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The Euthyphro as a Philosophical Work

by D.R. Khashaba

What is a philosophical work? This is a question to which there can be a myriad of reasonable answers. So without claiming to give the one right answer, I will try to offer an answer by examining Plato's Euthyphro, whose title to being accounted a philosophical work will not be questioned by many.

In doing so I may be imitating the foolish interlocutors in the Socratic dialogues who, when asked: What is, say, courage?, answer: Standing firm in battle is courage. So, asked: What is a philosophical work?, I will answer: the Euthyphro is a philosophical work. So much of foolishness I ask to be permitted me. But I will not stop there. I will go on to show what, in my view, makes the Euthyphro a philosophical work.[1]


Socrates comes to the Stoa of the Archon Basileus to meet the indictment brought up against him by Meletus. There he meets with the soothsayer Euthyphro who has come to lay charges against his own father who has caused the death of a man without due process of law. Euthyphro proceeds against his father to remove the pollution thus incurred. The impiety in failing to do so would outweigh the impiety of acting against his own aged father. Euthyphro is fully confident that his expert knowledge of theology makes it possible for him to decide what is pious and what impious in such a situation.

What, then, Socrates asks, is piety? Tell me what do you say piety is and what impiety? (5c, 5d.) What are we to understand by — what do we mean by — piety? As I have often reiterated in my writings, Socrates does not ask for a definition, but wants his interlocutor to look within his own mind and try to make out what he understands by the concept under discussion.

Euthyphro answers that to do what he is doing is piety. As evidence he cites the action of Zeus against his father Cronus and what Cronus in turn had done to his own father. Socrates is incredulous of such tales, but that is not what he wishes to examine right now. He is content to register his incredulity and lead his partner back to the question under examination.

By his initial answer Euthyphro has shown that, like most interlocutors in the Socratic dialogues, he has no idea what it is to examine a concept apart from the concrete instances in which it is exemplified. At this point Socrates tries to clarify the distinction between the various perceptible instances of a certain character and the idea that we have in our mind of that character, the distinction between a sensible realm of things in the world surrounding us and an intelligible realm of ideas which render the things meaningful. He asks Euthyphro to tell him of that one character which makes all things pious pious.

The creative concept of the distinction between the intelligible and the perceptible is Socrates' original and profound contribution to philosophical thought and is pivotal to the whole of Plato's philosophy. Socrates nowhere tries to 'prove' this distinction or to 'prove' the 'existence' of the intelligible realm. He proclaims the distinction and the reality of the intelligible realm, and in all he says and does he manifests the value and meaning with which our life becomes infused in the light of these concepts.

Euthyphro says that what is agreeable to the gods is pious, what is disagreeable to them impious (6e-7a). Even if we found no other fault with this statement, still, believing what Euthyphro does believe about the wars and quarrels among the gods, it would not help us know what is pious and what impious: what pleases one god may displease another (7a-8b). Clearly, the ideas in Euthyphro's mind do not form a consistent, coherent whole; they clash as much as his gods do.

Technically, this is an argument ad hominem, which is legitimate within proper limits, and Socrates does not make much of it. Indeed, for Plato its value resides more in revealing the absurdity of the popular conception of the gods than in disclosing the insufficiency of the statement proposed.

Prompted by Socrates, Euthyphro accepts an amendment to his statement: what all the gods like is pious, what all of them hate is impious (9d). Let us see: shall we say that the pious is loved by the gods because it is pious or that it is pious because it is loved by the gods (10a)? This is a knotty question that Euthyphro cannot easily comprehend. It is also a question with a tremendously profound dimension, which Plato is content to leave hovering here because in the present context it could not be dealt with commensurately with its profundity. Still, the prophetic notion of the autonomy of morality, which was to be the core of Kant's moral philosophy, is here clearly hinted at.

Socrates, leaving aside the profounder problem, explains the logic of the question: we speak of carrying and being carried, leading and being led, seeing and being seen. So also being loved is one thing and loving another. In short, what is carried, led, seen, loved, is in such a state because of some action to which it is subject. To say that a thing is in a state of being loved by the gods is to say that the gods love it. In other words, it is to say that something is happening to it. That is not to say what it is. The statement, then, that the pious is pious because it is loved by the gods tells us of an accident to which it is subject, but does not tell us what it is.

