21 pages 42 minutes read



Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | BCE

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Summary: “Euthyphro”

The philosopher Socrates and a man named Euthyphro meet at the court of a magistrate in charge of religious law. They discover that they both have cases to plead there. Socrates explains that he has been accused by a young man named Meletus of corrupting the youth of Athens by questioning the traditional beliefs about the gods and introducing new gods. Euthyphro says that he, too, has received similar accusations before, and that the thing to do is “meet them head-on” (10). Socrates responds that his situation is more serious, since unlike Euthyphro he teaches his beliefs to others and thus attracts greater censure. Euthyphro optimistically predicts that Socrates’s plea will be successful.

Euthyphro explains that he has arrived at the court to press charges against his father for killing a hired worker who had gotten drunk and slit the throat of a slave. Euthyphro’s father left the worker bound in a ditch while waiting to see what should be done, and the worker died of hunger and exposure. Euthyphro’s relatives are angry with him for prosecuting his own father on behalf of a murderer, thus committing an act of impiety toward his father. Euthyphro considers this a serious misunderstanding of the nature and requirements of piety.

Socrates declares that since Euthyphro is apparently such an expert in holiness and piety, he (Socrates) ought to become a pupil of Euthyphro, and that this might help him defend himself in his suit with Meletus. Socrates begins by asking Euthyphro to give an account of holiness and piety. Euthyphro responds by defining holiness as what he is now doing: “prosecuting a criminal either for murder or sacrilegious theft…regardless of whether that person happens to be one’s father or mother or anyone else at all” (14). Euthyphro defends his actions toward his father by citing Zeus, who imprisoned his own father for swallowing his sons.

Socrates responds that Euthyphro has merely cited an example of holiness rather than defined it. Socrates urges Euthyphro to offer a “universal definition” or “single standard” for holiness. Euthyphro offers this definition: “What is agreeable to the gods is holy, and what is not agreeable is unholy” (16). Socrates does not accept this because the gods frequently disagree among themselves about what is holy. Euthyphro amends his definition: What is holy is “whatever all the gods approve of” and what is unholy is “what all the gods disapprove of” (20).

However, Socrates wants to go further and discover the essential basis of holiness. He poses this question: Is the holy approved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is approved by the gods? Socrates favors the first view, declaring that a thing “gets approved because it’s holy: it’s not holy by reason of getting approved” (21).

At this point Socrates accuses Euthyphro of avoiding describing the essence of holiness but instead merely describing its attributes. Euthyphro assents to Socrates’s suggestion that holiness is a species of justice: “Everything holy is just” (23). Socrates then wants to discover precisely what type of the just holiness is. Euthyphro responds that holiness is that part of justice “concerned with looking after the gods” (25).

Socrates is not happy with the phrase “looking after” because it implies that one is somehow improving or benefiting the gods, which seems impossible. Euthyphro qualifies his phrase by likening “looking after the gods” (26) to slaves looking after their masters. Now Socrates asks what the goal or end result of such service to the gods might be. Euthyphro answers that it consists of knowing how to pray and sacrifice in a way that will please the gods and bring good fortune on households and the city. The opposite is to displease the gods and thus bring ruin.

From this, Socrates concludes that “sacrifice is making a donation to the gods, while prayer is requesting something from them” (28). Thus, holiness would be a kind of “skill in trading between gods and men” (28). So, Socrates asks: What do the gods get out of this trade that benefits them?

Euthyphro answers that the only benefit the gods receive from us is honor, esteem, and gratification. Socrates realizes that they have circled back to the idea that what is holy is what is approved by the gods, but have not arrived at an idea of what the holy is. Socrates urges Euthyphro ever more strongly to arrive at a definition; he must clearly know, since he has taken it upon himself to prosecute his own father and thus risk displeasing the gods in the event he was mistaken about holiness. Euthyphro excuses himself from the conversation, as he has an urgent appointment. Socrates laments, with some irony, that he will now never learn from Euthyphro what holiness is and thus be able to defend himself against Meletus’s charges.