosecute them is impiety.’ In many ways anticipating the Kantian practical philosophy of duty before the moral law, Euthyphro creates a direct analogy between his prosecution of his father with the prosecution Zeus undertook against his father Cronos for “wickedly devoured his sons”, and Cronos himself had committed a similar action against his father, Uranus, for another similar impious action. Socrates, expressing his own piety, questions whether the gods could possibly really be so utterly human, but in so doing misses the point entirely. The point being that piety is a doing.

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