Euthryphro is a young man who claims a special understanding of piety. Because of this knowledge, he is prosecuting his father for murder in a somewhat ambiguous case - which his relatives, in turn, think an act of terrible impiety. Socrates, who has himself been indicted on the charge that will lead to his unjust execution, meets Euthyphro near the court. He learns of his case and is rather taken aback by it, and engages Euthyphro in a dialogue on the nature of piety. How lucky, Socrates says, that he has met someone who really understands piety and can teach him about it!
Over the course of the dialogue Euthyphro offers definition after definition of piety - six in all.
to do what I am doing now, to prosecute the wrongdoer … whether the wrongdoer is your father or your mother or anyone else (5d)
what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious (7a)
the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is the impious (9e)
the godly and pious is the part of the just that is concerned with the care of the gods, while that concerned with the care of men is the remaining part of justice (12e)
if a man knows how to say and do what is pleasing to the gods at prayer and sacrifice, these are pious actions such as preserve both private houses and public affairs of state (14b)
honor, reverence, and what I mentioned just now [prayer and sacrifice], to please them [the gods] (15a)
Socrates considers each, then raises objections to it (including what's ever since been known as the "Euthyphro dilemma"). At the end, Euthyphro, who has complained that Socrates makes his arguments move on their own, winds up returning to an argument from the start (the second definition). You've come full circle, Socrates observes, will you stop playing with me? Euthyphro excuses himself and departs (whether in exasparation or epiphany or anger or doubt is ours to imagine) leaving us without a conclusion - just where Socrates wants us. We discussed each of these definitions in turn, and paraphrased them in contemporary terms. (Try it yourself: they really cover the waterfront - Plato knows what he's doing.)
But first we talked about Euthyphro as if it were a piece of theater. How do you imagine the character of Socrates, I asked? (Arrogant, sarcastic, sassy, amusing himself, teasing, etc.) And Euthyphro? (Vain, innocent, clueless, proud, etc.) How do you picture them interacting? (In togas in front of a temple, no Socrates is lounging in a fountain, etc.) And finally: If you had to stage this, how would you do it?
As I'd hoped this got us (which includes me) thinking in a really creative way about the larger shape of the story, the nature of their interactions, the significance of the philosophical dialogue. Perhaps Euthryphro stands in the center of the stage and is turned around without his noticing by it by a Socrates circling him? Perhaps Socrates appears and disappears like a djinn, perhaps behind Greek columns. Or is it Socrates who stays in the same position, Euthyphro circling him over the course of the dialogue? Is there a religious statue at stage center which Euthyphro never sees? Or is the stage empty, and the characters' movement random through it? Does Euthyphro face the audience when he arrives at what he thinks is a final definition, always on the same spot or on another? Does Socrates ever play to the audience, or an audience on stage, or the religious courts in the distance? It really brought it to life!
And we're all set to explore the territory of religion and dialogue!
Translations from Plato, Five Dialogues, trans. G. M. A. Grube
and revised by John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002)