Two Points
No Prime Mover

Murder Most Foul

This is the second installment of my introduction to philosophical ideas, which I may call Making Sense.  Here is part one.

                “What is the case about?” Socrates asks Euthyphro, the two having run into each other on the way into court.

                “Murder, Socrates.”

                Euthyphro then tells the story.

                A dependent of Euthyphro’s, in a drunken anger, killed one of the family’s household slaves.  Euthyphro’s father then bound the killer hand and foot and threw him in a ditch to await instructions from the priest as to what he should do.   Before the messenger sent to the priest could return, the man died of hunger and cold.  Euthyphro is now prosecuting his own father for murder.

                Euthyphro’s family is, obviously, angry with him.  They say, “It is impious for a son to prosecute his father for murder.”

                Socrates responds, “You think your knowledge of the divine, and of piety and impiety, is so accurate that . . . you have no fear of having acted impiously in bringing your father to trial?”

                Euthyphro answers, “I should be of no use, Socrates, and Euthyphro would not be superior to the majority of men, if I did not have accurate knowledge of all such things.”


                Okay, already there’s stuff for us to comment on.  Euthyhpro’s claim to “accurate knowledge” you surely noticed, and we will definitely be exploring that topic because Euthyphro’s basically claiming that he can make sense of the world, even when crazy events happen that might threaten our sense of meaning and purpose—like your father committing murder.  But there are a few other things I want to point out first.

                Connected with that claim of accurate knowledge is his arrogance, the “I’m superior to most people” claim.  That’s what we call hubris, a Greek word for excessive pride, which usually gets the bearer in trouble.  So, you can expect that Euthyphro’s arrogance is going to come back to bite him.  Which it does.

                What else?

                Would you turn your father, or another family member, in for a crime he or she had committed?  If so, why?  And if not, then why not?

                These questions raise an issue of moral obligation which is important for our understanding what a good life is.  Which is stronger, your loyalty and duties to your family or your commitment to the law and what is right and wrong?  Students in my classes often struggle with how to answer this question.  I always point out something funny my husband says about his best friend, that she’s the type of person who will help you hide a body.  Students laugh, because they understand that type of friendship and loyalty and an expectation or hope for someone like that in our lives (probably because we’ve all seen this plot on television).

                But our belief in doing right and avoiding wrong and being a person of integrity is also vital.  Surely we don’t want to be friends with thieves and cheats, murderers and scoundrels and ignore their immorality?  Consider this story.

                One of the most prominent domestic terrorists of the 1990’s was the Unabomber.  He mailed packages to people that would explode when they were opened.  There was a nationwide effort to figure out who was committing the murders. 

                In 1995 the Unabomber sent a manifesto to the New York Times and the Washington Post saying that he would refrain from more killing if it was published.  They published the manifesto, which was an attack on modern society and the use of technology, which the Unabomber believed was taking away our freedom.

                A man, David Kaczynski, read the manifesto and recognized the ideas of his brother Ted, who lived off-the-grid in a cabin in Montana.  David contacted the FBI, which ultimately led to the arrest and conviction of his brother Ted for murder.

                Would you have turned your brother in if he was the Unabomber?


                A friend of mine named Betsy Brown raised an objection about Euthyphro’s story once when we were hanging out in a coffee shop.  “What about the guy who was killed?”

                This story is famous for its philosophical exploration of knowledge and the relationship between religion and morality (we’ll get to that in a bit), but she couldn’t get past the issue of justice for the dead slave.

                Which raises a point important to make as we begin our journey through some of the highpoints of Western philosophy.  That point is that the history of Western philosophy is predominately a history of the thoughts and ideas of the elite.  Only the well-off and well-educated generally had the time for philosophical speculation or the ability to read and write and thus record their ideas for posterity.  Mostly lost to us are the thoughts and ideas of women, the working classes, and the poor.  Much of philosophy, then, is not concerned with the kinds of topics faced by ordinary people in ordinary life.  This is a justice issue.

