We know that Socrates was accused of introducing new gods and of corrupting the youth. But what was Socrates’ true position concerning the gods?

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join the late Nalin Ranasinghe, as he analyzes the essence of piety as expressed in Plato’s Euthyphro. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher

“One Being, the only truly wise, does not and does agree to be called Zeus.” – Heraclitus

This reading of the Euthyphro will grapple with the accusations of impiety leveled against Socrates.[1] It will set out to answer certain basic questions about Socratic piety that arise and are not satisfied by repeated readings of the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo.[2] We know that Socrates was accused of introducing new gods and of corrupting the youth. Indeed, the opening words of the Euthyphro, “This is unprecedented, Socrates” (2a), alerts us that something novel is being introduced here. But what was Socrates’ true position concerning the gods? How did he regard the Homeric deities? I will try to dig up some of the literary and mythological themes hidden beneath the seemingly inconclusive surface of the Euthyphro. As with most dialogues, these references reveal the soul of Socrates’ interlocutor and shed valuable light on the discussion. This device enables the reader to share in the subtle process of self-understanding that has, hopefully, been set in motion.

The questions arising from the Euthyphro also serve to shed much light on the dialogues and events that follow it. Socrates was accused of impiety; he was thus summoned before the King Archon for a preliminary investigation into the prima facie merits of the complaint. Instead, we see Socrates carry out his own investigation into what is meant by the holy. Unfortunately, the very asking of this question itself is considered impious by some. This is the first of the many tautological perplexities and dizzying circular arguments that pervade this dialogue.

The context of the Euthyphro suggests strong parallels between Meletus and Euthyphro. What would have ensued had Socrates encountered Meletus rather than Euthyphro before the preliminary inquiry took place? If Socrates had questioned Meletus in private, the results of their conversation would probably have greatly resembled the Euthyphro; instead of the tragic Apology, we would have another comic dialogue—the Meletus. The implicit substitution of Euthyphro for Meletus suggests that the latter is prosecuting Socrates for reasons resembling those that Euthyphro has for prosecuting his father. As Crito pointed out in the Crito, Meletus’ indictment of Socrates could easily have been quashed. This is why Crito was sharply critical of “the way the lawsuit was introduced into the law-court even though it was possible for it not to be introduced.”[3] It seems that Meletus could have been persuaded by Socrates’ friends to drop his suit, if Socrates had let them. Indeed Xenophon pointedly tells us how Socrates gave Crito very effective advice about dealing with malicious prosecutions.[4] Had Socrates been at the King-Archon’s hearing—instead of correcting Euthyphro—the trial needn’t have taken place!

Socrates probably saw this chance encounter with Euthyphro as a daimonic sign that the case should go to trial. Xenophon’s Socrates says that he was twice opposed by a divine sign when preparing to make his defense.[5] The Euthyphro seems to recreate one of these interruptions. Leo Strauss points out that “Socrates didn’t seek out this conversation . . . the conversation was forced on him.” Euthyphro’s lawsuit was truly impious. This required that he be relieved of his dangerous pseudo-knowledge of divine things. Socrates chose to prevent Euthyphro from prosecuting his father, instead of invoking procedural formalities against Meletus’ bogus lawsuit. In other words, Socrates prefers saving Euthyphro’s soul to preserving his own aging body from death. Yet, it could also be argued that Socrates has, yet again, preferred the welfare of a friend and risked the friendship itself. This preference for the ideal—over practical benefits—is the truest reason for the charge of impiety. Though Socrates has helped Euthyphro, the latter is no longer his friend. Many former friends would surely be among his jurors.

In the Apology we find Meletus confused by Socrates’ simple questions. After accusing him of bringing strange gods into the city, Meletus then claims that Socrates is an atheist.[6] Meletus’ conduct in the Apology and Crito’s complaint provide strong evidence that Meletus was not so fervent about Socrates’ impiety as might have been supposed. It seems that his real desire was to make a public name for himself by a cheap triumph over an old and well-known pest.