We shall say then that the gods love what is pious because it is pious. In other words, the gods love piety because of what it is. But then we are back to the question: What is piety?

Euthyphro confesses to his being at a loss what more to say and Socrates offers to help. We will readily agree that what is pious is righteous (dikaion). Well, is all that is righteous pious, or shall we say that, while all that is pious is righteous, part of what is righteous is pious and part of some other character? (11e-12a.) Once more, the question is too complex for Euthyphro and Socrates has again to explain a point of logic.

No modern student has any problem with such a question, thanks to the work done by philosophers. Philosophers create notions, distinctions, ways of looking at things, of examining questions, that become an integral part of the mental equipment of cultured humans. We very easily forget that these tools are gifts of individual creative thinkers.

Socrates then suggests that the pious is part of the righteous. What part of righteousness is piety? Euthyphro says that piety is that part of righteousness that has to do with attending to the gods; the rest of righteousness covers our dealings with humans (12e). Well, what do we mean by this tendance or service to the gods? We make use of this notion of tendance when we speak of tending to horses or cattle. We are then speaking of a special skill or branch of knowledge. Euthyphro thinks this may well be true of piety as tendance to the gods (13b). But in the case of attending to horses or cows the purpose and the result is to benefit the horses and cows and improve them. This cannot be the case with attending to the gods (13c).

Euthyphro suggests a different analogy. The service to the gods that is piety is of the kind rendered by slaves to their masters (13d). It is then some kind of assistance. A slave assists his master in performing work aiming at some good. What then is the good work in the performance of which the pious assist the gods? (13e).

Many and fine are the works of the gods. But what is the chief work in the performance of which they make use of the assistance of the pious? Euthyphro says that when someone knows how to gratify the gods in offering sacrifices and prayers, that amounts to piety, and that secures the wellbeing of individuals and of society (14a-b). That, Socrates finds, comes down to offering gifts to the gods and asking favours in return (14c-d). To ask properly would be to ask for what we need; to give properly would be to give what the recipients need. Piety would be a species of trading carried out between humans and gods (14d-e.). The goods that we may receive from the gods are obvious, but what benefit do they derive from our gifts? Nothing but honour and reverence and gratification. Then piety is simply pleasing to the gods. We have thus returned full circle to the view that piety is what is pleasing to the gods, which we have already found unsatisfactory (15a-b).

We should go back and start the investigation anew. But Euthyphro has to attend to his business and excuses himself, leaving the discussion in this inconclusive condition.


To my mind, what makes of the Euthyphro a philosophical work is precisely that it is not anything of what most people expect of a philosophical work. It does not advance a thesis; it does not draw inferences from a proposition or set of propositions; it does not establish a theory or present arguments in support of a hypothesis.

What do we find in this little philosophical work? A word that is part of our common vocabulary, that we use and think we understand, is examined to see what meaning or meanings and what associations of meanings it evokes for us: a piece of the furniture of our mental chamber is turned this way and that way to see how well-wrought it is and how well it sits with the rest of the furniture in the chamber.[2]

A philosophical work, true to Socratic dialectic, does not seek to arrive at a definite conclusion, or to prove or uphold a thesis or set of theses, but to subject one's own and others' beliefs, presuppositions, and accepted notions to searching examination, to illumine obscure nooks and crannies in one's own mind and others' minds. The end is not to arrive at conclusions, but to help us gaze within ourselves with clearer eyes.

