Truth and Socrates

8 August 2016

Euthyphro is a dialogue between Socrates and a traveling cleric. The two men meet at court, where the cleric, Euthyphro, claims to have a clear definition of piety. Socrates exclaims that he wishes to know the definition of piety so that he may better defend himself in his upcoming trial. Euthyphro agrees to teach Socrates, and so they begin to discuss. Early on, Socrates makes clear his desire for a universal truth, or a definition of piety that will be true in every case. Euthyphro makes several attempts to define piety in a way that satisfies Socrates.

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The first attempt at a definition does not satisfy Socrates because it is merely an example. In trying to define piety, Euthyphro merely states that his current undertaking at court is pious. While Socrates does not disagree outright, he presses Euthyphro for a universal definition of piety that could be used in every situation. Euthyphro’s second definition, “what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious,” pleases Socrates because it is a universal statement. This definition is general enough to be widely applicable, and seems to outline the defining characteristics of piety.

Upon closer inspection, however, Socrates finds the definition unsatisfying. Because the gods disagree about so many things, and act in contradiction to each other, it would be foolish to assume they would all agree upon the definition of piety. Euthyphro points out in his defence that all the gods would agree that Euthyphro’s current action of bringing his father to trial is pious. Socrates dismisses this, as it is not a universal definition and is essentially just another example.

Euthyphro attempts to satisfy Socrates by amending his definition slightly. Piety, says Euthyphro, is what all the gods love, and the impious is what all the gods hate. Socrates is not satisfied by this definition, either, and so he tries a different tack to extract a definition from Euthyphro. Socrates does this by asking: “Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods? ” When Euthyphro seems unsure, Socrates simplifies his question with an analogy.

He asks Euthyphro if something is “carried” because it is “a thing carried,” or if it is “carried” because something is carrying it. Both men agree that the action confers the state of being. That is, a thing loved is so because someone loves it, and the thing itself is not creating a state of “loving” within the people around it. Likewise, being loved is not a state inherent to the thing loved, but is the result of the love others bear for the thing. Moving from his analogy back to Euthyphro’s definition, Socrates shows the fallacy in Euthyphro’s statement.

Being god-loved cannot confer piety, as it confers “god-loved-ness” instead. Therefore, in Euthyphro’s statement, all the gods loving something would make that thing universally god-loved, but in no way makes it pious. An act is loved by the gods because it is pious, and not the other way around. Socrates, presumably tired of Euthyphro’s poor definitions, takes a stab at defining piety himself. He muses to Euthyphro that piety is a species of the genus justice, and that perhaps starting there would help the two men to agree on pious qualities.

Socrates uses a poem as an example: “You do not wish to name Zeus, who had done it, and who made all things grow, for where there is fear there is shame. ” While surely, says Socrates, those who feel shame also feel fear for their reputation or good name, those who feel fear do not necessarily feel shame as well. Being fearful of disease or poverty is not shameful, and is quite understandable. Shame is a smaller part of fear, covering a smaller area, just as piety covers a smaller area than justice, although the two entirely overlap.

With a newfound agreement on the properties of piety, Socrates again asks Euthyphro to define piety by what part of justice it constitutes. Euthyphro states that “the godly and pious is the part of the just that is concerned with the care of the gods, while that concerned with the care of men is the remaining part of justice. ” Socrates seems pleased by this new definition, but has one area that must be further defined – namely, the term “care for. ” Socrates points out that the term “care for” means to benefit the object of care.

Caring for the gods would then benefit them and make them better, an impossible act of hubris that flies in the face of the religion of the day. Euthyphro quickly enhances his definition: it’s the kind of care that a slave gives to his master. Socrates continues to press Euthyphro and demands to know what goal the gods intend to achieve by way of human service. Euthyphro gives a long-winded answer that Socrates immediately reduces to two independent clauses. The first is that the gods achieve, by way of human servitude, piety on earth in their servants’ actions.

The second is that piety is the knowledge of how to sacrifice and pray. Socrates points out that Euthyphro’s latest definition reduces piety to a sort of commerce between gods and men, where pious men are the best bargainers and most skillful traders. Euthyphro agrees, although he would prefer grander wording. Socrates then asks: If pious men are trading with the gods, and the gifts from gods to men are obvious, then what are the gifts from men to gods? Euthyphro answers that the gods desire from men pleasing attitudes such as honour and reverence.

