Dr. G's study notes for "Euthyphro"


Plato links


" Phaedo"




The legal problem. Socrates is accused of corrupting young people ("Euthyphro" 3a). More specifically, he is accused of making up new gods and ignoring the traditional gods of Athens (3b). Euthyphro guesses that these charges against Socrates have to do with a mysterious inner voice, a "divine sign" or "divine thing" that Socrates always talks about (3b). Today, we would call this voice his conscience, but in classical Athens only Socrates seems to have heard it. Socrates does not blame the voice for his legal problems; he seems to think that the charges against him have arisen because he talks too much to everybody (3d) and because he has trouble accepting traditional stories of the gods (3a, 6a). 

Mythology. In ancient Greece, local cults told stories of the gods and goddesses to justify their belief systems. Because each local temple had its unique story (mythos, in Greek), the truth about the gods and goddesses began to be questioned because there were so many conflicts among the myths. For example, the story that Zeus had succeeded his father Kronos as king of gods obviously was not accepted by Kronos worshippers; they had their own story about how Kronos succeeded his father Uranus, and their story obviously was not accepted by Uranus worshippers. Which myth was right? Who was the king of gods? Confusion over questions of this sort stimulated the search for truth in Socrates' day. Although the priestly stories still were believed by most of the public, Greek philosophers and scientists were looking for better explanations of reality.

Socrates' piety. In "Euthyphro" Socrates takes a skeptical view of some aspects of traditional Greek religion, but as we will see in later dialogues, he is a deeply religious character. In "Phaedo" (the last dialogue in The Last Days series), Socrates' unorthodox belief in the reincarnation of souls is discussed at length. His Hindu-like mysticism, probably borrowed from Indian philosophers, may have attracted young Athenians away from traditional Greek religion, and it may have been the reason for the prosecution of Socrates. (Scholars give various reasons for the trial; no one can be certain why it happened.)

Socrates' criticism of religion. In any case, "Euthyphro" shows that Socrates could be a penetrating critic of traditional religion. In this dialogue, he poses as a student who seeks advice from the self-proclaimed "expert" in religion, Euthyphro (5a). He then attacks with a relentless series of questions that seems to destroy Euthyphro's various ideas about piety (or holiness):

  • Euthyphro: "Piety is doing what I'm doing now" (that is, prosecuting his father just as Zeus imprisoned his father Kronos) (5d). Socrates: "That may be an example of piety, perhaps, but it's not a definition" (6d);

  • Euthyphro: "Holiness is what is agreeable to the gods" (7a). Socrates: "But, as the stories say, the gods don't always agree among themselves" (8c).

  • Euthyphro: "OK, then holiness is what is agreeable to all of the gods" (7a). Socrates: "So all of the gods approve of it, but what is it? The gods' approval is a quality or aspect of holiness but not the thing itself" (11a).

  • Euthyphro: "Holiness is serving the gods" (13d) and, "specifically, serving them with prayer and sacrifices" (14b). Socrates: "If you are pleasing them with sacrifices, then you are doing what's agreeable to the gods, and we have already decided that's not a good definition of holiness" (15b).

Outcome of the debate with Euthyphro. Socrates' outlasts Euthyphro in the conversation and would talk longer, except that Euthyphro apparently runs out of patience and hurries away (15e). Is Euthyphro defeated? frustrated? merely bored? Do you think that he's a hypocrite who merely uses religion  to justify his bad behavior? And how do you read Socrates? Is he sincere? sarcastic? angry? 

Socrates and the ancestors. A final point worth noting in the "Euthyphro" is Socrates' heroic ancestry. There were family stories in ancient Greece, much as there were temple stories. Greek families traced their lineage back to heroes of mythic times. Socrates belongs to the family of Daedalus (11c), a legendary artist of the Age of Heroes who made statues that were so full of life that they moved around!  The story of Daedalus lies in the background of all of the dialogues of The Last Days of Socrates and will be explored further.

