Monday, October 10, 2005

third paper

Here's my third paper, this one for Epistemology, mentioned here. I chose to do it on Plato's Euthyphro.

In Plato’s Euthyphro[1], we have the famous dialogue on the definition of piety, featuring Plato’s preeminent teacher, Socrates. He and his acquaintance Euthyphro meet outside a court building of Athens, each there for very different reasons. Socrates is being prosecuted for, namely, impiety:[2] “corrupting the youth (cf. 2c)” and being a “maker of gods”[3] while not believing in the “old gods” of Athens (cf. 3b). Euthyphro is there to prosecute his father for the murder of his servant who had committed murder as well. This dialogue, on the surface, can seem to be merely an inconsequential discussion between two citizens on their way to court. Or it can seem to be merely a selfish task on Socrates’ part to hammer out a definition of piety from his all-knowing acquaintance[4] so he can use it to his defense in his forthcoming trial. But a closer look reveals a dialogue that, through key phrases and attitudes, yields keen insight into the Socratic understanding of the range and content of human knowledge, the process by which one acquires knowledge, and the role the gods are accorded in the process.

Outside of the court building, after Euthyphro explains his reason for being there, “Socrates is surprised, and Euthyphro seems (is reputed to be) mad [cf. 4a], because murder prosecutions were ordinarily brought by a member of the family of the victim, certainly not by someone from the family of the alleged murderer.”[5] Socrates asks him, “Whereas, by Zeus, Euthyphro, you think that your knowledge of the divine, and of piety and impiety,[6] is so accurate that, when those things happened as you say, you have no fear of having acted impiously in bringing your father to trial?” And Euthyphro replies, “I should be of no use, Socrates, and I would not be superior to the majority of men, if I did not have accurate knowledge of all such things.” So we see early in the dialogue a hint towards the idea that knowledge of the divine is what is most important.

With the divine comes the overall theme of the dialogue, “What is piety?” (cf. 5d) And in Socrates’ search for a definition of piety we have an illustration of the “Socratic search for universal definitions of ethical terms” that recurs in many Platonic dialogues:[7]

What kind of thing do you say that godliness and ungodliness are, both as regards murder and other things; or is the pious not the same and alike in every action, and the impious the opposite of all that is pious and like itself, and everything that is to be impious presents us with one form[8] or appearance insofar as it is impious? (ibid.)

Euthyphro gives an example of piety, his own act of prosecuting his father, rather than a definition of piety[9] that Socrates was looking for. So Socrates replies, “you did not teach me sufficiently earlier, comrade, when I asked what ever the pious is. Instead, you told me that what you are now doing… happens to be pious.” And:

I didn’t bid you to teach me some one or two of the many pious things, but that eidos itself by which all the pious things are pious… For surely you were saying that it is by one idea that the impious things are impious and the pious things are pious.[10]

So the following can be concluded, concerning the Socratic understanding of the content of human knowledge: it is that which concerns the divine and can be universally defined. This essay is concerned with this type of human knowledge as it is Socrates’ focus throughout the dialogue and provides a look into his attitude toward human knowledge in general. Socrates’ understanding of the range of this content gives us an even broader look, a look into human nature as a whole: How much can we know, especially of the divine, and how well can we really know it? Euthyphro gives us some clues.