Socrates once again reduces Euthyphro’s statement to a simpler form: “The pious is once again what is dear to the gods. ” The argument has come full circle, back to a point where an object is conferring an action upon actors, and logical analysis leads round and back again. Socrates points this out, eager to dive back into defining piety, but Euthyphro claims he is now in a hurry and must continue the conversation some other time. While Euthyphro is unable to define piety in a convincing way, Socrates himself takes up the challenge in The Apology.

While he doesn’t come right out and say it in so many words, Socrates clearly details how a man should act throughout his life and care for his soul to ensure a pious existence. According to Socrates, a man who wishes to live a pious life, insofar as he wishes to take the greatest care of his soul and follow the purest pursuits on Earth, should seek the truth in any form, at any cost. This is most clearly expressed by the statement “The unexamined life is not worth living. ” Socrates would presumably define piety as the pursuit of truth.

Piety, in the religious world of Socrates, can be taken as a more all-encompassing trait than it might be in modern times. Because everyone in Socrates’s society participated in the same religion, piety was a universally positive trait. Good things came from the gods, and men who engaged in religious acts were generally also pillars of Athenian society. Today piety has a narrower definition. Because religion no longer holds the position it once did in the world, and because people follow so many different religions, piety has been relegated to a rather specific set of qualities, most of which involve devotion to the church.

In Socrates’s time, goodness and godliness were so close as to be inseparable, and so to be pious was to be a multitude of positive adjectives that existed in the wide realm of goodness and godliness. Piety is a desirable trait in humans, spawning bravery, kindness, wisdom, and all manner of positive attributes in those who are considered to be pious. However, each of these positive attributes is directly connected with discovering truths. Bravery or courage, one of the most readily identifiable positive traits, is a special kind of knowledge (Plato, Laches 196. c).

By understanding the risks and rewards of a particular action in a certain situation, brave people will risk themselves to a certain degree, presumably because they have calculated the rewards to be justifiably great. An equally courageous act, the admission of ignorance, would allow a general to withdraw his troops from a potentially compromising situation, probably to the disdain of his fellow generals. While scorn may be heaped on this general for “fleeing,” his courage and strength of character saves the lives of his soldiers to fight another day; a prouder or more ignorant general would foolishly stand his ground and lose.

Prudence, it would seem in this situation, is part of bravery. The observance of the truth, that of the general’s previous ignorance of the current field of battle, allows the general to be courageous and brave. Truth is far more important than anything else. Truth is possessed by the gods, and occasionally discovered by man, perhaps by some design of the gods. When mathematics was discovered, and the objective truths of the hypotenuse and division were used, the gods were credited with the creation, or perhaps the release of, these intangible and indisputable truths.

Men could not touch them, overturn them, or argue about them. They simply were. When the prophet at Delphi relayed a message from the gods, specifically that no man was wiser than Socrates, the truth of the matter was unquestioned by Socrates. Socrates, incredulous at this prophecy, began to pursue the meaning of the statement. Socrates refers to this as “my investigation in the service of god. ” Wisdom, a desirable trait on its own, seems to be the knowledge of things. But how could Socrates be the wisest man? He had no knowledge of many things, such as politics, poetry, or craftsmanship.

As he interviewed learned men in Greece, he began to realize an important difference. Many men in Greece had knowledge of things. They knew how to write, fight, or create, but these were not the truths Socrates sought. These were merely the men’s experiences, an amalgamation of experience. An objective truth, such as the use of a hypotenuse, was nowhere to be found. Socrates, in his staunch pursuit of truth, considered what he knew to be true in the same manner as geometry. He realized there was little he knew so well as his own ignorance – namely, the truth was that he did not know much at all.

And so it became clear to Socrates that his wisdom was a by-product of the admission of his own ignorance, and that the pursuit of truth, no matter how damaging to the reputation of the seeker, was considered wise by the gods. Truth and piety became intermingled for Socrates, as he followed his divine mission in the pursuit of truth, no matter the cost to his reputation, or the danger it posed for him. Socrates’s willingness to die for the truth is an act of piety, as is his impoverished life and disregard for his reputation.

When Socrates meets someone who thinks he is wise, Socrates believes he is coming to the assistance of the gods by showing that person his ignorance (Plato, Apology 23. b). Socrates devotes his whole life, and his death, to the pursuit of truth, no matter the cost. Because Socrates associates the notion of truth so closely with the gods, it could be said that his god is truth, and vice versa. When the notions of “god” and “truth” become synonymous, Socrates’s definition of piety becomes apparent.

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