Meletus may well have been instigated by other figures quite content to remain in the background. In attacking Socrates in an arena where his customary professions of ignorance would be of little avail, Meletus would surely earn the gratitude of those worthies who had been shown up by Socrates’ irony over the years. Meletus hoped to expose Socrates’ cowardice and reveal that the philosopher, too, had his price. Fear of death would lead Socrates to behave like any other man. Meletus had every confidence that his victim would blink first and earn him the gratitude of Socrates’ many enemies. However, to his consternation, Socrates did not give way.

Euthyphro, the parallel suggests, is acting in a very similar spirit. He is tired of being ridiculed by his family and the Athenians for his prophetic excesses. “Whenever I speak in the assembly concerning the divine things . . . they laugh at me as if I were mad.”[7] When his manservant murdered a family slave on Naxos, it did not occur to his father to seek the advice of Euthyphro, the family theologian. Instead, he dispatched a man all the way to Athens to ascertain from the exegete what should be done to the murderer. In the intervening time, Euthyphro’s man died of neglect and exposure. Euthyphro had to suffer the double humiliation of being both disregarded by his father, in his self-professed area of competence, and losing his client. He decides to demonstrate to his kinsmen the true power possessed by one familiar with divine affairs. Through his dramatic accusation of homicide and impiety, Euthyphro intends to compel both his sire and the Athenians to accord him the respect he had hitherto been denied. Euthyphro is probably almost as young as Meletus since Socrates makes ironic reference to his wisdom being almost as great as his youth.[8]

Euthyphro’s lawsuit is made stranger yet by the realization that he is prosecuting his father for events that must have taken place at least five years earlier; Athens lost possession of the island of Naxos in 404, at the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War. Socrates was tried in 399. Bearing in mind the absence of temporal and spatial contiguity with the polluting event, it is hard to escape the inference that something else led Euthyphro to open up this can of worms. This event parallels the older accusations against Socrates, having to do with his connection with members of the Thirty, the Oligarchs who were installed by the victorious Spartans as rulers, several years ago. Like Meletus, Euthyphro is resurrecting old grudges to support his ambitions and prospects. He is impiously digging up matters from the past for his selfish advantage.

The context of the Euthyphro also suggests that Meletus is closing the stable door long after the horse has bolted. Just as Meletus’ client has been deceased for several years, genuine piety seems to have been long dead in Athens. Socrates pointed out in the Apology that it is absurd to believe in divine things while not believing in gods; yet this is precisely how religion seems to function in postwar Athens.[9] Mindless ritual has displaced genuine piety in a situation where it is feared that serious speculation concerning divine matters would be politically injurious. This is also why Socrates is prosecuted rather than Euthyphro; while Socrates critiques the blasphemous hypocrisies of the old religion, Euthyphro harmlessly chronicled its most trivial details. The plucked office of the King Archon, embodying the divine responsibilities of a king in a private citizen selected by lottery, further illustrates the sad and degenerate condition of religion in post-war Athens. Socrates piously takes on the role of King Archon and considers the merits of Euthyphro’s suit, while neglecting his own interests.

Euthyphro deflects any objections concerning the propriety of a son prosecuting a father for the polluting murder of non-relative by appealing to divine precedent. His decisive proof is the conduct of the Gods themselves. “While human beings agree that Zeus is the best and most just of the gods, at the same time they agree that he bound his own father because he gulped down his sons without their consent, and that the latter in turn castrated his own father because of other such things.”[10] Of course Euthyphro is conveniently ignoring the fact that both Zeus and Kronos could have claimed to act in self-defense; Euthyphro’s case hardly falls under this category. Euthyphro’s real divine precedents are, however, political rather than ethical; both Kronos and Zeus supplanted fathers who buried or swallowed their children out of the fear of being overthrown by them. Euthyphro’s true fear or grievance has to do with not having been accorded his proper “place in the sun” by his father; in other words he is afraid of being over-shadowed by his sire. In this sense, it is Euthyphro himself, not his hired man, who has been swallowed up by his father (or buried in the ground) and denied nutriment on the grounds that he is a potential patricide. It is in this Oedipal spirit that each new generation represents a threat to the one that preceded it. In order for the young to realize their own individuality, it is inevitable that they should trespass on the jealously guarded prerogatives of their fathers. Both sides use religion as a weapon in this struggle to disguise their real motives: the fathers claim to be defending time-honored custom against the rude innovations of their sons, while the sons claim to defend true religion from the corrupt practices of their fathers. In a situation where past and future are at cross-purposes, the religious tradition inevitably breaks down.