First it is indicated several times throughout the dialogue that this knowledge of the divine, and things pertaining to it, piety, justice, etc, are not easily grasped. When asked in the beginning what charge is being brought against him, Socrates replies, “it is no small thing for a young man[11] to have knowledge of such an important subject;” that is, the good of the young against the supposed corruption of Socrates’ “made up gods” and ignorance of the “old ones.” When Socrates in turn discovers that Euthyphro’s business at the court is to prosecute his father for murder, an act with a high risk of impiety (cf. 4e, 15d-e), he cautions him by saying, “most men would not know how they could do this and be right. It is not the part of anyone to do this, but of one who is far advanced in wisdom (4b).” Lastly, later in the dialogue, one of the many definitions Euthyphro posits for piety is “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 (12e).” Soon, Socrates refines “care of the gods” to mean “a kind of service to the gods (13d).” When he then asks Euthyphro what the purpose of such service would be, Euthyphro replies, “it is a considerable task to acquire any precise knowledge of these things.” This is in fact so difficult a task that Socrates exclaims toward the end of the dialogue, “I shall not willingly give up before I learn this (15d).” But, alas, in the end Euthyphro finally brushes him off as it is time for him to go. So, clearly, the range of human knowledge, especially of the divine, though noble and worthily sought, may be considered quite narrow, indeed making it difficult to grasp. Taken as a commentary on human knowledge in general, this betrays a bleak outlook on both the ability of man to grasp higher knowledge and of how much of that knowledge is available to him in the first place. Nonetheless, Socrates has clear processes, illustrated in Euthyphro, for trying to acquire this knowledge anyway.

The most obvious process is the use of his famous method for discovering the truth of any given topic: dialectics. With this method Socrates questions those that he or the public considers wise. When engaged in a dialogue with one of these, he questions him as to the reasoning and coherence of every nuance of his argument in order to root out any contradictions or inconsistencies. Only after an argument has withstood this arduous test is it considered true and worth knowing. Subjected to this test, Euthyphro goes from being an “all-knowing acquaintance (n. 4)” to “being Daedalus,” or even worse (15b).[12]

Other clues into Socrates’ understanding of the processes by which one acquires knowledge are found in various comments he makes throughout the dialogue. For example, in section 9e, when Euthyphro defines piety, this time, as being “what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is the impious,” Socrates replies, “Then let us examine whether that is a sound statement, or do we let it pass, and if one of us, or someone else, merely says something is so, do we accept that it is so? Or should we examine what the speaker means?” Here, Socrates addresses the method that he thinks most men of Athens use: mere assertion. The ramifications of this method strike deep. When Euthyphro at the beginning of his dialogue with Socrates claims that the Athenian public, or more specifically, the “assembly,”[13] is envious of their wisdom, Socrates replies, “the Athenians do not mind anyone they think clever, as long as he does not teach his own wisdom, but if they think that he makes others to be like himself they get angry, whether through envy, as you say, or for some other reason (3c-d).” Here he implies that no one comes to knowledge of truth by his own investigation but rather by merely going along with the “publicly declared principle of the herd.”[14] And this is largely conceived by what is most “nobly”[15] asserted in court cases. Speaking of Meletus, Euthyphro says, “So he has written this indictment against you as one who makes innovations in religious matters, and he comes to court to slander you, knowing that such things are easily misrepresented to the crowd (3b).” The assembly is a “dull-witted jury (9b)” that never takes seriously arguments that go against popular opinion and those with influence aren’t willing to make such arguments anyway. “If they are going to be serious, the outcome is not clear except to you prophets (3e).”

Another method the public (including Euthyphro and Socrates) uses is to look to the divine itself, the gods. And this leads us to Socrates’ understanding of the role the gods are accorded in the process of acquiring knowledge. Starting with Socrates himself, Euthyphro tells us that the reason Socrates is being prosecuted as a “maker of gods” is because his “divine sign” keeps coming to him (cf. 3b).[16] This divine sign, or voice, intervenes regularly only to “prevent him from doing or saying something, but never positively.” Euthyphro says that he too can “speak of divine matters in the assembly” and hints that this divine sign that they supposedly share enables them to “foretell the future.” (cf. 3c) But, “Socrates dissociates himself from ‘you prophets (3e).’”[17]

Socrates is more critical of the way the public uses the divine for their knowledge of the truth by trusting the stories of the gods. These stories, told by the great poet Homer, are passed down from generation to generation through popular opinion and belief. This is most evident in the charges against Socrates that he makes new gods while ignoring the ones that the city worships. This greatly angers the common sensibilities of the assembly and the larger public. Also, Euthyphro is a microcosm of this:

Euthyphro takes his bearings from the stories told by poets and others about Zeus and the gods... So when Euthyphro is asked what the pious is, his first answer is prosecuting wrongdoers, and his proof is the story that Zeus bound his father Kronos. Just as Zeus attacked Kronos, so Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father for murder. In other words, we may infer, piety as Euthyphro understands it is imitating the gods.[18]