 Plato's Academy

In about 387 BC, some dozen years after the historical Socrates had been executed, the city of Athens gave Plato permission to found a temple to the Muses (a museum) near his house, about a mile from the city in an area of public groves and gymnasia (outdoor exercise gardens) said to be the place of Hekademos. Plato also received a city charter for a thiasoi, a membership organization in which a small group of Athenians joined together for social ritual and meditation, especially for the burial and memorial of their deceased members. Our modern equivalent today is a cemetery association.

Due to Plato's efforts as a writer and lecturer, and the literary fame of his hero Socrates, this "place of Hekademos," or Academy, soon became the best known school in the classical Mediterranean world. Like a kind of avant-garde supper club or cafe, it attracted adult and young adult "learner-companions" who ate light meals together and engaged in "dialectic" or more or less serious intellectual discussion aimed at finding out the hidden truth about things. 

This was the birthplace of "academic freedom." That is, in the Academy, unlike the religious schools of its era, all ideas were subjected to rigorous examination and debate. There were disagreements over the validity of even headmaster Plato's theories--some of which indeed were far out in terms of credibility. The high priest of this temple was a poet of great imagination, not an infallible mouthpiece of the gods!  As Aristotle famously put it: "Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth."

Plato ran the school for the last forty years of his life, and he was singularly successful. Learner-companions joined from all over Greece, including the scholarly Aristotle who stayed for some twenty years. On Plato's death at age 80, in 347 BC, his remains were buried on the grounds of the Academy, a shrine was erected there to his memory, and for many generations to come devoted followers seemed to hear  his spirit speaking to them there. The school survived under the direction of many other headmasters of various intellectual persuasions (all were "Platonists" but they came in assorted varieties) for almost 900 years, until it was shut down in 529 AD by the Christian Emperor Justinian as part of his cultural campaign to suppress nonbelievers and heretics. Platonism and some form of academic life (generously defined) seem to have survived not only this catastrophe but even the most vicious assaults of medieval and modern times.

We can't be certain how or when any of Plato's dialogues originally were written, published, or circulated, but we can see, simply by reading them, how cleverly they promoted the Academy. They establish Plato as a quiet but leading disciple of Socrates, and they portray Socrates as an entertaining wit, a penetrating thinker, and an inspired teacher, judged by the god Apollo himself to be the wisest of mortals. They show the master argumentatively routing all of the next-best teachers in Greece, attracting all of the brightest young people to sit at his feet, and exposing the ignorance of the Athenian authorities with a few pointed remarks. Who wouldn't want to be corrupted by Socrates? School just doesn't get any better than this!

Even today Plato's dialogues remain enshrined in colleges and universities throughout the western world, where they continue to be used for institutional promotion. "The unexamined life is not worth living," Socrates concludes in "The Apology." So plunk down your tuition money and make your life worth something, say the academics!

Writing about Socrates has been a continuing occupation within academia, where the scholars are still trying to articulate what Socrates really meant--if only Plato had written more clearly! But Plato left no textbook explanation. In the dialogues, he is usually more careful to raise questions than to answer them. E.g., what is piety? "Euthyphro" inspires us to figure it out for ourselves.

A Platonic education is not an indoctrination in particular ideas. It is an experience in the dialectical process of rigorous give-and-take with fellow learner-companions. It's in the maintenance of this truth-seeking discussion process, rather than in any fixed theories, laws, doctrines or dogmas, that Plato's institution endures.








Left: ancient temple sculpture showing Zeus deposing his father Kronos.



Left: ancient Greek vase painting showing Rhea, Kronos, and the stone baby that Kronos will eat, mistaking it for baby Zeus. It's a hard story for Socrates to swallow.



























Our word "academy" derives ultimately from Hekademos. The place of Hecademos may have been the burial site of a hero by that name or it may have simply meant a place that was six units (heka-) of measure from the old city (demos). Nobody knows for sure.







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