During the Periclean age (around 400 B.C.) in Athens Greece, there was a man named Socrates. He was considered a very wise man by the Athenians. However there were men in power who did not care for him or his teachings; Claiming that he corrupted the Athenian youth and did not believe in the Greek gods, Socrates was put on trial.
On his way to his trial, Socrates met a man named Euthyphro, a professional priest who is respected by the “authorities” (those who want to get rid of Socrates). Euthyphro is at the courthouse to prosecute his father for murder. Socrates finds this to be interesting.
If Euthyphro can properly explain why he is prosecuting his father for murder Socrates might have an understanding of piety. This would help Socrates to defend himself, for the prosecutors know and think highly of Euthyphro.
Socrates could then draw parallels between himself and Euthyphro, who the citizens highly respect, thus bringing him respect, and freedom. This is where Socrates begins his dialogue with Euthyphro seeking the definition of piety.
Socrates wants Euthyphro to teach him the meaning of piety since Euthyphro considers himself an authority on the subject. In this dialogue Euthyphro gives Socrates four different definitions of what he believes piety is, none of which prove satisfactory to Socrates, leaving the question unanswered in the end.
The first definition that Euthyphro provides to Socrates is that “the pious is to do what I am doing now to prosecute the wrongdoer” (Plato, Euthyphro, Grube trans., p. 9). This is merely an example of piety, and Socrates is seeking a definition, not one or two pious actions. Socrates says “you did not teach me adequately when I asked you what the pious was, but you told me that what you are doing now, prosecuting your father for murder is pious (Loc. cit., 6d, p. 10)
Socrates wants to know what piety is “through one form” (Loc. cit., 6e, p.10). He does not want to know which things or actions are pious, but rather what piety itself is. One cannot simply define something by giving examples so this definition does not satisfy Socrates.
Euthyphro gives Socrates the second definition. He argues “what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious (Loc. cit., 7a, p. 11). Therefore piety is determined by the gods. According to this argument, this cannot be true because, how can all the gods find everything to be pious when what is just to some gods is unjust to others, and what one god finds beautiful another would not.
They have differences in opinion. “The gods are in a state of discord, that they are at odds with each other” (Loc. cit. 7b, p.11). “They [the gods] consider different things to be just beautiful, ugly, good, and bad.” (Loc. cit., 7e, p. 12). This is a good argument in that, the gods would not agree on piety, therefore piety cannot be simply what is dear to the gods. It must be something else.
The third definition that Euthyphro states is that “The godly and the pious is a part of the just that is the care of the gods, while that concerned with the care of men is the remaining part of justice” (Loc. cit., 12e, p. 18). Euthyphro believes that for man to be pious to the gods he must learn to do what is pleasing to the gods.
Taking care of the gods is doing service for the gods. The horse breeder takes care of his horses, the cattle raiser cares for his cattle, and the slave takes care of his master. These are all pious actions intended to please the gods. “If a man knows how to say, and do what is pleasing to the gods at prayer and sacrifice, those are pious actions” (Loc. cit., 14b, p. 20). This definition seems to lead to the idea that sacrifice and prayer will get a man what he wants from the gods, as long as it is considered pious by the gods.
Socrates asks Euthyphro “Are they [piety and pious] a knowledge of how to sacrifice and pray” (Loc. cit., 14c, p. 20). Euthyphro “They are” (Loc. cit., 14c, p. 20). Socrates states the fourth definition “piety would then be a knowledge of how to give to and beg from, the gods” (Loc. cit., 14d, p. 20).
Socrates says that if this were true then piety is a trading skill between men and gods and that what they get from us is “honour, reverence . . . and gratitude” (Loc. cit., 15a, p. 21).
Socrates says that Euthyphro’s arguments “go around in a circle, . . .[and that] either we were wrong when we agreed before, or, if we were right then, we are wrong now. The fourth definition brings us full circle, and back to where they started leaving the question unanswered.
It seems that the dialogue between Euthyphro and Socrates is arguing about whether or not there are absolutes or if everything is just a matter of opinion. Is piety prosecuting one’s own father for murder? Is piety what is dear to the gods? What makes it dear to the gods? If it is dear to one god, is it not dear, to another?
Can justice be split between men and gods? Is piety a sort of trading skill between gods and men? In conclusion, it seems to be that piety is not definable in one form and that it can be judged in many different ways by many different people. It also seems that these questions are not simply answered, but keep asking the question.