Socrates feels that Euthyphro and the larger public place too much trust in the stories of the gods. He questions the role of the gods as a source of knowledge. First, Socrates wonders how they can be trusted at all because according to the stories, “the gods are in a state of discord, they are at odds with each other, and they are at enmity with each other (7b)” and “different gods consider different things to be just, beautiful, ugly, good, and bad (7e).” Also, “the same things then are loved by the gods and hated by the gods (8a).” Socrates asks if they never agree, if nothing is universally true among them, how can it be true for the people? He concludes, “I prefer nothing unless it is true (14e).” And he also says, “I find it hard to accept things like that being said about the gods [that they disagree], and it is likely to be the reason why I shall be told I do wrong (6a).” If Euthyphro can give him a sign that all the gods believe his action against his father to be right then Socrates “shall never cease to extol [his] wisdom (9b).”

Lastly, we can infer that the criticism Socrates has for mere public assertions he has for mere divine assertions as well. Is something good (or true) because some authority (the gods) says it is or because of some characteristic inherent in it? This is the difference between “Moral Voluntarism” and “Moral Realism,”[19] respectively, and Socrates makes a good argument for Moral Realism. “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved (10a)?”[20] Socrates’ engagement of Euthyphro in dialectics concerning this question is what puts Euthyphro’s arguments in circles (cf. n. 15). One commentary of this idea concludes:

If the gods are guided by knowledge and do not give merely willful commandments [or “assertions”], the guidance provided to men by divine law must be superfluous for one who is wise enough to discover for himself the truth of the good, noble, and just. The wise man has no need of gods. (4T, p. 14 of “Plato’s Euthyphro.”)

In addition, “the principle by which Socrates’ piety – if that is what it is – is governed is not ‘Zeus’ or traditional customs, but reason (p. 15).”

Yet, although he doubts the traditional stories, Socrates asserts that all good things come from the gods (15a)… and that the pious is part of the just (12d). He may mean that the terms of man’s obligations to gods flow from a consideration of the altogether human virtue if justice, which… is concerned with the right order of the political community and of the human soul (p. 15)[21]

Therefore, Socrates’ understanding of the role that the gods are accorded in the process of acquiring knowledge is one of value but also one that is tempered by sound reasoning and concern for the common good. Divine knowledge must not become “holy passion”[22] (as is the case of Euthyphro prosecuting his father) and must also not be taken for granted (as in the public’s unquestioned, popular acceptance of unreasonable stories as truth).

At the end of the dialogue, Socrates points out that Euthyphro’s arguments have gone in circles and that they are back where they started. Socrates pleads for him to persevere, “Do not think me unworthy, but concentrate your attention and tell the truth. For you know it, if any man does, and I must not let you go, like Proteus,[23] before you tell me (15d).” Socrates has high hopes that he can “learn from [Euthyphro] the nature of the pious and the impious and so escape Meletus’ indictment.” But, Euthyphro leaves him unsatisfied and with nothing to show Meletus that he is “no longer acting unadvisedly because of ignorance (16a).”[24] Despite his humility though, one can see in Socrates’ understanding of the content, range, method and source of human knowledge that he is the wiser of the two. It will be through Meletus’ ignorance and by “attempting to wrong” Socrates that the “very heart of the city” will be harmed (cf. 3a).