This is why Euthyphro used the flimsy pretext of an unlikely pollution, involving the long-forgotten slaying of a family member (the slave) by a non-relative on land no longer possessed by the family. His real purpose was to supplant his father. It is striking that Euthyphro did not mention the actual answer of the exegete of whom his father sought advice; it is unlikely that clemency would have been advised, neither would the providential death of a murderer have been regarded with too much horror by a jury.

Euthyphro’s resemblance to Meletus is also visible in Socrates’ description of his accuser “going before the city, as if before his mother, to accuse me.”[11] Both Zeus and Kronos, Euthyphro’s divine role models, went before Gaia, the Earth, to gain her support. Gaia supports the efforts of the new crops to displace the old withered plants and gain their place in the sun. Once more, the Oedipal motif is plain; the fathers would correctly suspect their sons of harboring the very incestuous desires they had in their youth. In Machiavellian terms, Fortuna is not just a woman, she is a mother who turns to her sons for virile qualities lacking in their sires. Although Euthyphro does not appear to have a mother, he has the good fortune of running into Socrates, who has just described himself to Theaetetus as a midwife.[12] The Euthyphro reveals the subtle and amusing way by which Socrates causes our emulator of Zeus to abort his misguided schemes. The ideas that Socrates midwifes out of Euthyphro will turn on their progenitor.

The dialogues of Plato are notorious for revealing the natures of the interlocutors rather than that of Socrates himself. We are reminded of this by Euthyphro’s boastful claim that were he to confront Meletus “I would discover where he is rotten and our speech . . . would turn out to be much more about him than about me.”[13] Accordingly, we should ask ourselves who this Euthyphro is after whom the dialogue is named. A surface reading of the dialogue suggests that Euthyphro could best be regarded as an eccentric collector of Olympian Trivia. Euthyphro seems to have made it his business to memorize every “astonishing story” about the gods.[14] As his name “straight thinker” suggests, his understanding of these stories is quite literal and unreflective. Blissfully untroubled by hermeneutic considerations, he regards the old myths as exact factual accounts of the history of Olympus. It is in this context that Socrates’ emetic therapy will prove to be particularly effectual. Before self-knowledge can come, Euthyphro must be forced, like Kronos, to disgorge the divine trivia that he has unreflectively swallowed. It is out of this unformed hyle that we may discover the origins of a Socratic theology.

All of this lies in the future, however. As yet, we only have before us Euthyphro’s absurd claims that he has precise knowledge about how divine things are disposed and even more wondrous and astounding things that he wishes to impart to Socrates.[15] Socrates’ initial response to Euthyphro’s grandiose pretensions is characteristically muted. By becoming Euthyphro’s pupil, Socrates suggests, he could compel Meletus to prosecute his master rather than himself.[16] For himself, Socrates is advocating education rather than punishment; he hints that studying under Euthyphro would be a worse punishment than the death penalty demanded by Meletus.

Socrates’ inquiry concerning the various scandalous stories told by Homer and Hesiod concerning the gods, “Shall we assert that these things are true, Euthyphro?” implies that by becoming Euthyphro’s student, he would also enter into the client relationship with his master that the gods seemingly have with mortals.[17] This relationship is one of literal loyalty and blind belief. Socrates calls its mimetic irrationality into question when he asks his “master” to identify the essential form of holiness that makes all holy actions holy. Euthyphro’s prompt response reveals that he has not given the matter any thought: “What is dear to the gods is pious and what is not dear is impious.”[18] In other words, the arbitrary will of the gods makes things holy.

