Monday, March 26, 2012

Euthyphro gets tangled in knots

What is the right way to live?  And what is the right thing to do next?  What duty to we have to bow to the nation's gods?  And what happens when your idea of the right conflicts with the rest of society?

That is Socrates' problem as he runs into the young Euthyphro (the name means "right-thinking" or "sincere") outside the very court where he is shortly to be tried for the impiety of corrupting the youth.  Fortunately, Euthyphro is an expert on piety, at least until Socrates start to interrogate him.

To start with, Euthyphro believes that natural law takes precedence over positive law for he asserts that he can prosecute his father for encompassing the death of a non-relative of Euthyphro, an action not allowed in Athenian law.  His action against his father implies that the just or prudent man has a duty of care--even with respect to murderers.

Socrates' legal problem is that he is accused of religious innovation, putting words into the mouth of the gods against the general consensus.  But it is clear that, from the point of view of Euthyphro, the law of the gods is whatever is revealed to him.  If Euthyphro decides to prosecute his father, it is because he is right and doing the pious thing.  So what is wrong with Socrates doing the same thing and expounding what is revealed to him?

But Socrates, still concerned about his own case, presses Euthyphro on the definition of piety, or righteousness.  Piety is what pleases the gods, says Euthyphro, or, as we might say, righteousness is following God's law.  But the gods often quarrel, says Socrates, citing the poets, (suggesting that we can obtain knowledge of the gods from epic poetry) pointing out that it is often difficult to determine what pleases the gods, since they disagree, as humans do.  So piety is what pleases all the gods, or, as we might say, justice is following God's law scrubbed of scriptural inconsistency.


Then Socrates raises a chicken and egg question.  Do  the gods like piety because it is pious, or is something pious because it is loved by the gods.  In the one case natural law is binding on God, in the other omnipotent God defines what is good and bad.


Socrates sets a new trap for Euthyphro.  He gets him to agree that piety is a part of justice, in fact that the pious part of justice is concerned with "the care of the gods" and the rest of it "the care of men."  But this raises the question of just what the point of serving the gods is.  "Sacrifice and prayer" says Euthyphro.  In other words, "piety would be a knowledge of how to give to, and beg from, the gods."  This is to say that humans have a personal relationship with God.  But there are difficulties with this, for how could the gods possibly be benefited by a gift from a human?

In fact, it seems that Euthyphro is confused.  We would say that he is like the Supreme Court Justice that knew pornography when he saw it.

Poor Socrates: he still doesn't know how to defend against the charges of impiety.  He wants a logically consistent rule to define piety and impiety, suggesting that the idea of the good should be logically consistent.

So let us rank the philosophical ideas that bubbled out of Socrates and Euthyphro.
  1. Natural law takes precedence over positive law
  2. The just or prudent man has a duty of care
  3. The highest good can be revealed to the seer
  4. Righteousness is following the highest law
  5. The idea of the good should be logically consistent

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