[1] In this essay, I use the translation of Euthyphro from Plato: Five Dialogues, 2nd ed., translated by G.M.A. Grube, revised by John M. Cooper, ©2002, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, hereafter referred to as “P5.” I also refer to a different translation of Euthyphro in Four Texts on Socrates, Plato, and Aristophanes, revised edition, translated with notes by Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West, ©1998, Cornell University press, hereafter referred to as “4T.” All quotes from Euthyphro are of the former translation unless indicated otherwise.
[2] Impiety was considered a “serious offense.” P5, p. 2, n. 2 says, “The king-archon, one of the nine principle magistrates of Athens, had the responsibility to oversee religious rituals and purifications, and as such had oversight of legal cases involving alleged offenses against the Olympian gods, whose worship was a civic function – it was regarded as a serious offense to offend them.
[3] Socrates states that he is charged for being a “maker of gods” when Euthyphro asks him, “Tell me, what does [your prosecutor] say you do to corrupt the young?” 4T, p. 42, n. 9 says that “The word translated ‘do’ is poiein, the same word translated “make” in Socrates’ reply. The word “maker” is poietes: Socrates is accused of being a ‘poet’ of gods.” And since the great poet Homer is the foundation for all Greek morality, the one who established all the great stories of the gods, this is quite a serious charge.
[4] P5, p. 2, n. 1 says he is a “professional priest.” Also cf. 5a, 9b, 12a, 13e, 14d, etc.
[5] 4T, p. 44, n. 13.
[6] In any bold statements throughout, emphasis mine.
[7] Cf. P5, p. 1, introduction to Euthyphro
[8] P5 uses “form” but 4T uses “idea,” leaving the Greek word used here untranslated. 4T, p. 46, n. 20 says, “the word eidos, of similar meaning, is also left untranslated at 6d below. These are the terms used by Plato in his so-called doctrine of ideas (e.g. “the idea of the good,” Republic 505a). The idea or eidos of a thing may be thought of as the look it has, in the mind’s eye, when it is truly seen for what it is.”
[9] Also cf. 9b, 11b, and the end of 15e which says, “nature of the pious and the impious.”
[10] This quote and the one before it are both from the 4T translation, 6d-e.
[11] The “young man” is Socrates’s prosecutor, Meletus. (n. 3)
[12] Cf. 11c. Socrates compares Euthyphro’s statements to the person of “Daedalus, a legendary Athenian master craftsman and inventor who was reputed to have constructed statues that could move about by themselves (4T, p. 54, n. 33).” In 15b Socrates goes on to say that not only do Euthyphro’s arguments “move about” from one conclusion to another, they also go in circles!
[13] P5, p. 3, n. 5 says, “The assembly was the final decision-making body of the Athenian democracy. All adult males could attend and vote.”
[14] 4T, p. 15 of “Plato’s Euthyphro
[15] In P5, 9e, quoted above, Socrates asks Euthyphro if his is a “sound statement” wile 4T uses the phrase “said nobly.” For the Greeks “something is ‘nobly’ (or ‘beautifully’) said when it is spoken aptly and to the point (though perhaps not in every case truly: see 7a). The word is kalon (4T, p. 52, n. 28).” Apparently Socrates isn’t very “apt and to the point,” at least not in the popular sense of “noble” speech.
[16] P5 uses “divine sign” but 4T uses “daimonion.” Socrates explains “his daimonion, his daimonic or divine sign, in Apology 31c-d. The actual impiety charge against him was: ‘He does not believe in the gods in whom the city believes, and he brings in other daimonia [divine or daimonic things] that are new.’ See Apology nn. 37, 38, 56 (4T, p. 43, n. 10).”
[17] The last three sentences of this paragraph: cf. P5, p. 3, n. 4
[18] 4T, p. 13 of “Plato’s Euthyphro
[19] From notes on Euthyphro given by Dr. Frederick C. Bauerschmidt in Phil 230: Philosophical Anthropology
[20] 4T translation used here
[21] Cf. Euthyphro’s statement after the prompting of Socrates, 14b
[22] 4T, p. 15 of “Plato’s Euthyphro
[23] Proteus, an immortal and unerring old man of the sea who serves the god Poseidon, answers the questions of mortals if he can be caught and held fast, although he attempts to escape by assuming the shapes of animals, water, and fire. Menelaus, instructed by the goddess Eidotheia (“divine eidos” [cf. n. 8]), with difficulty succeeds in catching Proteus and learns what he must do to return home safely after the Trojan War from Egypt, where he has been stranded by contrary winds: he must offer sacrifices to Zeus and the other gods. (Odyssey IV. 351-569)
[24] 4T translation used here. The sentence before this is from P5. Both are from 16a.

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