Socrates points out one of the more obvious difficulties with this position when he asks Euthyphro about its application in a polytheistic context. The very same act could be loved by some of the gods and hated by others. Where does this leave piety? Further, by insisting on the arbitrary caprice of a god, the very real possibility also remains that even the same god could like one action at one time and find it quite distasteful at another. In the absence of any direct “hot-line” between Heaven and Earth we seem to be left in a quite untenable position. Socrates is subtly pushing Euthyphro towards openly admitting that his anthropomorphic gods, at any time or place, will be pleased by the human desire to curry favor with them; in other words, by flattery.

Yet, before this admission is made, and its implications are made fully manifest, another important issue having to do with polytheism is addressed by Socrates. Disagreements amongst the gods, according to him, could only have to do with matters that cannot be resolved by objective, quantitative standards. To use an example, if Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite were all agreed that one of them was the most beautiful, they would not have wrangled over the Golden Apple of Eris. In a sense, the transcendental word “beauty” was the golden apple! In the absence of definitive knowledge of these matters, subjective preferences hold sway. This notion is also consistent with the famous Socratic dictum that human evil is caused by ignorance. Without knowledge of what is transcendent, the only appropriate inscription on Eris’s Apple is “To the Strongest.” If there is no truth, brute strength ultimately resolves qualitative disputes between the gods and men by reducing them to quantifiable matters of power. None will question Hera’s right to possess the apple if she is stronger than the other goddesses; this is why Aphrodite surrendered her girdle to Hera with good grace in the Iliad.[19] Ultimately, Zeus’ will prevails through the other gods’ recognition of force majeure. Once enthroned, power may only be addressed by flattery. Zeus is called just, just because he is the principle of order. Since any order is preferred to chaos, Zeus’ might is the only right.

Euthyphro accepts Socrates’ suggestion that it is over matters of quality (good and evil, right and wrong, noble and base) that even the gods wrangle. The real question has to do with the existence of transcendent standards that the gods themselves must acknowledge and pay homage to in their very wrangling. The very quarrel in Olympus over matters of quality suggests that there are some matters that even the gods find to be worthy of mighty disputation and battle. Even if the gods disagree over what is good or noble or beautiful, they are all agreed that these qualities are superior to the bad or ignoble or ugly. The bitterness of the battle and the continuing prevalence of the polytheistic system—which was not been rendered redundant by Zeus’ power—derives from the goddesses’ recognition that something is more beautiful, truer, and better than raw power. Zeus uneasily senses that he rules in the interim. Gaia, like Goethe’s eternal feminine, will continually generate better approximations towards this blindly sensed idea.

Although Socrates is trying to direct Euthyphro’s attention to transcendent qualities that are higher than the Olympian gods themselves, his “master” remains fixated at the literal level. Although Euthyphro’s science of piety seems to consist in the belief that the gods are best pleased by human efforts to honor them through imitative acts, he would not simply spew forth his store of Olympian trivia as a mere rhapsode. He both claims to know everything about the gods and rejects any critical evaluation of their deeds as impious. Piety, according to Euthyphro, is unilateral: It does not oblige the gods in any way. It is mankind’s failure to respect the gods’ prerogatives that provokes the jealous wrath of heaven. In this respect, Euthyphro is very much of the same mind as Meletus and other religious men of the time. However, Euthyphro goes beyond Meletus in his “straight thinking” desire to go beyond the mediating tradition and link up directly with the gods themselves. The religious traditions of a community unquestioningly worship the gods but only ritually emulate certain of their deeds; these traditions mediate between the divine and human things and preserve the ontological distinction between gods and men. Euthyphro’s desire that things be done on earth as they are in heaven overturns this distinction and threatens to incite the jealousy of the very gods he is so anxious to flatter. In other words, while Meletus represents tradition without reflection, premeditated thoughtlessness before the holy tradition, Euthyphro’s unmediated imitation of Olympian conduct is hubris. As Strauss observes, piety consists in imitating ancestral worship of the gods, not in imitating the conduct of the gods.

