Dr. G's Introduction to Plato's "Euthyphro" 

Plato links


" Phaedo"

[If you are unfamiliar with ancient Greece, you may wish to begin your introduction by taking a look at Dr G's overview page, "Hellenics for Dummies."]

Plato (428? - 347 BCE ) was the world's first academic. He founded the original Academy near Athens (modern day Greece) in about 387 BCE, and he ran this new kind of think tank for some forty years until his death. The school attracted many of the best young students in the ancient Greek world, including the famous Aristotle who stayed for about twenty years until, after Plato's death, he spun off his own rival school in Athens.  Aristotle's school was the first known clone of the Academy; tens of thousands of other clones have followed.

Plato promoted his educational ideals by writing more than twenty dialogues, or short dramatic scenes, about his own famous teacher, Socrates (469-399 BCE ). Four of these Socratic dialogues, often collected under the modern title of The Last Days of Socrates, provide glimpses of the master's indictment, trial, imprisonment, and death; 

  • "Euthyphro" discusses the criminal charges that have been brought against Socrates by his enemies;

  • "The Apology" is Socrates' defense speech at the trial;

  • "Crito" is a prison scene, in which Socrates refuses an opportunity to escape to freedom;

  • "Phaedo" is Socrates' final discussion with students on the day of his execution.

The essence of this story is very simple. Socrates finds meaning and happiness on death row. He teaches us how to make constructive use of our minds, regardless of our circumstances. He is a model of positive thinking.

Beyond this general moral about using our brains, Socrates has special meaning for academics. He's not only the hero of the original Academy, historically; he's also the guiding spirit in the academic imagination today. As the founder-figure, he is to academic life what Jesus is to Christianity, what Abraham is to Judaism, what Mohammad is to Islam, but of course he's a different sort of character, a skeptic who treasures ideas but doubts the truthfulness of thinking, even including his own speculations. Obviously, knowledge has advanced considerably since Socrates' time, but Socrates' intense curiosity remains alive today in academic research, and his examination technique (known as the Socratic method) is widely practiced by college and university teachers.

The quest for knowledge is seldom unopposed. In every age, there are those who benefit from the current state of ignorance. Socrates' tireless questioning disturbed some of his fellow Athenians to the point that they took legal action to silence him. They accused him of impiety or un-holiness, and they summoned him to answer their charges in court of the Athenian high priest (known as the king-archon). 

In "Euthyphro," Socrates has just left the high priest's office where he has learned of the criminal charges against him. He's trying to figure out what the indictment means, so that he can defend himself at trial.  On the street, as the dialogue opens, he happens to bump into Euthyphro, an acquaintance who thinks of himself as a great religious expert. Socrates asks Euthyphro, what is impiety? what is un-holiness?  Euthyphro tries to answer, but he can't come up with any definition that makes sense to Socrates. He soon hurries away from the frustrating conversation, feeling uncomfortable, as doubts begin to occur to him.

The prosecutors claimed that Socrates had corrupted the young people of Athens by asking too many questions, even questioning the truth about common stories of the gods. Socrates indeed seems to have trouble believing some of the traditional myths ("Euthyphro" 6a). New ways of thinking "corrupt" old ones. If the old ones are deeply ingrained by strong repetition, they don't surrender without a fight. 

If college is Socratic, will it corrupt your thinking? Will you be so upset with Socrates' questions that you will want to kill him, to defend what you already know?

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 Academic writing home page                Gary Gutchess 2003