In Platos Euthyphro, the character Euthyphro attempts to define the pious as what all the gods love. In this essay, I will examine the basis on which Socrates rejects this definition. In order to do so, I will provide an outline of the dialogue for context. Furthermore, I will analyse what Socrates seems to require for a good definition. Finally, I will attempt to defend Euthyphro’s definition. Socrates rejects Euthyphro’s definition on the grounds that his reasoning is circular, but I will argue that by removing the implicit requirement that there needs to be a cause for what the gods love, Euthyphro’s definition stands up to Socrates’ argument while falling under his requirements for a good definition.
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In the Euthyphro, Socrates wants Euthyphro to instruct him on definition of the pious, as Euthyphro is considered an authority on all religious matters, and Socrates believes that by coming under his tutelage he can escape Meletus’ charges should he prosecute Socrates. Socrates and Euthyphro agree that there must be one exact standard or characteristic quality by which all pious things are pious and everything impious, in contrast to the pious, is impious. Socrates wants to know what this quality is.
Euthyphro suggests that prosecuting those who commit injustices is pious, and not prosecuting them is impious, regardless of whom they may be. He references his prosecution of his own father for murder as an example. He notes that Zeus imprisoned his own father for wickedly devouring his own children. As “Zeus is the best and most just of all the gods” (6a), if he behaves rightly in imprisoning his father for injustice, Euthyphro’s actions must be pious for following this example.
Socrates feels that this is not a good definition of piety. He points out prosecuting those who commit injustices is merely an example of a pious act, and not a definition of piety itself. Euthyphro concedes that there are many more pious deeds that do not consist of prosecuting offenders. Socrates then asks Euthyphro to tell him the “the essential aspect, by which all holy acts are holy” (6d).
Euthyphro then proposes another definition: that piety is what is agreeable to the gods. Socrates proceeds to investigate whether or not this more general definition is accurate. First, he notes out that the gods themselves often quarrel, as is recounted in the myths that Euthyphro believes in so literally. Socrates points out that arguments do not persist over disputed facts, since agreements can be reached through calculation or investigation, but rather over questions of value, such as what is “right and wrong, and noble and disgraceful, and good and bad” (7d). Euthyphro agrees with this assessment.
Socrates points out that if the gods quarrel over what is just and what is good, then there is clearly no agreement among them on such issues. After all, if they have different opinions on justice, it follows that they must approve of different things. Therefore there must be certain things that are loved by some gods and unloved by other gods. But according to Euthyphro’s definition, that would mean that those things are both pious and impious, since they are approved of by some gods and disapproved of by others. This is clearly contradictory to the earlier assertion that there is one standard for piety, and concordantly for impiety since the impious is that which is not pious.
Euthyphro replies that surely the gods all agree that a person who kills someone unjustly should be punished. Socrates replies that the argument is not about whether or not an acknowledged wrongdoer should be punished, but about whether that person has in fact acted unjustly. Hence for Euthyphro’s argument to have any weight, he needs not to show that the gods agree that someone who murders unjustly should be punished, but that they agree that a particular murder is unjust in the first place.
All of this gives us an idea as to what Socrates considers a good definition. He is not satisfied with answers that pertain to certain types of piety, or specific examples of piety. The answer must concern a quality that involves all forms of piety and to nothing that is not pious. In short, a good definition, for Socrates, requires both generality and exclusivity. Furthermore, it must have explanatory power. A statement of something’s non-essential attributes might be true, but would qualify as a definition because it does not explain what that thing is; it merely describes some of that thing’s properties.
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Eurthyphro’s responds by changing his earlier definition; he proposes that the pious is what all the gods love, and impiety is what they all hate. Socrates responds by asking Euthyphro whether pious deeds are approved by the gods because they are pious or whether they are pious because they are approved by the gods. The point he wants to make here is that there is a difference between being something and getting something. There are three things that can be said about any action: (1) it is pious, (2) it gets approved by the gods, and (3) it is approved by the gods. The distinction between statements (2) and (3) is that (2) deals with the act of approval by the gods and (3) deals with the state of the action as being approved of by the gods. Causally, (3) must follow (2).
The three claims Euthyphro makes are: (i) something gets approved by the gods because it is pious; (ii) something is approved of by the gods because it gets approved of by the gods (this claim is implicit); (iii) what is pious is what is approved of by the gods. The first claim (i) says that (2) is true if (1) is true, (ii) states that (3) is true if (2) is true, and (iii) states that (1) is equivalent to (3). But (i) and (ii) imply that if (1) is true then (3) is true, which is not the same as saying that (1) is the same as (3). Even if (1) and (3) refer to the same thing, they do not have the same meaning. Therefore Euthyphro’s cannot claim that the definition of piety is that which all the gods love without his reasoning being circular.
While Socrates’s argument is indeed a powerful blow against Euthyphro’s definition, we shall try and see if it is at all possible to defend Euthyphro’s definition. One way do so is by going back to the question that Socrates poses to him about whether that which is pious is loved by the gods because it is pious or whether it is pious because it is loved by the gods. The question assumes that the gods need a reason to love something, which is not necessarily the case. If the approval of the gods does not require a cause, then piety can certainly be defined to be that which the gods love without causing any inconsistency. We note that what is pious is always pious. It does not seem to make any sense that what is pious today will be impious tomorrow. It follows that what is pious today was pious yesterday, and what was pious yesterday was pious the day before that, and so on until we arrive at the first cause of piety itself, which is defined as what all the gods love. Under this framework, piety is the state of being loved by all the gods, but it is meaningless to ask what prompts the gods to love something; that is, what caused the gods to love it.
Socrates would no doubt complain that this makes piety a rather arbitrary affair, but that should not hinder Euthyphro. It has already been affirmed that different gods can love different things. That indicates that the likes and dislikes of the gods are not based on some higher principles, but are in fact arbitrary. Even so, it is always possible that all the gods can all love the same thing. This can happen purely by chance, but that would still not change that thing from being pious under Euthyphro’s definition. We note that Euthyphro’s definition is overarching definition that includes all that is pious and excludes everything else, while having sufficient explanatory power.
While Socrates’ argument against Euthyphro’s definition is strong, it does not necessarily invalidate the definition. By removing the implicit requirement that the gods need a reason to love something, the definition holds up to both Socrates’ argument as well as his requirements for a good definition.
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