Socrates, Euthyphro, and Meletus are all obviously in a situation where the continuity and vitality of the religious tradition, connecting their time to that of the Olympian gods, has broken down. This could be attributed to the Sophistical Enlightenment and the catastrophic conclusion of the Peloponnesian War. We shall shortly suggest that Socrates’ solution to this impasse is to realize the potentiality latent in Homeric religion. Both Euthyphro and Meletus would disagree sharply with this approach. While Meletus merely wants to return to the traditional unquestioning ways, Euthyphro proposes to radically uncover, possess, and revive the very origins of piety. He would do so through literal re-invocation and recreation of the Olympians, thus restoring their presence and favor. In his opportunistic fundamentalism, he refuses to acknowledge that the myths of Homer and Hesiod are anything but the literal truth; this belief becomes infallible knowledge and makes him the gods’ prophet and champion. Euthyphro wants to re-create meaning in a god-impoverished world. He is unwilling to acknowledge the far weaker pragmatic position that telling stories about the gods revives faith in them, whatever the truth-value of these stories is.

The theme of the Apology is anticipated here; we see that Socrates is the wisest of men because he realizes that knowledge of the sort that is desired by Euthyphro is neither possible nor desirable. Paradoxically, Euthyphro’s tautological position that whatever is dear-to-the-gods (theophiles) is pious has already committed him to a crude monotheistic perspective. By accepting that the holy is whatever all the gods love, he has conceded that Zeus, the strongest of the gods, could impose his “love” on the weaker deities in much the same spirit in which he would impregnate a lowly female or animal. If there is no higher standard than the arbitrary preference of the gods, given that one god is stronger than the others, it follows that there is only one true god. All that remains is the question of how the agreement of the gods is to be negotiated. While Euthyphro is necessarily committed to the violent sovereignty of Zeus, Socrates invokes the possibility of a more objective standard, one that even Zeus must obey.

Socrates puts the question to Euthyphro: is the pious whatever is dear to the gods (or god), or is something dear to the gods because it is holy?[20] In other words, is there some transcendent necessity or authority which even the gods must acknowledge and try to serve through their various powers? Is it not this quality, rather than the raw power of Zeus, which ultimately unifies the gods themselves? As we observed, if power is all that is necessary, all of the other Olympians cease to be divine once the force majeure of Zeus is asserted. If, however, power is not the only principle of sovereignty, if might is not ipso facto right, then Zeus is merely an uneasy tyrant. Zeus exploits the power of the other transcendent principles by playing them off against each other until someone better arrives to harmonize them. Thomas West notes that “the substantial point between Socrates’ dry logic chopping seems to be that gods’ love or will must be directed by that which is really good, noble and just or else the meaning of human life must be dependent on the arbitrary will of mysterious beings who may not even be friendly to men and—given the multitude of willful authorities . . . the life of men and gods alike must be a tale of ignorant armies clashing by night.”

Once Euthyphro has the full meaning of this question explained to him by Socrates, the self-proclaimed prophet of Zeus is plunged into a vortex. Although he claimed to be pious, Euthyphro was only using religion to serve his profane ends. Suddenly, Socrates has brought religion to life and asserted the authority of the truly divine—the ideal—over the real. Euthyphro is no longer able to deploy his fragments of lifeless trivia to suit his will, as a fundamentalist blithely quotes scripture out of context. Like the statues of Daedalus, the long-frozen images of the gods spring to life. Euthyphro sees that Socrates, his erstwhile student, has wrought this revolution. For the first time he senses the true power of the ideas. Yet, Socrates continues to torture him; combining the roles of Daedalus and Phaenarete, stonemason and midwife, he takes “an eager part” in showing Euthyphro how to teach him about the pious.[21]

Socrates’ next question is deceptively simple. Euthyphro is asked whether it is not necessary to him that all the pious is just.[22] When Euthyphro agrees, he is then asked if all of the just is pious.[23] In other words, are the two qualities identical, or is one merely a part of the other? Socrates, with seeming irrelevance, trots out an obscure quotation “where fear is, there too is reverence,” only to disagree with it and argue that fear is a broader category than reverence or awe.[24] When Euthyphro says “that part of the just concerning the tending of the gods is reverence, while that concerning humans is what remains,” Socrates raises several analogies of animal-tending and asks him how humans tend to the gods to their (the gods) benefit.[25]

