Plato's dialog called Euthyphro relates a discussion that took place between Socrates and Euthyphro concerning the meaning of piety, or that virtue usually regarded as a manner of living that fulfills one's duty both to gods and to humanity. It is of particular interest in relation to the fate of Socrates inasmuch as he has recently been charged with impiety and is about to be tried before the Athenian court to determine his guilt or innocence of the crime attributed to him. Because he felt quite sure that the Athenian people in general did not understand the real nature of either piety or impiety, Socrates asks Euthyphro to answer the question "What is piety?" He has a real purpose in doing this, for Euthyphro, a Sophist, professes to be wise concerning such matters, while Socrates, making no such claim for himself, professes only to be ignorant. He wants to see if Euthyphro is as wise as he claims to be, and if he is not, Socrates will expose the shallowness of his claim.
Euthyphro has the reputation of being a wise person, a diviner, and a soothsayer. As a teacher, he gives instruction on moral and political matters, as well as the practical problems of everyday living. The discussion that is carried on between Socrates and Euthyphro takes place on the porch of King Archon.
Both Socrates and Euthyphro are involved in matters of a legal nature. Socrates has been accused of impiety and is facing a court trial. Euthyphro is the plaintiff in a forthcoming trial for murder. Socrates asks who it is who is being charged with this crime. He is surprised and shocked to learn that Euthyphro is bringing this charge against his own father. The circumstances bringing this about have a direct bearing on the case. It appears that a poor dependent of the Euthyphro family had killed one of their domestic servants. At the command of Euthyphro's father, the guilty person had been bound and thrown into a ditch. Messengers had then been sent to Athens to inquire of the interpreters of religion concerning what should be done with him. By the time these messengers had returned, the criminal had died from hunger and exposure. Euthyphro's father was, at least to some extent, responsible for the offender's death, and this was the basis for charging him with the crime of murder.
Socrates is impressed by the fact that Euthyphro is willing to perform his duty in the matter even though it means taking action against a member of his own family. Without any further discussion of the case involving Euthyphro's father, Socrates is anxious to pursue inquiry concerning the nature of piety since this is directly related to the fact that Meletus has accused him of the crime of impiety. Accordingly, he addresses this question to Euthyphro, "What is piety?" Euthyphro answers at once that piety is acting the way he is acting in bringing charges against one who has done wrong, even though that person happens to be his own father. Although admitting that Euthyphro is right in not allowing personal relationships to stand in the way of performing his duty, Socrates is not satisfied with the answer that has been given to his question. An example of the virtue of piety is not equivalent to a definition of that virtue. Euthyphro has given but one example, and even though he defended his statement by mentioning that certain of the Greek gods have acted in a similar manner, Socrates insists that a proper definition of piety must be sufficient to include all instances of that virtue. Euthyphro's statement has not been adequate for this purpose. Nevertheless, Socrates insists that, inasmuch as Euthyphro has brought a criminal charge against his own father, he must have known the nature of impiety or he would have been unable to decide that his father was guilty of it. Once again he urges Euthyphro to tell him what piety is. If he can obtain a satisfactory answer to this question, it will enable him to know whether the charge that Meletus is bringing against him is a well-founded one.
In reply, Euthyphro advances another statement. He says, "Piety is what is dear to the gods and impiety is that which is not dear to them." Upon examination by Socrates, this statement turns out to be no more satisfactory than the former one. It is not clear what makes anything dear to the gods, and besides, there is the question of whether that which is dear to some of the gods is dear to all of them or only to some of them. Euthyphro then insists that piety is that which is pleasing to all of the gods. He feels sure they all agree that murder is wrong. Socrates then points out that the circumstances under which killing takes place makes an important difference concerning the moral quality of the act. The same is true with reference to the motive that was involved. It is quite evident that so far the discussion has not produced any satisfactory answer to the question concerning the nature of piety.
To approach the subject in a different way, Socrates asks Euthyphro if people who are pious are also just. Yes, says Euthyphro, but at the same time he recognizes that it is not true that all just persons are pious. Socrates then wants to know if piety is a part of justice, and if it is, of what part does it consist? Euthyphro replies that piety is that part of justice that attends to the gods, just as there is another part of justice that attends to men. This, too, is unsatisfactory because we do not know what "attends" means. When applied to some things such as dogs, horses, and men, it implies some way of making them better. When applied to gods, it cannot have this meaning since there is no respect in which men can make the gods better than they are. At this point, Euthyphro states that there are various ways in which men can minister to the gods, but he does not have the time to point them out.
Socrates still insists that he does not know what piety is, and certainly Euthyphro has not revealed its true nature. The question is an important one, not only for Socrates, but for anyone who is called upon to make decisions relative to moral conduct. The dialog closes without any final answer to the question with which the discussion started. Socrates urges Euthyphro to continue the search for the meaning of piety. Until he has found it, there can be no justification for the decision he has made concerning his father.
For those who are looking for a satisfactory definition of piety, the dialog is a disappointment, for no conclusion has been reached concerning the precise nature of that virtue. It has sometimes been maintained that the true purpose of philosophy is not to answer questions but rather to question the answers that have been given. At any rate, this is exactly what Socrates has been doing in this dialog. Euthyphro has presented several quick and ready answers to the question "What is piety?" but upon examination each of them has been shown to be unsatisfactory.
