metaphysical questions in plato’s euthyphro

July 3, 2006

It had been quite some time since I had read any philosophy, so today I decided to spend a couple of hours with Plato to remind myself why his dialogues are so well-respected even now, thousands of years after their creation. From my anthology I chose a selection I had not read before, an early dialogue called the Euthyphro.

The title refers to the name of Socrates’ interlocutor throughout the dialogue, a man who is preparing to prosecute his father for murder. Socrates has been accused of “corrupting the youth” of Athens, so he too is awaiting his turn in the court. Euthyphro’s situation with his father is complicated by the fact that the victim of his father’s act was himself a murderer, causing Euthyphro’s family and relatives to condemn his actions.

As they begin to converse, Socrates questions Euthyphro on the nature of holiness, asking “What is it?” and arguing that the answer is of great importance to their upcoming appearances in court (for how can they condemn or defend if they are unsure if the actions in question are holy or unholy?). Euthyphro advances several definitions, each of which is revealed by Plato to be insufficient to answer the question at hand.

Euthyphro attempts to argue that holy things are things that are loved by the Gods, but Plato points out that he is looking for an idea of holiness that can be used to classify other things as holy or unholy and not simply an account of what sorts of things are holy. He then says that holiness lies in things which are pleasing to the Gods, but that begs the question of why the Gods love these things, for if holy things are such because they are loved by the Gods then there must be some idea of holiness that causes the Gods to love them. The dialogue never reaches a conclusion of what holiness really is, instead going round and round through the same arguments and exasperating Euthyphro.

My edition of the dialogues includes some very insightful commentary from R.E. Allen, a professor at Northwestern University, and it is in this commentary that I found some answers to the puzzling questions raised by the dialogue. Socrates, in asking what holiness is, presupposes–in accordance with his nascent Theory of Forms–that there exists a coherent, expressible idea of holiness qua holiness, an assertion that is not necessarily true. It may be that we use terms like justice, holiness, and goodness in everyday language without such coherent ideas.

In fact, these ideas may not exist at all, making any discussion of their “being” nonsensical. Words like “holiness” may simply be words, labels we affix to things without really knowing why. Questions like the one asked by Plato are, after all, hardly typical in everyday conversation, and given that holiness is used nearly exclusively in that context it is surely conceivable that attempting to define it as Plato does is an ultimately meaningless task.

I find the above argument quite compelling, and it rather neatly explains the difficulty that Socrates and Euthyphro were having in determining the idea behind the commonly used word “holiness.” In the abstract, it seems plausible to think of knowing holiness and its opposite as concrete ideas and being able to use them to determine what is holy and what is not, but on further consideration it appears that we must accept them as being ontologically real objects, not merely concepts, if we want to ask questions such as “What is X?” If Plato is right, then the Form of Holiness exists and is instantiated by all objects we call holy, but this is far from being obviously true.

So, the question asked at the outset of the dialogue carries with it a great deal of philosophical baggage that we must accept if we are to follow its currents at all. I end with a quote by Edmund Burke: “Though no man can draw a stroke between the confines of night and day, yet light and darkness are upon the whole tolerably distinguishable“; so it is, I think, with holiness and unholiness, good and evil, and all the commonly used yet poorly understood pairs of opposites that we bandy about using our (at times) woefully inadequate language systems.

–D. S. W.

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4 Responses to “metaphysical questions in plato’s euthyphro”

  1. ergosum said

    Once you start blurring the line between opposites, and render concepts and words as meaningless labels, then there’s nothing stopping you from the slippery slope of eventually denying any clear distinction between existence and non-existence… life and death.
    So? Do you exist or do you not? Or do you partly exist and partly not? Is that house your sitting inside, really a concrete existent, or is it a fabric of your imagination?
    Is the love you have for your lover merely a meaningless label you affix to a blurred, unknown, unknowable feeling?

  2. mrwiz said

    Well, sort of. What I was trying to say was that while we can rather easily identify things as being living or dead, holy or unholy–at least in extreme examples of each end of the spectrum–the boundary between them is blurry and indistinct. This frustrates efforts to classify objects that fall somewhere in the middle, giving rise especially to ethical and moral dilemmas.

    In the Euthyphro example, the father’s “murder” was actually committed through negligence: he bound the victim and left him in a ditch while awaiting word from religious authorities on what to do. The answer came too late; the man died of dehydration.

    While I believe that the father’s actions were ultimately wrong, I readily accept that there is a case to be made that his actions were morally acceptable. Cases like these are what make ethics such a fascinating area of study.

  3. Handsome Prince said

    I haven’t studied and read philosophy like Mr. Wiz, but an immediate difficulty is that noble notions such as justice are subjective. When you try to apply them in practical situations, you stop to define your terms, and finally your attempt collapses under its own weight. I suppose that is the point of the Dialogue.

    An artist requires a medium within which (limitations and all) to express himself. What is the medium of the philosopher, the man of ideas, ideals and first things? What is sturdy enough to bear the weight? Some possibilities:

    THE LAW. Without the subversive dross of the political process (= unequal access, infighting over competing ideas, personal ambition, a desperate desire to be re-elected, etc.), in a republic the law embodies the consensual ideals of those representing the governed. As these change over time, new laws are enacted. The U.S. Constitution is (tell Plato I owe him an apology) the closest thing we have to a national philosophy. It is not easily changed, as befits a document of ideals. Laws, by contrast, are.

    Questions faced by the courts, and notably the Supreme Court, point up the very difficulty at issue here. When smart lawyers are interpreting the Constitution, the stakeholders in the outcome (and anyone else with a television camera pointed at them) come out of the woodwork to give their view of the matter. The printing press, the media (especially television) and the Internet have democratized information, giving both the great and the small a say. The more open the lawmaking process, the more Dramamine it takes to finish the journey without throwing up.

    The end product is objective, but you might have to ask a lawyer what it means.

    TRADITION / MORALITY. For some, these are laws that have not been reduced to writing. Broadly held and individually interpreted. Significant or wide differences make it hard to peacefully co-exist.

    PUBLIC OPINION. A sturdy foundation on ball-bearing wheels. The democratization of information means one man’s opinion is as good as that of another. As a result, much of it is uninformed. Public opinion has become an ocean fifty miles wide, with water up to your ankle.

    RELIGION. A cynic might describe this is as tradition / morality, with a seal of divine authority and character. The strength of this foundation depends on the credibility of the claim of divinity.

  4. Mdwuvrsw said

    ybgLm0 comment5 ,

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