Euthyphro emphatically denies that humans improve the gods through piety as animal-tenders improve their flocks. He claims that piety is more like the service servants perform for their masters.[26] Nevertheless, Socrates points out that even this must produce some tangible benefit, and Euthyphro cannot identify it. When Euthyphro repeats his claim that prayer and sacrifice are the pious things that preserve families and cities, Socrates leads him to admit that prayer and sacrifice are a skill of giving gifts to the gods and making requests of them.[27] Piety, then, in Euthyphro’s own words is “a sort of commerce between gods and human beings.”[28]

Euthyphro must admit that the gods do not receive any tangible benefit from this trade, only honor, respect, and gratitude. He must concede that piety is simply the art of pleasing the gods. This brings him around in another circle since he cannot explain why the gods are necessarily pleased by the piety that he, Euthyphro, found so certain and important that he was even willing to accuse his father of murder. One way out is to claim that it is through conspicuous and absurd acts of flattery that men please the gods, but in so doing he would lose the reputation for wisdom that he craves. If, more reasonably, he says that it is virtue that the gods want, he would be hard pressed to explain how his father’s involuntary negligence could constitute vice in merely human or civic terms. If, in the last resort, Euthyphro were to claim to be inspired, he would need to provide proof of his power. Yet, we have seen his impotence before Socrates. It is Socrates who satisfies his daimon’s demand that he rid all men of their self-professed wisdom.

Euthyphro’s defeat is confirmed when he declines to continue educating Socrates. He claims to have other pressing matters to attend to; we may prophesize that he will not return to press charges against his father. We must stay by Socrates and seek clarification of some of the oracular words and images that his daimon inspired. In trying to explicate the cryptic images found in a dialogue, we surely participate in tending and cultivating its long-neglected surface.

Abandoned like Ariadne on Naxos, let us begin this “second sailing” by reexamining the main theme of the Euthyphro and hope that some god will come to our assistance. Is what is holy discovered or created (willed) by the gods? Our previous study of this question has revealed strong reasons for believing that Socrates adheres to the first position. If the holy is discovered by the gods, and ultimately served by them, it is much easier to hold that they are not jealous of human strivings. Indeed, it would seem that the very purpose of divine revelation is to encourage virtuous human emulation. In other words, the gods are most pleased by human virtue since their very purpose is to mediate, in a tangible manner, between the human world and the domain of the holy. The ‘gods’ turn out to be much like the daimons described by Diotima in the Symposium; their task is to mediate between the human realm and transcendent divinity (202d-203a).[29]

If ultimate reality is represented in a fragmented manner by the gods, each one of them must represent a different virtue. The chaos on Olympus represents the poetic belief that these various virtues are incompatible with each other. As we observed earlier, the justice of Zeus is nothing more than order, his Hobbesian sovereignty derives from the recognition that any order is preferable to chaos. The Iliad illustrates the extent to which the various Olympians exemplify disorder and vice in their antagonism to each other. Hera, the mother of heaven, is the most ardent in her desire to sack and ravage sacred Ilium. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, is no better than Odysseus himself in her Machiavellian scheming for victory through any means. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is similarly turned inside out and reduced to mindless lust. Ares, who should remind us of courage, is reduced to insatiable bloodlust. Apollo, the serene force of music and healing, becomes a partisan sniper spreading plague and discord. Zeus, himself, could be accused of planning the Trojan War from start to finish to rid the earth of the heroes. In isolation from each other, the Olympian gods are inverted cripples, or splendid pagan vices. For the idea of the Good to be re-collected, these qualities must be reconciled to each other.

Like the kings and tyrants, in whose image he is rendered, Zeus rules through violence. Only he could impose order over those fractious Olympian deities. Yet it is this very discord that requires such a ruler. Zeus is both the origin and the remedy for this disorderly state of affairs. Zeus rules through manipulating and maintaining discord. The Euthyphro suggests that Zeus is a primitive image that must be refined and improved if the consequences of blasphemy are to be averted. Through emphasizing the unity of the virtues, Socrates pushes the possibility of a mature alternative to Zeus and polytheism. Virtue would replace the selfish antagonistic virtuosity of a Zeus. While Kronos simply swallowed his divine offspring, Zeus’ insecurity keeps these various potentialities for virtue in wrangling variance. A better ruler could overcome these oppositions.

