A peculiar man, one of stocky build and bulging eyes, once walked the streets Athens. A group of eager young men trailed behind him like ducklings, waiting for him to choose his next prey. This man was Socrates, who wandered the streets of Athens in search of its “experts,” be them of religious, legal, or intellectual matters. Upon finding them, he would inflate them with fawning and praise before very gently and very politely bringing them to the conclusion that they know nothing of their trade. Among these eager ducklings was a young man named Plato. He was not yet known, but these debates would lead him down an intellectual rabbit hole from which he would forever change the world.
Plato would one day publish these “dialogues” between Socrates and Athenian experts in his Five Dialogues, each named for the “expert” in question. The first of which is Euthyphro, wherein Socrates, not long before his execution, politely deflates the ever-arrogant Euthyphro who, so confident in his knowledge of the divine and the pious, prosecutes his own father for murdering a murderer.Socrates compliments the man’s self-proclaimed mastery of piety–surely one so confident that he feels just in prosecuting his own father knows precisely what is pious and precisely what is not. Euthyphro holds his head higher and agrees. His knowledge of piety, he asserts, indeed, makes him superior to other men. It is here that he falls into Socrates’ trap.
Socrates compliments the man’s self-proclaimed mastery of piety and brave act–surely one so confident to feel just in prosecuting his own father knows precisely what is pious and precisely what is not. Euthyphro holds his head high and agrees. His knowledge of piety, he asserts, indeed, makes him superior to other men. It is here that he falls into Socrates’ trap.
The remainder of Euthyphro consists of Socrates refuting every answer the “expert” can give concerning “What is piety?” until he finally walks away, leaving Socrates unsatisfied and himself embarrassed.
Euthyphro raises a brilliant question: do we blindly believe that which we are told or do we examine our beliefs and scour them for validity? Though the dialogue is certainly not intended to be read this way, I find it useful (and quite fun) to imagine it as the internal discussion Euthyphro should have had with himself. Here, the “Socrates” dialogue tag becomes “Euthyphro’s conscious,” constantly doubting and poking holes in his own beliefs, building him towards a more accurate understanding of piety. With great irony, this definition seems only achievable if one does not include the intentions of a god or gods, which cannot be known. “Piety,” then, may become synonymous is its secular cousin “good,” and Plato’s Euthyphro becomes both a central text for academics of ethics and philosophy, and a warning to all else concerning the nature of credibility (are experts the true masters of their fields or mere mouthpieces of their contemporaries) and the nature of goodness.