Euthyphro’s Definition of “Holiness” or “Piety”

Background of the dialogue

Euthyphro is one of the Socratic dialogues presented by Plato. One of the important things to note about the dialogue is that it not only seeks a definition of the concept of holiness but also seeks to highlight what constitutes a good definition of concepts.

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The other thing to note is that the dialogue seeks to establish the connection between religion and morality. That is why Euthyphro tries as much as possible to link morality to what pleases the gods. He also tries to justify his action (prosecuting his father for murder) as moral by arguing that what he is doing is right because he strongly believes that he has the divine knowledge of what is right and wrong.

The dialogue is also of great significance in that it reflects the Socratic Method, which is commonly used in cross-examinations, especially in courts of law where lawyers get an opportunity to cross-examine prosecutors and witnesses. The Socratic Method has been lauded for its unique characteristics such as the reliance on the definition of concepts, irony, indirectness, reliance on contradictions, and use of examples or analogies to craft an argument.

In the dialogue, Euthyphro is portrayed as a religious fanatic with very strong religious convictions about what is right and wrong. He is very sure that one of the gods (Zeus) would approve his charges against his father due to the nature of the charges, that is, the fact that he is ready to go to the extreme of prosecuting his father. He also hopes that his strong conviction would convince the judges that he is sure of what is right and wrong.

Socrates is portrayed as a highly skeptical individual with doubts over the confidence of Euthyphro who is relatively younger than him. He is also portrayed as clever in that he opts to play the fool so that he can at least benefit from the special knowledge of Euthyphro. He is, however, ready to indirectly caution Euthyphro against being too confident.

The issue of the definition of holiness arises from the discussion between Euthyphro and Socrates as they meet outside a court of law in which Socrates is coming to answer charges of being unholy while Euthyphro has come to lay manslaughter charges against his father. The two seem to be in high spirits and ready to defend their positions. The definition is triggered by Socrates after realizing that Euthyphro may be an expert in matters of holiness.

When they meet, Euthyphro is in a better position to explain what holiness means, given that he is a strong believer in the gods and their teachings. This is underscored by the fact that he is ready to lay manslaughter charges against his father, a fact to show that he is very intolerant to any act which is unholy or unjust. The same act portrays him as an expert of holiness and what is right and wrong.

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Socrates, on the other hand, is faced with charges of engaging in unholy acts mainly corrupting the young and believing in strange spirits instead of the gods.

In this regard, Socrates hopes to have a meaningful discussion with Euthyphro to get some insights of what comprises holiness and unholiness, which he intends to use in his defense against the charges. If he knows what is holy and what is not holy, he would be in a better position to convince the jury that all the charges brought against him do not meet the threshold of conviction.

The definitions which are to come from the discussion are therefore problematic because right from the outset, the two individuals are in a tense environment and not in a position to give a good definition of what is holy. The argument here is that the discussion between the two is characterized by high degrees of subjectivity given that each of the two has his own biases brought about by the cases they are about to argue in the court.

The reason why Socrates finds the definitions by Euthyphro objectionable is that they are not focused on the real question of what exactly is the meaning of holiness. Euthyphro defines another, but Socrates is very keen to note the flaws and inconsistencies in the definitions. Euthyphro does not give up, and this is attributed to the fact that he strongly believes that he is highly knowledgeable in matters to do with holiness.

He is however not prepared to be pestered by Socrates, and that is why he does not think critically before giving a definition. In some instances, he contradicts himself by giving a definition which has already been refuted by Socrates. Socrates’ main reason for refuting the definitions is that he is hoping to get a definition which is universally acceptable, that is, a definition which can be able to measure all actions and determine whether they are holy or not.

Definitions of holiness

1st Definition

Euthyphro’s first definition is based on what he is doing at the moment; that is, prosecuting his father for manslaughter charges. His definition is that holy means punishing those who commit acts of unholiness the way he is doing to his father.

This definition is rejected by Socrates on the grounds that it is not really a definition but just an event to illustrate what holiness and unholiness mean. The definition thus fails to provide the characteristics which can distinguish between holy and unholy actions.

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2nd Definition

Euthyphro goes ahead to give another definition. This time he says that holy means something which makes the gods happy. This definition sounds better compared to the first one because it is given in a general form but does not escape the criticism of Socrates who points out that the gods usually have differences when it comes to what is pleasing to them, meaning that what may be pleasing to one god may not be pleasing to the others.

If one god is pleased by holiness and another is not pleased by holiness, it might lead to a disagreement between the gods and consequently to a situation in which an action may be both holy and unholy at the same time which is logically impossible.

Euthyphro responds by saying that the gods may also disagree on other issues such as whether a person who murders without justification should be held accountable or not. But Socrates quickly points out that there could still be a problem regarding how much justification is needed for such a person to be punished, meaning that if the gods disagree, the act of killing without justification could still be holy or unholy.

3rd Definition

Euthyphro seems not to give in to the criticisms of Socrates and goes ahead to offer yet another definition of what is holy by slightly adjusting his second definition. This time around, he says that holy means what is loved by all the gods and what is hated by all the gods. The definition sounds more precise at face value but still has some inconsistencies which are described by Socrates as the ‘Euthyphro dilemma.’

The dilemma concerns the question of whether something is loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods. To clarify his dilemma in the definition, Socrates uses the analogy of the word carried where he argues that something is called carried because it is carried not because it posses a quality called carried. He points out that being carried is just a status which is undergone by something or someone.

He argues that something is loved by the gods because it is holy and that the fact that the gods like something do not make it holy; meaning that what comes first is the holiness, followed by the loving or liking, which is the exact opposite of Euthyphro’s definition of holiness.

This definition is therefore seriously flawed because it takes the discussion back to the first definition, making the argument circular. Euthyphro agrees that holiness precedes liking and therefore, the gods like something because it is holy. However, Socrates argues that the fact that all the gods like something because it is holy is just a characteristic of holiness and therefore not part of the definition of the concept of holiness.

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At this point, Socrates decides to help Euthyphro define what is holy by suggesting that holiness belongs to the genus of justice. To put his point into perspective, he seeks clarification from Euthyphro of whether what is holy is also just.

This does not, however, help in defining holiness because there are other actions which are also morally good and just such as caring for others and bravery. According to Socrates, there must be something to distinguish holiness from those other actions which are also just the way holiness is just and therefore, his suggestions hit a dead end as far as the definition of holiness is concerned.

4th Definition

In his response which comes as the fourth definition, Euthyphro says that holiness is all about taking care of the gods. However, this definition is quickly rejected by Socrates because to him, taking care of the gods means treating one god better than the others, thus bringing divisions among the gods due to unequal treatment.

Socrates brings Euthyphro to task by asking him to state exactly what the end product of holiness is. To this, Euthyphro is unable to state clearly, but he just goes back to his earlier argument that holiness is what is loved by the gods.

5th Definition

Euthyphro goes ahead to argue that holiness means an act of sacrifice and prayer to gods. But in a quick rejoinder, Socrates asks why the gods want to sacrifice from people, arguing that this is an aspect of the business. Euthyphro responds by saying that the gods need sacrifice in the form of respect and honor, which they like and thus those who are holy are those who respect the gods and honor them.

At this point, the discussion ends abruptly without any substantive definition of what is holy as Euthyphro goes to other commitments while Socrates is brought to answer the charges of being unholy without any useful hint from Euthyphro.

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