Socrates proposes to actualize a truer idea of justice out of the fragments of myth. This program is contained, albeit in inchoate form, in his asking Euthyphro how piety and justice were related to each other. According to Euthyphro, piety was that part of justice dedicated to the tending of the gods. It is readily apparent that Euthyphro does not care a whit for human justice, the lesser division of the two. His piety entirely supersedes any concerns with human equity; Isaac has no rights before Abraham’s desire to retain the favor of his personal protector-god (Genesis 22). When Socrates asked Euthyphro whether piety was part of justice or vice versa, Euthyphro’s reply that piety was a part of justice led to the unsatisfactory consequences we have just examined. The path not examined is the possibility that justice could be a part of piety. This possibility, on the face of it, suggests that we act justly only for the sake of gaining favor with the gods. Since this is clearly not intended by Socrates, perhaps we should probe even deeper.

Let us return to the passage from Stasinus quoted by Socrates, “Zeus the lover, him who made all things, you will not name. For where fear is, there is also reverence.”[30] While it is curious to read this Greek equivalent of the Third Commandment—do not use the name of God in vain—advice which Euthyphro would do well to heed, we must also pay careful heed to the implication, teased out by Socrates, that all fear is reverential. Socrates opposes this idea, pointing out that there are many other forms of fear which have nothing to do with awe or reverence.[31] Indeed, the fullest implication of his interpretation is that fear, although serving as the origin of the feeling of awe, could just as easily stifle its child, genuine awe, and lead to impiety and vice. Instead, just as blind lust was educated to become the awesome vision of cosmic love in the Symposium, the sublime experience of awe must outgrow its fearful antecedents and lead us to virtue; Zeus, the promiscuous lover, undergoes a similar transformation at Socrates’ hands.

This is why Socrates said in the Republic that scandalous stories about Zeus (the lover) must be suppressed for fear of blasphemy. “The young cannot distinguish between literal and allegorical accounts.”[32] Indeed, this is also why Socrates said in the Apology that it was all but impossible to gainsay the conventional opinion, which many jurors heard as children, that he was an atheist.[33] Since they clung to the literal sense of stories they learned as children, he could not converse with the many about divine matters. In the Euthyphro, Socrates says that he is prosecuted for his refusal to accept such stories about the wrangling gods.[34] Swearing by the god of friendship, Socrates wonders aloud why he is prosecuted when Euthyphro is not.[35]

What is most awe-inspiring is not the fearful, selfishly wielded power of Zeus, but the capacity of ideals, like friendship and justice, to lead us to behave in ways that go against our selfish interests. Stated differently, instead of worshipping, imitating, or ridiculing the antediluvian nakedness of the father, he should be described in more appropriate attributes. It is in this manner that the relation of part to whole and ground to origin could be formulated; an approach which is singularly appropriate since the subject matter of the dialogue deals with tension between fathers and sons. We could see piety as the unformed potentiality out of which the idea of justice emerges, like Athena from the troubled head of Zeus. The relation between fathers and sons can be viewed in terms of potentiality and actuality, not as an Oedipal conflict between jealous rivals charging each other with hubris. It is only in such a manner that a tradition may be revitalized. The past and future cannot be set at cross-purposes; the fulfillment of the past must be the task of the future. Piety, originally merely a superstitious fear of powerful and hostile divine forces, becomes progressively refined (and turned around) into an awareness that the gods require unselfish, enlightened conduct of man. Then, finally, it becomes the awe-filled vision of virtue affirmed for its own sake that the Symposium describes.[36]