F. M. Cornford has this to say of the dialectical treatment of a subject:

"[A modern reader] will readily understand that dialectic means a co-operative inquiry carried on in conversation between two or more minds that are equally bent, not on getting the better of the argument, but on arriving at the truth. A tentative suggestion ('hypothesis') put forward by one speaker is corrected and improved until the full meaning is clearly stated. The criticism that follows may end in complete rejection or lead on to another suggestion which (if the examination has been skilfully conducted) ought to approach nearer to the truth."[3]

This is a good description of the procedure of dialectical discourse, which is basically true of all genuine philosophical discourse however conducted. My only reservation is about the phrases 'arriving at the truth' and 'to approach nearer to the truth'. There is no objective truth to be arrived at. The end of proper philosophical discourse is to achieve a fuller awareness of our presuppositions, a clearer understanding of the fundamental notions and principles on which we base our judgements. Those fundamental notions and principles cannot be discovered in anything external to the mind and are not amenable to proof. To argue with a view to establishing their truth or revealing their falsity is vain. They rest in their own self-evidence. The question to be raised with regard to them is not a question of truth or falsity, but one of value and sufficiency and viability. The critical question to be posed in assessing a philosophical view should be: What kind of world does that view give us to live in? What kind of life does it offer? What level of intelligibility does it secure for us?

Does this mean that philosophical thought has no positive content whatever? No. What I am saying is (and I believe this was Plato's position too) that it can rest in no definitive formulation whatever. The searching examination is the whole of the philosophical act: that perpetuated act is a constant affirmation and realization of the reality of human intelligence and the integrity of the human mind. That is our whole reality and the ground of our proper worth. That reality finds creative expression in ideals and principles and theoretical models, rooted in our reality and 'true' in so far as they are expressions of that reality. But their particular formulations are necessarily always relative and contingent. Taken as final and absolute, as 'true', they turn into dogma and superstition. That is why they have to be constantly re-examined, put under the light-rays of new questions, revealing the inherent insufficiency of all determinate thought, that being the critical function of philosophy.

And since the expression of our inner reality in ideal formulations does not represent or seek to represent any outer, objective, actuality, the concept of truth is irrelevant and inapplicable to it. That is what I mean by saying that all creative philosophical thinking is mythical and oracular. It has nothing to do with facts; its whole concern is with values, the values of goodness. beauty, and, no!, not truth, but truthfulness.

The philosophical endeavour soars on two wings: the oracular and the dialectical.[4] The two are complementary and no genuine philosophy can be without a share of both, but a particular work of philosophy, or even the bulk of a particular philosopher's work, can be either principally dialectic or principally oracular. In the Euthyphro we can see the dialectical dimension clearly illustrated, but we can also glimpse the oracular dimension, not only in the ideal of God or the gods as necessarily good but also and markedly in the principle that moral values must be autonomous. This was the insight that formed the core of Kant's moral philosophy.

Socrates' life-mission was to combat amathia ('ignorance') by helping his interlocutors examine themselves. Amathia, the evil of which the Socratic elenchus rids the soul, is not lack of knowledge: in its milder variety, it is obscure and confused thought; in its more pernicious variety, it is 'disknowledge' instilled into the soul by bad upbringing and bad education, consisting in false values and notions and beliefs. But the process is not purely negative. In the philosophical dialectic (of which the elenchus is simply the characteristically Socratic mode) the philosopher introduces, actually creates, concepts, conceptual distinctions, ideal patterns, which expand, enrich, deepen, the capacity of the mind to infuse meaning into the givennesses of experience. Such concepts, conceptual distinctions, and ideal patterns, are not derived from the outer world and therefore cannot be in any way verified or proved. Again, they are not 'knowledge' imparted to the learner. If the learner receives them as factual knowledge they turn into dogmatic superstitions, a new amathia. When the learner sees them as creative developments of her/ his own mind, they become forms of intelligibility under which the mind can translate more of the chaos of the givennesses of experience into the cosmos of intelligence.


1. In the fifth of my Excursions into the Dialogues of Plato, "The Argument of the Republic", available on my Website:, I give an ampler answer by examining the chef-d'oeuvre of Plato's.

2. I hope no one will conclude from this that I align myself with the Ordinary Language school of thought: there may be points of contact, but there are radical differences between their outlook and mine.

3. F. M. Cornford, Plato's Theory of Knowledge (1935), p.30.

4. For a fuller elucidation of this view, see my "Philosophy as Prophecy", available on my Website.

© D. R. Khashaba 2005