Plato and pedagogy

Which to teach first: the Apology, or the Euthyphro?

A reader writes:

I enjoyed your “Scottish Enlightenment and Greek literature” post.

I have to quibble with this, though:

There’s a clear pedagogic lesson here: always start with the Apology, which was historically the first of the dialogues, and remains incomparably the most dramatic and easiest to grasp.

In my experience, most philosophy professors start with the Euthyphro, which gives students an idea of what Socrates was being prosecuted for, and is a more philosophically interesting dialogue than the Apology.

I’m completely baffled at your high-school English teacher making you read the Lesser Hippias, though. Even philosophers don’t read the Lesser Hippias.

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I see competing considerations here.

The Euthyphro immediately precedes the Apology in dramatic sequence, though it was composed later. Apparently at the Academy the students started with Euthyphro-Apology-Crito-Phaedo.

But the Euthyphro is hard, and in my view requires lots of background (e.g., the trial of the ten generals after Arginusae, which I think is the historical referent of the absurdly convoluted tale about Euthyphro’s father’s slave). Moreover, nothing “happens,” the conversation seems to go nowhere, and the question about whether it is the gods’ love that makes something holy, or instead it is intrinsic holiness that makes something beloved by the gods, is pretty much untranslatable.

To add to all that, the key-term in the dialogue, hotsiotes, has no obvious English equivalent: it might be translated as “holiness,” “piety,” or “reverence.” The whole dialogue loses its dramatic point unless “piety” is something that Socrates wants to claim he has and that his enemies want to deny that he has. But thanks in part to Pat Robertson, Pope Benedict, and the Ayatollah Khomeini on the one hand and Voltaire on the other, “piety”no longer has the unmixed positive connotation Plato’s readers would have associated with hotsiotes. If you were given “pious” on a phrase-completion test, can you think of a better answer than “fraud”? “Irreverence” is now a quality comedians and pundits boast about, rather than the name of a capital crime.

By contrast, the Apology-Crito-Phaedo sequence is almost intolerably dramatic (I wonder why no one has ever made it into a movie?) and the discussion has both a conclusion that’s obvious to the uninitiated reader and an outcome in action that makes the questions discussed seem significant rather than mere quibbling.

On your side of the argument: the Apology/Crito/Phaedo sequence is unique, while a dozen of the early dialogues resemble the Euthyphro more or less closely. So the Euthyphro is in that sense a more honest sample of the experience of reading Plato.

As to the Lesser Hippias, I think my teacher was trying to apply a cold pack to a swelled adolescent head.

Footnote More on the Euthyphro here, and still more (responding to John Holbo) here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com