The Euthyphro thus represents a theological counterpart to the civil doctrines of Gorgias: The recognition that when the gods seem to punish, it is for the sake of rehabilitation rather than retribution. Humans please the gods best by acting virtuously. Less evidently but equally importantly, we must see that human beings are significantly improved when their conception of the divine is also improved. Instead of the “many mad masters” and the fear-governed notions of piety represented by the Olympian gods, Socrates pushes the discussion in the monotheistic direction of a unified conception of virtue. The seemingly absurd question of how human beings could render service to the gods acquires new dignity and meaning. Instead of flattering the gods, in a way that runs the grave risk of blasphemy by imputing all manner of vice and cruelty to them, Socrates suggests to Euthyphro that we serve the gods best by practicing virtue. This is illustrated by both speech and deed in the dialogue; Socrates prefers performing the virtuous act of educating Euthyphro to publicly defending his personal reputation for piety. Tantalus, referred to earlier as one whose riches would be renounced by Socrates for accurate knowledge about the gods, is a prime example of such blasphemous flattery.[40] To gain divine favor, Tantalus chopped up his children and served them up to the gods. While this infanticide had poetic precedent, it gained Tantalus a place in Tartarus. The poets, similarly, chopped up the Idea of the Good into god-sized fragments that could be displayed in the Cave for power and profit.

Unlike Tantalus, Socrates sets out to serve the gods by suggesting that mankind should refine poetry until it expresses the best of all possible ideas. The monotheistic line of speculation indicated in the Euthyphro leads towards Anselm’s celebrated argument that God is the sum of all perfection. However, a Platonic distinction between the ideal and the real may be the best way of avoiding the pitfalls that the ontological argument otherwise leads to. Instead of opposing an abstract idea of frozen divine perfection to flawed humanity, in a relationship of ressentiment, alienation, and unhappy consciousness, the Euthyphro suggests that the divine is an ideal which humanity must refine and tend through its own moral progress and self-knowledge. I do not agree with Strauss’ claim that the ideas replace the gods. Instead of rudely uprooting ancestral piety from the chthonic realm of unthinking custom and blind loyalty, Socrates sets out, in the spirit of the Eumenides, to enlighten and liberate these ancient forces.[38] Socratic piety, as we have seen, is not corrosive or proud. It is rooted in awe, filled with temperance, and crowned with wonder.

Socrates’ ancestors, who were stonemasons and sculptors, paid homage to gods through graven images; with even greater piety, their descendent liberates the sublime potential slumbering inside the statues. Like prisoners long hidden in a deep dungeon, the various divine attributes are freed from their bondage to blind custom. They are reconciled and unified in a sunlit vision of the Good. Overcoming both the divisive totems of fundamentalism and the moral chaos of positivism, the Euthyphro points towards the possibility of a universal religion—one based on the idea of Goodness.

They vainly purify themselves of pollution by bathing in blood . . . they pray to statues—as if talking to houses—not knowing the truth of gods and daimons. – Heraclitus

This essay originally appeared on Diotima: A Philosophical Review (2001) and is republished here with gracious permission. It served as the basis for the author’s book, Socrates and the Gods: How to read Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology and Crito.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in March 2016.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Plato, Euthyphro, trans. Benjamin Jowett (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012).

[2] Plato, The Apology (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011); Crito (2010); Phaedo, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1977).

[3] Crito, 45e.

[4] Mem II.9.

[5] Apology 5.

[6] Ibid., 26e.

[7] Euthyphro, 3c.

[8] Ibid., 12a.

[9] Apology, 27b-e.

[10] Euthyphro, 5e-6a.

[11] Ibid., 2c.

[12] Ibid., 149a.

[13] Ibid., 5b-c.

[14] Ibid., 6b-d.

[15] Ibid., 5e; 6b-c.

[16] Ibid., 5a.

[17] Ibid., 6c.

[18] Ibid., 7a.

[19] Homer, Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1998), xiv, 231-256.

[20] Euthyphro, 10a.

[21] Ibid., 11e.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 12a.

[24] Ibid., 12b.

[25] Ibid., 12e.

[26] Ibid., 13d.

[27] Ibid., 14b.

[28] Ibid., 14e.

[29] Symposium, 202d-203a.

[30] Euthyphro, 12a-b.

[31] Ibid., 12b.

[32] Plato, Republic, trans. C.D.D. Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2004), 378d.

[33] Apology, 18b-d.

[34] Euthyphro, 6b.

[35] Ibid., 6a-b.

[36] Symposium, 212a.

[37] Euthyphro, 11e.

[38] Aeschylus, Eumenides, ed. Alan H. Sommerstein (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

The featured image is “Piety” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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