The method that Socrates has used is known as dialectic. It consists of pointing out the inconsistencies and self-contradictions involved in popular statements made without thinking about their logical implications. In this instance, the use of this method has not only brought to light the shallowness of popular conceptions held by many of the Sophists, but it serves as a defense of Socrates by revealing something of the character of the man and the type of work in which he has been engaged.
Socrates has been accused of teaching false doctrines and thereby corrupting the youth of Athens. This kind of charge has frequently been made concerning philosophers, and it is for this reason that action has often been taken against them. While it is admitted that everyone is entitled to think as they please, the trouble arises when one tries to persuade other people to think as he does. That Socrates is not guilty of the charges brought against him can be seen from the fact that he has not been trying to indoctrinate anyone. He does not claim that his own views are perfect or that he has arrived at the final truth concerning the matter under consideration. Instead, his role is that of the inquirer, and his purpose is to get people to think for themselves. In fact, one of his chief criticisms of the Sophists is that they accept too readily what has been told to them by others without ever stopping to consider the evidence upon which it has been based.
It is true that getting people to think for themselves does have its dangers, which to some extent accounts for the opposition that has been raised against Socrates. Clear and correct thinking is bound to expose the errors upon which popular conceptions are often based. It also tends to bring to light the defects of those who pretend to know far more than is actually the case or who boast of qualifications that they do not possess. Those whose defects have thus been pointed out naturally have a feeling of resentment toward the person who has been responsible for bringing it about. This resentment is one of the reasons why Meletus has been bringing charges against Socrates. It is easier to find fault with the person who is your critic than it is to admit the truth of what the critic has been saying.
Although Euthyphro as a Sophist exhibits some of the conceit and arrogance that is characteristic of that group as a whole, he is not to be regarded as a man who is altogether bad. He does have some redeeming qualities. He is a conscientious person and in this respect is ready to perform what he believes to be his duty to the gods — even though it involves bringing charges against his own father. It appears that what Euthyphro's father has done under the existing circumstances was justifiable under Athenian law, and it was quite unlikely that he would be punished. Nevertheless, Euthyphro believes it is his religious duty to report what his father has done, which is his main reason for doing it. Having fulfilled his duty in regard to the event, his conscience will be at peace. Furthermore, Euthyphro is very much opposed to Meletus and on many points is in complete agreement with Socrates.
In harmony with many of his fellow Athenians, Euthyphro conceives of piety in terms of religion, which involves a relationship between gods and humans. This relationship is understood to mean a process of giving and receiving. Prayers and sacrifices are given to the gods, who in return bestow material benefits on their worshipers. This relationship is obviously what Euthyphro had in mind when he stated that piety is doing that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is doing that which is not pleasing to the gods. When asked what it is that makes something dear to the gods, the reply is that it is attending to their wishes, which is accomplished by making sacrifices to them and by offering prayers of praise and thanksgiving.
One of the purposes of this dialog is to contrast two very different conceptions of religion. One of these is illustrated in Euthyphro's view of religion as a kind of mercenary process. It was a fairly popular view in the city of Athens, just as it has been held by many persons in other times and places. Making gifts to the gods and receiving benefits from them implied in Euthyphro's case a belief in the reality of the Athenian gods as set forth in popular stories concerning their behavior and their supernatural power. The other conception of religion is the one held by Socrates, who did not accept as literally true many of the popular tales concerning the activities of the gods. It was for this reason that Meletus and others had accused him of being irreligious and undermining the faith of the youth. The accusation was not a just one, for the fact that Socrates did not accept the conception of the gods held by other persons did not imply that he held no belief in divinity at all. As a matter of fact, Socrates was in one sense of the word a very devout and religious person. Evidence of this can be seen in his attitude with reference to the mystical voice that warned him not to do certain things. This voice, to which he often referred, was regarded as a divine voice, and he always paid heed to it. Further than this, Socrates held that a divine purpose was expressed in the creation of the world, and this purpose was directed toward the moral and spiritual development of human beings.
In the discussion that takes place about piety in relation to justice, Socrates rejects Euthyphro's distinction between service to the gods and service to people. He does so for several reasons. In the first place, he does not believe that one's duty toward a divine being should be regarded as something that is separate and distinct from his duty toward his fellow men. On the contrary, he holds that the only true way of rendering service to God consists in doing what one can to promote the moral and spiritual development of human beings. Second, Socrates regards the purpose and function of religion as something that is quite different from the view expressed by Euthyphro. Instead of religion being used as a kind of tool or device for getting what one wants, as was true in Euthyphro's case, Socrates believes the primary purpose of true religion is to bring one's own life into harmony with the will of God. Religion and morality, in his view, are so closely related that neither one can exist apart from the other. Unlike the Sophists, who were accustomed to think of the demands of morality as nothing more than the desires of the people who formulated them, Socrates believes in a standard of morality that is something more than human opinion. He identifies it with the will of God.