                Only in the last couple of centuries has that changed, with more perspectives being recorded and preserved and more of a focus on the concerns of everyday life.  For example, this was one of Karl Marx’s criticisms of the tradition, that philosophy was not concerned with the issues faced by the laboring classes.

                So, when reading the great works of philosophy, you should always keep in mind a critical gaze and an interest in what questions and topics aren’t being considered, what voices aren’t being heard, what perspectives haven’t survived?  For surely the two dead men, one a slave and one a dependent, had their ideas on what was just and what was pious.


                Because Euthyphro claims to have “accurate knowledge,” Socrates asks if Euthyphro will help him by explaining piety to him, for the reason Socrates is coming to court that day is that he has been charged with a crime—impiety!

                Socrates has been indicted by a guy named Meletus whom he doesn’t really know but can pick out from a crowd as the one “with long hair, not much of a beard, and a rather aquiline nose” (funny little details like these make this story more entertaining).

                “On what charge?”  Euthyphro asks.

                “Corrupting young men.”

                Euthyphro is shocked.  Meletus is “harming the very heart of the city by attempting to wrong you.”  Then he asks Socrates, “Tell me, what does he say you do to corrupt the young?”

                “Strange things to hear him tell it, for he says that I am a maker of gods.”

                Euthyphro thinks this is absurd, but explainable, for Socrates has talked about a divine sign that has come to him (more on that in a moment).  Euthyphro explains that he too has been laughed at for the prophetic predictions he has made in the assembly, even though all of them have become true.  He’ll also be happy to share his accurate knowledge with Socrates in an effort to help.

                And, so, Socrates asks Euthyphro what piety is, and thus begins a back and forth effort to answer the question by defining the concept.  But let’s pause again to give a little more background on what’s going on here.


                This story is recorded in a dialogue named Euthyphro written by Plato, who was a philosopher himself and a disciple of Socrates.  Plato is one of the few philosophers who is also a great writer (see the detail about Meletus not having much of a beard).  But his writings raise some issues for us.  You see, Socrates himself didn’t write anything, or at least nothing he wrote has survived.  If we want to learn about the historical Socrates, we have to read what other people, mostly Plato, wrote about him.

                But Plato didn’t record verbatim conversations, he wrote dialogues, crafting works of literature in order to advance philosophical ideas.  In those dialogues Socrates appears as a character.  What, then, are the ideas of the historical Socrates and what are the ideas of Plato that he simply puts in the voice of his character Socrates?

                Well, if you are interested in these topics and go on to study them further, you’ll get into more detailed answers to that question.  But the simplest answer is that scholars who read and study these writings believe that the earliest dialogues written by Plato are more likely to contain the authentic ideas of the historical Socrates and that the later dialogues written by Plato are more likely to contain the philosophical ideas of Plato himself, usually voiced by the character Socrates.  The Euthyphro, the dialogue which tells this story, is considered an early work and, therefore, pretty reliable in giving us the philosophical ideas of the historical Socrates.

                But, it is always a good idea to read remembering that this is a work of literature and not simply a verbatim report.

                And as a work of literature, one of the goals of the dialogue Euthyphro is to illustrate the method that Socrates used to explore philosophical topics.  What is called the “Socratic Method” is as important as the content of the conversation.  By the way, as of today you will have gained one of those fancy academic words you can use to impress your friends and family—“Socratic.”

                The Socratic Method uses questions to prompt the student to think and provide her own answers, rather than using a lecture to give the answers.  The idea is that the answers will arise out of the conversation through the question and answer process.  This method is still used by teachers today, particularly philosophy professors who spend a lot of classroom time asking questions and hoping that some student will answer and begin a discussion.


                “What is piety?” Socrates asks, and Euthyphro answers.  “I say that the pious is to do what I am doing now, to prosecute the wrongdoer.”

                So, to use the Socratic Method on you, the reader, what’s wrong with that answer?


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)