Dr. G's study notes for "Euthyphro"
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):
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.
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.
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
Left: ancient temple sculpture showing Zeus deposing his father Kronos.
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.